When it comes to describing man’s internal struggle with sin, there is no chapter in the Bible more famous than Romans 7. Pastors and scholars have long debated the identity of the man that Paul describes in verses 14-25. Is the man regenerate, or unregenerate? Does this text describe the normative condition for Christians after conversion, or a struggle that only unbelievers wrestle with? Competing understandings of Christian sanctification depend on the answer to these questions. In this paper I will lay out the two major positions that have been held historically and then comment on the trajectory that each position tends toward in practical Christian living, specifically surrounding the Christian’s ongoing struggle against sin. These two positions can be summarized as follows:
Position 1 (P1): The man described in Romans 7:14-25 is a regenerate man. Paul is describing his internal struggle with sin after his conversion.
Position 2 (P2): The man described in Romans 7:14-25 is an unregenerate man. Paul is reflecting on his experience prior to conversion, which would also be typical of a pious Jew under the law.
The Argument For A Regenerate Man (P1) In Romans 7:14-25
Augustine famously changed his view on this passage from P2 to P1 and paved the way for what has become the dominant view in the reformed church today. Christopher T. Bounds says of Augustine that “in his initial forays into Pauline study in 394/395, Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans, Augustine interpreted Romans 7:14-25 as a human being ‘under the law, prior to grace.’”Bounds, Christopher T. “Augustine’s Interpretation of Romans 7:14-25, His Ordo Salutis, and His Consistent Believe in a Christian’s Victory Over Sin.” The Asbury Journal 64. 2009. Asbury … Continue reading About 20 years later, Augustine explicitly changed his position to seeing the man in Romans 7 as “under grace.” Bounds goes on to note that “in 427, three years before his death, Augustine, writing his Retractions, renounces again his earliest position on Romans 7 as a description of an unconverted person ‘under law’ and reiterates his belief that this is Paul’s Christian testimony and the experience of every person ‘under grace.’”Bounds, Christopher T., 20. Augustine’s view held sway amongst the reformed who shared his soteriological views. John Calvin states in his commentary on Romans 7:14 that,
“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 hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them.”Calvin, Jean. Calvin’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Calvin gets to the key issue and argument for understanding the man in Romans 7 as a regenerate believer, namely that unbelievers do not hate sin (Rm. 7:15) or delight in the law of God in the inner being (Rm. 7:22). The doctrine of total depravity looms large over the reformed expositor’s interpretation. According to advocates of P1, only a regenerate believer has the capacity for this hatred of sin and delight in God’s law. Calvin goes on to state that Romans 7 describes the same Christian conflict that Paul speaks of in Galatians 5:17, that of a war between the flesh and the spirit. This war is described in The Westminster Confession of Faith in it’s chapter on sanctification: “In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” The proof text for this section includes Romans 7:23, “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”
Anthony Hoekema describes this war between the flesh and the spirit as a war between old and new natures, going so far as to use Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to describe the Christian man. He then states that the regenerate man is a “bundle of contradictions. He hates and yet he loves God’s law. He wills and yet he does not will the good. He despises and yet he commits evil. He is at one and the same time a Pharisee and a publican, a Simon and a Peter, a sinner and yet a saint.”Hoekema, Anthony A. “The Struggle Between Old and New Natures In The Converted Man.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Accessed February 22, 2017. 42. In contrasting John Calvin with Martin Luther, Hoekema states that Luther’s psychological temperament allowed him to “enter more deeply into both the despair of the sinner and the joy of the redeemed…[for] he was more a man of emotional ups and downs than Calvin was.”Ibid. 44. For whatever attempts an exegete makes to be objective in his interpretation, one cannot deny that human experience plays a significant role in confirming or rejecting a P1 reading of the passage. For a man of Luther’s temperament, Romans 7 would seem to provide the categories necessary to understand the Christian struggle against sin after conversion: “As one and the same man at the same time serves the law of God and the law of sin, he is at the same time righteous and a sinner. For he does not say, My mind serves the law of God, neither, My flesh serves the law of sin, but I, he says, the whole man, the same person, serve both.”Ibid. John Piper calls this condition “The Divided Man” and argues that because of Paul’s use of the first-person pronoun, the most natural reading of the passage is to understand Paul as speaking in the present tense. Piper goes on to argue along the same lines as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and The Westminster Divines when he states that “Paul speaks of the law as only a Christian could.”Piper, John. “Who Is This Divided Man Pt. 3.” Desiring God. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/who-is-this-divided-man-part-3. This point is perhaps the strongest and most persuasive argument for a P1 reading since it seems to do justice to a reformed understanding of sin and the doctrine of total depravity in particular. If only a regenerate man can “desire to do what is right” (vs. 18), and “delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (vs. 22), then this precludes the possibility of a P2 reading of the text.
The Argument For An Unregenerate Man (P2) In Romans 7:14-25
Advocates for a P2 reading include “most of the Fathers [who] believed that here Paul was adopting the persona of an unregenerate man, not describing his own struggles as a Christian.”Bray, Gerald, and Thomas C. Oden. Ancient Christians Commentary on Scripture–Romans. Downers Grove. ILL.: InterVasity Press, 1998. 189. In addressing the “problem passage” of verse 22, the Fathers “resolved it by saying that the inmost self was the rational intellect. As far as they were concerned, any rational person would automatically take delight in the law of God because it is supremely rational.”Ibid. 190. Ambrosiaster reflects this view when he argues, “sin does not dwell in the mind but in the flesh.”Ibid. 195. This view would fly in the face of a doctrine of total depravity that sees sin as corrupting every part of man, including the mind, intellect and will. But this is not the only way to deal with verse 22 from a P2 perspective. Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner are two modern commentators who advocate a P2 reading while granting that sin has indeed corrupted the rational mind. Moo argues that “we have abundant evidence that Jews in Paul’s day professed a delight in God’s law, and passages such as Rom. 10:2—‘for I bear witness that they [Israel] have a zeal for God’—show that Paul regarded that delight as genuine.”Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. Print. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. This interpretation becomes more persuasive when framed within Moo & Schreiner’s other arguments for a P2 reading.
Schreiner appeals to the structure of the passage as a whole and goes back to verses 5 and 6 to make his case:
“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.”Schreiner, Thomas. “Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience.” TGC – The Gospel Coalition. Accessed February 22, 2017. … Continue reading
Schreiner notes that the Holy Spirit is wholly absent in verses 7-25, which is suspicious if the man is truly regenerate, for “the essence of what it means to be a Christian is to be indwelt with the Spirit (Rom. 8:9).”Ibid. Whereas advocates of P1 cannot seem to reconcile an unregenerate man with verse 22, advocates of P2 cannot seem to reconcile a regenerate man with the entire pericope.
Another argument for the P2 reading comes from the question Paul asks in Romans 7:13, “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me?” The answer to this question is then given in the verses following, “By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good.” Schreiner points out that “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.”Ibid. If the P1 reading is correct, then this death by law continues even after we are filled with the Holy Spirit. When read in light of passages like Psalm 19:7, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul,” the P2 interpretation seems to make more sense, especially considering that Romans 8:2 says that “you are free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” That is to say that after regeneration, a man has a new relationship to the law of God, namely one of delight and glad obedience to it. Schreiner continues by saying that, “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.”Ibid. Moo likewise concludes that the situation is one of an unregenerate person and that Paul “is concentrating on the negatives because this is what he must do to prove how useless the law was to deliver Jews from their bondage to sin. We might say, then, that Rom. 7:14–25 describes from a personal viewpoint the stage in salvation history that Paul delineates objectively in Gal. 3:19–4:3.”Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. In other words, Paul is reflecting on his pre-conversion condition with converted eyes. He can now see clearly in his own past and in the Jewish nation by analogy that the law could only bring death and defeat because of sin.
In addressing the P1 argument that Paul’s use of the personal pronoun and shift to the present tense in verse 14 signifies that he was speaking of his current regenerate condition at the time of writing, Schreiner states, “the tense of the verb doesn’t emphasize time. 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.”Schreiner, Thomas. “Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience.” In regards to the use of the personal pronoun, Moo states that Paul “uses egō to represent himself, but himself in solidarity with the Jewish people. Because of this solidarity, Paul can put himself in the shoes of those who received the law at Sinai (vv. 8b–10a). Now, in vv. 14–25, he portrays his own condition as a Jew under the law, but, more importantly, the condition of all Jews under the law.”Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. The personal pronoun is then a rhetorical device to communicate that although Paul was not personally present at Sinai, he experienced in himself the same struggle and defeat that Israel had experienced when they received the law. If this is the case, the man in Romans 7 is not just any unregenerate man, it is more specifically and primarily a Jew under the law. This also explains the use of the marriage and divorce section at the beginning of the chapter. Paul is arguing that through “the body of Christ” (vs. 4), Jews are no longer under the Mosaic Law administration of the covenant of grace. This law was a tutor (Gal 3:19-25) and a guide to them but now that the promised seed has come, “the oldness of the letter” (vs. 6) is done away with as a means to restrain sin. Walt Russell states that, “Paul’s twofold point in Romans 7 to ‘those who know the Law’ is that it is inappropriate as a new-covenant restraint for God’s people (7:1-6) and it was always inadequate as an old-covenant constraint for God’s people (7:7- 25).”Russell, Walt. “Insight From Postmodernism’s Emphasis On Interpretative Communities In The Interpretation Of Romans 7.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37, no. 4 … Continue reading
Summary Contrast of P1 & P2
The strength of the P2 reading is that it fits naturally within the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans as a whole. If the Jew/Gentile problem was as significant as the other chapters indicate, it would make sense for Paul to use Romans 7 as a way of answering the lingering question in the minds of Jewish Christians about the role of the Mosaic Law now that Christ has come. Whereas the P2 reading emphasizes the Jews corporate struggle under the law via Paul’s personal experience prior to conversion, the P1 reading emphasizes an individual Christian’s struggle with sin and a psychoanalytic explanation for why we still sin after conversion. Whereas the P1 reading sees a parallel with Paul’s argument in Galatians 5:17 about the flesh and the spirit, the P2 reading sees a parallel with Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:19-25 about the law and the Jew.
Implications For Sanctification
Pastors and theologians have employed Romans 7 for a variety of purposes when it comes to the doctrine of Christian sanctification. Reformed theologians like Herman Bavinck (P1) see this text as “especially important for rejecting perfectionism and for maintaining the Reformational understanding that the tension of sin and grace continues in the regenerate’s life.”Bavinck, Herman, and John Bolt. “Dogmatic Theology As A Science.” Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. 583. Print. If the P1 view is correct, Paul becomes a prime example of someone who was a mature Christian and yet also continued to struggle with sin until the day he died. Christians throughout history have found comfort in this interpretation especially when dealing with doubts about one’s salvation in the midst of besetting sin. A potential pitfall of this view is to overemphasize the second use of the law (to drive people to Christ) over against the third use of the law (as a guide for Christian living). The danger is that of a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in practical living. When one expects the law to come and kill him, he walks in fear, instead of having faith in God that obedience is possible in the Spirit. In some reformed circles that teach certain brands of Sonship theology, there is a built-in suspicion of God’s law as an evangelical means for sanctification. But this is to miss the entire point of Paul’s argument, namely that the law is not the problem, sin is the problem. The P2 view acknowledges that there is a wrestling between the flesh and the Spirit as in Galatians 5:16-18, but the posture is one of expected victory instead of expected defeat. A potential pitfall for those who hold to a P2 interpretation is to minimize the reality of remaining sin in the Christian life. Legalism and Pharisaism can spring up if this struggle is ever minimized. A robust doctrine of sanctification requires that we take into account the strengths and weaknesses of both P1 and P2 and avoid the pitfalls of both defeatism and perfectionism. Although P2 is more persuasive in my view, P1 must not be dismissed without first addressing all the objections raised by it’s advocates, especially considering that list includes the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and nearly the entire reformed tradition.
|↑1||Bounds, Christopher T. “Augustine’s Interpretation of Romans 7:14-25, His Ordo Salutis, and His Consistent Believe in a Christian’s Victory Over Sin.” The Asbury Journal 64. 2009. Asbury Theological Seminary. 20.|
|↑2||Bounds, Christopher T., 20.|
|↑3||Calvin, Jean. Calvin’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.|
|↑4||Hoekema, Anthony A. “The Struggle Between Old and New Natures In The Converted Man.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Accessed February 22, 2017. 42.|
|↑7||Piper, John. “Who Is This Divided Man Pt. 3.” Desiring God. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/who-is-this-divided-man-part-3.|
|↑8||Bray, Gerald, and Thomas C. Oden. Ancient Christians Commentary on Scripture–Romans. Downers Grove. ILL.: InterVasity Press, 1998. 189.|
|↑11||Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. Print. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.|
|↑12||Schreiner, Thomas. “Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience.” TGC – The Gospel Coalition. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/romans-7-does-not-describe-your-christian-experience.|
|↑16||Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans.|
|↑17||Schreiner, Thomas. “Romans 7 Does Not Describe Your Christian Experience.”|
|↑18||Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans.|
|↑19||Russell, Walt. “Insight From Postmodernism’s Emphasis On Interpretative Communities In The Interpretation Of Romans 7.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37, no. 4 (December 1994): 524.|
|↑20||Bavinck, Herman, and John Bolt. “Dogmatic Theology As A Science.” Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. 583. Print.|