Each time I have had the privilege to baptize one of our children upon their profession of faith in Jesus Christ, as they come out of the water I typically say, "Let the Battle Begin!" This is based on the inner battle described by Paul in Romans 7:7-25 . Many people struggle to see how this is what Paul is describing in this passage. A young man full of zeal for the Lord last summer asked me, How does what Paul says in 7:17 square with what he said earlier in chapter 6:14?
Romans 6:14 “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
Romans 7:17 “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
How can sin have no dominion over us and yet still continue to dwell in us? I told him there is a big difference between Sin having “dominion” over a person and sin “dwelling” in a person. Sin can only have dominion over the person who has not put themselves under the dominion of a new Master – Jesus. But becoming a follower of Jesus does not eradicate sin all at once in us. The law exposed sin – and continues to expose it. Sin flourishes most when it is most hidden. This is a good function of the law in your life. If you are a believer the condemning role of the law is dead in you but its exposing function in your life is good and useful for your sanctification. This is because sin continues to "dwell" in you. It is important to understand that your sanctification is a process. It is a process that began in you when you gave your life to Christ (or will begin in you if and when you do!).
The Now and the Not Yet There is an important principle at work here that is vital to understand – it will help you to live in greater hope and joy as the difficult struggle against sin wages on inside. It is the principle we call the "the now and the not yet" of the age we live in between the first coming of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus. Consider what Chapter 8 says about our salvation when it describes it as an “Adoption” that is both true of us now and not yet complete at the same time:
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15)
“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)
Consider how our Salvation is described as “Now”…
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2Cor 5:17)
And also how our deliverance from sin is “Not Yet"
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1John 1:8)
So salvation has both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ dimensions. Yes, all who have trusted in Christ for salvation stand justified in heaven right now. And at the same time remain in this fallen world still imperfect now battling sin. This is because sanctification is a process. Justification is a declaration of our innocence in a moment but sanctification is a life-long battle. If you are a true believer you will be fighting this battle all your life. If you have bought into a teaching that tells you that you can arrive at perfection and complete sanctification in this life somehow, you are deceiving yourself. This is not meant to be discouraging, but a realistic warning. If you let your guard down and think the battle is over you are in a dangerous place. We cannot give up the battle:
For 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. (Romans 8:13)
As John Owen put it: “You must be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
However, have hope! You are not alone! You are not left to fight this battle alone and you are not supposed to engage in the battle against sin in your own power. You can’t! That is what the Law shows us. If you are a true believer today then you belong to God and what God has started in the “now” of our life He will complete in the “not yet” of your life!
“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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”(Philippians 2:12-13)
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”(Philippians 1:6)
Does the battle with sin frighten or discourage you? Let me encourage you by pointing out that the presence of the battle is a good thing. Paul wrote:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. 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.” (Romans 7:14-16)
Do you agree that the law is spiritual and good? That doesn’t happen in a non-believer. A non-believer cannot agree that God’s law is good. There is no battle with sin in a non-believer. There is only self-justification and excuses, and “I’m not all that bad” – or there is just working and striving in one’s own power. When a believer “does not do what he wants to do” like Paul he can attribute it to the residual sin dwelling in him. What about the phrase, “Sold as a slave to sin?” (v. 14) Paul is just describing the real experience of a believer. This is Christian realism – the Christian life is a life of conflict (c.f. gal 5:17). Non-believers just excuse sin. They don’t struggle with it and don't really hate what they do when they sin.
Is this a dodge? Just to be clear, attributing our disobedience to “residual sin dwelling in us” is not a dodge of responsibility. It is an acknowledgement of the sin “in me” rather than the law as the culprit. Paul actually is being quite vulnerable and candid in acknowledging this weakness, especially to a church he has not met and is hoping for support from! At the same time notice how Paul separates himself from his sin here. Believers, please don’t define yourself by your sin. You might struggle with impure thoughts, unrighteous desires, and sinful actions but you are more than your sin and rebellion. You are more than a former alcoholic, you are more than a former adulterer, or whatever it is God has set you free from through Jesus Christ. You are a child of God, you have been delivered from the dominion of sin (sin can no longer ultimately rule over you) by Jesus Christ. Yes, you can cry out with Paul the apostle:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
Jesus delivers us because he has won the battle for you on three fronts:
1. Jesus took our death sentence in our place when he went to the cross and set us free from Sin’s dominion.
2. Jesus issued Sin & Satan’s death sentence when he rose from the grave.
3. Jesus will one day finish the war when He tosses Satan, Death and Hell into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20)
So, Romans 7 is not a pass on sin nor is it perfectionism. What Paul describes is not defeatism nor is it triumphalism. It is a realistic picture of the life of (of your life if you are) a follower of Christ, fully aware of the “Now and Not Yet” dimensions of your salvation. Fully aware of the depths of depravity and the heights of Christ’s glory both at work within you. But it is God through Jesus Christ our Lord, who in the end is victorious over the battle. Jesus wins!