This is the sixth part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

As we noted in the pre­vi­ous install­ment of this series, Paul draws no dis­tinc­tion in sep­a­rat­ing a New Covenant life in the Spirit from an Old Covenant life of the let­ter or writ­ten code ().

But Paul does more than tell those who would look to the law that they are wrong; he calls them adul­ter­esses. In his anal­ogy, he says that a woman who lives with another man while he is alive com­mits adul­tery. We have died to the law; to live as under the law is to com­mit adul­tery against Christ, to whom the church is betrothed, and to whom He gave His Spirit as a guar­an­tee until the mar­riage sup­per of the Lamb ().

Paul con­tin­ues in in a peri­cope of which the sub­ject is widely debated:

[7] What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” [8] But sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, pro­duced in me all kinds of cov­etous­ness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. [9] I was once alive apart from the law, but when the com­mand­ment came, sin came alive and I died. [10] The very com­mand­ment that promised life proved to be death to me. [11] For sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, deceived me and through it killed me. [12] So the law is holy, and the com­mand­ment is holy and right­eous and good.

[13] 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. [14] For we know that the law is spir­i­tual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. [15] For I do not under­stand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

[18] 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. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

[21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my mem­bers another law wag­ing war against the law of my mind and mak­ing me cap­tive to the law of sin that dwells in my mem­bers. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. ()

Dou­glas Moo iden­ti­fies three dif­fer­ent ways in which this pas­sage may be interpreted:

1. Paul describes his expe­ri­ence as an uncon­verted Jew under the law.

2. Paul describes his expe­ri­ence, per­haps shortly after his con­ver­sion, as he sought sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion through the law.

3. Paul describes his expe­ri­ence as a mature Chris­t­ian.[1]

In a later post, I will advo­cate that which of these three is proper is less impor­tant than what this pas­sage tells us about the effect of sin on the flesh. Before we get there, we’ll look at how var­i­ous the­olo­gians have advo­cated for each of these three positions.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 7: Paul, the Uncon­verted Jew


[1] Dou­glas J. Moo, Encoun­ter­ing the Book of Romans: A The­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey (Grand Rapids: Baker Aca­d­e­mic, 2002). Moo pro­vides fur­ther depth in his Romans commentary.


But now we are released from the law, hav­ing died to that which held us cap­tive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the writ­ten code. (ESV)


And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the mar­riage sup­per of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (ESV)


7:1 After this I saw four angels stand­ing at the four cor­ners of the earth, hold­ing back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascend­ing from the ris­ing of the sun, with the seal of the liv­ing God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, say­ing, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the ser­vants of our God on their fore­heads.” And I heard the num­ber of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naph­tali,
12,000 from the tribe of Man­asseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebu­lun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Ben­jamin were sealed.

After this I looked, and behold, a great mul­ti­tude that no one could num­ber, from every nation, from all tribes and peo­ples and lan­guages, stand­ing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and cry­ing out with a loud voice, “Sal­va­tion belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were stand­ing around the throne and around the elders and the four liv­ing crea­tures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and wor­shiped God, 12 say­ing, “Amen! Bless­ing and glory and wis­dom and thanks­giv­ing and honor and power and might be to our God for­ever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, say­ing, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones com­ing out of the great tribu­la­tion. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 “There­fore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his tem­ple;
and he who sits on the throne will shel­ter them with his pres­ence.
16 They shall hunger no more, nei­ther thirst any­more;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorch­ing heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shep­herd,
and he will guide them to springs of liv­ing water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (ESV)


What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, pro­duced in me all kinds of cov­etous­ness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the com­mand­ment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very com­mand­ment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the com­mand­ment is holy and right­eous and good.

13 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. 14 For we know that the law is spir­i­tual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not under­stand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my mem­bers another law wag­ing war against the law of my mind and mak­ing me cap­tive to the law of sin that dwells in my mem­bers. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV)