Why I Don't Think Romans 7 Is Descriptive of Christian Experience

This week, our group is discussing Romans 5-8. If the Bible were a mountain range, Romans 5-8 would be Mt. Everest (and chapter 8 would be the summit). This is the grandest, most majestic, and most breathtaking section of Scripture. But nestled within Romans 5-8 sits chapter 7, a passage which has long baffled Bible readers. Paul vividly depicts an internal conflict. He desires to obey the law, but his "flesh" prohibits him from so doing. You're probably familiar with his words:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

(Romans 7:14-25)

Many interpret Paul's words as a description of the Christian life. We desire to obey, but our sinful bent prohibits us from fulfilling the dictates of God's law. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, John Owen and a host of modern scholars (including both of my college mentors!) endorse this interpretation. For that reason, I've always been leery of disagreeing with it.

But disagree I do. I don't think Romans 7 is descriptive of Christian experience. Here's why:

  1. In Romans 6 and 8, Paul repeatedly states that Christians are free from sin (see 6:2, 4, 6-7, 11, 14-15, 17-18, 20, 22; 8:2-4, 8, 11, 12-13). In Romans 7, he repeatedly states that he is enslaved to sin (7:14; 22-25).
  2. In Romans 8, Paul repeatedly mentions the Holy Spirit. Possession of the Spirit is a key Christian identity marker. The Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found in Romans 7.
  3. In Romans 7, Paul does not "struggle" with sin; he is demolished by it. He wants to obey, but he cannot do it (7:22-25). This bleak depiction of life stands in stark contrast to the life Paul describes in Romans 6 and 8; the life of a New Covenant believer.
  4. The primary reason I disagree with the "believer" reading is contextual. The flow of Paul's argument leads one in a different interpretative direction. Let's trace the logic of this argument.
  • In Romans 7:1-6, Paul addresses the Jewish members of his audience (7:1); those familiar with the Mosaic Law. He says that Jewish believers in Christ are now free from the law, because they have died to its power. They now serve God in the new life of the Spirit (7:1-6). Throughout Romans, Paul makes clear that the Mosaic Law is inadequate to make people righteous before God. The law does not (and cannot) make people righteous. Rather, it reveals sin (3:19-20), brings wrath (4:13-16) and increases transgression (5:20). Upon hearing such bold pronouncements, the pious Jew would naturally ask, "But is the law evil? I thought it was holy, righteous and good!"
  • Paul answers this question in Romans 7:7-13. The law is good (7:12), Paul says. But it cannot make people good. The law merely reveals God's standard (7:7). It does not effect internal change. Moreover, sin exploits the law. The law is like fuel for the fire of flesh. Once a person knows what the law requires, their fallen nature reflexively desires to rebel. Remember, Paul is speaking to pious Jews who have come to trust in Jesus. Since Paul is also a Jew, he can speak as this group's representative. I believe this explains why he uses the first person singular throughout this passage (he does something similar in Galatians 2). In 7:7-13 then, Paul is saying this, "Jewish brothers and sisters, do you remember what happened when we received the law? When the law came at Mt. Sinai, it promised life! Yet, the law produced death in us, for sin exploited the law's commands, deceived us, and prompted us to rebel."
  • In Romans 7:14-25, Paul elaborates on the misery of the Jewish condition prior to Jesus. Life under the law was wretched. Pious Israelites had the desire to fulfill God's law, but lacked the internal power to obey. Note the consistency with which Paul describes Old Covenant life in this chapter. Life under the law is characterized by weakness (7:5, 18, 24), the continuous arousal of sinful desires (7:5, 8, 11, 21-23), captivity to these desires (7:6, 14, 23-24, 25) and death (7:5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 24). If Paul wishes to teach us something about New Covenant experience in this passage (as many contend), it is not at all clear where he introduces this element. Moreover, it is crucial to remember that Paul is not providing a generic description of "non-believers." Rather (as my old prof. Walt Russell has shrewdly observed) Paul is speaking to devout Jews. Prior to trusting in the Messiah, these men and women earnestly desired to fulfill the dictates of the law. However, the weakness of their flesh prohibited them from so doing (see Romans 8:3-4). Paul is not drawing a distinction between non-believers and believers, but between God's people in the Old and New covenants.

Summing it up, here's Paul's point in Romans 7: The law is a good thing, but it has been surpassed by a greater thing; life in Christ. Romans 7 is a vivid portrayal of the law's inadequacy to produce life. Thankfully, we don't live under the law, but in the power of the Spirit. Paul proceeds to describe this life in Romans 8. God gives us the power of his Spirit to overcome sin and walk in obedience (see 8:1-17). We don't have to submit to our sinful desires. We can walk in obedience because Jesus delivers us from both the penalty and the power of sin.

What does this mean practically? It means we shouldn't look at Romans 7 as a description of the "normal Christian life." When we sin, we might resonate with Paul's words in 7:14-25. But we mustn't assume that our personal experience is a foolproof guide for interpreting Scripture. You might resonate with Romans 7, but you don't have to live a Romans 7 life. Jesus died to free you from it. So go read Romans 6 and 8 to learn how to live a Jesus-empowered, Spirit-saturated, flesh-destroying, hope-filled, death-defying life.