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How Far Can Christians Go in Sinning? Faith and Works…

The Death Struggle with Sin

The form that sanctification takes is conflict with the indwelling sin that constantly assaults us. The conflict, which is lifelong, involves both resistance to sin’s assaults and the counterattack of mortification, whereby we seek to drain the life out of this troublesome enemy.

      J. I. Packer

A man who has long championed no-lordship doctrine wrote me to object to my teaching on the gospel. I invited him to lunch, thinking a personal conversation might help us understand one another better. He was a fellow pastor in a large church, and I believed we would have much in common, even though we disagreed at this very basic level.

We met, and I felt our dialogue was beneficial. Though neither of us changed our views on the gospel, we were able to clarify misunderstandings on both sides.

Several months after our lunch meeting I was saddened to read a news report disclosing that his church had asked him to step down because he was guilty of sexual immorality. He had been living a double life for more than ten years, and now his sin and unfaithfulness were shamefully exposed.

Was his tolerance of that sin solely the result of his theology? Perhaps not. Certainly other pastors who do not espouse the no-lordship view have morally disqualified themselves. Conversely, many who hold the no-lordship view manage to avoid falling into sordid sin.

But turn the question around: Was his theology an accommodation to his sinful lifestyle? It surely might have been. This much is certain: No-lordship theology would have a soothing effect on a professing Christian trying to rationalize long-term immorality. Instead of subjecting conscience and behavior to the most intense self-examination, he could find reassurance in the idea that, after all, many Christians are permanently “carnal.” Surely the belief that repentance is optional would encourage someone who wants to claim Christ while justifying a life of unrepentant sin. Certainly preaching that constantly touts “grace” but never features law could help someone like that find comfort while sinning. No-lordship doctrine is a perfect fit for anyone trying to justify cold-hearted religion.

By no means do I intend to imply that everyone who holds the no-lordship view lives an immoral life. Obviously that is not the case. Nor am I saying that these people advocate unrighteous living. I do not know of a single no-lordship teacher who would openly condone sinful behavior. In fact, the opposite is true: No-lordship preachers often feature strong appeals for holiness. One of the main goals of no-lordship preaching is to convince “carnal believers” to become “spiritual believers.” So appeals for obedience and surrender are quite common in no-lordship preaching, except in evangelistic messages. Fortunately, most no-lordship teachers live a better theology than they say they believe.

But I do believe that many people who purposefully allow unrepentant and unconfessed sin in their lives also adopt no-lordship doctrine because it allows them to have the solace of “assurance” in the midst of sinful rebellion.

And I do believe that no-lordship theology tends to undermine holiness, even though this is not the intent of no-lordship teachers. It does so by offering salvation from hell but not salvation from sin. It does so by removing the moral ramifications from faith and repentance. It does so by making obedience to God optional. It does so by promising assurance even to people who live in perpetual carnality.

The Myth of the Carnal Christian

Almost all no-lordship theology leans heavily on the notion that there are three classes of humanity: unsaved people, spiritual Christians, and carnal Christians. This was one of the planks in the no-lordship platform that was laid by Lewis Sperry Chafer. Chafer popularized the carnal-Christian idea in his 1918 book, He That Is Spiritual. Chafer’s friend C. I. Scofield included a similar scheme in one of the notes in The Scofield Reference Bible.

In recent years the idea of the carnal Christian has been disseminated through a series of tracts and booklets published by Campus Crusade for Christ. The Campus Crusade literature features a diagram with three circles representing the three classes of humanity. At the center of each circle is a throne. The non-Christian has self on the throne with Christ outside the circle. The carnal Christian has “invited” Christ into the circle but keeps self enthroned. The spiritual Christian puts Christ on the throne, with self at the foot of the throne. The tract challenges carnal Christians to become spiritual. Millions of these pamphlets have been distributed worldwide over the past thirty years or so. They are undoubtedly the most widely read single bit of no-lordship literature and have helped influence multitudes to accept the carnal-spiritual Christian dichotomy as biblical.

But the whole idea is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 2:14–3:3 :

A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?

In that passage the apostle Paul was rebuking the Corinthians for their unchristlike behavior. The church was dividing into factions, some saying “I am of Paul,” and others, “I am of Apollos” ( 1 Cor. 3:4 ). Paul told them their divisive behavior was unworthy of Christians: “You are still fleshly [Gk. sarkikos , ‘pertaining to the flesh, carnal’]. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?”

Clearly Paul was accusing the Corinthians of behaving like non-Christians. Factions were not the only problem at Corinth. The believers there were tolerating an incestuous relationship that a “so-called brother” ( 5:11 ) was carrying on with his father’s wife. Some were drunk and disorderly in the communion service ( 11:17–22 ). Christians were taking one another to court ( 6:1–8 ). They were abusing the gift of tongues ( 14:23 ), and women were being unruly in their corporate worship services ( 14:33 ).

But in 1 Corinthians 2:14–3:3 Paul was most certainly not defining two classes of Christians, or three classes of humanity. Paul clearly distinguished between “the natural man” and “he who is spiritual” ( 2:14–15 )—between the unsaved person and the Christian. He recognized that all Christians are capable of carnal behavior. But never in any of his epistles did the apostle address two classes of believers.

In Romans 8 , Paul’s contrast was between “the mind set on the flesh” (non-Christians) and “the mind set on the Spirit” (v. 6 ) (Christians); between “those who are in the flesh” (v. 8 —non-Christians) and those who are “in the Spirit” (v. 9 —Christians). His meaning is unmistakable, for he spells it out explicitly in verse 9 : “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”

So according to Paul, all Christians are spiritual. As we shall see, Paul also recognized that all believers behave carnally at times. That is what he was rebuking the Corinthians for.

These Corinthian Christians were obviously immature; that’s why Paul called them “babes in Christ” ( 3:1 ). But, unlike many so-called carnal Christians today, they were not indifferent to spiritual things. In fact, their allegiance to particular leaders and their abuse of the gifts reflected a misplaced zeal. These Christians clearly had spiritual desires, no matter how imperfectly they pursued them.

Note also that Paul did not urge the Corinthians to seek some second-level experience. He did not counsel them to “make Christ Lord” or dedicate themselves once and for all. On the contrary, he told them, “You are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” ( 1:7–8 ).

Still, Paul had no tolerance for those willfully acting carnally. When he learned of the incestuous man’s sin, for example, he instructed the Corinthians “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” ( 5:5 ). Note how the apostle spoke of those in the church who are immoral, covetous, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or swindlers. He did not call them carnal Christians but so-called brothers ( 5:11 ). He instructed the Corinthians not even to eat with such people. Clearly he knew such sins—persistent, willful, inveterate sins of lifestyle—called one’s profession of faith into question. Paul corrected the church’s lenient attitude toward this sinning man and others of his ilk. Evidently the Corinthians routinely accepted such people, perhaps as second-class Christians—just as evangelicals today accept them. Paul, however, commanded the church to discipline them ( 5:9–13 ), which would provide insight into whether they were natural, unredeemed people associating with believers, or spiritual people behaving carnally.

How Far Can Christians Go in Sinning?

I recently read a book about Christians and sin that began with an unusual account. The author of this book was acquainted with a pastor who had been sent to prison for robbing fourteen banks to finance his dalliances with prostitutes! The author was fully convinced the bank-robbing Lothario was a true Christian, and so he wrote a book to explore how such a thing could be possible.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is fair to raise the question of whether someone who regularly robs banks to pay for illicit sex is truly saved! That man’s sin was secretly his lifestyle. There is every reason to believe that he would still be committing his crimes today if he had not been caught. Can we concede that this “so-called brother” is a genuine Christian, just because he was once an evangelical pastor?

True, we cannot judge the man’s heart, but we must judge his behavior ( 1 Cor. 5:12 ). “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God” ( 1 Cor. 6:9–11 ). In those verses the apostle Paul was describing sins of chronic behavior, sins that color one’s whole character. A predilection for such sins reflects an unregenerate heart. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God” (v. 12 , emphasis added).

But wait. Doesn’t Scripture include examples of believers who committed gross sin? Didn’t David commit murder and adultery and allow his sin to go unconfessed for at least a year? Wasn’t Lot characterized by worldly compromise in the midst of heinous sin? Yes, those examples prove that genuine believers are capable of the worst imaginable sins. But David and Lot cannot be made to serve as examples of “carnal” believers, whose whole lifestyle and appetites are no different from unregenerate people.

David, for example, did repent thoroughly of his sin when Nathan confronted him, and he willingly accepted the Lord’s discipline ( 2 Sam. 12:1–23 ). Psalm 51 is an expression of David’s deep repentance at the end of this sordid episode in his life. The point, after all, is that this was merely one episode in David’s life. He was certainly not predisposed to that kind of sin. In fact, 1 Kings 15:5 says, “David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite ” (emphasis added).

Lot is a different case. Not much is known about him from the Old Testament account, but what is recorded about him is disappointing. He was a pathetic example of compromise and disobedience. On the eve of Sodom’s destruction when he should have fled the city, “he hesitated” ( Gen. 19:16 ). The angelic messengers had to seize his hand and put him outside the city. Near the end of his life, his two daughters got him drunk and committed incest with him ( Gen. 19:30–38 ). Lot certainly did seem to have a proclivity for sins of compromise and worldliness.

Yet the inspired New Testament writer tells us Lot was “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds)” ( 2 Pet. 2:8 ). He hated sin and desired righteousness. He had respect for holy angels—evidence of his fear of God ( Gen. 19:1–14 ). He obeyed God by not looking back at Sodom when God’s judgment rained down (cf. v. 26 ).

Lot was certainly not “carnal” in the sense that he lacked spiritual desires. Though he lived in a wicked place, he was not wicked himself. His soul was “tormented,” vexed, grieved, tortured with severe pain at the sight of the evil all around him. Evidently his conscience did not become seared; he “felt his righteous soul tormented day after day” with the evil deeds of those around him. Though he lived in Sodom, he never became a Sodomite. Those who use him as an illustration of someone who is saved but utterly carnal miss the point of 2 Peter 2:8.

What is the lesson of Lot’s life as Peter saw it? Verse 9 sums it up: “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment.”

In Lot’s case, one means the Lord used to rescue him from temptation was severe chastisement. Lot lost his home; his wife was killed by divine judgment; and his own daughters disgraced and debased him. He paid a terrible price for his sin, being “tormented day after day.” If Lot proves anything, it is that true believers cannot sin with impunity.

God always chastens and disciplines His children who sin. If they do not experience chastening, they are not truly His children, but spiritual bastards. Hebrews 12:7–8 explicitly states this: “What son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” The specific purpose for which He disciplines us is “for our good, that we may share His holiness” ( Heb. 12:10 ).

All of that flies in the face of the notion that millions of Christians live in a state of unbroken carnality. If these people are true children of God, why are they not constantly under His discipline?

Chief of Sinners

Perhaps the classic example of a sinning believer is the apostle Paul.

Paul? Yes. The more he matured in Christ, the more the apostle became aware of his own sinfulness. When he wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians, he referred to himself as “the least of the apostles … not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” ( 1 Cor. 15:9 ). A few years later, when he wrote to Ephesus, he called himself “the very least of all saints” ( Eph. 3:8 ). Near the end of his life, when he wrote to Timothy, Paul spoke of himself as “foremost of all [sinners]” ( 1 Tim. 1:15 ).

This was not clever posturing on Paul’s part. He was extremely sensitive to sin in his life and painfully honest about his own struggle with sin. He grieved over his sin and battled against it constantly. Yet he was one of the greatest saints who ever lived.

How can that be? Wouldn’t you think that someone of Paul’s stature would be an example of victory over sin? He was. Yet he called himself a “wretched man” and “chief of sinners”? Yes. Can both things be true at once? Absolutely. In fact, the more saintly we become, the more sensitive to sin we become.

Martin Luther noted the paradox of sin in every believer’s life and coined a Latin expression: simul justus et peccator (“just and sinful at the same time”). Every true believer wrestles with this dilemma. Our justification is complete and perfect; therefore our standing before God is faultless. But our sanctification will not be perfect until we are glorified. It is the prize of our high calling in Christ ( Phil. 3:14 ). Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (v. 12 ). Here on earth, our practice will never match our position, no matter how earnestly we pursue sanctification.

But pursue it we will if we are truly born again, for God Himself guarantees our perseverance in righteousness: “May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” ( 1 Thess. 5:23 ). He “is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” ( Jude 24 ).

The classic passage on Paul’s personal struggle against sin is Romans 7:14–25 :

We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

Wretched Man That I Am!

Many expositors have wondered how that passage can logically follow the great declarations in Romans 6 that believers are dead to sin ( Rom. 6:2 ), crucified with Christ so that our body of sin might be done away with (v. 6 ), freed from sin (v. 7 ), not under law, but under grace (v. 14 ), and slaves of righteousness (v. 18 ).

Some have proposed that in Romans 7 Paul was describing his life before Christ. They suggest that verse 14 is the key: “I am carnal, sold under sin.”

Others believe Paul was describing his life as a carnal Christian, before he surrendered to Christ’s lordship. They point out that Paul says, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body.” They believe Paul’s frequent use of the personal pronoun here reveals that this is the internal conflict of a selfish, self-righteous person, someone who is trying to become righteous in the power of his own flesh. Often “deeper life” teachers will cite this passage, urging Christians to “get out of Romans 7 and into Romans 8 ” in their experience with God.

But a study of the text reveals that this is neither the experience of an unbeliever nor the expression of a “carnal” Christian. It was Paul’s experience at the time he wrote it. Though he was one of the most spiritual saints who ever lived, he struggled with personal sin the same as all of us. Though he was used mightily of God, he battled sin and temptation. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man” ( 1 Cor. 10:12–13 ).

How do we know Paul was saved when he experienced what this passage describes? The change in verb tenses between verses 13 and 14 provides the first clue. In Romans 7:7–13 Paul was recounting his life before conversion and remembering the conviction he felt when he stood face-to-face with the law of God. The verbs in those verses are all in the past tense. In verses 14–25 , however, the verbs are in the present tense. These verses describe the battle with sin that was Paul’s present experience.

Furthermore, Paul writes, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” ( Rom. 7:22 ). In verse 25 he adds, “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God.” No non-Christian could make that claim. “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” ( Rom. 8:7 ).

Paul further describes his often-thwarted desire to obey God: “I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.… The wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I wish, I do not do.… I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good” ( 7:15 , 18–19 , 21 ). But back in Romans 3 Paul said that the unsaved person has no such longing to do the will of God: “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.… There is none who does good, there is not even one.… There is no fear of God before their eyes” (vv. 11–12 , 18 ). The person described in Romans 7:14–25 can only be a redeemed person.

This is no carnal Christian or someone with a low degree of sanctification. Paul’s repeated use of the personal pronoun in this context emphasizes that this was his own personal experience. The verb tenses show that he did not consider himself past this stage. The conflict he describes here was one he knew well—even as an advanced Christian. God’s sanctifying work in his heart is clearly evident. He says he hates sin (v. 15 ). He loves righteousness (vv. 19 , 21 ). He delights in the law of God from his heart (v. 22 ). He thanks God for the deliverance that is his in Christ (v. 25 ). Those are all responses of a mature Christian, in this case a seasoned apostle; not someone floundering in the throes of a desperate state of established carnality. In fact, it is the description of a godly man whose occasional sin feels like a constant thing when set against the backdrop of his holy longings.

Romans 7:14–25 thus describes the human side of the sanctifying process. We must not set it against Romans 8 , as some do, imagining that these chapters describe two separate stages of Christian growth. They simply give two different perspectives on sanctification. Romans 7 is the human perspective; Romans 8 is the divine perspective. Romans 7 is Paul’s own testimony of how it is to live as a Spirit-controlled, spiritually grounded believer. He loved the holy law of God with his whole heart, yet he found himself wrapped in human flesh and unable to fulfill it the way his heart wanted to. Are there Christians anywhere who are so spiritual that they can testify to a life lived above this level? Or so carnal that they live below the level of Romans 8 ?

All true believers should be living at precisely this level, struggling with the tension Paul describes between an ever-increasing hunger for righteousness on the one hand, and a growing sensitivity to sin on the other. Though the degree of sin will vary depending on one’s level of spiritual maturity, sin in the genuine believer should always make him or her feel the conflict Paul describes in these verses.

Though some have tried to claim they live above Romans 7 , they only reveal their own insensitivity to the pervasive effects of sin in the flesh. If they would honestly measure themselves against God’s standards of righteousness, they would realize how far they fall short. The closer we get to God, the more we see our own sin. Only immature, fleshly, and legalistic persons can live under the illusion that they measure up well by God’s standards. The level of spiritual insight, brokenness, contrition, and humility that characterize the person depicted in Romans 7 are marks of a spiritual and mature believer, who before God has no trust in his own goodness and achievements.

So Romans 7 is not the cry of a carnal Christian who cares not for righteousness, but the lament of a godly Christian who, at the height of spiritual maturity, nevertheless finds himself unable to live up to the holy standard. It is also the experience of every genuine believer at every stage of spiritual development.

I am fleshly, but the law is good. Look closely at Paul’s lament: “We know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me” ( Rom. 7:14–17 ).

Justification by faith apart from the works of the law in no way implies that the law is evil. The law is spiritual. It comes from the Spirit of God. It is a reflection of His “holy and righteous and good” nature (v. 12 ).

But there is a barrier that prevents every believer from always obeying God’s law: our carnal or fleshly nature. Note that Paul says, “I am of flesh”; he doesn’t say he is “ in the flesh.” Here the flesh (Gk., sarx ) is not a reference to the physical body, or even a “part” of our person like the body, but the principle of human frailty—especially our sinful selfishness—which remains with us after salvation until we are ultimately glorified. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” ( 8:8 ). “In the flesh” is descriptive of an unregenerate condition ( 7:5 ). Christians are not “in the flesh.”

Nevertheless, the flesh is still in us. We are made “of flesh”; that is, we are human. And that is the problem: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.… On the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” ( 7:18 , 25 ). Flesh, used in this context, refers to our fallenness. It taints all the facets of the total person—including our mind, emotions, and body. This residual fallenness—the flesh—is what drags us repeatedly into sin, although we hate and despise sin.

That is what Paul meant in verse 14 when he said, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” That phrase “sold into bondage to sin” at first seems to pose a problem, as does a similar phrase in verse 23 : “prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” Is Paul contradicting what he said in Romans 6:14 : “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace”? No, “sold into bondage to sin” doesn’t mean Paul actively committed himself to sinning. He was only acknowledging that his flesh kept dragging him back into committing the very sins he hated.

This is the state of every true believer. We are no longer related to our former father, the devil ( John 8:44 ); we no longer love the world ( 1 John 2:15 ); and we are no longer sin’s slaves—but our flesh is still subject to sin’s deceit and still attracted by many of its allurements. Yet as Christians we cannot be happy with our sin, because it is contrary to who we are in Christ and we know it grieves our Lord.

Sin grieves the Holy Spirit ( Eph. 4:30 ), dishonors God ( 1 Cor. 6:19–20 ), keeps our prayers from being answered ( 1 Pet. 3:12 ), causes good things from God to be withheld ( Jer. 5:25 ), robs us of the joy of our salvation ( Ps. 51:12 ), inhibits spiritual growth ( 1 Cor. 3:1 ), brings chastisement from the Lord ( Heb. 12:5–7 ), prevents us from being fit vessels for the Lord to use ( 2 Tim. 2:21 ), pollutes Christian fellowship ( 1 Cor. 10:21 ), and can even endanger our physical life and health ( 1 Cor. 11:29–30 ). No wonder true Christians hate sin.

One unbeliever, upon hearing the truth of justification by faith, commented, “If I believed that salvation is free through faith alone, I would believe and then take my fill of sin.” The person witnessing to him wisely replied, “How much sin do you think it would take to fill a true Christian to satisfaction?” A person who has not lost any of his appetite for sin—and acquired instead a hunger for the things of God—has not been truly converted. “What are our tastes and choices and likings and inclinations? This is the great testing question.”

Here Paul confirms that the appetites and desires of the true believer’s inner man are governed by the law of God: “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” ( 7:22–23 ).

The wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. Every true Christian can echo Paul’s lament. We concur that God’s law is good. We desire to obey it. Yet we cannot rid ourselves of sin. We are bound hand and foot by our own human frailty. Sin is in our very members. Self-righteous people deceive themselves into thinking they are moral and good, but Romans 7 shows that a true Christian led by the Spirit will not. The more spiritual Christian is all the more aware of indwelling sin. The sin in our members cannot win all the time—and it will ultimately fail to defeat us—but it perpetually frustrates our attempts to obey God perfectly.

Paul says, “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (v. 18 ). There’s a big difference between surviving sin and reigning sin: Sin no longer reigns in us ( 6:18–19 ), but it does survive in us ( 7:20 ). Galatians 5:17 says, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Romans 7 simply describes that battle in its hideous detail. But Galatians 5:16 tells us how to win: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” The Holy Spirit gives us victory.

But that victory seems to come with frustrating languor. In verses 18–19 Paul writes, “The wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.” He is not saying he is incapable of doing anything right. He is saying that his desire to obey is always greater than his own ability to obey. This is the pattern of spiritual growth: As our hatred for sin increases and our capacity for victory over sin is enlarged, our frustration with the remnants of sin in the flesh is also intensified. In other words, our sensitivity to indwelling sin is inversely proportional to our experience of victory. The more we defeat sin in our lives, the more aware of its presence we become.

Here is the crucial point: Paul was not saying he had a bent toward sinning. Just the opposite is true. His inclination was toward righteousness. He was simply frustrated by the pull of his sinful flesh.

Again, this is not the testimony of a someone living in a carelessly “carnal” state. In his heart Paul longed for righteousness, hungered to obey God, loved the law of God, and wanted to do good. That is the direction of every true Christian, regardless of where we are in the sanctifying process.

I joyfully concur with the law. “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (vv. 21–23 ).

It was not Paul’s conscience that was bothering him. He was not lamenting some unforgiven sin or describing a defiant refusal to follow the Lord. What troubled him was his inner man, recreated in the likeness of Christ and indwelt by His Spirit. That inner person, having seen something of the true holiness, goodness, and glory of God’s law, was grieved at the least infraction or falling short of it. In glaring contrast to his preconversion self-satisfaction (cf. Phil. 3:6 ), Paul now realized how wretchedly short of God’s perfect law he lived, even as a Spirit-indwelt believer and an apostle of Jesus Christ.

That spirit of humble contrition is a mark of every true disciple of Christ, who cries out, “Lord, I can’t be all you want me to be. I am unable to fulfill your perfect, holy, and glorious law.” In great frustration and remorse we must sorrowfully confess with Paul, “I am not always practicing what I would like to do.”

Paul delighted in God’s law. The phrase “in the inner man” could be translated, “from the bottom of my heart.” Emanating from the depths of his soul, Paul had a great love for the law of God. His inner man, the part that “is being renewed day by day” ( 2 Cor. 4:16 ) and “strengthened with power through [God’s] Spirit” ( Eph. 3:16 ), resonated with God’s law. The source of his problems was the principle of frailty and fallenness that is inherent in human nature.

The author of Psalm 119 experienced the same conflict Paul did. His psalm reflects his deep longing for the things of God. Here are some sample expressions of the psalmist’s desire for God’s law:

      Verses 81–83 : “My soul languishes for Thy salvation; I wait for Thy word. My eyes fail with longing for Thy word, while I say, “When wilt Thou comfort me?” Though I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget Thy statutes.”

      Verse 92 : “If Thy law had not been my delight, then I would have perished in my affliction.”

      Verse 97 : “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day.”

      Verse 113 : “I hate those who are double-minded, but I love Thy law.”

      Verse 131 : “I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for Thy commandments.”

      Verse 143 : “Trouble and anguish have come upon me; yet Thy commandments are my delight.”

      Verse 163 : “I hate and despise falsehood, but I love Thy law.”

      Verse 165 : “Those who love Thy law have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble.”

      Verse 174 : “I long for Thy salvation, O Lord, and Thy law is my delight.”

The measure of spirituality the psalmist expresses is intimidating. Clearly he was captivated by an overwhelming love for the things of God. That is why the last verse in Psalm 119 is so surprising: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments” (v. 176 ). You might think that a person with such an intense love for God’s law would not experience the failure of going astray spiritually. But that is the conflict all believers experience.

Why do we sin? Because God didn’t do a good enough job when He saved us? Because He gave us a new nature that isn’t complete yet? Because we’re not prepared for heaven yet and still need to earn our way in?

No, because sin is still present in our flesh.

On the one hand … but on the other… “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” ( Rom. 7:24–25 ).

Paul thus lets out a final wail of distress and frustration. Again, he echoes the psalmist: “Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope” ( Ps. 130:1–5 ).

Paul was surely in a similar frame of mind when he said, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” But Paul answers his own question: “I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord” (v. 25 ). Paul was assured of ultimate triumph over the sin in his own flesh: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God” ( 8:18–19 ). The final phase of our salvation is guaranteed: “Whom He justified, these He also glorified” ( 8:30 ). “This perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” ( 1 Cor. 15:53 , 57 ). “Indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” ( 2 Cor. 5:4 ). “We eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” ( Phil. 3:20–21 ). Ours is a triumphant hope!

Yet for now the battle goes on. Full deliverance awaits glorification. Victory here and now is only possible bit by bit as we mortify the deeds of the body through the power of the Holy Spirit: “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry” ( Col. 3:5 ). “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” ( Rom. 8:13 ).

We are bound to be frustrated by our inability to experience holiness to the degree we desire. That is the inevitable experience of every true saint of God. Because of our flesh we can never in this life achieve the level of holiness to which we aspire. “We ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” ( Rom. 8:23 ). But that hope only further inflames our aspirations to holiness.

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” ( 1 John 3:2–3 ).

John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles : The Role of Works in the Life of Faith, Originally Published: Faith Works. Dallas : Word Pub., c1993. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 2000).

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.

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