The Person of Romans 7 – Part 2

Here, in this post, I continue on from my initial thoughts on the person of Romans 7. The final argument that Romans 7 is in reference to our Christian life is based around the final two verses, 24-25:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

The argument posed to those, like myself, who take the other side that the man Paul’s speaks of in Romans 7:7-25 is not a Christian, goes something like this: At the end of Romans 7, Paul asks the pointed question of who can deliver him from such a struggle and he, then, replies to his own question – ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ But, immediately after such a glorious statement, Paul goes on to state: ‘So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.’

The question: If Paul had now made the declaration in the first part of vs25 that he had been delivered from such an inner-struggle experienced as a non-Christian (remember that my argument is that the person of Romans 7:7-25 has not come into Christ), then why should he once again speak of this dual, inner-struggle in part B of the verse?

I must admit this is a good question, one that is somewhat difficult to grapple with. But I will try and give two significant responses to the question and one that will probably be considered of lesser value:

1. I believe we must consider the overwhelming testimony of the New Testament teaching as a whole in regards to what has happened in the lives of those who have come to Christ, which I have explored in my four previous articles on our identity in Christ. We all know and agree with the two hermeneutic principles of both comparing Scripture with Scripture and comparing one-off passages of Scripture with the whole context of the Bible. And I believe, as argued in previous articles, that the majority of New Testament teaching shows that a radical transformation has taken place in the lives of Christ’s followers in which we have been made new creations, God’s law has been written on our hearts and we can now look to walk in His ways as empowered by the Holy Spirit. For me, there is just too much teaching in favor of such resurrection change in our lives, and thus, we cannot solely regard the last half of Romans 7:25 as sufficient in building a major doctrine about the reality of one who has come to Christ.

2. Though, as I admitted, this second argument will be of lesser consequence, I still share it. In considering the whole teaching of the New Testament, and specifically the context of Romans 7, could it not be that the last half of vs25 fits more with the end of vs23. Do you see the connection when viewing it like this?

But I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

And, then, there is a sense in which vs24 and the first half of vs25 follow on from there:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

It’s almost like Paul got ahead of himself with the glorious conclusion of vs24 and the first part of vs25, which then leads us into the magnificent words of Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (8:1-2)

Some might yell, ‘Blasphemy,’ at such a consideration of connecting certain verses at different places, as if I wanted to rearrange God’s word. Please know that I have no desire to change around the word of God. I only suggest that we consider that certain thoughts connect with other thoughts. For think about the fact that Paul had already spent Romans 6 sharing the wonderful power of the gospel and the changes that have taken place in our lives. He then decides to go back to the struggles and impossibility of sinful mankind living under the law. Then, he closes such glorious teaching begun in Romans 6 with the words of chapter 8.

Therefore, though Romans 6 and 8 are not successively connected in Paul’s writing, they are more connected in the thoughts that Paul is longing to convey to us. I do not negate Paul being led by the Spirit in his authorship of the letter to the Roman church. But I also believe that God did not supersede the actual human personality in the authoring of His word. Just as Christ, the living Word, was both God and man, so is the written Word both inspired by God Himself and written through the unique personalities of the human authors. And so, I simply suggest we consider that vs23 and the last half of vs25 flow together, almost as if Paul jumped ahead with the glorious conclusion of vs24 and the first half of vs25, all the while desiring to go back and connect vs25b with vs23.

3. To end with a more substantial point, lets consider Romans 7:18

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.

Do you remember my whole treatise that one cannot have two natures within themselves? You are either regenerate or unregenerate, you are either the old self or the new self, you are either saint or sinner. It is impossible to be both. And though Paul can use the word ‘flesh’ in reference to that fallen part we are still learning to submit to the Spirit each and every day (see Galatians 5:16-17), it is obvious that, in Romans 7, he uses the word flesh to speak of the old self:

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)

We noticed that vs5 speaks of the past tense, what we used to be like, and vs6 talks about our new life by the Spirit. It is in vs5 that we find Paul using the term flesh in regards to the sinful passions in our old life. But vs6 declares a death has taken place. So we are now new creations who can ‘serve in the new way of the Spirit’!

My point, you ask? In Romans 7:18, Paul declared that nothing good dwelt in him, that is, in his flesh. But vs5-6, the main thesis of the chapter, unequivocally states that that part of us has been crucified. That good-for-nothing, sinful nature died! It is similar to Paul’s words found in Romans 6:7 and 14:

For one who has died has been set free from sin…For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Yes, nothing good dwells in us, but that is apart from Christ. But we are no longer apart from Christ. We are in Christ, and a death, burial and resurrection has taken place in our lives. The old self, or as Romans 7 calls it, the flesh, has been put to death. And we are now living resurrection life.

Some might ask: what about Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15?

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

As I looked at in a few posts back, I do confess that it is ok to recognise who we are apart from Christ. Sometimes we find ourselves weak and given in to much temptation. But we must also do what Paul did regularly and recognize who we are in Christ – and he did this a lot more than the former! Throughout his letters, Paul recognized some 164 times who he was in Christ.

In all, I stand on the overwhelming testimony of Scripture that, as those who are in Christ, we have been radically transformed by the power of the gospel. We are new creations with new hearts and a new desire to walk in the way of the Spirit. We do not have two natures within us at war – the old sinful nature and new nature in Christ. We are regenerated by the Spirit of God and, thus, the old self has been crucified with a new nature being granted to us.

Thus, my conclusion is that the man of Romans 7 is one who has not yet come into the new life given by the Spirit of Christ. In our struggle with sin and temptation, we cannot read such an experience back into Romans 7. Rather, we must recognize the truth of the gospel and the power of the new life Christ has granted us by His Spirit. In realizing and confessing such truth, I believe we will be set free to more fully walk in that newness of life (see John 8:32), to walk out the call of the good news of what Christ has performed on our behalf.

In the end, whether or not one agrees with my conclusion about this much debated passage, I would encourage us that we not solely make Scriptures like Romans 7 the basis for our new life in Christ. Rather, we are called to take into account the whole teaching of Scripture, including Romans 6 and 8. And in doing so, that might even give us a fresh perspective of the power of Christ in our lives. May we be empowered by Him to walk out the high calling in Christ.

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.