"If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Romans 7:16-20).
I must be honest with you. Over the years, I have found the passage above in Paul's letter to the Romans to be perhaps the most under considered teaching in the New Testament. I have literally seen verse by verse commentaries that virtually ignore the passage, likely because of fear that misunderstanding will result if Paul's fascinating proposal is considered too closely.
Let us therefore address the possibility at the outset of our consideration. In no way is the Apostle saying that we are not responsible for our sins even though he plainly states, "if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me." Throughout Paul's epistles, personal responsibility is proclaimed over and over again, both directly and implicitly. Every promise to believe and command to obey administered by the Holy Spirit through Paul's writings clearly reveal the responsibility of believers to actively engage ourselves in response to the will of God. "Exercise thyself unto godliness" (I Timothy 4:7).
What is Paul proposing, therefore, by his declaration that if he does that which he doesn't want to do (clearly referring to sin), it is the sin that dwells in his flesh that is doing the crime? Furthermore how can he say that "it is no more (or no longer) I that do it?"
First, there was a time in Paul's life when sin did issue forth from his "I." Before he became a believer, the Apostle was a "servant of sin" through and though as he "fulfilled the desires of the flesh and of the mind" (Romans 6:17; Ephesians 2:3; emphasis added). After his conversion, however, Paul's writing refer to his challenge only in terms of the flesh. "I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing" (Romans 7:18). Salvation in Christ results in a "new man, created in righteousness and true holiness" in the essence of the believer's being and nature (Ephesians 4:24). Thereafter, the conflict involves the lusting of the flesh against the spirit, and vice versa (Galatians 5:17). The person we most deeply are in Christ "delights in the law of God" (Romans 7:23). Our fleshly faculties and members inherited from Adam, however, remain inclined toward the bent of the world in which they originated. "I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members" (Romans 7:24).
According to Paul, when the believer sins, it is the sin in our flesh that is sinning rather than our "I." Again, if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me... that is, in my flesh." How then are we responsible? Simply, we have not made the choice to make a choice. That is, the new person we are in Christ has not arisen to "through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body" (Romans 8:13). Sin in its myriad of forms therefore flows naturally from the law of sin that still inhabits our earthly components, from attitudes to words to deeds to relatings to omissions. The natural proclivities of our flesh have been allowed to control the course of our lives rather than the supernatural delight of the Spirit of Christ in our spirits.
Despite having been "created in righteousness and true holiness," the new and spiritual person we are in our innermost being nevertheless requires growth from spiritual infancy to adolescence to adult maturity (Ephesians 4:24; I Peter 2:2; Hebrews 5:12-14; I Corinthians 16:13; I John 2:12-14). It is not inevitable that we will grow into such maturity (as evidenced by the New Testament epistles' continual addressing of immaturity in first century believers). We can remain as spiritual babies, and thus never grow strong in the Spirit-motivated and energized capacity to choose to make the choices of faith and submission to God whereby the law of sin in our members is consistently put to death. If such a tragedy occurs, the sin in our flesh will sin in countless ways because the new man of our spirit is failing to arise in his high calling to "Awake to righteousness!" (I Corinthians 15:34). According to Paul's teaching, the new man himself is not committing the sin directly. But he is allowing it to happen, and thus he is responsible.
As we proceed, we will see how Paul's fascinating teaching concerning the subject at hand empowers us to walk in the Spirit and thus overcome the lusts of the flesh. No mere method or spiritual technique is implied by this, but rather a truer and more liberating way of knowing the Lord's Jesus' immanent and enabling presence in us...
"If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed."
Tomorrow: the new man and confession of sin