What makes me do what I do not want to do?

Looking at Romans 7:7–25, known by some as the ‘Dr. Seuss passage’.

There is a lot of debate about this passage, regarding the state of the person struggling with sin in verses 14 to 25 – is this a Jew under the law? Any non-Christian? A so-called ‘carnal Christian’ or a true Christian? At the risk of offending someone, my personal view is that these arguments generally miss the point. Paul does not have a flattened view of human nature, it seems that he sees our nature as a complex thing with many interacting influences and nuances which all combine to affect how we think and act. I find it helpful to think of an opal, which has many different colours and planes within it all reflecting light differently to combine and give it beauty.

I am not going to dig into the argument of that issue here, my personal view is that throughout this passage Paul is describing his own experience as a Christian. A significant factor contributing to my view on this is that I know I am born again, but I also know that this passage accurately describes my own struggles, not just in the past but ongoing in my Christian life.

With that clarification of my stance on interpreting this passage, I will now look at what it is telling us. To see this we need a quick recap of his argument so far: in Romans 2:13 Paul states that it is not hearers of the law who will be justified, but those who do the law. He shows that outward cultural conformity alone does not make someone a Jew but rather obedience to the law from the heart, by the Spirit.

So is there any advantage in being Jewish then, if even they do not gain life through the law?

Yes, they inherited the Scriptures. Yet their righteousness does not come from that, righteousness before God comes only by faith.

Does faith in Christ then overthrow the law?

No, faith upholds the law. Faith gives us access to the grace of God, this grace gives us the free gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ. This righteousness in Christ covers all sin.

So does this mean we can sin anyway since grace will cover our sin?

No! We are baptized into Christ’s death and so have died to sin. We should avoid presenting ourselves as slaves to sin, rather we need to present ourselves to God as slaves to righteousness. The wages of sin is death.

Does this mean that the law is sin since it brings death?

No, the law serves to show sin for what it is. Sin lies dormant until we attempt to obey God, then it becomes active and causes us to disobey God’s commands. It is sin that brings death. The law is holy, righteous and good.

So did what is good (the law) bring death?

No, sin brings death, its deceitful working through God’s good commandments shows how evil sin is that it can still bring death even using what is good as its device. Sin uses the weakness in us all to make us do what we don’t want to do. The fact that we hate the sin we commit shows that we agree with God’s judgment of sin as being evil.

Therefore, this section from Romans 7:7–25 is intended to show us that the law is not at fault for our sin, the problem lies within us as sin, we have a sinful nature ready to oppose every commandment of God’s. This is quite noticeable if you look for these two ideas in each verse from 13-25.

  • [13] Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
    • The law is what is good.
    • It is sin that produces death.
  • [14] For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
    • The law is spiritual.
    • I am 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.
    • I do not do what I want (obey the law).
    • I do the thing I hate (sin).
  • [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.
    • I agree with the law, that it is good.
    • I do what I do not want when I sin.
  • [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
    • Sin dwelling in me is what makes me sin.
  • [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.
    • I desire to do what is right (obey the law).
    • Nothing good dwells in my flesh (only sin, which opposes what is good).
  • [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
    • The good I want to do is to obey the law.
    • The evil I do not want is the sin I commit.
  • [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
    • I do what I do not want (I want to obey the law).
    • It is no longer my overall will but sin which causes me to sin.
  • [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
    • I want to do right (obey the law).
    • But evil (sin) lies close at hand.
  • [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
    • My delight is in the law, not in sin.
  • [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.
    • The law of my mind is the law of God.
    • The law of sin holds me captive to it’s will.
  • [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
    • Death is due to sin.
  • [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.
    • The law is what I want to serve because it is good.
    • My body sins because I am serving the law of sin.

The main point is obvious, the law is good. The evil I do comes from within me and I have no power in myself to stop sinning.

An important message coming out of this passage is that you are not the sum of your sins. Christ has paid for the offence of your sin against God and in verse 17 we see that as we sin it is a part of us that sins while another part of us hates the very thing we are doing. I can hate my sinful nature and wish it dead without being suicidal — God also hates my sinful nature and has in fact already crucified it in Christ. But even though my body is deceived by sin and dead as a consequence, the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells in me and will give life to my body also (Romans 8:10–11).

We live in the ‘already, not yet’ between Christ’s first and second comings. We are fully redeemed and cleansed in Christ but we are still awaiting the redemption of our bodies. These bodies we inhabit still bear the curse upon Adam — our bodies will die, they get sick, we are weak, we have desires that are opposed to the law of God.

This warfare between obedience to God and sin has been characteristic of being human right from the very start. In Genesis 3 the serpent deceives Eve and Adam. In Genesis 4:7 God warns Cain that sin is crouching at the door, it desires to master him but Cain must rule over it. The book of Job is about this struggle — Job continues to believe that God is good despite the calamity he suffers. God gives Satan permission to torment Job and in a similar way Jesus permits Satan to sift Peter — weakness wins temporarily and Peter denies Jesus. In Galatians 5:16-18 Paul warns Christians of this ongoing struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. Peter mentions the war in 1 Peter 2:11, James mentions it several times (James 1:13–15 and James 4:1–8) and John speaks of it in 1 John 2:15–16).

Regardless of what theological boffins might argue, we know that the struggle to live obediently to Christ is an inescapable reality of being Christian. The unrelenting nature of this battle can lead us at times to consider giving up, but we have been promised help. God does send His Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness, sin cannot totally master us if we are in Christ and we are forgiven for our sins.

Remember that you are not defined by your sin, neither are you defined by your human or physical weakness. You are defined by your status in Christ. If you are in Christ you are an eternal being of total purity and righteousness — the purity and righteousness of God. If you are in Christ you will know because your desire will be to please God. Even as you sin your heart will long to be obedient to Christ rather than being weak and sinful.

Take heart from Paul’s words in Philippians 3:12–14:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Even though you are weak, don’t wallow in weakness and sin — lift your eyes and heart to Christ. Then press on to be found in Him.