The Battle Within

“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 of sin” (vv. 22–23)  

- Romans 7:7–25

Romans 5:12–7:6 deals largely with the topics of Jesus as the new Adam, sanctification through dying and rising with Christ, and what it means to be a slave to righteousness through being a slave to God. This brings Paul to Romans 7:7–25, one of the most controversial texts in the entire epistle.

The question is: Do verses 7–25 discuss the apostle’s experience with sin before following Jesus, or do they talk about every Christian’s struggle with the desires of the flesh? Those who take the pre-conversion position usually do so because they think the liberation from sin that all believers enjoy is inconsistent with Paul’s description as one sold into bondage to sin (compare 6:7; 8:1–11 with 7:14). Historically, many who have believed that Romans 7:7–25 describes life before Christ have also embraced some form of perfectionism. Yet this is increasingly not true today of those who believe this. Even some Reformed scholars think verses 7–25 describe the pre-Christian, Israelite experience.

Perfectionists say that the believer can gain some measure of sinlessness before death, usually through a second work of grace or impartation (a “baptism”) of the Holy Spirit after conversion. The degree of perfection ranges from complete deliverance from transgression to freedom from intentional sins to being granted a perfected love but not complete holiness. Pentecostal or charismatic Christians affirm a form of this idea, although they usually emphasize a second work of grace to give power for ministry, not moral perfection.

Inevitably, a belief in perfectionism can be accomplished only by making God’s law less demanding than it really is or by overestimating one’s own performance. The apostles everywhere assume that all believers will struggle with sin until death; thus, perfectionism can be affirmed only if we change the standards by which we measure our growth in holiness. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Ultimately, it seems best to view Romans 7:7–25 as a depiction of the believer’s struggle with sin because Paul also talks about delighting in God’s law (v. 22). No unregenerate person finds joy in our Father’s will (Eph. 2:1–3).

Coram Deo

Only the person who has been given a new heart by the Holy Spirit can long for His precepts (Ps. 119:40); therefore, only the regenerate person has a real struggle within when he fails to obey. If you trust Christ and are struggling with sin, know that the presence of this struggle and the desire to do good are evidences that you belong to Jesus. Seek help and counsel from a pastor or Christian friend today if you are losing the battle against sin.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 51
Isaiah 6:1–7
Jonah 1–2
Galatians 6:1–2

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.