The war between the flesh and the spirit (Romans 7:14-25)

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As believers in Jesus Christ, we constantly clash between our new spiritual nature and the flesh. The Apostle Paul experienced this same battle and described it to us in Romans 7. In this chapter, Paul teaches that the function of the law is to detect and condemn sin, and its role is NOT to deliver us from it. A regenerated person will always be in a conflict between the law of God and the law of sin. There will also be a conflict between grace and corruption in the heart. If the law cannot deliver us, then who can? The answer is found in Jesus Christ alone, through His sacrifice and resurrection. He is our great High Priest, our advocate and through whom we have been justified. Amen! 

Romans 7:21-25 says, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In this instance, the war between the flesh and spirit must not be seen as something between the physical self/outer body and the mind. Instead, this compares the “mental framework” dominated by the flesh (Romans 8:5), resulting in physical and bodily sin. Paul is saying that at the same time, the mind of the inner person knows what is good (Romans 7:22-23), yet it is dominated by the mindset of the flesh and played out in the bodily members physically (Romans 8:5).

We understand from these passages that when we are gifted salvation through Christ, we also receive a spiritual nature. This new nature is immediately at battle with our Adamic nature, which is not destroyed until we pass from the world and be with the Lord. This war between the spiritual nature and the flesh is made effective and victorious by the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. As we yield and walk in step with the Spirit, He will take the victory. Galatians 5:16-17 says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

So, you see, the inner man is not simply the soul but that spiritual part that God has regenerated. On the other hand, the flesh is the periphery of being, where the peripheral power of sin is still raging and is very potent. That is why in verse 24, Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Here, we see a picture of a true believer in Christ, a regenerated person in anguish and godly remorse for sin. Only a faithful Christian can understand and say these words, like Isaiah cries out in Isaiah 6:5, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 

R.C. Sproul (The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 128–129.) explains what Paul could have meant when he cried out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”:

What is this ‘body of death’? We have already noted one commentator’s explanation (comments on 6:6). He tells us that in antiquity there were rare occasions when somebody was convicted of a particularly heinous form of murder, in which one of the punishments was that the corpse of the victim should be chained to the killer. Part of the killer’s sentence was to walk around in this gruesome condition of having to carry on his back the decaying, putrefying corpse of the person that he had killed. You can imagine how that would drive a man insane, not only to be faced with his victim, but chained to his victim while the body was rotting.

Whether or not that is what Paul had in mind, certainly the analogy is an apt description of what it is to be a Christian. From the day that we are born again, we have to carry around this putrefying, dead, old nature with us, that gets in our way and makes us sick and brings us to all kinds of wicked circumstances. The question is, Is there anybody out there who can deliver us from this state of wretchedness? Notice that the chapter doesn’t end there, but immediately after this exclamation of remorse the apostle breaks forth in doxology, in a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. He answers his own question, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ Thanks be to Godthrough Jesus Christ our Lord!

The secret to winning this battle is only through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Paul continues to teach in Romans 8 that the battle is won because of the power of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit. Having explained the inadequacy of the law, Paul now expands on the solution to this problem, and it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit to transform believers, something the law could not do. God resolves the sin problem by sending His Son to deal with sin and sending His Spirit to transform and empower His children. That is why no more condemnation exists for those in Christ because the indwelling Spirit enables us to fulfil what the law requires. We are justified by the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a propitiation for our sins (Romans 8:1-4). This does not mean we will be totally sinless; rather, we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit daily to be more like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

In Romans 8:5-11 Paul describes the contrast of those who are in Christ. Those in Christ set their minds on the things of the Spirit, bringing life and peace. Those who set their minds on the things of the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh because the Spirit of God dwells in you, and He enables you and guides you to set your mind on Christ. It is a powerful work of His Spirit. Amen! It is impossible for man but possible for God. 

In Romans 8:12-39, the Spirit guides us to glory. Christ is the mediator and guarantor of God’s love to believers, and the Spirit leads believers to glory and sustains them on the way. We receive sonship through Christ. You see, both creation and mankind are groaning for redemption. For those in Christ, the Holy Spirit will bring about redemption and sustain and carry out God’s plan to bring them to glory. Amen! This is our hope, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. If God is for us, who can be against us? Who can bring a charge against God’s elect because it is God who justifies. Now in all of these, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Amen! 

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