Romans 7 Controversy

Posted: August 17, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[b] a slave to the law of sin
.-Romans 7:13-25

Romans 7 has become one of the most controversial passages in all of Romans. What is this so controversial? The question I am going to try and answer is, “Is Paul talking about a Christian here or a non-Christian?” Or another way to put it, “Is Paul referring to himself here in the past prior to conversion?”

I am going to try and show you that Paul was indeed referring to his past prior to conversion without writing a 20 page thesis on it. I am confident my good friend Bennett (Rebél Theologian) will enjoy this post and have a few comments to say. Anyways, let’s get to it. (To better help you understand the post, please do read Romans 7:13-25)

People usually land in two camps. 1. Most lay people think that Paul is describing his own experience as a mature believer. I used to think this too, and I respect many who do hold this position. I can picture someone not liking my post thinking, Paul had to be talking about a believer because I struggle the same way he describes. Who gets to define spiritual maturity? And is this verse referring to spiritual maturity and the way a mature Christians struggle with sin? I don’t think so, however I would point them over to Galatians 5:17 which teaches what they are feeling. 2. Most Pauline scholars think the Apostle Paul is describing his life under the law as a Jew. The second is the view I have concluded.

“The way sin has used the law to bring death to God’s Old Testament people was the burden of 7:7-12 (Romans). But one large question remains: How could sin do this? The question is in Romans 7:14.”–Douglas Moo. Romans 7:14 says “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” This is very interesting! Paul, being mature spiritually, wrote 13 letters to the Churches says he is unspiritual, and a slave to sin? Humans are sinful because they missed the mark of God’s holiness. People are bound to sin because they are sold into slavery of sin. Paul then says we cannot obey the law (Romans 7:15-20).

I looked in a different translation for the word, “unspiritual.” The word “flesh” was used. The Bible uses “flesh” or “unspiritual” in different ways in the New Testament. However, this word for “flesh” is only used here and in 1 Corinthians 3:1, which says the following, But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh… Which is what Paul is referring to himself in Romans 7, “Unspiritual.” The NIV says people who live by the Spirit who are still worldly.–This does not sound like the Apostle Paul but rather like Saul. Paul must be referring to his unregenerate state.

“What ultimately is decisive for me is the fact that Paul’s description of the person in 7:13-25 is contradictory to his description of the Christian in chapters 6 and 8.”–Douglas Moo

So again, Romans 7:14 says “I am unspiritual” or “of the flesh” in the spiritual sense, meaning sinner, “sold as a slave to sin.” However, earlier Paul writes, “You have been set free from sin (Romans 6:18, 22).” Verse 23 of Romans says, “making me a prisoner of the law of sin.” Paul writes later of the Christian, “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).” How can Paul mean Christians are a slave to sin and yet earlier and later say we are not a slave to sin? Paul must have been writing about his unregenerate state.

We know that the law is good, for it is spiritual. It shows us what sin is (Romans 7:7). Paul writes in verse 15, “I do not understand my own actions.” Sometimes Christians, even myself, have thought what Paul has written here. Verse 18 says, “I know that nothing good lives in me…I have the desire to do what is good (that is, to follow the law), but not the ability to carry it out.” Does not a Christian have the power by God to carry out His commands? If a Christian cannot obey God because we are a slave to sin, then how do we do anything that is remotely honoring to Him if we do not even know the things we do?–or if we keep doing the things we hate?

I am not saying that a Christian does not make war against his or her own passions and sinful desires. We still sin and dishonor God, and that is what Galatians 5:17 teaches. In Galatians, Paul is referring to the Christian and our fleshly desires that still reign in us trying to keep us doing the things we actually want to do, that is, glorifying God.

But here in Romans 7, Paul is referring to an unregenerate person, himself prior to conversion. Paul is saying he keeps doing the evil and he can’t but help do it (Romans 7:19) which is remarkably different than his communication in Galatians. It is not so much that Paul is tainted with sin, but that the sin living in him controls him.

Paul then writes, “What a wretched man that I am!” Here is where Paul anticipates some kind of rescue. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The answer is Jesus Christ! Because this whole section of Scripture Paul was referring to “spiritual frustration and condemnation,” as Moo puts it, so the rescue he hopes for is the spiritual rescue that only comes through Christ Jesus. In verse 25, we see Paul giving thanks to God. Paul is writing to the Church in Romans and he is starting his transition into Romans 8. Jesus is the one who can and did rescue Paul from his slavery to sin. Paul, writing as a Christian did want to give thanks be to God and needed to interject here.

I would recommend, “The Romans Application Commentary,” by Douglas Moo for additional research.


  1. Andy B. says:

    A good analysis. How would you reconcile your position to the use of the present tense (“I do”) in Romans chapter 7?

    I think we get the benefit of Paul as a paradox. Paradoxically, salvation was accomplished on the cross, at the moment of our repentance, and an event in the future. I look at Hebrews 9, and see that while my salvation is secure, it is also something I wait for.

    And that’s why I’m glad Romans 8:1-2 follows Romans 7:25 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”

    Hopefully this encounters your reading eyes as place for dialogue and not as criticism. I think you outlined a good position that, sadly, is not heard among many Christians; that is, that the power of God gives victory over sin and disobedience. Also, it ends with Jesus. You can’t go wrong there. 😉

  2. tmdurey says:

    That’s a nice summary and I understand the points being made. I disagree, but I understand the points.

    I’m not sure I agree with this statement: “Most Pauline scholars think the Apostle Paul is describing his life under the law as a Jew. The second is the view I have concluded.” This view is actually quite modern. Augustine, Calvin, Luther, the Puritans, etc, believed this was Paul in his regenerate state.

    Also, how do you and/or Moo address the closing of chapter 7: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” In other words, Paul says Jesus is his salvation and then he basically says, “Therefore, I serve the law of God and also the law of sin.” If this is referencing his unregenerate state, then it would make more sense for him to say, “Therefore, I serve the law of God and also the law of sin. Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank Jesus Christ my Lord! There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” But, he doesn’t talk that way. He puts the therefore of the section after the reality of his confession of Jesus as his Savior.

    Also, earlier in this portion, Paul makes a very clear distinction between his flesh and his mind: “Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” In other words, Paul distinctly clarifies that there is a flesh and a spirit working in him. He’s not abdicating personal responsibility, but he is saying that there are two things working in him (Gal. 5:17). He also says, “no longer.” Why say “no longer”? That has to be referencing something that happened in the past at some point in time. That seems to indicate a change from unregenerate to regenerate.

    I conclude that Paul is talking more in Romans 7 of the struggle of the flesh, and in Romans 6 and 8 he is talking about 1) our status in Christ and 2) our victory in the Spirit OVER the flesh. Therefore, while Romans 7 is a reality, it is also being conquered by the Spirit.

    Even Galatians 5:17ff discusses this. 5:17 says that you don’t do the things you wish. It’s similar termonology to Romans 7. But, verse 24 says that we’ve crucified the flesh with its desires. If it’s crucified, why do we still “not do the things we want to do?”

    Therefore, we live in an already-not-yet reality. Because Romans seems to be Paul’s overarching theological treatise, I think he just took more time to discuss this in more intricate detail.

    A great defense for Romans 7 talking about a believer is the six-part message that Piper preached on this chapter:

    • tmdurey says:

      Qualifier: I should say that I’m pretty sure that Augustine, Calvin, Luther, most of the Puritans, believed this. I can’t say this factually at this moment, but I think I read that once. I just want to be as honest as possible.

  3. David Ketter says:

    “Most Pauline scholars” are actually convinced Paul is speaking the present tense because he IS describing the present tense, as a believer. There’s a rule in exegesis: the plain meaning of the passage is the correct one. You do believe, I know, that Scripture is perspicuous. That should trump what we think about the worthiness of various exegetical acrobatics. Now, if you were to, say, read most 20th/21st century old school reformed scholars exclusively, your claim is correct, but they by no means have a monopoly on Paul.

    Since the entire basis of your argument is wrapped up in 7:14, let me address that alone. The first thing to contest here is Moo’s translation of the words pneumatikos and sarkikos. Because of our culture and Christian culture particularly, using the word “spiritual” is unhelpful, because of the pervasive dualism that dominates their worldview. For the sake of this post, let’s be a little more formal in translation. “We know that the law is of the Spirit.” Hrm. That’s not so contestable, is it? That’s similar to Paul’s statements in 2 Timothy “For we know that the law is good…” and “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” So, yeah, that’s easy. Of course, there is the potential that Paul may not be talking about Torah, since there is good evidence that in some places Paul is using the word for law (nomos) to refer to general moral principle order, but that is not an aspect I want to take up now, and it’s not necessary to the discussion.

    The next phrase is easier: “I am of the body” (in the Greek there is no “but”, which means Paul is setting a simple contrast, not an antithetical relationship. There are times when sarx is used of the sin nature, but more often, it is used of the physical body. This is why the pervasive dualism makes this passage more difficult than it has to be. Since the fall affected everything (total depravity, yes?), it affect human beings in all their parts: it killed their spirits, bound and blinded their souls, subjected their physical bodies to sickness, decay, and eventual death: translation: dead in the spirit, weak in the other aspects of our existence. And, even more, it divided us from ourselves. “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” is one prime example of this truth. Further translation: really easy to not be all that humans were meant to be (good, holy, alive, unified in spirit, soul, and body). This is the conflict that Paul expresses, because the mind that is being renewed praises God, but the body, still weak and yearning for its redemption through the resurrection (which is one of Paul’s major points in Roman 7-8), is easily corrupted and inclined to sin.

    This is easy to see. Most of our binding temptations are sourced in physical cravings, yes? Gluttons follow their stomachs. The adulterer – whether literally or by desire – follows their desire for sexual fulfillment. In both of these cases, their minds may tell them that it is wrong, that they don’t want to give in to these cravings, etc. In both cases, they may or may not be Christian (common grace does work here, too, ya know). But the point stands that were it not for the physical weakness and inclination, these temptations wouldn’t have that sort of power.

    Romans 7, in its context, is about waiting for redemption. Romans 6 declares the finality of redemption and the victory of Jesus in the life of the Christian, in the Church and in the world. Romans 7 and 8 show us the conflict and groaning and yearning as we wait for when that redemption is consummated in the resurrection and all things being made new. Until then, we strive by the intercession of the Spirit (Rom. 8), confident that God’s sovereign plan will be brought to its fulfillment (“and those he justified, he also glorified.”). Thanks for taking the time to read.

  4. Hey everyone,

    I thank you for your thoughtful replies and encouragement. I am currently studying this out more and taking your “challenges” to my position and do plan to reply back. I am not simply ignoring what you all have written. You guys have pointed out some good points. Timothy listed John Piper’s series on this passage and I am currently trying to listen to him and his wisdom.



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