“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” — Romans 7:18-20
In writing an incident report, a good fireman will attempt to determine the cause of a public fire. Every conscientious firefighter will want not only to extinguish existing fires but also to prevent future fires from starting. Construction materials do not spontaneously combust into flames. Every experienced firefighter knows this and will diligently seek out the cause of a ruinous blaze.
When searching out the cause of their sin, few Christians show the conscientiousness that a fireman does in his trade. The Apostle Paul certainly does so in Romans 7. Here Paul digs to the very bedrock of his being for the cause. Most Christians will confess particular sins as they become aware of them. But Paul goes further than confessing sinful thoughts, words, and deeds; he directs his attention to the source or nature of his problem. He has learned that nothing good dwells in himself, that is, in his flesh. Paul knows this, not by Scriptural revelation alone but through his own struggles with sin, that is, by his experience.
No thorough work of repentance in a believer’s life can safely omit consideration of the source of one’s sins. Many factors can aggravate sin in a Christian (such as lack of instruction, sudden temptation, prolonged trial, illness, etc.), but the root of every sin is the same in every Christian. Unless a believer is conscious of this unending source of mischief in his person (that is, his flesh), his repentance will be partial at best. And no sincere Christian can ever be content in offering the Lord Jesus partial repentance of sin.
In Romans, Paul traces the doctrine of sin as it entered the world through the transgression of Adam, the first man. Few Christians today will imitate Paul in this method. Most believers fail to see any practical benefit in examining their sins in the light of Original Sin and the broken Covenant of Works — the source of all of mankind’s trouble. Nevertheless, much spiritual benefit can be gained by studying Paul’s experiential struggle with sin at its taproot.
William Perkins offers us a framework for searching out sin more thoroughly. A general confession of sin is a start for a believer, and particular sins must also be repented. A spiritual understanding of the Ten Commandments is invaluable in this regard. Beyond this, an understanding of the believer’s relation to Adam’s first sin is most instructive:
The first rule is that every man who came from Adam sinned in the sin of Adam. You must therefore know that his sin in eating the forbidden fruit was your sin, and that you sinned therein as well as he (although you were then unborn), and that you are guilty of it before God, and must answer for it to God’s justice, unless Christ does it for you.
This rule is proved by the apostle in Chapter 5, where he writes, “Sin entered by one man, and death by sin: and that sin went over all, and that it went over all them that sinned not in the like transgression with Adam” (Romans 5:14). Even our covenant children are born not only tainted with Adam’s corruption but also guilty of Adam’s first sin. For this reason, even newborn infants die without ever breaking the Law of God. The guilt of Original Sin is completely pardoned in believers in Christ, and its power to condemn is banished. Yet its corruption continues in the fallen line of Adam, being finally subdued only by the grace of the Holy Spirit mortifying it in the Christian. No person may truthfully say, “I have no sin” (1 John 1:8), for all mankind is corrupted. This truth is the starting point for a thorough search for your sin — you must be certain that you have it.
The second rule to be known is that all sins are in every man; more plainly, that in every man by nature are the seeds of all sins, and that not in the worst but in the best natured men.
Perkins is careful to distinguish between a sin that is committed and its vestige or “seed” in the flesh. He clarifies that the flesh constitutes “Not the practice of all sins, but the seeds.” The seed of sin is not a hypothetical and probable potentiality, but a present and real potentiality. The seed of sin itself is sin, and regarding this second rule, it encompasses all sin. For Perkins, the “flesh” even includes every man’s potential for blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
Understood properly, the rule of our propensity to all evil (in both unbelievers and the best of saints) will keep us from comparing ourselves one to another as if we ourselves were responsible for our own goodness (1 Cor 4:7). Were it not for God’s restraining grace there would be no sin that we would refrain from indulging, no matter how heinous or notorious! Knowing that the seed of every kind of iniquity is already within you will have you give sober scrutiny to examining God’s Law. Indeed, God’s intention in the Tenth Commandment is to check the first motions of illicit desire and condemn it in the flesh. Therefore, you must be watchful against all kinds of traitorous seeds germinating in your heart, lest these should gain the ascendancy over you and overwhelm you.
The third rule to be known and practiced of him who will truly search himself is that every man born of Adam is by nature the child of wrath and God’s enemy. This is true of all without exception; high or low, rich or poor, noble or simple, born in the visible church or without. And further, by being an enemy of God, he is therefore born subject to hell, to damnation, and to all other curses.
This third rule follows of logical necessity from the first two. “Because every man is born guilty of Adam’s great sin and also tainted originally with all corruption and a proneness of all sin, therefore it follows in equity and justice that every man is born under the wrath and curse of God.” By nature, all flesh is a rogue enemy of God and continually acts in treason against his Maker (Gen 6:5; 8:21; Job 14:4; 15:14; Psa 51:5). Yet it is only with difficulty that souls ever confess this most fundamental and self-evident truth! Unless one has a sure hope of escaping God’s punishment due for his sin, no one will admit the justice of his eternal condemnation. But this is precisely where the Gospel is most useful to the Christian in searching out Original Sin more thoroughly.
The Gospel proclaims that God provides a substitute for sinners by condemning sin in the flesh. God the Father has punished the sins of his people in Jesus, his Beloved Son, on the cross. The death that Jesus died is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who believe his Gospel. The sin issue being justly solved, a Christian is equitably pardoned. He is subsequently free to look objectively at the seriousness of his rebellion against God. The Christian is free to admit that, were it not for God’s provision in Christ, he would be no different than the worst enemy of God — even from his conception, he is an enemy of God subject to hell, damnation, and all curses. This confession of sin on the part of a believer is both liberating and doxological!
This final rule in searching out sin forms the basis of all gratitude and praise to God in Christ. It is a strong incentive for one to trace personal sin back to its very root, as Paul does in Romans. It teaches us that, while Original Sin remains in every Christian and is a nature more akin to hell than to heaven, yet deliverance from that nature has been decreed and accomplished in the cross of Christ. This deliverance from sin and death is applied by the Holy Spirit to the believer through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul, therefore, concludes Romans chapter 7 in triumph, saying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7: 24-25).
Pastor Lou Veiga