There is some value to revisiting the whole topic: there is a lot more to be said. So let's start with a recap:
Romans 1–8 contains two general sections. The first, from chapter 1:18 through about chapter 5:8 is the discussion of justification. Justification is God's declaring a sinner to be righteous. This is demonstrated in Romans 4:5. God justifies the ungodly. It is the sinner who believes who is justified, not the one who works. Justification doesn't imply that we become righteous, but that God declares us to be so.
But discussion takes a sharp turn somewhere about Romans 5:9, where Paul begins a new argument. The central word from Romans 1:18 to Romans 5:8 is "justified". But in Romans 5:9, there is a new word, "saved". The argument from Romans 1:18 to Romans 5:8 was justification; starting in Romans 5:9 the subject is salvation.
From Romans 1:18 to about Romans 5:8, the argument was what we term a "forensic" argument. Men are guilty of sins, actual acts of rebellion. But in Romans 5:12 we turn from sins to sin. And in the second part of Romans 5 we learn not only have all men sinned, but all men are sinners. This is actually a different lesson. Romans 1:18–3:19 tell us what men have done. Romans 5 tells us why they did it.
Romans 6 gives us the solution to the ontological problem, just like Romans 4 gave us the solution to the forensic problem. Those who have been baptized into Christ, the argument goes, have been baptized into His death. Having been crucified with Christ, we are now dead to sin. So we are justified from sins and we are dead to sin.
Romans 7 gives us some practical consequences to Romans 6. Having died to sin, are we then transported into instant perfection? No, we are not. Sin dwells in us, in our flesh (Romans 7:18). So now we are introduced to a new word: "flesh". And we learn that there is an active force of sin that pulls us down. This is not merely bad habits: this is an active indwelling sin that lives in our bodies and drags us into sin. So Paul talks about wanting to do what he can't do, and not wanting to do what he does. And he concludes that there is a principle in his members that is distinct from himself.
The last few verses give us a remarkable truth: that the sin that dwells in us is stronger than we are. We can't overcome it, we can't be better. There is no amelioration: we need a Deliverer. We need Someone outside of ourselves to deliver us from the flesh inside.
And notice the Scripture specifically tells us Law doesn't help. Law only exacerbates the problem. We see the Law and delight in its perfection, but when we try to keep it, we find ourselves even worse off than before. The Law is good, but I am not.
My rant last time focused on the futility of overcoming the flesh by trying harder. And I (correctly) noted a specific example of someone teaching people to do the very thing Scripture says won't work. But there is more.
Romans 7 presupposes that there is a new creation. A sinner feels no internal conflict with the flesh: there is nothing for the flesh to fight against. And this is the part of Romans 7 that gets confusing. It's not that the Law is bad. In fact, the man in Romans 7 proves his regeneration by delighting in the Law. But when he tries to keep it, he finds himself worse off. The man in Romans 7 is a new creature in the old creature's body: this is the essential problem. The negative consequence is that futility of that man trying to improve himself.
But there is a positive truth too. If the new creature is in the old creature's body, that certainly proves there is a new creature. This is the fatal flaw in the passive approach that many try to take. It is absolutely true that God never intended us to duke it out with sin. It is absolutely true that we are powerless over the flesh in us. But that is not the whole truth.
The equal and opposite truth is that we are new creations. Yes, we encounter obstacles we cannot overcome, and the plain teaching of Scripture is that we ought not to try. But the Scripture is equally plain that there is a life that is to be lived. And so the new man is taught to yield his members as instruments of righteousness. Note we aren't to bludgeon them into being instruments of righteousness, we're to yield them.
But the point is that we are to live out eternal life, and it's not passive.
A friend many years ago told me, "There's a ditch on both sides of the road". It's all too easy to step into the ditch on the right trying not to fall into the one on the left.
There are two dangers here. The first is to ignore the ontological changes in Romans 6 and the warnings of Romans 7 and teach sanctification by Law. This is the error of the Galatians: to think that we can be justified by faith but perfected by works. And so there are millions of true believers who keep trying harder, but they eventually conclude they're not trying hard enough. But the Scripture teaches there's no such thing as "hard enough". It just doesn't work that way.
But the opposite danger is just as real. This is the danger of becoming fixated on the flesh in us, realize we need a Deliverer, and slide into a complete passivism. I've known many who've fallen into this, and it leads to what another friend dubbed "Christian Buddhism", where the believer strives for a state of nothingness. This is the error of those who teach "dying to self" as the solution.
The first error ignores what the Scripture says about the flesh, the second ignores what it says about the new creation.
The fact is, the Scripture doesn't teach a life of nothingness, but it does teach the futility of human effort in sanctification. So Scripture doesn't teach a passive life, but it does teach an effortless one. We are called to eternal life, and we're to live it out down here, in a wicked world, in sinful bodies. But we live it not through will-power or human effort; we live it through faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20). Christ Jesus is our life, our sanctification, our holiness, our wisdom, and our righteousness (Colossians 3:4, 1 Corinthians 1:30). We've not been saved to be autonomously good, but we've not been saved to sit here either. We've been called to look into His eyes and take a step at a time.
16 But I say, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall no way fulfil flesh’s lust.
17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these things are opposed one to the other, that ye should not do those things which ye desire;
18 but if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under law.
(Galatians 5:16–18, JND)
I used to think "walking in the Spirit" a very deep and mysterious thing. I don't think that now. I think what the Scripture terms "walking in the Spirit" is simply the deliberate act of submission to Christ. It's not that we try harder, it's that we bow to Him and let Him lead us. When we come up against the flesh, we look to Him to deliver us. And we take each step relying on the Lord to be our provision.
I've been overwhelmed by the last verse of 2 Corinthians 3:
But *we* all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit.
(2 Corinthians 3:18, JND)
What is the secret to the Christian life? It's the transforming effect of looking on the glory of the Lord. Looking doesn't require a lot of effort, but it's a definite and distinct activity. And as we gaze on Him, we are told, we are transformed into the same glory.
He that boasts, let him boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31, JND)