Sunday Morning Greek Blog

August 21, 2011

Doing What I Don’t Desire to Do (Romans 7:13–25)

Filed under: Biblical Studies,New Testament,Repentance,Romans,Theology, Biblical — Scott Stocking @ 9:57 pm

Anyone who has ever read Romans has come across the interesting, seemingly repetitive passage in 7:13–25 (specifically vv. 15–21) where Paul says “I do not do what I want to do.” The TNIV has the word “do” (or a form of it) 24 times in those seven verses, and 6 of those come in verse 15! I would hazard a guess that the verb “do” in English is used almost as much as the “to be” verb. Perhaps a better comparison would be to the use of the verb “have” when forming the perfect tense in English. Just as in those cases “have” does not mean “to possess,” so the modal function of “do” doesn’t necessarily mean “to act”. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find the word used numerous times in any English text. But such a high concentration in the current text suggests that something is up.

When I read through this passage this week, I was surprised to find that Paul used not one, but three words that have been translated as “do” (modal uses aside) in many English Bible versions. In order to set this up, I think it will be beneficial to review those words and see how they impact the meaning of the passage. If we can “undo” the multiple uses of “do” to some extent, we might see a slightly different view of the passage emerge.

The Word Studies


The first word for “do” Paul uses is κατεργάζομαι (katergazomai, \kat air GAH zaw my\). This word is found 22 times in the New Testament: eleven of those occurrences are in Romans; six are in chapter 7, and five are in the immediate context of this passage. In this context, the word carries the implication of the results of what is “done.” In 7:8, for example, Paul says that “sin…produced in me every kind of covetousness” (TNIV). Later, in verse 13 (which is the beginning of the paragraph in the Greek text), Paul says that sin’s purpose was “to produce death in me” (my translation). If it weren’t for these two uses, I was almost ready to translate the other 4 occurrences in this passage as “motivate” or even “influence,” because that seems to be what the context implies. By “produce”, I mean “accomplish” or “result in” (see Louw & Nida). However, I will defer to the primacy factor here and go with the translation “produce” when I give my version of the passage below.

I do want to lay out for you how this word is used in its other four occurrences in this passage so you can compare them for yourselves.

A 15: I know not what I am producing. (Perhaps another way to render this is, “I don’t know what the end result is,” or “I don’t know what I’m accomplishing.”)

B 17: For I myself am no longer producing it, but the sin living in me is. (This is where I get the idea of “motivation” in the word.)

C 18: For my desire is present, but my production is not honorable. (This may be the crux verse. Paul uses a different word for “good” here: καλός instead of ἀγαθός; more on that later.)

B′ 20: (same as 17): For I myself am no longer producing it, but the sin living in me is.


The second word for “do” we come across is πράσσω (prassō, \PRAHSS soh\). Those of you who know something of Greek roots may recognize this as the root from which “practice,” “praxis,” and “pragmatic” are all derived. This word is found 39 times in the NT, with 10 of those occurrences in Romans, and even more in Acts. By a factor of about 7 to 1, the word is used in a negative or neutral context rather than referring to anything good, that is, practicing sin, evil, or wickedness. For example, Paul uses the word twice in Romans 1:32 to describe the practice of those who have given themselves over to their base desires. Christian Maurer, in his article on the word in the TDNT (summarized in the TDNTA, “Little Kittel”), says that the word “denotes the activity rather than the outcome,” which I contrast with κατεργάζομαι above. The word is used twice in near parallel construction in vv. 15 and 19, but there is one significant difference, and here, the Greek word order is important:

15: οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω τοῦτο πράσσω (E), ἀλλʼ ὃ μισῶ τοῦτο ποιῶ (F). (“For I practice not the thing that I desire, but I do the thing that I hate.”

19: οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω ποιῶ (F′) ἀγαθόν, ἀλλὰ ὃ οὐ θέλω κακὸν τοῦτο πράσσω (E′). (“For I do not the good thing that I desire, but I practice the evil thing I desire not.” Notice he adds the moral qualifiers in vs. 19 as well.)

(I realize my translations sound like Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try,” but I’m trying to be literal and not use “do” more than necessary.) These two phrases serve as a chiastic inclusio for the passage. If you don’t remember what a chiasm is, that’s when a series of items is repeated in reverse order, a common structural feature of the biblical text in both testaments. “I don’t practice the thing I desire…I practice the evil thing I don’t desire”; “I do the thing that I hate…I don’t do the good thing that I desire.” I find it interesting that in vs. 15, he breaks from using the word for “desire” (θέλω thelō, \THEH loh\; used 7 times in this passage) and uses the word for “hate” (μισέω miseō, \miss EH oh\), telegraphing how he feels about doing the thing he doesn’t desire to do (compare with the first phrase of vs. 16).


The Greek word most frequently used for “do” or “make” in the NT (568 times) is the third word we encounter here: ποιέω (poieō, \poi EH oh\). This word is found five times in this passage. Verses 15, 16, and 20 are nearly parallel: “I do the thing that I hate. If I do the thing that I do not desire….” Verse 19 is slightly different, as already seen above. Verse 21 is the only place in this passage where this word is connected with doing something “honorable,” but its use throughout the NT is widely varied as you might guess. There is nothing unusual about the translation of the word in this passage, so in my translation of the passage, I will render it as “do”.

ἀγαθός and καλός

One final bit of word study should be added to this discussion as well. Paul goes back and forth between using the typical Greek word for morally good (ἀγαθός agathos \ah gah THAWSS\) and the typical Greek word for aesthetically good (καλός kalos \kah LOSS\). There is some overlap of meaning between the two words (both words are contrasted with κακός kakos “evil”, the former in vs. 19, the latter in vs. 21), but καλός tends to be slightly more abstract and doesn’t have quite the moral load that ἀγαθός does. For the purposes of my translation, where ἀγαθός is used, I will use “good,” but where καλός is used, I will use “honorable.”

My Translation

To this point, I’ve given very stiff, literal translations of the Greek text, and I’m guessing some of you who don’t have a Greek background are scratching your heads. But I want to try to give a dynamic equivalence (which will probably sound more like something out of The Message) of this passage, focusing on vv. 15–21. So here it goes:

I don’t understand what this battle between good and evil is going to produce in me in the end or why I’m even going through it. For I don’t practice what I really want to do: please God. Instead, I just blindly do the thing I hate. And if I blindly do what I really don’t want to do, I agree with the law that it is honorable in pointing out the sinfulness of my thoughtless deed. But now it’s no longer I myself producing the action I didn’t want to do, but it’s the unwelcome, indwelling sin that’s doing it. For I know that good doesn’t dwell in me, that is, in my sinful, fleshly nature; my desire to do a good thing is there in my mind, but my sinful, fleshly nature produces nothing honorable. I don’t do the good thing I want to do; instead, I practice the evil thing I really don’t want to do. If I blindly do what I don’t really want to do, it’s no longer I myself producing the action I didn’t want to do, but it’s the unwelcome, indwelling sin that’s doing it. Consequently, I find the law that evil is present with me when I desire to do what is honorable.

Paul goes on to talk about how his mind and inner man (are they one and the same?) are sold-out to God, but his sinful, fleshly nature still has a strong pull on him. He, like the rest of us, understands the daily struggle with sin. But here’s the kicker: even though this passage is written in the first person, Paul really isn’t speaking of himself here. The “I” of the passage must be discerned from vs. 14, where Paul says “I am unspiritual/fleshly.” He’s really putting on a persona of “everyman” or a man who still finds himself enslaved to sin or trying to be justified by the law. Craig Keener, in his IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, says that Paul is using a rhetorical method here known as “diatribe style,” which employs a fictitious speaker (“I”) and poses numerous rhetorical questions. He’s not writing about himself, at least not in the present. He could, however, be referring to his own struggle following the law prior to his conversion.

The reality is, if we have the Holy Spirit, we’ve put to death the persona that Paul has put on here. In chapter 6, Paul says we died with Christ in immersion (baptism) and were raised up with him in newness of life, so how can we live any longer in sin? The very first verse of chapter 8 can’t be ignored either, because it falls right on the heels of this section: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And the rest of chapter 8 bears out how God has once and for all dealt with the sinful nature that wars against our desire to do good. The Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to live victoriously over sin, will not leave us wanting in the battle with sin, “because through Christ Jesus, the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2, TNIV).

Well, I think that’s enough for now. I’ve spent all day on this, so it looks like I’m going to have to start writing Saturday night if I want to get these published on Sunday mornings. Peace to you. Have a great week!

Scott Stocking

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