Clarifying Romans 7:14–25 As “Christian Experience”

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Not surprisingly, there was pushback to my argument at the Desiring God National Conference that Romans 7:14–25 refers to Paul’s — and thus to our — Christian experience. Adrian Warnock (following his 2008 pushback) and Preston Sprinkle were both gracious in their demurring.

Neither thinks that when Paul says, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (esō anthrōpon)” (Romans 7:22), or when he says, “I, my very self (autos egō) serve the law of God with my mind” (Romans 7:25), he is speaking for himself as a Christian.

This is because Paul also says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14); “I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15); “I see in my members another law . . . making me captive to the law of sin” (Romans 7:23); “wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24); and “with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 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.”

I doubt that when it comes to a positive description of what the Christian life should be, and what it normally is, the three of us would differ significantly. In other words, our difference in exegesis on this passage probably does not signal a significant difference 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 at Nicholas Batzig’s article, “Feeding on Christ.”

So here are a few clarifications that might help.

1. “In my inner being”

When I say that an unregenerate Paul would not say, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 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. Ephesians 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 heart was far from God (Matthew 15:8). The unregenerate Paul was not like Zechariah, but like the vain worshipper. 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” (Romans 7:22) and why he says “I, my very self (autos egō) serve the law of God with my mind” (Romans 7:25).

2. Occasion, Not Totality

When I say that 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” (Romans 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” (Romans 7:23), he does not mean that 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 (Romans 7:15), this is what really happened to Paul the Christian in moments of weakness and defeat.

3. Triumph 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) 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?” (Romans 7:24). He answers with an exultant expression of the victory of Christ, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). If that victory signaled the warfare of Romans 7:14–25 were 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” (Romans 7:25).

How does this “therefore” work? It seems to work like this: Because God has gotten a great and decisive and final victory over the forces of sin that take my members captive (Romans 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” (Romans 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” (Romans 7:5).

Warfare 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” (Romans 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, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). 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, 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.