I have some thoughts to contribute to the interminable discussion of Romans 7:14-25. Of course, I would like to bring it to a satisfactory termination, but that would be naïve. Anyway, here goes. I think many commentators are asking the wrong questions: Is Paul describing a saved man or an unsaved man who is merely convicted by the law? If he is describing a saved man, is this the normal, life-long condition of a Christian, or should Christians experience a second work of grace that moves them out of the struggles of Romans 7 into the freedom of Romans 8? Let’s set those questions aside and look at the text.
The passage is not describing a conflict between the flesh and the Holy Spirit, such as we see in Galatians 5:16-17 or in Romans 8:5-13. In Romans 7:14-25, the conflict is between “my flesh” on the one hand, and the “inner man” or “the law of my mind” on the other. The wretched “I” is caught between these two forces. It is unhelpful to describe these two forces as “two natures” when “nature” is not adequately identified, so I won’t use those terms.
Though Paul uses the term “flesh” in several different ways, here he seems to mean our uncontrolled, but natural human desires, the things people want because of the way God made us—things like food, sex, approval from others, and the enjoyment of beauty. When those desires are not properly controlled, they become demanding. All they can say is “I want! I want! I want!” As Augustine noted, all sin is a twisting or distortion of legitimate desires. The flesh is human desire out of control—coveting things that are good in themselves, but wanting them in the wrong way, in the wrong measure, or in the wrong time.
What is the “law of my mind” or the “inner man”? I suggest that these phrases describe the conscience, the inner law which God has implanted in all men.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them (Romans 2:14-15).
As Jonathan Edwards clearly demonstrates in The Nature of True Virtue, unsaved people can genuinely approve of the whole law of God. Conscience and a sense of the secondary beauty of justice are sufficient for this. Therefore, an unsaved man can “joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Romans 7:22), as he contemplates how fitting and right God’s law is. However, since the unsaved man does not love God for the beauty of His holiness, his natural approval of the law of God is not truly virtuous. Ultimately, in its rebellion against God, the flesh is hostile to God. The flesh says, “I want! I want! I want!” and God answers, “Thou shalt not.”
If the unsaved man can approve of God’s law, then, even more can the saved man joyfully concur with it. Therefore, the inner conflict of Romans 7 is heightened for the man whose conscience has been further enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Still, the conflict of Romans 7 is not directly between the flesh and the Spirit, but between the flesh and the more sensitive conscience of the man in Christ.
So, what is Paul saying in Romans 7? He is saying that the inner law, the conscience, is not strong enough to subdue the unruly desires of the flesh. This is true both for the Christian man and for the unsaved man whose conscience approves of God’s law. The unsaved man has no further resources above his conscience. Those who belong to Christ, however, have the indwelling Holy Spirit. By the Spirit they are able progressively to put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). (The words “putting to death” are a progressive present.)
Perhaps it will help if I paraphrase Romans 7:14-24 in Freudian terms. The flesh is the id with its demanding desires. The “law of my mind” is the super ego. The “I” is the ego caught between the urgent demands of the id and the finger-wagging disapproval of the super-ego. There is no escape from this tension apart from the gospel of Christ. Those who are justified by faith no longer need to fear condemnation (Romans 8:1). In addition, they are now able to obey the law in a new way as the walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). The ego cannot win its battle with the id by strengthening the super-ego, but only by turning to and relying on the Holy Spirit.
What is the bottom line? To the unsaved man who is torn apart by his guilt and his moral weakness, Romans 7 says, “O wretched man, you cannot win this battle on your own. You are trapped between your distorted, sinful desires and the law of God, which you know is right and just. Come to Christ! He will remove your condemnation, and He will give you His Holy Spirit to help and strengthen you.”
To the pastor this passage says, “Do not think you can make your congregation holy by pounding them down with the law, hoping to strengthen their guilty consciences. Most of them already feel guilty enough and a guilty conscience cannot subdue the flesh. Point them to their freedom from guilt in Christ and to the power of the indwelling Spirit. Teach them to walk in the Spirit and you (and they) will do well.”
To the struggling Christian this passage says, “Do not think of your inner conflict as a struggle between your old nature and your new nature. (Those terms are vague and are not found in the Greek New Testament.) Think of your inner conflict as warfare between your twisted human desires and your conscience, which has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Then turn to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to help you put to death the deeds of the body which come from these distorted desires.”