This is a section of the letter in which Paul is speaking of himself, describing a fierce internal struggle with sin. And the question is: Of what stage in his life is he speaking? Is he speaking of the present, that is, of the time of his writing the letter – when he was a mature Christian, indeed an apostle? Or is he speaking of himself as he was in the past, before his conversion? Or is the true answer somewhere in between? Who is the “man” of Romans 7? This has divided Bible students from the earliest days of the church and continues to divide them today. Paul is discussing the Christian life in which he seems to be answering two related questions: How can I live a triumphant Christian life? How can I achieve victory over sin? Any true Christian wants the answer to those questions. In this study we will present four main interpretations of these verses and evaluate each one.
The “Man” of Romans 7 is Unsaved: The first view is that the “man” of Romans 7 is Paul when he was not yet a Christian. According to this view, Paul could not say the things he says here if he were truly a Christian. What things? Well, that he is “a slave to sin,” (v. 14). Paul also says, “Nothing good lives in me” (v. 18). A bit further on Paul cries, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24). In spite of the appeal of this interpretation the view has several major flaws. Let me suggest a few. (1) What Paul says of himself in Romans 7:14-24 is not what Paul says of his pre-Christian state in other passages. Paul is distressed over his inability to fulfill the law’s demands. He is wretched as a result of his failure. He is calling out for deliverance by someone outside himself, What unbeliever ever thinks like that? (2) Paul’s delight in God’s law, expressed in this passage, cannot be found in unbelievers. The “man” of Romans 7 is one who has moved beyond the hostility to God’s law exercised by the unregenerate person. (3) The present tense is used throughout the second half of Romans 7, and this is an apparently meaningful contrast with the past tense employed earlier. In these verses, it’s hard to deny that this speaking of Paul’s present, and therefore a truly Christian experience.
The “Man” of Romans 7 is a “Carnal Christian”: The second view is a very popular one today. It is best known by the phrase “the carnal Christian.”It holds that Paul is indeed speaking of himself as a Christian but that he is speaking of himself (or of himself theoretically) as being in an immature or unsurrendered state. The chief weakness of this view is the doctrine of “the carnal Christian” itself. This view postulates a two-stage Christian experience in which, in stage one, a person accepts Jesus as Savior only, without accepting Him as Lord of his or her life, and then later, in stage two, goes on to receive Him as Lord. This is just not biblical. Above all, it’s not what Paul is saying or has been saying in Romans. Paul is describing the struggle between himself as a new creature in Christ, the new man, and the old man, sinful, un-Christian nature that nevertheless retains in some measure. The struggle is part of what it means to be a Christian in an as-yet unperfected state. It does not mean that there is a first or early stage in the Christian life that may be described as “carnal.”
The “Man” of Romans 7 is under Conviction: A third view takes everything that has been said thus far with full seriousness, drawing the apparently paradoxical conclusion that what Paul says here can be said of neither the unregenerate nor the regenerate man. But where does that leave us? If Paul is not speaking of a regenerate or an unregenerate person, of whom is he speaking? Some have said that Paul is speaking of one who has been awakened to his personal lawlessness and spiritual inability by the Holy Spirit but who has not yet been made a participator in the new life of Jesus Christ. The work has been started, but it has not yet come to fruition. This sounds reasonable, but it still has problems. (1) It does not account for the change from the past tense of the verbs in verses 1-13 to the present tense, beginning with verse 14. (2) It is not true that the “man” of Romans 7 does not yet know who can deliver him. Paul is writing of a struggle we all feel at times, wanting to do what is right while being unable in himself to do it. But as soon as he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he has the answer: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).
The “Man” of Romans 7 is a Mature Christian: The final view which is that of most reformed commentators is that Paul is writing of himself as a mature Christian, describing the Christian’s continuing conflict with sin, which we all experience, and teaching that there is no victory in such struggles apart from the Holy Spirit. To put in other words, since Romans 7 is discussing the function and limits of the law, Paul is saying that just as the law of God is unable to justify a person (justification is made possible by the work of Christ), so also is the law unable to sanctify a person. Sanctification must be accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 6, Paul discussed the deliverance that is ours through our having been crucified and raised with Christ. But he also acknowledged the continuing presence of sin in us through our bodies and reminded us that we must struggle against it. It is the same in Romans 7, though here Paul is emphasizing the futility of the struggle if it is in our own strength. The mature Christian knows that he is always in Romans 7 apart from the Holy Spirit. Moreover, he knows that dependence on the Holy Spirit is not something that is attained once for all but is the result of a daily struggle and a constantly renewed commitment. Sanctification is the growing sense of how sinful we really are, so we will constantly turn to and depend upon Jesus Christ. This is the definition of being mature in Christ.
Romans 7:14-20 Reflection Questions:
Verses 13-20 are often misunderstood, and many Christians struggle to discern the period of Paul’s life that is being described in this passage. But these verses were not intended as an exact description of Paul’s, or anyone else’s, actual experience, though it finds echoes in many places both in human life and in ancient and modern literature. In these verses, Paul moves into the present tense, to describe the actual situation (as opposed to the felt experience) of Israel living under the law. Granting this perspective, what happens when Israel, having been given the law, does its best to live under it?
Why would God (who is often implicated in Paul’s “in order that” clauses) want sin to grow to its full height (v. 13)?
Because much of the discussion in chapter 7 is about Israel, it may seem remote to many modern Christians. Many of us do not stop to ponder the situation of Israel under the law – though perhaps we should. How is this section relevant to us as believers today?