Romans 7 is About Christians … Sort of

The question of whether Roman 7 is about Jews, Gentiles, Christians or some other group is perennial, though the popularity of the different answers has varied over the years. Here we publish two arguments for the current minority opinion that Paul’s comments include his experience as a Christian. This article by Matthew Payne (which is the beginning of a miniseries), argues that Romans 7 is part of a now-and-not-yet tension seen throughout Romans 6-8. The second article by Andrew Moody arrives at similar conclusions through thinking about the meaning of life and death in Romans 7 and 8.

Christians have long disagreed on the meaning of Romans 7:15-25. It seems that most people who have a view on it hold their view very strongly. In this passage the Apostle Paul narrates a man’s experience of sin. Paul appears to be talking about himself: the man is “I” throughout. But Paul makes some very strong, defeated-sounding statements about his experience of sin (7:18) and even sounds like he still belongs under the rule of sin rather than that of Jesus (7:14). Who is this self-professed ‘wretched man’ (7:24)? Is it Paul himself, or is he dramatising a non-Christian Jew’s experience of the law? Or another option? How we identify the wretched man of Romans 7 will have major implications for our expectations of how difficult it is to obey God as Christians. Should we expect to find ourselves frustrated by our inability to obey God as we ought? Or is that itself just a sinful excuse for disobedience?

Many argue that the ‘wretched man’ can’t possibly refer to Paul the Christian, or to Christians generally, since then this passage would contradict other nearby sections of Romans:

  • This man is a ‘slave to sin’ (7:14), whereas Christians are ‘set free from sin’ (6:7, 17, 18, 20).
  • This man is ‘unspiritual’ (7:14), whereas Christians have the Holy Spirit (Romans 8, esp. 8:9).
  • This man is a ‘prisoner of the law of sin’ (7:23), whereas sin will not be the master of Christians (6:14).
  • This man is unable to do good (7:18-19), whereas Christians are empowered by God’s Spirit to obey (7:6; 8:4).

That is a compelling set of reasons to reject the idea that the passage describes Christian experience. But things are not so straightforward. There are also details of the passage that are equally incompatible with the wretched man being an unbeliever. For example, he has a ‘desire to do what is good’ (7:18) and a ‘delight in God’s law’ (7:22); desires that can only come from the Holy Spirit (8:4). This man doesn’t appear to have a sinful ‘mind governed by the flesh’ which is ‘hostile to God’ (8:7). The wretched man wants to obey God. The entire reason that he is upset is that he is unable to do so.

Two Keys to Understanding Romans 7

My conclusion is that Romans 7:14-25 is indeed about one aspect of Christian experience. Notice: one aspect. Romans 6-8 teach two sides to Christian experience that must both be recognized, or we can easily be led to unbiblical and unliveable extremes.

I believe that there are two keys to understanding this passage. The first is widely recognized, the second is less so. For theology nerds, these are Paul’s inaugurated eschatology and how this plays out in the faculty psychology of his theological anthropology. For the rest of you, allow me to explain that in English…

First, all Christian experience is about the power of the New Creation invading the present. In other words, Christians experience the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of the life of the New Creation. When Jesus returns he will renew all creation by his Spirit so that it will be full of life and righteousness through-and-through (8:18-23). But the Holy Spirit also lives inside Christians now, meaning that the Spirit’s New-Creation power is at work in us now. Right now, the Spirit is inwardly renewing Christians in anticipation of the time at which he will renew us entirely—inside and out—in the resurrection (8:11).

All Christian experience is about the power of the New Creation invading the present. Christians experience the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of the life of the New Creation.

That leads to the second key to reading Romans 7. We must pay close attention to how Paul describes different aspects of the human person in relation to the Spirit’s work. Paul is very specific in the way in which he speaks of our bodies, flesh, mind and heart. In short, he teaches that until the resurrection Christians will find that their bodies and flesh are at war with their renewed heart and mind.

Our bodies, obviously, have not been resurrected yet. They will remain under the power of death until the resurrection. For now, ‘sin reign[s] in mortal bodies’ (6:12), such that we each have a ‘body of sin’ (6:6). For Christians, the Spirit is alive in us though the body is dead (8:10) and so we await the resurrection of the body (8:23).

Flesh is a related idea. It also refers to our physical existence but whereas ‘body’ focuses on our mortality, flesh focuses on our unruly bodily desires that lead us astray (7:5). When led by base instincts, humans are little more than animals driven by desires for food, sex, and comfort. Fleshly minds are willing to do what it takes to secure those things (8:5; cf. 1:21-32). Flesh refers to how such desires tend to dominate us because we are often too weak to oppose them effectively (7:17-18; 8:3). Fleshly weakness leads to sin.

Finally, mind and heart refer to aspects of our inner-life. These are the faculties that the Spirit renews in Christians in the present. Christian hearts desire to obey (6:17). Christian minds set out to obey the Spirit rather than the flesh (8:5-7). That’s why Paul wrote Romans: to instruct renewed Christian minds on the obedience of faith (1:5; 16:26). His main call to action comes in these terms: “offer your bodies as living sacrifices”. How? “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (12:1-2). Christian obedience is a matter of bringing our mortal bodies into conformity with what our renewed, Bible-reading minds know is right.

But such obedience isn’t easy. Our bodily-fleshly-desires and our Spirit-renewed-desires pull in opposite directions. There is an active warzone inside every Christian and Romans 7 narrates the battle (cf. Gal 5:16-18).

Conflict until the Resurrection

With those concepts in place it is quite straightforward to read Romans 7 as referring to Paul himself, and as representative of one side of normal Christian experience. The Holy Spirit’s great renewing work has only just begun in us. What that means is that renewed hearts that love righteousness will be grieved by our sinfulness. Christians will cry out for the Spirit to finish his renewing work in us, especially at those times when our fleshly weaknesses lead us to do what we know is sinful:

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature [flesh] a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25)

Christians currently experience two slaveries to two masters who will be at war until the resurrection. Inwardly we are renewed, but we must continue to deal with the realities of pre-resurrection experience day-to-day. Our renewed hearts and minds are at war with the fleshly tendencies of our pre-resurrection bodies.

There are lots of implications for this understanding of Romans 7. If God permits I plan to return to this topic soon. But for now, take what I’ve argued for a road-test. Read Romans 6-8 for yourself and see if what I’ve said makes sense.