Bewildered by Legalism
March 19, 2023 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 7:14-25
(Read) When Heidi and I were newlyweds, car repairs were always stressful. We didn’t have much money, and I didn’t have many tools in our apartment to do things myself. Therefore, when our car needed new struts, I was excited that a friend who worked in an auto shop volunteered to help me replace them.
He was sure he could do the job, so, we bought the parts, jacked up the back of the car, and got the tires off. But we didn’t account for a big problem. Namely, all the salt and moisture that are on northern roads for several months every winter are terribly corrosive.
Therefore, when we began cranking on the first bolt, the head broke off. For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to try another one, and we snapped the head off it as well. Finally, we had to admit we were stuck. We needed heat to loosen the bolts, and we needed to tap the ones we had broken. We made a mess we couldn’t fix. And instead of saving myself money, I had to spend more to fix our mess.
Have you ever been there? You think you have a great idea, and you dive headfirst into executing your plan. But after you’ve invested time and money, you realize that your plan is an utter failure and your only option is to abandon it and to eat your investment. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
That’s what Paul experienced in the text we just read. Last week, I argued that Paul is remembering his failed efforts as a Pharisee to earn salvation by keeping the Law. He’s not describing his legitimate striving as a mature Christian, but his failure as a lost man. I’m not going to re-preach that sermon, so if you missed it and you want to know why I take that view, you’ll have to look it up.
That said, Paul was highly invested in earning salvation through the Law. And Philippians 3 says that he made impressive progress. But when Paul met Christ, he realized he had been chasing a hopeless dream because he could never be perfect. As a result, he says in Philippians 3:8 that he now counts all of it as “rubbish (i.e., trash, garbage).”
Why did Paul’s efforts fail so miserably? And why will your best efforts always fail as well? Our text answers that rules alone cannot produce godliness. It’s an important truth that everyone must grasp before they will receive true salvation in Christ. And Christians must remember it often if we are going to rightly pursue godliness. So, we all need this passage. Last week, we focused on the big picture meaning of the passage. Today I want to focus on smaller sections and walk verse by verse through Paul’s argument. The first major section of Paul’s argument is vv. 14–20 which argue that…
I. Sinners cannot obey God’s Law (vv. 14–20).
This section is built on two big assertions in vv. 14, 18. First, v. 14 states…
1st Assertion (v. 14): We need to set this in context. From Romans 1, Paul has been arguing that the Law cannot make anyone righteous; it can only reveal our sin. Therefore, he knew that some may ask, as v. 7 states, “Is the Law sin?” Paul responds, “May it never!” The Law is good. The problem is that I’m not. I’m a sinner.
And vv. 8–13 use Paul’s own failure to keep the Law to prove the two truths he restates in v. 14. First, “The Law is spiritual.” This simply means that the Law is from Holy God. It is based on God’s perfect knowledge of spiritual, eternal realities. There’s nothing wrong with the Law.
But something is wrong with us. Paul confesses, “I am of flesh…” I argued last week that v. 14 continues Paul’s personal testimony that he began in v. 8 of his failed efforts to earn salvation through the Law. He now uses the historical present to give a dramatic view of frustrating failure.
A big reason why I believe he is still thinking about his pre-conversion life is because he describes himself as “sold into bondage to sin.” I can’t see Paul using that language of his present mature Christian experience after he just said in 6:14 of Christians, “Sin shall not be master over you.” Yes, Christians are still sinners, but we are no longer slaves to sin.
But Romans teaches that every unbeliever is a slave to sin. They are hostile to God, and therefore, incapable of fulfilling the Law. So, once again, Paul asserts that he was the problem, not the Law. Then he explains in vv. 15–17. Verse 15 describes his…
Defeat (v. 15): We must balance this verse with Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:3–6. Paul had been quite proud of the righteousness he thought he had achieved. He saw himself as the best of the best.
We’ve all met people like that. They think they are so spiritual, and they generally ignore all the ways they fall short. But at times Paul had to face reality. No matter how hard he tried, sin kept bubbling to the surface. You can feel his bewilderment. He says, “What I am doing…”
Have you ever heard a criminal use a similar excuse? “That wasn’t the real me. I don’t know what happened.” Our secular world doesn’t believe in sin, but it keeps bubbling up, and they can’t explain where it comes from.
However, gospel-believers know quite well that we are broken. Our sin frustrates us, but it doesn’t surprise us because we understand how dark we are apart from grace.
But not the legalist. Paul had built his identity on his own righteousness; therefore, every sin was an assault on his person. It was frustrating and perplexing. Therefore, vv. 16–17 reaffirm the major themes of v. 14.
Conclusions (vv. 16–17): First, the Law is good. Even though Paul fell short, he could see that the Law was right. And that’s true of every unbeliever. They may not love God’s Law or try to obey it as Paul did, but they know it is good. 2:14–15 says their conscience is drawn to it, and they naturally want to obey it.
We also must remember often that the Law is good. It’s not easy, but it is loaded with wisdom and grace. We should love God’s law as his gracious path toward intimacy with God and protection from foolishness. I hope you love God’s commands as the good gift they are.
Second, v. 17 reaffirms that while the Law is good, “sin…dwells in me.” Fir example, no matter how hard I train and strain, I will never pick up a locomotive. It’s simply not in my capacity. Similarly, sinners can try all they want, but we don’t have the capacity to earn salvation. We are sinners. We cannot keep the Law. Paul builds on this with his second major assertion.
2nd Assertion (v. 18): This verse is complicated but fascinating. For one, notice that it sounds like Paul contradicts himself. First, he says, “Nothing good dwells in me,” but then he turns around and adds, “The willing (to do good) is present in me.” How can both be true?
The answer is that in this context, flesh is primarily the body. Oftentimes, Paul uses flesh to describe the sin nature, but this passage emphasizes the fact that the body is especially susceptible to sin v. 23, 25. Paul is not saying I don’t have a sin nature. I do. Neither is he saying that the body is inherently evil. It is not. But sin takes advantage of the natural desires of the body. So, my biological drives for food, sleep, sex, etc., become major avenues for temptation.
But even the unbeliever is conflicted. “The willing (to do good) is present in me.” He has a conscience that agrees with the Law. He wants to obey. “But the doing of the good is not.” Most of the time he fails. Why? Because he is “sold into bondage to sin.” He cannot overcome his sin nature. He cannot save himself.
Every sinner must come to grips with this reality if he has any hope of salvation. You can’t measure up. Sure, you may do some good things, but God is perfect, and you will always fall short of the glory of God. You need grace. And Paul continues to drive this home in vv. 19 –20 where he describes…
His Defeat (vv. 19–20): Verse 19 expresses the same bewilderment as v. 15. He wanted to obey the Law. He didn’t want to sin. Yet he sinned, and he sinned without any break.
So do you. Maybe you think that someday, somehow you will get over the hump and start living a truly righteous life. You’ll be good enough that God will surely let you into heaven.
Please see that you are on an impossible mission. You don’t have the power to overcome sin and please God. This verse is you even on your best days. Or even worse, maybe you just sin without regret. Regardless, rules, religion, and will power will never get you to heaven. You need grace. You need Christ to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. Please be saved.
Before we go on, I want to consider what v. 19 means for the Christian. I said last week that many people assume v. 19 describes the normal Christian experience, but I argued that wasn’t Paul’s intent. The Christian life is characterized by victory, not defeat.
However, I don’t want to minimize the very real struggle we endure. The NT describes a raging war in the heart of every believer. “For 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” (Gal 5:17). “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Pet 2:11).
If you are striving for godliness, you know exactly what those verses are saying, and you can relate to the frustration Paul expresses in our text. That shouldn’t discourage you; instead, it’s a good sign that you are rightly resisting sin.
Furthermore, if you are going to fight well, you must be realistic about the battle. Yes, sin is not the believer’s master. But we will continue to live in sin-cursed bodies until the day Jesus returns or we die. The flesh isn’t going away. It’s going to be hard to the very end. So, don’t look for a magic pill to fix your problems, and don’t get impatient with the battle. Keep enduring. I’ll say more about our hope for victory in a moment.
Returning to the text, v. 20 concludes the section by saying, “But if…” We might think that here and in v. 17 Paul is absolving himself of responsibility or setting up some hard dualism in his person. Throughout the passage, Paul clearly assumes that he is responsible for his sin. Rather, vv. 17, 20 simply a affirm an important aspect of the theology of Romans. Sin reigning over the unbeliever. Even when he wants to be free, he’s stuck. He cannot break free. As a result, he sins time after time and falls short of God’s glory.
So, vv. 14 –20 teach that sinners cannot obey God’s Law. We have no power in ourselves to overcome sin’s reign. It’s a disheartening reality. But we must accept this reality before we will ever enjoy the solution, which is coming. But not quite yet. Verses 21–23 build off this by teaching that…
II. Sin enslaves the natural man (vv. 21–23).
Once again, these verses drive home the conflict Paul endured under the Law. On the one hand…
Paul wanted to obey the Law. You can see that in vv. 21, 22. Paul “wants to do good.” And he “joyfully concur(s) with the law of God in the inner man.” I said last week that these statements raise an important argument for those who believe this passage must describe a healthy Christian. Afterall, how could an unbeliever say that he wants to obey the Law?
But while the unbeliever is opposed to God, no unbeliever is as bad as he could be. God has given all people a conscience. And what do you think that Paul the Pharisee would have said if you asked him, “Do you love the Law of Moses?” He would say, “Absolutely.” “Do you want to obey the Law?” “Of course, I do.”
And there are plenty of religious people around us today who would say something similar. They love their religion, and they are committed to their faith. I’ll never forget running a Backyard Bible Club one time in a densely LDS area. A little girl was watching us from a far and during a break she walked up to me heartbroken that I didn’t share her faith. She believed, and she wanted to convert me.
That was Paul. He was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted the church. But incredibly, he can say in 1 Timothy 1:13 that his violence was sincere. He says, “I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Paul wanted “to do good.” I’ve heard many people say that they are going to heaven because they also want to do good. “I’m a good person.” “I have a sincere faith.” “I’m spiritual.” “I’m searching for God.” “I’m a good Catholic, Mormon, etc.” All of that may be true. But while Paul wanted to obey the Law, he again confesses that without Christ…
Sin enslaved Paul. Verse 21 confesses, “evil is present in me.” And while Paul loved the Law, notice the reality of v. 23. All of Paul’s efforts and the most sincere heart could not change the fact that he was “a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.”
We live in a world that claims you can be whatever you want to be all the way down to choosing your gender. But God says that wanting to be spiritual doesn’t make you spiritual. You can’t will away your sin nature. We are all born “prisoners…of sin,” and there is nothing we can do to change that.
Therefore, no matter how sincere your heart may be and no matter how spiritual you may be, you are still a sinner who deserves God’s judgment. And there is nothing you can do to fix it. You need grace.
And that doesn’t change once you are saved. Christian, you can’t will yourself into godliness. You can’t set up enough rules or guardrails to fence in your depravity. You need grace. And thankfully for all of us grace is available! Verses 24 –25 close the passage by declaring…
III. Christ alone can rescue us from sin’s power (vv. 24–25).
Verse 24 has to be one of the most tragic yet wonderful cries you will ever hear. Consider where we are in the text. Paul the Pharisee just said in v. 22 that he loves the Law and desperately wants to obey it. But despite his best efforts, he was still “a prisoner of the law of sin.” Paul couldn’t escape his own condemnation.
When he faced reality, it was a horrible sight to behold. He had tried the best that he could, but he had failed. And v. 24 is his defeated, despairing cry, “Wretched man…” Paul had to admit the crushing reality that he couldn’t deliver himself. He was hopelessly condemned.
This verse is the climax of Romans 7. The Law cannot produce godliness in the lives of sinners. Paul tried. He was test case #1. If anyone should have been able to succeed it was Paul. But at the end of his journey, he is not celebrating victory; he is crushed by defeat. He’s not beating his chest in triumph; he is whimpering in agony.
Once again, if you are holding out hope that maybe you can be good enough someday to earn heaven, please see that v. 24 is how your journey will end. You’ll stand before God someday, defeated, crushed, and condemned to hell.
But while v. 24 is the climax of Paul’s argument, he can’t endure such hopelessness any longer. He has to tell us the answer. That’s what he does in v. 25a. He follows the darkness of v. 24 with the brightest ray of sunshine (v. 25a). Christ is the answer!
On the cross, Jesus paid the price for all my sin. He secured forgiveness and alien righteousness. And through his resurrection, Jesus defeated sin’s reigning power. He is able to break sin’s bondage and to free me from its prison. Christ can set you free! And we can receive Christ and every benefit of his death and resurrection through faith in him.
If you have never received Christ, come to the end of yourself as v. 24 describes. Admit that you are a “wretched” sinner who deserves God’s judgment. And then believe on Christ. John 1:12 promises, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Please receive Christ today.
In a moment, I’ll come back to the application of all this for Christians, but I want to finish out the passage first. Many people are going to argue that v. 25b proves that this passage can’t be describing Paul’s pre-conversion state. Otherwise, why would he return to the struggle after discovering Christ.
But I believe it works just fine to see v. 25a as a brief parenthesis that Paul will develop in chapter 8. In this view, v. 25b simply reaffirms what Paul has been saying all along. Is there any hope that I can deliver myself? No, there is no deliverance in my power. I can’t escape “the law of sin” in my own strength. The Law can’t produce godliness and neither can any other religious system based on human ability.
That’s why there had to be a transition from the age of the Law of Moses to the age of grace. Sinners need something more than a standard of righteousness; we need power to live up to it. And Christ provided that power when he rose from the dead, and he gives that power to all who are united to him by faith.
So, what does all this mean for those who are saved? We know that we are saved by grace alone apart from good works. And we are forever free from the bondage of sin and the law. We know that. And praise the Lord that gospel-preaching churches like ours have a strong tradition of emphasizing these realities.
But no matter how well we grasp these things in our heads, we can all easily begin to act as if Christian growth as solely a matter of human effort. Like the Jews of Paul’s day, our Christianity becomes a title we wear and a checklist we obey. And if we are struggling in a particular area, we just set up more fences, more rules around it like the Jews did.
Safeguards, strategies, and rules, all have their place. We don’t want to give sin an occasion. But as I said last week, the most important step we can take is to build rhythms of life that are rooted in grace. Galatians 5:16 doesn’t say that if you are struggling, just try harder; instead, it says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” The Holy Spirit is the key to your victory.
So, swim in the sea of the gospel truths we learned in chapter 6. Remember what Christ did, and who you are in him. Don’t just try harder, “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (6:13).
Don’t just read your Bible, pray, go to church, and do right because it is right. Do these things by faith believing that grace flows to us through the Word, the presence of God in prayer, worship with his saints, and grace-enabled obedience (8:13). Fight in the strength of the Spirit!
The Law can’t produce godliness in the life of a sinner. So, praise God that we are not under law but under grace! Let’s walk in that grace through walking by the Spirit.
More in Romans
May 28, 2023Almighty, Unfailing Love
May 21, 2023God’s Best Good for You
May 7, 2023The Spirit’s Help