This post is published together with Matthew Payne’s on the same question
The puzzle of Romans 7 is generally posed as a simple choice between the Christian and non-Christian: how can Paul be speaking as a Christian when he speaks of being “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (7:14)? Yet, how can he be a non-Christian if he “delights in God’s law”? (7:22)
Notice the Dynamics
But what if Romans 7 isn’t just about two states of existence but also about different dynamics at work the lives of humans? Romans 7 and 8 are clearly, in part, about different forces acting upon us: the law; sin; the flesh and the Spirit. It’s the last two that I want to focus on here.
The Flesh is humanity infected by sin. It’s both a situation or state that we’re “in”—an objective state of alienation from God, or being dead to God and his laws; and it’s also a force at work “within” us dynamically which makes do actual bad things—coveting for example (7:7-8).
The Spirit enables life connected to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spiritual life is also a state that we’re “in”—an objective state of being freed from the law and its condemnation through the work of Christ; and it too is a (personal) force at work “within” us dynamically, causing us to act in new ways (8:4,13).
Romans 7: Life (Death) in the Flesh
In Romans 7, Paul’s primary focus is on the dynamic operation of the flesh. As he tries to justify his arguments about the law, and our need to be freed from it, he takes some time to show why the law can never work for us. The problem is our flesh. We have a part of us that is always fighting against God and his laws (7:5, 7-8); a part of us that is enslaved to sin (vv. 14, 25); a part of us that is alien—a mystery to us (vv. 15, 17-23).
We have a part of us that is always fighting against God and his laws; a part of us that is enslaved to sin; a part of us that is alien—a mystery to us
We should note that this dynamic operation of the flesh doesn’t just disappear once we become Christians (see Matthew Payne’s post for more on this). Although Christians aren’t “in the flesh” but “in the Spirit” (8:9), the flesh is still in us. Paul has to warn his Christian readers not to “live according to the flesh” but to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (8:12-13). In Galatians we see it even more clearly where he states that:
…the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal 5:17)
Paul’s standard terminology for talking about the flesh is “death”. When sin encounters a commandment it “kills” us—produces a mortal reaction against God’s law (7:9-11) and it goes on dynamically producing “fruit for death” (7:5). As he looks at this pattern within himself, Paul cries out “what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (7:24)
Romans 8: The Spiritual Solution
God’s answer to that prayer is the objective and dynamic work of the Spirit.
The Spirit’s Objective Operation
Objectively, the “law of the Spirit of life” frees us from condemnation through the death of Christ—sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (8:1-3). Although he doesn’t spell out how the Spirit does this, he does associate it with being “in Christ” (vv. 1-2). This allows us to work it out from what he writes elsewhere:
i. When we become Christians we are “baptised into” (permanently included in) Christ’s death (Rom 6:3).
ii. It’s the Spirit who baptises us into Christ (1Cor 12:12-13).
iii. Thus the Spirit, by making us part of Christ, includes us in his sacrifice and thus frees us from the law of sin and death.
The Spirit’s Dynamic Operation
But being a Christian isn’t just about being “in Spirit” or “in Christ” objectively. It’s also about having the Spirit of Christ operating within us dynamically. This operation of the Spirit is ongoing: it’s a matter of walking (v. 4); of “[putting] to death the deeds of the body ” so that “you will live.” (v, 13)
The dying and living that Paul speaks of in verse 13 should not be taken to be our objective salvation. On that score, things are already settled for those in Christ—our works neither make us die or live.
But the way we live does affect our experience. We’ve already seen him talk about sin producing “fruit for death” (7:5); we’ve heard him lament over his “body of death” (7:24). In this section of chapter 8 he is talking about how the Spirit can reverse this dynamic. Thus in vv. 10-11 he writes:
10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
A common interpretation of verse 11 is that Paul is referring to the Resurrection—the Spirit will one day raise our mortal bodies. Yet if that’s the case, it’s odd that he mentions that this resurrection happens “through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Are we to imagine that the Spirit is dwelling in the bodies of dead Christians, waiting to transform them?
Of course it might just be a manner of speech—maybe the phrase about indwelling isn’t meant to tell us anything about how the Spirit will act then but to identify him as the one who is doing something in us now.
But, in that case, a simpler possibility is that the life-giving he is talking about here is present-tense too: the “life” that the Spirit will give us is a resurrection of our moral lives. In other words, Paul is saying that, as we go on with the Christian walk, the Spirit will begin to bring to life those part of us destroyed by the flesh/sin. As Calvin writes, Paul “speaks not of the last resurrection, which shall be in a moment, but of the continued working of the Spirit, by which he gradually mortifies the relics of the flesh and renews in us a celestial life.”
This interpretation is completely consistent with 6:4-5 where Paul speaks of how we can “walk in newness of life … [because] we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” If we read those verses together with these, things become clear: we should expect God to be changing us because the Spirit is bringing Christ’s resurrection life into our dead bodies. Although they remain “dead because of Sin,” the Spirit brings Christ’s life and righteousness into ours.
When we read Romans 7 and 8 together like this, we see that Romans 7 does apply to us. We are still fallen humans—still “dead because of sin” in those parts of us that resist God. Yet, Romans 7 doesn’t stand alone. Romans 8 shows us what God can and will do for us as we live in Christ. He will begin to resurrect us; he will go on liberating us from slavery to sin. He will go on bringing Christ into our hearts by his Spirit to make us new.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25)
 This is not, I hasten to add, to say that some parts of us are unaffected by sin. It’s simply to note that sin can still make us worse: after it alienates us from God, it continues to deface our created virtues. This ongoing dynamic operation of sin/the flesh can be seen in the degenerative pattern of Romans 1:18-32, and in the fact that even unregenerate people can be distressed by their own corruption (Rom 2:14).