The Christian Struggle
The Struggle

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 30a of 83


14  For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15  For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. ” (Romans 7:14-25).

In our previous tranche of articles in this series on Romans, we studied one of the most neglected passage in the book, namely Romans 7:7-23. In the present instalment, we are entering into one of the most controversial passages in the book.

The apostle Paul is still speaking about his spiritual experience. But commentators are divided as to whether he is speaking about his present experience, or his experience prior to his conversion. Is it Paul the Christian, or Saul the Pharisee speaking? Most Reformed commentators believe that Paul is speaking about his Christian experience. But there are a few such as J. Oliver Buswell and Martin Lloyld-Jones who feel that Paul must be speaking about his experience before his conversion.[1]

They ask, for example, how could Paul say that he is “sold under sin” (v. 14) if he is speaking of himself as a believer? Remember how Elijah condemned Ahab for “[selling himself] to work evil in the sight of the LORD” (1 Kgs 21:20)?

What do we say? We say that there is a world of a difference between “being sold under sin” and “selling oneself to sin.” There is a world of a difference between experiencing intense struggle with sin and running into sin.

We believe Paul is speaking about his experience as a regenerate man. We have several reasons to believe that this is correct.

First, Paul speaks in the present tense throughout these verses. When he spoke about his conversion experience, he used the past tense (eg. v. 9). But here it is consistently the present tense: “I am,” “I do,” “I know,” “I delight,” etc.

Secondly, Paul says: “The good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (v. 19). This is not the language of the unconverted man. The unconverted man thinks he is doing good; and he does not struggle against sin, nor does he hate sin as Paul does (v. 15). It is one thing to hate the consequence of sin; it is quite another to hate sin. The unconverted man does not hate sin, he loves it.

Thirdly, Paul speaks of his “delight in the law of God after the inward man” (v. 22). This is again not the language of an unregenerate man. It is the language of the regenerated man. Remember how the Psalmist describes the Righteous One, or the Christian in the first psalm? “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Ps 1:2).

We can be absolutely certain: Paul is speaking about his experience as a born-again believer.

With that settled, let us consider what the Spirit of God wants us to know concerning the Christian experience.

1. The Christian
Will Struggle Against Sin
(v. 14-16)

14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

The Law is spiritual. It is inspired by the Spirit of God. We would all agree to that. But Paul says, “I am carnal, sold under sin.” What does he mean? First, we must realised that the word carnal (sarkikos) can mean fleshly or unspiritual. Paul is saying “I am unspiritual.” How many of us would say that! But what does he mean?

If we take this verse out of context, we may be tempted to conclude that Paul is speaking of himself before his conversion. But when we look at the whole passage, we see that Paul is speaking about himself as a converted man. But how can the converted man be unspiritual when the Spirit of Christ indwells him. And even if there is such a thing as a carnal or unspiritual Christian, how could Paul be carnal or unspiritual when he was being used of God to write the book of Romans? What then does he mean?

What clue do we have as to what he means? The clue may be found in verse 15. Notice Paul’s strong language. “I hate sin” he tells us. Paul has a strong vehemence against sin, and he greatly laments the fact that he still sin.

When we see this, we know that Paul cannot be speaking in absolute terms. He is not saying that there is nothing spiritual in him. Neither is he saying that he has no inclination to do good at all.

He is comparing what the Law of God requires and what he can attain unto. The Law of God requires spiritual perfection; but Paul was not only unable to achieve perfection, but falls very far short of it. The Law of God requires Paul to be as bright as the Sun, but Paul saw himself to be as bright as a smothering wick. It is no wonder he calls himself ‘carnal’ or ‘unspiritual.’

Now, notice that he does not say “we are carnal,” but “I am carnal.” It is his self-assessment of himself! “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.” Is this your self-assessment of yourself too? This ought to be the self-assessment of all converted persons.

But why? How did Paul come to the conclusion that he is carnal? He explains, v. 15—

15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

This seems like an illogical statement. Can a man do what he wills not to do? If you slap someone on the face, can you say: “I did not allow it, I did not will it”? If you are schizophrenic, you may say that. But Paul was certainly not schizophrenic. How do we explain the apparent contradiction?

Well, the apparent contradiction is not so sharp in the Greek. You see, in the Greek, the three words translated ‘do’ in this verse are really three different words.

The first ‘do’ [katergazomai] has the meaning of ‘accomplish’; the second [prassō] has the meaning of ‘practise’ and the third [poiō] is literally ‘do.’

Also, the word rendered ‘allow’ is literally, ‘know’ or ‘own’. So Paul is saying: “That which I accomplish, I know not: for what I would, that I practice not (i.e. I do not consistently practice); but what I hate, that do I.”

Paul is looking at his life after his conversion. His life is like a large painting hanging on the wall. As Paul looks at the picture, he grimaces and groans within. He sees that the painting is fraught with flaws and mistakes. He is horrified by it.

“I did not paint this!” He exclaims. I don’t know it. I would not allow it. The things that I know to be right and good, I do not practice consistently. The things that I hate, I did and continue to do.

All who have experienced the grace of God in conversion will know how it feels. Sometime I am driving, and I am thinking of something I said to someone,—and such a groan arise out of my heart that it escapes my throat. My wife would often ask: “what’s wrong?” It is hard to give an answer at such times. It is too shameful or embarrassing. I can’t believe I said what I said!

Do you not struggle with sin too? The apostle Paul did. So did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Peter, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, Bunyan, Edwards, etc. There is really no exception. Every child of God will struggle with sin. It is a reality. It is a fact known to every child of God.

What does this struggle tells us about our responsibility and our innermost desires? Listen to Paul, v. 16—

 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent [or agree] unto the law that it is good.

Essentially, Paul is saying…

If I do something, and it displeases me, it shows that there is a standard, which I know I should strive for. Moreover, it shows that the law is good; it shows that I agree that it is good for me, and I should strive to keep it, not matter how I fail.

But what is so significant about Paul consenting that the Law is good? Why does Paul highlight this fact at all? Well, it is significant because this is not something that is natural to Paul. By nature, Paul is dead in sin and trespasses. By nature, he would never agree that the law is good. But now he struggles with sin because he agrees that the law is good.

Let me put it this way: You know that tigers are carnivorous don’t you. Tigers are meat-eaters. But suppose you meet a tiger that grew up as a meat-eater, but now prefer to eat bananas and carrots rather than meat. What would you say? Would you not conclude that something drastic has happened to the tiger?

Paul is essentially telling us: Something has happened in my heart. I am a new creature. I agree that the law is good and struggle with sin because a new nature has been implanted in me.

It is when this new nature is implanted that the Christian struggle begins.

The apostle John says:

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1 Jn 3:9).

Paul struggles with sin because his heart is changed in regeneration. Elsewhere he speaks of regeneration in this way:

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17).

Do you, dear reader, struggle with sin? Do you do that which you dislike? Do you agree that the law is good?

If you are a stranger to this struggle, Christ is probably a stranger to you; and you are probably a stranger to the Gospel. If so do not continue to fool yourself, but repent of the hardness of your heart and seek His forgiveness while you may yet find grace.

But if you know the struggle that the apostle Paul is talking about, it is a very clear indication that God has begun a good work in you. Do not despise the good work. Do not smother it by casting aside your conscience. Do not be discouraged by your failures.

But you ask: “How not to be discouraged? How not to be overwhelmed when day by day I fail the Lord I love? How can I have any assurance at all that God has begun a work in me?”

Well, listen to Paul as he continues.

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim



[1] This interestingly is the standard Pelagian view. Charles Finney, the Pelagian revivalist says:

I am fully convinced that… interpreting [verses 14 to 24] as a Christian experience, has done incalculable evil and has led thousands of souls there to rest and go no further, imagining that they are already as deeply versed in Christian experience as Paul was when he wrote that epistle. And there they have stayed, and hugged their delusion till they have found themselves in the depths of hell.