This is the first installment in a special three-part “Perplexing Passages” forum examining the long-debated Pauline passage, Romans 7:13–25. In part two, John Piper will defend the view that Paul was speaking of his struggle with indwelling sin as a believer. The final part will offer a third view from Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
- “Romans 7 Does Describe Your Christian Experience” by John Piper
- “Lloyd-Jones: Believer or Unbeliever Is Not the Point of Romans 7” by Ben Bailie
Romans 7:13–25 is one of the most disputed and controversial passages in the Bible. Augustine changed his mind about its meaning, so we have precedent for swinging back and forth in our own interpretation. I recognize that I can hardly give the last word on a text that has been argued over for thousands of years.
Indeed, some of us have had a Romans 7 kind of experience with Romans 7.
We can’t decide what the verses are really about, and conclude, “Wretched interpreter that I am. Who will set me free from this interpretive quandary?”
Though in a short article I can’t discuss all the issues that arise in these verses, I’ll defend why I believe Paul is discussing his pre-Christian experience. It’s also important to see that Paul describes his pre-Christian life retrospectively. In other words, as Paul looks back as a Christian on his life before Christ, he recognizes he wasn’t a believer.
Four Reasons for a Pre-Christian Experience
1. The structure of the passage.
When we look at Romans 7 as a whole, we find a clear structure. This is outlined in verses 5–6:
For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions operated through the law in every part of us and bore fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.
Verse 5 depicts pre-Christian experience, describing a time “when we were in the flesh,” and explains that the flesh produced “death.” Verse 6 refers to Christians in four terms: “But now,” “released,” “died” (to our old life), and “Spirit.” Virtually all commentators agree that verse 5 refers to unbelievers and verse 6 to believers. But here is the key point: Romans 7:7–25 unpacks verse 5, and Romans 8:1–17 unpacks verse 6. In verses 7–25 we see how sin via the law brings death to those in the flesh, and in Romans 8:1–17 we see how the Spirit grants life to those who belong to Jesus Christ. Romans 7:5–6 forecasts what Paul is about to say in remarkably clear terms.
2. The Holy Spirit.
If we shake the kaleidoscope, we can look at the passage from another complementary perspective. The Holy Spirit is never mentioned in Romans 7:7–25. But Paul refers to the Spirit 15 times in Romans 8:1–17, suggesting that the person described in Romans 7:7–25 is one who doesn’t have the Spirit in his life.
The essence of what it means to be a Christian is to be indwelt with the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). We see in both Romans 7:14 and 7:18 that the one described is of the “flesh,” one who is still in the old Adam, one who is unregenerate.
3. The question asked in Romans 7:13.
Paul’s argument advances by the questions he asks. We’ve already seen that Romans 7:5–6 structures and forecasts the ensuing discussion. But notice the question posed in Romans 7:7: “What should we say then? Is the law sin?” The question arises because of the wording of Romans 7:5, since Paul had said that our sinful passions were aroused by the law and produced death.
So the question in Romans 7:7 naturally arises: if sinful passions were provoked by the law, is the law sinful? Paul categorically rejects such an option, arguing that the law is spiritual and good (Rom. 7:12). But sin used the law as a launching point in our lives to bring about our spiritual death.
Paul proceeds to ask another question in Romans 7:13: “Therefore, did what is good cause my death?” The “good” here is clearly the law. But notice the question asked: did the good law cause my death? The answer is then given in Romans 7:13b–25. But this is a powerful argument supporting pre-Christian experience since Paul explains how sin used the law to bring about our death. The flow of the argument fits perfectly with what Paul says about unbelievers in Romans 7:5: the law worked in our members while we were outside of Christ to separate us from God, to kill us.
4. The total defeat described in Romans 7:13–25.
Many Christians throughout history have identified with the despair and inability of the “I” in Romans 7:13–25. We read these verses and think: That’s my story; that’s my experience. Their instinct is right, but their interpretation is wrong. As Christians we are deeply aware of our continued sinfulness and the many ways we fall short of God’s will. As James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2; cf 2:10). It’s clear the word stumble here means sin. So James doesn’t say we sin occasionally, but that we all stumble and sin in many ways.
Every Christian following the Lord recognizes the continuing battle with sin that will afflict us until the day of redemption (Gal. 5:16–18). We’re already saved, but we aren’t yet all we want to or need to be. We must continue confessing our sins daily, just as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:12). Sin continues to bedevil us in thought, word, and deed until the day we die.
Yet that’s not what Romans 7:13–25 is talking about. Yes, we continue to struggle with sin. Yes, we fall short every day. But Romans 7:13–25 is talking about total defeat. As Paul says in verse 14, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” In other words, he is describing complete and total captivity to sin.
We see the same thing again in verse 23: “But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body.” Paul isn’t just talking about struggling with sin with frequent failures; he describes complete and abject defeat, being utterly enslaved to sin. The “I” is a prisoner of sin. Again and again in this passage, Paul says he wanted to obey but couldn’t; the obedience didn’t come and couldn’t come—since he was unregenerate.
The total defeat described in Romans 7 contradicts how Paul describes Christian experience in Romans 6 and 8. Paul proclaims in Romans 6 that we’re no longer slaves to sin (6:6), that we’re free from the sin that enslaved us when we were unbelievers (Rom. 6:16–19).
Yes, we still sin, but we aren’t slaves to it anymore. As Romans 8:2 declares, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Such freedom from sin doesn’t accord with the person described in Romans 7:13–25, since that person is still enslaved to sin. As Christians we enjoy substantial, significant, and observable (though not perfect) victory over sin in this life. Though we fail every day, we are dramatically changed by the grace of God.
A number of objections surface against what I’ve said. Let’s look at two of them briefly. First, how does a reference to unbelievers fit with Romans 7:23 (“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being”)? Doesn’t such delight and longing for God’s law show that a believer is in view? Not necessarily. Many pious Jews loved God’s law and yet didn’t know God. Paul himself testifies that the Jews have a “zeal for God,” though they lacked knowledge (Rom. 10:2). There can be zeal and delight in the law (witness the Pharisees) when one isn’t truly saved.
Second, Paul shifts from past-tense verbs in Romans 7:7–11 to present-tense verbs in verses 14–25. Doesn’t that prove Christians are in view? Not necessarily. Scholars recognize that present tense doesn’t necessarily designate present time. The temporal nature of an action must be discerned from context, since present-tense verbs, even in the indicative, may be used with reference to the past or even the future.
The tense of the verb doesn’t emphasize time in Romans 7:7–25. Rather, the use of the present tense here fits with the state or condition of the person. Paul is emphasizing one’s captivity, subjugation, and impotence under the law. His use of the present tense doesn’t denote past time but highlights in a vivid way the slavery of life under the law.
If I’m right in the way I interpret this passage, the difference between me and those who see this as Christian experience isn’t great. After all, we both agree that believers fall short in numerous ways and that we struggle daily with sin.
The reason we differ is that I see Romans 7:13–25 as describing total defeat, and that isn’t our story as Christians since the Holy Spirit also empowers us to live in a new way.