Romans 7:14-17, “ For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Romans 7:1–13 is concerned largely with explaining that while the law of God—particularly as inscripturated in the Mosaic law—is good in itself, it cannot solve the problem of sin. In fact, the law and sin are so closely connected that one must come out from under the law if transgression is ever to be dealt with (vv. 1–6). This is not the fault of the law, which is holy. Neither is God to blame, for the Lord never intended His law to answer the problem of sin (see Gal. 3). In fact, unless our Creator changes our hearts, His law is a tool that sin uses to urge us to greater wickedness. Paul’s own life before Christ testifies to this reality, as does the collective experience of Israel, the nation that when presented with God’s commandments in written form, broke them without looking back (Rom. 7:1–13).
The Apostle is so caught up in clarifying his perspective on God’s law that he does not call direct attention to his shift in Romans 7:14 from describing his experience as an unregenerate person with the Lord’s commandments to his life as a believer. Until the end of the chapter, Paul describes the Christian’s struggle against sin. Though we see this in his change from the past tense to the present tense in verse 14, the best evidence that Paul now speaks of the regenerate person is that the conflict he describes “does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God” (John Calvin). Paul is a consistent thinker, and he could not be portraying an unregenerate person in verses 14–25 unless he were ignoring almost everything else he says about the affections and abilities of unregenerate men and women (for example, Rom. 1:18–3:20; Eph. 2:1–10). Those to whom the Holy Spirit has not given new hearts cannot have the true longing to do God’s will that Paul describes.
Many scholars argue that the Apostle refers to the unregenerate person in Romans 7:14–25, and their case rests largely on Paul describing himself as being “sold under sin” (v. 14). How, these scholars ask, could 7:14–25 describe a regenerate individual, for 6:18 says Christians are “slaves of righteousness”? Here we note the testimony of the greatest thinkers in church history to what happens when we grow in our sanctification—the more we are conformed to Christ, the more we see how unlike Him we remain. Christians feel sin more acutely because of the change wrought in us by the Spirit. A conflict exists between our regenerate hearts and the remaining presence of sin in our lives that was not there before conversion, and we see our sin more and more for what it truly is.
John Murray, in his commentary on Romans, writes that “the more sanctified [a Christian] becomes the more painful to him must be the presence in himself of that which contradicts the perfect standard of holiness.” Though the power of sin has been broken in our lives, its presence remains, and the holier we become, the darker and more wretched this sin appears. A growing understanding of the depth of our sin is what we should expect as the Spirit does His work in our lives.