Romans 7 | The Inner Conflict (Michael Marsh Papers)




V.14 . “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under the sin.”

Here Paul is stating that he still feels the flesh indwelling him and exerting its influence upon him as a Christian. In the following verses the battle between “flesh” and “spirit” in the believer is presented.

V.15. “For that which I (the carnal man) do, I (the spiritual man) allows not: For what I (the carnal man) would, that do I (the spiritual man) not; but what I (the carnal man) hates, that do I (the spiritual man.)

V.16. “If then I (the spiritual man) do that which I (the carnal man) would not, I (the spiritual man) consent unto the law that it is good.

V.17. “Now then it is no more I (the spiritual man) that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

V.18. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I (the spiritual man) find not.

V.19. “For the good that I (the spiritual man) would, I (the carnal man) do not: But the evil which I (the spiritual man) would not, that I (the carnal man) do.

V.20. “Now if I (the carnal man) do that I (the spiritual man) would not, it is no more I (the spiritual man) that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”

Christians disown responsibility for the sinful dimensions of their natures. They are left with inward sin’s remaining presence, not its remaining power. Inward sin does remain but it does not reign, it remains in chains.    

V’s. l 5-18. The desires of the flesh are not fulfilled because of the opposition of the Spirit.

V’s.19-20. The desires of the Spirit are not fulfilled because of the opposition of the flesh.

V’s. 21-25. Believers lament their quality of obedience, not their disobedience in these verses.

Chapter 8 shows how the mind attains the ascendancy over the flesh while the inward battle between flesh and Spirit continues. Galatians 5:11 reveals the same battle between the flesh and the Spirit. “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 do the things that ye would .”

The word “wretched” is used only twice in the New Testament, once here in Romans 7:24 by believers who realize their battle between “flesh” and “spirit”. That remaining indwelling sin taints and pollutes all the spiritual good they do in the Spirit, so all must be offered up through the blood of sprinkling, and incensed with Christ’s merits to be acceptable to God (l Pet. 1:2; 2:5; Rev. 8:3-4. Eph. l:6.)

The other time it is used by God to describe the Laodicean [church] in Rev. 3:14-18. It would seem the major problem with Laodiceans is they do not confess to, nor recognize, their remaining sinful nature. To them sin is only an act, rather than a continuing condition of nature. Therefore they tend to see their sanctification as part of the “righteousness which is of faith” which they must plead before God for their standing before Him,– their justification. Thus they drift into a legalistic religion with no hope of salvation until they understand their true condition. The Philadelphian condition is the translation condition, all the promises given to those who stand during the time of trouble are given to those in that condition. Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6). Jesus was born in the flesh, but not of the flesh. We are born not only in the flesh, but of the flesh. We must therefore be “born again.” In the new creation — the flesh –, the carnal nature remains, but it power is broken, it does not reign.

There is no higher experience which exempts the believer from the reality of his divided state as man of the Spirit and man of the “flesh”; so long as the believer remains in the “flesh” he cannot enjoy the full life of the Spirit. There are only two ways of escape, and both are the ways of death: one is the way forward — to engage in the Spirit/flesh conflict till it ends in physical death; the other is the way backward -­ to abandon the conflict, to retreat into a life lived solely on the level of the flesh, the level where death alone reigns, the way of death. In short, the only way of escape is death — either the death of the body, or the death of the whole man.

It follows from this recognition of the nature of Christian experience that apostasy is a real possibility and constant danger for the Christian. We must take passages like Romans 8:13 with the seriousness it deserves:   Paul warns his fellow Christians, “lf you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live”. The choice here presented to the believer is no artificial, academic one. It is possible for the professed Christian to live His whole life according to the flesh; if he does so, if he abandons the struggle and reverts to a solely fleshly experience, he will die; he will not know the daily renewal of the Spirit towards wholeness, but instead only the daily deterioration of the flesh towards destruction.   Only if and as he prosecutes the struggle between Spirit and flesh, only as he lets the Spirit have a say in the shaping of his daily, only then will he know the process of transformation from one degree of glory to another which in the end will make him like Christ. (2 Cor. 3:18).

It may not be inappropriate to draw attention to a pastoral corollary of some significance. If we have understood Paul aright, and if Romans 7:14-25 is valid insight into Christian experience, then we must not hide or ignore this. Proclamation of a gospel which promises only pardon, peace and power will result in converts who sooner or later become disillusioned or deceitful about their Christian experience.

If Romans 7:14-25 is a transcript of Christian experience, then any gospel which ignores it is unrealistic and in the end counter-productive. Futhermore, pastoral counseling of Christians should remember that paradox and conflict is an integral part of religious experience. The believer need not be depressed at defeat nor conclude that grace has lost the struggle. On the contrary, spiritual conflict is a sign of life—a sign that the Spirit is having His say in shaping the character. Since life must be life in this body of flesh, the Spirit can be present only as paradox and conflict. Consequently it is this paradox and conflict which is the mark of healthy religious experience—not its absence. The Spirit is absent when we stop fighting, not when we lose.

To sum up then, in no other place does Paul describe so fully the moral experience of the Christian as in Romans 7:14-25. In these verses the believer’s experience is clearly depicted as an experience of warfare between flesh and Spirit. It is not a warfare from which the believer can distance himself and in which he can take sides as though he were a neutral observer or umpire. On the contrary, he finds himself on both sides; even as believer he lives on both levels, flesh and Spirit, at the same time; the division runs right through the believing “I”.

It is because he lives on two levels at once that he is constantly to choose between the two levels—flesh and Spirit. “I” in my “inner man”, as renewed mind, as man of the Spirit, have to choose against “I” as flesh, as body of death. And even when, by the power of the Spirit, “I” may choose against the flesh, even then “I” still remain a prisoner of the flesh, captive to sin, and my good is frustrated and distorted. Yet, despite this, hope remains, for the presence of the Spirit, and the will to do good is a beginning of the process of redemption, a process of salvation which is accomplished precisely by means of the conflict, not by ending it, precisely by holding the tension of the paradox of life and death, Spirit and flesh, firm to the end, not by its resolution before then. In short, if Romans 7:24 is the believer’s life-long cry of frustration, 7:25a is his thanksgiving of eschatological hope and 7:25b his calm realism for the present in the light of both.


“We must strive daily against outward evil and inward sin…” RH 5-30-1882.

“From the cross to the crown, there is a wrestling with inbred sin, there is warfare against outward wrong.” RH. 11-28-1887

“A constant battle must be kept up with the selfishness and corruption of the human heart.” Test. 5, 397

“When the servant of God is permitted to behold the glory of God of heaven, as He is unveiled to humanity and realizes to a slight degree the purity of the Holy One of Israel, he will make starting confessions of the pollution of his soul, rather than proud boasts of his holiness.” Bible Comm. 4. 1140.

“The true follower of Christ will make no boastful claims ot holiness…He sees his own sinfulness in contrast with the perfect righteousness which it (the law) enjoins, and this leads to humiliation and repentance… he will be gaining a clearer sense of the holiness of God’s character and the far reaching nature of His requirements. He will see more clearly his own defects, and will feel the need of continual repentance, and faith in the blood of Christ.” RH 5-10-1886. Also AA 561.

  1. “I call upon everyone who claims to be a son of God never to forget this great truth, that we need the Spirit of God within us in order to reach heaven, and the work of Christ without us in order to give us a title to the immortal inheritance.” T.M. 442
  2. “Sinful man can find hope and righteousness only in God, and no human being is righteous any longer than he has faith in God and maintains a vital connection with Him.” T.M. 367
  3. “No one who claims holiness is really holy. Those who are registered as holy in the books of heaven are no aware of the fact and the last ones to boast of their own goodness.” S.T. 2-26-1885. P.128.