Read: Romans 7:7-25
We began this series by considering in a general way the fact of the continuing sinfulness of all Christians and the importance of that fact and its implications for our daily living. We then took up in order five particular sins of which Christians – all Christians – continue to be guilty, not so much the more obvious sins of behavior, but the more structural sins that lie beneath, the sins that produce so many of our sins of thought, word, and deed.
Now we conclude this series on the Christian’s sinfulness and sin with an examination of one of the most important texts concerning a Christian’s sinfulness, Paul’s autobiographical comments in Romans 7:14-25. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, is one of our teachers of the Christian faith as an author of 13 of the books of the New Testament. But he is also, and very emphatically so, a representative Christian. Not Paul alone, to be sure. We could say the same thing for Peter or James or any number of other Christians of the apostolic age known to us from the pages of the New Testament. But Paul looms above them all for the simple reason that his thirteen letters form such a large part of the New Testament and are an unparalleled treasure trove of first hand testimony concerning one man’s Christian life. For example, the circumstances of Paul’s conversion are reported four times in the New Testament. Indeed more space is devoted to the narrative of Paul’s conversion than to the narrative of the Lord’s resurrection! And so with respect to other dimensions of the Christian life. Paul often reports to us his own experiences, the desires of his heart, his fears or frustrations, his joys, and the manner and method of his life and service as a follower of Jesus Christ. All of these, for the past 2,000 years have been a very important source of instruction and inspiration to Christian believers. Paul sometimes wrote that he fully understood that he was a representative Christian in the view of other believers – he even sometimes urged Christians in the churches to which he wrote letters to follow his example. “Follow me as I follow Christ,” he wrote to the Corinthian Christians. [1 Cor. 11:1]
All of this to say that when we come to an elaborate piece of Paul’s autobiography, as we do in Romans 7, we have no difficulty understanding that Paul is not simply satisfying our curiosity about the life of an important early Christian, even an apostle of Jesus Christ. He is speaking for himself, absolutely. He is speaking about himself, absolutely. But his experience is the experience of a representative Christian man. What we learn about Paul, we are also learning about ourselves and the Christian life in general. There is nothing daring in this conclusion. Paul confirms it for us himself in the next chapter when he goes on, in effect, to say that what he just said about himself is true about every Christian in the nature of the case. We could also demonstrate quite easily that the gist of Paul’s personal reflections about himself given in these verses in Romans 7 is taught elsewhere in his letters as truth that applies to the Christian life in general. For example, it is commonplace among biblical expositors to find a parallel to Rom. 7:14-25 in Galatians 5:16-26.
But there is a special power in the account of a believer’s continuing sinfulness such as we have in Paul’s cri de coeur in Rom. 7:14-25. The fact that it is a first person account gives it immediacy and a conviction. What is more, there is no escaping the emotion Paul puts into this account of his struggle with sin. It is, as well, a lengthy statement and includes some striking remarks. It is these features that have made this passage a crux interpretum, that is, the passage around which the discussion of a particular issue of theology or spirituality revolves. It is precisely for this reason that I have no hesitation to spend several Sunday evenings talking about this single text. Its importance is such that, in a very real way, your view of this text will shape profoundly your understanding of the Christian life, your definition of holiness, your view of what constitutes the assurance of salvation, and so on.
Let me read two short citations by two representative Christian thinkers.
Here is the Methodist scholar and Oxford professor, R.Newton Flew, in his book The Idea of Perfection :
“St. Paul does not speak of himself as sinless after conversion. … But it is a striking fact that in [Paul’s] epistles we meet no heartfelt utterances of deep contrition for present sin such as are common in evangelical piety, under the influence of the Reformation.”
In Flew’s view, the Christian life is described by Paul and elsewhere in the New Testament as a largely successful affair. Romans 7 does not speak against this because, as Flew says explicitly, Paul is not speaking as a Christian in Romans 7. Remaining sin, according to Paul, at least in Prof. Flew’s judgment, is not the problem some Christians have imagined it to be. Some years ago a Wesleyan speaker in Covenant College’s chapel told the students that it had been many months since he last sinned.
That is certainly not my view of things. To put it bluntly, if that chapel speaker were right about himself and, as must be the case, right about Paul in Romans 7, then my view of the Christian life is seriously in error and you need a new minister badly! Much more typical of Protestant and Reformed spiritual writing, here is Samuel Rutherford writing to one of his favorite correspondents, Lady Kenmure. [Letters, CVI, 219]
“I find you complaining of yourself, and it becometh a sinner so to do. I am not against you in that. The more sense the more life. The more sense of sin the less sin.”
You will see easily enough that these two men see Christian experience in very different ways. One sees it in terms of an intense inner struggle with temptation, a record of spiritual failure frequent enough and grievous enough that mourning over one’s sin and longing for release from one’s sinfulness are characteristic features of the godly Christian life. The other doesn’t see such features as part of the New Testament’s profile of the Christian life. That is, quite obviously, a very significant difference in outlook with immense implications for what it means to be a Christian and how Christians are to think about their lives.
But, what is very important to understand, is that the reason R.N. Flew can say that the New Testament does not contain “utterances of deep contrition for present sin such as are common in evangelical piety” is precisely because and only because he does not find such an utterance in Romans 7. And the reason Samuel Rutherford wrote as he did of the importance, even the virtue, of a Christian woman carrying about with her a sense of her own sin was, in some significant part, due to the fact that he found Paul giving expression precisely and powerfully to that same sense of his own sin as a Christian in Romans 7:14-25. It is, of course, true that we would find support for Rutherford’s viewpoint elsewhere in Scripture, but the first text he would have turned to and the first we turn to is Romans 7:14-25.
The role of this text in shaping our understanding of the Christian life and of typical Christian experience, its role as what theologians call a crux, is what makes its correct interpretation so vital. And, as no doubt many of you are well aware, there are very different interpretations of this text that have been given through the centuries. Some of them are more arcane and complex.
For example, the great biblical theologian of the previous generation, Herman Ridderbos, maintained that Paul was not speaking autobiographically at all, but meant his readers to understand that the personal pronoun “I” throughout referred to Old Testament Israel and its experience with the Law of God. In another case, the Keswick or higher life interpretation of the 19th century had Paul here describing, not his own state, but the state of a Christian who was still living at the lower level of spiritual achievement, a carnal Christian, a very unhealthy Christian, who had not yet discovered the secret of the “higher Christian life.” This man is in misery over his sins precisely because he is still attempting “to conquer the old nature by self-effort.” Paul is describing what happens to a Christian who loses sight of the grace of God as the principle of his daily life. Quite apart from other objections that may be raised against interpretations of this type, they suffer from what we might describe as the failure to take seriously the likely understanding of Paul’s ordinary listener. Would anyone in the congregation that first received Paul’s letter and first heard it read have thought that Paul was not describing his own experience but rather that of the nation of Israel? Biblical interpretations that sound plausible in a university or seminary classroom must, sooner or later pass this test: would any ordinary reader of the letter have imagined that this is what Paul meant? In the same way, who – apart from folk who had developed a paradigm of the Christian life such as that popular in higher life circles – would ever have gathered that Paul was talking not about himself but about a class of sub-standard Christians?
So we are down to the two major alternatives in the interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 and Paul’s emotional outburst about his disgust with himself and his still great sinfulness. The one is that Paul is still speaking of how he thought and felt before he became a Christian. That is, Paul in these verses is recollecting his inner experience as an unbeliever. The second is that Paul is speaking as a Christian and not only as a Christian, but as an experienced, mature, practiced Christian, an apostle of Jesus Christ no less, much closer to the end of his remarkably fruitful and important Christian life than to its beginning.
There are significant arguments to be advanced on behalf of each interpretation and it is important for you to know that very good and wise men can be found on both sides of the debate. A much-esteemed professor of mine, Robert Reymond, argues in his recently published systematic theology, as he argued in class lectures when I was in seminary, that Paul is here speaking autobiographically of his own experience between the time he came under conviction of sin, and his spiritual struggle thus intensified, and the time he became a Christian. This is a view akin to that taken by other men I hold in the highest regard, for example, J. Oliver Buswell and Martyn Lloyd Jones.
So we turn now to answer the question: who is the wretched man who cries out in such anguish in v. 24? Who is the one who says with such disgust in v. 14: “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin”? And who is it whose sighs of bitter frustration we can still hear as we read his words today: “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do”?
Is it an unbeliever who is speaking here, one who is in the grip of sin because he has not yet found deliverance in Christ? Or is rather Paul as a Christian speaking, a new creature in Christ these many years, but who still finds within himself a world of evil principles and desires waging war against the new convictions, desires, and commitments that Christ has put within him. And as I said, the answer we give to those questions not only determines your understanding and interpretation of this passage in Romans 7 but as well your understanding of the Christian life and its inner experience. Alexander Whyte told his congregation, “You’ll not get out of the seventh of Romans while I’m your pastor!” I happily say the same. And that is precisely because I understand, as he did, the vital importance of this text in shaping our understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to live as one.
I thought about how to proceed to make the case for what I take to be the correct interpretation of the passage. I could list the arguments advanced by the other side and then rebut them and finally make my own case, but I feared that too much detail would prove confusing. So I’m going to give my positive argument and, along the way, try to do justice to the argument advanced by the other side. Let me say at the outset, so you’ll be clear, that I regard it a certainty that Paul is speaking in vv. 14-25 as a Christian and is, therefore, describing the experience of real Christians, even devout and mature Christians, in their struggle with their continuing sinfulness. I feel about the interpretation of Rom. 7:14-25 as did Alexander Whyte who once said in a sermon:
“As often as my attentive bookseller sends me ‘on approval’ another new commentary on Romans I immediately turn to the seventh chapter. And if the commentator sets up a man of straw in the seventh chapter, I immediately shut the book. I at once send back the book and say, ‘No thank you. That is not the man for my hard-earned money.’ [Bunyan Characters, ii, 257]
And by “man of straw” Whyte meant anything other than Paul as a Christian describing his experience as a Christian and giving vent to his frustration with himself and disappointment in himself as a Christian.
So here is the argument, by no means original to me. It has been made by many commentators and theologians. I’m telling you, in fact, what Luther, Calvin, and the other magisterial Reformers would tell you; what the Puritans almost universally would tell you; what Charles Hodge, the great 19th century Presbyterian theologian of Princeton, would tell you; what Benjamin Warfield and Herman Bavinck, perhaps the greatest Reformed theologians of the modern period would tell you; what John Murray, late of Westminster Seminary, would tell you; what most representatives of Reformation theology would tell you, and what C.E.B. Cranfield, the finest modern commentator on Romans would tell you. The argument is in five parts.
- The first reason to conclude that Paul, in this melancholy admission of his still great struggle with his sins, is speaking of himself and as himself in the full maturity of his Christian life, is that he says of himself what no unbeliever can say.
You should know that those who favor the view that Paul is speaking of himself as an unbeliever, before he became a Christian, build their case primarily, indeed almost exclusively, on the argument that some of the statements Paul makes here are simply incompatible with the doctrine of the Christian life found elsewhere in Paul and in the New Testament generally. In other words, their argument is precisely the opposite of mine. They argue that Paul says of himself here what no believer can say. I’m saying, on the contrary that Paul is saying of himself what no unbeliever can say.
The defenders of the view that Paul is here speaking of himself during the time before he became a Christian have a point. How, they ask, can Paul be speaking here as a Christian, as one who in Christ has died to sin and been raised to new life, when he has just written in Rom. 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” How could Paul say that in Rom. 6 and then say in Rom. 7 that he, as a Christian, was still “sold as a slave to sin?”
How, they ask, could Paul exhort believers in Rom. 6:11ff. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus…. Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires…for sin shall not be your master…” And then, just a chapter later, describe the very same Christian as a prisoner of the law of sin at work within his members? And how, they ask, could Paul say that the Christian is a prisoner of the law of sin and then say in Rom. 8:9: “you are not controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you?”
As I said, many who have defended the view that Paul is here speaking of his life before he became a Christian have been worthy men. And they have come to that conclusion about Rom. 7:14-25 precisely because they felt that to describe the experience of a Christian as negatively as Paul describes it here – slavery to sin; a failure to do what he knows is right, etc. – would be to debase the grace of God and to make into a little thing the great and glorious change that the Holy Spirit effects in the lives of those who are saved; a change described variously as a new birth, a new creation, a new heart, as all things becoming new and the old things passing away, and so on. These men only are seeking to do justice to what Scripture says about those in Christ being new men and living new lives.
And in that desire they are certainly correct and we should be no less concerned to do justice to what Paul describes in Romans as the revolution in life and the deliverance from sin which occurs in any life when he or she is united to Jesus Christ.
But that hardly settles the question. And one simple demonstration of that fact is furnished by the incontestable fact that alongside the good men who have favored the view that Paul cannot be speaking as a Christian in these verses have been a great many in the history of the church who have done most to undermine the Christian’s sole reliance on the grace of God and to reintroduce a theology of salvation by works in the thinking of the church. Pelagius, against whose attacks on salvation by God’s grace Augustine rose in defense; Erasmus, against whom Luther wrote his great defense of salvation by grace alone, The Bondage of the Will; Socinius, the father of the Unitarians, who denatured Christianity altogether and made it nothing more than moral pieties for do-it-yourselfers, against whom the whole body of Protestant Reformers rose en masse; and Arminius and his followers – all of those men held that Paul in Rom.7:14-25 must be speaking as an unbeliever. And they held that view precisely because they wanted to believe than an unbeliever, an unconverted man, a non-Christian could and would say such things as Paul says here:
“I agree that the law is good…”
“I know that nothing good lives in me…”
“…in my inner being I delight in God’s law…”
And so on. They were, in other words, altogether unwilling to believe that man, in his fallen nature, is not nearly as lost as the Bible says he is, not nearly as intractable an enemy of God, not nearly the lover of sin and the defiant rebel against God’s law that the Bible describes him to be. They had a much more positive, optimistic view of man’s nature and very much wanted to believe that Paul would be describing an unbeliever here as an unwilling sinner, who loves the good and wants to do it, agrees in his heart with God’s will and wants to be the Lord’s servant, but will need a little help from God or Christ to climb up into the kingdom of God. [As an aside, let me say that this interpretation of Rom. 7:14-25 is gathering strength again in evangelical circles in our time precisely because people do not like its negative portrayal of the Christian, still so great a sinner and moral failure. We need to be positive, we need to build up the believer, stoke his confidence. Negative vibes like these are not helpful. Hence the preference on the part of many for the view that Paul must be speaking as an unbeliever.]
But that is not how Paul describes the unbeliever, even here in Romans. In 8:6 he says that the mind of the unsaved man is hostile to God and that such a man does not love God nor will he submit to God’s law. He says elsewhere that the unbeliever does not seek God and does not and cannot accept the truth or grace of God because his mind is blinded by sin to these things. How could Paul then be describing an unbeliever when he has him say in these verses that he knows God’s law is spiritual and agrees with it, that he delights in God’s law in his inner being, that he desires to do the good and does not want to sin, that in his mind he is a slave to God, and so on? Take Paul as a whole and it is impossible to reconcile this description with what he everywhere teaches to be the real spiritual condition of an unbeliever. This is my first argument, then, for taking Romans 7:14-25 to be Paul’s description of his life as a Christian. Much of what he says about himself cannot be put in an unbeliever’s mouth.
- My second reason to take Paul’s autobiographical remarks here as a description of his inner inexperience of conflict and disappointment as a Christian is
that this is, in fact, what the Scripture everywhere teaches to be the normal experience of believers in the world.
We have not yet given an answer to the objection of the other side that what Paul says here in Rom. 7:14-25 is incompatible with what he himself says is true of Christians and their deliverance from the power of sin. What of Paul saying in Rom. 6 that a Christian is not a slave of sin and in Rom. 7 that he himself is a slave of sin? The simple fact is that the Bible in many places describes the Christian life in like paradoxical terms. We have it described in terms both of change and stasis, of both new and old, of the new creation and the remnants of the old. However strongly and rightly the Apostle in Rom 6 affirms the liberation of the believer in Christ from the power of sin, it is unmistakably clear in the Scripture that this liberation is not experienced in its completeness and finality in this world. However perfect our justification – our forgiveness – may be, our sanctification remains deeply imperfect in this life. Sin’s guilt may be utterly swept away when first we are united to Christ, but sin’s corruption is the work of a lifetime, the Holy Spirit’s work and our own.
From the impassioned confessions of sin by the godly in the Psalms and the prophets, to the Lord’s own teaching that we should be a people who mourn and are poor in spirit because of our abiding unworthiness and how we should watch and pray always against temptation, to John’s teaching that we should be always confessing our sins to God, to Paul’s teaching about pressing on because we haven’t yet arrived, and beating his body to bring it into submission, and of our obligation to forgive one another all the sins they are constantly committing against us as we should ask forgiveness for the sins we commit, I say in all of this and much more we find nothing else but what we find in Rom 7:14-25, a Christian still struggling with his sins.
But we can be more specific still. “Flesh,” the Greek word σάρξ, is used by Paul to describe the spiritual nature of the unregenerate, unsaved, unbelieving, unchristian man. We have such a use in Romans 8:5-7 where we read that those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires, and that the mind of the flesh is death, and that the mind of the flesh is hostile to God. But the same term is also used to describe the principle of sin and unbelief that remains active and powerful in a Christian’s heart and life. When, for example, Paul writes in Galatians 5:16-17 of Christians in general that “the sinful nature – that is σάρξ – desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with one another, so that you do not do what you want…” he is describing the inner conflict between old and new in terms very like what he uses in Romans 7. We are new creatures; but we remain far too much the old creatures we used to be. That is the witness of the entirety of Holy Scripture and of Paul himself. It is a striking juxtaposition in Romans 6 and Romans 7 but the Scripture is full of those. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “a paradox is truth standing on its head to get attention!” Think of it this way. An adult cannot become a child again. That is impossible. But an adult can certainly act like a child, act childishly. We see adults do it all the time. And when he does we tell him, rightly, to act his age. There is a fact about him that ought to govern his behavior. When it doesn’t there is something wrong. That is precisely Paul’s frustration. He ought to do better than he does; no one knows it better than he does.
Finally, the message of Rom 7:14-25 is only the same message which Paul repeats shortly thereafter in 8:22-25, where he speaks not of the individual believer but of the whole church in the world.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”
This is only what Paul has already given as a personal testimony in 7:14-25: he has received in his heart and life the first fruits of the liberation from sin, but yet much of its power remains to trouble and weary him and to make him groan under the burden of it. The groaning cannot stop until the sin is gone and that cannot be until either he goes to the Lord in death or the Lord comes again for Him. This then is my second argument: both the Apostle himself and the whole Scripture agree with the picture of the Christian life Paul describes as his own Christian experience in Rom 7:14-25.
- My third argument that Paul must be taken as speaking as a Christian and as a mature Christian is
that this has, in fact, been the experience of the very best Christians throughout the ages, who have lived with all of this same inner tension between sin and righteousness.
The one who insists that the man speaking in 7:14-25 cannot be a Christian, much less a deeply earnest and practiced Christian like Paul, has set himself a very great task. For he must explain why so many of the church’s finest sons and daughters have found their own Christian experience described precisely in these same verses.
John Owen, the prince of the Puritans confessed that his own heart was a “standing sink of abominations.” Robert Murray McCheyne, holier than whom it is hard to imagine any man, said: “I find in my heart the seeds of every known sin.” Samuel Rutherford, whose devotion to Christ is legendary for its purity and passion, nevertheless admitted that “If I were well-known, there would none in this kingdom ask how I do” and “…upon my part, despair might be almost excused, if everyone in this land saw my innerside.” Or what of the saintly Bishop Beveridge, sharp-sighted as he was both to the high demands of God’s holiness and his own heart, who confessed:
“I cannot pray, but I sin; I cannot hear or preach a sermon, but I sin; I cannot give an alms, or receive the sacrament, but I sin: nay, I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears want washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.” [In Ryle, Old Paths, 130]
Or what of William Law who said that he would rather be hanged and his body thrown into a swamp than that other men should be allowed to look into his heart. What are these men doing – with countless others like them, including myself, and I hope, most of you – but crying out: “O wretched man that I am! When I want to do good, evil is right there with me! What I want to do I do not do, and what I hate, I do.”
This is the third argument. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans rejected the view that Paul was describing an unbeliever’s experience, at least in large part because his words conformed so precisely to their own experience as Christians.
Though these arguments, I believe, are sufficient in themselves to make the case, I have, in fact, saved the two most conclusive arguments for last. They are each derived immediately from the text as Paul wrote it.
- The first of these two, and thus my fourth argument, is simply that, following upon the past tense in verses. 7-13, verses 14-25 are in the present tense.
This is a simple point, but obviously of great importance. Paul describes his life of conflict with sin and his shame over sin’s still great control over him in the present tense. This is so about me now, he is saying, as he writes to the Christians in Rome.
Now it is true, as those who favor the other interpretation have long pointed out, that sometimes the present tense can be used for the sake of vividness, even when, in fact, it is the past which is being described. ‘Young George Washington picks up the axe and chops down the cherry tree!’ That sort of thing. But I must agree with many commentators who have pointed out that this is an explanation born of desperation. The present tense is sustained far too long and too consistently and contrasts too dramatically with the past tense of verses 7-13 – which certainly describes Paul before his salvation – to be explained as a use of the present tense for stylistic effect. Unless there is some compelling reason to suggest the contrary, we must read the present tense as a simple indication that Paul is describing what is now the case. He is now struggling with his sins in this way, even as the great Apostle to the Gentiles! He described his life before he became a Christian in vv. 7-13, hence the past tense, and his life as a Christian in vv. 14-25, hence the present tense.
- And, then finally, and just as decisively, the order of statements in vv. 24 and 25 demands that Paul is describing his own Christian experience in vv. 14-25.
The fact is that Paul cries out for deliverance and then, in verse 25a, gives thanks to God for deliverance. Were that the end of the chapter, it would be more easy to conclude that the Apostle was describing his situation before he became a Christian and then concluding with thanks that he has been delivered from that former bondage to sin which before he became a Christian had characterized his inner life.
But, Paul does not finish there. He continues in the present tense: ‘So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature, a slave to the law of sin.’ Here is the conclusion of the matter; this is where he leaves us: he is a man composed of contrary principles and warring desires. Paul’s inner life is a battlefield strewn with the carnage of many bitter contests with his lusts and sins, some ending in victory, many in defeat. That is where his life stands and where it will stand so long as he remains in this world. The full deliverance, for which he is already thanking God, does not come in this life, but in the next, as he will say again in 8:18-25.
As C.E.B. Cranfield has put it in his magisterial commentary on Romans [ICC, i, 345]:
“Verse 25b is an embarrassment to those who see in v. 24 the cry of an unconverted man or of a Christian living on a low level of Christian life and in v. 25a an indication that the desired deliverance has actually arrived, since, coming after the thanksgiving, it appears to imply that the condition of the speaker after the deliverance is just the same as it was before it. All the attempts so far made to get over this difficulty have about them an air of desperation.”
So I conclude that here in vv. 14-25 Paul is describing his own Christian experience, and, by implication, the normal Christian experience of struggle, sorrow, and bitter frustration over the continuing power and influence of our sins and sinfulness upon our new life in Christ. The Christian desires a holy life but often finds himself thinking, speaking, and acting in very unholy ways. And it is the most exquisite and lasting pain and sorrow of a Christian’s life in this world that this is so.
And in several more studies we will have much to say about that inner experience, unhappy as it is, and, paradoxically, how wonderful and life-giving and consoling that experience can be and should be for every Christian.
“Hear, O Israel, a broken and a contrite heart God will not despise.”