Sin’s Exploitation of the Law (7:7-25)

Lesson ▪ 2002-03
Tags: Romans 7:7-25; Sin; Law
Excerpted from God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans
Related Resources: The Glory of the Gospel: A Christmas Meditation from 2 Corinthians 3



Paul’s discussion of sin and the law takes an interesting twist in verse 7: Here he begins to use first-person pronouns to describe a struggle to overcome sin. Given that such “autobiographical language”26 persists through the end of the chapter, this passage has been the subject of intense scrutiny on the part of Bible commentators.

One is naturally driven to ask whether Paul’s language describes the experience of a regenerate or unregenerate person. There is good reason to conclude that verses 7-13 refer to the experience of an unbeliever. However, the evidence is not nearly so clear in relation to verses 14-25. Some textual cues suggest that the speaker is saved, while others indicate just the opposite.

Evidence for a regenerate “I” includes the following:

  • There is a definite shift from the past tense (vv. 7-13) to the present (vv. 14-25).
  • Paul’s reference to “delight in the law of God” (v. 22) most naturally describes the experience of the believer. Furthermore, it is questionable whether unbelievers desire to do good (vv. 18-19, 21).
  • There is a correlation between the spiritual conflict described and our own Christian experience (cf. Gal. 5:17).

Evidence for an unregenerate “I” includes the following:

  • Habitual spiritual defeat such as is described in verses 14-25 is inconsistent with Paul’s teaching on the Christian life in the wider context. Paul’s reference to being “carnal, sold under sin” (v. 14) is particularly problematic. In chapter 6 (e.g., vv. 14, 18) he argues that the believer is free from sin. In chapter 8 (esp. vv. 5-9) he draws firm distinctions between the spiritual and carnal, the latter term likely referring to the unregenerate.
  • Verses 14-25 appear to explain how the law arouses sinful passions in the life of the unbeliever (v. 5).
  • The question asked in verse 24 is inappropriate for a believer. A believer might ask, “When will I be delivered?” but not “Who will deliver me?”
  • The reference to “no condemnation” in 8:1 carries its greatest force if it stands in contrast to the condemnation that accompanies the unbeliever who is habitually yielding to sin. Likewise, the reference to the liberating work of the Spirit in 8:2 achieves its greatest meaning if the context of chapter 7 refers to the unbeliever’s bondage to sin. Finally, the mention of the law’s weakness in 8:3 seems to point back to chapter 7.

These considerations notwithstanding, it seems necessary to state that the speaker’s spiritual condition—regenerate or unregenerate—does not appear to be of primary concern to him. In addition, regardless of one’s view of the identity of the “I” of chapter 7, the passage applies equally to unbelievers and to believers who have failed to appropriate the power of the Spirit in the fight against sin. With this background in place, we proceed to the interpretation of the passage, concluding (less than dogmatically) that Paul is describing the experience of the unbeliever who has been exposed to the law and desires to fulfill its requirements, but whose indwelling sin prevents him from obeying God’s commands.


Paul begins this passage by asking a rhetorical question: “Is the law sin?” This question follows naturally from verse 5, which indicates that the law stimulates sin. He immediately answers with an emphatic negative, me genoito. Rather, says Paul, the law reveals sin. As an example, he points out that he would not have understood covetousness were it not for the law’s prohibition of it (v. 7; cf. Exod. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). He further explains that sin had exploited27 the opportunity provided by the law, causing covetousness to abound within him (v. 8).

Such is sin’s power through the law that Paul concludes that the former was dead apart from the latter (v. 8). He goes so far as to say that he was alive without the law, but the coming of the law energized sin and led to his death (v. 9). While this statement cannot be taken in an absolute sense, it illustrates forcefully how sin distorts the law so as to further its tyranny. Thus, though the law was designed to be life-giving, sin manipulated it so as to deceive and kill him (vv. 10-11). Therefore, Paul concludes, the law is not sinful, but holy; conversely, its commandments are holy, just, and good (v. 12).

Throughout the remainder of the chapter Paul explains further just how sin, coupled with the law, produces death. It is not that the law itself kills, but that in the presence of the law, sin is seen precisely for what it is (v. 13; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6ff). At this point Paul alters his speech and begins to use the present tense. He contrasts the spirituality of the law with the fact that he is “carnal, sold under sin” (v. 14). This kind of language suggests the image of slavery to sin, a topic he has dealt with at length in the previous chapter.

In verses 15-20 he explains the nature of this fleshly attachment to sin. His behavior is non-rational (v. 15). He desires to do good, but fails to do so; he aspires to refrain from evil, but gravitates to it even so (vv. 15, 19). His desire to do right affirms the goodness of the law (v. 16), but he is inwardly flawed, for sin dwells in him (vv. 17-18, 20).

This leads Paul to conclude that he is torn between two “laws,” or governing principles. On the one hand, he wills to do good (v. 21); he delights in God’s law in his mind (v. 22). Yet, evil is ever present (v. 21), and his good intentions are constantly overrun by a greater power that resides in the members of his body (v. 23). In the face of despair, he cries out, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v. 24). He immediately points to Jesus Christ as the sole source of victory over sin. Yet, he concludes the chapter by acknowledging the continued battle between his mental service to God’s law his carnal service to the principle of sin (v. 25).


Paul does not overtly state in this passage whether the experiences he narrates refer to his Christian or pre-Christian life. As noted above, textual cues can be interpreted to support either position. Nevertheless, the principles he shares have application for believer and unbeliever alike.

  • Knowledge of the law does not, by itself, lead to victory over sin.
  • Excessive emphasis on law can arouse sinful behavior within believers.
  • Victory over sin comes only through a positive relationship with God.


26 By some interpretations, the “I” that is referred to throughout the passage is not Paul in particular, but ???

27 Here, and throughout Romans 7, Paul personifies sin. He is not referring to individual sinful acts, but to the propensity to sin that naturally dwells within each member of the human race. This view of sin is perhaps most clearly seen in Paul’s disclaimer of responsibility for unlawful behavior: “it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (vv. 17, 20).