The Inner War Between God’s Law and Our Sin
Truth Taught- When a believer is saved there begins a war between the inner person and indwelling sin.
Paul is not legalistic. He’s not one to say or teach that if you do certain things you will find favor with God. A legalist makes up certain standards and believes and wants others to believe that those are the standards God’s looking for.
Legalism takes two general forms: First, it views God’s Law as a means to gain God’s favor. This person thinks that he can obey enough to be righteous. Now if obeying God’s Law is a way to gain righteousness it must be obeyed with perfection. The second form of legalism is found when a person either consciously or unconsciously realizes they can’t adhere to God’s Law perfectly so they add to it certain things they can observe consistently.
We have an example in the NT…
Matthew 12:9–14 (ESV)
9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
The Bible teaches us that normal everyday work is to be avoided on the Sabbath. Jesus taught us that work of necessity is allowable. God’s Law never meant that you should not help someone because it’s the Sabbath. The Pharisees had a made up righteousness.
Many people today are legalistic. They think that they can gain God’s favor through their own made up rules.
Paul is not a legalist. In fact, this section of Chapter Seven shows the reality of the Christian’s true battle with real sin not some made up rule found in the legalists list. Rather than pretending to be righteous in his own power, he shows us the ugliness of his own sin and the battle he is always fighting with his indwelling sin. Here is Paul’s assessment of the battle all Christians face if they are growing as a Christian and walking with Christ.
What is the battle? The War begins when internal sin meets the Law of God that is written on our hearts.
Jeremiah 31:33–34 (ESV)
33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
For us who are born again, God has written His Law within us through the Holy Spirit and the War begins…
We need to realize we are in a war with our own sin and must live with a wartime perspective.
Father, You have Gathered Your people that You may let us hear Your words, so that we may learn to fear You all the days that we live on the earth, and that we may also teach our children…amen
Romans 7:14–25 (ESV)
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 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 that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
Paul explains what happens when war is declared in the believer. He explains in verse 14 that God introduced a liberating force into enemy territory. At salvation God gives the believer His Holy Spirit and His Law. This Law is spiritual, He writes it on our hearts as He stated in Jeremiah 31. When this liberating force enters enemy territory a fierce battle begins. So, the Spiritual Law and Indwelling Sin begin the battle that lasts the rest of our lives.
A lost person does not have this battle because they do not have opposing forces residing in the same territory. A legalist doesn’t have this battle because they have suppressed God’s Law with made up rules of their own. Only the genuine Christian fights the war.
When the Law inside meets the sin inside the war begins. This war will continue until we are raised in glory. As long as we are in this flesh we will fight the war.
I can remember a time when our dog Sammy was a little younger and I had her tied up in the yard while I cleaned out the kennel. She was fine, laying in the shade under the tree until a boxer came down out of the woods. She broke her collar, got loose and went after the other dog, chasing it back where it came from. I heard a loud yelp and Sammy came back down from the woods in victory. This is a little like what the inner battle looks like. When the two are introduced, fighting begins.
This war between the spirit and the flesh is a very good thing. It is one strong indicator that we are believers because very clearly, lost people don’t fight this battle simply because sin is reigning and there is no opposing force.
As long as a believer remains on earth in his mortal and corrupted body, the law will continue to be his spiritual ally The obedient and Spirit-filled believer, therefore, greatly values and honors all the moral and spiritual commandments of God. He continues to declare with the psalmist, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11), and that Word is more than ever a lamp to his feet and a light to his path (Ps. 119:105). God’s Word is more valuable for believers under the New Covenant than it was for those under the Old Covenant, not only because the Lord has revealed more of His truth to us in the New Testament, but also because believers now have the fulness of His indwell-ing Holy Spirit to illumine and apply His truth. Therefore, although the law cannot save or sanctify it is still holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12), and obedience to it offers great benefits both to believers and unbelievers.
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Paul tells us that he doesn’t understand his own actions. Beloved, this is the Apostle Paul we’re reading about not some evil dictator or someone like that.
He tells us that it’s like he’s standing on the outside watching his own actions and he cannot make heads or tails out of what he’s doing. In his walk of sanctification (becoming more like Christ) it’s like he takes two steps forward and one step back. He knows what he should do and wants to do it but often he doesn’t. At the same time, he knows what he shouldn’t do and finds that it’s those things he does. He doesn’t understand why except to say that it is sin at work.
Let’s think of this dynamic like a war waging in America. America is us and two forces are battling. The war is between our saved soul and our sinful flesh. The Holy Spirit, and God’s Law are also fighting with our soul opposing our sin. This united front is engaged in the war of pushing our sin back out of our country. Sin will be entirely defeated one day but for now the battle is waging.
Paul gives us a glimpse of what the war looks like in his own life. This is the same battle we should be experiencing in ours as well.
Twice the Apostle uses a phrase to mark who the enemy really is and he uses this phrase to explain why he often behaves the way he does…
but sin that dwells within me. He is not trying to escape personal responsibility but he is trying to be informative and realistic.
Let’s look closer at the dynamic Paul opens up to us. We must see first that the natural man that is a person prior to salvation is the sinner. Sin has so mastered him and controls him that he is, in fact, a slave to sin, sin defines the person before conversion.
17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
In verse 17, however, Paul becomes more technical and theologically precise in his terminology. There had been a radical change in his life, as there has been in the life of every Christian. Ouketi (no longer) is a negative adverb of time, indicating a complete and permanent change. Paul’s new I, his new inner self, no longer approves of the sin that still clings to him through the flesh. Whereas before his conversion his inner self approved of the sin he committed, now his inner self, a completely new inner self, strongly disapproves. He explains the reason for that change in his letter to the Galatians.
Galatians 2:20 (ESV)
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The way this works is at salvation a person is separated from his sin. God now views us as sinless because of the wonderful work of Jesus but sin is still there. It is not attached to us, it doesn’t rule over us, it is no longer our master but it still has some level of power in our lives. It still survives within us and so wages war against us.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 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 that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Paul explains that the Law of God has been written on our hearts as believers. We understand what God desires, we know right from wrong, we understand God’s commands and in our innermost being that is saved, we desire very strongly to obey God’s will and follow Him as we walk with Christ. Paul says, that’s what I want to do. Beloved, I pray we have a very strong desire in our innermost being to obey the commands of God. I pray our desire is to obey God’s Law that is written within us.
The Apostle goes on to explain that just when he’s about to follow through with obedience, something happens…Another Law captures him. Another fighter steps out from among the bushes and tells him to put his hands up and then leads him away. He calls this the Law of sin.
We’ve learned from Romans that we are no longer dominated by sin and there are no eternal consequences for sin but it is still alive and at times still holds us captive even though it’s power has been greatly diminished.
God has used a phrase in the Book of Genesis that is a very good way to view sin and its power. We must be cautious and resist sin’s subtle whispers…in Genesis 4:7 God tells Cain that sin’s desire is for him but he must rule over it.
Two definitions we must understand…
Inner being– this is Paul’s innermost redeemed person, his redeemed soul, his mind and heart. This is the part of Paul that hungers and thirsts for righteousness. This is the inner man that is being renewed daily.
2 Corinthians 4:16 (ESV)
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
Members- Paul’s unredeemed humanness, flesh, or his physical body.
23 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 that dwells in my members.
Christians have their innermost being that desires to fully obey but then their unredeemed physical body fights against us.
That opposing principle is continually waging war against the law of the believer’s mind, a term that here corresponds to the redeemed inner man about whom Paul has been talking. Paul is not setting up a dichotomy between the mind and the body but is contrasting the inner man, or the redeemed “new creature” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), with the “flesh” (Rom. 7:25), that remnant of the old man that will remain with each believer until we receive our glorified bodies (8:23). Paul is not saying his mind is always spiritual and his body is always sinful. In fact, he confesses that, tragically, the fleshly principle undermines the law of his mind and temporarily makes him a prisoner of the law of sin which is in his members.
He is left with the realization that this war is ongoing and probably not going to end any time soon. Beloved, can you feel Paul’s dilemma? I pray we all feel it as we too seek to live according to God’s Law written on our hearts even in the midst of war. It’s the struggle that gives us assurance that we are, in fact, saved. The struggle with sin means we have God’s Law written on our hearts. The struggle means the Holy Spirit is working to make us like Christ. At the end of the day we too can agree with Paul that we are wretched and live within a body of death…literally, the word is often used for a corpse.
After the apostle has seen the vivid reality of himself, as a Christian, he has to shake his head in helplessness.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
The word translated deliver here in verse 24 is a word often used in war. It was often used when one soldier would place his wounded comrade up on his shoulders and carry him to safety. Please understand that even as Christians we have been severely wounded by sin and are in desperate need of grace.
You see we are alive in Christ but our bodies are bodies of death. We are alive but locked in a dying corpse…who will rescue us and carry us to safety?
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Beloved with an accurate diagnosis comes an accurate treatment. With an accurate assessment we can truly see the appropriate course for treatment. Don’t forget this is the Apostle Paul, a saved believer speaking about himself. Jesus Christ is the answer not only for justification but also for sanctification. As we battle sin in this life we do so with the knowledge that we have ultimate victory through our Lord.
Jesus Christ is the victory not only for us in the future but right now. It is through Christ that all believers are made alive and dead to the eternal effects of sin.
So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
1 Corinthians 15:56–58 (ESV)
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Beloved, fight the war against sin with all your might. Be a soldier worthy of your calling. Be diligent and immovable and never give up, never surrender, Struggle hard against sin…when we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father.
1 John 2:1 (ESV)
2 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
How’s your war against sin going?
If we are going to succeed in the war we must look to Jesus Christ for our strength. He has given us a wonderful example that if we follow, we too can make great strides in our war against sin.
Hebrews 12:1–4 (ESV)
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Beloved remain in the war and take courage you are not fight alone. Our victory is already won through our Lord Jesus Christ.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (p. 381). Chicago: Moody Press.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (p. 386). Chicago: Moody Press.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (p. 390). Chicago: Moody Press.