What does Romans 7:20 mean?
ESV: Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
NIV: Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
NASB: But if I do the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin that dwells in me.
CSB: Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one that does it, but it is the sin that lives in me.
NLT: But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
KJV: Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
Paul repeats almost exactly what he wrote in verses 16–17. He clearly wants to make sure his readers understand what he is saying. He paints a picture once more of a battle between his good intentions and the sin that lives in him. He describes his intentions as wanting to do good, to follow the law of Moses, to obey God. That's the "real him." The sin in him, though, wins out over his best inclinations.
Some Bible scholars believe Paul to be describing his life before becoming a Christian, when he lived as one of the Jewish religious leaders. That makes sense in light of his larger point that simply wanting to follow the law of Moses does not save anyone because nobody succeeds. Everybody still sins.
Other scholars understand Paul to be describing his experience with sin as a Christian. They insist that while it's true Paul had been freed from slavery to sin (as all Christians are), he continued to experience the powerful temptation to sin (as all Christians do). This also makes more sense of the Greek language Paul uses here, which has shifted into a first-person, present-tense, singular perspective, one quite different from his prior words.
Whichever Paul meant to communicate, both positions have merit. Non-Christians may very well have the desire to obey God, but Paul has taught in Romans that without Christ we do not have the ability to keep ourselves from sinning. It's also true that Christians, while never under obligation to sin, often "catch themselves" in the act of doing the exact opposite of the good thing they set out to do. They continue, on some level, to feel divided between their desire to sin and their desire to serve God.
Romans 7:7–25 explores the relationship between the law of Moses and human sin. Paul insists that the law is how he came to know and understand sin, in general, and his own sin specifically. He also explains how knowing the law does not make a person holier; it can actually tempt us to sin even more! Paul changes his perspective in this passage, speaking in a first-person-here-and-now manner, as a Christian, wanting to do what is right and finding himself doing what is sinful instead. Paul recognized his natural inability to do right and realized his need to be delivered from sin by God through Jesus.
In Romans 7, Paul describes the relationship between Christians and law of Moses and between the law and human sinfulness. Because we died spiritually when we came to faith in Christ, Christians have been freed from our obligation to follow the law. Paul insists, though, that the law is holy and good in the sense that it reveals to all who try to follow it just how very sinful we are. The law shows us that no matter how good our intentions, we still end up in sin and in need of the deliverance available only through faith in Jesus.
Romans 6 revealed that those in Christ have died to sin and are no longer slaves to it. Romans 7 begins by showing that, in Christ, we have also died to our obligation to follow the law of Moses. Paul makes clear, though, that the law is holy and good because it reveals to us just how sinful we are. Paul describes how his failed attempts to follow the law convinced him more fully of his need to be delivered from his sinfulness by God through faith in Christ. Romans 8 will explore many of the benefits of being in Christ.
The book of Romans is the New Testament's longest, most structured, and most detailed description of Christian theology. Paul lays out the core of the gospel message: salvation by grace alone through faith alone. His intent is to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in accurate and clear terms. As part of this effort, Paul addresses the conflicts between law and grace, between Jews and Gentiles, and between sin and righteousness. As is common in his writing, Paul closes out his letter with a series of practical applications.
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