Who is that Guy in Romans Seven?

During one of our “discussions” last week that had nothing to do with the conent and primary purpose of the post, a question was asked about Romans 7 and the believer. I would like briefly to state my view of that passage and its primary teaching.

I want to confess, first, that my view is out of the mainstream. Additionally, it is a view that I do not share in common with some very good friends. The passage is a difficult one and no one view of it answers all of the problems it presents. If you would like a fuller treatment of the view I am going to set forth here, I would suggest a careful study of Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans.

To give some context to this pericope, remember that Paul’s overall argument beginning in Romans five and concluding in Romans eight, is the certainty of the believer’s glorification. He has argued that those who have been declared righteous in Christ now have a new relationship with God (5:1-11). We are no longer his enemies under his wrath but his reconciled friends. We now have a new representative before God (5:12-19). Just as Adam, the representative head of the old creation guaranteed, by his disobedience, the condemnation of all who are in him, so the last Adam, Christ, guaranteed, by his obedient life and death, the justification and final glorification of all in him. This is true because the believer’s final glorification in no way depends on his covenant faithfulness but on the covenant faithfulness of his representative. Then, the apostle argues that believers have been transferred from the reign and realm of sin (that belonging to the old creation where sin abounded) into the reign and realm of grace (the new creation and the new covenant that secures its blessings and in which grace super-abounds). The apostle’s clear implication in this entire chapter is that there is nothing whatsoever the true believer in Christ can do to forfeit his new standing in Christ. It is not about what he can do, has done, or shall ever do. It is all about what Christ has done in his place.

“Aha!” Says the legalist. “ I knew you believed it was OK for believers to continue in sin. I knew you were an Antinomian.” Paul asks, “Shall we continue in sin so that grace might abound?” Then answers, “May it never be!” In the first eleven verses of the chapter six, there is not a single imperative [command]. It is not about what believers are supposed to do but about what has been accomplished for believers because we are united to Christ. In God’s reckoning, believers died to the reign of sin when Christ died. We now belong to a realm in which there is a new king and sin no longer reigns. It is not until verse eleven that the apostle begins to urge commands based on the redemptive accomplishments described in the first ten verses. The thrust of these exhortations is, you are no longer a slave to sin, stop acting like a slave. You don’t have to obey sinful impulses any longer. Then, he sums up the section by stating, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (v. 14).

I suggest that whatever view one takes of Romans seven must be conditioned by the truth stated in 6:14. That verse prompted another objection, “What then, are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (V. 15). In the process of answering that objection, the apostle tells his readers that, in Christ, we not only died to sin, but we also died to the law. Since we died to the law, the law can no longer have anything to say to us. It cannot condemn us. It cannot make us feel guilty. If I should get drunk, drive my car into a bus load of people, killing most of them, but in the accident killed myself, though absolutely guilty, I could not be charged with any crime. Dead people are free from the law, can’t be charged and feel no guilt. Here is what Paul wrote, “ Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:4-6). It is this last phrase that encapsulates Paul’s teaching in the later part of Romans seven and the first section of Romans eight.

Throughout the remainder of chapter seven, Paul describes what it was like for a believer, (perhaps he describes his own experience) under the Law, the written code. Though such a believer delighted in the Law [not only the words of the covenant, the ten commandments, but the entire Old Testament revelation], there was nothing in that revelation to enable him to please God. That he uses the present tense, to me, seems to indicate that he stands on New Covenant ground, looks back, and describes what it was like to live under the written code

The fairly consistent Reformed position on this passage is that Paul was describing the experience of the most mature believer in his struggle against sin, probably in an autobiographical way. As he examines himself in the light of the Law, the Ten Commandments, the believer finds himself failing to please God in every attempt he makes. It appears to me, this view fails to take into account the words quoted above re: those in Christ, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive. . . .so that we serve. . .not in the old way of the written code.” These are the words of the ESV. If you prefer the KJV, no problem. Read it there. The meaning is exactly the same.

It also fails to take into account Paul’s teaching elsewhere. Think of Romans 6:14,“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The man in Romans is not a believer who falls and fails from time to time; he strikes out every time he comes up to bat.
He is not one who, in the words of the hymn writer is “tempted, tried, and sometimes failing.” He fails every time he is tried. Read his description:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. [Paul wrote to the Philippians, “it is God who works in you not only to will but to do for his good pleasure,” In other words, New Covenant believers have not only the will to be obedient to what is right but also the ability to carry it out]. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing [In chapter six he had argued that it is not possible for believers to continue in sin. This guy “keeps on doing what is evil.] 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive [the believer is not captive to sin any longer, see again 6:14. Being under the dominion of sin and being held captive to the law of sin are the same] to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Paul describes believers as “more than conquerors, through him who loved us (Romans 8:37). Does the passage we have just read sound to you like a description of one who is “more than a conqueror” or one who is continually defeated?

In chapter eight, the apostle describes the life of the New Covenant believer. That is, he describes what it is like to live “in the new way of the Spirit.” In Paul’s theology, the ministry of the Spirit replaces the ministry of the Law and produces the fruit the law could not produce.

Consider God’s promise of a New Covenant [the New Covenant is contrasted with the Old Covenant, the Law]:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezek. 36: 25-27).

Since this has already run longer than I intended, I will have to write on the NT teaching about “regeneration” in another blog. For now, I simply ask you to consider the words of this promise. It promises that God will put his Spirit within the heirs of the covenant and CAUSE YOU TO WALK IN MY STATUTES. . .” The greatest blessing of the New Covenant is the new ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is another subject that will require much more explanation.

Please read Romans seven and eight in contrast with one another. I think you will see my point.

Let me make a few things plain before I close this post. It would not be helpful to leave anyone with the opportunity to misunderstand what I am saying more than is almost certain to occur:

1. I do not think believers can accomplish anything in the spiritual realm on their own.

2. I reject out of hand the idea that Romans seven describes the “carnal Christian” [an animal that doesn’t exist] and Romans eight describes the spiritual Christian [this is redundant since every believer in indwelt by the Spirit and a “Spiritual man” is a man indwelt by the Spirit.

3. I do not deny that the Christian life is a battle, a struggle, a grueling warfare, in which believers sometimes fail and grow weary.

4. I do not think the believer’s obedience will ever be meritorious and sufficient to declare him righteous before God, but believers may perform actions that please our Father.

5. Believers do not remain in the same spiritual condition we were in when the Savior found us. Believers do make progress in sanctification.


3 Responses to “Who is that Guy in Romans Seven?”

  1. 1 seventh son
    September 12, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Randy,

    I Appreciate your blog, thanks.

    Anyway, about your arguments on this passage, they do seem logical, as do arguments I have read on the other side. One thing I can’t get past, however, is the overwhelming use of the present tense in this passage. Just doesn’t make sense to me if Paul is looking back to his pre-conversion experience. Why would he use such confusing language? Everywhere else I can find that Paul talked about his sinful unregenerate past (at least four other times), he used the past tense.

    Granted, I don’t know Greek and maybe there was some literary device being used here that I am ignorant of. But to me that’s a huge issue. Can you address that? Thanks.

  2. September 13, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Seventh son,

    Thank for stopping by and commenting. You have astutely identified one of the major problems with the view I have taken. By the way, I have learned that in many positions I have taken over the years that there are ways to argue against myself. Often, it is not a matter of a position that has problems and one that has none, but a matter of which position presents fewer problems. I think another issue one could urge against my position, is the use of the first person, lending some credence to the idea that Paul is speaking autobiographically.

    It seems to me we spend too much time talking about conclusions and too little time talking about the presuppositions on which we base our conclusions. I think there can be little question we all approach passages of Scripture with preconceived ideas. The question is, are we going to admit we have them and be willing to examine them in the light of Scriptures?

    It would be my presuppostions that dictate to me that, in spite of Paul’s use of the present tense, the position I have taken is correct. The reason I say that is that in the light of everything else he wrote, he could not have consistently described himself that way in the present. Had he used the past tense, it would have been plain he was describing his existental experience [his experience as an unregenerate man for example] under some other system in contrast to what he has described elsewhere as the present experience of the believer. If, in this passage, he is describing his experience as a New Covenant believer, his description would be out of step with every other description he gives of the N.C. believer in the New Testament Scriptures, unless we misinterpret Galatians 5:17.

    As an aside, let me say this. I believe every position I take is correct. It would be stupid to say otherwise. If I believed some position I had taken was in error, I would change it. Who wants to believe something he thinks is wrong. Still, I am certain I am not infallible. I am open to correction.

    Let me state a couple of the presuppostions that condition my interpretation of this pericope.

    1. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that believers under the New Covenant are not defeated people. Though our obedience is not perfect and could never rise to the level of being meritorious, it is nonetheless pleasing to God, through Christ (See Phil. 2:13; Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 2:5; Phil. 4:13). Paul states that we believers are “more than conquerors through him that loved us.” This would completely contradict the idea that Paul or any other believer in his present experience fails in his every attempt to be obedient to God.

    2. It is my view that it was not only the condemning power of the Law that came to an end when Jesus died, but the Law itself. By this, I do not mean that God’s Law ceased to exist, but that the Mosaic Law as a Covenant came to an end when Jesus established the New Covenant by his death. Paul’s argument in Romans seven and eight, in 2 Cor.three and four, Galatians and four and in other passages is that the Covenant written on tables of stone has been replaced by the Covenant whose chief characteristic is the ministry of the Holy Spirit who prompts the believer to obey the NT Scriptures. It appears clear to me that in this context Paul is talking about that Covenant that has been done away. The man in Romans seven is interacting with the Old Covenant, not the New Covenant. For that reason, it appears impossible to me that Paul could be speaking about his present experience.

    3. The point of the passage is not to describe the ability or inability of the believer/unbeliever/awakened person/carnal Christian or whatever other person we might imagine. Dr. Lloyd-Jones was criticized for suggesting that the man in Romans seven was neither regenerate nor unregenerate. What he should have said is that it does not matter whether the person is regenerate or unregenerate. His purpose is to show that the Law is as incapable in the area of sanctification as it was in the area of justification. Remember, this entire section began with his bold statement, “Sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under the Law, but under grace.” Would it not be strange for him, in the very next chapter, to talk about being “sold under sin,” a clear reference to slavery, or being under the dominion of sin? He has argued we have died to the Law. Is he now going to suggest that he is measuring himself by that Law to which he is dead?

    I could go on, but I suspect you get the idea. What he describes as the believer’s PRESENT experience in every other part of his writings is in direct contradiction to the way he describes the believer in this passage.

    There is a tense called the gnomic present. It refers to something that always occurs. For example, I drink coffee every morning. Whether he uses the present in this passage in that sense I don’t know. I believe Paul is describing what always happens in reference to the Law’s ability to produce obedience. One of the old hymn writers put the contrast this way.

    Run, do and live, the Law demands,
    But gives me neither feet nor hands.
    A better word the gospel brings;
    It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

    I believe Paul uses the present tense because he has, for the sake of argument, transferred himself back into his experience under the Old Covenant and describes his experience as if it were currently occurring. In this case, he is not describing himself here in the same way that he describes his unregenerate past in other places. He is describing life under the Law both of the regenerate and the unrenerate.

    Though he speaks in the first person, his description is not totally autobiographical. Instead, he speaks of himself in solidarity with all those who lived under Law. Of course, he describes this experience from a New Covenant perspective.

    What happens every time a person looks to the Law for sanctification? The answer is clear. Though he may delight in the Law, that Law is helpless to produce the obedience he desires.

    Thanks again for your post.

  3. 3 seventh son
    September 13, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks for the reply. That is a lot to chew on, and it will keep me busy for a while! Appreciate your time.

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