Gordon E. Johnson


Paul's Sad Encounter with Himself Responding to the Law, not to Grace

Romans 7:7-25 (NKJV)

Gordon E. Johnson
Rio Grande Bible Institute


In spite of the liberating truths that Paul has expressed in the preceding verses: Rom.6:1-14 and Rom. 7:1-6. He faces a sad and tragic reality --himself unable to please God and keep the law. We must admire Paul for the sheer honesty and openness with which he faces his barrenness and spiritual sterility.  Before God there is no attempt to justify or modify his reality. He fails and faces it.  When we read his testimony as a believer, not an unjustified sinner, we see our face reflected in God's mirror of the Word. We, too, have failed.  But take heart Paul emerges with a shout of triumph: "I thank God –through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Rom. 7:25. Hope has not been betrayed. "Paul's experience, while the experience of many Christians, is not the Christian experience."{quote of L.E.Maxwell, my mentor and principal of Prairie Bible Institute.

Paul's Head On Encounter with God's Law  - The First Step Downward  Rom. 7:7-13

Paul has just said that he died to the law and is to serve "in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter" (7:6)  The only problem was that he did not experience that newness of the Spirit. He faces reality, but asking the question: is the problem with God's law? Evidently not but the simple ninth commandment slew him: "You shall not covet", in other words you should never ever have any other desire than that of loving and obeying God.  That proved to be an impossible but just command.

His response, as ours so often, is not to disobey but rather to try to obey. That intention in itself is commendable, but we just don't have the wherewith all to do it. So Paul redoubles his effort and the more he strives and tries, the more he fails. That just command would not let him escape. Sin, the principle of the «ego», the self principle, revived and inflamed and he died. He cannot blame God who has every right to demand perfection as expressed in the law. But the bottom line is: "but sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful". (7:13)  Paul is beginning to see the depth of his sin principle; he did not see it before in that light, but he still cannot conquer it.  But the process of brokenness begins and continues.

Paul's Head On Encounter with God's law  - The Second Step Downward   Rom. 7: 14-18

Faced with the insight of the exceedingly sinfulness of the «ego», pride, Satan's first sin, Paul analyses correctly that the problem is not with God but with himself; he is carnal, fleshly in his response to the law. He draws on his best intention to obey God, as a child of God but bypasses God's resources soon to be discovered. What follows is the sad litany of: "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do". (15)  Who has not been there in the inner struggle with a given secret sin? 

But Paul arrives at a theologically correct conclusion but still not fully broken, but the process continues under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit using the law to reveal flesh's total inability to please God. "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good, I do not find". (18)  Again who has not been right there. The mind of the believer grasps the fact, but the flesh stands in the way.  Notices Paul does not deny that good remains in him --a tacit recognition of his regeneration. Christ does dwell in him but he is stymied by the flesh.

Paul's Head On Encounter with God's Law  -The Last Step Downward  Rom. 7: 19 - 24

The struggle continues but negative progress is being made. Paul is «unlearning» the ways of the flesh, always a most painful process. We must unlearn before we can learn. We must die before we can be raised again. This is the Cross life that crosses out the «ego» and allows Christ to take his place.  Paul now abjectly and correctly faces his dilemma, no ifs or ands or buts. "For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man (proof positive that Paul experiences this struggle as a believer and an apostle). But I see another law (dynamic, thrust) 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." (22, 23). 

Paul is rendered powerless, defeated, realizing now that his best endeavors are doomed to fail. Victory in Christ was never planned to be that way, the way of self improvement. God had rejected out of hand that system when he nailed Paul to the cross in Romans 6:6:"Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with (cancelled, rendered null), that we should no longer be slaves to sin" This truth Paul had not grasped in living faith and hence his utterly defeated life, and that in spite of all his theological knowledge.

 "O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?". (24) In his utter desperation Paul has finally given up on his own efforts as a possible hope for victory. It will not be he but WHO?  This is progress that will result in divine intervention, never before and always timely. Now comes the illumination of the Spirit. Broken of his self righteousness, he must claim by faith his death with Christ, considering himself "to be deed indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord". Rom. 6:11

Watchman Nee in his book The Normal Christian Life relates this personal experience. He was a conference speaker in Switzerland; in the afternoon he was watching the swimmers in the pool. To his consternation he observed a young man doing under for the third time. The life guard was passively watching. Incensed at such inaction, Nee was blaming the life guard. But in the very  last instant, the life guard dove into the water and rescued the man in the nick of time. Later he remonstrated with the lifeguard. "Why did you act so late?" He replied: "You don't understand, if I had sought to rescue him while he struggled with his power of adrenalin, both of us would have drowned. But when he couldn't struggle any more, he offered no resistance and the rescue was immediate and safe." God was waiting patiently for Paul to realize that his struggles were futile, useless. There was another way to victory.

Implicit in Paul's desperate outcry was: who, not what. Having come to the end of his own resources, he is ready to look away from himself; the Holy Spirit can now bring the truth before known but not grasped in faith. I died in Christ to the sin principle; it no longer needs to control me. He looks to the Cross and lives. In our next study we will develop that «how» of this crisis moment.

Yours in the Message of the Cross,

Dr. Gordon E. Johnson

Rio Grande Bible Institute

Edinburg, TX 78539