In this week's sermon text (Romans 7:15-25), Paul is once again dealing with thoroughly Jewish questions: Is the Law sin? (7:7) Did God's good gift become a cause of death for humanity? (7:13). Paul is asking these questions because over the last several chapters he has said that the Law was powerless against sin, that it led to more sin, and that believers are no longer under the Law. Therefore, one might conclude that Paul believes the Law to be a bad thing. However, this could not be further from the truth.
As a Jew, Paul believed that the Law was a means of grace to Israel. It was God's good gift to lead Israel in righteous obedience to God. Paul did not give up this belief upon becoming a follower of Christ. He continued to believe that the Law was good but he also began to see a new side of it. As a Pharisee, Paul believed that the Law identified sin so effectively that it could be avoided completely. However, upon becoming a disciple of Jesus, Paul begin to realize that he had been enslaved to sin even while he was following the Law. This was not because of some inability on Paul's part to keep the whole Law. After all, Paul says in Phillipians that he was blameless before the Law. Instead, Paul realized that he had sinned precisely in his keeping of the Law because sin's power was so great that it had used even God's good gift of the Law to produce more sin.
An example of this from Paul's own life is his persecution of Christians prior to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus as recorded in the book of Acts. Paul was imprisoning and killing Christians not because he was just a mean, sinful guy who didn't care about God but because precisely because he did care about God and believed that God willed the death of these Christians since the Law spoke against false prophets. After his encounter with Christ, Paul began to realize that sin had used the Law to cause Paul to actually do the opposite of God's will.
So what of Paul's question about whether or not the Law is sin and a cause of death? Paul affirms in this passage that the Law is entirely good because it is not the law itself which leads to sin. It is sin's great power to twist and corrupt God's good gift which is at fault. Similarly Paul says it is not he who is guilty of the sin of his previous way of life but the sin which dwelt in him and caused him to do evil despite his best efforts and intentions. More importantly, Paul speaks here not only for himself but for all of humanity. We have all been enslaved to sin often without even knowing it precisely at those times that we thought we were being the most righteous. It is for that reason that our righteousness can not depend upon our own efforts and good intentions. The only way to genuine righteousness is in God revealing to us where we have been enslaved and then breaking the chains of that slavery for us. As Paul says "Who wil set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"