Romans 7:13-25
I'm A Mess

Truth Contenders Sunday School Class
Two Rivers Baptist Church
Nashville, TN, USA

For Sunday, 13 April 2003

Handout: I'm A Mess [.pdf, 7KB]


Green: on hand out

Blue: term from the text to be defined or discussed

Gray: comment made by class member

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This lesson takes its title from a song by country gospel singer-songwriter Tracy Dartt, which I sang to the class as an intro to the lesson.

Introduction: Who is the narrator?

Note changes in pronoun person:

  • 1-3 Third: "she"
  • 4-6 Second: "we"
  • 7-25 First: "I, me, my"s

Views—Paul is:

  1. Personating an unregenerate man (Arminius and most Arminians)
    1. v. 5 "I am carnal"
    2. v. 5 "sold under sin"
    3. v. 18 "ability to do good absent"
    4. v. 24 "wretched man"
    5. It is undisputed that Paul speaks of his former unregenerate state in vv. 7-13
    6. Ch 6 teaches that believers have already been delivered to such bondage to sin
  2. Personating the Jewish nation or individual Jews still under the Law (Early Greek church fathers, Grotius)
  3. : v. 1, Paul is speaking to those who know the Law
  4. Personating a Gentile without the law (Erasmus and a few evangelicals)
  5. Personating anyone, regenerate or not, who attempts to gain righteousness by his own Law-keeping (W. H. G. Thomas)
  6. Personating an immature or backslidden believer (W. R. Newell)
  7. Speaking of himself and by extension all believers (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and most Calvinists)
    1. v. 25 "I myself"
    2. v. 22 "Delight in the law of God in the inner man" (cf. 8:7)
    3. He deplores his sin
    4. v. 25 "Serve the law of God"
    5. "Carnal" is used by Paul to describe Christians but never unbelievers, cf. 1 Cor 3:l1, 3
    6. "Sold under sin" is passive, not active—the transaction is contrary to the will of the person in question
    7. v. 21 "the inner man" is elsewhere used by Paul exclusively to describe the regenerate heart. Cf. II Cor 4:16
    8. The verb tense changes from past in vv. 7-13 to present in vv. 14-25
    9. The passage as a whole dwells not only on sin, but on the struggle for victory over sin.
    10. 6:5, 12, 13, & 19 imply that our deliverance from the bondage of sin will not be complete until the final resurrection, and that we cooperate in the process.

Exposition of the text

v. 13

The Law is not the cause of death; Sin is. Sin exposed its true nature by murdering "me"; its weapon was the Law—an item that in itself is good. The law doesn't kill people; Sin kills people.

v. 14

The Law is spiritual; "I" by contrast am fleshly, carnal, unspiritual: not in the flesh but of flesh; i.e., not of the same pure and holy stuff as the Law, not completely free of corruption. cf. Ps 51:5 1 Paul affirms that he is simul justus et pecator (Martin Luther's latin phrase meaning "both saint and sinner at the same time."

v. 15

Prison labor, slave labor. Pushing wheelbarrows in hell. " not allow, do not understand": to do without full apprehension of the nature and consequences; to not have a voice in the deed's approval; to be a slave doing the master's will without full knowledge of his purposes; to be driven by impulse rather than reasoned purpose2. Paul's standard is moral and ethical perfection; knowing the Law of God, he can be satisfied with no less.3

v. 16

"My" sin demonstrates "my" acknowledgement of the goodness of the Law.

v. 17, 20

The efficient cause of sin is Sin, which indwells "me." While he identifies himself with the part of him that approves of the Law, and dissociates himself from Sin, this is not a disavowal of responsibility because he admits that the sin is part of him and thus belongs to him.

v. 18

The flesh is devoid of power to do good. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."4 A believer has been given the will to do right but the power to do it does not yet reside in his flesh.5  (W. R. Newell): "We are dependent on the Holy Spirit as our only spiritual power, just as on Christ as our only righteousness!"6  [Mark Brown pointed to Christ's word to his disciples: "Without me you are nothing."]

v. 19

Not only must "I" do what "I" hate, "I" am unable to do what "I" wish. This passage was written to rescue us from "the devastating hopelessness of perfectionism." (John Piper)7

v. 21, 23

Evil, in the form of the Sin principle, is present in the members of "my" body. It launches attacks from there against the law of "my" mind, and takes "me" captive as its "miserable, helpless victim" (Charles Hodge)8. The law of sin is another law, not merely an additional law but a law of a different kind.9

v. 22

"Notwithstanding all the frustration of his determinate will to the good, he delights in the law of the Lord. And this delight is not peripheral but belongs to that which is deepest and inmost in his moral and spiritual being." - John Murray10

v. 24-25

"I" cannot rescue myself from this predicament, but must be rescued by God. "All self-hope has ceased!" (W. R. Newell)11  While Sin wins some battles, ultimately it will lose the war to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.



Multiple laws are mentioned in this passage and the next. Laws of:

  1. God: holy, righteous, good (12); spiritual (14); does not dwell in the flesh (16-18); is served by the regenerate heart (25)
  2. Sin: present in the flesh (21); successfully wages war and takes POWs (23); is served by the flesh (25)
  3. The Mind (inner man): desires to do good (18); joyfully concurs with the Law of God (22); must attempt to defend the subject against attacks by the Law of Sin (23); serves the law of God (25)
  4. The Spirit of life (8:2): has freed from the Law of Sin those who are in Christ Jesus.

Hodge on fleshly vs. spiritual

The mystical writers ... in accordance with the theory ... that man consists of three ... substances, body, soul, and spirit, [Gk.], say that by [body] ... we are to understand ... the entire physical life, which only, and not the [spirit]... is in man the seat of sin. ...The conflict in man is reduced to the struggle between sense and reason, and redemption consists in giving the higher powers of our nature ascendency over the lower. According to the Scriptures, the whole of our fallen nature is the seat of sin, and our subjective redemption from its power is effected, not by making reason predominant, but by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. The conflicting elements are not sense and reason ... but the flesh and spirit, the human and the divine, what we derive from Adam and what we obtain through Christ.12

To be "in the flesh," is to be unrenewed, and under the government of our own depraved nature; to be "in the Spirit," is to be under the guidance of the Holy Ghost; chap. viii 8, 9. So, too, in Scripture language, a natural man is one that is renewed; 1 Cor. ii. 14, 15. ...In the flesh cannot here mean the body. Paul ... frequently uses the phrase, works of the flesh, in reference to sins which have no connection with the body, as envy, pride, seditions, heresies, &c., Gal. v. 19, 20.13

Hodge on "sold under sin."

Ch. 6 speaks of the slavery of unbelievers to sin, and the believer's deliverance from it.

But there is another kind of bondage. A man may be subject to a power which, of himself, he cannot effectually resist; against which he may and does struggle, and from which he earnestly desires to be free; but which, notwithstanding all his efforts still asserts its authority.14

Summaries of the commentators' views

  • Charles Hodge15:
    1. The chief purpose of the passage is to explain the role of the Law in the life of the believer.
    2. The believer is, and ever remains in this life, imperfectly sanctified; he cannot be perfectly conformed in heart and life to the image of God
    3. Sin continues to dwell within him
    4. He never comes up to the full requisitions of the law, however anxiously he may desire it
    5. Often as he subdues one spiritual foe, another rises in a different form
  • John Murray16 and Hendriksen17: essentially the same as Hodge, but with less emphasis on the role of the Law. Murray emphasizes The Contradiction in the Life of the Believer, while Hendriksen emphasizes The Wretched Man's Struggle and Victory.
  • (W. R. Newell)18:
    1. This passage is not doctrinal. This is not a description of the normal Christian life, nor of Paul's experience at the time of writing. It is meant to show us what happens when Christians try to live the Christian life in their own power.
    2. Christ can deliver us now, in this present life, from this miserable body of death, if we will rely on the Holy Spirit for our spiritual power.
  • Stuart Briscoe19: essentially the same as Hodge, Murray, and Hendriksen, agreeing with Hodge that the emphasis is to be laid on the applicability of the law to the believer, and with Hendriksen in the emphasis on struggle.
  • John Piper20: similar to Hodge, et al
    1. What Paul is saying is not that Christians live in continual defeat, but that no Christian lives in continual victory over sin.
    2. There are four pairs of Esteem for Law and Acknowledgement of Indwelling Sin
    3. This passage is about the normal Christian experience of conflict and struggle
    4. The Christian life is an already-and-not-yet experience—Already: Decisively and Irrevocably Free; Not Yet: Finally and Perfectly Free

David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL