I am writing this article just after the conclusion of the high school basketball season. The girls' team from one of our city's high schools had a successful season, going all the way to the state championship game where they lost. The next morning the sports section of our daily newspaper showed a pathetic picture of some of the girls sitting on the bench watching the clock run down and knowing they had just lost the championship game. There they sat, chins in hand, looking quite dejected because they had been defeated.
We Americans don't like defeat, whether it's in a basketball game or in dealing with sin in our lives. I suspect that's why we don't like the seventh chapter of Romans. It sounds too much like defeat. It really isn't about defeat, however. It's about struggle; a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:17, "For 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 to keep you from doing the things you want to do." This is a picture of struggle. Then Peter urged us in 1 Peter 2:11, "To abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your souls." Notice the war metaphor. There is indeed a guerilla warfare going on in the soul of every believer that causes us a great deal of discomfort. We don't like the struggle, and we especially do not like it when we feel defeated in the struggle.
Unbelievers don't have such a struggle. For the most part, they enjoy their sin or rationalize their sinful attitudes. They feel justified in their self-righteousness, their critical and unforgiving spirits, and their pursuits of pleasure and materialism. Occasionally, they regret the consequences of their attitudes and actions, but they do not see them as sin. There is no guerilla warfare for the unbeliever. They may or may not have conflicts with other people, but there is little conflict within themselves.
Not so with the believer. The moment we trust in Christ as Savior, we are made new creations in Christ. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us to animate and empower this new life. He comes to deal with those sinful attitudes and actions, but they don't disappear overnight. They must be, to use Paul's words, "put to death" (Rom. 8:13, Col. 3:5). And that's when the guerilla warfare begins. The flesh-that is, our persistent inclination towards sin, which we have from birth-that generates those sinful attitudes and actions begins to fight back. Romans 7:14-25 helps us understand this internal conflict with the flesh in a helpful way because it describes the experience of a growing Christian who is continually discovering the depths of sin still present in his or her life. Many Bible students will disagree with that last sentence. In fact, this passage of Scripture has been something of an exegetical battleground for centuries. Pages have been written by capable and godly people presenting other views and rejecting the view to which I subscribe. This is not the place, however, to discuss the various interpretations of Romans 7:14-25. Most readers of Modern Reformation will already be familiar with them. For those who want to pursue this debate, James Montgomery Boice's expositional commentary on Romans has an excellent, nontechnical discussion of four main interpretations.
Theological giants, such as Charles Hodge and John Murray, have ably defended the view that Romans 7:14-25 describes the internal conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. And I certainly cannot add anything to their technical arguments. However, I can offer two of the most compelling reasons for seeing the passage as descriptive of the internal conflict with sin that any growing Christian experiences.
First, there is the natural, literary sense of the passage. What would those reading Romans 7:14-25, untutored in familiar theological debates, understand Paul to mean? Would they not assume that Paul is describing himself in his present state at the time he is writing? They might not fully understand what he is saying, but they would assume Paul is describing the reality of his present experience. Paul did not play literary games with his first-century readers. Admittedly, as Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:16, some things in his letters are hard to understand. But from his point of view, Paul wrote his letters in a straightforward manner to people who were fairly new believers. I believe the first-century Christians in Rome would have assumed Paul was describing his own experience as an illustration of how all believers struggle with the flesh.
The second reason I believe Romans 7:14-25 describes the experience of a growing Christian is that it so accurately reflects the experience of any believer who is intentional about his or her pursuit of a holy and Christ-like life. For the reality is, the more mature we become, the more anguish we experience over the difference between desire and accomplishment in our efforts to put sin to death and to put on Christ-like character.
Early in my Christian life I was exposed to the view that every Christian should "get out of Romans 7 into Romans 8." This view depicts the Romans 7:14-25 person as one who is seeking to live the Christian life in the energy of the flesh, whereas Romans 8 depicts him as living by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Romans 7 person is living a life of spiritual defeat, but the Romans 8 man is living a life of continual victory. This view created great frustration for me because I never seemed to be able to make the transition from Romans 7 to Romans 8.
I could see myself described in Romans 7, but I assumed that was because I was a "defeated" Christian. Then gradually I came to the conviction that a person never does get out of Romans 7 in the sense that he or she no longer struggles with the flesh. God providentially brought me into contact with the works of the older Reformed writers who reinforced my newly developed conviction. This was a great liberating experience. I found I could deal with the reality of the Romans 7 conflict when I realized it was the normal experience of people who are sincere and intentional about spiritual growth.
Again, the reality for every believer is that the more we grow in Christian maturity, the sharper this conflict becomes. The more we understand the perfect will of God, the more we see how far short we come in obeying it. And we should keep in mind that we are not only to joyously obey the moral will of God but we are to graciously submit to the providential will of God-that is, to the circumstances, whether good or bad, that he brings or allows into our lives.
One of the most difficult precepts to obey of the moral will of God is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." That this is a moral command is shown by Paul's identical expression in chapter 4, verse 3 where he writes: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality." It is God's moral will that we abstain from immorality, and it is also God's moral will that we give thanks in all circumstances.
Now, most Christians readily understand that it is God's will that we abstain from sexual immorality. That command seems relatively easy to obey, especially if we focus on the act and not the thoughts of the heart. But to give thanks in difficult circumstances is an altogether different matter. Oftentimes I find myself giving thanks not wholeheartedly but as a sheer act of the will. But I don't think that is really giving thanks. Recently, in a situation that did not turn out the way I had hoped it would, I said to God: "Father, I give you thanks for the way this has turned out, but I am disappointed." Then the thought came to me, Jesus would not have been disappointed. Jesus so perfectly trusted his Father's providential care of his life that he freely submitted to whatever circumstances came his way.
Now, I know and have taught numerous times that nothing happens to us that God does not ordain; that a sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from his will and that we are of more value than many sparrows" (Matt. 10:29-31). This being true then, why do I not give thanks genuinely and joyously? Why do I not accept the fact that my infinitely wise and loving Father has ordained these circumstances for my good? It is because "when I want to do right [that is, joyously give thanks] evil [that is, the desire for my own agenda] lies close at hand" (Rom. 7:21). The flesh in the form of my own desires is often in conflict with the will of God.
I have deliberately chosen to use my recent experience with 1 Thessalonians 5:18 because it illustrates a point. The more we grow in Christian character, the more deeply God digs into our inner being to expose the works of the flesh that are still there. As a young Christian, the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 was not an issue for me. There were more obvious desires of the flesh I had to contend with. Now, after 57 years of being a Christian, I realize that God is not content merely dealing with the surface sins. He wants to take on the more subtle issues. So often then I now find the words of Romans 7:18b true: "For I have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out." I have the desire to give thanks in all circumstances but not the ability to do it wholeheartedly, without reserve. That's because the desires of the flesh, in the form of my agenda, are against the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). It is because the passions of the flesh still wage war against my soul (1 Pet. 2:11).
Someone has stated that sanctification (that is, spiritual growth) is more often characterized by desire than by performance. I believe that is true of the person in Romans 7. He wants to do what is right. He delights in the law of God. But evil lies close at hand, waging war against the law of his mind (vv. 21-23).I hasten to add, however, that these verses in Romans 7 are descriptive only of a person who is sincerely and intentionally seeking to grow in Christ-like character. The person who is complacent about his Christian experience and is not concerned about remaining sin in his life should find no comfort in this passage of Scripture. Romans 7 does not provide an excuse for tolerating sin but simply describes the experience of one who does not tolerate it but rather struggles against it.
How then does the person who is sincere and intentional about dealing with sin in his or her life handle the tension and frustration that seem so pervasive in verses 14-25? Is there no hope of ever experiencing the joy of the Christian life? Yes, there is. And Paul gives us two reasons to rejoice. First, there is the confident expectation of future deliverance. In verses 24-25 Paul looks forward to the day when he will be delivered from this body of death. Paul knows that when that day arrives, he will be forever free from the struggle with indwelling sin. At last his experience will exactly coincide with his standing of perfect righteousness in Christ. The second reason we can rejoice in the midst of our struggle is because of the truth of the gospel, which actually brackets the whole chapter of Romans 7. In verses 1-6, Paul teaches us both by analogy and directly that we have "died to the law through the body of Christ" (v. 4). That is, through our union with Christ in his death, we have died to the curse and condemning power of the law. We have died to the reign of the law in our lives. It can no longer pronounce us guilty because Christ has already borne our guilt on the cross.
Then in Romans 8:1, Paul assures us that "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." So, Romans 7:4 and 8:1 say essentially the same thing: God does not look on our struggles against indwelling sin with an attitude of condemnation and judgment because the condemning power of his law has been forever dealt with by Christ.
So in the midst of our struggle with indwelling sin, we must continually keep our focus on the gospel. We must always go back to the truth that even in the face of the fact that so often "I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (v. 19), there is no condemnation. God no longer counts our sin against us (Rom. 4:8). Or, to say it another way, God wants us to find our primary joy in our objectively declared justification, not in our subjectively perceived sanctification. Regardless of how much progress we make in our pursuit of holiness, it will never come close to the absolute perfect righteousness of Christ that is ours through our union with him in his life and death.
So we should learn to live with the discomfort of the justified life. We should accept the fact that as a still-growing Christian, we will always be dissatisfied with our sanctification. But at the same time, we should remember that in Christ we are justified. We are righteous in him. There is the familiar play on the word "justification," which means "just as if I'd never sinned." But there is another way of saying that which is even better: justification means "just as if I'd always obeyed." That's the way we stand before God-clothed in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. And that's the way we can live with the discomfort of the justified life.
Jerry Bridges is a well-known Christian writer and conference speaker. He is author of several books, including, The Pursuit of Holiness The Pursuit of Godliness, and The Discipline of Grace. He has been on the staff of The Navigators since 1955 and currently serves as a resource person to The Navigators University Students Ministry in the United States. Jerry and his wife Jane live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They have two married children and six grandchildren.
Issue: "The Peace that Starts the War" July/August 2006 Vol. 15 No. 4 Page number(s): 13-15
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