This is the final installment in a special three-part “Perplexing Passages” forum examining the long-debated Pauline passage, Romans 7:13–25. Previously:
- “Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience” by Tom Schreiner
- “Romans 7 Does Describe Your Christian Experience” by John Piper
Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his sermons on Romans 7 with a warning: “This chapter is one of the most controversial in the Bible.” This was unfortunate, he argued, because the controversy misses the main point of the passage. Trying to discern the “man” of Romans 7, whether he was regenerate or unregenerate, is a distraction—one that misses the Christian experience a believer should be seeking.
Lloyd-Jones certainly didn’t think the chapter was unimportant. In his typical manner of hyperbole, the Doctor called it “the most famous and best-known section of the entire epistle.” Few chapters expose the deep power of sin and clarify the role of the law in a believer’s life quite like Romans 7. Yet no section has fueled more debate.
For Lloyd-Jones, whether Paul was speaking about his pre-conversion or post-conversion experience is not important. Therefore, Lloyd-Jones had relatively little to say about it. Of the 27 sermons he preached on Romans 7:1–8:4, only six dealt with the controversial passage—Romans 7:14–25. Six sermons for eleven verses is practically flying for Lloyd-Jones.
Structured Like a Symphony
To understand Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation of Romans 7, one must see how it functions within the logical flow of chapters 5–8. He believed those four chapters, like a symphony, form one grand, majestic, theological vision in which the glorious doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ is on full display.
Lloyd-Jones preached 144 sermons on chapters 5–8. He believed Romans 5 is the theological heart of the book, with Romans 5:20–21 being the controlling exegetical verses. Misunderstand chapter 5 and one will, by necessity, misinterpret 6 and 7; they form a “parenthesis” dealing with objections to Paul’s central assertion in 5:20–21.
The entire section, Lloyd-Jones argued, unpacks our union with Christ through the reign of grace. Chapter 6 proves our sanctification is guaranteed since we’re united to Christ and can no longer live in sin. Romans 7 proves our sanctification is guaranteed since we’ve been freed from the law and married to Christ. We are enabled to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Chapter 7 offers a dramatic warning of what happens when we seek sanctification through the law, apart from the Spirit.
Chapter 8 unpacks the reality that a believer’s sanctification is guaranteed because they’ve been united to Christ and are thus indwelt by the Spirit. There is now no condemnation for followers of Jesus.
Tread Carefully, Tread Humbly
As Lloyd-Jones walked his congregation through Romans 7, he reminded them to proceed with humility. He encouraged them to “seek that ‘unction’ and ‘anointing’ from ‘the Holy One,’ for the matter with which we are dealing is beyond the realm of grammar and intellectual dexterity.”
He didn’t believe looking at verb tenses settled the matter. Paul is using a rhetorical device called the “dramatic present,” Lloyd-Jones asserted, noting that preachers—including himself—often use that literary device.
Lloyd-Jones’s diagnostic and exegetical powers were taxed to the limit as he walked through the section. He fully embraced the tensions in the passage and warned his congregation against simplistic solutions.
The Doctor’s hermeneutic was continuously strained by statements he believed couldn’t be made by an unregenerate man, such as “the law is spiritual” and “I joyfully concur with the law in the inner man.” He concluded, “This man is not unregenerate, for no unregenerate man could make such claims.”
Neither Saved Nor Lost
The man in Romans 7 is not unregenerate, nor is he regenerate. Romans 7 cannot be describing the regenerate, Lloyd-Jones contended, since it would contradict Paul’s argument throughout the section and also what the New Testament says in many other places.
For example, Romans 5:12–21 emphasizes the reign of grace in a believer’s life and can’t describe someone who cries out, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin, nothing good dwells in me,” for chapter 6 shows the impossibility of continuing in sin when a believer has died to it.
Other verses seem to pull in the other direction. Romans 7:4 shows we’ve died to the law and been united to Christ, and chapter 8 displays the glories of the indwelling Spirit. Thus, no regenerate man would cry out that nothing good dwells in him when the Spirit of the holy God lives in him.
Troubled Exegetical Waters
As he moved through the tensions, Lloyd-Jones’s exegesis at times became slightly convoluted. But he often made remarks like “This subject is difficult because sin is difficult. One of the terrible things sin did when it came into the world was to introduce complications,” or “This not only sounds complicated, but it is complicated; it is the complicated condition of a man who is enlightened by the Spirit of God and about the law of God” yet has no power to overcome the difficulty.
For Lloyd-Jones, “The real clue to understanding more of Romans 7 is to notice the Holy Spirit and the indwelling Christ are not mentioned; hence the trouble and the problem.”
Lloyd-Jones began his exposition of Romans 7 convinced Paul didn’t intend to distinguish between the regenerate and unregenerate. Instead, the apostle was giving us a “hypothetical, imaginary picture” of a “man who sees the complete hopelessness of salvation by the law.”
But by the end of the section Lloyd-Jones tentatively stated that if it is a picture of personal experience, then it’s the experience of a man like John Bunyan in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, who has come under deep conviction of sin and longs to be holy, but cannot.
From Depths to Heights
Lloyd-Jones knew many might be unconvinced by his treatment of Romans 7. He counseled them to wait for his exposition on Romans 8:15 in the next volume:
The theme of this volume is no mere fascinating theological or intellectual problem, but one of vital importance to Christian experience, and to the health, well-being, and vigor of the church. To end a reading of Romans 7 in a depressed condition is to fail to understand it.
Why? It is preparation for the glorious truths of Romans 8:15, or more appropriately, Romans 8:14–17, which Lloyd-Jones viewed as one long chain.
Why should his listeners wait for this later exposition? Because Romans 8 describes the Christian experience all should be seeking. By the time Lloyd-Jones preached through Romans 8:15, he was confident Romans 7 describes someone experiencing the Spirit’s work, whereby he is rescued from a spirit of bondage and fear—the essential prelude to receiving the Spirit’s testimony of our adoption as sons. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “baptism” or “sealing” of the Spirit.
He would later say the 21 sermons he preached on Romans 8:14–17 were among the most joyful of his ministry. But he had to walk through the depths of Romans 7 to reach the heights of Romans 8.