I had a email exchange with someone a little while ago regarding his opposition to my opinion at a Bible study that the Christian can overcome sin in this life, even until their death.
This person countered in response to an email I sent him that, “You will note that [in Romans 7:24] Paul states ‘wretched man that...I am.’ That is a present tense verb, 'I am.' It means that Paul is referring to himself in the present, not the past. In order to be referring to his past one of two things must be true, Paul mistakenly used the wrong verb tense (should have used “I was”) or Paul wrote this part years prior to his letter to the Romans and before becoming a Christian and then added it to his letter. The problem with the latter assumption is that before becoming a Christian, Paul viewed his righteousness as “blameless” before he was a Christian. (Philippians 3:6).”
Since he was not open to a different view, I decided not to answer; but if I did, my response would be as follows:
(A) If Rom 7:24 reflects Paul’s present state as a Christian, let us see, for example, some verses where else the present tense is used also in relation to Paul’s spiritual condition at the time of writing this epistle:
- 1. “I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.”
- 2. “…sin lives in me…”
- 3. “…I want to do good, but I cannot…”
- 4. “…I do the very evil I do not want!”
- 5. “…captive to the law of sin…”
To claim Romans 7 is Paul’s experience as he wrote the epistle is to neglect the fact that the apostle is not discussing obedience to God and righteousness obtained on the basis of faith but on the basis of Torah. The whole point of v.24, contextually considered, is that Paul sees no way of escaping the divine disapproval and judgment through obedience to the Torah; only Christ can deliver him from this merry-go-round of death as depicted in the chapter.
Unless there is the suggestion that the believer is obligated to obey the Torah, Rom 7 has nothing to do with the Christian life because it is not depicting a person under grace trying to obey God, but a person under Torah trying to be obey God and thus win his approval.
As such, the objection that, “Paul mistakenly used the wrong verb tense" or "wrote this part [of v.24] years prior to his letter to the Romans,” is baseless.
(B) Regarding his mention of Philippians 3:6, first, Paul is referring to a different type of blamelessness; it is the righteous that makes one blameless that comes by the Torah and the righteousness obtained through faith by grace. Note, this righteousness is described as “having confidence in the flesh” (v.4b, NIV; cf. Rom 9:30-10:4).
And, second, although he claims being blameless, however true as far as the Torah is concerned, the apostle admits such righteousness under Torah does not gain God’s approval and, therefore, he denounces both the righteousness and blamelessness thus obtained.Yet, point in fact, there are places where Paul does admit to being blameless on the basis of grace (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:10; Acts 23:1, 24:16).
Also, and perhaps surprisingly, Luke’s Gospel claims the blamelessness of certain persons even before Christ was born, and it seems apparent that such a judgment of their character was true.
(C) I will add mention about 1 Timothy 1:15-16 (another verse brought up in our email exchange) where we read Paul’s admission to being not only a sinner but the “chief of sinners” since the argument here is that the apostle is admitting he is a sinner.
To use 1 Timothy 1:15-16 as evidence that Rom 7 depicts the Christian life is to totally misunderstand Paul’s intent. It can be legitimately argued by the context that the apostle is not talking about his experience as a believer at the time he wrote the epistle but, primarily, his sinful condition before his conversion.
1. The context of the verse itself is with reference to Christ as being the Savior of sinners by means of his atoning sacrifice. Its reference seems clearly to be to men as sinners before their conversion.
2. Note the context refers to a past event: “Even though I was once (“before,” Strong’s #4386; πρότερος proteros)…I was shown mercy…” (v.13, NIV); "the grace of our Lord was...abundant" (v.14, NASB); “I was shown mercy…as an example” (v.16, NIV, cp.NET). These verses, as translated, allude to a past event, which clearly points to the time he was persecuting the Church.
3. NT Greek language resources and commentaries I have all refer to Paul as pointing to his past when he claims to be the “worst of sinners,” although they admit he is not excluding his present condition as a sinner, even if forgiven:
- Linguistic & Exegetical Key to the Greek NT: “Pres. ‘I am,’ not, ‘I was.’ The sinner remains a sinner even if forgiven; the past is always there as a stimulus to deeper penitence and service” (489).
- Word Pictures, Robertson: “He had sad memories of those days” (4:564).- UBS Handbook: Timothy & Titus: “The focus here is not on Paul’s moral lapses or immoral conduct but on his rejection of Christ…and the greatness of Christ’s act of bestowing on him new life…” (34).
- Expositions, Maclaren: “We carry with us ever the fact of past transgression…” (15:331).
- Expositor’s Bible: “Paul felt that of all sinners he was ‘the worst’…because he had persecuted Christ’s followers…” (11:355).
The point I touch on here is that regardless of whatever position one takes with respect to Paul's spiritual condition at the time he wrote 1 Timothy, the context here respecting his statement as being a sinner and the “chief of sinners” rests on his past condition, not on his present experience and actions, and has no reference to any sins (if any) committed either as a believer since his conversion or when he wrote this letter. As such, his admission to being a sinner, even the “chief of sinners,” is not because he is in the present habit of committing sins - doing what he wants to omit doing or omitting what he wants done (Rom 7) - as a believer.
Any use of 1 Timothy 1:15-16 to defend the view that Romans 7 depicts Paul is referring to his experience as a believer is unwarranted.