Conflict and Victory

The Conflict

Rousas John Rushdoony

(Romans 7:21-25)

21. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.

22. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:

23. 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.

24. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

25. I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.   

                Much controversy has been generated by these verses. Is Paul speaking about regenerate or unregenerate man? Origen and others of the Greek fathers referred these verses to the unregenerate. Augustine in time applied them to the regenerate, and most churchmen have since agreed with Augustine.

We have seen the centrality of Romans 1:17-20 for Paul’s letter to the Romans. The knowledge of God is inescapable for all men, regenerate and unregenerate. No man living is born or lives without a heart; it is even more impossible for any living man to escape the knowledge of God. Suppression is not escape; it is a futile evasion. All men then clearly fit Paul’s statement, which he does not limit to either the regenerate or the unregenerate, which is itself a significant fact. Sin in any man leads to a suppression of God’s truth; this suppression is a way of life with the unregenerate, but, with the regenerate, growth in sanctification is accompanied by a growth in the inner expression of the knowledge of God.

Curiously, commentators are sometimes eager to say that Paul’s references here to “the law of God” do not mean the Mosaic law! Sanday and Headlam found such a meaning “linguistically intolerable.”  What other law would Paul be speaking of? When he refers to the law in v. 21, it is clear that he means the law of God, and he says so in vv. 22 and 25. It is the law which makes man recognize God’s justice, and the need to obey it, and it is the law which reveals to him the fact that “evil is present with me” (v. 21). The law acts as a searchlight.

In. vv. 23 and 25, Paul speaks of the “law of sin.” Cranfield says that law is here used metaphorically “to denote exercised power, authority, control” i.e., as exercised by sin.  God’s law is a power in us, and the law of sin, or sin as a governing power within us, is a power or law. We again have a reference to man’s subordinate status. He is not autonomous, and he has two ways, or two powers, to live under, the power or law of God, and the power or law of sin. Both involve subjection. The power or law of God subjects us to life and freedom, and the power or law of sin subjects us to guilt and death.

Because of this subjection, man has no autonomous freedom. In the state of innocence, man had the freedom to do good, but with the possibility of sin. In the state of the fall or depravity, man is free from the good and is only capable of sin. In the state of grace, man is capable of sin, but his basic motive is to do good. In the state of glory, man can only do good, and is perfectly sanctified.

In history now, the second and third estates of man prevail. Hence, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (v. 21). The question raised by some comes into focus in v. 22. Can this be true of the unregenerate as well? “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” Over the years, I have had occasions to meet with people who were sometimes in agony over their dilemma. Although unregenerate, they knew the law of God in their hearts, and they knew it as the way of life, and sometimes admitted this briefly. On the other hand, because of their sin, they were also suicidal and were at times terrified by their will to death. It is an illusion to believe that the conflict between good and evil exists only in the regenerate, and such an opinion denies the fact of creation by the triune God.

The conflict is very real. In v. 23, we find the word members, used to describe the limbs of the body, and, elsewhere, the members of Christ. The word in Greek is melos; it has reference to our functioning parts, i.e., our body in action. There is a law or power in our members at war with “the law of my mind.” Law is nomos; mind is nous, consciousness, or reflection, and it has reference to sober and careful judgment. We must not read members and mind as two alien substances. What Paul has reference to is the human habit of saying, “I know it doesn’t make sense to do this, but I want to do it, and I’m going to!” Against our better judgment, we do things we know are stupid or wrong, and which we shall later regret. This is not a Greek struggle between mind and matter but a moral struggle in man, who has the inescapable knowledge of God combined with self-will. Kasemann was here on sound ground in commenting, “we do not take part in the conflict independently but only as those who belong to a lord and his rule.”

We are either ruled by God’s law or the law of sin. Paul has made clear the fact of rule or power over man. No man can escape the witness of God in all his being. His every atom cries out against him in witness to God. At the same time, to the degree that he is still a son of Adam, either wholly as unregenerate, or partially as regenerate but not perfectly sanctified, he is under the power of sin; he is not fully free in Christ.

But is life a perpetual St.Vitus dance? Is there no deliverance from this conflict? Paul asks this question in v. 24: “who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” To the extent that we are not perfectly sanctified, we are in a sense still occupied territory. To be the arena of warfare is a form of death. The Christian life, however, is not frustration but victory, and Paul turns to this fact at once. We dare not see frustration as life.

In v. 25, Paul says, our flesh, our physical existence in time, still serves “the law of sin,” or disordered human nature. The disorder of the fall is not cancelled overnight; it is a fact of history, but not the governing or permanent fact. Now that we are in Christ, we “serve the law of God” with our mind; our judgment is governed by Christ to bring all things into captivity to Him. The extent of that captivity of all things to Christ is set forth in Romans 8. Now Paul thanks God “through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 25), or because of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord. Our captivity is to Him, and our freedom is in Him, “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (I John 5:4). Paul prepares us to hear the glorious fact that, whatever the problems and frustrations, when we are in Christ we do serve God. The God we serve makes all things to work together for His glory and our good when we are in Christ (Rom. 8:28).

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