Romans 7: Not a Christian Struggle (Part 2)

Below are a couple of recent blogs I read on the subject of Romans 7. Since I started a series on this topic and have not yet had time to follow up, I thought I’d post these blogs to continue the series. This first blog is by David Kirk:

In Romans 5 Paul expands the basis for justification by faith (which he introduced in chapter 3) – the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. For Paul, we are ‘justified in/by His blood’ (5:9). Can’t get clearer than that! Chapter 6 then emphasises that believers have been made new (we have died and risen to new life – spiritually). Christians must consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). That means a commitment to righteous living – hence Paul’s imperatives (5:12,13,19).

In Chapter 7, Paul writes specifically to Jews (7:1). If you don’t pick that up, then interpreting this next section is (more) problematic. Paul’s great concern is to explain that the Law has served it’s purpose (the argument here ties in very well with that in Galatians 3:15-29, esp 24-25). Obviously, as becomes clearer later in the letter (and is evidenced in other parts of the NT), Jewish Christians’ attitude to the Law was a major stumbling block to church unity. So, Paul tackles this in the Roman church. If he can address it there, then he has addressed in in the congregations at the centre of the known world. The Law is holy and good (but Paul would still maintain that Christ has superseded the Law). It provided a framework for covenantal obedience, and highlighted sin, revealing to the attentive Jew the need for forgiveness and the importance of faith.

In this context, the problematic section in 7:14-25 then is not about the Christian life, but about the experience of a Jew. Paul could possibly be speaking autobiographically, but I prefer the view that he assumes the persona of a faithful Jew. He is obviously not describing a legalistic, or careless, Jew since the ‘I’ is joyfully concurring with the law of God in the inner man. That he is describing a Christian is unlikely, simply because he describes the general experience of not doing the good that he wishes, and doing the evil that he does not wish. I don’t believe that’s a description of the Christian life. It is likely that this is a description of life under the Law. Paul then makes the transitional argument at the beginning of Chapter 8 that there is ‘therefore now’ no condemnation. That’s an eschatological ‘now’: now, in the New Age, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you/me free from the law of sin and death (the situation he described in 7:14-25). If this is true then Chapter 7 helps us to answer the theological question about the different experience of God’s people under the Old and New Covenants, leading into the practical effect of the adoption as sons (8:15, cf8:23), which is an eschatological benefit of the New Covenant.

Interestingly, I think Lloyd-Jones recognised the problem of interpreting this as a description of a Christian and took the view that Paul here was describing the experience of someone becoming a Christian. I wouldn’t agree, but this view has more merit than others.

This second blog is by Michael Bird:

I’ve been preparing further notes on Romans 7 for one of my courses today. Here’s my solid gold, top four arguments why the Wretched Man is not a Christian:

(1) Paul asks two questions in Rom 7.7 (What then should we say? That the law is sin?) and Rom. 7.13 (Did what is good, then, bring death to me?) which relates to the thoughts about pre-conversion stated in Rom 7.5 about how the law aroused sin and lead to death. Paul argues that while the law activated sin leading to death, the law is not the author of sin and death.
(2) The references to being in the ‘flesh’ (vv. 14, 18, 25) show that 7.14-25 are a commentary on what the life in flesh first mentioned in 7.5 looks like.
(3) When Paul describes the ‘I’ as ‘sold under sin’ (Rom. 7.14) this conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declares that they have been freed from sin (Rom. 6.6-7, 17-18, 22).
(4) The subject struggles to obey the law (Rom. 7.22, 25), while Christians are free from the law (Rom. 6.14-15; 7.6).
Paul Meyer wrote: ‘There is not a syllable in Romans 7:7-25 about life in Christ, and … Paul himself has signaled to his readings in both 7:6 and 8:1-2 that the rest of chapter 7 is to be understood as the antithesis to chapter 8 and not in simple continuity with it’.[1].Ultimately what is described here is not the Christian’s struggle with sin, but the absolute defeat of the self by sin’s power in the unregenerate state.[2]

[1] Paul W. Meyer, ‘The Worm at the Core of the Apple: Exegetical Reflections on Romans 7,’ in The Conversation Continues: Studies in Paul and John, ed. R.T. Fortna and B.R. Gaventa (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 68.
[2] Charles H. Talbert, Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 188-89.

2 Comments

  • Rom. 7 'May' not be a Christian struggle but it's sure a good example of one. It goes right in line with:

    Galatians 5:16
    “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (or lust of the flesh). For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other,”

  • Hey Ben! Thanks for the comment on Romans 7.

    While I am aware that this point is controversial, I do not believe that Galatians 5:16-17 is an example of a Christian's internal struggle with the sinful nature. I'll make two quick points about this:

    1. I believe that translating the greek word sarx as "sinful nature" is almost always an incorrect translation–but especially in Galatians 5. Rather it should be translated as "flesh."

    2. In Galatians, we find a group who is being pressured into being circumcised, and thereby reverting to the Old Covenant's standards–life under Torah. Given this situation, I believe that Paul uses the term "flesh" to refer to man in his creaturely weakness (i.e. men without the Spirit, who are merely flesh). Therefore Galatians 5:17 is an explanation of how it is that we "will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (i.e. circumcision, v. 16c). How is it that we will not carry out the desires of the flesh? "The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please" (Gal 5:17). Gordon Fee rightly says, "At issue, therefore, is not some internal tension in the life of the individual believer, but the sufficiency of the Spirit for life without Torah–a sufficiency that enables them to live so as not to revert to their former life as pagans (i.e. in the flesh, as vv. 19-20 make clear)."

    For more info on this, check out the book by Gordon Fee, "Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God." For an in depth treatment of this passage, see the book by Walter Bo Russell III, "The Flesh/Spirit Conflict in Galatians."

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