Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. – Romans 7:13-20 ESV
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote to the fellow believers there, “Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in Christ. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT). This passage is essential to understanding what Paul writes in this section of Romans 7. There are those who would claim that Paul is speaking of his pre-conversion experience. But it would seem that Paul is describing the condition that every believer faces every day of their lives. Even though we are set free from captivity to sin and death by Christ’s death on the cross, we still have our indwelling sin natures to deal with. When Paul writes, “I am of the flesh,” he is saying that he still has his sarkikos or carnal nature. At salvation, we are not removed from these earthly bodies. And these earthly bodies are driven by earthly appetites. The Greek word sarkikos that Paul uses refers to anyone who is “governed by mere human nature not by the Spirit of God” (Outline of Biblical Usage). It it to allow oneself to be controlled by our earthly appetites. It is the same Greek word that Paul used in his letter to the Corinthian believers. He wrote, “You are still sarkikos.” In other words, they were saved, but were still living as if they weren’t. Then he gave them examples of what being sarkikos looked like. “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world?” (1 Corinthians 3:3 NLT).
There is within each and every one of us the capacity to live under the control of our sin nature or flesh. Yes, we have the Spirit of God living within us, but we must choose to live under His control or the control of our flesh. Paul makes this choice very clear in his letter to the believers in Galatia. “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions” (Galatians 5:16-17 NLT). It is a matter of control. In his letter to the churches in Ephesus, Paul used an interesting comparison to illustrate what it means to be controlled by the Spirit. “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18 NLT). To be drunk with wine is to allow yourself to be under the influence of the alcohol in the wine. It alters your behavior, speech, and thought processes. You act in ways contrary to your normal behavior. And that is exactly what happens when you allow the Holy Spirit to fill or control you. It is not a matter of getting more of the Spirit. We receive all the Spirit we need at salvation. But it is a matter of allowing the Holy Spirit to have more of you.
The dilemma each of us faces as believers is exactly what Paul described. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18 ESV). Our flesh is sarkikos or unspiritual. But we are now spiritual creatures or new creations, because of Christ’s saving work and the Spirit’s presence within us. Our fleshly or sinful nature does daily battle with our new spiritual nature. The flesh is of this earth. It’s appetites and desires are driven by the things of this earth. But we are no longer of this earth. We are aliens and strangers here. We are residents of God’s kingdom, which is not of this world. Even Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NLT). As believers, we must realize that our flesh is that part of us that stands opposed to all that is of God. It is natural and of this world. It does not desire anything that is of God. It is driven by selfish, sinful desires. That is why Paul says, “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NET). And he encourages us to “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5 NET).
We must live with a constant awareness of our sin nature. We can never allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of complacency or comfortableness, thinking that we have gained complete mastery over our sin natures. They are always there, ready to take back control of our lives as soon as we let down our guard. So we must live in constant awareness of our need for the Spirit’s control, because while we may have the desire to do what is right, we lack the ability to carry it out on our own.