In Iain Murray’s book, Revival and Revivalism, he tells a powerful story involving a Presbyterian pastor named Benjamin Palmer who pastored in Savannah, Georgia in the 1840s. A young man had been attending Palmer’s church for a while when one day he decided to visit the pastor and complain about the preaching and teaching that he was hearing from him. The young man said to Pastor Palmer, “You preachers are the most contradictory men in the world; you say, and you unsay, just as it pleases you, without the least pretension to consistency. Why you said in your sermon that sinners were perfectly helpless in themselves—utterly unable to repent or believe and then turned round and said they would all be damned if they did not.”
Murray adds, “On hearing these words, Palmer tells us that he judged it best to reply ‘in an off-hand sort of way, and with seeming [indifference].’ . . . So, according to his biographer, he responded: ‘Well, my dear E____, There is no use in our quarrelling over this matter; either you can or you cannot. If you can, all I have to say is that I hope you will just go and do it.’”
He then continues, “As I did not raise my eyes from my writing, which was continued as I spoke, I had no means of marking the effect of these words, until, after a moment’s silence, with a choking utterance, the reply came back: ‘I have been trying my best for three whole days and cannot.’ ‘Ah,’ responded Palmer, raising his eyes and putting down his pen, ‘that puts a different face upon it; we will go then and tell the difficulty straight to God.’
“We knelt down and I prayed as though this was the first time in human history that this trouble had ever arisen; that here was a soul in the most desperate extremity, which must believe or perish, and hopelessly unable of itself, to do it; that . . . pleading most earnestly for the fulfillment of the divine promise. Upon rising I . . . left my friend in his powerlessness in the hands of God, as the only helper. In a short time he came through the struggle, rejoicing in the hope of eternal life.”1
That is a picture of pastoral wisdom, isn’t it? There’s a vast difference between how we respond to different situations. If someone is sitting and complaining because they don’t like the truth of Scripture, it may well be wise to keep your head down, keep writing, and answer in an off-handed way to show you’re not shaken by what you’re hearing. But when a man is shaken because he knows he must repent and believe and doesn’t feel as if he can do so, then that is a time to put down your pen, lift up your eyes, and get on your knees with your neighbor so that you might plead with God to help his unbelief.
The situation affects our response. And that’s what I want to remind us of as we come to Paul’s argument in Romans 7:13-25, where Paul, once again shows us that the law is not the answer to how our hearts can be changed or we can be found justified, in right standing before God. Now, just hearing me give that brief description of our text may bring forth from you a sigh of frustration. After all, this isn’t the first time that Paul has made this argument. In fact, of our twenty-one prior messages to today, it feels like in about seventy-five percent of them we’ve been noting that whatever text we’re dealing with shows us yet again that we’re not justified by the law and that the law isn’t our hope for changing our hearts and desires. And here we are again. Why in the world is Paul taking such a long time, making such a sustained argument, and using so many words simply to tell us that obedience to the law isn’t a pathway to eternal life?
I think the answer to that question is much like the reason why the pastor moved from giving a dismissive answer, without lifting his eyes or setting down his pen, to getting down on his knees with his neighbor and pleading to the Lord on his behalf. You see, this isn’t simply some academic argument for Paul. He is dealing with arguments made by unbelieving Jews, on their way to hell because, as Paul says in Romans 9:32, “they did not pursue [righteousness] by faith, but as if it were based on works.” And their condemnation breaks his heart.
Actually that is too light of a description of Paul’s heart. He is so burdened and crushed by the condemnation of his unbelieving countrymen that he’ll actually say in chapter 9 that he could wish himself condemned before God and on his way to hell if it would mean the salvation of his Jewish kinsmen. And he knows that one thing that stands in their way is their belief that obedience to the law can save someone. He’ll even say, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:2-4).
Therefore, Paul isn’t painstakingly working through his argument, answering every rebuttal, and dealing with every facet of every obstacle to faith because he likes to win a good argument. He’s making this argument, you can imagine, with tears running down his face, pausing at moments as he sets down his pen and pleads with God in prayer to save them. That’s the context in which Paul writes this careful, well-crafted, detailed argument, showing that we’re justified by faith alone and not by works of the law.
And I want to preach this text this morning with that same sort of passion not only because I know that there may well be unbelievers this morning who have never placed their faith in Christ and are instead relying on their good works as their basis for being justified before God but also because I know that there are several believers this morning who fall prey every week, no matter how many times we’ve seen otherwise in the text, to Satan’s accusations that God wants nothing to do with them and is generally always displeased with them because they simply haven’t done enough good to merit his love and delight. So, this isn’t merely academic for me as a pastor either this morning.
Therefore, let’s pray once more that the Lord will open our hearts to hear and see and understand his word so that he may use the truth of this text this morning both to transform our hearts and arm us with weapons to stand strong against the attacks of one who is like a lion, seeking to devour us.
We come to our text this morning with Paul having just argued that the law is not sinful, even though it arouses a sinful response within us, because by revealing sin and leaving us condemned and under the judgment of God the law actually puts us in a position where we see our need for Christ and can look to him in faith and be justified. But right as he writes that, it’s as if Paul can hear the charges of his unbelieving Jewish neighbors saying, “So, Paul, you’re saying that the law condemns us then, puts us under God’s judgment, bearing death as the wages for sin. And if that’s what you’re saying, then you have to be saying that the law is sinful and evil, not good. That’s why we can’t believe what you’re arguing.”
Therefore, Paul, with his pastoral heart and longing to remove all obstacles to their faith in Christ decides that he will answer that rebuttal as well. So, he asks the very question he knows they’re thinking, “Did that which is good, then, bring death in me?” And he answers, as he has repeatedly their charges, “By no means!” (v. 13). But, as we’ve seen, Paul answers briefly and then with some detail. So, what is Paul’s detailed response? That’s what I want us to see this morning. First, he starts with his thesis, which can be summed up like this:
It is not the law but sin that condemns us before God; the law is good and does good.
After asserting that it was not the law that brings death (or condemnation) in us, he adds, “It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond all measure” (v. 13). In other words, the law isn’t the reason we’re condemned before God; sin is. In order to see this, think about Jesus. He was born under the law. The law pronounced a sentence upon him. So, why are we left condemned and he wasn’t? What makes the difference?
The difference of course is that we are sinful and he is perfectly righteous. So, the law’s sentence upon Jesus was that he merited eternal life because of his perfect righteousness while the law’s sentence upon us was that we were deserving of death because of our sin. What that shows, however, is that it isn’t just being under the law that condemns us. Otherwise, Jesus would be condemned. It’s being under the law as a sinner. This is why Paul says that it wasn’t the law that produced death but “it was sin.”
The law is a good tool that reveals sin in us and shows it to be terrible and worthy of condemnation so that we might seek salvation outside of ourselves in another. But, interestingly, as Paul launches into further support for his claim, he shows that the law is good and that sin is our problem by noting that when an unconverted person is confronted with the law, he ends up desiring good but doing evil. This is the main supporting claim in Paul’s argument:
The fact that we don’t do what we want (when confronted with God’s law) reveals the law’s goodness and sin’s controlling power.
Let’s follow Paul’s logic. He first simply notes what he’s going to prove. He writes in verse 14, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” So, here’s what he says we all know, namely, that the law is a good thing and that we are full of sin, enslaved by sin, and under sin’s controlling power. “Okay,” we might say, “show us how you can prove this claim, Paul.” And here’s his answer: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate” (v. 15).
Now, that might not make sense at first, but this is a genius observation that Paul is making. Paul is looking back at his pre-Christian life, but he’s drawing a conclusion that is true of unbelievers in general when confronted with God’s law. Here’s what Paul is saying: when he saw the law, he wanted to obey it, but he ended up disobeying it. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? He saw the law, wanted to obey it, and ended up disobeying it, which is why he says, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” But, what’s interesting is that Paul makes two genius observations in light of the fact that this is how we respond to the law. His first observation is that this shows that the law is good.
He writes, “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good” (v. 16). What he’s saying is that even as an unbeliever, when he was confronted with the law of God, he was able to look at it and say, “That’s good. It’d be good for me to do that.”2
For example, when even unbelievers hear God’s law saying, “You shall not covet or steal,” it’s not like they look at it and say, “What a terrible law! It’s going to ruin our world if people don’t covet and don’t steal.” Of course not. They look at it and say, “That’s good. I don’t want to covet. I don’t want to steal.” They want to obey it. And the mere fact that people’s inclination is to look at the law and want to obey it, Paul notes, shows that they believe the law is good. It’s commanding them to do good things.
Think, for a second about marriage vows. People who engage in all kinds of sexual immorality are willing to stand up and take marriage vows wherein they pledge to be faithful to one another until death. Now, why would they do that? They do that because they know it’s good to be faithful to one’s spouse. They even, in that moment, desire to be faithful. And by that desire, they’re acknowledging that these vows are good. Well, Paul is noting the same thing about the law.
But then he notes the other side of things. That Paul wants not to covet shows that the law is good in telling us not to covet. But the reality is that Paul does covet. That is, as an unbeliever, when he saw the law and thought, “That’s good. I want to obey that law,” he then went on and did what he did not want to do. He coveted. And Paul says that this also reveals something, namely, sin’s controlling power in the lives of unbelievers.
He writes, “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (vv. 17-20).
Now, when you first read Paul saying, “It’s not I who do it but sin that dwells within me,” which he says at the beginning of what we just read and repeats at the end of what we just read, you might think that Paul is saying, “So I’m not responsible for my actions.” But that’s not what Paul is saying. What Paul is doing is illustrating that our problem is that sin has an enslaving, controlling power over the heart and desires of unbelievers.
What he’s saying is that if he can hear the law saying, “Do not covet,” agrees in his heart that not coveting is a good thing, and desires not to covet, why does he then do the very thing he doesn’t want to do and covet? And his answer is that it’s because he lacks the ability to obey the law (v. 18) and has sin dwelling within him.
In other words, his goal is not only to show that the law is good (which he has shown) but that our problem is that we’re held captive by the controlling, enslaving power of sin as unbelievers. And if he sees that something is good and wants to do it, then there must be some explanation for why he doesn’t.
And the explanation is that unbelievers are slaves of sin so that their desires are seized and controlled by sin so that they end up giving into their sinful desires and sinning. A man wants not to covet but then sees another getting something he desires, and he gives in to the temptation to covet. And this keeps happening. That’s why Paul says in v. 19, “For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” It’s a picture of the enslaving power of sin.
Therefore, the fact that Paul can look at his life as an unbeliever and say, “I wanted to do what the law said” showed that the law is good, and the fact that he didn’t do that very good he wanted to do showed that he was enslaved by the controlling power of sin. Thus, he has effectively shown us that the law is good and that our problem is our sinful hearts, not the law.
But this doesn’t mean that Paul is giving in to saying that because the law isn’t sinful but good that it’s the key to our salvation. Rather, this actually proves that the law is not the path to salvation. Paul adds to his argument to this point by noting that:
This principle (of not doing the good we want to do) will keep repeating itself because the law is powerless to change our hearts
Paul notes in verses 21-23 that this principle that he’s just described of doing what he doesn’t want to do, he finds keeps repeating itself in his life. He writes, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law that dwells in my members.”
This continually happens. He sees the law, desires in his inner being to do it, agrees with his mind that it’s a good thing, and then he keeps doing something else, as his sinful desires hold him captive again and again. He makes this point again in the last sentence of this chapter, writing, “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind [i.e. acknowledge that it is good and desire to do it], but with my flesh I serve the law of sin [i.e. find myself controlled by greater sinful desires and carry out evil].”
Now, why does this repeating principle prove that the law isn’t the answer? It’s because what we need is the very thing that the law can’t do. As Paul noted back in verse 18, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” The law is good and tells us what is good to do, but the law can never free you from sin by taking out your evil unbelieving heart that loves sin and replacing it with a heart and spirit that loves God and desires “from the heart” (6:17) to obey him so that you carry out his commands.
Thus, we conclude:
This is why our only hope is to turn to Christ in faith
Notice Paul’s question in verse 24. He writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” By “body of death,” he means his controlling, enslaving sinful nature that moves him to carry out acts of sin. But do you see that he doesn’t simply say, “What will deliver me from this body of death?” He says, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” That is, the answer isn’t the law. The answer is in verse 25, as Paul writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
You see the reason the unbelieving Jew can’t rely on the law for salvation is because they need someone—not just something—to transform their hearts. That need the Lord himself to pluck out their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. They need his Spirit to give them new desires and cause them to walk in his ways and be careful to obey his commands—which is the promise of the New Covenant (Ezek 36:26-27). And that only happens for those who turn from relying on themselves for justification and instead place their faith and hope in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
And Paul painstakingly made this argument because he wanted his countrymen to turn from the law and see the glory of the gospel in the face of Christ. He wanted them to come to know salvation at the very hands of the one they had crucified, as he had. And I want us not to live our lives, always thinking our standing with God is dependent on how we measure up to the law on our own merits. Rather, I want us to live our lives, rejoicing in and loving and obeying the one who graciously measured up for us, paid for our sins, rose from the dead, and approves of us because of what he has done for us. Oh may the Spirit open our hearts to rest in and rejoice in that glorious reality. Amen.
2) I am aware of the fact that many understand these verses to represent Paul speaking of himself as a believer, not reflecting on himself as an unbeliever who comes into contact with the law. And though there are good arguments for taking either side, I am ultimately convinced that Paul is reflecting on himself as an unbeliever because he speaks of himself as being controlled and enslaved by sin, of being “of the flesh, sold under sin,” without “the ability to carry . . . out” the commands of God, and being “captive to the law of sin.” Thus far in Romans these descriptions are consistently utilized to describe unbeliever (or believers before their conversion) while the opposite is consistently said of believer (see, e.g., Rom. 6).