What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.
In a number of other passages, Paul refers to the state of the unbeliever as being dead in sins. (One example is Ephesians 2:1: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”) He is not contradicting himself here. Instead, he is expressing the point of view of the unbeliever, who being unaware of his sin, does not realize the deadly impact it has on his life.
Isaac Watts, the father of Christian hymnody, tackled countless passages that few if any have addressed since. Later eras are often more specialized; for instance, late-1800s Victorian-era hymnody dealt largely with Scriptural passages dealing with the moment of conversion. Great Depression-era songwriting dealt with promises of Heavenly treasure and joy. Late 1900s Christian songwriting often dealt with God’s love. But Watts fearlessly tackled any sort of passage, finding ways to make the passage singable.
Lord, how secure my conscience was,
And felt no inward dread!
I was alive without the law,
And thought my sins were dead.
My hopes of heav’n were firm and bright,
But since the precept came
With a convincing power and light,
I find how vile I am.
My guilt appeared but small before,
Till terribly I saw
How perfect, holy, just, and pure,
Was thine eternal law.
Then felt my soul the heavy load,
My sins revived again
I had provoked a dreadful God,
And all my hopes were slain.
I’m like a helpless captive, sold
Under the power of sin
I cannot do the good I would,
Nor keep my conscience clean.
My God, I cry with every breath
For some kind power to save,
To break the yoke of sin and death,
And thus redeem the slave.
For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
How should Christians repent after committing a sin we knew was wrong, after giving into a fleshly temptation? This is the classic passage on the topic, the first to come to a Biblically literate mind. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s been the basis for numerous songs from the 1600s through today.
One particularly strong treatment comes from John Cennick (1717-1755) in “How Sad and Awful Is My State”:
How sad and awful is my state!
The very thing I do, I hate!
When I to God draw near in pray’r,
I feel the conflict even there!
I mourn, because I cannot mourn,
I hate my sin, yet cannot turn;
I grieve, because I cannot grieve,
I hear the truth, but can’t believe.
Where shall so great a sinner run?
I see I’m ruin’d and undone;
Dear Lord, in pity now draw near,
And banish ev’ry rising fear.
Thy blood dear Lord, which thou hast spilt,
Can make this rocky heart to melt;
Thy blood can make me clean within–
Thy blood can pardon all my sin.
‘Tis on the atonement of that blood,
I now approach to thee, my God;
This is my hope, this is my claim,
Jesus has died and wash’d me clean.
Two modern-day treatments, popularized by Keith Green and the Cathedrals, could hardly be more different—except for their core message:
The Dilemma (Romans 7:14-25) (1993)
Popularized by Sandi Patty
How sad and awful is my state! (Romans 7:15)
Smote by thy law, I’m justly slain (Romans 7:9)
The Man I Used To Be (Romans 7:15-19)
Bill Flurry | Popularized by The Cathedrals