The seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains a description of a personal inward controversy, or perhaps two controversies apparently in the life of Paul himself. A person’s view of the Christian life is very much affected by his/her interpretation of this or these conflicts. Or perhaps I could say a person’s interpretation of Romans 7 is very much affected by his/her view of the Christian life.
The passage is located at the end of a lengthy discussion on the Christian’s new position, dead to sin and to the Old Testament Law. The passage also precedes Paul’s introduction of the truth of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This context must guide us in our interpretation. I am not going to enter into a lengthy discourse on Romans or the Christian life, nor do I intend a lengthy exegesis of this passage. I simply feel the need to consider this passage as it affects our life. The passage is as follows.
7. What then shall we say? Is the Law sin? No way! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through Law. For I would not have known coveting if the Law didn’t say, “You shall not covet.
8. And sin, taking opportunity through the commandment worked in me all kinds of coveting. For apart from Law, sin is dead.
9. And I was alive once, apart from Law, but when the commandment came, sin came to life,
10. and I died, and the commandment which was to bring life, was found in me to bring death.
11. For sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it, killed me.
12. So then, the Law is holy and the commandment holy and right and good.
13. Then did the good thing become death to me? No way! On the contrary, sin, that it might show itself as sin, through the good, working death in me, that sin might become extremely sinful through the commandment.
14. For we know the Law is spiritual, but I am made of flesh, sold under sin.
15. For I don’t really understand what I do, for I don’t practice what I want to, but I do what I hate.
16. But if I do what I don’t want to, I’m agreeing with the Law that it is good.
17. And now it is no longer I doing it, but the sin making its home in me.
18. For I know that no good thing has its home in me, that is in my flesh, for the desire is present in me, but the doing of good is not.
19. For I don’t do the good I want to, but I practice the evil I don’t want to.
20. But if I’m doing what I don’t want to, I’m no longer the one doing it, but the sin dwelling in me is.
21. So then, I find this law, that evil is present with me – me, the one who wants to do good!
22. For I gladly agree with God’s Law in my inner man,
23. but I see a different law in my members, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me captive to the law of sin in my members.
24. Wretched man am I! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
25. Thank God! It is through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself with my mind am serving God’s Law, but in my flesh a law of sin.
Two important points to observe are:
1. In this entire passage, Paul speaks in the first person singular; he makes the shift in verse 7 and continues through verse 25, dropping this usage in 8:1.
2. In verses 7-13, he uses past tenses, while in verse 14, he shifts to the present and continues through verse 25.
These points raise some vexing interpretative questions: Is Paul speaking of his own personal experience(s)? When did he have these experiences? Is he describing a life of defeat?
And, of course, the questions of applications: What does this mean to me? Does, or should my life follow this pattern?
If we consult various commentaries, we seem to find nearly as many interpretations as there are interpreters. And in any discussion of the text, we have a similar problem with application. Some of the interpretations are:
1. Paul is not speaking of himself at all, but simply speaking editorially or hypothetically or as “everyman.”
2. Paul is speaking autobiographically in these verses of his experiences as a Jew before coming to faith in Christ.
3. Paul is speaking autobiographically in verses 7-13 of his experiences as a Jew before Christ and in verses 14-25 of his experiences as a believer. The tenses would seem to bear this out. This, however, leads to two different interpretations of verses 14-25.
a. Paul is speaking in these verses of life of defeat that he went through before some new experience, such as the knowledge of the work of the Spirit, or a life of “faith rest,” or a “let go and let God” experience.
b. Paul is speaking in these verses of a conflict that is going on in himself and in every believer, and that will continue to be present.
There are more, but most are variations of the above.
My understanding of the passage would be the one I labeled 3.b. My reasons are quite simple:
1. Paul elsewhere speaks in the first person and he seems to always be speaking of literal autobiographical facts. (2 Corinthians 11-12; Galatians 1:11-2; Philippians 3:3-14; etc.) He nowhere else uses the first person “hypothetically.”
2. The change in tenses would seem to demand a change in Paul’s position. Verses 7-13 describe the convicting force of the 10th commandment which exposed his lost condition and drove him to faith in Christ. This fits his argument regarding the Law in 7:1-6.
3. Verses 14-25 do not speak of a past struggle in Paul’s life. The present tenses speak of a present struggle. There is no indication that Paul has left this experience behind, unless it is our desire for this to be so.
4. If we look for an experience that will move us past or away from this struggle in this life, I believe we are looking for something that it is impossible to obtain.
So, what is this passage (Romans 7:14-25) telling us?
Paul is not in Romans 7, describing a situation of defeat; he is rather describing a conflict that goes on in every believer. Man is a tripartite being, composed of body (the material part), soul (or mind) and spirit (the God-conscious part). When a person is born again, his spirit is renewed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but his flesh is still the same old flesh. That’s why Paul declares, “I am made of flesh” in verse 14. Paul refers to the flesh as the indwelling abode of sin (verse 18: “For I know that no good thing has its home in me, that is, in my flesh, for the desire is present but the doing of good is not.”) He tells the Galatians that there is at present a conflict going on: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, so that you cannot do the things you wish to“ (Galatians 5:17). This battle, I believe, goes on in our minds. We have to choose whether we will yield to the Spirit or to the flesh as Galatians 5:16-25 explains.
Paul declares “victory,” not in 8:1, but in 7:25: “Thank God! It is through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself with my mind am serving God’s Law, but in my flesh a law of sin.” This is important, as he immediately follows this with a statement that the dilemma still exists.
The “rescue” from his body of death (verses 24, 25) can, I believe, only be speaking of the future resurrection/rapture, not some past or present experience. If this is the case, then we are stuck in this body and hence the conflict, till we either leave it behind or exchange it for a new one.
It is not a matter of coming to a point in my life where I achieve victory over the battle, but a matter of constant yielding and gaining victory in the battle. I don’t believe Romans 7 describes a situation that we can move past.
I have been told by some that to teach that there is a conflict in the life of every believer can lead to a life of defeat. On the contrary, to teach that we can somehow move beyond the conflict can lead to a life of frustration; we will either find ourselves failing in our attempts, or worse yet, deceiving ourselves into believing we have arrived.