Freedom From Guilt
To live a victorious Christian life requires that one take a good hard look at his own fallen human nature.
It also necessitates that he come to a full understanding of the plan of salvation. That plan provides that he experience freedom from true guilt when the Spirit assists him in realizing the evil he has committed in open rebellion against God. Further, he can also receive deliverance from false guilt which the wicked one often heaps upon his shoulders. It is generally in this area that he has his greatest conflict with sin. Thus he must seek full knowledge of the nature of sin, understand his struggle with sin, and come to a place of victory over all kinds of evil. Then he will be free indeed.
Freedom from False Guilt
At times the very existence of the conflict between flesh and Spirit brings a sense of false guilt, as Paul described from his own experience in writing to the Romans in Chapter 7. Some teach that the story is one of the apostle as an unregenerate Jewish person trying to live for God by the law. Indeed, the unbeliever who tries to get to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments will experience things similar to Paul.
However, MacArthur argues that the passage reports Paul’s experience as a born-again, maturing believer who was already an apostle. He writes:
‘It also seems, as one would naturally suppose from the use of the first person singular (which appears forty-six times in Rom. 7:7-25), that Paul is speaking of himself. Not only is he the subject of this passage, but it is the mature and spiritually seasoned apostle that is portrayed. Only a Christian at the height of spiritual maturity would either experience or be concerned about such deep struggles of heart, mind, and conscience. The more clearly and completely he saw God’s holiness and goodness, the more Paul recognized and grieved over his own sinfulness (John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8 [Chicago: Moody Press, 1991], p. 379).
Hendriksen presents a list of scholars almost two pages long who hold basically the view of Romans 7 which MacArthur does (William Hendriksen, Galatians, Vol. 8 of New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968], pp. 229, 230). He explains that in one way or another, and with varying opinions on details, the belief according to which Paul is here referring to himself and, in general, to believers, is endorsed by all of them (p. 229).
Others say the account pictures the struggles of the Christian who has not yet been entirely sanctified. Those of a holiness theological persuasion sometimes use this chapter in Romans to illustrate what they see as a believer who has not yet experienced sanctification as a second definite work of grace.
Still others hold it makes clear all believers sin a little every day. As MacArthur mentions, Some interpreters believe that chapter 7 describes the carnal, or fleshly, Christian, one who is living on a very low level spirituality (p. 379). Thus it pictures what may be termed miserable Christianity. MacArthur condemns the ethics of Gnostic philosophy the like of which some still hold today. He writes, Proponents of that ungodly school of thought invariably develop moral insensitivity. They justify their sin by claiming it is entirely the product of their physical bodies, which are going to be destroyed anyway, and that the inner, spiritual person remains innately good and is untouched by and unaccountable for anything the body does (p. 386).
The truth is Romans 7 contains a message of hope for constant victory over sin and Satan for every child of God. What Paul experienced came after he was born again, sanctified, filled with the Spirit, and called to minister the gospel.
The Knowledge of Sin
In the account in Romans 7 the apostle recalls how he came face to face with the realization of “sin” in his life. Understandably, it came through diligent study of the Bible.
Sin as an Outward Act: Paul writes, “I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7). To expand on his comment, he learned that outward acts of evil, stemming from the inner spirit of covetousness, such as stealing, extortion, and gambling, or making the accumulation of things one’s god in life, stand condemned by the Word of God.
Sin as an Inner Tendency: The apostle’s serious study of Scripture also revealed sin as an inner tendency. Sin is a condition, a nature, a disposition, as well as an act. He says reading the Bible revealed in him “all manner of evil desire” (8). It led him to the conclusion he was “carnal, sold under sin” (14). He found out, as he writes, that “sin dwells in me” (17). He called it a law of sin in his members which warred against the law of his mind (23). In short, searching the Scriptures created in him a desire for absolute perfection of which he found himself short. Sin became “exceedingly sinful” to him (13).
Thus MacArthur explains that through a study of the Bible Paul experienced “. . . not only the objective recognition of sin as a breach of the law, but perhaps also the awareness of sin within” (p. 137). Later he speaks of this event as the “. . . dawn of conscience and the first awareness of inward sin . . .” for Paul (p. 139).
The Struggle with Sin
Understandably, this knowledge, this sense of sin within, produced condemnation in Paul’s conscience, and that brought a struggle with the problem of sin in his life. But his conflict was not so much with outward sin, since he ceased that at conversion and teaches all others must do the same. He challenged the Corinthians with the words:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9,10, New King James Version).
Instead, the apostle wrestled with the very existence of the flesh-Spirit conflict which he wrote the Galatians about (5:17). He struggled in the direction of perfection more than in fighting against temptation to ordinary sin. Momentary sinful impulses and passing evil thoughts plagued his mind. He despised such sinful tendencies within his being. In his letter to the Romans he declares, “What I hate, that I do” (7:15), and “The evil I will not to do, that I practice” (19). He could not completely control the human mind.
Serious introspection in the presence of a pure God through a study of His Word caused him to confess, “Sin dwells in me” (17, 20). Though he lived a commendably upright life morally, as with Isaiah he exclaimed, “I am a man of unclean lips” (6:5). Like Peter in the presence of Jesus at the miraculous catch of fish, he responded, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). In none of these situations were these men living lives of sin.
The apostle also found himself coming short of doing the good he desired. He writes, “What I will to do, that do I not practice” (Rom. 7:15) and, “The good that I will to do, I do not do” (19). More explicitly he later says, “For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I do not find” (18). In summary he explains, “I find then a law, that evil is present with me” (21).
It may be that sometimes he prayed and heaven seemed so near. Yet at other times the sky above seemed brass. Or, on some occasions he preached with great liberty and clarity of expression while elsewhere words came with difficulty as he stammered through his sermon. These experiences troubled him. He wondered, “Why can I not always pray and preach as I sometimes seek the Lord and speak to men?” Concerning all this Hendriksen paraphrases Paul as saying, ‘If I could only serve God in a thoroughly unhampered manner! If only all my faculties of body and soul could be made effective for him and his cause!’ (p. 237).
His struggle with sin in both a negative and positive direction led to the conclusion, “I am carnal, sold under sin” (14). He declares further, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (18). Indeed, the condemnation he felt led to the brink of despair. Hear his painful cry, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (24). As many of the most sincere believers of all times, he pondered the question, “Am I really saved?” The thought may have even crossed his mind, “Could it be that I am demon possessed?”
The Victory over Sin
No doubt Paul’s questions as to the genuineness of his salvation and the possibility of demon activity in his being departed as soon as they came. In either case, he needed no further evidence than what he had from clear teaching in God’s Word on those matters.
Though he may have unconsciously sought it, he found no victory over the sin principle within through the process of eradication. Some still erroneously teach it is possible, but for Paul the carnal nature was not removed root, trunk, and branches, as they say. He discovered no route to absolute sinless perfection. If he had, he would have lost his sense of utter dependence on God as his sole source of salvation.
In studying his problem the apostle discovered the existence of the flesh-Spirit conflict. To the Romans he wrote, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law 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” (7:22, 23). Despite all his striving, he found the conflict continued. He says, “So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (25).
Nevertheless, he discovered the way to complete and permanent victory over sin. It came through a realization of what Jesus did for him on the cross. He had asked the question, “Is there any hope for me? Will I ever be free? Who can help me?” (Rom. 7:24). The answer came, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (25). Freedom from condemnation over the existence of the sin principle within came with the realization that the blood of Jesus covers the sins of the carnal nature. Victoriously, he writes to the Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). Through the sacrifice of Christ he had the perfect standing before God he saw Scripture demanded. God imputed – credited – the very righteousness of Jesus to his account (Rom. 4:4-8). Satan could never again torment him over the existence of momentary evil impulses or passing sinful thoughts.
His victory over what to do with sinful tendencies within came further with the knowledge he must never obey them. The condition for freedom from condemnation required he “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1,4). He knew he must never allow evil impulses any expression through any part of his being. He must reckon self dead to sin (Rom. 6:11).
Victory was complete as the Lord taught Paul he did not wrestle with sin merely in the strength of self. The Holy Spirit provided the ability to refuse sinful impulses any expression. To the Romans he announces, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). When Satan comes to torment the believer with guilt and fear, he hears Paul say, “You did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, Abba, Father” (15).
Then, to live a victorious Christian life necessitates that one understand fully the plan of salvation. It provides that he experience freedom from true guilt for having committed sin in open rebellion against God. Further, he can also receive deliverance from false guilt because of the mere existence of the Spirit-flesh conflict. It is generally in this area that he has his greatest battles over sin. Thus he must seek full knowledge of the nature of sin, understand his struggle with sin, and come to a place of victory over all kinds of evil. Then he will be free indeed.
Hendriksen, William. Galatians, Vol. 8 of New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968.
MacArthur, John, Jr. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.