Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Knowledge even of the holy, just, good law of God is not power to follow it


July 9, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 7:15-25a

In Romans 7, Paul has at least two points to make: (1) the law is good, and (2) the law cannot direct the new life in Christ. 

God’s law is good.

Torah (the law) was a gift from God for God’s people. One might conclude that Paul does not need to argue for its goodness. Yet in the early chapters of Romans, Paul has said numerous times that the law had a role to play in the hold sin has on humanity. 

  • “For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20)
  • “For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation” (4:13)
  • “Sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law” (5:13)
  • “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied” (5:20a) 
  • “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (7:5)

After saying over and over again that the law has made things worse, Paul realizes that some readers may conclude the law is the problem, and he must correct that mistaken inference. “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (7:7). 

The problem is not the law, which is itself “holy and just and good” (7:12). The problem is sin, that power we first met in Romans 3:9 when Paul announced that all—both Jews and Greeks—were enslaved by it. Sin is an opportunistic tyrant, using anything at hand to maintain and extend its hold over human beings. The law is not sin, but it has been commandeered by sin to increase sin’s stranglehold even on those who “delight in the law of God” (7:22). 

The law is inadequate to direct life in Christ.

But wait, there’s more bad news. 

No matter how good the law is, and no matter how much the “I” of 7:15 recognizes its goodness and seeks to follow it,1 still: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”2

In Romans 7:15-24, is Paul describing life before or apart from Christ’s victory? Or is Paul describing current affairs, that is the “mopping up” operations (also known as daily life) in the war with Sin that Christ has already won on behalf of the baptized? From 6:1 (“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”) Paul has been exploring life in Christ. What is more, his correspondence overall surely bears witness to the continuing power of Sin to upend faithfulness in the lives of the baptized. Yet whether the time Paul has in mind is before or after readers are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, the center of gravity in Romans 7 is elsewhere: the law is good, and even for those who delight in it, “evil lies close at hand” (7:21). 

Toward preaching

The goodness of the law and its limitations exist in tension with one another. It is a tension that preachers often try to resolve.

When we preach as if the sermon just needs to offer affirmation to a shamed people in order to reassure them, “you are enough,” Romans 7 helpfully complicates our conclusions. Human nature, before and after baptism, has more in common with what Paul calls “the flesh” (meaning the part of the self that is enthralled by Sin’s power and empty promises) than much popular anthropology recognizes. For instance, it is true that “God doesn’t make junk,” but that truth cannot be the sum total of what Christian pastors offer in the way of a theological anthropology. From Romans 7 we learn that “I am not junk” (see also 7:15), and neither is the law, and yet, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). A sermon’s hearers (and speaker) are standing not simply in the need of affirmation but also in the need of prayer. 

Or maybe the preacher’s temptation is not to jettison the law as so many shame-producing rules, but to rely on the law as the path of faithful living, as if telling people what to do was sufficient to empower their faithfulness. Our sermons can be summarized with, “Do good. Eliminate evil.” We offer hearers to-do items each week, peppering our sermons with the words, “We should …” we must …” and “let us …” 

Whether the rules we prefer to preach focus on personal holiness or on social justice, Romans 7 reminds us that knowledge even of the holy, just, good law of God is not power to follow it. Christians seeking to live out our faith are up against something even more powerful than ignorance. It is not true that, “You will know the rules, and the rules will set you free.” 

In Romans 7, Paul limits the confidence readers may have both in the self and in the law for directing their lives in Christ. Where else can we turn? Near the end of the chapter, Paul declares rescue with the words, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Conspicuously absent from Romans 7 is the role of the Spirit in the Christian life. Paul will turn there next. As chapter 8 will make clear, the Spirit of our Lord and of his resurrection bears witness that we are children of God (8:15-17) and intercedes for us when we do not know how to pray (8:26f.), so that finally we are assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:39).


1. Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 92f. argues persuasively that Paul acquits both the law and the self (cf. 7:17) in this passage. Sin is the villain.

2. There is no consensus concerning who is the “I” of Romans 7. Is Paul speaking for himself? Is the “I” any Christian? Anyone before faith? For an overview of the options and textual support for them, see Walter F. Taylor, Jr.’s Working Preacher essay on this text.