So What’s Really Up With Romans 7?

photo by Vectorportal

I know, I know, I’ve been on this Romans 7 soapbox for a couple posts now. I’ve been ranting and raving, saying that Romans 7:7-25 is not about Christians at all. I promise I’ll get down after this post and the tendons in my neck will go back to normal levels, non-fanatical levels. But there’s one question that seems to linger in the air when I talk about Romans 7:7-25:

Why do so many people think the passage is about Christians?

I mean, come on, I’m disagreeing with John Piper, J.C. Ryle, John Owen, and a lot of other dangerously smart, godly guys. Yes I am. I humbly and respectfully think that they’re wrong. But I can understand why they, and so many others, think that Romans 7:7-25 is about the Christian.

First, in some ways, the passage seems to describe what we experience as Christians. When Paul describes, in the present tense (“didn’t Stephen’s mom ever teach him about grammar?”), the internal battle of wanting to obey God, yet finding himself disobeying, we can relate to that. The battle against sin is hard and feels like a struggle! Fighting against sin can be exhausting! We do fail and stumble. We all can relate at some level to the struggle that Paul is describing.

But does Paul speaking in the present tense mean that he is describing the Christian experience? I don’t think so. Gordon Fee helpfully says:

What Paul describes throughout is what it was like to live under the law; and whatever else is true of the Christian Paul, he did not consider himself to be under the law. What he describes from his now Christian perspective, is what it was like to live under law before Christ and the Spirit. The use of “I” and the present tense of the verbs only heighten the intensity of his feelings toward the utter helplessness of the law to do anything about the real problem of sin. (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, pg. 134)

The second reason so many people think this passage is about Christians is that we in the Reformed circles tend to lean pretty heavily on the Puritans, and nobody was more introspective about sin than the Puritans. I mean, seriously, they named their kids things like “Killing Sin” and “Fighting the Devil”.

John Owen, who was basically the Captain America of the Puritans, wrote some incredibly helpful things about the fight against sin. He believed that Romans 7:7-25 described the Christian experience and a portion of his writings flowed out of that perspective. His writings have shaped the way we Reformed folks think about the doctrine of indwelling sin.

Now, it’s quite possible that I could be wrong in my interpretation of Romans 7:7-25. After all, lots of ninja smart guys disagree with me. But I do think it’s important to sort through this question. If we interpret the passage as describing the Christian then it makes failure in our battle against sin much more acceptable. After all, if Paul felt this way, then surely I will too. But if it is describing a person without the Holy Spirit, it gives me much more faith that the Spirit will empower me in my battle against sin. As Paul says, I will be delivered from this body of death.

Okay, now I’ll step down.

  • Hammy

    In Romans 6 Paul tells us not to get comfortable with our sin. It seems like he is addressing the two extremes here: Those who think they have a license to sin, and those who are worried that they might sin too much. The main reason I think Romans 7 addresses Christians is because we don't struggle with sin as non-Christians. We are enslaved.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Hey Dave,

      I think when looking at Romans 7 you should put yourself not in the perspective of a Gentile, but in the perspective of a pious Jew who is trying to obey God's law. They would struggle to obey. They want to obey the law, but they have no power to do it. Does that make sense?

  • http://mrserven.blogspot.com Mrs. Erven

    I can definitely agree with your last paragraph. I think I agree with more, but I'm still unsure. :)

  • D.L.

    Again I say, the person without the Holy Spirit does not struggle. That's the crux of it.

    While I get what you're saying about this not being how Christians ought to "settled into" thinking about our sin — as Paul states, when this happens, we must immediately turn to Christ Jesus in whom we have forgiveness and newness of life…, only a regenerate person experiences this battle.

    Unbelievers do not "delight in the law of God".

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Actually DL, I think you could say that unbelievers of a certain type do delight in God's law. The Pharisees were obsessed with the law of God and definitely would have said that they delighted in it. Yet they could not keep is sufficiently. That's the type of person Paul is describing. A Jew who desires to keep the law of God, yet finds himself unable to because the Spirit is not in him.

      • D.L.

        HI Stephen, Thanks for the reply, but I'd still disagree with this. Just because someone is obsessed with rule keeping does not mean that they "delight" in it. A regenerate Jew may delight in the law of God, but the Pharisees were known for trying to keep the letter of the law (which makes them feel superior), rather than the Spirit of the law. Romans 7 is descrinbing the kind of conviction that comes when a person realizes that they can't possibly keep the law perfectly. But, what Paul is doing is saying, that the Holy Spirit doesn't just convict us like this and leave us there. The Holy Spirit is also God's power that moves away from our flesh/our old man, progressively, as He sanctifies us and grows us up into ever increasing Christlikeness….. __Thanks for the subject. Grace to you.

        • D.L.

          (an excellent parallel reference is 2 Corinthian 3) Maybe another good topic for another thread :) … Thanks.

    • Dell Russell

      D.L. you really should get out more. Of course sinners struggle, just is we have been given a way out of the temptations we face as Christians.

      • D.L.

        Dude, you really should read a little better. I didn't say sinners don't struggle. I said non-Christians/the unregenerate don't struggle. If you "got out" a little more, you'd know that God gives the unregenerate over to the desires of the heart and they generally like doing it (even if they regret their consequences, they typically have no desire to stop doing what they're doing, or to please God). Have a good one.

  • Pingback: A Morning Peacock of Links (6/26) | hobojarpen

  • C.J. McMurry

    I love reading your blogs, but I still disagree with your interpretation of Romans 7. And I’m not even one of the ninja smart guys. ;-) I’m just not seeing it from a nonbeliever perspective at all.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      What about a Jewish man seeking to keep God's law?

      • Stephen Altrogge

        Who believed in the one true God?

      • C.J. McMurry

        ,Since Paul was born a Jew and he was the writer of Romans, I will carefully answer yes. Outside of that, no. ;-) He said he delights in the law of God in his INNER BEING but he sees in his members (old man) another law waging war against the law of his (new man) mind and making him captive to the law of sin that dwells in his members. And then verse 24 and 25 finish it off nicely. This is why HE is our only hope, even in our born again state! We are desperate for HIM daily! I fight this fight Paul speaks of daily and this fight, (possibly our thorn in the flesh), is what causes me to continue to draw near to the throne of grace!!!

  • Andrew R

    In verse 24 he asks who will save him from this "body" of death. He's not referring to a depraved concience or heart, which seems to be his consistent way of describing non-believing Jews and Gentiles alike.

    Secondly, the connecting language in the last few verses of chapter 7 and leading into chapter 8, combined with the statements in between, doesn't make sense to me if this isn't referring to believers. "…Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! SO THEN (signals he's making a concluding statement), on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. THEREFORE (because of the conclusion I just made) there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

    So that concluding summary statement following "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!", sandwhiched in between the "So then" and "Therefore" seems to clearly indicate that believers are in view here.

  • http://jon.limedaley.com/ jon daley

    “making sinning more acceptable”: amen. that is what i have seen in folks that proclaim that romans 7 is about christians.

    • Andrew R

      It works both ways. I've seen people trapped in very destructive patterns of sin and addiction who are in denial. They keep telling themselves that it isn't a part of them anymore and that they have been set free from sin. Yet they keep falling into it because they won't acknowledge the realities of their flesh.

      However you interpret Romans 7, Galatians 5:17, Jeremiah 17:9, and Genesis 4:7 still apply. Indwelling sin doesn't respect anyone's theological high horse.

  • Dell Russell

    I can see how some would say this is Paul as a Christian, but if one has followed closely you would understand it is without a doubt a lost man.

    I think there are a number of reasons they come to the conclusion to this being a saved man. 1, they don't believe a lost man can delight in the law of God, 2, because of what Paul says in 7:25a, and 3rdly, I think many read their experience into Romans 7.

    Paul has already told us back in chapter 2 that the Jew rested in the law. The word delight simply means to be personally satisfied with something. Well they were resting in the law because they were satisfied with the law, they delighted in the law, but they were not delighting in God. If delighting in the law was a sign of salvation Paul was certainly wasting his time and working against himself. In fact Paul was trying to get them to switch from law to faith. Delighting in the law is not a sign of salvation, do the law is, that is Paul's point here in Romans 6-8.

    7:25a is an interjection of praise. It is not the summation of chapter 7. 7:25b is the summation of chapter 7.

    If we will see this as a lost man we very well may experience something different, like being free from sin. If we can see Paul was an over comer then we can see ourselves as an over comer. But as long as we see that Paul was still a slave to sin then we will follow close behind. If poor ole Paul, the great Apostle could not over come then how in the world will I be able to?
    Paul has already told us he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, because it is the power of God unto salvation. Salvation is not just for the here after, but it is for the here and now as well.

    To be continued……………

  • Dell Russell

    Those that see Romans 7 as a lost man do so by the context of what is being said. But there is also another way Paul has made certain it is speaking of a lost man. Paul repeats himself over and over again in a pattern that is consistent with the flow of Romans.

    Before I show these "patterns" I would like to give another reason why many see Romans 7 as a saved man. Those that believe this to be a saved man read Romans as if it were in a chronological order from sinner to struggling saint to over coming saint. But as you will see this is far from the case.

    Romans 7:1-6 is a picture of Romans chapters 5-8.

    Romans 7:2 and 3 is about chapter 5.
    Romans 7:4 is about chapter 6.
    Romans 7:5 is about chapter 7.
    Romans 7:6 is about chapter 8.

    In Romans 7:2 and 3 there is the first husband. Many believe this husband to be the law of God, but that is not the case. The first husband is Adam in chapter 5.
    In Romans 5 we see our problem is we are in Adam and the cure to that problem is we get placed in Christ. Adam is the first husband, not the law.
    Also the first husband is described as the old man in chapter 6 and flesh, body, and members in chapters 6 and 8.

    Romans 7:4 is a one verse description of chapter 6. Just as this verse makes clear that "ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ…….that we should bring forth fruit unto God", So does chapter 6.

    Romans 7:5 is about chapter 7 and describes to a T the man in chapter 7.

    Romans 7:6 is about chapter 8 and it to is a one verse description of chapter 8.

    Read each verse(s) and then go back and read the chapter it goes with and see if each does not line up.

    For the sake of a long post, that no one really likes to read, you get the picture, but if not I will be glad to explain in detail.

    Something else that should be pointed out here is the tenses. As you will notice verse 4 is present tense, verse 5 is past tense, and verse 6 is present tense again.

    So we see chronological order is not the case for these verses nor is it for these chapters.
    Paul does this about a half dozen places in Romans and each time the verse(s) for chapter 7 is in the past tense or describes it as a lost man condition.

    Romans is not the only book/letter Paul wrote that he does this and there to you will see how Paul looks back to the past right in the middle of the saved man condition.
    Ephesians 2:1-3 can be compared to Romans 1:18-3:20. The depravity of man.
    Ephesians 2:4-10 can be compared to Romans 3:21-chapter 6. The gospel message.
    Ephesians 2:11-12 can be compared to Romans 7. A look back or as Paul says here, "remember…in times past, ye were without Christ".
    Ephesians 2:13-22 can be compared to Romans 8. Just as Romans 8 is moving forward in that salvation here we are moving forward in the promises of God.

    Again as you read Ephesians chapter 2 you will notice the tenses and how they change from one to another. Just as we see here the chronological order thing is not Paul's way of thinking, but rather it is a contrasting of how things are and how things were and then moving forward in the way it is now that we have been born again.

    This is my own personal studies over a number of years and by no means is this all of it.