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Romans 7:14-23

Leader GuideDownload

Participant GuideDownload

Lesson Focus: Paul highlights the tension between knowing and wanting to do what is right and doing it that we all experience as we seek to follow Jesus. We’re not to give up hope, as Jesus Christ will one day bring us to perfection. 

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that Paul does not believe that the law is sinful, but that it had been coopted by sin.

  2. Understand that when Paul refers to “the flesh,” he is not speaking about our physical bodies, but to the part of our disposition that remains entangled with the world.

  3. Understand that Paul is relating his own experience as a follower of Jesus, as well as what is common to us all.

  4. Be encouraged to continue to grow in grace, even when perfection seems impossible.

Catching up on the Story… Paul has reminded us that Jesus has justified us; that is, we have been made to be in right relationship with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Justification is a legal term, however, and so doesn’t get fully at this new standing and relationship with God.  Our being made right with God brings us peace with God.  God now no longer considers us enemies, but friends, even sons, and daughters.  This new peace with God grants us access to be in the presence of God.  As we stand in the presence of God, our transformation begins so that we might look more and more like Jesus.  Paul goes on to say that Christ has died for us as sinners, even with the knowledge that we would continue to be weak in our ability to resist sin and the death that results from it.  This is proof of God’s great love and grace toward us. Indeed, God will continue to have mercy on us even as we are growing in grace. 

Paul goes on to say that in our baptism, we have become united with Christ. The image here is that we are entangled with him; we are bound together with Jesus. It’s an agricultural image, like that of a tree branch grafted into a tree. The branch can continue to grow because it is given the life-giving sap of its new trunk. We were dead or dying in our sinfulness, but Jesus has come and grafted us onto himself so that we might be fed his life-giving nutrients. We are then enabled to go and walk in newness of life. That is, as long as we continue to be united with Christ.

Paul seems abundantly aware that our union with Jesus requires some participation on our part. We must offer ourselves as servants, even slaves, to him rather than to sin. We can only have one master, sin which leads to death, or Christ, which leads toward our becoming holy as Jesus is holy. Therefore, Paul encourages us to offer ourselves up as slaves to Christ continually. As we do so, like apprentices, we will continue to learn the ways of our master, Jesus Christ.

The Text: In the first part of chapter 7, Paul returns to talking about the law of God.  Again, we must understand that Paul isn’t talking to people who do not yet believe in Jesus. Instead, he’s attempting to strengthen the faith of his friends in Rome.  These friends would have likely understood what Paul was referring to, the Jewish law as Moses received it on Mt. Sinai, the Torah.  We know this law as the first five books of the Old Testament. 

Definition of the Law Before we go any further, we need to clarify precisely what Paul means when he says, “the law.” If you’ve grown up in certain circles of Christianity, you might have been taught to believe that the law was bad and that Jesus does away with it.  Indeed, you can read Paul’s letters that way, but that is an overly simplistic understanding. 

Here’s how Paul would have understood the law. First, at the beginning of chapter 7, Paul very firmly states that the law is not sinful, but that it exposes sin. By nature, the law is good. Indeed, God would not have given something to his people that would have intentionally caused them to sin. What has happened, however, is that sin coopted the law, using it in ways that God did not intend to enslave people. Sin used the law to convince people that through their power and strength, they might become fully obedient to the law and so bring about their righteousness. Chapter 7 verses 11 and 12 bear this out, “For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.”

Paul understood that Jesus came not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it, fill it full. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to understand the true nature of the law, as well as receive the ability to be obedient to it.

Defining “The Flesh” We also need to define what Paul means by “flesh.” Some translations, particularly the NIV, equate the word Paul uses for “flesh” as sinful nature.  This encourages a false dualism between body and Spirit.  The idea that a person was not an integrated whole, with the whole of it being good, and redeemed by Christ, would have been foreign to Paul.  The flesh, our mortal human bodies, were not evil. Instead, when Paul refers to the flesh, he’s talking about the part of us that’s still bound to sin and death.  The flesh is the part of us that belongs to this selfish world. Paul’s using it as a metaphor to make the distinction between the old age dominated by sin and death and the new age, which is the coming kingdom of God.  But, more on that in a bit. 

The Inner Conflict Paul begins this section noting the contrast between the law as spiritual but that he is of the flesh, literally, fleshy. He’s setting up the tension between the way things are and the way that they should be by confessing that in some way, sin still has a hold over him. 

At this point, I think Paul is speaking about his current experience as a maturing follower of Christ. He’s conflicted. The good he wants to do, because he delights in the law of God, he does not do. The things he does not want to do, he does. Paul chalks this up to the sin that dwells within him.

Now, you might be saying, “Wait just a moment. You just said that Paul believes that we’ve been united with Christ in our baptism and that we’re dead to sin. We’re no longer slaves to sin but slaves of Christ. Why in the world is he talking about the sin that still dwells in him?” Indeed, some have thought this and chosen to read Paul’s confession here as his previous state before he began to follow Jesus. But I don’t think that’s the correct way to read this section.

Here’s why. First, the entire passage is in the present tense, and rather passionately stated as well. Why would Paul change from the past tense of the previous sections to the present tense for the change in tense be significant? Second, I think we’ve all been where Paul is. The chances are that sometime in your Christian walk, you’ve uttered something similar. As you’ve grown and matured in the faith, you’ve come to realize more and more what sin is and, conversely, what holiness is.

This is the tension that exists between the way things are and the way they should be. Paul is saying that he’s been bound to Christ, united with him through his baptism. Sin and the death that it brings no longer has complete hold over him and certainly will not exercise its final hold, eternal death. Each day Paul is submitting himself as a slave to Christ. But sin and death’s defeat is not yet final. While Jesus has come and won the initial victory, bringing his kingdom here and now, things are not yet finished. And they won’t be until Jesus returns to claim the final victory.

Until that time, we will continue to experience the pull of sin in our lives, even though we have been given the Holy Spirit to enable us to have a recent victory over sin. I think it’s like this: I’m always trying to learn new things. If there’s a problem with a vehicle or an appliance, I immediately go to YouTube to see if there’s a video on how to fix the issue. I’ll watch the video several times, gathering the tools and materials I’ll need for the job. Then I’ll dive right in. Even after I’ve done something several times, say swapping out the heating elements in the water heater, I am rarely able to do the job flawlessly. I know what to do, but I can’t do it. The good I want to do, I cannot do, and so I make mistakes that leave me bruised and covered in water.

Or, since you’ve become a Christian, the Spirit has been at work in your life cleansing you and helping to know right from wrong. You’ve recently become aware of the fact that you are an angry person prone to jumping to conclusions concerning the motives behind people’s actions and speech. You’ve become aware of your sin, and you’ve pleaded for God to help you conquer it. You’ve submitted yourself, not as a slave to anger and resentment, but to Christ’s law of love. So, you set about your day determined to respond with love instead of anger to everyone you meet. And, you do pretty well, too. But then something happens, and you’re in a situation where the stakes are high, or there’s been repeat behavior that’s sent you over the edge in the past, and you know that you’ve got to be vigilant or else you’re going to revert to anger. You desperately want to respond in love. It is the good that you wish to and will to do, but as the situation progresses, you fail. You’ve done the sin you didn’t want to do. You’re growing in the grace of God, but you aren’t perfect just yet. And, you won’t be until Jesus comes back.

That’s the tension. We’ve been justified by faith. We’ve been bound and united with Christ in our baptism. We’re feeding off the life given sap of God’s tree, and we’re growing. Every day we submit ourselves to Christ as his servants, so that we might learn to follow his ways better. The Spirit is working in our lives, and we’re cooperating with it. But the world is still broken. This age, the one we’re currently stuck in, presents all sorts of trials and temptations. Sometimes we fail, and as we fail, the Spirit uses that to help us grow some more, to become more like Jesus.

Since we’ve submitted ourselves to Christ, we’ve seen our sin more clearly, which exposes how badly we fall short of God’s law of love. We begin to wonder if we’ll ever truly be free from sin, whether we’ll ever truly get things right, even as we’re depending on the Spirit’s cleansing and empowering. So, we cry out with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”

So What…? With that confession of wretchedness, Paul looks forward to the time when all things will be set right.  He knows he’s growing in grace and that through the power of the Spirit he’s overcoming sin, but he’s looking forward to the day when Jesus finally and fully defeats sin, and our struggle will be over. 

So, if you’re not perfect at this moment, that’s ok. Now, that’s not a license to do as you please. No, you’re to submit yourselves as slaves to righteousness continually. You’re to do your part in cooperating with the Spirit toward your sanctification, your becoming holy.

I am fully confident that the Holy Spirit is working inside all of us, though we’re all at different places in our journey. If you’re finding that the closer you get to God, the more you’re aware of your sin, that’s ok too. It just means that you’re learning and growing more and more into the likeness of Christ. It means that you’re maturing, not getting worse. Never stop working, never stop trying, because God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, isn’t going to quit working on you either.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Describe a time when you wanted to do something but just couldn’t do it right?  For example, fix something, or cook a meal, or play a game (golf!).

  2. What made you unable to do that task correctly? What would you need to do to continually get better at that task?

  3. Throughout Romans, Paul uses the phrase “the law.” What do you understand the law to be? Is the law good or bad?

  4. Looking back over all of chapter 7, what’s Paul’s view toward the law? How does it compare to your definition? 

  5. Paul also is fond of using the phrase “the flesh.” What is your first reaction to that phrase?  To what do you think it is referring?

  6. When Paul talks about “the flesh,” he isn’t necessarily talking about our physical bodies.  If he isn’t talking about our bodies, then what is he talking about?

  7. Paul seems rather conflicted in this passage.  With what is he struggling?  Have you ever felt this same way?

  8. In previous chapters, Paul has encouraged us to present ourselves to Christ as slaves of righteousness.  Our transformation comes about, not brown effort, but through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  If we have the Holy Spirit helping us to live righteous lives, then why do we still struggle? 

  9. In the Christian life,e there is often a tension that exists between our old selves and way of life, and our new life in Christ. Why is that?  Do you think it’s normal?

  10. Do you feel like there will ever be a time when we do not feel this tension between the things we should do and the things we actually do? How might that come about?


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