Romans 7 and the Struggle with Sin


I’ve always understood Romans 7, especially verses 14-25, to be a simple discourse on the power of sin and the struggle that Christians will have with it. Sometimes the flesh wins over the spirit, leading Christians to commit sin despite full knowledge of its wrongness and moral obligation otherwise.

N.T. Wright made an interesting suggestion that has made me reconsider the meaning of this passage. Wright suggests that this struggle with sin should be interpreted more as the result of Jewish Christians who cling to the Law instead of Christ. The Law holds one captive (7:1-6) and sin is the natural consequence of the Law (see 7:7-13).

This seems to be a pretty big shift in interpretation. Is Paul describing life in Christ or life outside of Christ? I’ve always considered Paul to discuss life in Christ. However, the more I consider the flow of the book and Paul’s argument in this section, it makes more sense to state that Paul is considering life in the law rather than Christ. In a sense, sin comes from the law. Even though the Law defines what is right, sin still ensues.

It is tempting to read this section autobiographically because far too often this does describe our lives. Christians can allow sin to become a regular part of life. Although Christians may commit sin, this is not the goal or aim of Christian life. Life in Christ is dictated by the Spirit, not the flesh. I think Paul would say that this inner conflict is far from the “normal” experience of the Christian. It is an aberration and contrary to new creation and life in Christ.

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11 Responses to Romans 7 and the Struggle with Sin

  1. Cuz says:

    Mr Wright has it right. What gives the general impression that you mentioned you’ve generally had about this passage is that Paul speaks in the present tense–that has confused me as well before. But verse 14 is the key where Paul says “I am carnal, sold under sin.” In light of 6:12-23, Paul cannot be saying that he, currently in Christ, is carnal, fleshly (8:5-8) and sold under sin.
    This text is quoted in the Westminster Confession (itself a common denominational creed or reference for many such creeds) chapter IX section IV as a “proof” of man’s inherited corrupt nature that remains in part even after God converts the sinner, apart from man’s free will. Of course, our nature is the same as Adam’s, but this is a text that arises in the course of that discussion.
    This text is another reminder of the blessings of living under the new covenant.

  2. Matt H says:

    Hmm. I haven’t read Wright on Romans 7, but I have been very challenged this semester by Charles Cranfield’s treatment of this chapter in his ICC commentary. I always assumed that Paul was describing life outside of Christ (the opposite of your experience), but Cranfield gave some pretty compelling exegetical reasons for understanding it as life in Christ (in this already-not yet stage of salvation history). Maybe I’ll post some of his discussion when I have some more time. Interesting question.

    • Jeremy says:

      Thanks for the comments Matt. Romans 7 is an interesting passage. I’ll have to read Cranfield when I get a chance or get the summarized version from you when you get a chance. Of course, the interpretation on this passage depends largely on how one reads the entire book and Wright and Cranfield would take pretty different positions on that. Cranfield would take a Reformed position while Wright is leading the charge on the New Perspective. My Romans class taught from a NP position with all the readings coming from NP authors, so that is what is fresh on my mind.

  3. Dell Russell says:

    I have studied Romans for a number of years now and will say Chapter 7 is Paul looking back and comparing a lost man trying to live by the law in order to be sanctified in his own strength Vs how a saved man is sanctified in chapters 6 and 8.
    Many see this as the normal Christian life because they see their own short comings in this chapter. But that is not what Paul is saying in the least.
    This is probably one of if not the most debated chapter in the whole bible and I have debated it with a number of folks myself. And no matter whether one sees this as a saved man or a lost man it is without question a man that has convinced himself in his own mind that he is pleasing God even though his actions say otherwise.

    If you are interested I will post many convincing reasons why I believe this is not a saved man Paul is referring to.

    • Jeremy says:

      Thanks for the comments, Dell. I’ve always thought this was normal Christian experience until I heard someone present the other idea in a class I was taking. It now seems more convincing to me that chapter 7 describes the old way of life under the Law. I’d be interested in hearing the reasons behind your interpretation of the text.

  4. Dell Russell says:

    Just a quick reply and you don’t have to post this post on here, because I will get into it much better and more detailed this weekend or the first part of next week.

    Four points I have identified that Paul puts forth.
    1. The lost condition of man, Romans 1:18- 3:20.
    2. the gospel, Romans 3:21-7:6.
    3.looking back to make a comparison of the old to the new, 7:7-v:25
    4. moving forward in our new life, chapter 8- ch.16.

    Compare these four points to Eph.chapter 2 as well. notice the tenses as you read Eph. 2. you will see these in Romans as well.
    This is not much of what I want to share, but mostly wanted to let you know I get back with you.

    Again this is only a quick note. I have to run to Nashville,TN for in the morning, so I gotta go.

  5. Dell Russell says:

    Lets see what Paul says Romans 7 is saying.
    Paul, as you will see, repeats himself over and over again. We use this concept with our children to teach them their a,b,c’s , reading, math, how to drive, and everything else in life. Its called repetition.
    Where I first saw this was when I heard a preacher make a comment on Romans 8:1-4. He insisted the first four verse of chapter 8 were summaries of chapters 5-8. It goes like this,
    Romans 8:1 is a summary of Romans chapter 5.
    Romans 8:2 is a summary of chapter 6.
    Romans 8:3 is a summary of chapter 7.
    Romans 8:4 is a summary of chapter 8.

    The main thing to see here is the context of verses 2, 3, and 4. With everything he said in his Romans teaching I felt there was something either he was missing or I was missing. He did make the comment, “Even though he had been studying Romans for 40 years there was more to be learned.”
    I kept coming back to chapter 7. For years I kept coming back with the nagging thought there was more to it than what met the eye. I came back to what he had said about the first 4 verses of chp8. I just wander if Paul did this again. Well he did! about 7 times in 4 different chapters. His first time was in 5:9 and 10.

    Romans 5:9a is a summary of ch.5
    Romans 5:b is a summary of ch.6
    Romans 5:10a is a summary of ch.7
    Romans 5:10b is a summary of ch. 8

    This process is done 3 times in chapter 6 and again in chapter 7 from one degree to another, but my main focus is going to be what he does in 6:16-23. This covers chapters 1-8 at least.
    Romans 6:16 is a summary of 1:18-3:20.
    Romans 6:17 is a summary of 3:20- chapter 4.
    Romans 6:18 is a summary of chapter 5.
    Romans 6:19 is a summary of chapter 6- chapter 7:6.
    Romans 6:20 and 21 is a summary of 7:7-25.
    Romans 6:22 and 23 is a summary of chapter 8.

    Read v:16 and compare 2:6-11.
    In 6:17 the main thought here is “that form of doctrine”. What is “that form of doctrine” obeyed from the heart? As you read 3:21-chapter4 it speaks of FAITH. FAITH is the “doctrine” Paul is getting at and not only Paul, but the whole bible. Faith is what God, from the very beginning, was trying to get man to live by, Not the law. Law was our school teacher. It convicted us, but could not save us. It said, “Do this and you will live”, “but if you break it you will die”.
    6″18, we are made free from sin by being justified through Christ Jesus. We are no longer in Adam, but now are in Christ. That is what chapter 5 is about.
    6:19, 6:20-21, and 6:22-23 need to be looked at together. What we have is a description of the chapter suggested, but something very interesting is the tenses. 6:19 does describe what chapter 6 is about (walking in holiness and righteousness), but look at the tense of NOW. Then 6:20-21 says, “when ye were, ye were, and had ye then. All past tense. Then moving back into the present tense is 6:22, “BUT now”…

    Romans 7:4 is a summary of chapter 6.
    Romans 7:5 is a summary of chapter 7.
    Romans 7:6 is a summary of chapter 8.
    Notice the tenses here as well.

    Ephesians 2: 1-3 can be compared to Romans 1:18-3:20.
    Eph. 2:4-10 can be compared to Romans 3:21-7:6.
    Eph.2:11-12 can be compared to Romans 7:7-v:25.
    Eph.2:13-22 can be compared to Romans 8-16.

    Notice here as well the tenses of verses 10-13. Paul uses the same pattern of Romans.

    As yourself, I to have been taught this is the normal experience for all Christians. Not in any systematic teachings from the pulpit, but mostly just when they would talk about Paul’s struggle with sin after his salvation. And yes there is a struggle even after we are saved, but now we have the Holy Spirit to help us and guide us through those times of temptation (1 Cor. 10:13).

    I will touch on why it is taught this passage (7:7-25) is thought to be a saved man and then I will try and put it into its proper context.

    The first thing usually pointed out is 7:22; “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:”
    They will say,”A lost man does not delight in the law of God, therefore it can’t be a lost man. They will draw from verses like Psalms 1:2 where it says, “But his delight is in the law of the Lord…..” and other verses that says something likewise.
    The problem with thinking a lost man can not delight in the Law of God is not seeing all the verses where Paul had to deal with the Jews that would not turn lose of the Law to grab hold of Christ Jesus.
    Paul made it clear in the beginning of Romans (chapter 2:17-24) that the Jew was resting in the law, but were not actually doing the law. (same as the man in chapter 7).
    Paul spoke of how the Jew followed after the law, but was not able to attain righteousness through the law. (see Romans 9:31-32).
    He goes on to speak of their zeal of God even though they were lost, Romans 10:2-3.
    Other verses to consider. 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul’s personal testimony of when he was lost (Philippians 3:4-6). Jeremiah 8:8; How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us? ….
    They did delight in the law of God, but the problem was they did not keep it and even a bigger problem was they delighted in the law but not God. They wanted the law, but did not want what it was really all about.
    Its no different today with many Christians, they have their church buildings and many bible versions. They proclaim their love for God, but live like the rest of world. It reminds me of when Jesus will say one day, “Depart from me ye workers of iniquity for I never knew you”. “OH, but we did all these great things in your name!” Religiosity!

    Then the other verse that is pointed out is verse 7:25, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” They will insist that a lost man can not thank God in the name of Christ. I will agree that is a true statement, but as you read Paul you will see he will interrupt from time to time and insert a word of praise or condemnation and then continue on with his thought. See Romans 1:25, Romans 3:8, Romans 2:24, Hebrews 13:8. (if Paul is the writer of Heb.). He will Amen his writings, as you very well may know. The conclusion to chapter 7 is the “So then” in the second sentence of v:25.

    When one still insists Romans 7 is a lost man they will contrast Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:4-6. They will say, “before Paul was saved he thought he never broke the law because he said, ‘touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless’ ” They insist Paul claimed he never broke any of the laws. I only wonder if they actually read the verse before commenting on it. I can’t but think when Paul made that statement he did not say he did not break any of the laws, but rather when he did break one he was a good Jew and went down to make sacrifice for his transgression(s). In doing so he would have been keeping the law. If he failed to have a sacrifice made in order to atone for his sin then he would not have been keeping the law.

    Romans 8:6 (For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.) is cited to show how even though the man in chapter 7 can’t keep the law it really has more to do with the intent of the mind than the flesh. I mean afterall the flesh does not really count anyhow. And afterall we all sin and there is no difference between a big sin and a little sin. And the excuses go on and on. May I say even the lost think they are good with God as long as their good out weights their bad. Lost people think about spiritual things, but they are not subject to the law of God. Look up the word “subject” and then read that verse again. And may I ask, if only thinking about spiritual things means one is not carnally minded, then who is not saved? Lost Jews delight in the law of God and we know the law is spiritual, Romans 7:14. Muslims pray to Allah. Hindus pray to many gods, and the list goes on as far as there are people. Thinking about spiritual things does not make one spiritually minded. If it does then the only ones that would be lost are atheist and maybe agnostics.

    Most think Paul is hard to understand, probably because of what Peter says about Paul in 2Peter 3:15 and 16. ….”in which are somethings hard to be understood,….” Paul was given the mysteries of the gospel and walking by faith, not by sight may be hard for some to understand, but Paul uses the means of repeating himself over and over again to make the gospel clear. you will see this VERY clearly in Romans once its pointed out.
    (Our minds have been conditioned by institutional training not how to think, but what to think. When we want to know what a verse means, by instinct we ask someone else or grab a commentary. Not that that is all bad, much can be learned from others, but we must first ask the Holy Spirit for understanding. And even after we do ask others for help we should compare it with scripture.
    In the case of Romans 7 we can see plainly, the popularly accepted teaching is this is a saved man, goes against everything else Paul tells us in Romans 6 and 8 and everywhere else. That should be a big red flag.)

    Questions?

    Once you digest this we will also look at some other things this brings up.
    Sinful nature, Divine nature, and original sin. To say Romans 7 is a lost man will shed light in a few other dark places.

    Just so its known I’m Baptist, and this goes against what I’m taught, but truth is more important to me. I don’t know Hebrew or Greek. I have never been to any kind of bible school and I did not finish public school. My qualifications are, I’m born again, washed in the blood, and Spirit filled and Spirit led.
    In Christ,
    Dell

    • Jeremy says:

      Dell, that definitely wins the award for longest post comment on this site. You made many good points. I like noting the summaries of Paul’s main points in compact form in a few verses. Some of these might not line up exactly, but overall I believe he used repetition to convey his main points. As you, I also think the arguments for the normal Christian experience is chapter 7 is flawed. Thanks for the comments.

  6. Dell Russell says:

    Jeremy,
    I think the teaching of this being a saved man rather than what it is, a lost man, has been one of the biggest hindrances to the Church there ever was; that and evilution. When the Church realizes that there are folks out there struggling trying to save themselves through their good works, while falling far short, as this man has, then we may be more apt to throw them THE lifeline that will save them, Jesus. People that are lost while thinking they are saved are hard to save, but the truth must be told.
    As for this being the longest post comment, well, I’ll take that as a compliment, and this is the short version. There are a lot of things that could go along with this.
    I don’t know if you have ever heard of Micheal Pearl or not, but that is who I got started listening to and saw there was much more to be learned on this chapter, Romans 7. I highly recommend his Romans teachings. It can be found and listened to or down loaded free of charge at: http://www.nogreaterjoy.org . He has a commentary on Romans 1-8 as well. I can’t say that I agree with everything he teaches on other subject mater, but as for Romans I think he is right on.

    Dell Russell

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  8. Joel Ellis says:

    As someone else mentioned above, I seem to be experiencing the same journey you describe but in reverse. I believed Romans 7:14ff described the experience of an unregenerate man futilely seeking to be justified by law. I still believe the primary purpose of the text is to demonstrate the futility of law-based salvation. But I have become increasingly convinced over the last year the description is of a regenerate man. During the last year I have also become more and more disillusioned with the NPP, though I still think it has several things to teach us. But I’ve never taken an M.Div. level class on the subject, so I am certain I have a lot more to learn about it.

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