Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament and is the gateway to the other epistles. If its lessons are not learned, then the rest of the New Testament will not be properly understood.
In particular, the key to holiness in the Christian life is found in Romans 5:12-8:39. The first section of Romans (1- 5:11) deals with what I have done, my sins, and righteousness. In this we see that the work is entirely of God, and does not depend on me at all. In fact, man shows himself to be utterly unable to accomplish his own righteousness (Romans 5:1-11).
The next section deals with what I am, my sin, my flesh, and personal holiness or sanctification. Historically, the Reformers rediscovered righteousness by faith, and we can be thankful for this truth and its proclamation over the past four and a half centuries. However, they lagged considerably in their understanding of holiness, seeming to believe that salvation is merely an empowerment to keep the law. Nothing could be more wrong.
Romans 6 teaches us that, once saved, we must not continue in sin. However, it is not until the struggles of Romans 7 are worked through, that the power to accomplish Romans 6 can be obtained, by arriving at the means of power, in Romans 8. The struggles of Romans 7 are the struggles of every Christian who desires to live a holy life, but finds the power to do so lacking.
Let us look at the experiences of the man in Romans 7 and see what he learns.
1. The first thing he learns is that he is a total wreck.
He learns what his flesh is, its ugliness, its unrelenting proclivity to sin and evil, its complete resistance to correction. Even though saved, he is quite unable to live the Christian life. He learns that in him, that is, in his flesh, is no good at all. Not just that he is a little bad, but that he is completely bad. “In me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing” (7:18). “What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (7:15). If this lesson about the “unreformable” flesh is not learned, then the other lessons will not be learned either, and God will leave him here until he learns it.
2. He learns he has the desire to do good, but absolutely no power to do it.
“I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (7:22). So often, we can mistake the desire to do good, for the power to do it. Thus, we read our Bible, or listen to ministry, and resolve within ourselves to obey, and yet fail. How often have we gone to a weekend conference, and listened to good ministry, and yet by noon Monday, the effect of the ministry has largely evaporated? The man in Romans 7 is like this: he has the desire, but no power. “To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good, I find not” (7:18).
3. He experiences the war with the flesh, a war that is relentless, and unremitting, and very wearying to him.
He learns he is a prisoner of war, and prisoner of his own flesh. He is unable to free himself. “I see another law (operating power) in my members, warring against the law (operating power) of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law (operating power) of sin, which is in my members” (7:23). So the good desires of the inner man, given by God, are overpowered by the flesh.
4. He learns he needs a deliverer. He cannot deliver himself, try though he might.
He is a “wretched man” (7:24) and cannot bear his captivity and his continual defeat by the flesh. Valuable though the following be, it is not now a question of what Christian conference he should go to, or what scripture he can memorize, or what seminar to attend, or what to pray. It is: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (7:24). He finds he is enclosed in a body that brings him nothing but what savors of death, because it is still ruled by the flesh. Despite all the desires of the inner man (the new nature), he is still overcome by the flesh, and in captivity to it.
Why does this happen, and why does God allow it?
It happens because God has meant for us to be totally dependent on Him at all times; He never meant man to walk in independence in any way. The only way for deliverance from the war and captivity of Romans 7 is by looking away to the Deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ, in glory. If I am self-occupied, as the man in Romans 7 is, then God leaves me there, to learn the very necessary lesson of what my flesh is, how terrible it is, and how God has dealt with it. So God allows this to let me learn my total dependence on Christ, for all of the Christian life. No one can live the Christian life, except Christ; and God allows the Romans 7 struggle, so that I might find this out. I need to learn that “it is God which worketh in you both to will (the desire) and to do (the power) of His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
How then is deliverance effected? How is power given to us for deliverance?
Romans 8:6 summarizes the process of deliverance: “the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.” Instead of the interminable war of Romans 7, I have peace. Instead of the body of death, I have life. How, then, do I get the mind of the Spirit? For this is what will bring about deliverance.
Instead of asking, ‘what is the mind of the Spirit’, let us ask: Who is on the Spirit’s mind? The answer is: None other than Christ (John 15:26; 16:13). When I have Christ on my mind, am occupied with Him, and am looking at Him, I am changed into His image. “We all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror (i.e., the Word of God) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image (that we are looking at), from one degree of glory to another, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18). This occurs quite unconsciously and apart from any effort on our part. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, in revealing Christ to me, to reveal Him in me as well.
It is also the work of the Spirit to fight against the flesh; we are going to be unsuccessful if we try it. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot not do the things that ye would” (Gal 5:17).
The man in Romans 7 ceases to look at himself. Looking at self is like looking at a septic tank or sewer. Not much to desire there, or to occupy the mind with anything of value, is there? Looking at Christ is like looking at the Rose of Sharon. Where would I rather look? At a field of roses, or at a sewer? The choice is ours; and where we look determines the outcome of our struggle. Self-occupation, (which is continual, leads to condemnation and immobilization, and is to be differentiated from self-examination, which is periodic and leads to correction) is fatal. Occupation with Christ produces Christ-likeness, and is the mind of the Spirit.
The whole of Romans 7 is to teach me that my sanctification depends no more on me, than does my salvation. In the new creation, all things are of God; hence, nothing is of man. “…all things are become new. And all things are of God” (2 Cor 5:17, 18). Indeed Christ is all, that we may be nothing. “Of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, Who of God is made unto us wisdom, even righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).
Christ is our righteousness (past; Romans 1-5); our sanctification (present; Romans 6-8) and our redemption (future; Romans 9-11). The whole of the Christian life, and godliness in that life, is a gift: “His Divine power has given unto us all things pertaining to life and godliness,” but it is mediated to us through our getting to know Christ, fellowshipping with Him, being occupied with Him – “through the full knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3). “Apart from Me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Occupation with Christ, or getting to know Him, takes time and energy. None of us would presume to spend only a few minutes a day with our nearest family; it would be to court estrangement from them. Getting to know Christ requires the same diligence. We need to be not only students of the Word, but contemplators of Christ in the Word; in other words, to see the living Word in the written Word, and be occupied with the Man in the glory. I do not believe God is interested in helping us live the Christian life; He is, however, very interested in having Christ live His life in us. May God give us the discernment to see the difference! Galatians 2:20, ” I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”