Romans 7: 13-25 The Purpose of the Law - Roland van N


In our Christian life experience it is really hard to overcome sin but we keep on failing. We keep having a cycle of defeat and confession, failure and confession. Chapter 6 tells us that we are no longer slaves to sin but this is not our experience. Roland presents this critical message today on how we can overcome sin by recognising our sin nature.. You will not beat your sin-addiction by becoming stronger, but by admitting you can’t beat it.

Sermon Notes

The early part of Romans talks about sins as transgressions - things we have done wrong, offences against God.  Justification is the word we use to describe how God dealt with sin in this sense.  As a gift of his grace, by the shedding of His blood, he forgave sins (plural).

By the time we reach Romans 5 we are starting to see sin as “the sin” - the principle at work in our hearts that makes us sin - which is different.  This tells us, God wants not only to deal with sin, but with the sinner. 

The question Romans 6 poses is, are we to continue in the sin, now that we are justified and experiencing the grace of God?  The answer is, emphatically, no.

Romans six gives us the good news that God has not only dealt with sin, he has dealt with the sinner.  Through our union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, we have died to sin, and risen to newness of life, meaning that sin is no longer our master. 

Main point: WE DO NOT HAVE TO SIN.

It seems like a happy picture - but there is trouble ahead.

What is this trouble ahead?  A cycle of defeat followed by trying harder to be good.  This is eventually the experience of every new believer in Jesus.  They have been saved, they realize their sins are taken away.  They are very happy about that.  They are filled with the desire to do what is right, and avoid what is wrong.  But it does not take long before they discover that being good just doesn’t always work out as easily as they thought. 

Do you recognize this?  (I do!)

So, what is the problem?

4 points by way of introduction:

• There is no problem with Romans 6 as such.  Every word it says about our union with Christ and freedom from sin is absolutely true.  But chapter 6 does not go far enough to explain how to live in greater and greater victory as a Christian.  In particular, it does not go on to give one vital bit of information - that is the believer’s deliverance from law.  Until we thoroughly understand this, internalize it, we cannot be free of sin, and the truth of chapter 6 will not manifest itself in us. 

• The burden of chapter 7 will be to say that we have died to the law.  But that does not mean the law serves no purpose in our lives – the opposite is true.  We can outline the purpose of the law in the life of the believer as follows:

1. The law shows us where our sin lies

2. The law makes us sin even more.   

3. The law forces us to admit that in our flesh dwells no good thing

4. Finally, the law drives us to a spiritual walk with God.

• This is an intensely personal chapter for Paul, a psychological exposé.  From verse 7 to the end, the word “I” is used x 30; “me” x 12; “my” x 4; and “myself” x 1.  That is 47 uses of the personal pronoun, and it is very significant that that passage, which shows the most utter human defeat, combines this with massive use of the personal pronoun.

• What the chapter amounts to is a series of personal realizations that Paul comes to by revelation from the Holy Spirit.  They come quite quickly here, but I would what we read is a condensation of many years of internal struggle.[1]  These are tough ideas.  We can expect to wrestle like Paul did.


The first 6 verses of chapter 7 tell us about the believer’s relationship to the law.  The metaphor is that of a wife to her husband.  The main point here is that position of the believer has changed: through their union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection they died to the law, and are now joined to Christ.[2]

What does this mean?  Before answering that, we need to clarify - what is law?   Well, if grace is what God does for us, then simply put, law is what we must do for God.  So what does it mean, to “die to the law”?  It means we are dead to any obligation the law might put on us.  Dead, as if we were a corpse!  We are completely without obligation, because we are dead.  Any rule that might dictate to me in that state what I should do to serve God, no longer applies.   This is the big idea of chapter 7, which sets the stage for the rest of the chapter.

In verses 7-11, Paul talks about the effect the law had on him.  2 points:

First, the law identified sin in him.  When he was given the commandment not to covet, that brought out all sorts of covetous feelings in him.  That is the first function of the law - to show Paul exactly where his sin lies.

Second, just because the law did that, that doesn’t mean there was a problem with the law.  The problem was what the law had to work with – Paul.  There was sin in Paul.  What the law did was bring to life the sin that was already there in Paul’s carnal being. 

This gives rise to another question:

13  Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?

Paul is thinking of the many places where the bible says: “These are the commandments of God, by them you will live!”[3]  But now he is asking, if these good commandments are obviously too good to keep, can we blame them for bringing death upon us?  In other words, if the law is too good to keep - does it exist simply as something that condemns us to death?  His answer:

May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.

Paul recognizes something important about the nature of how sin works. 

Sin uses what is good – the commandment - as a base of operations to make sin in Paul’s flesh more sinful.  Again, there is no problem with the commandment not to covet.  It is good.  What sin did though was use the commandment to create more and more coveting in Paul.  The second function of the law is being achieved – sin is increasing in Paul. 

14   For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.

1. Realization: there is a gap between what the Law represents and what Paul is able to achieve that cannot be breached, and the gap is a qualitative one.  The law is spiritual, produced by the Holy Spirit, perfect, blameless,[4] but Paul is of flesh, of a kind that is sold into bondage to sin; he is a lifelong slave, inherently sinful.  Whether or not Paul recognizes goodness or not, he cannot produce it in and of himself.  To get Paul’s flesh or carnal man to not covet would be like dressing up a monkey trying to get it to read poetry - it just cannot be done, no matter how much effort you put into the monkey!

2. This is an admission of defeat by Paul.  He accepts, he cannot win.

15  For what 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.

16  But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.

17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

Paul has admitted defeat.  He has given up trying to keep the law.  What this allows him to do is zoom out from himself and see his situation in a new way.  He recognises that there is a horrible part of him that is a law unto itself, doing what he actually hates.  He doesn’t even understand this part.  But at the same time, he realizes that there is another part of him, a part he understands very well, and even agrees with – that is in tune with the perfect law of God.  So what Paul begins to do is make a separation within himself.  There is the “I” who agrees with God, and “sin which dwells in me.”  For the first time, he sees his sin as separate to his core identity.  The pennies are beginning to drop for Paul. 

18  For I know[5] that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.

19  For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.

20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

The third purpose of the law has been achieved - “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”  This realization is worth a million dollars to Paul, and to us all.  Here is the point where Paul makes a definite separation between “me” and “my flesh.”  His flesh has a will, and it is a will to be good, but the result is constant frustration - an inability to do the good that he wants, and a remarkable ability to do the evil that he doesn’t want.  Paul however doesn’t trust this part of himself – he has pulled out of it, in terms of identity.  He recognizes that sin in his flesh is causing that failure.

21  I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good[6].

 22  For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,

 23 but I see a different law in the members[7] 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.

Here we see him explicitly realize, and identify, that there are actually two Pauls working one against each other.  There is the Paul “who wants to do good”, and Paul, who is “the inner man.”  The one who wants to do good is the fleshly Paul who is blind to the fact that whenever he wants to do good, evil is present right there inside him.  The inner man is the label Paul gives to the spiritual Paul who not only joyfully agrees with God’s (spiritual) law, but who now also recognizes the whole picture for what it is.[8]  The sun starts to break onto the horizon for Paul at this point.[9] 

There is a war going on, and Paul recognizes it at last - not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of the Spirit.  The war is between two laws, and the battlefield is Paul’s mind. 

 The great prize of this war is life itself

The war is his struggle to break free of one paradigm or set of principles and take on board a completely new one, one that seems counter-intuitive in every way.  On the one hand there is “the law of sin which is in my members,” which is Paul’s default or fleshly setting, all he has ever known.  Under this law, Paul sees gaining life as trying hard to energize the good part of himself, to beat that bad part of himself.  On the other hand, the new law of Paul’s mind recognizes that he cannot gain life this way.  The war is not the struggle to be good, but the struggle to recognize his new ontology/wineskin and understand how it bears on his current predicament. 

By way of analogy, this battle is not like the American Civil War, the war against slavery, where north fought against south, “good against evil.”  The battle for Paul is a more like the mental conflict of a man who has lived all his life as a slave in the South: the war is over, he is technically free, but is struggling to understand what that looks like.  His default setting is to continue in the role of a slave, but he must learn to live under the new constitution.   

24  Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?

25  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.][10]

First he expresses the conclusion of his previous thoughts.  He is a wretched, or miserable, man!  The law has served its purpose very well. 

The law made him aware of sin, it increased his sin, and it forced him to admit that even in that part of him that wants to do good for God dwells no good thing. 

 He asks, who can set me free from this “body of death”?[11]  Here is Paul’s final realization, the last thing he needs to know before he can embark upon the spiritual life that God has in store for him.  

Paul’s answer reveals his final conclusion.  God, through Jesus Christ has set him free!  He will always live in the covering of flesh.  The nature of his flesh will not change.  Nevertheless, he can serve the law of God. 

This sets the stage for an explanation of the final function of the law, which is next week’s topic, to drive us into a spiritual walk with Christ.


Romans 6 tells us we are not the slaves of sin but we have all found this to be untrue in our experience.

Romans 7 answers the question of why this is so.

Romans 7 teaches that we have died to law.  Nevertheless, the law still acts in us to identify sin in us, to make us sin more and more, and to destroy any confidence we might have in our flesh to overcome it.

This pushes us to the point where we begin to see our core identity as spiritual, though shackled to a body of flesh.  

As the law does its work in us we come to recognise the difference between flesh and spirit, and this lays a platform for the spirit-led life (chapter 8).


The Romans 7 picture seems uncomfortable - we all want to live in victory, and no one wants to admit defeat - but we need to be honest.  The picture is one of frequent defeat.  We can go through a cycle of defeat and trying harder that just repeats itself.  We can stay in that place for a long time.  I have.  So, this is an extremely important message for our time.  We live in a time where temptation and addiction to sin is off the scale. 

3 points:

• The good news is, believe it or not, that if you are in a painful cycle of defeat and trying harder, you are exactly where God wants you to be.  This scenario, which I have described, is exactly what the scripture anticipates will happen to the new believer.  That may sound wrong, but it is right.  We all start off at 100% flesh; God wants to set you free by helping you recognize the dynamics going on in you, so that you can take on a spiritual mindset.

• God wants to set you free - but he will only set you free His way.  His way is for you to fully understand what it means to be dead to the law.  As long as you see yourself as not so, you will keep banging your head against the brick wall of your own sin.  His way is counter intuitive - to make you more sinful, so you will lose all confidence in your own ability to defeat it.  A word about strength:  you have been asking God to make you stronger, but God’s way is to make you weaker and dependent on him.  In fact, God wants you to be weak to the point of death. That is what the law is trying to achieve in you.  You will not beat your sin-addiction by becoming stronger, but by admitting you can’t beat it.

 • God doesn’t intend to leave you there, admitting defeat.  You’re saying it to your carnal man, not your inner man – but you have to stop fuelling the old before you can fuel the new.  Trust in God to give you his strength to go forward, now that yours has failed.  Then commit yourself to seeking understanding.  Don’t waste time.  Be urgent in seeking to learn and understand the language of the spirit-led life.  Read “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee.  Read anything by Major Ian Thomas.  Be patient, God will help you get it. 

[1] Possibly his three years in Arabia (Gal 1:17).

[2] “ also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Ro 7:4

[3] E.g. Lev 18:5; Deut 5:33; 8:1; 16:20; 30:16, 19; Neh 9:29; Ezek 18:9; 20:11.

[4] Psalm 19:11 “Who can understand his errors?  Cleanse thou me from secret faults” - the only response of flesh to a revelation of the spiritual nature of the law.

[5] “Know” here is better understood as recognise or perceive.  In terms of morphology, the verb οἶδα is the perfect of the obsolete εἴδω, which means see.  In terms of meaning, the Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (2000) includes the definitions “(1) as having come to a perception or realization of something know, understand, comprehend (MK 4.13); (2) as having come to knowledge through experience know (about), recognize, understand (EP 1.18)...” etc.  Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament notes οἶδα in 7:18 as following the pattern of classic Greek usage, “...knowledge, based on observation...”  (2:494).

[6] τὸν νόμον (“the law”) here is used in the sense of “principle.”

[7] What does Paul mean by members?  The word means body parts, think “dismembered.”  In scripture it is used of the parts of a body dismembered for sacrifice.[7]  Paul means here his physical being, the parts of his body. The point is, they are dead in and of themselves, they have no will, but are obedient to whatever law is governing his mind.  When he is thinking carnally, sin will spring to life in his body, and his members will act out that sin.  Where Paul adopts a spiritual mindset, recognizing that he is dead to the law, his members will serve Christ.

[8] Principle: The flesh cannot recognise what is spiritual; only the spirit can recognise what is flesh.  Rom 8:7.

[9] But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day. Pr 4:18

[10] […] Belong to chapter 8

[11] This probably recalls Virgil’s reference to King Mezentius in the Aeneid Book 8, written within a century of Romans, and probably known to them.  To torture his condemned prisoners:

“He even tied corpses to living bodies, as a means of torture, placing hand on hand and face against face, so killing by a lingering death, in that wretched embrace, that ooze of disease and decomposition.”