Who is the man in Romans 7? – Romans 7:14-25

The issue is this: in Romans 7:14-25, is Paul speaking of his experience before he came to Christ, or after?  This is an issue on which interpreters of this chapter are divided.  Sometimes, one view may be embraced by an individual only to be later supplanted by the other view.  St. Augustine of Hippo is known for first interpreting these verses in reference to Paul as unregenerate, only to later discard that view for the one that takes the verses in reference to Paul as regenerate.

The arguments for either side can be impressive.  In fact, this reality has caused one commentator to state, “I would suggest that the arguments are so finely balanced because Paul does not intend to distinguish believers from unbelievers in this text.”[1]  In other words, Paul does not intend us to adjudicate this issue of believer/unbeliever in this passage.  The point is not whether or not that these verses speak of one over the other, but rather that the law is powerless to change and sanctify.  

I basically agree with this point of view.  I do think that the main point here is not to paint a picture of the unregenerate or regenerate, but rather to make the point that no one, regardless whether they are born again or not, can use the law to bring about the change we need in our lives. 

However, I disagree that we are not intended to read this as the experience of a believer.  I do think Paul intended his audience to read this text as referring to his life after coming to Christ.  I will try to make a case for this in this message.

Someone may ask, “But why should we care?  Why does this matter?”  It matters for the reasons that I gave at the close of our last message.  If we interpret this as referring to a believer, as I believe we should, it stands as a warning for believers to beware looking to their own resources in order to keep the law and obey God.  And that is an important point, because this is a pitfall into which we can all fall.  In Paul, being under the law means that we are looking to the law for either justification or for sanctification.  But looking to the law for sanctification means that we are relying on our own resources for obedience, because the law is not something inside us but something outside us.  The law does not give us the power to keep God’s commandments, it only tells us to keep God’s commandments.  To be under law then means that we are looking to ourselves to do what God’s law tells us to do.  As Paul will put it to the Galatians, “The law is not of faith” (Gal. 3:12).  The warning of Romans 7:14-25 is that even the believer cannot sanctify themselves apart from Christ, because we are yet “of the flesh, sold under sin.”  

But it also stands as an encouragement to believers who are experiencing the inner conflict between the sin within and the desire to be more like Christ.  It is encouraging because this text reminds us that no matter how far we are advanced in our walk with Christ, there will always be this struggle.  The presence of this struggle does not mean that we are unbelievers or unsaved.  And in the heat of battle that reminder can be at times very encouraging.

I think that some people who claim that it is possible to be without this struggle as a believer do so because they really don’t appreciate the high standards of God’s law.  I’ve been recently reading Jerry Bridges’  book, The Discipline of Grace, and in it he makes the point that even we who are believers in Christ and embracers of the gospel can become like the Pharisee in Luke 18 (the one who told the Lord, “I thank you that I am not like other men are…”).  We do so by defining sin conveniently narrowly.  He writes, “A large part of our problem as evangelical believers is that we have defined sin in its more obvious forms – forms of which we are not guilty.  We think of sin in terms of sexual immorality, drunkenness, lying, cheating, stealing, and murder.  And in more recent years we’ve tended to focus on the societal sins of abortion and homosexuality.  We see the ever-increasing pervasiveness of these more flagrant sins, and we see ourselves looking good by comparison.”  He then goes on to talk about “refined sins,” sins like a judgmental spirit, a critical attitude, a backbiting and gossiping tongue, an unforgiving spirit, and unloving heart, and so on.  We can unfortunately become very comfortable with these sins, especially when we are comparing ourselves to those who commit the more “obvious” sins like adultery or murder.  Bridges go on to say, “One of our problems with these so-called refined sins is that we have become too comfortable with the whole concept of sin.  Because we do sin so frequently we learn to coexist with it as long as it doesn’t get too out of control or scandalous.  We forget, or perhaps we have never learned, how seriously God regards all sin.”[2]  

The point is this: when we consider how high God’s standards are, we are going to become more aware of our failures, not less, even as mature and experienced believers.  We are not going to glide over our sins; we are going to deplore them as the acts of rebellion and defiance that they are.  When we are willing to face up to all our sins, including the respectable ones, we will probably be more likely to identify with the struggle depicted in the verses we are considering here in Romans 7.  It is when we start ignoring our more hidden sins that we can convince ourselves that the struggle Paul depicts in these verses doesn’t apply to us.  And I think that is dangerous.  So in that sense, yes, it is important how we look at these verses.

So why do I think Paul is writing of his experience as a believer here?  

It is the most natural way to read the text

I mentioned this last time, but I will repeat it here because it is to me the biggest piece of evidence for the view for which I am arguing.  Paul is writing autobiographically; of that there is no doubt.  He has been speaking of himself in the past in verses 7-13; now in verse 14 and following he switches, uniformly and consistently, to the present.  The most natural way to take this switch in tenses is to read verses 7-13 as referring to Paul’s past and verses 14-25 as referring to Paul’s present.  The main argument against this is that Paul has switched to the present for dramatic purposes.  But this does not make sense: if Paul is describing the same experience (bondage to sin as experienced by the unconverted), why would he dramatize part of it and not the other?  In other words, why make a distinction in the text when there is no distinction in the subject matter?  It is simply not the most natural way to read this text to make it refer to the apostle’s experience before he came to Christ.

Now some have pointed to the connection between verses 13 and 14 as requiring us to read the following verses as referring to a person who is not born again.  In verse 13, Paul has argued that the law is not responsible for causing death, but rather the sin within.  Verse 14 supports verse 13: it begins with the word “for.”  So if ver. 13 refers to the unregenerate, and verse 14 supports verse 13, verse 14 and the following verses must also refer to the unregenerate.  

However, this ignores the fact that though there is real discontinuity between our life before Christ and our life in Christ, yet there is also an unfortunate continuity.  The sin which plagued us before we were born again is still present in those who are born again.  It is true that it no longer has the power it once had.  Christ is now the true King of our hearts.  We have the ability, in Christ, to say no to sin and to do what is right and holy.  But the sin within is still lurking in the shadows, and its presence means that if we look to the law for sanctification, we are going to lose every time.  The “for” of verse 14 is not connecting the idea that all applies to the unregenerate; rather, it connects the idea that the law is impotent to change, whether we are born again or not.

The terms used of the struggle with indwelling sin depict a believer, not an unbeliever

It is important to note that the apostle does not just say that he struggles with sin.  That could describe an unbeliever.  He says that in the struggle with sin, he does not identify with the sin that seeks to capture his heart: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwell within me” (17); “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (20).  He also identifies his true self with God’s law, and puts some distance between his deepest longings and the sin that rises up within: “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good” (16); “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (19); “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 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” (22-23); “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with the flesh the law of sin” (25).  Such was the intensity of the apostle’s longing for complete conformity to God’s law, and his identity with it, that he distances himself from the sin that dwelt within him as if it were someone else, and depicting his lapses into sin as that which was against his will (although without absolving himself from responsibility, for the sin is his sin). 

Note that he identifies his longing for holiness with the desire of his mind, or his inner being.  I take this to mean that fundamentally, Paul longed for holiness, although such longing did not always come to fruition.  He truly hated sin (15) and delighted in God’s law (21), but that did not mean that the desires of the flesh were always thwarted.  When he said that he did not will, or desire, or delight in sin, he does not mean that there were no desires thereto or gratification upon the performance of it – he only meant that the deepest feelings of his heart were against it.  What he really desired, and delighted in, was conformity to God’s law, however he may have been entangled in sin.  His true personality, the “inward man” (22) and the law of his mind (23,25), were against the performances of sin, and he groaned upon every remembrance of being entrapped in “the body of this death” (24).  And thus the struggle.

This is not how the Bible describes unbelievers.  This is how Jesus described the Pharisees of his day: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.   When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  Fundamentally, unbelievers are estranged from God and his law.  They may struggle with sin, but in their case, sin lies at the very heart of who they are apart from Christ.  Again, that does not seem to be the case with the individual described in our text. 

Some have attempted to apply the struggle with sin described in the text to the unregenerate by a reference to ancient secular literature.  “Some contemporary scholars who hold this position back it up with a quotation from the first-century Roman poet Ovid: ‘I see and approve the better things, but I pursue the worse’.”[3]  However, this is not applicable to what the apostle is describing.  The heathen writers said these things from the compulsion of their consciences, not from the longings of delight and complacency in the law of God.  As Calvin, referring to such writings, aptly comments, “…these act under a constraint when they subscribe to the righteousness of God, as their will is wholly alienated from it, but the godly man consents to the law with the real and most cheerful desire of his heart; for he wishes nothing more than to mount up to heaven.”[4]  Again, he writes, “That the whole, then, of this reasoning may be more fully and distinctly understood, we must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God: for man, left to his own nature, is wholly borne along by his lusts without any resistance; for though the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and cannot take such delight in their vices, but that they have some taste of bitterness, yet you cannot from hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them; only the Lord permits them to be thus tormented, in order to show to them in a measure his judgment; but not to imbue them either with the love of righteousness or with the hatred of sin.”[5]

The connections between Romans 7 and 8 support reading 7:14-25 as referring to a believer

This is often given as the reason why many interpret Romans 7 the other way.  They will argue that there is such a difference between how Paul describes the believer in Romans 8 and the experience of Romans 7, that there is no way Romans 7 could describe the regenerate.  The claim is that the two descriptions are simply incompatible.  It is further argued that in Romans 7:6, Paul sets up his argument through the end of this chapter and into chapter 8: 7:7-25 describes life under the law, “in the old way of the written code,” and 8:1-39 describes life in the Spirit, “the new way of the Spirit.”  Moreover, the Spirit is never mentioned in 7:14-25, whereas he is mentioned over and over again in chapter 8.  All this, it is argued, means that Paul must be referring to his pre-conversion experience.  This is of course a very tidy way of putting things, but there are serious problems with this view. 

First of all, we are presented with a false choice.  We are told that since the Spirit is never mentioned, therefore the only possible interpretation of this text is in reference to the unbeliever.  But this ignores what is almost universally recognized to be the main point of the passage.  The main point here is that the law in itself is powerless to sanctify.  Those who look to the law for sanctification are not looking to the Spirit, so of course the Spirit is not going to have a place in the conversation at this point.  More importantly, this is not just true of unbelievers, it is also a truth that believers need to hear.  Is it not possible for believers to rely on the flesh in the attempt to become more holy?  Of course it is.  Why else would our Lord remind his disciples, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5)?  The epistle to the Galatians was written to believers who were attempting to do this very thing.  Paul is reminding such folks that the presence of indwelling sin makes this reliance upon the resources of sinful flesh stupid and foolish.  Such people need to hear again the apostle’s expostulation of Romans 7:24-25: “O wretched man that I am!  Who shall deliver me from this body of death?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The law cannot sanctify you, believer; only Christ can.  The argument of Romans 7:14-25 is the negative argument against the law; the positive argument for the Spirit comes in Romans 8:1,ff.  To sum up, the division between Romans 7 and 8 is not, as is often put, unregenerate versus regenerate, but rather law versus Spirit.  And since believers are in constant danger of going back to the law as a source for sanctification, we need to be constantly reminded that, due to the prevalence of indwelling sin, such a going back is really regression rather than progression.  And that’s the point of Rom. 7:14-25.

Secondly, the description of the person in our text must refer to a believer, given what Paul does say in the following chapter of those who are in the Spirit and those who are not.  We’ve mentioned that the description of the struggle most likely refers to the struggle believers have with sin.  We receive further confirmation for this when we look into Romans 8.  For example, in 7:22, the apostle says, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.”  Now in chapter 8, he says of those who are “in the flesh” that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8).  As John Stott put it, “… how can an unregenerate person, who is hostile to God’s law (8:7), declare that he delights in it (7:22)?”[6]

Now it is said that Paul is referring to his delight in the law that he had as a rabbi before his conversion to Christ.  I’ll be honest: I’ve never even come close to buying that response.  The sentence “I delight [again, present tense] in the law of God, in my inner being” does not naturally lend itself to the interpretation: “I delighted as a Pharisee in the law of God, although only in the way that an unsaved person could.”  Without any such qualifiers, the most natural way to read that sentence is to read it as a genuine expression of present delight in God’s law, as such.  And that is just impossible for those who are not born again, who are yet genuinely in the flesh.  

Thirdly, the conflict that Paul describes in chapter 7 is perfectly consistent with the picture that he paints of life in the Spirit in chapters 6 and 8.  Being born again, being in the Spirit, does not make you immune from the assaults of sin.  It does not relieve you from the struggle against sin.  Sometimes people come down so hard on the position that Romans 7 could never refer to a believer that they make you wonder if they think the true Christian is someone who is always on the mountain top, who is always experiencing victory, who never has a bad day and who is always joyful and rejoicing.  However, there are indicators, even in Romans 6 and 8, that this is not the case.  

For example, remember that in Romans 6 Paul makes this mighty case that the believer is dead to sin, that sin will not have dominion over us since we are not under the law but under grace.  However, in verses 12-13, he applies this truth in this way: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”  Again, some people will object to the language of Romans 7, especially phrases like “of the flesh, sold under sin” (7:14).  They will argue that we cannot be sold under sin since we have been delivered from its dominion (6:14).  Ah yes, but that didn’t keep Paul from telling those who were no longer under sin’s dominion to not let it have dominion!  Sin can still capture our hearts and turn us from the path of obedience to disobedience.  And since this is true until the day we die, I don’t see why Paul can’t describe the experience of believers in terms of Rom. 7:14,ff.

You see this also in Rom. 8:13, where Paul exhorts his readers: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  It is still necessary to fight the sin in our lives.  In his book on “The Mortification of Sin,” which was essentially an extended meditation on this text, the puritan John Owen wrote, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you . . . .  There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on, and it will be so whilst we live in this world.”[7]  How is this possible?  It is possible because of the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 7.  Thank God that we have been freed from sin’s penalty and power.  However, we are not yet free from its presence.  That awaits the age to come.  And so, until then, we will have to fight the sin within, we will have to keep mortifying and struggling with and fighting against sin.

One more time . . .

I want to conclude this morning by coming back one more time to the main point of these verses.  Whether or not you take these verses to refer to the believer or unbeliever, the main point remains unchanged: the law is impotent and powerless to change us.  But this is something that even we, as believers, need to hear.  We need to be reminded that the law tells us what to do but it cannot make us do it.  What this means is that the power to do what we ought does not come from within; it comes from outside of us.  When we are called to be holy, the very last thing we ought to do is to look within.  Rather, we ought to look to Christ.  It is in union with him in his redemptive death and resurrection that we are empowered to be holy men and women.  Our only resource here is our greatest resource.

This does not mean that we “let go and let God.”  It does not mean that we do not put effort into the pursuit of holiness.  But what it does mean is that as we fight sin and pursue holiness, we do so looking to Christ, trusting in him, and crying out to him for daily grace and empowerment. As Paul ends this chapter, “Who shall deliver us from the body of this death?”  Who indeed?  Not you, and not me.  Rather, with Paul let us “thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We thank him because he not only can but does deliver those who put their trust in him.

This is a very freeing truth.  If the power to fight sin does not lie within me, but rather in a gracious and loving Savior who has promised to save those who come to him, then it does not matter how powerfully the iron claws of sin have closed around you.  For there is a Savior who is more powerful than the most powerful sin in which you feel trapped.  Trust in him, look to him, and looking to him, relying on him, turn from your sin.  The truth of Christ can and will set you free (Jn. 8:32).

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans [BECNT], (Baker, 1998), p. 390.
[2] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace, (NavPress [Kindle Version], 1994), p. 22,25.
[3] John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (IVP, 1994), p. 206.
[4] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans: Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Baker, 1996), p. 266.
[5] Ibid, p. 262-263.
[6] John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World, (IVP, 1994), p. 207.
[7] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. 6, (Banner of Truth, 1967), p. 9, 11.


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