This is the second installment in a special three-part “Perplexing Passages” forum examining the long-debated Pauline passage, Romans 7:13–25. In part one, Tom Schreiner defended the view that Paul was speaking of his struggle with sin before his conversion. The final part will offer a third view from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. A version of this article appeared originally at DesiringGod.org and has been revised by the author for The Gospel Coalition.
- “Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience” by Tom Schreiner
- “Lloyd-Jones: Believer or Unbeliever Is Not the Point of Romans 7” by Ben Bailie
When I teach on Romans 7, I expect there may be pushback to my argument that Romans 7:14–25 refers to Paul’s—and thus to our—Christian experience. Good friends, like Tom Schreiner, think that when Paul says “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (esō anthrōpon)” (Rom. 7:22), or when he says “I, my very self (autos egō) serve the law of God with my mind” (Rom. 7:25), he is expressing his pre-Christian experience.
This is because Paul also says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14); “I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15); “I see in my members another law . . . making me captive to the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23); “wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24); and “with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25).
These statements of defeat do not sound like the person who says in Romans 8:2, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
Matter of Exegesis
I know that when it comes to a positive description of what the Christian life should be, and what it normally is, that Tom and I do not differ significantly. In other words, our difference in exegesis on this passage does not signal a significant difference in what to call for, hope for, and expect from genuine Christians.
But biblical faithfulness and clarity is always good for us. So it might be helpful to make a few clarifying comments. For more extensive argumentation, I preached six messages on Romans 7:14–25 under the title “Who Is This Divided Man?” The ten reasons I gave for my position in those sermons are summed up here.
Here are some clarifications that might help make the case.
1. I’m not convinced Romans 7:5 and 7:7–25 both refer to Paul before he was converted.
Tom and numerous others see a strong argument for the pre-Christian view in the claim that Romans 7:7–25 unpacks Romans 7:5, while Romans 8:1–17 unpacks Romans 7:6.
Since Romans 7:5 refers to pre-Christian experience, they infer that 7:7–25 does as well. I don’t find this point compelling. For one thing, they agree that 7:13–25 is answering the question of verse 13: “Did that which is good, then, [the law] bring death to me?”
I agree. That’s what 7:13–25 is doing. Paul’s answer is, No. It is sin, not law, that kills. But it begs the question to assume we know how Paul will argue for this in 7:13–25. How will he show the exceeding power and ugliness of sin, and the goodness of the law? I would make the case that he argues from his own Christian experience in dealing with sin to show how powerful and deadly sin is, and how good the law is.
Further, notice the similarity in thought and language between 7:6 and 7:25. In 7:6, there is the victory over bondage to the law followed by the great result: “So that we serve (douleuein) in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” Similarly, in 7:25, there is another victory: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” followed by another great result: “So then, I myself serve (douleuō) the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
Both of these verses (7:6, 25) express the effect or result (verse 6: hōste) “to serve” God in a new way. This “service” in verse 25, Paul makes explicit, is not the service of the law of sin with the flesh. Therefore, it is the service of God by the Spirit. Five verses later, Paul makes clear that the only alternative to living by the flesh is living by the Spirit.
Therefore, the argument of Romans 7:13–25 is not limited to unpacking pre-Christian experience of Romans 7:5. It is also unpacking the Christian experience of Romans 7:6. And it is supporting 7:5 by using Christian experience to spotlight the exceeding power of sin as our great enemy, not the law.
2. Paul genuinely delights in the law.
When I say that an unregenerate Paul would not say, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Rom. 7:22), I don’t mean that a first-century Jew couldn’t say that. I mean that the term “inner being” (esō anthrōpon) is Paul’s way of saying, “I don’t mean this hypocritically, or superficially, or pharisaically. I mean that I myself really do, in the depths of my new regenerate man (cf. Eph. 3:16; 4:24), love the law of God.”
I don’t doubt there were regenerate first-century Christian Jews like Zechariah and Elizabeth who were “both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments” (Luke 1:6). I am sure they delighted in the law of God and said so.
And I don’t doubt there were unregenerate Jews who said “I delight in the law of God” with their lips, while their hearts were far from God (Matt. 15:8). The unregenerate Paul was not like Zechariah, but like the vain worshiper. But the Paul speaking in Romans 7:22 is trying to tell us he really means it. That’s why he says “delight in the inner being” (Rom. 7:22) and why he says “I, my very self (autos egō) serve the law of God with my mind” (Rom. 7:25).
3. Paul is referring to an occasion and not total captivity to sin.
When I say Romans 7:14–25 describes Paul’s Christian experience, I don’t mean his steady-state experience. I mean that this sort of defeat happens to Paul. For example, when he says “If I do what I do not want . . . it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:16–17), he is referring to an occasion in life, not the totality of life.
Or when he says, “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” (Rom. 7:23), he does not mean he lives in the steady-state “captivity.” He means captivity happens to him.
So when I describe Romans 7:14–25 as “Christian experience,” I don’t mean “ideal” experience, or “normal” steady-state experience. I mean that when a genuine Christian does the very thing he hates (Rom. 7:15), this is what really happened to Paul the Christian in moments of weakness and defeat.
4. Triumph is connected to war.
One of my arguments for the Christian-experience view is that Paul follows his exultation of triumph in verse 25 with a strong inference (ara oun)—“therefore”—that returns us to the conflict and “war” of verse 23. The Christian experience view makes good sense of this sequence. But I have not seen a compelling answer to this argument.
Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). He answers with an exultant expression of the victory of Christ, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25). If that victory signaled the warfare of Romans 7:14–25 was behind him, how natural it would have been for Romans 8:1–2 to begin next: “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.”
But instead, Paul not only gives one last expression to his conflict with indwelling sin, but he makes this conflict a strong inference from the victory he just expressed. He says, “[The victory is done through Christ!] Therefore (ara oun), I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25).
How does this “therefore” work? It seems to work like this: Because God has won a great and decisive and final victory over the forces of sin that take my members captive (Rom. 6:13, 19; 7:5), I am now able “to serve the law of God with my mind,” even though, at times, my flesh gets the upper hand and takes me captive to serve the law of sin so that I do what I hate.
In other words, there is a massive difference between the Christian experience of deliverance from the wretched control of the “body of death” (Rom. 7:24), and the pre-Christian experience when we “existed” (hēmen) in the flesh, [and] our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death (Rom. 7:5).
5. Warfare is made possible, not past.
But Paul is at pains to make clear in Romans 7:25 that the difference does not put the warfare behind us. Our death in Christ “to that which held us captive” and our “serving in the new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6) does not mean we never stumble back into experience of captivity. In fact, the “therefore” of Romans 7:25 explains that the victory does not make the warfare past; it makes it possible and real.
It seems to me that the groaning of Romans 8:23 as we “wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” is essentially the same as the cry of Romans 7:24: “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?”
In Romans 7:24, the focus is on the moral crippling connected with the body, and in Romans 8:23 the focus is on the physical. But the reference to the “not yet” of adoption in Romans 8:23 (that climaxes in conformity to our older brother in Romans 8:29) reminds us that both morally and physically, there is a massive “not yet” for the Christian.
And my contention is that there is a lot more continuity of the “not yet” from Romans 7 to Romans 8—both spiritually and physically—than is sometimes realized.