who is romans 7 about?

Last night I spoke on the question ‘why do I still struggle with sin?’, using Romans 7 as my main passage. My three main points were 1) I struggle with sin because I’m human, 2) I struggle with sin because I’m a Christian, 3) I struggle with sin because I’m a work in progress (my salvation still has a future aspect to it). These points come right from Romans 7 if you understand Romans 7 to be an autobiographical statement from Paul as a mature believer. As I mentioned last night though, this isn’t the only interpretation of the passage.

Some have suggested that Paul here is referring to an unsaved person (i.e. himself before his conversion). Others believe Paul is talking about a ‘carnal Christian – an immature, unsurrendered believer. At least one important commentator (Martyn Lloyd-Jones) rejects both those views as untenable and opts for a third – the man of Romans 7 is a man under conviction. He has been awakened to his desperate condition by the Holy Spirit, but not yet made a full ‘participator in the new life of Jesus Christ’.

I could go through the various positions one by one and show the merits and faults in each one. I won’t. Instead, I want to show why I think the option mentioned last night at Connexion (that the apostle Paul is writing of himself and his struggles against sin as a mature believer) is the best interpretive option. I do so, however, with this caveat (bring it Dave), this interpretation doesn’t make sense of all the pieces of this puzzle, though I think it makes sense of more of them then the other interpretations. Moo comments, “the best interpretation will be the one that is able to do most justice to all the data of the text within the immediate and larger Pauline context.

First, there is a change in tense between 7:13 where Paul speaks in the past tense and 7:14 where Paul begins to speak in the present tense. Compare:

Verse 13: Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

v. 14-15: For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

The same present tense runs throughout v. 14-25. This leads me to believe it is Paul writing about his present experience as a mature believer, not his previous experience as a nonbeliever or immature Christian.

Second, what Paul says of himself in this passage does not line up with what Paul says about his preChristian life. Before his Damascus road experience he was self confident, self righteous, satisfied with his law keeping (see Phil. 3:3-6). Now, as a mature Christian he Paul is rightly distressed over his inability to keep the law, desperate for salvation from the presence of his sin, acknowledging his own inability to deal with sin effectively.

Third, and related, Paul represents himself as delighting in the law and hating sin. These two things are not characteristics of the unregenerate nonbelievers. Paul has stated earlier Romans 3:11-12 that “…no one does good,not even one.” Obviously, delighting in God’s law is something commended in Scripture (Psalm 1:1-2, 37:23, 40:8, 112:1, 119). Yet, no one apart from God’s regenerating grace does good and so no one apart from God’s regenerating grace delights in his law. This is in accord with what Paul writes in Romans 8:7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Again, I assume that delighting in God’s law pleases God, yet this is something we cannot do if we live in the flesh [solely]. Moreover, the ‘mind’ in ch. 7 is what Paul uses to serve God; however, in other places Paul represents the unregenerate mind as hopeless out of step with God (Rom 1:28, Eph 4:17, Tit 1:15). Boice sums up, “the ‘man’ of Romans 7 is one who has moved beyond the hostility to God’s law exercised by the unregenerate person.”

Fourth, the flow of Romans 6-8 suggest that Paul is talking of the Christian life. If Paul is speaking of a nonbeliever, it’s a weird digression. He begins with justification in Romans 5&6, concludes with glorification in Romans 8. Chapter 7 fits into this context, describing the ongoing struggle against sin, the working out our salvation, the process of sanctification. If he had a nonbeliever in mind his comments would have fit better in Romans 2&3.

Fifth, Sam Storms is right on when he comments, “That Paul should qualify his statement in v. 18 that “nothing good dwells in me” with “that is, in my flesh,” seems to indicate that there is more to Paul than “flesh,” namely, Spirit. In the unregenerate there is only flesh.” Before our rebirth there is nothing but flesh.

I really like what AW Pink wrote regarding this chapter, particularly the cry of Paul in v. 24,
“This moan, ‘O wretched man that I am,’ expresses the normal experience of the Christian, and any Christian who does not so moan is in an ab-normal and un-healthy state spiritually. The man who does not utter this cry daily is either so out of communion with Christ, or so ignorant of the teachings of Scripture, or so deceived about his actual condition, that he knows not the corruptions of his own heart and the abject failure of his own life. . . . Nor is it only the ‘back-slidden’ Christian, now convicted, who will mourn thus. The one who is truly in communion with Christ, will also emit this groan, and emit it daily and hourly. Yea, the closer he draws to Christ, the more will he discover the corruptions of his old nature, and the more earnestly will he long to be delivered from it.”

While all this is true, and true of every believer, we cannot forget that we also live in Romans 6 and in light of the promise in Romans 6:14, “sin will have no dominion over you”. What a great promise. We may get beat down on occasion, lose a few battles; yet, the war is already won. Sin is not our master for we are no longer defined solely by our flesh, as if that is all there were to us. No, we now live in the Spirit. We experience a progressive (and incomplete) victory over sin in this life but look forward with eagerness the final victory that comes when Christ returns! Maranatha.

4 thoughts on “who is romans 7 about?

  1. I’ve puzzled over this for decades, but in recent years have been fairly comfortable with the idea that Paul is describing the experience of a person trying to please God by keeping the Law. Questions about whether that person is saved or not really come from somewhere other than this passage. Paul nowhere else describes his Christian life as being like this piece of misery. I don’t think he is writing autobiographically, although of course his writing is likely informed by feelings he’s had both before and after his conversion.

    But again, I think he is not writing about his daily lived experience of wretchedness but rather the inability of flesh to keep the Law. It is not, I think, the autobiograhical “I” but rather the rhetorical “I”.

    Trying to place the man of Romans 7 precisely on the salvific timeline is difficult (as you have illustrated) and unnecessary: there are applicabilities for both believers and unbelievers.

  2. I miss listening to your sermons, Dan. Would it be possible to have them available for download on the church’s website along with Bob’s?

    Thanks for the logical treatment of your position here.

  3. Lisa, thanks for the encouragement. If you really wanted to, the Sunday night sermons are posted on the connexion website – connexiononline.org.

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