For centuries, many Christians have used Romans 7 as an anesthetic to numb the pain of their perpetual sinning. In this unusual passage, we find the speaker (who many presume to be the apostle at the time of his writing), saying,
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing (Rm. 7:15-19)
Me, being the contrary person that I am, obstinately disagree with the popular and Reformed interpretation of this passage that says that this is the apostle speaking at the time of his writing, and this passage exists as a comfort to Christians who are in sin. I do so simply because of the context and because of the way the speaker introduces himself at the beginning of this section, namely as one who is of the flesh and a slave of sin (v. 7:14). For anyone who has even thought about reading Romans 6 and Romans 8 knows that the apostle goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Christ’s death and the salvation that it brought has freed every Christian from his slavery to sin (cf. vv. 6:6, 7) and that all who live according to the flesh cannot please God and will die (cf. v. 8:8, 13).
This is all to say that in believing thus about Romans 7, I have little on which to comfort myself when I see in myself workings of sin. On the contrary, I find elsewhere in Scripture many reasons why I should be terrified at my sinning and impenitence. In the chapter that follows the aforementioned text, the apostle writes quite clearly, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live, for as many as are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (vv. 8:13, 14). Therefore all who have the Spirit do not live lives that are not characterized by the putting to death of the deeds of the body. Conversely, those who do not put to death the deeds of body are not led by the Spirit and therefore are not children of God.
For this reason, those of us who hunt for an opiate for our unrepentant sin and disobedience in Scripture do so in vain and do so to our own spiritual demise. It is in this vein that the apostle writes, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Ph. 2:12). This passage is not some attempt by the apostle to demonstrate the reality of some philosophical paradox between free will and the sovereignty of God, but it is a restatement of Romans 8:13, expressly that if God is working in a person then that person will be inclined toward obedience, in this case, whether the apostle is in his presence or not. Therefore if one is wise, he will examine himself and then fear and tremble if he finds himself disobedient. Furthermore, if one is not inclined toward obedience, then it is quite natural to assume that God is not willing and working his good pleasure that person. And as Christ said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).
Therefore, if you are driven to sorrow and repentance by your comforting interpretation of Romans 7, take that pill. As for me and my life, pain and fear are much more effective means.