This entry is part 67 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
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
(a) Paul is speaking of his ongoing experience as a believer and, by extension, of all believers.
Whereas the view just considered is held widely (but not exclusively) by Arminians, the view now to be discussed is held widely (but not exclusively) but those in the Reformed tradition. Most of the Reformers, and 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, 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.
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?
(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 agress 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.
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.