Romans 7 and the Normal Christian Life

Kim Riddlebarger
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
Jul/Aug 2006

In the evangelical world in which I was raised, it was the minister's job to ensure that everyone in his congregation was "living in victory." What this meant was that those who were truly committed to Jesus Christ and had made him Lord over every area of their lives would not be content to remain "carnal Christians." If you were truly committed to Jesus, you would strive with everything in you to move into the "victorious life" described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8. In that passage, the Apostle Paul supposedly speaks of victorious Christians as people who had made the determination to walk according to the Spirit and to no longer walk after the flesh (Rom. 8:1, kjv). Those hearty souls who managed to completely dedicate themselves to Christ could attain that lofty goal spoken of by Paul as "more than a conqueror" (cf. Rom. 8:37). To demonstrate that we were striving to attain victory, there were the familiar behavioral taboos. And you certainly did not want to be "left behind," forced to endure the seven-year tribulation and risk coming face to face with the minions of the Antichrist.

While this version of the Christian life is widely accepted throughout much of American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, it is apparently now on the decline. This understanding of the victorious Christian life can only be sustained by an unfortunate misreading of Paul's description of the Christian life as it unfolds in Romans chapters 6-8. This conception of the Christian life is framed by a combination of decisional regeneration, dispensational eschatology, and Keswick, Wesleyan, or mystical versions of the Christian life, all of which involve a "higher life" or "victorious" Christian life, centering in a conscious experience of victory over indwelling sin. In this scheme, Paul supposedly speaks of death to sin in Romans 6, and then describes his unregenerate (pre-conversion) condition in Romans 7, which is, in turn, followed by the critical passage in Romans 8:1, which, according to a textual variant that is not found in the better-supported Western and Alexandrian manuscripts, includes the exhortation to "walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."

But is Paul defending this understanding of the Christian life in Romans 6-8? The critical hinge upon which this faulty understanding of the Christian life turns is Paul's discussion of an intense struggle with sin depicted in Romans 7:14-25. In this passage, Paul speaks of a personal struggle that is so deep and intense that the person in view there describes himself as someone who is "sold under sin" (v. 14). He does not understand his own actions (v. 15). He wants to do what is right but ends up sinning anyway (vv. 15-16, 18). He speaks of sin almost as a force, living within him controlling his actions (vv. 16-17). When he does the evil he does not want to do, he feels like his members (his body and its passions) are waging war on his mind, which knows what is right even though he lacks the power to do it (vv. 22-23). So intense is this struggle with sin that the author speaks of himself as a "wretched man" in desperate need of deliverance by Jesus Christ.

Surely, such a person cannot be a Christian-or at least that is what I was told. And yet, I knew that deep down inside, Romans 7:14-25 is describing me. Whoever Paul was describing in these verses-I was told that this was either Paul's own experience as a Jew before he was converted, or else this was a description of those Jews under the condemnation of law-he was just like me! While there is always a great danger in interpreting God's Word through the lens of personal experience, it seemed that the more I tried to live in victory mode and leave my carnal desires behind, the more I felt like that person Paul was describing in Romans 7.

I had accepted Jesus as my personal Savior from my earliest recollection, so I knew that I was a Christian. The solution that was held out to those struggling saints like me (although I never admitted to anyone that I was struggling like this because my fellow Christians might think that I was still a "carnal Christian") was to rededicate my life to Christ, or to ask God to give me more grace so that the desired victory might soon come. It never did. Then there was the counsel which held out that instead of trying with everything in me to be holy, I should stop trying and just "let go and let God."

It was a great relief to learn that many Christians actually understood Paul to be describing his present experience as a Christian in Romans 7, even the experience of being an apostle! I recall this being raised during a Bible study, only to have it shot down as a complete impossibility, since, if true, it would mean that someone could become a Christian and yet live as a "carnal Christian." If Paul was describing a Christian's experience, there would be no incentive to seek the kind of victory it was believed that Paul was describing in Romans 8. This, it was stated, would justify someone remaining in defeat, if that was Paul's condition. And while you could not lose your salvation, if you did not follow Paul's example and move from the defeat depicted in Romans 7 into the victory of Romans 8, then you would lose out on your rewards in heaven and miss out on the victory promised to you by the apostle. It was left up to me to decide which I wanted: defeat or victory. I wanted to be more than a conqueror. But I felt like Paul's wretched man!

Relief came when I learned that the view that Paul was speaking of his present experience as a Christian was held not only by a number of Christians (including all the reformers), but this was the view expressed in the Reformed confessions, which I was only then beginning to embrace. In Romans 7:14-25, Paul is speaking of a Christian's struggle with sin; this is not a picture of defeat but a description of the struggle with sin that every Christian must go through and is a necessary part of sanctification. In other words, Paul wasn't talking about the goal (to end the struggle), but Paul is speaking about the process by which God does bring us to victory over sin (our sanctification).

Despite all of the renewed debate in Reformed and evangelical circles over this passage since the publication of Kmmels's famous essay on Romans 7 (Rmer 7 und die Bekehrung des Paulus, 1929) and despite the publication of several recent evangelical commentaries (for example, the outstanding commentary by Doug Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, 1996), which argue that in Romans 7:14-25 Paul is not speaking autobiographically but of a hypothetical Jew before conversion, I remain convinced that Paul is describing his present experience of the struggle with sin. Furthermore, I do not believe that this section of Romans is depicting a deficient condition experienced by those Christians who choose not to be victorious (the so-called carnal Christian). No, I believe that this is a description of the normal Christian life. The reasons for this interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 are spelled out in great detail elsewhere (e.g., Cranfield, "Romans," ICC; J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit), and we can but summarize them here.

First, in Romans 7:14-25, Paul speaks in the present tense, which stands in sharp contrast to the use of the past tense in the previous section (Rom. 7:7-13). This makes the natural sense of the passage a description of Paul's current experience at the time of the writing of this epistle.

Second, in Galatians 5:17, Paul speaks of a similar struggle in which he is clearly describing the experience of all Christians, including his own: "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." Thus, Romans 7:14-25 and Galatians 5:17 are parallel passages. If Galatians 5:17 is a description of a war within every Christian, why can that not be true of Romans 7:14-25?

Third, an unconverted person could not delight in the law of God, such as Paul depicts here, nor desire to do what is right. This is a description of those affections for and delight in the things of God that only a Christian actually experiences. Furthermore, no non-Christian ever experiences the kind of godly sorrow described here. They may feel guilty, but they do not experience the despair of sinning against the revealed will of God, which they love inwardly.

Fourth, the argument that a Christian, such as Paul, would never speak of himself as a slave to sin, since he has already testified to the fact that Christ has set him free, is mitigated by the fact that Paul is aware of this freedom ("with mind my I serve the law of God"), and yet, because of indwelling sin, still feels as though sin has a death grip upon him. In other words, the final outcome of the war is a foregone conclusion-Christ wins and so will all those in union with him. But there are a number of battles with indwelling sin still to be fought, and this is what Paul is describing (the struggle, not the final outcome).

Fifth, that Paul is not speaking of his struggle before his conversion becomes clear when we consider how Paul felt about himself before he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Consider Paul's testimony in Philippians 3:3-10:

For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh-though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

How could Paul see himself as blameless before his conversion (Phil. 3), if, in Romans 7:14-25, he's describing his intense struggle with sin before his conversion?

Therefore, in Romans 7:14-25, the Apostle Paul is describing the normal Christian life. This is a struggle that every Christian will experience. The poor, struggling sinner who is erroneously told that the struggle with sin he or she is currently experiencing is a sign of defeat and that the person is not yet a Christian, or else has chosen not to take advantage of the victory offered to all those in Christ, should instead see the struggle with sin as proof that sanctification is actually taking place. The New Testament knows of only one victorious life-the life of Jesus Christ. All of those who are truly in Christ's will go through the refiner's fire so that when Jesus returns, he will receive a spotless and radiant bride. Far, then, from a description of Paul's journey from a defeated Jew to a victorious Christian, in this passage, Paul is describing what every Christian will experience-a desire to do what is right and a continual struggle with indwelling sin. While final victory is assured, it will finally come when we are glorified: freed not only from sin's guilt and tyranny, but its very presence.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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