We end the week, Pastor John, with a topic that dawned on me recently. Not long ago, I was editing a powerful sermon clip taken from your sermon series on Romans 7:14–25, applying what it means to be a Christian who lives with disordered desires. It was a sermon clip sent to us from a woman in Greece who struggled for years with an eating disorder and who chose to open up and tell others about her sin only after having heard your pastoral conclusion to sermon five.
It’s an amazing clip and a powerful listener testimony that we published about a month ago as APJ 1751. But when I researched that clip and set it up for the podcast, I noticed we’ve never entered into the debate over Romans 7 here on the podcast. Is this the struggle of Christian Paul or pre-Christian Saul? Several times here, you’ve said it’s a believer’s struggle (like in APJ 802, 1183, 1438) and then built from this stated conclusion. But you’ve never defended that position in APJ, and I’d love to hear you do so. How would you frame the disagreement? And why do you land on the side of Romans 7 describing the believer’s struggle?
The disagreement about Romans 7:14–25 is whether Paul is describing some dimension of his Christian experience — or whether he’s describing his pre-Christian experience of defeat as he tried to keep the law, and he’s describing it now from his perspective as a Christian. Now, my view is that Romans 7:14–25 is a description of the kind of experiences Paul often had as a Christian, and that we often have. And I say often had because I don’t want to give the impression that those verses describe the totality of Christian experience.
Now, this disagreement is among really good friends, right? You and I can name really good friends that just don’t see eye to eye on this, and I love those brothers. I don’t consider this disagreement as a ground for any kind of breaking of a relationship or a fellowship.
Framing the Disagreement
The disagreement exists because, on the one hand, Paul says, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22), and he says, “I myself serve the law of God with my mind” (Romans 7:25) — which is hard to imagine as a description of pre-Christian Paul. That’s my opinion. It’s very hard to imagine that.
On the other hand, he says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14), or, “I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15), and so on. My disagreeing brother would ask, Would a Christian say that? Would the Christian Paul describe himself that way — “sold under sin”?
So, there’s the problem, and I’m going to give nine reasons for thinking these are Paul’s description of his present experience from time to time, though not his total Christian experience.
1. ‘I’ in the Present Tense
The most natural way to understand Paul’s use of the first person I and the present tense is that he’s talking about himself and part of his life now as a believer. He uses I or me or my about forty times in this text, and he explains his situation in the present tense all the way through.
“I am of flesh,” “what I am doing I do not understand,” “I do the very thing I do not want,” and so on — present tense. On the face of it, then, it looks like he’s describing his present Christian experience. So, for the average person like me, it’s going to take a lot to say, “No, that’s not what is happening.”
2. Law in the Inner Being
Paul speaks about the law of God in this passage in a way that sounds like the way a Christian believer would talk about it — not the way an unregenerate Jewish man would talk about it. “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22). Now, it’s this phrase “in the inner man” that sounds so much like the way Paul talks as a Christian about the Christian’s real inner self. I don’t think Paul would have said this about his pre-Christian self.
3. Inconsistent with His Past
The description of Romans 7 of Paul as a divided and sometimes tormented man in relation to the law doesn’t fit with the way he describes his experience before he was a Christian.
In his pre-Christian days, he is anything but a man who is torn because of any perceived failures to live up to the law of God. In Galatians 1 and Philippians 3, he describes himself as having undivided zeal for the law. So the Romans 7 Paul doesn’t fit with the way he described his pre-Christian experience.
4. More Than Fallen Flesh
I think Paul talks about himself in Romans 7 in a way that only a Christian could — a person with faith and with the Holy Spirit.
“In Paul’s view, the pre-Christian person is only flesh. Only a Christian is more than fallen flesh.”
For example, he says in Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells in me” — and then he qualifies it — “that is, in my flesh.” Now, if Paul is here giving a Christian assessment of his pre-Christian experience, then why does he add to the statement “nothing good dwells in me” the qualifier “that is, in my flesh”?
I think, in Paul’s view, the pre-Christian person is only flesh. Only a Christian is more than fallen flesh. He has the Holy Spirit, and that’s why Paul has to say that qualifier: “that is, in my flesh.” There is a good thing in me — namely, the Holy Spirit. So he’s not talking about the pre-Christian Paul, I think.
5. Parallel to Galatians 5
In Galatians 5:17, Paul uses language very close to Romans 7, but everyone agrees that in Galatians, it’s a description of Christian experience.
He says in Galatians 5:17, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other” — and now comes the phrase that sounds just like Romans 7, almost the same language — “to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” This is a description of the inner conflict of the Christian, and the language is so similar to Romans 7 — “I do what I don’t want to do; I don’t do what I want to do” — that I conclude Romans 7 is also Christian experience like Galatians 5.
6. Temporarily Enslaved To Sin
My sixth argument is an answer to the strongest argument against my view — at least that’s what some say it is. In Romans 7:14, Paul says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” And my friends would say, “Would Paul really say, Piper, of a Christian that he is sold under sin?” The imagery is of being sold as a slave. Can a Christian ever say, “I am sold under the slave master of sin”? After all, Romans 6:18 says, “Having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.”
Now, my response is that I don’t think Paul is saying the Christian lives under sin as a normal way of life — continually dominated and defeated by sin — but that in the moment of failure, sin gets the upper hand like a slave master temporarily getting control of a person who’s not really his. I think this because both in Romans 6:12 and Galatians 5:1 Paul warns Christians precisely not to submit again to the reign, or to the yoke, of slavery.
It’s a real possibility that Christians can see themselves as temporarily sold under sins. I don’t think that is a decisive counterargument.
7. Unbelievers Don’t Cry for Freedom
This is a response to the objection from Romans 7:24. Can a real Christian cry out, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” To which my response is, Can a real Christian not cry out, “Who will set me free from this body of death”?
“The unbeliever does not cry out for release. He doesn’t. He is at home in it. This is a Christian cry.”
The body is not only diseased and dying and groaning, according to Romans 8, but it is also the staging ground for many evil desires, Paul says. It is regularly the base of operations for sin. The unbeliever does not cry out for release from this. He doesn’t. He is at home in it. This is a Christian cry.
8. Free from Captivity, Not Warfare
My eighth argument is the way others use Romans 8:2 — this is, I think, very powerful. It says, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Now, some say that this is a clear declaration that the warfare of Romans 7 is over because the phrase law of sin in 8:2 is used in Romans 7:23. The person in verse 23 is made “a captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” But now, in Romans 8:2, we are free from the law of sin and death.
So, people conclude the person in 7:23 cannot be a Christian because the Christian is Romans 8:2, and he’s free from that. But I think, in view of all we’ve seen and in view of the exhortations in Romans 6, that to say we are now in Christ set free from the law of sin does not at all preclude the reality that from time to time the law of sin does indeed get the upper hand and must be repented of and renounced.
There is a freedom from it, but not an absolute freedom from its influence, which we can defeat with warfare in the Spirit.
9. Anticlimax in Romans 7:25
Romans 7 seems to reach its climax in verse 25, the first half of the verse. It goes like this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In other words, who’s going to deliver me from this horrible situation that I’ve been describing in these verses in Romans 7? Answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
This is often taken to mean that after all the failure of verses 14–25, Paul now arrives at a point of triumph and transition. He is moving from the defeated pre-Christian experience of Romans 7 to the triumphant Christian experience of Romans 8. But if that’s the way Paul is thinking, the second half of verse 25 is a colossal embarrassment and a stumbling block.
Verse 25 closes like this, which doesn’t at all fit this understanding of a big transition from Romans 7 to 8, with the fulcrum being the first half of verse 25. Just when this view expects a triumphant statement about how the divided man is finally united in victory and beyond conflict and entirely under the sway of the Spirit, what do you get in the second half of verse 25?
You get just what you would expect to get if Romans 7 is really about the frequent Christian experience of conflict and struggle. You get a summary statement of the struggling and divided life. It goes like this: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). What an anticlimax if the intention is to say that there’s this decisive break between chapters 7 and 8.
So, for these nine reasons, I think we should read Romans 7:14–25 as the description, not of the totality of Christian experience, but of the kind of discouragements and conflicts and defeats we often encounter as we do battle with sin.