There are few passages in the Word of God that have caused more discussion and disagreement than the one before us. Some say that Paul is writing of his life as an unsaved man and giving the experiences of an unsaved man. Others say that he is speaking of his own inner conflicts at the time he wrote the epistle and that these are the real feelings and conflicts of all believers. Here is a four-fold summary of what Paul is saying in these verses:
1. THE LAW (that system which makes obedience the condition of life and makes righteousness depend on perfect obedience) CAN NEVER DELIVER A PERSON FROM THE CURSE AND DOMINION OF SIN. If a man is to be justified, he must be delivered from the Law as a covenant or method of obtaining life and be brought into Christ Who is our righteousness.
2. THE LAW CAN TELL A PERSON WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS WRONG. It can command a man to avoid wrong and do right. It can threaten, condemn, and curse him if he does not comply; but it cannot eradicate his sinful inclinations (rather, it irritates and stimulates them). So, instead of becoming better and happier under the Law, we become more depraved and more wretched as knowledge of the Law increases.
3. THE LAW IN THE HANDS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT DOES NOT STOP SIN; it reveals sin. It does not give life; it kills. It does not make men holy; it exposes their unholiness.
4. Even now that I am regenerated and in Christ, now that I am brought under influences which make me love and delight in God's law, I STILL FEEL MY INABILITY AND MY IMPERFECTIONS. The struggle is like a civil war within me. I did not look to the Law for justification, nor can I look to the Law for sanctification! I look to Christ for both. Paul proved from his past experience that the Law cannot make a sinner righteous. He proves from his PRESENT EXPERIENCE that the Law cannot make a saved man holy. Both justification and sanctification are in Christ.
(Vs. 7) Is the Law the cause of my sin? Is the Law at fault because it uncovers and exposes my evil thoughts and passions? God forbid! I would not have known what sin really is without the Law of God. Saul of Tarsus looked at the Law as most people do, in the coldness of the letter, as an OUTSIDE thing. He did not see the sin of thoughts, attitude, desire, nature, and will. "Thou shall not covet;" thou shall not only NOT DO evil, but thou shall NOT EVEN THINK Evil!
(Vs. 8-10) Without this spiritual knowledge of the Law, sin was there; but it was dead to Paul. He fancied himself righteous; but when the light of the Spirit entered his conscience, he saw innumerable swarms of lusts and evil in his heart. I thought myself healthy and sound spiritually. I lived in a state of self-righteousness. But when the true law was revealed, I saw myself dead in sin, dead to God, and under condemnation. The Law of God given to Adam to promote happiness and life sentenced me to eternal death!
(Vs. 11-13) My sinful nature even used the Law to deceive me. I was deceived into thinking I kept the Law, which made me an even greater sinnera dead, deceived, self-righteous sinner wrapped in a false refuge! The Law of God is just, holy, and good! It forbids nothing but what is wrong and requires nothing but what is right. In its nature, design, and rule it is worthy of its Holy Creator. Is the Law then the cause of my condition of death? Is the Law the cause of my misery and inability? No! It is my sin that damns me. The Law is the mirror that reveals my sin in its true colors.
(Vs. 14) "The Law is spiritual." It comes from the Spirit of God and reaches to the spirit of men. It requires holiness in the inward parts (spiritual service and obedience, loving God with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves). But I am a creature of the flesh, having been sold into slavery under the control of sin. The nature of the Law and my nature of flesh are entirely opposite.
(Vs. 15-16) The word "allow" means approve. There is not a believer on earth who does not all too frequently do or think that of which he does not approve. This is proof that I acknowledge and agree that the Law is good, and I take sides with the Law of God; for I condemn my evil and mourn over my transgressions (Psalm 51:3-4).
(Vs. 17) Paul is not denying his responsibility for sin. He is not laying the blame somewhere else. He is saying that the old nature, though not dominant, is still present; and this influence accounts for his sins. When Paul said of his apostolic labors, "Not I, but the grace of God that was with me," he was not saying that he did not perform the labor, but that he performed it under the influence of the Spirit of God. When he said, "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me," he was not saying that he did not live, but that he was indebted to Christ for the origin and maintenance of his new life. Even so, sin cannot act. The man must act, but sin is the influence that motivates the act.
(Vs. 18-25) Nothing good dwells in my flesh. I can will to be perfect but cannot perform it. I have the intention and urge to be perfect but no power to carry it out. He repeats what he said in Verses 16-17 (Gal. 5:17; Matt. 26:41). Nothing could express more fully the dreary struggles that go on within us. The apostle speaks here of the two wills in every believerone to absolute holiness, the other to sin.
"O unhappy, pitiful, and wretched man that I am; who will release and deliver me from the shackles of this body of death? O, thank God, He will! Through Jesus Christ the Anointed One."