After his allegory of the two marriages1 at the beginning of Romans chapter 7, the apostle Paul further explains regeneration, conversion, and life by speaking about his own personal experience as a Christian.
Paul describes regeneration as a double transformation, in Romans 7.4-6:
- Those who are born again, i.e. true Christians, have “become dead to the law by the body of Christ” so that they are no longer what they were: “in the flesh.” Their previous spiritually-dead state of being “in the flesh” is itself now dead—“that being dead wherein we were held.” The “old man,” portrayed as their first “husband” in the two-marriages allegory (vv.1-3) is firstly, counted by God as having been crucified with Christ (v.4; see also the same doctrine in the previous chapter, Romans 6.4-6; the doctrine that the two-marriages allegory illustrates), and secondly, actually slain by the Holy Spirit as part of his work of regeneration in the soul. They have actually become dead to the law by the body of Christ.
- The very purpose of this slaying of our “old man” was so “that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead [i.e. the crucified and risen Christ], that we should bring forth fruit unto God” (Romans 7.4). Christian, your regenerated soul is now immediately2 in-covenant with your Saviour and Lord himself. Therefore, by the glory of the Father working within you, namely by the Holy Spirit, you shall bear his fruit in this your new life, because “like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.4). In this new walk in “in the spirit” (Romans 8.9), we now serve God “in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7.6).3
Paul desires to make something very clear to us: we Christians have been freed from being under the law of God in our being freed from sin—but it is not that the law is sin! “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid” (v.7). Indeed, note Paul’s triple emphasis: “law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (v.12). However, the law provokes fallen human beings to further sin, as he will explain. But the fault—the evil—is not in the holy, just, and good law but in fallen man, even as Paul experienced was in himself.
The apostle now goes over this double transformation a third time (after explaining it in Romans 6 and illustrating it by the two-marriages allegory in Romans 7.1-4), by sharing his personal testimony. Here Paul opens his heart to his readers. He tells us about his own spiritual experience from his regeneration onwards, as it were re-living it—recounting his self-examination before, during and since his conversion.
Paul begins with describing his pre-converted state (when he was known as Saul, the Pharisee): “I was alive without the law once” (v.9a). Saul, a student and teacher of the law of Moses, had been “alive without the law”—even while he studied it! In those days he was not thoroughly convicted concerning the sinfulness of his own heart.
True self-knowledge corresponds with the word of God, as properly interpreted. And before he became a Christian, Paul would not have admitted the fact of his own utter wickedness—his total depravity. No, for the Pharisees thought that they could justify themselves in the sight of God by doing good works.
Paul then says that a time came when the law spoke with great force into his awakened conscience—and it stirred up the sins in his heart. “Sin revived, and I died” (v.9). Now he understood from both Scripture and bitter experience that he had no ability to do anything good in God’s eyes.
This true self-knowledge only comes with regeneration. Only Christians acknowledge that they are as sinful as the Bible says they are. The law calls out our sin, and we (our fallen nature) responds by sinning all the more. The effect of God’s moral law on totally depraved human nature is to exacerbate it to go further in sin. This is true in the unregenerate, but Paul as an newly regenerate man saw his happening in himself, and he was greatly alarmed—and he would cry out for salvation: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v.24). No longer the self-confident Pharisee, Paul now owned this totally-humbling truth: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (v.18).
Only the regenerated soul of a true Christian can say that. Born-again Paul knew that all the law could do for him was to convict him of sin, and to find him guilty as a Hell-deserving sinner. He now knew very well, that the more he sought to be good by obeying the law, the more his sinfulness was inflamed within him. “But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (v.13).
When fallen human nature gets exposed to the law of God, its own rebellious wickedness is stirred up to greater sin. But in his regenerate state, by the working of the Holy Spirit within him, the unconverted Paul was now well aware of his increasing sinfulness. His conscience was fully alert to it. Paul the regenerated, but yet still unconverted, had become fully alarmed by his sinful state! He knew that no good thing dwelt in his flesh, and that there was no help for him—no hope for him in himself.
At this early point in his personal testimony, Paul had come to admit that all he could see was his own sinfulness. In full honesty, Paul explains his (then) present state to his readers—how things were with him when “the commandment came” strongly into his awakened conscience. He became painfully aware that his sinful nature is aroused by the law of God, and it militated against the very work of God in his soul: “when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (v.9).
God’s moral law, “which was ordained unto life” (for, as he would explain elsewhere, it is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, Galatians 3.21-24), Paul now says that at that point in his personal experience, “I found to be unto death” (v.10). The law, as he now knew, condemned him to Hell for his sins. And he could not save himself: “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me” (v.11). The response of his fallen, sinful nature was to be exacerbated to sin more and more! Such is our fallen nature that it is self-destructive, indeed suicidal before God. And there is nothing we can do to change our course, on this broad way that we are on, leading to our well-deserved everlasting destruction (Matthew 7.13).
With the self-knowledge that comes with regeneration, the Christian accepts the total blame for his or her own sins. Thus did Paul. He now understood that it was not the law that caused him to sin in this way, but his own sinful nature.
But there was now also something else in Paul—a new nature that delighted in the law of God, and that desired salvation. He now had that “hunger and thirst after righteousness” that the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of (Matthew 5.6), that only comes with regeneration.
To unreservedly fall upon one’s knees (whether literally or figuratively) before God and to seek deliverance from our sins, our sinfulness, and the Hell that we deserve—through the only provided Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ—this requires a gracious work of God the Holy Spirit in our soul. And neither Paul nor any of us have this work of grace without regeneration.
With Paul’s regeneration came his new understanding that the law is “that which is good;” the law is “holy, just and good;” and the law is “spiritual” (vv.12,14). But this same holy law of God, he now understood, was in stark contrast to his fallen nature: “…but I am carnal, sold under sin” (v.14b).
In Paul’s phrase, “but I am carnal, sold under sin” (v.14b) he is, as it were, re-living before his readers how he had come to see himself in those early days of the Holy Spirit’s dealings with his soul. Quickened but not yet converted, on the verge of repenting of his sins, he had not yet reckoned his old man to have been crucified with Christ (compare Romans 6.11; Galatians 2.20).
Paul, telling the internal story of his own conversion, now acknowledges two opposing “laws” at war within his soul: his “old man,” that was stirred up to sin all the more—and a “new man,” that could never have come from his old nature, which delighed in God’s law, acknowledged that there was no hope in himself, and which cried out unreservedly for deliverance by God.
“For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law,4 that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7.19-25).
Here, Paul is saying that by his analysis of own soul, he could identify that he now had two opposing factions, now that he was a regenerate man. He still had the “law of sin” (or sinful nature, or old man) that, until now, used to own him and compel him to sin. But now he has a new nature that delights in the moral law of God, and that “would do good.”
Knowing that “no good thing” dwells in his flesh (Romans 7.18), Paul understands that this desire to do good must be a work of God within his soul. And for this new desire that he had, being an integral part of his salvation, he thanks God, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v.25).
Paul, at the very cusp of his conversion, finds that he no longer sees himself as being in his fallen, spiritually-dead, “old man” state. It does not own him any more, for it has been crucified with Christ (as he has explained previously, and will explain again). Now, in his new regenerate nature, Paul finds that he does not “allow” (i.e. he strongly doesn’t approve of) his sins. He “would do good” but he does not yet do it. He “wills” to do the good: “to will is present with me” now, he affirms, “but how to perform that which is good I find not.” For he has no strength in his old, sinful nature, to obey God, to serve God, to walk in God’s way.
Paul the new convert reasons through to this astounding conclusion about his own internal state: “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (v.20). Paul has been transformed! He is not the totally depraved, dead-in-sins, sinner that he once was—though he does still sin, as he admits. But he now hates his sin, and he wants rid of it forever! But Paul, the converted Christian, has this new heart: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (v.22).
But his old nature would drag him back down, and in himself Paul has no strength to resist but only the will to resist: “to will is present within me, but how to perform that which is good I find not.” His old nature, crucified and slain with Christ though it is, and no longer owning him as it once did, like an animated corpse (Paul calls it “the body of this death,” v.24), still strives to regain the mastery over his regenerated, converted, liberated soul: “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v.23). And he is powerless in himself to stop it.
All who are converted find within themselves an unwillingness to remain under the fallen, utterly sinful state; and they have an irrepressible yearning for salvation. We are not told exactly when Paul discovered these new desires within his heart—whether on the road to Damascus (where the Lord Jesus Christ confronted him) or soon thereafter, while he thought upon these things (Acts 9.1-8; Galatians 1.15-19). But in this passage that we are considering in Romans 7, he testifies that there arose in his mind a previously unknown grief and hatred for his old slave-master to whom he was wedded—for his own fallen nature, and what it forced him to do: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (v.15). And so now he cried out for salvation to the uttermost: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v.24; see also Hebrews 7.25).
This is the beginning of true repentance. Paul had come to understand that, even though his now-slain old nature still remained within him with its lusts and trained-in habits, his spirit had indeed been regenerated and he had been converted! He now understood that he had become a “new creature” (see 2 Corinthians 5.17).
Instead of actually (howbeit secretly) hating God’s moral law, Paul came to love and delight in the law as something thoroughly good (Romans 7.16)—even though it rightly condemned him to Hell for his sins. And now he had only grief and hatred for his old fallen nature and his sins. And by the same working of the Holy Spirit that was in Paul, we too, who have this same hunger and thirst after righteousness, this same grief and hatred against our own sins, and this same newfound love and delight in God’s moral law—we too come to understand ourselves to be what we now are: born-again, converted, Christians.
We too can affirm that for ourselves, “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (v.17).
Such genuine repentance can only be ours by the gift of God, wrought in our souls by the Holy Spirit (Acts 5.31; 11.18).
We need power from God to put off our (now dead) old nature and put on our new life. Paul knew that needed more than hatred of his sins; he needed to actually turn from them—he needed to repent of them. And so do we. He recognised that God had given him the will to obey God from the heart—in his regenerated heart. But now he understood that he also needed the enabling of the Holy Spirit to do good. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (v.18).
Or, to express this truth in a way that ties in with what he had taught previously in his epistle: Paul’s “old man” had been crucified but, at this early point in his personal testimony (i.e. in his newly converted state), he himself hadn’t yet learned to reckon it to be so—and consequently he hadn’t, at that earlier point, made progress in walking in newness of life (Romans 6.4).
Paul’s experience of his own heart, and his in-depth examination of the two-sided struggle that was going on within him, had shown him that he was utterly dependent upon God’s initiating and continuing work in his soul—else he would never have the Christian life, and he would not be able to persevere in his new Christian life. And so, from his conversion on, this would always be his prayer.
The prayer that Paul cried out to God, and which all Christians cry out to God, at the very moment of our conversion is this: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v.24). Then comes flooding into our souls the joy and gratitude of the realization that we are saved: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v.25).
The Christian has a new life. Paul is not his flesh, his old man, now. He had previously said of himself (as it were, re-living his pre-converted state as he tells us his personal story), “I am carnal, sold under sin,” and “O wretched man that I am!”—but that is not who Paul the converted is, now. His flesh still served the law of sin within him—but it was not him any more. No, but he could now affirm: “with the mind I myself serve the law of God.”
For Paul the converted man, Paul the Christian, he understood himself to possess a new nature—and indeed, he understood himself to be his new nature. But his old flesh still remained with him, still serving sin, and it would still bring him again into captivity to sin, if it could. And this spiritual warfare would be his ongoing internal struggle for the remainder of his life in this world. And so he would be always praying for its removal, and always thanking God through Jesus Christ his Lord, that one day he shall be delivered of it.
Yes, we do struggle gainst our dead-but-still-fighting sinful nature within us. We do sometimes (and sometimes often) cry out this same conversion prayer, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”—we do pray like that, even though we also know that it is wrong for us to think that way, now that we are converted: “O wretched man that I am!” No, we’re really not that, because that’s not who we now are, now that we are Christians.
But then comes again that assurance of our deliverance, our salvation: “I thank God through Jesus Christ my Lord.”
Paul the converted was always “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12.2a). Are you?
There is no mediator or priest between Christ and the Christian. ↩︎
On the same doctrine Paul says in Ephesians, that “for his great love wherewith he loved us,” our God, being “rich in mercy” toward us, “hath quickened us together with Christ” (Ephesians 2.4-5). So now, being regenerated, “…we are his workmanship, created [anew] in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2.10). ↩︎
The New Testament Greek word translated “law” is νόμος (nomos), which is derived from a word that meant to parcel out or establish areas of land for grazing stock animals (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 3551). ↩︎