The conflicts the apostle Paul described in this chapter of his Epistle to the Roman Church are the crux of the Christian life; that is, how it ought to be lived out. Paul’s perceptive insight is divided into three subsections; the first (vv.1-6), describes our stand in the law and in Christ. The next (vv.7-13), written in the past tense, details why we never won this conflict under the law, and the final portion (vv.14-25), couched in the present tense, informs us that in Christ we would never loose the battle within ourselves.
Paul actually did not fully appreciate the depth of his own covetous heart and thought that he had fully understood the commandments as an exemplary Jewish scholar and zealot, until his conversion. With that change, in the middle segment of the chapter, he became deeply conscious of his own heinous depravity and it devastated him; this conflict within the core of his being literally tore him apart (v.11). The spiritual reality is that the closer we get to God, the more clearly we are conscious of our own embedded evil, deep in our heart. Paul chose ‘coveting’ to illustrate most completely the self-centredness of the human predicament. Coveting is defined as a sense of inordinate, self-indulgent craving or grasping (over persons, objects, etc) that displaces proper affections for God, which Scripture calls sin (v.13). Here, he described a dichotomy between a covetous mindset and the law: even though a person’s conscience unwillingly submits to the law, no one really loves the law (Rom 8:7). But the law is good, if powerless to save us from sin, however hard we may try. Instead, it accentuates the sinfulness of the natural person and completely paralyses him in his desire to do what is righteous. Not even willpower can make the person righteous, as Paul found to his own consternation (vv. 15-19). Therefore, the battle towards righteousness is always a lost cause to a pre-believer.
The flipside is the second conflict in the last segment (vv.14-25), after one comes to know Christ personally. Although this conundrum between the flesh and the Spirit remains as Paul summarized for us in Galatians (Gal 5:17), God’s solution was to make “Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). It is pertinent to realize that Jesus never became a sinner, He literally became sin, our hideous entrenched wickedness and evil, to be judged by God’s wrath once for all (Rom 5:9-10). Therefore, when a person is born again as a Christian, he became dead to sin. What it means is that although the fight continues with our habitual sinning, the basis for overcoming it had changed, as Jesus had paid for our sins being judged under the law. Sin no longer has the same attraction or hold over us as before, and as we have made Christ our centre, it is a conflict that we will never loose.
This brings us to the beginning of the chapter, where Paul used the marriage contract as an illustration. Being married is like being bound by the law, and as long as one spouse is alive, our life’s focus would be around that spouse, and are bound up with him/her; like being ‘married’ to the law. Before we became believers, we were serving the law, not God. But because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have become dead to the law; viz., in this metaphor, the death of a spouse frees us from the law (v.6), just like the death of Christ. Paul is saying that after he became a Christian the self-righteous person that he was, changed. How has it changed? By acknowledging his own hopeless wretchedness that was caught up in sinfulness that only deserved condemnation, but now, totally delivered through the work of Jesus Christ. In other words, he had died in Christ and his reputation, self-worth, value, dignity, and honour are to be found in who Christ is; he has become absolutely nothing apart from Christ (his natural defense mechanism had been switched off because of the cross), and it is this position that enables us to love the law of God despite our sinfulness (vv.24-25). It is a very high calling to be in Christ as it entails a total surrender of our rights to be Christ-like.