Of the Flesh, Sold under Sin

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Paul uses a curious phrase in Romans 7:14: “but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” Paul’s words in Chapter 7 have sparked centuries of debate and countless articles. By one count, at least seven different interpretations are being suggested today. So, how do I properly absorb this expression of Paul? Is there any hope of understanding what Paul means by this unusual combination of nine English words? Let me help you think through the context of these “troubling words” and find encouragement for your heart.

First, Paul is making a personal observation, “I am of the flesh.” Paul is helping the reader understand that his fleshly nature did not change at his conversion; he is still flesh. To put it another way, when Paul was saved on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), he was not unhooked from Adam’s race with all its insipid passions and fleshly desires. Now, after 20 years of being a Christian, Paul soberly declares, “sin dwells within me” (7:17, 20).

Second, Paul makes this personal observation by using the literary combination of a personal pronoun (ego) and a present tense verb (eimi): “I am.”  This “emphatic present” dominates the rest of his paragraph (vv. 14-25), and he will use present tense verbs 36 times. John Stott observes that in the previous paragraph (vv. 7-13), Paul wrote of “his past, pre-conversion experience. But now suddenly his verbs are in the present tense.” Clearly, Paul is using himself (“I”) as the prime example for his readers that he is currently living as one “sold under sin.” 

Third, the phrase “sold under sin” is a reference to the consequence of Adam’s original sin in Eden (5:12). The unique Pauline verb is better translated “having been sold” (perfect passive particle) followed by the preposition and an articular noun, “under the sin.”  This suggests that the occasion for Paul’s sinful constitution was his inherited reality from Adam’s original sin, which Paul already explained in 5:12-19. Conversion did not erase Adam’s anarchical flesh within Paul, but it dethroned it (5:15; 6:14; 7:6; 8:2). To help us understand, Paul uses slavery imagery to compare one’s unconverted life with his present life: you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God (6:22). Paul reasoned: Though sin remains within the believer, it no longer enslaves him (6:17; 8:15).

Finally, when 7:14 is viewed within its larger context of Chapters 5-8, the “troubling words” find relief – in three ways. First, Paul’s present physical condition was not to be his final state. Though he lives in a “body of sin” (6:6), which he describes as a “body of death” (7:24), he eagerly waits for the future “redemption of his body” (8:23). This is Paul’s celebrated hope (8:24-25).  Second, while he remains in this “mortal body” (8:11), the Spirit indwells and empowers him so that the immoral deeds of his past are now “put to death” (8:12-13). Third, we conclude with Cranfield that only when the reader holds Chapters 5-8 as a single unit will he fully solve “the obvious tension” found in 7:14. Each Christian lives with “two contemporaneous realities” – the indwelling Spirit and his sinful flesh. However, because “grace reigns” (5:21), the believer lives “under grace” (6:14) and is now free “to obey from the heart” (6:17) the instructions of the Spirit of God (7:6; 8:14). Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (7:25)!

This article is from the "Truth from the Agora" section of the Exposition, VBTS's monthly e-bulletin authored by President Daniel Davey. 
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