Romans 7: The flesh test
Have you seen the pearl of wisdom hidden in Romans 7?
Many miss it because they view the chapter as “not written for me” or as a mere prelude to chapter 8. This is a shame because if you can grasp what Paul says in Romans 7, it will save you a world of hurt. “Just remind me, what’s Romans 7 about?” I hear you ask. Romans 7 is where Paul says this:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Rm 7:15)
We’ve all been there. But before you pat yourself on the back and say, that’s how I used to be, before I met Christ, let me ask you this: Is Paul describing his old life as a sinner or is he describing struggles he’s faced as a believer? This question divides opinion but my view is that he is describing anyone who is walking after the flesh. In other words, his message is relevant for everyone.
Walking after the flesh
Walking after the flesh is what you do when you attempt to get your needs met independently of God. It’s leaning on your own understanding, relying on your own strength, and drawing from your own resources. Sinners do this routinely but Christians can act this way as well. In either case, the results are disastrous (Rms 8:13). Live solely on the basis of your own will-power and understanding and you will sow death into your relationships, your ministry, your finances, even your health:
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Pro 14:12)
“But Paul, doesn’t Romans 8:9 say, ‘you are not in the flesh but in the spirit’?” It does. But there’s a difference between being in the flesh and walking after the flesh. When Paul says, “we were in the flesh” (Rm 7:5), he is referring to our state before we were born again. We were in the flesh but now we are in the spirit.
But you are not in the flesh but in the spirit, (Rms 8:9a, NKJV).
We are not in the spirit because of the way we walk – flesh cannot give birth to spirit (Jn 6:6). But even though you are in the spirit you can still walk after the flesh. Even though you are in Christ, you can still act as though you were in Adam. Capiche?
So how do we know when we’re walking after the flesh? The New Testament is full of examples contrasting walking after the flesh (bad!) with walking after the spirit (good!). But sometimes what we need is a quick test to tell us whether we’re doing one or the other. Romans 7 provides just such a test.
The flesh test
“Am I walking after the flesh, yes or no?” In Romans 7, Paul shows that your answer to that question may be found by asking this pair of questions:
1. Am I doing what I hate to do?
2. Is this making me wretched and miserable?
If your answer to both of these questions is “yes,” then you’re walking after the flesh. The problem may not be what you’re doing so much as how you’re doing it. If you’re acting on the basis of your own might – your own resolve, understanding, and strength – then you’re walking after the flesh and God will have nothing to do with it. In Paul’s case he was trying to reform his sinful behavior by keeping the law. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he ended up doing the very thing that he hated. Doing what you don’t want to do is, for the Christian, a classic symptom of walking after the flesh:
For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. (Gal 5:17, NKJV)
Okay, so what about the sinner? Does Paul’s flesh test apply to him as well? I believe it does because anyone who tries to get their needs met apart from God will, from time to time, feel wretched and miserable. Why? Because God made us that way. He created us with a whole bunch of needs so that we would look to Him to fulfill those needs. We weren’t designed to live independently of Him. When we do we can experience intense frustration and heartache. On the surface we may think we’re hurting because someone let us down or things didn’t turn out as expected. But the reality is we’re feeling like that because we were looking to someone or something other than God to get our needs met. We don’t live on the basis of our feelings, but if you’re feeling wretched then your flesh may be trying to tell you something. Your flesh test may be giving you a positive result. That’s good, for it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do!
Wretchedness and frustration are symptoms of walking after the flesh. You will not experience these feelings when you are walking after the spirit. I’m not saying everything’s going to come up roses. I am saying if you are able to stay focused on Jesus, then even in the face of hardship you will experience peace such as the world does not know:
For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. (Rms 8:6, NKJV)
I got a positive test result – now what?
Okay, so you’ve taken the flesh test and discovered that, “Yes, even though I’m in the spirit I’m walking after the flesh. I’m trying to make something happen, it’s not happening, and I’m miserable. Now what?” Well the answer to that question is not a What but a Who, as we will see in the coming posts. But let me leave you with a quick suggestion by telling you what I am learning to do when I get a positive flesh test result: I go and lie down.
Lying down is not something I like to do. My flesh was built to be driven hard and I think sleeping is a waste of time. However, I often push myself too hard and this can lead to suffering and wretchedness. But by the grace of God I am learning. And one of the things I am discovering about myself is that I am less susceptible to the distractions of the flesh, and more in tune with the spirit, when I am horizontal.
Just this week, for example, I was banging my head against the wall and feeling frustrated about a project that was not turning out the way it was supposed to. Work harder, screamed my brain. I did, but to no avail. “I hate this,” said I. “It’s making me miserable.” Then revelation came. “Aha! I’m walking after the flesh. I’m trying to make something happen.” I immediately stopped. I pushed back from the desk and went and lay down on the rug in my office. (Believe me, this is hard for me!) Then I prayed a deep theological prayer that went like this: “Lord, I give up. I give up trying to make this happen. I give up leaning on my ability. This is not even my problem anymore – it’s Yours! Do whatever seems good to You.”
You have to understand that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. But when you’re walking after the flesh even doing good can be bad for you. So I quit trying to make it happen and as soon as I did freedom came. My mind was instantly filled with life and peace and inspiration and creativity and solutions I had never dreamed of.
No cordless Christians
“Oh, so you were just recharging your batteries then.” Absolutely not! We don’t run on batteries and there are no cordless Christians! Christ is our life (Col 3:4). I was being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I was saying no to the flesh and yes to the spirit (Rm 8:5). I was setting my mind on things above and fixing my eyes back on Jesus. On this occasion He gave me a solution to my problem; on another occasion He might’ve suggested I drop the project and go play with the kids. Or He might’ve suggested something completely different. In any case I would’ve found life and peace by trusting Him.
If you’ve been feeling frustrated with the way things are turning out, then recognize the death-dealing work of the flesh. The best thing you can do is “put off” whatever it is that you’re doing and fix your eyes back on Jesus. You got distracted there for a bit but thank God for that wonderful flesh test of Romans 7 that has brought you back to your senses and back to Christ who is your life.
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Thanks so much for your words of wisdom! I come from a very conservative church background, where there was absolutely no power over any form of evil (including physical disease, misery, troubles, etc.) and, therefore, no victory. When I began to hear messages from Joseph Prince and Andrew Wommack, it changed my whole way of thinking (mind renewal), and I gained understanding, for the first time, about this new covenant we’re under. The hardest thing ever is to get people from that kind of background to open their minds to hear something different. They are so “carnally minded” that they think you’re absolutely crazy when you tell them that you believe it is God’s will to heal everyone…much less to prosper us in other areas! And sadly, I’ve realized that most churches (no matter what “denomination”) do not truly believe these things (even though they get up every Sunday and pray for the sick and the distressed). Most churches still teach “works of righteousness,” in one form or another, but they can’t see that this is the problem. The church I grew up in is very legalistic, and I no longer attend it. I’ve tried to gently suggest that perhaps the church (the bride) has been deceived just like Eve (the bride of the first man, Adam) was deceived by the serpent in the garden long ago…and that Paul warned that this was already happening. I still care about all those people, and it seems like there is more and more bad news coming from there all the time. It was one of the church buildings that was destroyed during the recent tornado outbreak. I hope that people like you, as well as the few “Grace preachers” we are able to hear on television, will continue to get the True Word out there…and that the modern day church will be reformed and transformed back to what it was intended to be. Because, to be honest, I don’t know where to “attend church” anymore.
Thank you, and may God continue to bless your ministry! Gail Dyer, USA
Wow, I could have written every word of that testimony myself…,thanks for sharing, Gail!
Gail, my story is similar to you. I came to understand the grace of God first from Andrew Wommack ministry. At that time, I didn’t attend New Creation Church, even though I live in Singapore. After i knew it, I was looking for church in Singapore that teaches grace the way I was taught by AW. Thank God finally I came to know Pastor Prince ministry here in Singapore who teaches the same grace, i.e. New Creation Church. Now i regularly attended this NCC church and call this church home. Then I came to know Paul in this blog, and we met here. What a coincidence. God is good. I don’t know where in US you are living, but I have found quite a few churches in USA that teaches grace too. Jim Richards, Kenneth Hagin ministry, and several others. I am not sure if there will be article about suggested grace churches here in this blog so we can just locate the nearest one to our home. Wherever you are, be blessed.
This was awesome! Wonderful word here! Thanks Paul!
And would you also agree that every Christian’s autopilot is set to walk by the Spirit, and that it is unnatural for us to walk after the flesh?
That’s an interesting question Laura. I would say walking in the flesh is against our new nature, yes. But for most of us walking in the flesh is the most natural thing in the world – like driving, it has become second nature to us. Hence the many exhortations to renew our minds and not do it.
HI Paul, I’ve had similar experiences as what you described above.
Lord I give up, you do it. One time I was bratty & demanding in my attitude but he gave me instant peace & joy. I had a hard time understanding why? Someone else on this site helped me figure it out. (Thanks, evangelizarEC).
Anyway, I hear the expression “my authority in Christ” & I can’t connect with that statement. I feel like, what authority? I’m nothing. Or “my power in Christ Jesus” It’s like I’ve been shown that I have no power and can’t take that step over to having authority or power in Christ. I think I know what it means but I’m stuck? Any suggestions or do you have any blogs that you can suggest to help me with it?
Paul, I’ve noticed that you’ve been busy so I wanted to let you know that while I was waiting, I got the answer that I needed.to the question above .
No need to reply anymore.
Thank you Paul & Thanks to all the others that have made this site what it is. Some of you have done much to help me in my journey..
This are wonderful messages we need such kind of message because it tells us how far we have gone and how far we can go .
For me it’s kind of scary to not trust in my efforts for these reasons.(1) I have trouble believing that things will “get done”. (2) My wife is pressuring me to “try harder” in my life. She makes lots of personal efforts that she doesn’t see me making in this last year as I’ve grown into this way of thinking (Joseph Prince, etc.) Just this morning she was frustrated with me. PS – My flesh is not lazy flesh. Example, I built and sold companies to Microsoft, Ford Motor, etc. But I’m learning a new way. I guess my main problem with my new path (the narrow one this time) is I think it may mess up my marriage and put lots of new upset on my wife who isn’t on this same path as I, I think. I hate it when my wife is mad at me. Sometimes I retaliate which feels even worse. But, now I can remember the Grace that is always available when I mistreat her.
However, let me say that I have also had lots of fortuitous (miraculous?) things happen to me since I’ve been renewing my mind in this new direction. I am one of those people who has had lots of success through hard work who was miserable, somewhat abusive, somewhat addicted, etc. I’m SOOOOOOOOO much happier today than ever since childhood (I’m 60). I guess I want to know more about what to expect in my marriage.
This post is very enlightening and very encouraging. The Christian life has to do really with depending on the Holy Spirit to make real in the natural what is already accomplished in Christ. God richly bless you for this site. I’m blessed by your sharing.
I love your writing Paul, thank you for sharing on this topic. My favorite scripture that helps me get back to walking in the spirit is 1 Peter 5:7 Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you. Something will happen that goes wrong (in my thinking) and whether I prayed about this situistion or not, I begin to feel discouraged. Then, that scripture, I will say it and just mean it because I am aware I can’t control circumstances or other people. Then that feeling of discouragement leaves and I have a calm assurance the Lord will take care of it.
Would grieving the Holy Spirit be a result of walking after the flesh and not the Spirit also?
‘But you (all born-again christians) are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you.’
So I am not in the flesh, yet I can walk after the flesh.
‘For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die.’
I’m not sure about the word ‘die’ here. It’s not ‘go to hell’, right?
I have struggled a bit with this passage…..there are preachers who believe in losing salvation, and they warn people with this verse.
But I’ve realized that Paul is again writing to a mixed congregation where some people are trusting in works and they are in the flesh, they are not saved.
Some people are in the Spirit and are under grace and are saved.
To those who are in the flesh, he tells them the way to put to death the flesh is to be born again (crucified with Christ, and raised again)….this happens when they stop trusting in their works and trust in Jesus alone….(not Jesus + law).
The context of the letter is written to this congregation where some were trusting in works of the law (as he writes in Romans 2) and he makes it clear about the righteousness by faith in Romans 3-11.
In Romans 10, he tells that those who are under the law are establishing their own righteousness and need to submit to Christ’s righteousness by faith…..and tells them how to receive salvation. (believing in Jesus)
Hey paul. Im a bit confused. If saved people can still walk in the flesh does that mean that they can still b condemned according to rom 8:1? Isnt he reffering to non believers who walk in the flesh?
There is certainly no condemnation from the law for the charges that were against us have been nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). In my view, this verse can be legitimately read two ways: (1) it’s referring to unbelievers because of what Jesus said in John 3:17-18, and (2) it’s also referring to believers who act like unbelievers when they walk after the old way of the flesh. Christians don’t walk after the spirit 100% of the time. If they did, why would the New Testament be full of exhortations to put off the old and put on the new? It’s a choice we get to make. When we choose the old way of the flesh (20 examples can be found here), the result will be guilt and condemnation. Understand this isn’t coming from the Lord of grace! We do it to ourselves.
Paul I think you have the wrong end of the stick with Romans 7. But probably difficult to exchange views properly. I believe the issue is clear cut. Paul is speaking as one under law. If you go the other way, it detracts from the power of the cross.
Yes, Paul is speaking as one under the law, but the point stands. Whenever we try to get our needs met outside of God – which we can do by trying to live under law or by trusting in our own strength – we set ourselves up for failure. You don’t have to be a law-lover to be carnal and wretched.
What are cordless Christians, myth meaning? Are we wired christians? hehe. sorry I had to ask.
This made me smile so much. God taught me to do this same thing- when I start to feel frustrated/angry in doing something…He showed me the need to stop whatever I was doing and sit…close my eyes and do NOTHING. Sometimes it lasted a couple minutes and I was able to refocus on God, what exactly I was “trying” to do- the thing behind the thing…when I realized my motivation was from a place driven not from being perfect in Him- but from working to be “better”, I was reminded who I was- my identity in Christ and how I couldn’t be MORE perfect by doing this thing, or more loved from God- and I wouldn’t be loved less if I didn’t..I could either go back to that work and do it in the correct mindset and was free of frustration..or walk away from it entirely with peace. I am so happy to see this is a way the Spirit works in us all 🙂
When I read the rest of the New Testament it’s hard to imagine a passage where Paul would comdemn himself (Rom 7:18) and then go on to say there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom 8:1). The Paul in Romams 7 seems intriguingly different from the Paul in the rest of the NT.
What about the perspective that maybe Paul was writing to a Pharisee but rather from his own perspective. That would seem to be edifying to those who live under the law not understanding the grace and the new covenant given.
To me it doesn’t seem encouraging to know that God calls me to be free and yet even someone with as much revelation as Paul walks by the flesh sometimes.
I think it’s brilliant that Romans 7 is in the middle of the letter. It captures the temptation faced by everyone who seeks to walk by grace, namely the temptation to revert to old habits and religious principles. It happened to the Galatians when they fell from grace. Perhaps it happened to Paul.
As someone who has more than once fallen flat on her face, knowing that even the greats struggled with not walking in grace perfectly is very encouraging.
Thanks. I am beginning my first student pastor position and my sense of security is coming from creating sermons ahead of time so I can protect my ego and not fumble stutter and sound like a middle school speaker in . Its like I am saying “God if I can get the sermons down, then I can focus on shepherding”. The harder I try to be an engaging communicator and to execute a flawless exegesis, The more angry I get. i want to slam cupboards and then feel guilty because I am supposed to be a patient leader that has a strange loving authority about him, that draws others in. Not me right now. God its yours use me how you want, take the keys to my vehicle.
Thanks Paul..I have been an avid reader of E2R infact it is the blog to go to when looking for a good read.. My question is as a Christian can I make financial plans and ask Jesus to guide me through the process or hope without any financial planning that my dreams and aspiration will be met regardless of the plans… I feel making those plans fall into the category relying on my own understanding hence walking lon the flesh yet on the other hand if I dedicate my plans to Jesus I am acknowledging Jesus as my wisdom… That is my quagmire…
Scriptures that can help in this area will greatly help…
Alvin – Kenya
I’m a planner by nature. I set goals for everything. But I have learned to hold my plans loosely. When I make a plan I give God permission to rewrite it, upend it, replace it, and he often does – to my delight. His plans are always better!
Amazing post Dr. Paul Ellis, it’s about the “practical ” side of walking in the Spirit of Grace. I know realize why despite being in the Spirit ave not experienced results commensurate with this new life!
Keep up with the enlightening posts pastor!
I absolutely needed to hear this. Thank you Paul.
If our flesh was dealt with on the cross then how could Paul have a thorn in his still existing, and seemingly needed to be buffeted, flesh?
I would not say our flesh was dealt with on the cross – we are still in the flesh and can walk after the flesh. This is why we are constantly exhorted to walk in the new way of the spirit. What was dealt with at the cross was my old self. I died with Christ.
Paul thanks for the reply…quick followup…
Doesn’t our soul & or spirit get the final say in our choices & they are in a sense above or deeper than the flesh? In other words doesn’t the soul & or spirit have to sign off on fleshy actions before they can occur?
A born-again Christian has a saintly natured soul & spirit. So then why would a pure soul & spirit ever side with or be any way tempted by sinful fleshy desires?
Thank you & I love the site!
I believe we are tempted to walk in the old ways of the flesh partly out of habit and partly because of pressure – it’s the way the world operates. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to pause, draw aside, and consider that we have better options. How long have I endured a trial before I even remembered to pray? It takes time to learn to walk in the new way of the spirit.
The flesh or the old self, What’s the difference, the best way is to see everything of Adam(old creation) as dealt with by the cross. When Jesus was nailed on the cross He was there in the flesh, representing all that was of Adam. Self is in the Adamic nature ( Flesh). What’s born of flesh is flesh, and God’s way of doing away with the Adamic nature creation is the cross…
Thanks for the comment. Pls note I don’t normally publish long comments. Thanks.
Amazing article Brother Paul, I love the way you present the gospel, in simple terms. When am reading I laugh out loud most of the time and at the same time my heart swells with the love of the Father. Thank God for you and what He is doing through you more super abounding grace.