The Person of Romans 7 – Part 1

I have now finally come to the promised article in discussing the oft-debated man in Romans 7, though I will break it into two articles for the sake of keeping one’s attention. This is the final cap of my series on identity in Christ, which I started two weeks ago.

Romans 7 has been a passage that has caused many theological discussions throughout the centuries AD. If you are not aware, the debate revolves around the person that Paul is referring to in the text. Whether or not Paul is talking about himself or a certain ‘mystery man’, that matters very little. Rather, over the centuries, there have been two major camps in describing the man in Romans 7:

  1. This person is one who has come to Christ but still recognizes the great difficulty in obeying God.
  2. This person is one who knows the law and tries to obey it, but the person cannot because they have not come to Christ.

I think it plausible to recognize that most have generally landed in the first camp. And reading certain verses like Romans 7:15 and 7:19, as well as considering our own experiences in life, most would agree with that first assessment of the passage at hand:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:15, 19)

Many Christians, not non-believers, testify of a similar struggle. They try and obey God, but each day they know they come up well short. Thus, the conclusion about Romans 7, from our life experience, is that Paul is talking about a Christian struggling to obey God.

But, before we discover who Paul might have been referring to in the passage, I think it best to first establish the ground that our Biblical understanding cannot be formed simply out of experience. I am one who believes that God is one to encounter and experience, not just someone we dogmatically define with black ink on white paper. Hence, the Hebrew word for ‘know’ (yada) is used to describe how a husband and wife know each other. There is a sense in which knowledge is relational and experiential. Yet, our foundation for Biblical understanding must, first and foremost, be the Scripture. We are learning to see both our knowledge of God through Scripture and experience come together in unity.

So, in the oft-discussed passage, is Paul referring to one who is saved, yet struggling with sin; or is he referring to someone who is trying to obey they law, but cannot, for they have not yet come to Christ?

I believe that, for us to fully understand the passage at hand, it would be helpful to look back at a few verses at the beginning of chapter 7:

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 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. (Romans 7:5-6)

When I read these two verses from the beginning of chapter 7, I get this impression that Paul is describing the radical change that took place in our lives when coming to Christ: ‘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’ (vs6). And even vs5, which describes living after the fleshly desires, uses the past tense, as if this is how we used to live: ‘For while we were living in the flesh…’

The use of the past tense in the statement, ‘were living in the flesh’, and the present state now being described as, ‘But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive,’ sounds synonymous with some of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 6:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (6:6)

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (6:11)

Paul is trying to get across to the saints, the people of God, that a death and crucifixion has taken place in our lives. But at the same time, a resurrection of a new creation has taken place (2 Corinthians 5:17) so we can serve in ‘the new way of the Spirit’ (Romans 7:6).

After considering the text, it seems that vs7-25, as a whole, contain Paul’s thoughts about the experience of one before coming to Christ. In vs5-6, we saw his great proclamation of what happened in the life of the one born again. Yet, in vs7, Paul begins an exposition on the law and its relationship to humanity. It leaves one, no all, in frustration at their inability to fulfill such requirements. Hence, the well-known statement about not doing what we want to and doing that which we hate.

Here, in Romans 7 especially, the word ‘flesh’ is being used to speak of the former life: ‘For while we were living in the flesh…’. But this is the life that Paul so adamantly claimed had passed away. Again, notice the past tense of vs5 and the good news of vs6:

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 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.

Though Paul takes time in vs7-25 to expound on one trying to live by the law, especially as one not transformed by the power of the gospel, I believe his ultimate thesis comes in vs5-6. These two verses speak of the change that has taken place in the lives of new covenant believers. Not to mention the overwhelming and powerful truth of the gospel as presented by Paul in chapters 6 and 8 of Romans.

In opposition to some of my arguments, many people will point out Paul’s statement in vs21:For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.’

The argument arises from those who espouse the reformed doctrine of total depravity. (Just as a side note, I love and lean towards reformed theology.) In the work, The Five Points of Calvinism, Herman Hanko quotes this definition for total depravity, as found in The Banner:

‘The result of the fall is total depravity or corruption. By this is meant that every part of man is rendered corrupt… There was no part of his nature that was not affected by sin.’

With such statements like that, it seems we must conclude that a non-believer cannot ‘delight in the law of God’ (Romans 7:21). But let’s read a little more of what Hanko quoted:

‘The word “total” must not be taken in the absolute sense as though man is completely depraved. Man is not as bad as he can be…God does restrain the working of sin in the life of man on earth. And sinful man still has a sense of right and wrong. His corruption is total in the sense that there is no part of his being that is pure and holy; and the good he does is done for God and for His glory.’

Most reformed theologians reject the extreme doctrine known as utter depravity. This is the teaching that humanity cannot do anything good at all. Rather, a good, reformed theologian usually holds to the doctrine of total depravity, which teaches that all elements of the human race have been effected by sin, but not so much as to render them completely unable to do anything good (such as loving your spouse), but none of this good can merit right standing with our holy God. Rather, it is Christ who reconciles us back with the Father who desired to be in relationship with us in the first place, hence the willingness to send His own Son.

Thus, I think we can understand that it is not out of the reach of human beings to ‘delight in the law of God’. The greatest example would be Paul himself. He even stated this in his letter to the Philippian church:

[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6)

And in comparing himself to a Pharisee in regards to the law, he was not stating such with a negative connotation. Rather, it was the Pharisees that tried to meticulously understand and obey the law. So, it is possible that one can be at a place of delighting in God’s law, especially those of Jewish heritage, yet not be transformed as a new creation in Christ.

I have set the scene for why I believe Romans 7 describes the inner struggle for one who has not yet come to Christ by the power of the gospel, rather than what is to be the inner struggle of one who is in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit of God. I will finish off my thoughts on Romans 7 in the next couple of days.

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