Everyone struggles with something at some point in their lives. Most, at many points. For the believer, this struggle takes on a unique perspective because of whom we are in Christ.
The Believer’s Struggle with Sin (vv. 14-17)
Theologians and sincere believers have questioned whether or not Paul described his current status or referred to his pre-salvation, pre-Damascus Road experience. It would appear his struggle was current and not a reference to the time before he trusted the risen Christ as his Savior. The reason is that in his pre-Christian state there would not have been a struggle. He would have had no inclination or desire to do good for he would have been following the dictates of his sinful nature. This would have always taken him to rebellion against God but would not have bothered him as an unbeliever. That there is a struggle is evidence he is speaking of his current condition.
The same is true for us. If we can sin without it bothering us, it is evidence of our alienation from God. John deals with this extensively in his epistle (1 John). On the other hand, if a struggle ensues when we do something God forbids or when we choose a direction we know is against his will, it is evidence of our relationship with him through Christ.
At this point, our conscience kicks in. This is a God-instilled mechanism that is a part of our human makeup and that God’s Spirit works through when we disobey. While believers and unbelievers alike have a conscience, and while God’s Spirit works to some degree even in unbelievers, it is not to the extent or in the same manner that he does in the believer’s life. So feeling as if we are in a war zone is good news. It signifies God is working to mold and shape us into his Son’s image.
Once again, God’s law enters the discussion. If the law stirs up sin as Paul maintains, then it must be defective. But Paul concludes it isn’t. The law is good because it demonstrates God’s standards, and while it doesn’t give the power to obey them, it at least shows how far we are missing the mark. The dilemma results in us, not in God’s law. We cannot pass the buck for our sinful actions as Adam and Eve attempted to do. The buck stops with us.
President Truman’s desk had a sign resting on it that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” So it is where our sin is concerned. We cannot blame anyone but ourselves. James also deals with this individual responsibility in his epistle (1:14-15).
When Paul says he is sold into slavery and that sin is his master, it almost appears he is speaking of a prior-Christ state but further consideration still seems to reveal he is speaking of the present. This may simply be a reference to the “flesh”—our old patterns of living learned before coming to Christ and that part that still gives us trouble thereafter. It is the part of our nature that still grapples with rebelling and being independent of Christ’s rule and authority.
Paul’s struggle is our struggle. We are free from the power and penalty of sin, but we still fight with its presence. Under grace, the law changes position. No longer is it our judge but our guide for right living.
Paul admits the reality of his battle. He wants to do the right thing but finds himself doing the wrong. He knows his actions are wrong—and the law confirms it—but he commits them anyway. Sin inside him leads to his helpless existence. Knowledge of God’s law is not the answer. Paul, being a religious leader and having studied under the great teachers, was well familiar with God’s law. Neither his knowledge nor his own power was enough for victory. Nor had his commitment to Christ removed the struggle.
Trusting Christ for forgiveness takes only a moment, but learning to trust and follow him in obedience takes a lifetime. Paul said in another epistle he had learned to be content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12). Obedience is the same. It takes time and attention along with power from God. In two other epistles, Paul compares the struggle to a race and a fight (2 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 4:7).
When our consciences are fed godly things, they will be sensitive to actions contrary to God’s will. They can also be trusted when fed the right things. But in spite of our best efforts, we, like Paul, will occasionally miss God’s standard. This is attributed to our flesh. The new nature given at salvation does not negate the power of the flesh. Paul was experiencing and informing us about the normal Christian life—one of daily struggle.
The Explanation of the Struggle (vv. 18-24)
Our nature is the issue. Paul’s statement that he is rotten through and through makes it tempting to think he was referring to the time before his belief—especially since he also teaches we are no longer under condemnation and should live in a state of peace. But again, Christ doesn’t remove our flesh simply because he gives us a new nature nor does he erase the memory of bad habits we have learned. He gives us a new nature which encompasses a desire to obey him, but this doesn’t take away the struggle.
The power of sin residing in us is the dilemma. It’s not circumstances or the devil–although both can make the temptation greater and circumstances are an avenue Satan works through. We can’t blame failures on anything or anyone else.
An additional issue is a disagreement over whether the old nature is eradicated when the new birth takes place or if we simply have a new nature added to the old. Some maintain the old nature is removed but that our current struggle is between the new nature and the flesh. It is also possible to view the flesh and old nature as interchangeable terms. We are not made sinless or perfect at salvation. Any believer, if honest, will attest to the reality of the battle.
Paul further qualifies his condition by saying that nothing good dwells in his flesh. We cannot perfectly meet God’s standards. We are not as good as we should be but also not as bad as we might be. We will always struggle with sin as long as we are in our earthly bodies. Sin in us will still result in deterioration and decay in our physical bodies even though renewal takes place in our spirits.
One key that Paul is probably referring to his present condition is his reference to the desire to do good that resides in him. Such a desire is not present in unbelievers. He also mentions how he loves God’s law with all his heart. Then he seems to contradict himself by admitting he is a slave of the sin within him. This also seems to conflict with what he says in 6:1 where he teaches we are no longer slaves to sin. Yet these statements can be reconciled by realizing he is referring to the continual battle believers fight to choose good over evil.
Our war begins in the mind—Satan’s playground. All temptation starts here as we think, then feel emotion, and finally act. We may assume the war begins at another point, such as in our emotions, but we always think before we act. In a sense then, we are “walking civil wars.”
Deliverance Comes in Christ (v. 25)
The solution to the sin battle and our struggle is Christ. On Calvary, he paid our sin debt and forgiveness is ours for the asking. At the same time, doing this doesn’t prevent the struggle. The battle still rages, but our ultimate victory is assured and temporal successes are experienced as well.
To realize the temporal successes, we must fill our minds with the word of God and bathe our actions and decisions in prayer. Then when temptations come, we will fight them with a mind filled with God’s word just as Jesus did. Learning to live under the constant guidance of God’s Spirit is essential. Having been touched by grace, our minds are renewed. A good spiritual diet is indispensable in winning our struggle with temptation.