The Believer’s Relationship to the Law, 1-25

Questions for reflection or discussion

  1. Would you describe yourself as a ‘victorious’ Christian, a ‘defeated’ Christian, or a ‘struggling’ Christian?
  2. What would you say to a non-Christian friend who maintained the human nature is inherently good?
  3. What would you say to a Christian friend who confessed recurring sin to you, and asked, “How can I get free of sin in my life?”
  4. What one word best describes what this chapter is all about?
  5. Which verse best summarises what this chapter is all about?
  6. According to v1, whom is Paul addressing?
  7. What is the main point of vv1-6?
  8. Which stage in his life is Paul describing in vv7-12?
  9. According to Paul in this passage, is the Law a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’?
  10. What is Paul describing in vv13-25?
    1. The experience of a non-Christian.
    2. The experience of a Christian, but one who is ‘worldly’ and ‘unspiritual’.
    3. What we would all be doomed to if we did not have the power of Christ and of the Holy Spirit to help us overcome sin.
    4. What all Christians experience in this life, lived as it is in tension between ‘the flesh’ and ‘the Spirit’.
7:1 Or do you not know, brothers and sisters (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law is lord over a person as long as he lives?

“You’ll never get out of the seventh of Romans while I’m your minister,” Alexander Whyte once told his Edinburgh congregation.

‘Paul is not beginning a new topic but is further illustrating the theology of Rom 6:14, “you are not under law, but under grace.” By this he does not mean that the believer is free from responsibility to fulfill the content of the law which, as we have seen, articulates God’s unchangeable will for humanity. Rather, freedom from the law means no longer to be under its condemnation or obligated to undertake the impossible task of fulfilling it on our own.’ (ECB)

‘The basic thought of the passage is founded on the legal maxim that death cancels all contracts. Paul begins with an illustration of this truth and wishes to use this picture as a symbol of what happens to the Christian. So long as a woman’s husband is alive, she cannot marry another without becoming an adulteress. But if her husband dies, the contract is, so to speak, cancelled, and she is free to marry anyone she likes.’ (DSB)

Although this chapter has been hotly debated in various schools of holiness teaching, Stott points out that we must force our way back into the historical, cultural and theological setting from which Paul wrote. Note, for example, that ‘the law’ (or similar terminology) has been referred to in every one of this chapter’s first 14 verses, and thirty-five times in Rom 7:1-8:4. Paul’s account of the law so far has been a very negative one: the law reveals sin, Rom 3:20; condemns the sinner, Rom 3:19; defines sin, Rom 4:15; 5:13; brings wrath, Rom 4:15; was added to increase the trespass, 5:20. Accordingly, God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the law, Rom 1:17; 3:21, although the law bears witness to it, Rom 1:2; 3:21. Sinners are justified, not by keeping the law but through faith in Christ, Rom 3:27. Such faith upholds the law by assigning to it its proper function, Rom 3:27. This principle is illustrated in the case of Abraham, Rom 4:13f. All of this negative teaching about the law is summarised in 6:14f, when Paul states that ‘we are not under law, but under grace’. The present chapter begins with further emphasis on the fact that believers have been released from the law. All of this sounds like of denial of the central place of the law as celebrated in Psa 19 and 119 and elsewhere, and like a clear-cut permission for antinomianism.

There are those today who would claim that the category of ‘law’ has been abolished for believers. The only law remaining is the law of love. Such teachers claim Rom 6:14f (’you are not under law’) and 10:4 (’Christ is the end of the law’) in their favour. But it is clear that Paul is referring in these passages to the law as a way of salvation. God still expects his people to follow the law by living lives of love and righteousness, Rom 8:4; 13:8,10. Paul’s teaching is neither legalistic (being bound by the law as means of becoming right with God) or antinomian (maintaining that the believer is freed from all the requirements of the law). Rather, he wants us to be ‘law-fulfilling free people’ (Stott), loving God’s law and seeking to fulfil it. In vv1-6 Paul teaches that the law no longer has authority over us: this is his message to legalists. In vv7-13 he nevertheless defends the law and says that it is good: this is his message to antinomians. In vv14-25 he describes ‘the inner conflict of those who are still living under the regime of the law. If left to ourselves in our fallenness we cannot keep God’s law, even though we delight in it. Nor can the law rescue us. But God has done what the law could not do, by giving us his Spirit, Rom 8:3f. This is the experience of those who find their freedom in fulfilling the law.’

Ryle says: ‘I am quite satisfied that [this chapter] does not describe the experience of an unconverted man, or of a young and unestablished Christian; but of an old experienced saint in close communion with God.’ (Holiness)

The law has authority over a man only as long as he lives – This is a universal axiom: the law is for life; death annuls it.

7:2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage. 7:3 So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress.

Marriage is, of course, ‘till death us do part’. The law binds her, but death frees her.

‘The apostle is saying that the woman’s status as a wife has been abolished, completely done away. She is no longer a wife.’ (Morris)

7:4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. 7:5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 7:6 But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.

As a wife is married to her husband and thus bound to him, they were ‘married’ to the law and bound to it. But as death terminates marriage and allows the wife to marry another, so they died to the law and were therefore free to belong to God

Our death to the law means that we are no longer under its curse and condemnation. It happened ‘through the body of Christ’, that is, by means of our union with Christ in his death on the cross.

In order that we might bear fruit to God – Some commentators think that this is a continuation of the marriage metaphor, and the ‘fruit’ is offspring, in the form of holiness. But, if that were the case, Paul could have easily said, ‘offspring’.

‘This fruit-bearing is the unexpected sequel to our severance from the law that confounds all legalists, who think that the relinquishing of law is fatal to the production of good works.’ (Wilson)

At the end of ch 6 we were faced with the question: ‘Whose slave are you?’ Now, a similar question is posed: ‘To whom are you married – to the law or to God?’

The sinful nature – ‘sarx’ – ‘flesh’. ‘When Paul speaks about “being in the flesh” throughout his writings, he is not talking about our physical nature as such, about physical passions and desires, but about a way of life, an orientation of life, a life lived apart from God’s purposes for us.’ (HSB)

The sinful passions aroused by the law – ‘The Flagship Hotel in Houston, Texas, is built right next to the water. Large plate-glass windows adorn the dining room, which is on the lowest floor. However, the windows kept getting broken by guests fishing from the balconies above. Heavy sinkers had to be used to cast to the water, but the lines were often too short and so would crash against the windows below. Finally the management removed the “NO FISHING FROM BALCONY” signs from the rooms. The windows were safe at last.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching)

We serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code – The distinction here ‘is between the old covenant which was one of “letter” (gramma), and external code written on stone tablets, and the new covenant which is ont of “Spirit” (pneuma), for the new age is essentially the age of the Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit writes God’s law in our hearts.’ (Stott)

‘The “newness” of this service consists in the life, power, and effectiveness which it derives from its Author, the Holy Spirit.’ (Wilson)

No longer are believing Jews like Paul in bondage to rules, regulations and rituals to please God, based on their own self-effort. No longer must he and they be anxious whether their efforts will be sufficient to please God, knowing that his standards are absolute. Now in Christ they are forgiven everything. Now they are free from the otherwise inevitable kingship of Sin reigning in Death over them. God is no longer their judge in a hearing whose outcome they fear. Rather, God is their Father because Christ is their Saviour and Lord. The judgement of God has been passed and it has been passed on Christ, in their place. They are now free, “discharged” from that prison of fear.

Subjection to the Law is for Paul and for them in the past – or should be. But this appears to be the very reason Paul is writing. Some Jews among the believers in Rome appear to want to be under Law and, most likely, to subject Gentiles also to the Law. Paul, too, as a lifelong Jew may also have found himself drifting back into old ways of thinking.’ (Barnett)

7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”

Most of Paul’s references to the law so far have been negative. The opening of the present chapter celebrates our discharge from the law, in order that we might be bound to Christ. All this could easily lead to the charge of antinomianism against Paul. But to the question, “Paul, do you repudiate the law?” the resounding answer is, “Certainly not!”

Paul has already dealt with an aspect of this question, by rejecting the notion that grace encourages sin, 6:1,15. Now he deals with the same kind of problem from the perspective of the law. ‘In Rom 6 he has argued that grace does not encourage sin’ on the contrary, it renders sin inadmissible, even inconceivable. In Rom 7 he now argues that the law does not create sin and death; on the contrary, it is our fallen human nature which is to blame for them.’ (Stott)

The apostle actually has a ambivalent attitude towards the law. On the one hand, he defends it as a revelation of a righteous God, vv7-13. On the other hand, he is acutely aware of its weakness, in that it is impotent to save, vv14-25.

Paul’s passionate argument in this chapter undermines the thought that when he speaks of the law his is thinking primarily of Jewish boundary-markers.  ‘Paul’s heroic (though futile) struggle in Romans 7 would be a farce had he been thinking of food laws, fat offerings, and firstfruits—and this goes for his enormous preoccupation with the law as a whole.’ (Edwards, UBCS)

I would not have know what sin was except through the law – The law is not sinful; on the contrary, it reveals sin.

Suppose a paperboy has a habit of cutting corners as he delivers his papers. There is one particular home where he has ridden his bicycle across the lawn so often that he has worn a narrow trail across it. But he doesn’t think anything of it. Then one day, as he is about to ride across this particular lawn, he notices that a sign has been put up: “KEEP OFF THE GRASS. NO BIKES.” But he rode straight across the grass, following his well-worn trail, right up to the feet of the waiting home-owner. A few few homes truths were shared with the boy. The point is this: before, his transgression was not fully seen or realised. But now, it was. And that, according to this verse, is the function of the law.

7:8 But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead.

But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment – There is a military allusion. The law provided sin with an ‘operational’ base from which to launch its attacks.

‘This provocative power of sin is a matter of everyday experience. Ever since Adam and Eve, human beings have always been enticed by forbidden fruit…In all such cases the real culprit is not the law but sin which is hostile to God’s law, Rom 8:7. Sin twists the function of the law from revealing, exposing and condemning sin into encouraging and even provoking it. We cannot blame the law for proclaiming God’s will.’ (Stott)

7:9 And I was once alive apart from the law, but with the coming of the commandment sin became alive 7:10 and I died. So I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death! 7:11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died. 7:12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.

Once I was alive apart from the law – Alive, that is, in his own esteem.

When the commandment came – Some think that this is a reference to his initiation as a ‘son of commandment’ (bar mitzvah) at the age of 13.

‘How vain therefore is it to expect salvation from the law, since all the law does, in its operation on the unrenewed heart, is to condemn and to awaken opposition! It cannot change the nature of man.’ (Hodge)

Sin…deceived me – This recalls Eve’s deception by Satan, Gen 3:1-13.

‘Here, then, are the three devastating effects of the law in relation to sin. It exposes, provokes and condemns sin…But the law is not in itself sinful, nor is it responsible for sin. Instead, it is sin itself, our sinful nature, which uses the law to cause us to sin and so to die.’ (Stott)

The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good – ‘As “holy” the commandment reflects the transcendence and purity of God and demands of us the correspondent consecration and purity; as “right”]eous” it reflects the equity of God and exacts of us in its demand and sanction nothing but that which is equitable; as “good” it promotes man’s highest well-being and thus expresses the goodness of God.’ (Murray)

7:13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.

That which is good – the law. The question is, ‘is the law responsible for bringing death?’ The answer is another strong negative. It is our sin that causes our death, not the law.

‘Take a criminal today. A man is caught red-handed breaking the law. He is arrested, brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. He cannot blame the law for his imprisonment. True, it is the law which convicted and sentenced him. But he has no-one to blame but himself and his own criminal behaviour.’ (Stott)

7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual—but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. 7:15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate. 7:16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. 7:17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.

We know that the law is spiritual – Here is a commonly-agreed truth that Paul wants now to affirm and develop.  ‘The law is not only holy, righteous and good (v. 12) but also spiritual, that is, the work of God’s Spirit. This means that its origin is divine rather than human.’ (Osborne)

Unspiritualsarkikos, ‘carnal’, ‘pertaining to the flesh’.  It refers to human nature, but in context, to fallen human nature; to human nature as belonging to this world and under the power of sin and death.

Paul has just vindicated the law, in vv7-13. However, he will now show that although the law is good, it is weak. It is good, and yet powerless to make us holy. It provides moral guidance, but lacks transforming power.

Sold as a slave to sin – For Moo and others, this statement helps to clinch the case for regarding the ‘”I” of this chapter as in an unregenerate state, because in Rom 6:18,22 Paul declares that the believer has been set free from such slavery.  But this, according to Packer, ‘misses the point’, which is that Paul in the present verse is using language pictorially, rather than theologically; he is expressing how things feel, rather than stating them in precise theological categories.  Edwards, similarly: ‘It is a metaphor, dramatic to be sure, but still a metaphor of the ongoing battle with sin in the process of sanctification.’  Other passages of Paul, such as Gal 5:16-18, carry a similar meaning.

Hodge, on the other hand, points out that Paul ‘does not intend to say that he was given up to the willing service of sin; but that he was in the condition of a slave, whose acts are not always the evidence of his inclination. His will may be one way, but his master may direct him another. So it is with the believer. He does what he hates, and omits to do what he approves, ver. 15. This is a description of slavery, and a clear explanation of what is intended by the expression, “sold under sin.”’

Packer writes: ‘The thesis of the paragraph, “I am carnal, sold under sin,” is stated categorically and without qualification, but not because this is the whole truth about Paul the Christian, but because it is the only part of the truth about himself that the law can tell him. What the law does for the Christian is to give him knowledge of the sin that still remains in him.’ (Keep in Step with the Spirit, p226)

v15 Note the change of tense from the past to the present.

7:18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.
7:21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 7:23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.

In my inner being – ‘Deep inside’.

I see another law at workheteros, a different law. ‘This ‘law’ is the ‘force’ or ‘power’ of sin, which Paul sets in contrast to the law of God (see also Rom 3:27; 8:2). Paul confesses himself to be a prisoner of this law of sin, a strong indication that he is describing his past experience as a Jew under the law (contrast Rom 8:2).’ (Moo, NBC)

In modern paraphrase, Paul is almost saying, “I know what to do in theory, but I keep getting it wrong in practice.”

7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Who is the 'wretched man' of Romans 7

Paul describes, in vv15-24, a high level of emotional turmoil.  But who is the “I” of this passage?  Is it Paul himself, or someone else?  And is the state he describe that of a believer, or an unbeliever; a regenerate, or an unregenerate person?

It is true, as Moo says, that what Paul says about the law still amounts to much the same thing, whatever conclusion one arrives at: ‘One can preach this paragraph, in its basic intention, without even making a definite identification of the ‘ego’.’  Nevertheless, we need to know whether Christian believers should expect to suffer the same struggle that Paul describes here, or have been rescued from it, as ch. 8 will appear to teach.

Let us set out the main options, and sub-options.

1. The ‘wretched’ man is unregenerate

(a) It is Paul himself, looking back on his own experience prior to conversion.

Most of the early church fathers thought that Paul was thinking of an unregenerate person.  Ovid is sometimes quoted in support: ‘I see and approve the better things, but I pursue the worse.’

It was the predominant view of scholars throughout the 20th century, being held by Bornkamm, Kasemann and Ridderbos, among others.  Keener thinks that Paul is thinking of an unregenerate person, although it is not clear if Keener thinks the reference is to Paul himself.

In the present day, it is support by Moo, Barnett, and others.

Barnett comes to a similar conclusion: ‘The answer that makes best sense of this passage is that Paul under Law was the “wretched man.” Thus Paul is clinching the case he began to make back in Rom 5:12. Pure and simple his point is, that he and all people sinned in Adam and have died in Adam, including Jews like himself. Law does nothing to mitigate Sin or rescue its adherents from Death. But Paul is teaching this so that people understand that the age of grace has come expressed in the death of Christ and empowered by the inner presence of the Spirit.’

One objection to this view is that Paul, prior to his conversion, did not appear to experience the kinds of struggle presupposed here.  One way of dealing with this objection is to say that Paul is looking back from the perspective of Christian belief and experience.  He now sees how miserable and parlous a situation he was in.  Moo, for example, says: ‘I think that Paul is looking back, from his Christian understanding, to the situation of himself, and other Jews like him, living under the law of Moses…Rom 7:14-25 describes from a personal viewpoint the stage in salvation history that Paul delineates objectively in Gal 3:19-4:3.’  Decisive for Moo are two sets of contrasts: (a) Paul describes the ego as ‘sold under sin’ (v14b), and yet asserts that every believer has been ‘set free from sin’ (Rom 6:18,22); (b) the apostle says that the ego is ‘imprisoned by the “law” of sin’ (v23), and yet that the believer has been ‘set free from the law of sin and death’ (Rom 8:2).  This is not to deny that Christians do continue to struggle with indwelling sin: it is just to deny that this is not the sense of the present passage.

(b) Paul is speaking of Israel’s status under the law

As a variant on the view just mentioned, N.T. Wright thinks that ‘Paul appears to be speaking of Israel: of Israel under Torah; of Israel at the time when Torah arrived (7:7–12); of Israel continuing to live under Torah thereafter (7:13–25). But he is not thereby speaking of how Israel under Torah would itself analyze the problem. Though in a sense that is Paul’s own story, as a Jew who had lived under Torah himself, it is not a transcript of “how it felt at the time”.… The present passage seems, then, to be Christian theological analysis of what was in fact the case, and indeed what is still the case for those who live “under the law”, not a description of how it felt or feels. It is a vivid, rhetorically sharpened way of saying something very similar to what Paul said in 2:17–9: those who embrace Torah find that Torah turns and condemns them.… The change of tense has to do, rather, with the change from the description of what happened when Torah first arrived in Israel, the time when Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam (5:20a; 7:9–11), to the description of the ongoing state of those who live under the law, who find themselves caught between the one exodus and the other, freed from Egypt and yet not freed from the “Egypt” of sin and death’.

Wright again: ‘The “I” and “me” of Romans 7 is a literary device through which Paul is telling the life story of Israel under the Torah.’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

(a) and (b) are fairly readily combined since Paul was, of course, a Jew himself.  So he might have been speaking about himself autobiographically, but as a typical, or representative, Jew.  Kruse, for example, says that the “I” in vv14-20 ‘is used to depict Israel’s ongoing experience, the experience of non-Christian Jews under the law.’  It is also partly autobiographical, given Paul’s background as an unconverted Jew.

(c) Paul is talking about the position of ‘everyman’ – any unregenerate person.

Some who take this view think that Paul is both telling his own story and universalising it: his own experience being everybody’s experience.  Pate, for example, thinks that the term have a threefold referent: to Paul, prior to his conversion, to Israel, and to Adam.

W.G. Kümmel, followed by Bultmann, articulated the view that the “I” in this chapter is rhetorical, and does not imply any autobiographical reference.  The passage then would describe, from a Christian perspective, any unregenerate person, under the law.

(d) Paul is talking about sin’s first manifestation in Adam.

Note the sequence, innocence, command, transgression, death.

The apparent references to the Mosaic law would be anachronistic if the reference were to Adam.

(e) Paul is speaking of the experience of an unsaved person who is under conviction of sin.

Some 17th- and 18th-century pietists and Arminians reacted against what they perceived to be the dead orthodoxy and complacency of many in the reformed churches.  The commentator Adam Clarke objected that the opinion that Paul was speaking of a regenerate person ‘has most pitifully and most shamefully lowered the Standard of Christianity, and even destroyed its influence and disgraced its character.’  A.H. Francke and J. Bengel (and, a little later, John Wesley, and, later still Moses Stuart) were among those who thought that Paul was describing a man who was under conviction of sin, but not yet regenerate.

The distinguished 20th-century preacher, D.M Lloyd-Jones, cannot be classed with the Arminians.  But he did adopt a similar view with regard to this passage.  He thought that Paul was speaking here of that special conviction of sin that comes at a time of spiritual revival.  However, there is little evidence within the text itself that would support such an interpretation.

A general criticism may be made of these views that understand Paul’s ‘wretched man’ to be unregenerate.  As Packer remarks, an objection to this interpretation is that Paul would then be saying that an unregenerate person has ‘a natural affinity with the law of God—approving it (v. 16), delighting in it (v. 22), willing to fulfill it (vv. 15, 18–21), and serving it with his νοῦς and in his “inmost self”—literally, “inward man” (v. 22, cf. v. 25). But, elsewhere Paul consistently denies the existence of any such affinity, affirming that the mind and heart of man in Adam is blind, corrupt, lawless, and at enmity with God (cf. Eph. 2:3; 4:17ff.).’  Indeed, in Rom 8:5,7 Paul will insist that ‘they that are after the flesh mind the things of the flesh … the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be’ (ASV).

2. The ‘wretched man’ is regenerate

(b) Paul is speaking of the experience of a ‘carnal’ Christian.

In popular evangelical piety, Paul is sometimes understood as describing the ‘carnal Christian’.  Such a person is living the Christian life ‘in his (or her) own strength’, and needs to live it ‘in the power of the Spirit.  He or she is living a ‘defeated’ life as a Christian, and needs to enter into a ‘victorious’ life.  In other words, such a person needs to get ‘out of Romans 7’ and ‘into Romans 8’.

It is, however, very difficult to find support for this from the text.  Are we conclude from ch. 7 that Paul, at the time of writing, regarded himself as living a ‘defeated’ life as a Christian.  Or are we conclude from ch. 8 that he regarded himself as living a ‘victorious’ life?

There are more general problems with this interpretation, than inhere in all ‘two-stage’ models of the Christian life.  The attempt to make a sharp distinction between those believers who have been ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’ and those who have not; between those who are living ‘the higher life’ and those who have not; between those who are ‘entirely sanctified’ and those who are not, is both contrary to Scripture and fraught with pastoral problems.

Stott, however, manages to adopt a more nuanced position.  He agrees that the person described in Romans 7 ‘deploring evil in his fallen nature, delighting himself in God’s law, and longing for the promised full and final salvation’ is quite clearly regenerate.  Still, his condition is not normal.  He still declares himself to be the slave of sin, v14, 23.  Moreover, the person described appears to know nothing of the Holy Spirit. There is in this passage an ‘absolute and eloquent silence’ about the Holy Spirit (Handley Moule), which contrasts strikingly with ch 8.  Rom 7 is all about the law; Rom 8 is all about the Holy Spirit.

Stott concludes that the ‘I’ of this passage is an ‘Old Testament’ believer; one who loved the law but lacked the Spirit. This person is born of the Spirit, but not indwelt by the Spirit. Paul ‘proclaims the impotence of the law by dramatizing it in the vivid terms of personal experience. He describes what happens to anybody who tries to live according to the law instead of the gospel, according to the flesh instead of the Spirit.’

Stott concludes that ‘some church-goers today might be termed “Old Testament Christians.” The contradiction implied in this expression indicates what an anomaly they are. They show signs of new birth in their love for the church and the Bible, yet their religion is law, not gospel; flesh, not Spirit; the “oldness” of slavery to rules and regulations, not the “newness” of freedom through Jesus Christ. They are like Lazarus when he first emerged from the tomb, alive but still bound hand and foot. They need to add to their life liberty.’

Despite the care and thoughtfulness with which Stott sets out his case, his argument that it is possible to be ‘born of the Spirit, but not indwelt by the Spirit’ fails to convince.

(a) Paul is speaking of his ongoing experience as a believer and, by extension, of all believers.

Most of the Reformers, and many later theologians in that tradition, followed Augustine, who came to believe that Paul is referring to true believers such as himself.  Luther gave it classic utterance when he described the believers as ‘at the same time a justified person and a sinner’.  This is the view also of Calvin, Owen (whose great work in indwelling sin is based on this passage), Simeon, Haldane, Hodge, Barnes, Plumer, Brown, Ryle, Shedd, Nygren, Berkhof, Bruce, Cranfield, Dunn, Murray, Morris, Barrett, Hendriksen, Packer, and Edwards.  In support of this view, it is to be noted that Paul is still writing in the 1st person, that he does speak favourably of the law (which, it is claimed, an unregenerate person would scarcely do), and he does express longing for final deliverance (which again, it is claimed, an unregenerate person would scarcely do).

Brown draws attention to the apostle’s main purpose in this part of Romans 7.  In vv7-13, it is to show that the law cannot make an unsaved person holy.  In vv14-25, it is to show that it cannot make a saved man holy.  The change is signalled, in part, by a shift from the past tense to the present tense.

In his celebrated book Holiness, Ryle writes: ‘I am quite satisfied that it does not describe the experience of an unconverted man, or of a young and unestablished Christian; but of an old experienced saint in close communion with God. None but such a man could say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22).’

Shedd comments: ‘He is still to some extent, and he feels it to be no small extent (v24) ruled by flesh.  But he is not wholly and completely ruled by it.  He is inwardly inclined to good (vv15, 19, 21); is disinclined to, and hates evil (vv15,16,19); “delights in the law of God” (v22); and “serves the law of God” (v22).  the natural man is not thus described in Scripture.  That a regenerate man may be called “carnal” is proved by 1 Cor 3:1,3.’

Nygren suggests that the state of tension that exists between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ can be expressed as follows:-

  • Chapter 6 – We are free from sin – yet we must battle against it.
  • Chapter 7 – We are free from the law – yet we are not righteous according to its criterion.
  • Chapter 8 – We are free from death – yet we long for the redemption of our bodies.

Cranfield agrees that these verses ‘depict vividly the inner conflict characteristic of the true Christian, a conflict such as is possible only in the man in whom the Holy Spirit is active, and whose mind is being renewed under the discipline of the gospel.’

Hendriksen: ‘The person described in Rom. 7:14–25 hates sin (7:15), wishes to do what is good (verses 19, 21), in his inner being delights in God’s law (verse 22), deeply regrets his sins (verses 15, 18–24), and thanks God for his deliverance (verse 25). Is it at all probable that such a person has not been regenerated by the Spirit of God?’

Morris agrees that that Paul is describing the experience of a believer.  The believer’s struggle with sin is not the whole story, as chapter 8 will demonstrate.  But it is an important part of the story.

The dilemma is that an unregenerate man can scarcely say, “I really want to do what is right,” whereas a regenerate man would not really say, “I cannot do it.”  Could a person ‘in Christ’, as Paul himself was, really experience such a struggle with sin?


I am inclined to agree with those scholars who think that Paul is talking about his own experience as a regenerate person.  Dunn puts it well, when he says that Paul is setting out the ‘eschatological tension’ between the two epochs of Adam and Christ, the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’.

Many expositors wisely counsel against dogmatism.  We may go so far in our uncertainty as Edwards thinks that it is impossible to be sure whether Paul is writing of his pre-conversion experience or a Christian’s present struggle with sin.

Moo provides a good model of scholarly humility.  Even though he does come to a tentative conclusion, he says that because the data do not all point in the same direction, it is unwise for the interpreter to simply marshal arguments in favour of his or her own preferred option, without considering the contrary arguments.

We can only reach a conclusion about the identity of the ‘wretched man’ on the balance of probabilities, and we may indeed find ourselves changing their minds on this question.  Therefore, in might not be amiss, on this occasion, for expositors to permit themselves the luxury of presenting both of the main options, and showing how each says something about the state of the unregenerate person and the regenerate person respectively.  For instance, The old expositor Matthew Henry expressed uncertainty as to whether Paul’s teaching was applicable ‘to the struggles that are in a convinced soul, but yet unregenerate’, or to ‘to the struggles that are in a renewed sanctified soul, but yet in a state of imperfection.’  Henry pinpoints the interpretative problem in choosing between the alternatives: ‘a great controversy there is of which of these we are to understand the apostle here. So far does the evil prevail here, when he speaks of one sold under sin, doing it, not performing that which is good, that it seems difficult to apply it to the regenerate, who are described to walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit; and yet so far does the good prevail in hating sin, consenting to the law, delighting in it, serving the law of God with the mind, that it is more difficult to apply it to the unregenerate that are dead in trespasses and sins.’

The exegetical difficulty in knowing whether these verses describe a regenerate, or an unregenerate, person, points to the pastoral difficulty of knowing for certain whether a person is, or is not regenerate.  We can agree that, on the one hand, anyone who is ‘in Christ’ has passed from darkness to life, from death to life, but, on the other hand, there may be such influences of common grace in the unsaved person, and such influences of the world, the flesh and the devil in the saved person, that we oftentimes simply must conclude: “The Lord knows those who are his.”

I think it was James Denney who once commented to a preacher something like, “What you said was true, but it was not the truth of that particular text.”  With regard to Romans 7, however, we may have to indulge the preacher a little.  To preach two truths, only one of which can be properly supported from the present passage (but we are uncertain which one!), but both of which can find support from Scripture more generally, may not be a complete counsel of despair on this occasion.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? – This is a cry not so much of despair as of longing. It is consistent with ‘groaning’ of God’s people as they eagerly await their redemption, Rom 8:23.  It is consistent with Paul’s self-assessment as expressed in 1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:15.

It was the custom of ancient conquerors to prevent the escape of their prisoners by tying a dead body to their backs. With such gruesome burdens, these poor wretches could not run away. Paul may have had this in mind; so some think Rom 7:24 should read: “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this dead body?”

If, as Moo and others think, Paul is in this chapter describing the pre-conversion experience of himself and his fellow-Jews, then we must note the objection of some that he gives no hint elsewhere of any struggle with sin prior to his becoming a believer.  Indeed, Phil 3:2-11 seems to imply a certain complacency in this regard.  Moo answers that in the Philippians passage, Paul is describing his status as a Jew, whereas in the present passage his is describing his experience from his perspective as a Christian believer.  With respect of Pharisaic righteousness, Paul was blameless, but with respect to heart-righteousness, he was very far from blameless (as his persecution of Christ’s followers proves).  At the time he thought himself to be irreproachable; later, he realised that his conscience had been deeply troubled.  So it was with Martin Luther: ‘However irreproachable my life as a monk, I felt myself, in the presence of God, to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience.’

This body of death is this mortal body, sin’s present place of residence.  The deliverance that Paul longs for will not take place until ‘the mortal puts on immortality’ (1 Cor 15:54).  This is the consummation towards which those who have God’s Spirit look forward to in Rom 8:23.

Jas 1:15

I myself –  αὐτὸς ἐγώ – ‘I, even I’.  This emphatic expression ‘expresses Paul’s sense of how painfully paradoxical it is that a Christian man like himself, who desires so heartily to keep God’s law and do only good, should find himself under the constant necessity of breaking the law and doing what in effect is evil. But such is the state of the Christian till his body is redeemed.’ (Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, p225).

Some construe this expression to mean, ‘I, by myself’; ‘I, without Christ’s help’.  But it is unlikely that it can bear this meaning.

Sinful naturesarx, ‘flesh’.