Like the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Romans is in three parts: guilt, grace and gratitude.
We may consider Romans 1:1–17 the prologue to the epistle. The guilt section runs from 1:18–3:20. Here Paul is preaching the law in its first use: to convict the world of sin and its need for a Saviour.
Failure to understand how Paul has structured Romans and what this entire section is has led to serious confusion and misunderstanding about, for example, Romans 2:13, where, contra one popular modern misinterpretation, Paul was not offering eternal life to Christians, under a sort of legalized covenant of grace (were such a thing possible), who co-operate sufficiently with grace. He was re-stating the covenant of works: do this and live (Gen 2:17; Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28).
In the second section (Romans 3:21–11:36), Paul preached the gospel, i.e., the good news of free salvation (justification, sanctification and glorification) and some of its consequences, i.e., the supernatural fruit of grace in sanctification and good works and the outworking of redemptive history (e.g., the salvation of all the elect, both Jew and Gentile).
In the third section of Romans, the gratitude section (Romans 12:1–16:27), Paul details the consequences of our free salvation and describes what our new life in Christ is and how it manifests itself in sanctification, good works, love for the brothers and sisters, obedience to the magistrate (even Nero!), etc.
We find Romans chapter 7 in the grace section of Romans.
After explaining the good news of free justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, in Romans 3:21–5:21, Paul turns, in chapter 6, to one of the chief implications and benefits of grace: our new life in Christ.
Progressive sanctification is the (super)natural fruit and evidence of God’s free favour to elect sinners. The gospel is the good news of what Christ has done for us, outside of us, but as Calvin wrote in Institutes 3.1.1, ”as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us”. In other words, the Holy Spirit has to apply the work of Christ to us, which is the focus of book 3 of the Institutes. The Spirit must grant us new life (regeneration), give us the gift of faith, and through faith unite us mystically to Christ, and adopt us as sons. These are what Olevianus called “the benefits of Christ” given in the “order of salvation” (ordo salutis).
Thus, in Romans 6, believers are said to be identified with Christ in baptism, which illustrates our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. The old man has been put to death and, in Christ, we have been raised to new life. For that reason, sin shall not reign in us because we are, as Paul says, “not under law but under grace”. We are no longer under the covenant of works, but now we are under the covenant of grace. We are free to obey. Because of our new life and union with Christ we are no longer obligated to sin, i.e., we are no longer slaves to it. Now, in the covenant of grace, we are obligated to Christ.
The Gospel of Romans 7
That does not mean, however, that we no longer struggle mightily with sin. Indeed, in chapter 7, Paul makes clear that the problem has never been the fault of God’s holy law. The law is good and righteous.
The problem has always been our sin (Rom 7:1–9). He speaks about what he used to think when he was outside of Christ. Before he was given new life and true faith, he thought that he could keep the covenant of works: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:10–12; ESV). In Christ, we are freed from the covenant of works (Rom 7:1–3).
The pedagogical expression of the of the covenant of works, in the history of redemption, was the law given at Sinai in the form of covenant of works. Again, in its first use, the law says to sinners: “do this and live.” Now that we are in Christ, however, we know that we cannot “do this and live” and that Christ has done it all for us. While we were under the covenant of works, the law, combined with our sinful nature, bore fruit for death (Rom 7:5), but now, in Christ, we are free to live the new life, in the Spirit, in union with Christ (Rom 7:6).
From Romans 7:13 to Romans 7:23, he describes the struggle of the Christian life. We belong to Christ. We have new life, and yet, because we are not fully sanctified, not completely regenerated as Olevianus wrote, there is a division within us. There is the new “I” and the old man so that both principles are real within us. The new “I” is free but it is also true “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14; ESV). The titanic struggle with the old self rages daily: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom 7:17; ESV). In the Christian’s “inner man” (ἔσω ἄνθρωπον), he delights in God’s holy law but sees within himself a “another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom 7:23; ESV).
The struggle continues through the end of the chapter. In v. 24, he exclaimed the words that the Pelagians and Perfectionists cannot understand (because they do not understand the biblical doctrine of sin): “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24; ESV). Unbelievers do not speak this way. Paul knew that because he did not have this struggle until he was in Christ. He already told us this when he said that he once thought that he could keep the covenant of works (e.g., Rom 2:13), that he could perform the law and meet its demands and thus present himself to God on the basis of his performance. He told us the same thing in Philippians 3:1–6:
…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
When, on the Damascus Road, Christ met him, he preached the law to him. By the work of the Spirit, through the law, the law broke him and drove him to his knees and taught him the greatness of his sin and misery. Then, by the same Spirit, through the gospel, Christ brought him to life and gave him the gift of faith, and through faith, mystical union with himself. Paul learned (Phil 3:7–11) that, in Christ, he is free from the condemnation of the law (but not free from its consequent moral obligations). He learned that the redeemed can and must strive toward Christlikeness, towards the mortification of the old man and vivification of the new (Heidelberg Catechism 88–90).
Who will deliver believers from “this body of death?” Christ! “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25a; ESV). This is the doxology of the believer, united to Christ, who knows that, despite the struggle and in the midst of the struggle with temptation and sin, that Christ has won the victory for all of us and we all, despite our sins—simul iustus et peccator—have been saved. Yet, in Romans 7, Paul acknowledges the struggle to the very end: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7:25b; ESV).
The resolution does not come until Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”
For the rest of chapter 8, he returns to the things that are true of us, in Christ, which he had already begun to discuss in chapter 6. Paul adopts no persona (redemptive-historical or otherwise) in Romans 7. His testimony in Romans 7 is as raw, biographical and realistic as any passage in Scripture about the realities of the Christian life.
Believer, you are a Romans 7:25 Christian. We are all Romans 7:25 Christians. There is no other kind of Christian. Any Christian who pretends to have reached perfection (complete sanctification) in this life is deluded and has redefined sin out of existence. Discouragement about one’s sanctification is a tool of the Evil One, who wants us to give up but we should not give up the struggle of the new life because it is only those who have new life who struggle. It is only believers who cry out to God as Paul does in Romans 7 and it is only believers, free from condemnation, who are able to speak as Paul does in Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8.