Romans 7- A normal Christian experience?

Romans 6-8 is a crucial biblical passage upon which much of our practical understanding of salvation and sanctification hinges.  What have we been saved from?  How complete is our salvation?  Romans 7:14-25 seems to validate our experiences of not being able to choose the good that we know and love, but upon closer study, these verses also seem to contradict everything Paul has been saying in Chapter 6 and continues to say in Chapter 8.   

 “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin.  For hwat 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.  But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.  So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.  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.  For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.  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. 

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.  For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 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.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from the body of this death?  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 7:14-25)

I remember studying this chapter in a hermanuetics class in seminary.  My professor, Dr. Walt Russell, showed me that perhaps my understanding of this chapter was flawed.  Although it reasonated with my feelings, contextually, it didn’t make sense.  Lately, it seems like everywhere I turn I hear teaching and individual thoughts that are tied to this concept of Romans 7 being a normal Christian experience…. that we are experientially still enslaved to our sinful nature despite Christ’s offer of freedom….that there is a clash of  the “flesh nature” and the “spiritual nature” within us, and it’s anybody’s guess which one is going to win at any given moment.  I think that this not what Paul was getting-at, and understanding this text has many practical implications in our spiritual formation.  I’ve copied below the formal interpretation I submitted in my class back in 2002. 

Genre

   This passage is taken from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  In the beginning of chapter 7 he addresses the “brethren…who know the Law” to whom he is writing.  Paul is most likely writing to Jews who are still under the old covenant of the Law in order to persuade them to die to the Law and be united to Christ.  Previous to verse 7, Paul explains how the death of Christ released them from the Law and freed them to the new covenant.  Verses 7-25 expound upon this premise.

Generic Conception

   Paul explains the purpose of the Law in exposing sin while demonstrating the uselessness of it in restraining sinful behavior through a first-person account of the struggles between good and evil in the person under the Law. 

Observations about the Passage

   Romans 7 has often been interpreted as the struggle of the Christian between his spirit in Christ and the flesh of his body, however these passages must be viewed in light of the previous and following chapters of Romans 6 and 8.  Romans 6 asserts the position that those who are in Christ are dead to sin and freed from its power.  “…How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2)  Romans 8:12 states that “…we are under obligation not to the flesh…”  This seemingly presents conflict between the teaching in chapter 7 and that or chapters 6 and 8, for while Paul extols the believer’s death to sin in 6 and 8, he seems to fight a losing battle with sin in 7:14-25. 

   In Romans 7:1-6 Paul writes of being released from the old Law through the death of Christ in order to become alive to the Spirit, and he continues in verses 7-13 to give the purpose of the Law. 

     (v.7) The Law introduces man to sin.

     (v. 8-13)  Sin used the Law, which is good, as a medium by which to condemn man unto death.

      The following verses 14-25 are given the appearance of a personal struggle within Paul.  A challenge of the interpreter is to understand under what terms Paul is speaking in vs. 14-25 and his purpose of this description of internal battle. 

     (v.14) He is of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin.

     (v.15-23) He cannot do the good he wants because the sin that dwells in him wages war against the inner man who desires to obey the law of God.

Interpretation of the Passage

     In light of the seemingly contradictory views of Paul in Romans 7:14-25 and Romans 6 and 8 concerning the believer’s struggle and victory over sin in the body, several options may be presented to bring interpretive reconciliation:

  1. While believers have died to their sinful natures in a mystical and spiritual sense, physical struggles still exist as the two natures war against the individual.
  2. Paul is speaking to believers in Romans 6 and 8 and to those who are not in Christ in Romans 7.

    Paul states in Romans 6:6 that “our body of sin [is] done away with so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.”  Verse 14 says, “for sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”  Correspondingly, Romans 8:9 reaffirms that believers “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.”  In light of these assertions of the believer’s freedom from slavery under sin, Paul could therefore not be referring to a believer in 7:14 as “of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”

    Historiccal measures of Jewish and Gentile relations within the church at that time along with the interpretive assumption that Paul had clear understanding of what he was trying to communicate and did not contradict himself leads this interpreter to the tentative conclusion that Paul was addressing Jews who were not in Christ in reference to their life under the Law.  Romans 7:7-13 seems to clarify the original need for the Law, specifically that while holy and good, it revealed sin and has been used as a medium by Sin to condemn those who are under it.  The following verses 14-25 appear to provide a representative example of the effects of the Law in the internal man while under the Old Covenant.  Paul joyfully juxtaposes Romans 7 and 8 and the two laws of flesh and grace in the following verses of 8:2-3 by reassuring that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death!  For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did…He condemned sin in the flesh”, therefore giving the reader a more holistic concept of Paul’s understanding of the power of the Law and sin in the flesh throughout Romans 7.

Application

    Paul asserts the believer’s freedom from sin in Romans 6 and 8, and therefore we must read Romans 7 not as a picture of the believer, which may be discouraging, but rather as a picture of a non-believer.  Understanding the war of the flesh without grace should give us a greater appreciation for our knowledge that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (8:1)

    Understanding of the purpose and activity of the Law in verses 7-13 should give me a deeper appreciation of the need for Christ’s sacrifice in order to break the Law of sin and death.  Do I understand the depths of that which Christ came to conquer?

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5 responses to “Romans 7- A normal Christian experience?

  1. I like this. I have long maintained that Christians who are born again do not sin, for sin is breaking the law. We are to follow the law of Christ, which is love of God first, and love of our neighbor. We may fail, but we do not sin. We are forgiven, and if we don’t feel forgiven, the fault is not with God but with us. He doesn’t dis-fellowship us. If we feel far from God due to guilt, guess who moved?

    Pat

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  2. Well said, Emily.

    Romans 6 and Romans 7:4 and 7:6 and Romans 8 is Christianity, whereas Romans 7:5 and 7:7-25 is Judaism retrospectively evaluated from a Christian perspective, Paul, now a Christian, looking backward to describe his previous experience in Judaism in order to explain in 7:7-25 more fully than 7:5 why it was necessary to move forward from “the Oldness (the Old Covenant) of the letter” to “the Newness (the New Covenant) of the Spirit” (7:6).

    If we see our own experience as a Christian in Romans 7:7-25, what this proves is not that our experience is normal Christianity, but that it is not a Christian experience at all, but a Judaic experience, and that what we are doing is the same thing that the Galatians were doing when they turned away from Christianity to Judaism. When we turn to the law in self-reliance (Judaism), we die. When we turn to the Spirit in Christ-reliance (Christianity), we live. It’s that simple. Judaism (the Old Covenant) is a ministry of death by the letter, whereas Christianity (the New Covenant) is a ministry of the Spirit, which produces life (2 Corinthians 3).

    If we refuse to admit that Romans 7:7-25 is not a Christian experience, but a Judaic experience, then we may, as some Christians do, take Galatians 5:17 out of its contextual relationship with verses 5:16 and 5:18, and then correlate this verse with what is described in Romans 7:14-25, and then tell ourselves that what we ourselves are experiencing (what is described in Romans 7:14-25) is a normal Christian experience. In doing so, we would be refusing to admit to ourselves that we, like the Galatians, had gone down the wrong road in turning to the law.

    In reality, Galatians 5:16-18 correlates, not with Romans 7:14-25, but with Romans 8:2 and 8:13. What is frustrated in Galatians 5:17 is not a desire to do what the law says to do, as in Romans 7:14-25, but the desire of the flesh to do what is wrong, as in Romans 8:2 and 8:13. Romans 7:14-25 is a law experience (Judaism), whereas Galatians 5:13-18 is a freedom-from-the-law experience (Christianity).

    On pages 268-269 in his book, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, J. Louis Martyn demonstrates a stubborn determination to correlate Galatians 5:17 with Romans 7:14-25 …

    http://books.google.com/books?id=eNGA_ZR_E5YC&pg=PA270&lpg=PA270&dq=romans+7:19+and+galatians+5:17&source=web&ots=2gRRFM4eC4&sig=zvZ0s9cOeRRDeDvzcTMrsTKFEtg&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=10&ct=result#PPA268,M1

    … offering two lame excuses for removing verse 5:17 from its contextual relationship with verses 5:16 and 5:18: (1) He concludes that the phrase “ei de” (and/but if) in 5:18 makes 5:18, not coordinative with, but contrastive to, 5:17, when in fact this same phrase is used in Galatians 3:29 and 4:7 to make its clause, not contrastive to, but coordinative with, the preceding clause. Thus, Galatians 3:29 and 4:7 serve as precedents for 5:18 being, not contrastive to, but coordinative with, 5:17. (2) He concludes that “the note of an emphasized failure” in 5:17 is somehow inconsistent with 5:16, when in fact what is expressed in 5:16 is expressed with an emphatic negative (a double negative subjunctive): “… by Spirit you must walk, and DESIRE OF FLESH YOU WOULD NEVER COMPLETE.” Thus, in 5:17, in coordination this emphatic negative in 5:16, Paul likewise uses a negative to say, “For the flesh desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh … SO THAT NOT, which things if ever you would desire, THESE THINGS YOU WOULD DO.” Paul is explaining in Galatians 5:13-18 how NOT to use one’s freedom in Christ from the law as an opportunity for the flesh, which is accomplished by relying on the indwelling Spirit to subdue the flesh, which of course correlates, not with Romans 7:14-25, but with Romans 8:2 and 8:13.

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  3. Hi brother, you may find this useful that I preached on Romans 7. The Early Church View of the Romans 7 Man in the Often Ignored Context

    What most people seem to miss is that it doesn’t actually start in v14, but actually in v13. As v14 begins with the word “for” directly joining it to v13. This is very important because the present tense in 14 become “historical present”. Historical present is used hundreds of times in Scripture (I explain and give examples in the sermon).

    Also there is a consistent and repeated pattern which starts in Rom 6v1 that goes all the way to Rom 7:25, of Question, Strong Denial, Short Answer and fuller explanation of the short answer. Paul repeats this sequence 4 times in ch6&7.

    Now any explanation of the Romans 7 man that does not attempt to answer the question Paul asks in v13, and is not a fuller explanation of the short answer in v13, must be rejected.

    But the question being asked by Paul in v13 is not whether a Christian struggles with sin, or whether a Christian growing in Holiness becomes more sensitive to sin. That has nothing to do with it.

    The question being asked is was it the law that brought death to Paul or was in sin. It is a fuller explanation of the short answer of how the sin used the law to only bring death to Paul.

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  4. How funny. I was thinking of salvation vs. sanctification just today 2/11/09. Many of my friends are Mormons, so of course the issue of salvation vs. sanctification tends to come up in my mind a lot. I’m also trying to get through a study of Romans. It’s my husband’s favorite book in the Bible, but mine is Hebrews.

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  5. Ist John 1, 2 help us understand we will in fact sin. We need to understand the depth of our corruption and God’s power within that helps us realise the fruit of the Spirit in our daily lives.

    http://slashedcanvas.info/essays/essays23.htm

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