Table of Context
I subscribe to the point of view that in Romans 7:7-25 the great Apostle Paul was talking about himself and his struggles; thus articulating the struggle of every believer. Paul voiced this harsh truth about himself and the rest of the world with refreshing transparency, admirable honesty, and uncommon humility. This portion of Scripture should be the foundation for the physiological reality of every believer: the dynamic between the flesh, the soul, and the spirit within us.
In this portion of Scripture, Paul crushes any justification for arrogance and pride in our lives as he defines himself as a wretched man. Nevertheless, Romans 7:7-25 is not only describing the reality of our struggle, but also the reality of our redemption through Christ Jesus, a major theme in the book of Romans. This paper will briefly discuss the spirit, the soul, the body and the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Lastly, this paper will attempt to make the case for Christians to realize that there is more beyond salvation. Salvation is the door, but Christ’s redemptive plan for our lives involves the restoration of our souls even in the midst of a sinful world and an uncooperative flesh.
There is consensus that the book of Romans was written by the Apostle Paul. Cox describes Romans as, “The Longest and most intensely theological of the 13 NT letters written by Paul.” Cox ads “this letter is also the most significant in the history of the church.” Martin Luther was studying Romans when he concluded that a person becomes righteous in the sight of God through faith alone. His discovery led to the Reformation battle cry, sola fide, “by faith alone.”
It is said that the Book of Romans was written in Corinth during the winter of A. D. 56 -57. “Douglas identified the genre of Romans as a letter, but recognizes that the primary impetus of Paul’s effort is the development of key theological augments.” “Morris, along with most commentators, assert that at the time of Paul’s writing, the church at Rome would have included both a large Gentile component and, due to the numerous references to the Old Testament, a significant Jewish element as well.”
The book of Romans has well defined themes. Its central team is the gospel, “the good news that God declares to sinners to be righteous when they trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on their behalf. It involves both the imputed righteousness of justification according to Romans 3-5 and the imparted righteousness of sanctification, worked out progressively through the power of the indwelling Holy Ghost (Romans 6-8). Other sub-themes, such as “flesh versus Spirit,” and “law versus grace,” relate this overall theme.”
It is precisely here, as we attempt to make sense of the literary context that Romans 7:7-25 seems not to feed. Piper articulated this seemingly contradiction this way,
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.”
Piper calls the transparency of Paul as statements of defeat. Piper can’t reconcile such statements in light of Romans 8:2 that declares the freedom every believer has found through and in Christ. Dockery also states, “The interpretation of Rom 7:14-25 has been problematic historically. Does the passage reflect Paul’s pre-conversion experience under the law? This was a major interpretation of the church fathers, or does this passage describe Paul’s tension in the Christian life?”
The reality is that, after taking a first glance at Romans 7 and attempting to take a look at the context by looking at the chapter before and the chapter after, there seems to be an unavoidable tension. This tension has been the cause of many diverse interpretations that are as different as day and night. Romans 7 begs the question, are we free from the guilt of sin, but not really free from sin?
Even classical theologians such as Augustine struggle with this portion of Scripture. In an indebt study of the way St. Augustine interpreted Romans 7:7-25, Bounds states, “The history and development of Augustine of Hippo’s exegesis of this passage has received significant scholarly attention. 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. The “I” pictured here is the quintessential unregenerate person, who has knowledge of the law of God, senses true guilt for sinfulness, longs for deliverance, but is without the grace of Christ to overcome sin. In contrast, the Christian “under grace,” infused with the love of God, is victorious over sin and “ceases to sin.”
It should be noted that Augustine went as far as stating that the Christian under grace ceases to sin. However, by the end of his life, an Augustine view of Romans 7 was completely different. Bounds states, “In 327, 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.”
To get a deeper understanding of Romans 7, other portions of scripture need to be evaluated. The Apostle John tells us in 1 John 1:8-10, “8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” (NASB)
Galatians 5:16-17 is another portion of Scripture that describes our inner struggles, Paul states, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (NASB)
This struggle can be better explained if we take a journey back to Genesis and what took place there. The sin of Adam and Eve had devastating consequences for humanity. 1) It brought physical death into the world; and had an even worse consequence, 2) spiritual death. From that moment on men started hiding from God, many still hiding from Him today. A person with a dead spirit does not have the ability to even hear the Gospel much less understand it (2 Corinthians 4:4). In John 3:3-6 Jesus explains to us the born-again experience by stating,
“…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (NASB)
The only part of us that is born again is the spirit in us. Neither the flesh nor the soul is born again. This is the root of the struggle found in Romans 7. We as humans are not only spirit, but we are also soul and body. The Apostle Paul explains this truth in First Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NASB)
By reading Scripture we learn that the spirit in us is willing (Matthew 26:41). Paul states in Romans 7:22 “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,” (NASB). The spirit is the part of us with the natural ability to cooperate with God. David understood the importance of his own spirit; in Psalm 51:10 he prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (NASB) It is with our spirit that we fulfill one, if not the greatest call as God’s people. With our spirit, with our innermost being, we are able to worship God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (NASB)
In our soul we have our mind (Our mindset), our will (decision making) and the seat for our emotions. We know that our soul is not born again, but as born again believers we know that our mind has been renewed. Romans 12:2 tells us, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (NASB) Psalm 23:3 and Lamentations 1:16 speaks of the restoration of the soul.
The flesh, on the other hand, has no hope; the flesh will always resist God (Galatians 5:17). However in First Corinthians 9:27 the Apostle Paul states the following regarding the flesh, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (NASB) The word discipline here is the Greek word, hupōpiázō; meaning “To strike under the eyes, beat the face black and blue, give a black eye. By this definition we can see that, as the spirit is the part of us that is willing to follow and cooperate with God, the flesh is the contrary. Romans 7 is the description of the doings of the flesh in the life of, even a believer.
As we look at Romans 7:7-25, based on the overwhelming biblical evidence, by no means can we conclude that it represents a contradiction of Romans 6 or 8 or that it is a discouragement to any victorious declaration in Scripture. Romans 7, if anything, explains the nature of our struggle and is not unique to Romans 7. It can be seen all throughout Scriptures in the Old and New Testament. Romans 7 places a stamp and seal on what the work of Christ truly represents; his love, his mercy, his patience and his power to change us.
To say that we no longer have the ability to sin as believers is lying, it’s deceiving ourselves and is evidence that the truth is not in us. This is a serious matter! Our weakness through the pages of history are well documented; I am sorry, I know that many would like to see themselves as so powerful and so victorious, and we are… but only through Jesus. If you are willing to accept all that we are in Christ and all that we are not in our own power, then you will have a problem with Romans 7; however if you recognize your dependency in Him for every aspect of your life, you will have no problem simplifying Romans 7.
It is all about Jesus, without him we are simply nothing. Through Him we are free from the guilt of sin, through him we have power to overcome sin and through him we find mercy when we fail to access such power and our weakness overtakes us. His victory was announced from the very beginning after the fall of man. In Genesis 3:15 God the Father tells us, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” (NASB) That is the theme of the whole Scripture, that is the good news… that is the Gospel and the central theme of the whole book of Romans. Yes… Jesus is our Savior (Acts 13:23), but the Gospel goes beyond our salvation. Jesus is also our Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5), Jesus is our Intercessor, (Romans 8:34), Jesus is our Attorney (1 John 2:1) and Jesus is our healer (Matthew 8:16).
The Holy Ghost dwells in me, He ministers to my spirit, He restores my soul and He fights off the flesh. I am not defeated, my victory is sure. I serve a God who is love and the Bible declares that love never fails. Is important to remember that we are going through a process, we are changing indeed; God is not wasting his time. 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (NASB) There are two powerful promises we must keep in mind 1) God will place that law that Paul was talking about in Romans, in our minds and in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) and 2) God will successfully finish the work that he started in us (Philippians 1:6)
7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. Romans 7:7-9 (NASB)
In the Garden, Adam and Eve were given permission to eat from every tree in the Garden, only one tree was off-limits, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why did God place such prohibition? What is it about having knowledge of good and evil that is so bad? Everything was ok in the Garden until their eyes were open to the reality of evil. Without the knowledge of what is evil we were created to do right. Such knowledge must not be a good thing for us to have.
Responsible parents, for example, do the same thing with their children; they protect their ears and eyes to keep them pure. Only God is able to know evil and not be affected by it. The knowledge of evil is never good for us, it sucks us into doing evil; the flesh rides in such knowledge. What happens when a child is exposed to domestic violence, bad language, pornography and so on? They lose their purity. That’s the reason behind the rating on movies, PG, PG 13, Rated R, etc. Without the knowledge of evil Adam and Eve would have continues to live a pure life.
The law itself is not sin, that’s what Paul is saying here, but the knowledge of sin produces in us a desire for sin. That knowledge of what is evil, Paul said, produces all kinds of evil coveting. Those evil desires come from our flesh; that is the part of us that delights in sin.
9I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Without the command, what is out there to convict us of any sin? Nothing! That is because there is nothing to establish what is sin and what is not. However, through Moses God did give us the Law and clear definitions of what is right and what is wrong. So when was Paul apart from the law? This may be a general statement because we know for a fact that Paul existed way after the Law was given through Moses.
13 Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
Again we see Paul defending the Law and pointing out what is the real problem… sin! He then continues the theme of defending the law by stating,
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
There is an argument regarding the verb between Romans 7:7-13 and Romans 7:14-25. Dockery points out that
“The first six verses of the chapter assert strongly the fact of the believer’s death to the law. This is done by a somewhat imperfect analogy with the husband and wife. The following verses demonstrate the character of the law, i.e., it is “holy, just and good.” This is done by expressing the character of the law and its relation to Paul in his transitional experience before his conversion (7:7-13). This can be demonstrated primarily by the past tense verbs. The shift to the present tense in vv 14-25 is indicative that this section describes Paul’s struggle with sin as a believer. Vv 24 and 25 form a conclusion to this difficult section.”
While we can subscribe to the idea that in Romans 7:7-13 Paul could have been referring to his life before becoming a believer; it is very clear that in verses 14-25, he is indeed confessing his struggles as a believer as the past tense transition into a present tense.
As we continue our analysis we go back to establishing that we are spirit, soul and body. We see these three components of who we are in the following verves. In Romans 7:21 Paul tells us, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me…” This is the flesh in action. In Romans 7:22 he adds, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man…” This is the spirit in us; the one who is willing and capable of cooperating with God as previously established. In Galatian we are able to see that the flesh fights against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. The flesh also attacks the soul. In Romans 7:23 the Apostle Paul tells us, “but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. The word mind here is Greek word, “νοῦς noús; meaning mind, the organ of mental perception and apprehension, of conscious life, of the consciousness preceding actions or recognizing and judging them, intelligent understanding. (I) As the seat of emotions and affections, mode of thinking and feeling, disposition, moral inclination, equivalent to the heart (Rom. 1:28; 12:2; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:17, 23; Col. 2:18; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8; Titus 1:15); firmness or presence of mind (2 Thess. 2:2); implying heart, reason, conscience, in opposition to fleshly appetites (Rom. 7:23, 25; Sept.: Is. 10:7, 12).
As you can see there is a brutal fight taking place in the inside of us. In Romans 7 Paul goes beyond describing the struggle, he confessed that he is in the struggle also. As established before, Romans 7 is not the only place in the Bible that speaks and makes this struggle obvious. A study of the seven churches in Revelation are another large portion of Scripture that also illustrates how our sinful nature can find its way in our lives and even in our doctrines. However, Romans 7 is not a contradiction of the rest of this book or the Bible for that matter. Verses 24 and 25 establishes our condition, but also our one and only hope… Jesus Christ! 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (NASB)
Why are so many theologians alarmed and suspicious of Romans 7? Why do so many go as far as twisting Scripture to accommodate a doctrine that does not exist? We often say, I am not perfect, nobody is; so why are we having such a hard time reconciling the fact that we have victory over sin, and at the same time, there is a nature in us that is a slave of sin? Why are we having such a hard time understanding that we are going through a process? Why are we having such a hard time accepting that through Jesus we are victorious and through the Holy Ghost he is transforming us and changing us from glory to glory?
It is not that Paul was fornicating; it is not that Paul was stealing, lying or murdering people, etc. after becoming a born again believer. What we are dealing with is a man who understood the power of God, but also understood sin. See, we have the tendency to divide sin between the big sins and the small sins and we know that not every sin is an abomination before the Lord; however there is no sin acceptable by God. We can’t enter heaven without the forgiveness of all of our sins.
In the famous Sermon of the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.19 Matthew 5:17-19 (NASB)
Every commandment is important. Also, do we not remember that we don’t have to actually commit an act in what we know as, our time and space, for that act to enter the realm of reality? In that same Sermon of the Mount Jesus states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28 (NASB) How many sins are hidden in our hearts? Nobody can see them, we have not acted on them, but before God, they are just as real as if we go out and actually commit these acts. All of those folks that have a hard time with the transparency of Paul and refuse to accept our sinful nature as a reality in our Christian life fail to understand or accept that truth, so they walk either in great denial or, great hypocrisy. The Apostle Paul, on the other, understood his victory in Christ, who he was in Christ, his dependency in Christ, and his daily struggle with sin. Paul states that he dies daily (1 Corinthians 15:31). Jesus goes as far as telling us, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:24-26 (NASB)
Interpretations regarding Romans 7:7-25, as you can see, are all over the place. If I embrace the conclusion that Paul’s statements in Romans 7:7-25 are those of a non-believer and that it is impossible for a Christian to experience such struggle, I must then question my own salvation. I have experienced the struggle described in this portion of Scripture my whole life as a believer. It seems to me that some Christians cannot fathom a Christian living in such struggle. However, if we are honest, to prove that even born again Christians struggle with sin, all we have to do is take a sincere look at our own mirrors and look at our own stories, not before, but since becoming born again believers.
How can I finish a paper on Romans 7 and just keep moving on to my next assignment without pausing and reflecting on my own life as a believer? The reality is that every time I read Romans 7 I am deeply touched and moved, even to the point of tears. So I turn this portion of my paper into a heartfelt and sincere prayer:
Father, today, like everyday, I need your help, I need your guidance, I need your forgiveness, I need the cleansing and healing power of the Blood of Jesus and the activity of the Holy Ghost in my life. There is a journey I am in Lord; it has been a tough journey, a journey filled with filth, mistakes, sin, errors and everything in between. I see myself as a wretched men, my victory is in Jesus and in Jesus alone. I thank you for all that I am through Christ and I thank you that through your Holy Spirit you are working in me. I am innocent through Christ; without HIM I am guilty. I am righteous through Christ, without HIM I am unrighteous. I am holy through Christ, without HIM I am a filthy man and I am victorious also through Christ, without HIM I am a looser. The condition of my flesh makes me a slave to sin; my soul is going through a process of restoration. I am changing the way I think, I am getting better with my decision making and better in connecting my emotions to the reality of who I am IN CHRIST; to allow joy and peace to decorate my soul and brighten my days. I thank God for the born-again spirit within me; God has created an upright spirit within me, a spirit who is willing to cooperate with God every day. Oh I thank God for the indwelling of the Holy Ghost and how He ministers to my spirit, how He restores my soul and how he fights my flesh. I praise you today oh God… Wash me and make me white like snow. I desire holiness and not a lifestyle of sin. Thank you for your precious Law that is being formed in my heart… Yes Lord! Thank you that the good work you started in me… YOU will complete! In Jesus’ name… Amen!
In Romans 7:7-25 we see the great Apostle Paul talking about himself: those were his own words. Not only did he describe his own condition and struggle with sin, but the condition and struggle with sin of all of us. Paul gave us an example of transparency and humility; something very hard to find amongst many of our brethren today. They don’t understand themselves as spirit, soul and body because they were presented with the idea that we could be perfect and unable to sin. They would rather answer to the questing of, “How are you doing?” By stating, “blessed and highly favored.” They were told that to accept that there is a part of us that is a slave to sin is the same as denying their own salvation. So they lie, they embrace hypocrisy and run from transparency.
Romans 7:7-25 crushes any justification for arrogance and pride in our lives, even as believers and brings us to the point of facing the reality that without Christ we are indeed a bunch of wretched men and women. Romans 7:7-25 establishes that Jesus is everything and ONLY HE deserves the glory. There is no reason for pessimism, Romans 7:25 is not only describing the reality of our struggle, but also the tangible reality of our redemption through Christ Jesus, this is an undeniable theme through the entire book of Romans. Paul closes Romans 7 confirming the power of such redemption by stating, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:24-25 (NASB)
Thank God that Romans 7 did not end with the reality that we are wretched, but with the announcement of Jesus who will indeed set us free from this body of death; from this sinful and disgusting nature that lives in us. That, my friends, is the Gospel, that is indeed… good news!
I believe that Romans 7 helps us understand the magnitude of the evil that is in us. However, Romans 7 also teaches us that the death and resurrection of Christ gave us more than taking away our guilt. Christ is making us free by the power of His Spirit and by the power of his blood. Christ stands as our Saviour; soon we will all go home with him. Christ stands as our Lord; he is dealing with us. The devil’s accusations have no power over us. God disciplines us when he needs to, gives us mercy to hold back the judgment we really deserve; gives us grace that we don’t deserve, empowers us to do right, stands as our Attorney when we mess up, and is our number One intercessor to guaranty our victory. When everything is said and done, one thing is for sure; God will restore our souls in the midst of a sinful world and in spite of our uncooperative flesh. This flesh has no hope; this flesh will die, but the true me, the “I” in the inner man that Paul spoke about, will be glorified. That’s good news!