A Commentary by John Stott
In this paragraph the apostle writes almost exactly the same things twice, presumably for emphasis, first in verses 14-17 and then in verses 18-20. It may therefore be helpful if we consider them together. Each of the two sections begins, continues and ends in the same way.
First, each begins with a frank acknowledgement of innate sinfulness. It is a question of self-knowledge. *We know* (14) and *I know* (18). And in both cases the self-knowledge concerns the flesh (*sarx*). Although *the law is spiritual*, the writer himself is *unspiritual*, ‘fleshly’ (*sarkinos*), still possessing and being oppressed by his twisted, self-centred nature (*sarx*), on account of which he can also describe himself as *sold as a slave to sin* (14), or ‘the purchased slave of sin’ (NEB). Literally translated, the expression would be ‘sold under sin’. But because the verb *piprasko* was used of selling slaves (e.g. Mt. 18:25) and because of the preposition ‘under’ (suggesting the slave-masters’ authority of over his slave), it seems legitimate to add the word ‘slave’. We have already noted the difficulty of reconciling this admitted slavery to sin with the freedom from sin, and slavery to God and righteousness, which Paul claimed for Christians in the previous chapter (6:18, 22). The continuing slavery to sin is easier to understand if the ‘I’ is a believer who is still under the law.
The corresponding statement of verse 18a is this *I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature (sarx*). This cannot be interpreted absolutely, meaning that there is nothing at all in fallen human beings which can be labelled ‘good’, since God’s image in which we are still made (Gn. 9:6; Jas. 3:9), although defaced, has not been destroyed, and since Jesus himself spoke of the possibility of even pagans doing good (E.g. Mt. 5:46f.; 7:11). Since the person Paul is describing goes on in the second part of the verse to say that he has *the desire to do what is good* (18b), it seems likely that the ‘nothing good’ of the first part of the verse alludes to his inability to turn the desire into action. It also means that everything ‘good’ in human beings is tainted with evil.
Those who are still under the law, therefore, although (being regenerate) they love it, yet (being also *sarkinos*, fallen) are enslaved, and so incapable of turning good desires into good deeds.
Secondly, each of the two sections of this paragraph continues with a vivid description of the resulting conflict (15 and 18b-19). After confessing that he does not altogether understand his own actions (15a), and that he has desires for good which he cannot carry out (18b), the writer summarizes his inward struggle in negative and positive counterparts. On the one hand, *what I want to do I do not do*, and on the other *what I hate I do* (15b). Similarly, *what I do is not the good I want to do*. Instead, *the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing* (19). He is conscious of a divided ‘I’. For there is an “I” which wants the good and hates the evil, and there is an “I” which acts perversely, doing what is hated and not doing what is wanted. The conflict is between desire and performance; the will is there, but the ability is not.
Surely this is the conflict of a regenerate person who knows, loves, chooses and longs for God’s law, but finds that by himself he cannot do it. His whole being (especially his mind and will) is set upon God’s law. He wants to obey it. And when he sins, it is against his reason, his desire, his consent. But the law cannot help him. Only the power of the indwelling Spirit could change things; and that will come later.
Thirdly, each section of this paragraph ends by saying (in almost identical words) that indwelling sin is responsible for the failures and defeats of the person under the law whom Paul is impersonating (16f. and 20). Both verses contain a premise and a conclusion. The premise is stated in the paraphrase *if I do what I do not want to do* (16a, repeated in 20), drawing attention to the radical discontinuity between will and deed. Then the first conclusion is *I agree that the law is good* (16b) and the second is *that it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me* (17, repeated in 20). Who, then, is to blame for the good I do not do and the evil I do? This is what Paul clarifies. It is not the law, for three times he declares its holiness and goodness (12, 14, 16). Besides, in wanting so ardently to do good and avoid evil, he is hereby endorsing and approving the law. So the law is not to blame. But neither, Paul goes on, am ‘I myself’ responsible, the authentic ‘I’. For when I do evil I do not do it voluntarily. On the contrary, I act against my better judgment, my will and my consent. It is rather the *sarx, sin living in me*, the false, the fallen, the counterfeit ‘I’. The real I, ‘I myself’, is the ‘I’ which loves and wants the good, and hates the evil, for that is its essential orientation. Therefore the ‘I’ which does the opposite (doing what I hate and not doing what I want) is not the real or genuine ‘I’, but rather a usurper, namely ‘indwelling sin’ (17, 20), or (*sarx*) (18). In other words, the law is neither responsible for our sinning, nor capable of saving us. It has been fatally weakened by the (*sarx*).