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What’s Really Going On in Romans 7

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There’s a story that a British newspaper sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” The writer G. K. Chesterton responded:

Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours, G. K. Chesterton

In Romans 7 Paul does something similar. He’s anticipating the accusation that he disparages God’s holy law (vv. 7, 12) since he’s said that Christians have “died to the law” (v. 4) and no longer serve God in “the oldness of the letter” (v. 6). In effect, the apostle replies: “You want to know what the problem is? It’s not my view of the law. That’s beyond reproach. It’s me. I’m the problem. My teaching on the law is not a reflection of what the law is like. It’s a reflection of what I am like.”

Paul’s Dual Purpose

Why is Romans 7 so difficult to understand? Why is it so debated? Why does the evidence seem to push in different directions? Because of Paul’s dual purpose in this passage.

The life of fruitful obedience to God, he explains, comes as we die to our old husband, the law, which was a threatening master over us, and we marry a new husband, the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 1–4). The law can only expose and excite our sin (vv. 7–13). Although the law is “spiritual” (v. 14)—having a divine origin and nature—we are “fleshly” (v. 14), intrinsically incapable of keeping God’s good law. So God in Christ has to take from our hands the external written code—the law book—and put into our hearts his Spirit, who empowers the powerless to live the fruitful life of love to which the law points (vv. 5–6).

That is Paul’s main point in Romans 7. His purpose in light of that is to simultaneously (1) defend himself against the misconception that he dismisses and denigrates God’s law, and (2) help the believers in Rome see that they’re fleshly by nature and, therefore, can’t successfully serve God in  the “oldness of the letter” (v. 6). But defending yourself while pointing the finger at others rarely ends well (see Romans 2!), so Paul defends himself while pointing the finger at himself as the problem.

Paul simultaneously defends himself against a misplaced charge and confesses his profound incapacity to obey God’s law. That, in large part, explains why Romans 7 has a mixture of positive and negative statements.

The element of self-defense continues into verses 14–25. Take verse 22 for example, where Paul uses a verb that appears nowhere else in biblical Greek (sunēdomai). Our first question shouldn’t be, “Is this the experience of a Christian or a non-Christian?” but “Why this verb in this context?” It makes sense when we realize Paul comes to his own defense (as also in vv. 7, 11, 14, 16), since it was a verb often used to express a strong sympathy of outlook with another person: “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner person” (cf. NASB; HCSB). The phrase personifies God’s law as someone Paul strongly agrees with. The law is, after all, God’s personal voice (v. 7). Paul is saying, “I’m not taking sides against the law. I’m fully, joyfully in agreement with the law.”

Two Keys to Unlock Verse 14

Everything in verses 14–25 stands under the banner of verse 14: “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, having been sold under sin” (literal translation). Paul confesses what he is intrinsically like, in contrast to what the law is intrinsically like.

There are two points to note, which will unlock the verse for us. The first key is that the statement “I am fleshly” is temporally constrained by the statement “we know that the law is spiritual.” It becomes clear when we rewrite it like this: “We (you Christians in Rome, and I the apostle Paul) know that the law is spiritual, but I (Paul) am fleshly.” Which Paul is speaking in the second part of the sentence? Is it Paul the Pharisee or Paul the apostle? The answer is clear—it’s Paul the apostle—unless we want to play conjuring tricks with language. Clearly the “I” of the second part of the sentence is part of the “we” of the first part.

It’s true that the Greek present tense can be used in a “dramatic” way to refer to past time. But to raise that point with respect to Romans 7 is a red herring, since the statement of verse 14a locates the present tense of verse 14b at the time Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome. Paul, the author of Romans, refers to himself here when he says “I.”

But how do we make sense of the Christian Paul saying, “I am fleshly, sold under sin”? That brings us to the second key, which is realizing that “sold under sin” doesn’t qualify Paul, but qualifies his condition of fleshliness. Paul literally says, “I am fleshly, having been sold under sin.” He does not say, “I am fleshly and sold under sin.” Interpreters typically read into the verse an “and” that’s not there. Having been sold under sin (by the transgression of Adam), we’ve become fleshly people.

There’s a vital distinction here. Being a slave is fundamentally an issue of personal identity—“Who am I?” (or better, “Whose am I?”). Being fleshly is fundamentally an issue of personal capacity—“What am I?” (or “What am I like?”). Paul isn’t saying he’s a slave of sin and contradicting what he just said about the believer’s freedom in chapter 6. We now have freedom through union with Christ in his death and resurrection (6:1–10), but our bodies don’t yet share Christ’s risen life (6:11). So there’s still a slavery in our bodily members (7:23) as we await the redemption of our bodies (8:23). That’s what it means to be fleshly.

This is the painful reality—our bodily condition hasn’t yet caught up with who we now are in Christ. We’re no longer “in the flesh,” where we reported to slavemaster sin (7:5). However, now that we report to King Jesus we do so as those who are still “fleshly” people (7:14). We have new identities but not new innate capacities! We remain irreparably (but not irredeemably) impaired people.

The Christian’s Radical Inability

Like a computer virus, sin has entered inside the system (“living in me,” vv. 17, 20), where it has impaired all operations (my bodily “members,” v. 23) from functioning according to their original design (carrying out God’s good law, vv. 16, 18, 19, 21). This radical, systemic impairment results in an inability to accomplish the good (vv. 15, 18, 19). It means we have a radical moral disability. We’re incapacitated (vv. 18, 23). The pure, holy goodness of the law is beyond our reach. Because he is fleshly, the good Paul wants to do he does not do.

Three quick points to note. First, this is a Christian’s confession of a human condition. The Christian perceives it (note the verbs of perception in vv. 14, 18, 21, 23), but we all have it.

Second, there’s a connection between 6:12 (“the desires of the body”), 6:19 (“the weakness of the flesh”), 7:7 (“you shall not desire/covet”), and the fleshly/bodily sin of 7:14–25. In other words, Paul isn’t giving us headline news of disgraceful misconduct, but sharing his personal awareness of the power of indwelling sin, experienced as sinful desire. This sinful desire is with us till the day we die.

Christ is a fountain of abundant life. Knowing ourselves from Romans 7 feeds the life of faith.

Third, Paul dramatizes the dynamic of sin within to underline his intrinsic powerlessness in the face of it. Paul doesn’t yet have in view the Spirit’s enabling, because he wants us to first grasp our own profound inability. This makes us both appreciate, and also depend on, God’s power in Christ (8:1–4). And it means that I never possess spiritual life as a quality or property that I can claim as mine. Rather, by the Spirit, I participate in the risen life of Christ, whose Spirit produces the fruit of Christ in me. That love that God enabled me to show yesterday to my unlovely neighbor? That was Christ’s love at work in and through me.

Three Implications

1. Romans 7 and Faith

Faith means going outside ourselves (there’s no innate good within us, 7:18) and fleeing to Christ, not only for justification but for every blessing of God’s grace. There’s no fruitfulness apart from him (7:4). As Martin Luther put it, “All our good is outside of us, and that good is Christ.” Or, as John Calvin wrote, “Since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other” (Institutes 2.16.19). Relying on the law involves self-reliance (cf. Phil. 3:9). It’s a dead end. Christ, meanwhile, is a fountain of abundant life.

Knowing ourselves from Romans 7 feeds the life of faith.

2. Romans 7 and Hope

Salvation in Christ is resurrection life. We participate now in the resurrection life of Christ (6:1–11), but we still await the resurrection of the dead, when our bodies will be raised to be like his glorious body (Phil 3:21). So the life of hope is lived amid profound bodily weakness (Rom 4:18–25; 6:12, 19; 7:14–25; 8:10–11, 23–25). That weakness is physical, but it’s also moral.

Knowing ourselves from Romans 7 feeds the life of hope.

3. Romans 7 and Love

Either we can use the law in pride to distance ourselves from others (2:1–16), or God will use the law in our lives to show us that we’re just like Adam, the prototypical sinner (7:7–13), and as helpless as the lowliest person we’ll ever meet (7:14–25).

You can only love people when down on their level (12:16), so knowing ourselves from Romans 7 feeds the life of love.

Remember, this is the confession of the apostle Paul. When Christ called him on the Damascus road, he broke him, and he stayed a broken man. But what an abundant harvest grew from the soil of that brokenness! Only from such men and women can words of life and grace flow. Witness Romans 8, a glorious melody of assurance, comfort, and hope. Leaders of Christ’s precious flock take note: You can only tend to their needs down on your knees.


Previously in this series:

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