Keep Your Romans 7 to Yourself

For centuries, many Christians have used Romans 7 as an anesthetic to numb the pain of their perpetual sinning. In this unusual passage, we find the speaker (who many presume to be the apostle at the time of his writing), saying,

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing (Rm. 7:15-19)

Me, being the contrary person that I am, obstinately disagree with the popular and Reformed interpretation of this passage that says that this is the apostle speaking at the time of his writing, and this passage exists as a comfort to Christians who are in sin. I do so simply because of the context and because of the way the speaker introduces himself at the beginning of this section, namely as one who is of the flesh and a slave of sin (v. 7:14). For anyone who has even thought about reading Romans 6 and Romans 8 knows that the apostle goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Christ’s death and the salvation that it brought has freed every Christian from his slavery to sin (cf. vv. 6:6, 7) and that all who live according to the flesh cannot please God and will die (cf. v. 8:8, 13).

This is all to say that in believing thus about Romans 7, I have little on which to comfort myself when I see in myself workings of sin. On the contrary, I find elsewhere in Scripture many reasons why I should be terrified at my sinning and impenitence. In the chapter that follows the aforementioned text, the apostle writes quite clearly, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live, for as many as are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (vv. 8:13, 14). Therefore all who have the Spirit do not live lives that are not characterized by the putting to death of the deeds of the body. Conversely, those who do not put to death the deeds of body are not led by the Spirit and therefore are not children of God.

For this reason, those of us who hunt for an opiate for our unrepentant sin and disobedience in Scripture do so in vain and do so to our own spiritual demise. It is in this vein that the apostle writes, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Ph. 2:12). This passage is not some attempt by the apostle to demonstrate the reality of some philosophical paradox between free will and the sovereignty of God, but it is a restatement of Romans 8:13, expressly that if God is working in a person then that person will be inclined toward obedience, in this case, whether the apostle is in his presence or not. Therefore if one is wise, he will examine himself and then fear and tremble if he finds himself disobedient. Furthermore, if one is not inclined toward obedience, then it is quite natural to assume that God is not willing and working his good pleasure that person. And as Christ said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).

Therefore, if you are driven to sorrow and repentance by your comforting interpretation of Romans 7, take that pill. As for me and my life, pain and fear are much more effective means.

Categories: Miscellanies

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12 replies

  1. I am Reformed and wasn't aware that the "interpretation of this passage that says that this is the apostle speaking at the time of his writing, and this passage exists as a comfort to Christians who are in sin."

    I agree with what you're saying. I think the fear of the Lord in the Biblical sense is something that is missing in much of the church today.



  2. Sorry for not being able to ellaborate on that further. For some particular reason, historically the interpretation of Romans 7 has fallen one way if one was a Calvinist and another if one was an Arminian. This probably wasn't hurt by John Owen's interpretation of the passage as Paul at present (and Calvin's and Edwards' as well, I believe), and Wesley's interpretation that this was not Paul at present for the sake of his doctrine of possible, present full-sanctification. I do not see why it has to be a Calvinist / Arminian issue at all, but it seems to have panned out that way for many over the years. Anthony Hoekema, however, is an example of a Calvinist who does not fit the mold. Thanks for the input.


  3. How about interpretations long before anyone was framing theological debates in "Calvinist vs Arminian" terms? Any idea what the historical interpretation is?


  4. Good question. I need to look into that.


  5. Also, what about the most basic fact that all the verbs are present tense? Or 1 Tim 1:15 where Paul calls himself the "foremost" (πρωτος) of all sinners. Is this just Paul using a fake humility for the sake of rhetoric?


  6. Thanks for the elaboration. I can see where you're coming from now. If we elaborated on everything in our posts they would probably be too long.

    What was your former blog again? I've forgotten already.

    Sorry for the diversion. Carry on.



  7. @Jeff – – had Yahoo! Webhosting for that site. Horrible service. The people were nice though.=P

    @Josh – I'm not sure about that particular text, but as for the tense in this text, I have studied it at length and do have a decent explanation (I think) for the use of present tense by the apostle (which I plan to share on this site whenever I take the time to edit and finish it).

    As for the other text, I think Paul is being quite genuine though he knows he is more sanctified at that point that any point prior. I believe that with our sanctification comes a more profound understanding of the depths of our sin, and this is what the apostle is expressing. Even Charles Spurgeon (as good a theologian as he was), suffered from depression because of his sin. And so to answer your question: None of the above.


  8. @Josh

    'Twas common in Greek to use present tense when telling a story of something that happened in the past for immersion. Perhaps Paul is doing that? Perhaps he is speaking hypothetically as if an unbeliever? I don't know.

    Please diagram the sentence in 1 Tim 1:15. You'll find that Paul does not say "I am the worst of sinners," but rather "A trustworthy saying is '…I am the worst of sinners,'" eh?


  9. I fall into the "popular and Reformed" group. 😛 But that much aside, didn't Martin Lloyd-Jones take your position? I can't remember now.


  10. @David

    I believe you are among the majority of orthodox theologians, which is a good place to be. I'm not sure what Lloyd-Jones' position was, however. I'm meaning to do some more research on the history of its interpretation.


  11. My recollection is that DMLJ was in agreement with you on your interpretation. I still lean toward the traditional reformed view but would like to hear more.


  12. @Franklin

    Haha, well, have I got a treat for you.;) I actually just finished editing a manuscript on a treatise of Romans 7:14-25 that I'm looking to get published at some point in the near future. I may post it to the web site after I get it copyrighted. Blessings.


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