Paul continues that same argument by way of illustration in the opening verses of chapter 7. He likens our situation to that of a woman who is married. If a married woman marries another man, she commits adultery because she is bound by law to her husband. But, Paul says, if the husband dies, she is free to marry another without committing adultery. Paul says we are in a similar position if we have died to the law with Christ. We are free from the obligations of the law because of our death in Christ, just as the married woman is freed from the obligation of her husband because of his death.
But now Paul must take a step back and answer another possible objection. Throughout his letter, Paul has been arguing that the law didn't really make anyone righteous and that it is now possible to be made righteous apart from the law. In fact, Paul really hasn't said much positive about the law at all. That may not seem like a big deal to a predominantly Gentile 21st century Church but we must remember that Paul and his fellow Jews regarded the law as God's good and gracious gift to Israel (and notice Paul says at the beginning of this chapter that he is speaking to those who know the law, his fellow Jews). So in all the ways that Paul has pointed out the shortcomings of the law, one might begin to wonder if Paul actually regards the law, not as a good and gracious gift from God, but as evil. As he asks in v. 7 "What then shall we say? That the law is sin?"
Paul once again answers with his very strong "May it never be!". Instead, the law was what allowed Paul (and all Jews) to know what was sinful and what wasn't. This was supposed to be an advantage of the law, separating the sacred from the profane. At least Jews had the law to let them know what God expected as opposed to Gentiles who simply walked in darkness. But Paul says that knowing what sin was actually produced an opportunity for sin to go to work (notice that Paul is once again personifying sin, talking about it as a kind of force). Much like commanding a child not to do something will almost guarantee that they will obsess about doing the one thing they've been told not to do, Paul says that the law, rather than preventing sinful desires, was actually used by sin to produce them.*
But just because sin used the law to produce sin doesn't mean that the law itself was sinful. In fact, Paul's conclusion is that "the law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good." The root problem isn't the law. The root problem is the power of sin. Just because the parent's command that the child not eat cookies before dinner incites the child's desire for cookies doesn't make the parent's command a bad one. It just means that the child's desire needs to be disciplined. Likewise, Paul concludes that the law is not sinful because sin used it to produce sinful desires. It is the sinful desires themselves which need to be addressed.
The problem with the law is that it can't address those sinful desires. The law can point out sin for what it is but it is powerless to prevent it. This is what the tongue twister of v. 13-20 is all about.
In other words, Paul knows what is good because the law has shown him as much. And Paul desperately wants to do that good but he finds that he can not because the power of sin at work within him is too overwhelming. Finally, in these verses we have the full picture of the problematic human condition which Paul has been painting since the beginning of his epistle. The law is not evil. Human beings are not evil. But both are weak. Sin is the real problem and it is a powerful force that overwhelms both God's good law and God's good creation.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.
I'm convinced that these are not mere abstractions for Paul. He is not trying to solve a theological riddle of no practical consequence here. Nor do I think that Paul is making a case for how all Christians will continue to struggle with sin throughout their earthly life. Instead, I am convinced that these verses are autobiographical for Paul. These seemingly obtruse verses take on life when we consider them in light of Paul's own story.
These verses, I believe, are Paul's attempt to make sense of his own experience prior to meeting Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul was on that road, Acts 9 tells us, because he was on his way to Damascus to arrest "any belonging to the Way." Paul wanted to arrest them because he saw them as blasphemers and false prophets; that is, they were spreading lies about the God of Israel by claiming that God had been embodied in a human named Jesus. The law made it clear that Israel could not tolerate such people. So when Paul traveled to Damascus to arrest Christians, we must understand that he wasn't just a mean or vindictive guy. He wasn't doing this because he hadn't read his Bible closely enough. Quite to the contrary, he was persecuting Christians precisely because that was what the scriptures told him to do. As a Pharisee, Paul's number one goal was to follow the will of God. Paul persecuted Christians because he thought that was what God willed. But once Paul encounters Christ, he realizes that he was actually doing the very opposite of what God wanted. In his attempts to work for God, Paul was actually working against God. In other words, Paul didn't do what he wanted to do but did the very thing he hated. He had the desire to do what was right but not the ability to carry it out. He didn't do the good he wanted but the evil he didn't want is what he kept on doing. Sound familiar?
This is why Paul believes that we are so terribly lost without Christ and the gift of the Spirit. It is not because we human beings are just really awful creatures filled with all kinds of evil intentions or because God can't forgive us of all our evil acts without Christ's blood. We are so terribly lost because as long as we live in Adam's realm of existence the overwhelming power of sin will turn even our best efforts to serve God into the worst kinds of evil. Sin is just that powerful a force. That is why Paul cries out "Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
But we can say with Paul "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." For we are not left in Adam's realm of existence. Paul has already argued in Romans 5 that what Christ did has overwhelmed what Adam did. In Romans 6, he argued that we have been transferred from Adam's realm to a new existence in Jesus Christ by baptism and that, although baptism does not make it happen automatically, we can be dead to sin if we submit ourselves as slaves to righteousness. And in Romans 8, Paul will claim that the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit. Although Paul sketches a grave outline of sin's terrible force in Romans 7, the surrounding chapters make clear that because of what Christ has done, the struggle with sin does not have to be the identifying mark of Christian existence. The once overwhelming force of sin has lost its power to enslave because of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
*It may also be helpful to know that many scholars believe that Paul has Adam in mind once again here. That is, that when Paul says "I" did this or that, he isn't just talking about himself. He is thinking of Adam's disobedience as a type for all humanity (just as he did in ch. 5) and including himself in that. A number of things point to this possibility. First, Paul chooses the particular sin of coveting as his example, a term that describes well Adam and Eve's attitude toward the tree of knowledge. Secondly, it would certainly have been more true of Adam and Eve than most to say "I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said "Do not covet"." Adam and Eve had all they needed. There would have not been anything for them to desire if the tree of knowledge had not been restricted from them. Third, we can see how sin, personified in the serpent, used God's good command to produce Adam's disobedience. Fourth, thinking of Adam in this way is still fresh in our minds from just two chapters ago. If Paul doesn't have Adam in mind here, it at least serves as an excellent illustration of what Paul is saying. Just as God's command to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge did not prevent them from doing so but actually incited their lust for it, so also the law could not prevent sin but was actually used by sin (the power) to produce sinful desires.