How should we think about indwelling sin?
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 7:24-25
There are two mistakes that people make with respect to the reality of indwelling sin the apostle is describing here. One is to take Romans 7 and use it as a way to define what normal Christian experience is supposed to be like. Some take this as I take it, referring to Paul as a Christian, and through him to us, but do so in a way to cast the Christian walk in terms of continual defeat. In other words, some people use the description Paul gives us himself as an excuse for being constantly defeated with respect to the sin in their lives. That is not what the apostle intended.
This is where it is important to remember the main thing the apostle is getting at here. The point being made here is not what normal Christian experience is like. The point is that the law, though good, is impotent and powerless to save and sanctify us, either before we are saved (7:7-13), or after (7:14-25). Paul is saying that if we rely on the power of our own flesh, we are not going to find victory but only defeat. Our struggle with indwelling sin is a constant reminder of our wretchedness and our dependence upon Christ. He is saying that when we rely upon our own flesh, we are not going to find anything good there. He reminds us, from his own experience, of the struggle with the sin within, and this should warn us against any presumption that we are capable in and of ourselves to defeat sin. Our only resource against the temptations of the flesh is also our greatest: union with Christ.
We also need to remember that Romans 7 does not stand alone. It is preceded by Romans 6 and followed by Romans 8. Romans 6 tells us that we are dead to sin and that sin’s power over us has been broken. Romans 8 tells us that the Spirit of Christ indwells us so that we are no longer defined by the flesh. The flesh may still be present, but it is no longer the dominant presence in the heart of the one who belongs to Christ. And that means that we need never feel defeated. It also means that we have no excuse for remaining in sin. “Shall we continue in sin that grace might abound? God forbid! How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (6:1).
Another mistake people make with reference to Romans 7 is to make it all refer to the unregenerate, and to deny that struggling with sin is a part of the Christian walk. There is this idea out there that if you are walking in holiness and faith, you will not be struggling with sin.
It grieves me to hear people talk like that. One reason for this is that I’ve known believers who tend to be perhaps a bit too introspective and are constantly doubting themselves. They live in perpetual fear and worry. They bear upon their shoulders guilt that they cannot seem to rid themselves of. When you question them about the gospel, they seem to have a pretty good grasp of who Jesus is and what he has done, but the problem is that they are looking inward more than they are looking outward to Christ.
That's their main problem. But another problem is that they have an unhealthy view of what the Christian walk is like. They seem to think that if you are walking by faith you will never have to struggle with sin. This is not healthy because it is not Biblical. And Romans 7, rightly interpreted, cautions us against this unbalanced view. It reminds us that, no matter how far you are advanced in the Christian life, you are going to be fighting the sin which dwells within.
My friends, faith and repentance is not just something we do at the beginning of the Christian life. Rather, faith and repentance is something that we do on a daily basis. Why is it, do you think, that our Lord told us to pray daily, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”? Why is it, do you think, that the apostle John makes confession of sin part of walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:7-9)? And why is it that he reminds us, not once but twice, that it is a lie to say that we are without sin? (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). It is because sin is a daily reality even for the most sanctified of believers.
The sign of life is not that you are not struggling with sin. The sign of life is that you are struggling with sin, even as you hold onto Christ by faith.
How do we take Romans 7? Take it as a warning and an encouragement. A warning not to trust in your own resources to fight the sin in your life. You will only find that in Christ! And take it as an encouragement, knowing that if you are struggling with the sin in your life, it is not necessarily a sign of spiritual immaturity. It is something that believers have always struggled with this side of heaven.
This side of heaven. There is coming a day when, if we belong to Jesus Christ, we will be among “the just made perfect.” I long and look forward to that day. Do you?