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Saved yet Struggling

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Sep 4th 2016
Paul breaks off his general discussion on grace in order to focus on his personal struggle with sin.

Paul has explained how God's renewed offer of grace has saved man from sin and the condemnation of the Law, and he also answered several probable questions based on his teaching of saved by grace through faith.

In chapter 7 he will deal with another question and provide his own experience as the answer to that question. In this chapter he asks, "If I am saved and under grace, why do I continually struggle with sin?" In other words, "If I am in the power of grace why am I still tempted by sin?"

Struggling

In chapter 6 Paul explains that in baptism we die with Christ and we are resurrected to a new experience in Christ, and I detailed what that experience was like (eternal life). In chapter 7 he goes on to say that this "new life" is not without its problems and struggles.

There has been a debate about whether Paul is speaking of his former life here or if he is describing his present life as a Christian. There are sincere arguments for both sides, however, I believe that Paul is speaking of his present state for two reasons:

  1. The entire section deals with the new life one experiences after being buried with Christ in baptism. Paul is continuing his description of this new life (chapter 6 described the "upside" of this life - freedom from fear and death, and power in the Holy Spirit etc.; chapter 7 describes the downside). This downside occurs when the duality of man's natures collide (the new man living inside the old sinful flesh).
  2. In verse 25 he summarizes the entire chapter in the present tense suggesting that the experience he describes in chapter 7 is one that he is now undergoing.

Chapter 7 could be entitled, "Saved Yet Struggling." Paul tells his readers, "We are truly saved and you can see the result of it in your lives, however, while you are in the flesh you will still struggle with sin." In this chapter Paul describes the struggle in his own life. In the next he will offer the solution that God provides.

The essential problem that Christians face, which Paul explains here, is that in becoming united to Christ and having a new life we are no longer subject to the Law in judgment but we are still influenced by the Law in effect. In other words, the Law no longer condemns us before God, but it still has the power to effect our lives here on earth.

This idea of being free from the Law, Paul explains in chapter 7:1-6.

1Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 2For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. 3So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.
4Therefore, my brethren, you 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. 5For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

Paul uses the analogy of marriage to demonstrate that the Law has limits. The Law governed marriage until a partner died, after which the person was beyond the Law (not beyond God). Those in Christ have another power source: grace, not Law.

7What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "You shall not covet." 8But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

In verses 7-12 the Apostle reassures his readers that just because one is beyond the Law does not mean that the Law has failed or the Law is in some way imperfect. On the contrary, the Law has done its job, it has convicted Paul of sin and made him aware that he was condemned. This is the essential purpose of the Law in its relationship to man: to convict and condemn, and ultimately lead one to Christ for forgiveness and salvation. By performing these tasks the Law remains suited for its intended purpose, and thus is perfect, holy and without fault.

In the final section Paul will describe the nature of the struggle that takes place within himself as a saved spirit dwelling inside a sinful flesh that is not judged by the Law anymore, but affected by it.

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

First of all, Paul asks another rhetorical question, "How can something good and holy (the Law) cause death?" Paul answers that it is sin that causes death, the Law merely exposes sin by holding it up to the light of perfection, and condemns it by revealing God's response to sin. The Law does not cause the suffering and death experienced by the flesh, it is a diagnostic tool God uses to show us that it is sin that actually causes human misery. For example, an x-ray does not cause or cure cancer, it reveals the cancer that a person suffers from. When the disease is revealed, anguish and suffering are heightened.

14For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15For 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. 16But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

Paul explains this struggle from a personal perspective and notes several things about it:

  1. The essential reason for the struggle is that a regenerated spirit dwells in the sinful shell of flesh.
  2. 1. The regenerated spirit recognizes and desires to practice the Law (previously codified in the Law of Moses for the Jews, now embodied in the words of Christ – Matthew 28:20), but the sinful flesh undermines any attempt to do so. What makes the struggle so painful is that a Christian is aware of this dichotomy at all times.

When he says that he is no longer the one doing it, Paul does not reject personal responsibility for his sins because of his struggle. He means that when he sins, he has failed to do what he really wants to do, obey God's Law. Sin is a victory of his flesh, not his spirit. It is, he admits, still his flesh however.

18For I know 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. 19For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20But 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.
21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23but I see a different law in the members 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.

In these verses Paul describes the outcome of this struggle between the regenerated spirit and the flesh. He sees clearly the desire of his regenerated spirit to do God's perfect and holy will, as well as his sinful flesh's unwillingness to respond. The struggle brings to light the opposite forces in his nature. He also sees clearly which of the two has the preeminent position. It is his "inner man," his "spirit," his "regenerated self," that wills, that recognizes, that delights, that desires to do God's will. The flesh is a power, a force, a resister that frustrates these desires, but it is not the dominant force in his life.

He concedes that this struggle will continue throughout his lifetime (a prisoner) and he must accept the situation.

The final verses summarize what he has explained in the previous section.

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

This situation (to be continually denied the desire of his inner man by the influence of his sinful flesh) is wretched. The body of death he refers to is his sinful flesh that will not allow a complete union and harmony between his regenerated spirit and God. This ongoing struggle moves him to cry out to God for help, "Who will set me free?"

Paul answers his own question in the next verse.

25Thanks 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.

The solution is twofold:

  1. Jesus Christ: Paul does not explain all that Christ does to help us, he simply says that the solution is in Christ. In chapter 8 he will describe how God helps us deal with this particular struggle.
  2. Acceptance: The struggle is painful and frustrating, but is easier to bear once accepted for what it is.

Paul explains that as a regenerated man, he serves God honestly and sincerely with His spirit, and when he sins the flesh is responsible. This is not to absolve him of responsibility, but rather to confirm the existence of both entities and which one influences his obedience or disobedience.

Summary

This is every Christian's struggle. Do not think that Paul was unique or that his struggle was more intense than the average Christian of today. What he describes is the normal struggle that each one of us experiences as we try our best to serve Christ and see how short we fall at times. This is not an excuse for lukewarmness, but it does help us to understand why even knowing and wanting to do our best for Christ does not always guarantee the results we desire. The flesh also has its say.

The struggle is really a sign of life. Do not be discouraged if what you see in Christ is not always what you accomplish in Christ. The fact that you see, the fact that you desire, the fact that you hurt is the proof that Christ is in you and that you are truly a regenerated person. The unregenerated man, whether he is an unbeliever or a Christian in name only, is always easy to spot: he has no struggle.

Although he only mentions it briefly in chapter 7, Paul knew that God would and did provide for his struggle. He provides help and encouragement in this life so that we do not lose hope or desire for the next life. He provides a promise of eternal life so that we know that one day the struggle will end.

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Dr. Stafford North
Professor of Bible
Oklahoma Christian University