Romans 7 Is NOT About Christians!

photo by Rahu

I used to think that Romans 7:7-25 was describing the Christian experience of the battle against sin. I don’t think that anymore. In fact, I don’t the passage is talking about Christians at all, and in the next several posts I hope to show you why.

But before I rush headlong into this thorn bush of a passage, let me issue a few disclaimers. First, lots of Christians, including some ultra-smart (like, able to bend spoons with their mind kind of smart) believe that this is talking about Christians. So I’m in the minority here. Second, these posts are not going to be a place for theological cage fighting. I would love to hear your perspective and be sharpened by your thoughts, but there won’t be any comment bashing on this blog. If your comment stinks, I’ll probably delete it.

And, I realize that there are a lot of questions that this post and future posts will raise. I’ll try to answer them as they come up, but I can’t promise that I can answer every question.

Let me tell you right up front who I think Romans 7 is talking about (that’s a terribly constructed sentence, but it’s 9AM and the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet). Romans 7:7-25 was written to describe the experience of a pious Jew, possibly Paul himself before conversion, who is seeking to obey the law, yet finds himself unable to obey apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is not written about a Christian trying to follow Jesus and constantly failing.

NO HOLY SPIRIT!



The first and primary reason I believe that this is not about Christians is the complete lack of any mention of the Holy Spirit in these verses. In Romans 7:6 Paul says:

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

This pretty much sums up Paul’s thinking on pursuing holiness as a Christian. We serve in the new way of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in us, empowering us to overcome and to conquer sin. We are no longer slaves, we are sons. Under the law we were powerless to obey God and his commands, but under the new covenant we have the law written on our hearts.

In Galatians 5:16, Paul says:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

There is such certainty in this verse! If we walk by the Spirit we absolutely will not gratify the desires of the flesh. We won’t be dominated by our desires, we will have victory over them by the power of the Spirit.

But in Romans 7:18-19, Paul says:

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.

That statement simply does not line up with everything else Paul says about living the Christian life. As a Christian, he does have the ability to carry out the desire to what’s right. As a Christian, he does not have to keep doing the evil he does not want to do. He is a new creation in Christ, with the law written on his heart.

As Gordon Fee says regarding Romans 7:7-25:

The person here described never wins. Being under the helpless law, in the face of the more powerful flesh and sin, means being sold as a slave under sin, and thus incapable of doing the good thing the law demands. Such a description is absolutely incompatible with Paul’s view of life in Christ, empowered by the Spirit. (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, pg. 134)

Paul is not describing his life as a Christian. He’s describing what it was like to be a Jew who genuinely sought to obey the law of God, yet felt himself to be powerless apart from the Spirit.

The hard thing about this passage is that it describes many of our experience in the battle against sin. What are we to make of that? More on that later.

  • http://jxd1689.tumblr.com Jason D.

    Ah,… this explains why are don't like the "Prone to wander" text.

  • Barry Wallace

    Stephen, here's an excellent, detailed, Reformed exposition of the text that takes the same position you have.
    http://www.ccwblog.org/2010/01/conviction-of-fles

  • Ricky Alcantar

    What's your take on Paul's qualification of "that is, in my flesh"? What do you think he's referring to when he says "flesh"?

    • Bob

      RIcky,
      It has been helpful for me to interpret his use of flesh there based on his use of it in chapter 8 (esp. 8:8-9). It seems clear thru the lens of ch 8 that Christians are no longer in the realm of the flesh but in the realm of the Spirit. He only uses flesh here to refer to those who are not Christians.

  • bloodbought

    I will be interested to read the rest of your thoughts and I hate that with preparing for a ceritication exam, training for a fall marathon, working full time and having two kids I don't much time for online discussions like this, but I do want to share my thoughts…

    My thoughts are in parenthesis:
    For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. (this is true for the believer. In my flesh, there is no good and my only hope is the Spirit's power working in me). For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Paul doesn't specifically say the right desire is, but we can all agree that no Christian lives righteously or holy all the time. Sanctification is still a continual process. Even when I do my best, there is sin mingled in it). For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (I think this is why it is so important that we pray Psalm 139 so that God can search us, know us, try us and lead us in the way that is right).
    (Romans 7:18-19 ESV)

    Your knowledge of the greek is better then mine, but the sense that I get is that Paul is writing in present tense. If I look at v. 7-13 of this chapter it appears to be past tense, but then in verse 14 he switches to a present tense. In V.14 it might seems confusing to think of a believer as being sold under sin until we use scripture to interpret scripture and read Ephesians 1:14 which talks about the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. As believers we are sold under sin, but Christ has paid our ransom, the acquisition is not complete and indwelling sin (Romans 7) still remains for the believer. So we don't lose heart we have been given the Holy Spirit who is a guarantee that our redemption is real even though our experience is not always the triumphant life.

  • https://www.facebook.com/Robert.Leonardo.50 Robert Leonardo

    I think Paul is just contrasting the two as a persuasion to his Jewish audience

  • http://katie-joy.blogspot.com Katie D.

    Wow, way to leave us hanging! I'd always thought that it talked about Christians…but I am interested to hear your thoughts. Eagerly awaiting your next post….

  • https://www.facebook.com/Robert.Leonardo.50 Robert Leonardo

    Enter text right here!

  • https://www.facebook.com/Robert.Leonardo.50 Robert Leonardo

    So I think we agree Stephen…?

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Yes, I think we agree.

  • Daniel

    First off, let me say that I appreciate your blog and your writing and enjoy reading it quite a lot. I am often in agreement with you and, even in areas of disagreement, I know there is unity in Christ that is deeper.

    That being said, I would have to say that I disagree with you on this passage. I see your point, I believe, but there's still a few questions in my mind. I feel that bloodbought, above, raises a good point about the tense of the Greek verbs, though I am no Greek expert in anyway either.

    The most prominent question in my mind, I think, is "Can we say that nonbelievers 'have the desire to do what's right' (v. 18) or that they 'delight in the law of God' (v. 22)?

    I am curious to see your further posts on this passage. Once again, thank you for your part in this blog. It is often a blessing to me.

    Soli Deo Gloria

    • Mrs. C

      I have understood that Romans 7 was not about Christians for years.
      I absolutely believe that unbelievers have a desire to do/be 'good'. Ask any unbeliever if they think they are a good person, and 90 out of 100 will say yes, which is, to say, they desire to do what is right. Unfortunately every one with this desire has shortly realized the impossibility of wrangling the flesh into complete submission/obedience without the strength of the Spirit of God.

  • Evan May

    I agree with this understanding of the text.

    I think it's important to see the connection, flow of argument, etc. between chapter 7 and chapter 8.

    Stephen cites 7:6, which says, "But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code."

    This contrast between the old order of the code and the new order of the Spirit is expressed again at the beginning of 8:

    "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (8:1-4)

    7:6 and 8:4 form an inclusio, with 7:7-25 illustrating the old order. The rest of chapter 8 describes the new order of the Spirit.

  • https://www.facebook.com/fjaxheimer Frederick Jaxheimer

    I think this interpretation deserves further study. I agree it could be a contrast.. and possibly not to Christians.. but not all the Historical evidence supports that view. First, Paul clearly wrote this letter to the believers in Christ in the capital city of the Roman Empire. His letter is written to the Roman congregations that were in big transition.. In 49 AD Emperor Claudius expelled Jews, including many Jewish Christians from Rome. While all did not leave most did. When Claudius died and they returned, Jewish Christians found an operating church now run by Gentile Christians, whose numbers had increased. Tension was inevitable. I believe Paul is trying to help the early church "iron out" the importance of the Law.. see many of the Christians are essentially Messianic Jews that believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah .. the other half of the Body of Christ is Gentile with certainly a differing view of the Jewish Law… they were like us if we had none of Paul's writings.. they had only the Gospel and they lacked an understanding of the Law because the Jews (those most educated on the Law) had fled or were in hiding for years. No, I still believe Paul is talking about the inner struggle .. of both Saint and Sinner… like Luther describes..and he is more directly talking about the internal struggle of the Body of Christ in Rome.. How to Jews that convert to Christianity.. going to meld with Gentiles that are baptized into Christ and have never studied the Law? But I look forward to more of the opposite opinion. Peace, Fred

  • https://www.facebook.com/davidjrojas David Rojas

    Stephen,

    Perhaps you will comment on this, but I wanted to mention it anyway.

    The last thing Paul mentions in Romans 7 is that he serves the law of God in his mind, but the law of sin with his flesh. And just previously he asks who can deliver him from his body of death (which he says is Jesus).

    Now in Romans 8:2, he goes on to say that for those who are in Christ Jesus, they are set FREE from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit of life (walking/living by the Spirit).

    So, it does seem to indicate that he is first describing the "pious" life of the Jew who seeks to serve God in mind, but is unable to be delivered from the sin of his flesh, and then goes on to show how there is freedom from sin and death (even in this life Romans 8:11) by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

    • https://www.facebook.com/davidjrojas David Rojas

      It might also be really good to bring up Galatians 5:16-26 to help this discussion.

      "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self- control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
      25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another."

      • https://www.facebook.com/davidjrojas David Rojas

        And one last thing. :)

        I think it is really good to note that Paul is talking to "those who know the law" – these are Jews, who understand and have lived/are living according to the Law.

  • Clayton

    I think that the fact that this text doesn’t explicitly mention the Holy Spirit is in itself proof that this passage is not about Paul’s Christian warfare against sin. In verse 18 he says “there is nothing good in me, that is, in my flesh.” Why did he add that last part if he is describing himself before he was born again? “That is, in my flesh” only makes since if the Spirit of God and Christ is in you – as only Christians experience (Romans 8:7-9). I would also like to see you give an account for how your interpretation of the latter part of Romans 7 upholds the argument he’s making in this section of the book.

    • Andrew R

      Excellent point!

  • Clayton

    I meant to say for my first sentence I the precious post: I *DON’T* think etc.

  • https://www.facebook.com/Robert.Leonardo.50 Robert Leonardo

    I will be pretty simple here; but my position is Paul of course has both the Jews who became Christianized and those Jews whom had not come to faith yet in this particular chapter, more then a Gentile audience I think. I need to do a more in depth study, but if what we are really trying to decipher in part A is; does a believer have an advantage over a non-believer: of course in the Holy Spirit–A will to want to do well in Christ, and I believe (some differ) a power to do so that is greater then the flesh could ever achieve

    Those particular scripture Steve points out 7:1-25 seem that , "those that know the law" are of course Jews, 7:7-25 still seems like its for a Jewish audience …so he is contrasting pure law What Meshiak has accomplished perfecting it all. So the man who is wrestling, fighting with sin is all mankind, but only the Jews initially new the law so intimately and Pauls heart was so eager to help them.

    So it is true we all wrestle with flesh, but if what we are boiling this down to in part B; is can a believer be willy nilly regarding his position in Christ and still revile in his sin–paul answers that clearly in 7:24….I am orthodox at least I think i am, and I am not confident in my salvation if I dont have some sort of desperation for Jesus to of course love Him, but to also change my disgusting sin nature, and that should result in some change–if not, then I am not working out my salvation and I should not be fooled into thinking I am in His Grace or even Saved.

    Great discussion

  • TVOWFG

    Actually, this scripture is talking about the difference between the "Law of the spirit" and the "Law of the flesh." He's also talking about the "Law of God" (through spirit and truth) and the "law of man" (symbolic terms ) / Old Law of God. The "law of man" and the "old Law of God" have two things in common, tradition and "the letter." when the law judges by "the letter" there's not much desire for mercy and the spiritual things that strengthen the arms of the poor, the oppressed, the fatherless, the widows, etc.

    "but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, NOT IN THE LETTER; whose praise is not from men but from God (Roman 2:29)." <the voice of one who fears God>

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  • https://www.facebook.com/Robert.Leonardo.50 Robert Leonardo

    Good point TVOWFG.

  • Bob

    Christians have God the Holy Spirit working in them. They therefore have both the desire AND the ability to please God.
    …for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13 ESV)

    The Romans 7 man has the desire, but NOT the ability.
    For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Romans 7:18 ESV)

    The Romans 7 man gets set free by the Spirit only after trusting in Jesus.
    For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2 ESV)

  • Ryan

    I find these words from Piper to be wise and deflamatory on an issue that can cause heated emotions: “I do believe you can make a more or less plausible case for all of these possibilities and that none of them necessarily leads you into false teaching on the larger, over-all view of sanctification. In other words, it is possible to be wrong on our interpretation of one text but right in our view of the Christian life. You might say, “This text is not about Christian experience,” and still believe that Christians have experiences like this – sometimes doing what we don’t want to do. Or you might say, “This text is about Christian experience,” and still believe that much more victory over sin is possible than this in the Christian life.”

    I don’t mean that our interpretation doesn’t matter; it certainly does. But what if we miss Paul’s main point because we’re worried about whether or not his man is saved?

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  • http://sevennotesofgrace@wordpress.com Ros Barrett

    Thanks for opening this discussion on such a challenging passage.

  • Jeremy Lucarelli

    The two things that led me to this interpretation might help some that are wondering themselves; it cam through inductively studying Romans 6-8.

    1. A list of “In Christ” and contrasting list of “In Adam” from all three chapters.
    2. Parsing the verbs in chapter 7, especially the tenses.

    Can’t wait to read more!

  • http://solofide.blogspot.com/2012/04/you-can-see-black-spider-crawling-up.html Deb

    I like what Packer said about this passage: “Young man, Paul wasn’t struggling with sin because he was such a sinner. Paul was struggling because he was such a saint. Sin makes you numb. People who sin over and over again become desensitized to sin. The reason Paul’s “struggle” was so intense was not because he was caught in a web of sin, or because he thought of himself as hopelessly doomed to giving into the temptations that he faced. Rather, it was because Paul lived a life so sensitive to the Holy Spirit and passionate about the glory of God that he intensely felt his sins whenever he became aware that he had committed a sin (since he was not, of course, sinlessly perfect).”

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  • Clifton Means

    Romans 7 may not be talking about a Christian persay but is a warning to those still tempted to go back to the Law. To oversimplify this to simply pertain to the unconverted is to make much of the new testament irrelevant to modern time. The ‘law’ in Romans 7 describes someone attempting to obey the Law (that shall not covet)…like Galatia, a Christian who places themselves under the standards of the Law, will ‘frustrate the Spirit’ in their life. So regardless of its intended target, all Christians must be weary of placing themselves under a performance based religion. Romans 7 is the result…a life void of the Spirit’s working.

  • http://www.davidbibee.com/ David Bibee

    How do you account for the fact that the person described supposedly desires to be obedient and wants to turn from sin? Paul also makes it very clear that no one seeks after God on their own. I don’t believe this can describe a Christian because, at least according to Paul, nonbelievers are hostile to God in their minds and are unconcerned with a real pursuit of holiness.

  • bjoelbrown

    AMEN!