Romans 7 is one of the most debated passages in our Bible, especially verses 14-25. Some say that these verses describe the experience of an unregenerate soul, perhaps even one under conviction just prior to salvation, but not necessarily so. Others believe they describe the struggle of a new believer not yet free from the effects of the law. One author I read recently insists this is the experience of the mature believer who is most sensitive to the sin in his life.
Then there are those who say that whether the passage describes the unregenerate or regenerate is not really the point. The passage is simple describing anyone trying to live under the law be it the regenerate or unregenerate. This probably comes closer to the truth but I do not think it is the answer either.
While this writing is not going to end the debates that have gone on for centuries, I do believe that this passage is one that has kept many, many believers in bondage to sin because of an inadequate understanding of why Paul wrote in such away. Perhaps in what follows some will find a greater measure of freedom in the same way I did when the scales were removed from my eyes.
Before tackling this passage directly it is necessary to look at what Paul wrote before and after it. Consider the following passage:
“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
This passage from Romans is quite clear in stating that just as sin reigned in death so now grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. That is, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death. The interesting thing about this passage is that it is actually the end of Romans 5 (5:17-21 NASB) followed immediately by the beginning of Romans 8 (8:1-4 NASB). Actually if you read from Romans 4:4 through Romans 5 followed by all of Romans 8 (see Appendix) you will quickly see that there is a natural flow in explaining the way of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ while leaving out chapters 6 and 7.
Of course, the immediate question then arises – why chapters 6 and 7? Many have seen in these chapters, including chapter 8, an experiential sequence of growth in the believer. After identifying with his co-crucifixion with Christ, he must pass through the frustrating experience of Romans 7 before entering into the victory of Romans 8. This has been the traditional teaching of much of Christendom since the time of Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries. Without going much into Augustine’s influence on Western Christianity, it will suffice to point out that he strongly put forth the Platonic/Gnostic idea that the flesh or humanity of man was essential sinful before AND after conversion.
Because of Augustine’s understanding, it was not difficult for believers, new and old alike to identify the struggle of Romans 7 as normal Christian experience. Further support to this idea was found in Galatians 5 where it states:
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Gal 5:17 NASB)
In another writing we will address this major misunderstanding of Galatians 5. We only mention it here to acknowledge its complicity in perpetuating the idea that our flesh is inherently sinful and continually at odds with the Spirit.
Again, what about Romans 6 and 7? In effect, these two passages are parenthetical to Paul’s major point, addressing two issues that Paul knew would be on his reader’s mind, that of sin and that of the law. The first half of Romans 6 deals with the sin question. The fact that Paul was indeed anticipating a question by his readers is evident in the first verse of Romans 6 where he writes:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1 NASB)
His immediate reply assumes that his readers should already know the answer to this when he writes:
“May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Rom 6:2-3 NASB)
He is really saying that if his readers really knew the Gospel message, they would not ask such a question. He then goes on to explain our co-crucifixion with Christ and resulting freedom from sin.
In verse 14 Paul gives another reason why we are free from sin. He writes:
“For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! (Rom 6:14-15 NASB)
Paul has emphasised our freedom from sin as a result of our crucifixion with Christ. Now he says that it is also because we are not under law but under grace! This theme is carried on in Romans 7 which starts:
“Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?” (Rom 7:1 NASB)
Here he connects our co-crucifixion with Christ as not only a death to sin but as a death to the law. This is significant because “the power of sin is the law” (1Co 15:56b)! The power of sin is the law and believers have died to both! Something else is very significant in this verse and it is the parenthesis. He writes …brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law). He is speaking to his Jewish brethren which undoubtedly included Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith. This is to be expected as Gentile believers were never under the law!
So having written that we are free from sin because we are under grace and not under law, Paul takes a few moments to further explain to his Jewish brethren the purpose and importance of the law:
“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” (Rom 7:4-13 NASB)
Let this soak in because it is on the heels of this passage that the contentious verses follow and in these verses Paul identifies with his Jewish brethren in describing their struggle under the law and what it ultimately revealed. We must remember that the Old Testament is full of examples of believers who sought to do good even though the gift of the Spirit had not yet been given and union with Christ was yet an unfulfilled promise. Abraham looked forward to the promise of the Spirit. David delighted in the law of God all through the Psalms yet committed some of the most horrendous crimes a man can commit. It is of these that Paul writes:
“For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, 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.” (Rom 7:14-25 NASB)
Right off it must be noticed the wording: “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin”. This is the man being described. It is not the man of Romans 6 for “for he who has died is freed from sin” and it cannot be the man of Romans 8 for he is “not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in him”!
For further emphasis let’s quote a few verses from Romans 6 (2, 6, 11, 12, 14, 18) and Romans 8 (1,2) followed by several from Romans 7 (14, 18, 19, 24).
May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? … knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts… For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. …and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Compare that with these verses in Romans 7:
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
Does it not seem significant in that the central character in Romans 7:14-25 is “I”. There is no help of the Spirit here and the whole thing harkens back to the lie first believed in the Garden of Eden that man could be an independent being in knowing good and evil for himself. Paul does not argue that point but is frustrated at his inability to do the good he knows and avoid the evil. In fact he finds out in retrospect that the reason he was powerless was because he was not that self-determining individual he imagined himself to be but rather that there was another living in him thwarting his good intentions – SIN!
Really, can it be that Paul is describing his or anyone else’s Christian experience? Was Paul the believer, in bondage to sin? Was he continually practising sin? Is this the same Paul who made the following statements:
“I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day,” (2Ti 1:3 NASB)
“Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” (Php 3:17 NASB)
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1Co 10:13 NASB)
“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.” (1Co 4:3-4 NASB)
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1Co 6:12 NASB)
Even Peter and John never speak of this struggle as normal Christian experience. Peter writes:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” (2Pe 1:2-3 NASB)
“No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” (1Jn 3:6 NASB)
Finally, how can Romans 7:18 be reconciled with Philippians 2:12, 13?
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” (Rom 7:18 NASB)
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Php 2:12-13 NASB)
It seems to me that Paul everywhere makes it abundantly clear that he does not expect this Romans 7 experience in the life of a believer. He is simply describing the life of trying to do good under the law. But he is describing it from the perspective of a mature Christian. He sees that it is indwelling sin empowered by the law that is our source of grief before coming to Christ. “For the Gentile without the law they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” (Rom 2:15).
This being the case, why then do so many believers accept this as normal Christian experience. First and foremost they have been taught that such is the case. Secondly, their experience seems to confirm it in their struggle to resist sin. But the truth is that for the believer “whatever is not of faith is sin.” We sin because of unbelief NOT because we are still slaves to sin. This is an important distinction because if we accept Romans 7 as the reason we sin, we will have no recourse but to plead with God to deliver us – something He has already done and is not about to do again for that would be to crucify Christ anew. Instead freedom from sin eludes us because we refuse to believe God’s way of deliverance in our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.
If we accept Romans 7 as normal Christian experience, then we will experience that imagined struggle for the rest of our lives as it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are in effect denying the truth of the Gospel and will struggle with sin because of unbelief in a way not known by those who turn to Christ and accept in faith their death to sin and resurrection to righteousness. Consequently it is our unbelief that confirms Romans 7 as our normal experience and we will function accordingly.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2Co 5:17 NASB)
A quote from Paul Anderson-Walsh is a fitting way to begin to draw this writing to a close:
“In reversing the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 7:18-20 …we… can say, “For I know that nothing evil dwells in me, that is, in my spirit. For I have the desire to do what is wrong, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the evil I want, but the good I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but Christ that dwells within me.””
The point is this: that we no longer have to fear ourselves as we are safe in our Saviour. We only stumble when we look at ourselves like a toddler trying to walk while watching her feet! But as we keep our eyes on Christ we will walk in freedom. Let’s not bind other believers by affirming the struggle of a sinner as their normal Christian life!
Appendix – Romans 4, 5 & 8
Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. “BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.” Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.” Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. (Rom 4:4-25 NASB)
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5)
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8)