The Big Question:
Is Paul discussing his experience as a disciple
of Christ in Romans 7?
On the heels of using divorce as an illustration of the believer’s freedom from sin, the apostle seeks to show the implications of being under the dominion of sin. In effect, he shows the impossibility of one, who is under sin, to be simultaneously under grace and, by a clear implication, vice-versa. Here he effectively elaborates on statements made in 6:16, 21.
There are no gray areas in Paul’s discussion here; it is either this or that, and if it is this, then it is certainly not that; and if it is that, then it is certainly not this. The apostle does not appeal to either looseness or moderation – there is no “mean way” – but it is to the extreme that he makes his argument. However, that does not mean the point he wishes to make is not factual but rather reinforces it.
Paul first wants it understood that the problem is not the Law but our sinful, unregenerate condition (vss.7,13). In addition, since the problem resides in sin, freedom from sin can only be found through Christ (vss. 24-25a).
With divorce as an illustration (7:1-6), in Rom 7:7-25 Paul elaborates on a point he left off on in 6:25, that sin certainly and inevitably results in death, and recalls his assertion in 6:16, that whomever we obey, that is the one to whom we are enslaved, “either sin resulting in death or obedience resulting in righteousness,” each at the exclusion of the other. Rom 7 obviously speaks of one whose end is death (v.13).
As the consummate pastor, the apostle presents not only the objective implications of his teaching, but the subjective as well (7:7; cf. 6:1; Paul’s theology is always practical, not abstract or esoteric). In ch.7, the apostle Paul is depicting is what clearly one’s experience ought not to be if he has been “baptized into Christ” and “baptized into his death” (6:4).
The thrust of his argument in Rom 7 is this: if one is sinning, such a one is not “under grace,” that is, he is not saved (Rom 6:14).
If it is insisted that Rom 7 explains Paul’s experience as a believer, one would be hard-pressed to explain how this experience is consistent with what the Bible affirms is the true state of one who is “born again”. For example:, in Rom 7, Paul claims that:
- “…sin…produced in me all kinds of wrong desires.”
- “…sin became alive and I died…”
- “…sin…deceived me and through it I died.”
- “…sin…produced death in me…”
- “…I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.”
- “…sin lives in me…”
- “...nothing good live in me.”
- “…I want to do good, but I cannot…”
- “…I do the very evil I do not want!”
- "…sin…lives in me.”
- “…evil is present with me.”
- “…captive to the law of sin…” Note that in this verse, if it is understood as the apostle’s experience as a believer, Paul admits he is in a struggle with sin but also admits he losses that struggle because sin consistently and always (the only way to understand it in view of the whole context) overcomes him.
- “…I serve the law of sin.”
Gromacki claims that Paul here admitted he was "sold under sin,"and that "sin owned and controlled him; he was its slave." MacArthur agrees saying, "Romans 7 is the classic text describing the believer's struggle with his sinful flesh" and, further, that "Paul acknowledges his own disobedience." In addition, Lightner affirms that the apostle "often did what he didn't want to do," which is another way of saying that Paul was in the habit of committing sinful acts.
Note that all the verses cited above describe the apostle as not only being in a struggle with sin but it is emphasized as a struggle he loses all the time! Are we to understand that this is the expected and normal experience of believers, to be “unspiritual and sold into slavery to sin”? Is this what it means to be under grace? Is Rom 7, interpreted as a constantly losing struggle against sin, what is means to be a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:21)?
Is this how the apostle Paul views his Christian life, as one sold under sin, often disobeying God?
If one claims that Rom 7 is how Paul describes the experience of one who is “born again”, how can the apostle sustain his thesis that “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness” if, while at the same time he lives in the "flesh, sold into bondage to sin"? Are there other places in the New Testament where the apostle Paul describes his Christian experience as being "owned and controlled" by sin?
On the contrary, Paul makes numerous self-affirmations of his blameless and righteous moral character and conduct. The apostle claims:
- Pursuing a clear conscience, Acts 24:16, cp. 1 Timothy 1:5,19; 3:9.
- Maintaining a clear conscience, Acts 23:1; 1 Corinthians 4:4, cp. 1 Timothy 1:5.
- Confidence in possessing a conscience that is clear before others, 2 Corinthians 1:12.
- He has no fear of being judged by his peers of any wrongdoing because he knows his conscience is clear, 2 Corinthians 4:2.
- His conduct before his peers is "pure, right, and without fault," 1 Thessalonians 2:10.
- Serving God with a clear conscience, 1 Timothy 1:3.
- Others ought to imitate his life, 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1-2; Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9 (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; Hebrews 6:12.
- He imitates Christ, 1 Corinthians 11:1; "just as I" (NET). The Greek verb, "imitate", is "always used in exhortation, and always in a continuous tense suggesting constant habit or practice" to teach that "what we have become at conversion we must diligently continue to be thereafter (Vine's Expository Dictionary, p.248-249).
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a church leader or member challenging Paul's self-estimation of his moral character.
As such, in contrast to the commonly held interpretation that Romans 7 depicts Paul as a "sinning believer", in other places of the New Testament we find Paul asserts his behavior in morally positive terms and, as an authoritative example, boldly commands others in no uncertain terms to imitate him.
What would you think today of a preacher of the Gospel who was always falling into sin standing before the pulpit commanding his congregation, "Imitate me"?
If Romans 7, interpreted as Paul always losing the struggle against sin and often falling into sin, is placed side by side to his claims of having a clear conscience, has he deluded himself into actually believing he is a follower of Messiah when it is sin who is really his master? Is he then a hypocrite, teaching one thing but living another, to urge others to follow him, expecting others to do what is right while he often falls into sin?
"Recently a leading Calvinistic exponent, Anthony Hoekema, Calvin Seminary professor emeritus, reversed himself and declared that he no longer believes Romans 7 describes a regenerate person. He stated: ‘The mood of frustration and defeat that permeates this section does not comport with the mood of victory in terms of which Paul usually describes the Christian life. The person pictured is still a captive of the law of sin (7:23), whereas the believer described in 6:17-18 is no longer a slave to sin’"
For some of us, it just may be time for us to rethink what it means to be a Christ-follower.