Sanctification and our flesh

by Mike Ratliff

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. 22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:20-23 NASB)

If you read or listen to the “testimonies” of the “new evangelists” or the emergents or even those in the conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Denomination who are working very hard to transform them into something they perceive as more culturally relevant, you will discover that they, across the board, arrived at their theology as they became “refugees” from some form of pietism or American Evangelicalism that leaned heavily towards semi-pelagianism and/or legalism. That mix in whatever proportions is intellectually veneer thin. When the leadership within those groups move at all away from being centered on God’s Word and His grace then all that is left is the legalism that only leads those in unbelief to despair for without the preaching of the Good News according to the Free Grace of God, all that is left is simply manmade religiosity. These “refugees” now look at all who they view as dogmatic in any way about their theology as simply “fundamentalist” even though there is a vast difference between what we preach and teach from what they fled. Of course these “refugees” are mired in unbelief no matter how “religious” they appear.

I have always resisted that label of “fundamentalist” for that very reason. No, I am most definitely not a Christian liberal like the emergents, but neither am I mired in spiritually dead legalism. No, I work very hard at being Biblically centered. That means that it is God’s Word, which He gave us that gives us the hard answers and God’s very doctrines, which we must learn and follow. However, this is not in any way legalism, but is only possible for those who have been baptized into Christ by God. They have the Holy Spirit and by God’s grace they can obey Him and live for Him. They believe and obey God. For instance, I once heard Jay Bakker say that the only way to grow spiritually is to get rid of belief and move into doubt. So, the theology of the “emergent church” is actually founded on the sand of unbelief. These emergents are refugees from bad theological systems, which they fled from in despair, but have created something that is probably just as bad, if not worse. In the latter part of Romans 7 Paul gives a window of what this despair can look like. We will look at that and what is the right solution to it.

1 Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. 3 So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.
4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:1-6 NASB)

In these six verses Paul makes it clear that the Law does not and cannot bring victory over sin and death. Why? Sin is defined and even promoted through the Law because the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. Here is v6, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” Here is v6 from the NA28 Greek text, “νυνὶ δὲ κατηργήθημεν ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἀποθανόντες ἐν ᾧ κατειχόμεθα, ὥστε δουλεύειν ἡμᾶς ἐν καινότητι πνεύματος καὶ οὐ παλαιότητι γράμματος.” The first two words, νυνὶ δὲ, literally say, “now but.” This represents the new era of redemptive history. Even though Christians are released from the law, this is not a freedom to do what the Law forbids (Romans 6:1, 15; 8:4; 3:31). Instead, it is a freedom from the spiritual liabilities and penalties of God’s law (Galatians 3:13). Because we died in Christ when He died, the law with its condemnation and penalties no longer has jurisdiction over us.

7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “ You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12 NASB)

Paul’s point here is that the law reveals, arouses, and condemns sin, bringing death to the sinner, does not mean that the law is evil. Instead, the law is a perfect reflection of God’s holy character (Romans 7:14, 16, 22; Psalm 19:7-11) and the standard for believers to please Him. Do you see, however, the impossibility of trying to keep it? We can’t do it, but that is still the standard.

13 Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:13-25 NASB)

Sin is the cause of spiritual death, not God’s law. The law serves God’s true purpose for it, which is to make us aware the true nature of sin and its deadly character. When this awareness comes thundering in on the sinner, the Holy Spirit uses this to bring him or her to see their need of salvation, the very purpose God intended the law to serve (Galatians 3:19-22).

In this passage, there is some controversy in Paul’s speaking of the “inner conflict” bordering on despair, as describing his life before Christ. However, I and many very good theologians I learn from daily hold to the view that Paul is speaking about a believer. I know it describes my own walk as a Christian very well. The person Paul describes desires to obey God’s Law and hates his sin (vv 15, 19, 21). He is humble, recognizing that nothing good dwells in his humanness (v18). He sees sin in himself, but not as all that is there (vv 17, 20-22). He serves Jesus Christ with his mind (v25). These would hardly be attitudes of the unsaved. However, I know that those very things fit me very well for many years and still do though I have matured some. The unsaved do not hold to these attitudes as Paul has already said (Romans 1:18-21, 32; 3:10-20). No, the unsaved can be religious, but are not really that concerned about these things. Also, Paul uses present tense verbs in verses 14-25, which strongly supports the idea that he is describing his life currently as a Christian. I believe that this is evidence enough to read these verses as describing a believer.

As I have shared many times, I grew up in and remained in the SBC until 2006. I actually had sanctioned classes that taught things like there were different levels of Christians like disciples and carnal Christians. Some try to say that Paul is describing in vv14-25 a carnal Christian or  legalistic Christian (same thing I suppose). However, Paul uses the personal pronoun “I” all through this passage which means he was talking about himself, a standard of spiritual health and maturity. Therefore, the Christian Paul is modeling for us in vv14-25 here is all Christians, even the most spiritual and mature. I know that there are times when I start to think that I have it all “figured out” or I have reached some spiritual plateau only to be brought very low quickly as God puts me through some test and I see how far short I fall. In any case, we must all honestly evaluate ourselves against the righteous standard of God’s Law and when we do that, well, then we see the source of Paul’s four laments:

14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Romans 7:14-17 NASB)

The Law reflects God’s Holy character, but we are “of the flesh,” which means earthbound, mortal, and still incarcerated in unredeemed humanness. Christians are not “in the flesh,” but the flesh is still in them. What does it mean that Christians are “sold under sin?” Christians are no longer controlled completely by sin, but it does hold their members or fleshly body captive. Sin contaminates them and frustrates their inner desire to obey the will of God. This is a cry of exasperation by Paul about this inconsistency with His desire to please God and this presence of the flesh in him that we all still have.

18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Romans 7:18-20 NASB)

The flesh serves as a base camp from which sin operates in the Christian’s life. The flesh is not sinful inherently, but because of its fallenness, it is still subject to sin and is thoroughly contaminated. Take heart my brethren. The flesh is unredeemed and does not go with us into eternity. Therefore, this nightmare struggle Paul is describing will be no more when the day of our reunion with our Lord comes.

21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. (Romans 7:21-23 NASB) 

Here we see the point where we must not despair as we fight this war within. This is why it is so critical to be under the right Bible teachers. Those who teach the wrong way to handle sin can really mess up a believer struggling here. John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin really helped me.

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 NASB)

Here we see that opening for despair, but Paul shows us that we do have our deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, this is why it is so important to sit under good Bible teachers who preach edifying sermons from God’s Word about God and His promises and proper theology. When we have this, we can deal with these battles correctly, but when we don’t we can fall into despair.

Soli Deo Gloria!

3 thoughts on “Sanctification and our flesh

  1. Reblogged this on The love of God and commented:
    I’ve heard the two types of reasoning Mike mentions about this passage, too, and am also of the belief that Paul is talking abut the Christian struggle. And BOY! What a struggle😦 Every. Single. Day.

    Saved again!

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  2. Very well laid out Mike. Thanks again and welcome back.

    Over 100″ of snow so far, and temps as low as -24 here. You sure you won’t partake in the 4 seasons here? Fall, Winter……Sprng. (Abbreviated and pun intended) and then the best season of all, the extended 4th of July weekend we call our summer! 🙂 Actually it isn’t that bad, though the sheer number of reprobate preachers here do make for warm discussion!

    Just buried my last Aunt this week. Had to sit through 2 different blind guides quote Henry Nouwen and read of a special kind of prayer in the bulletin…

    Just remember there is plenty of work to do here should the Lord lead…and that goes for you too Manfred!

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