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An Eye For An “I” (The Relevance of the Identification of the “I” In Romans 7:7-25)

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The doctrine of justification as explained in Romans 1-5 is explained as the foundation for the doctrine of sanctification in Romans 6-8. The first occurrence of the word “I” (ejgw) in the book of Romans is in ch. 7. Since in the Greek language no first-person subject need be stated apart from the verb, Paul’s use of “I” eight times is for emphasis. But what is he emphasizing in vv. 7-25? When a problem abounds, theological discussion superabounds. The question of the identification of the “I” is one that has been discussed for many, many years.

The objectives of this article are threefold: (1) to identify the emphatic “I” in the passage, (2) to show the relevance of its identification to the doctrine of sanctification, (3) and to give application based on the relevance of its identification.

The Identification of the “I”

In 7:1-6 through principle and illustration, Paul taught the Roman Christians that they, as believers, were no longer under the authority of the Law of Moses. Just as they were dead to the principle of sin, as taught in Romans 6, they were also dead to the authority of the Old Testament Law over them. Since the believer is said to be dead to sin and dead to the Law a logical question is therefore asked and answered by Paul in v. 7-13. Paul asks in 7:7, What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” The Law is not sin; it simply revealed sin. On the contrary, the Law is holy (v. 12) and spiritual (v. 14) and useful if used lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8). It made known what otherwise Paul “would not have come to know,” that is, sin. In asking the question in v. 7 Paul uses the first person plural: “What shall we say then?” and in answering he uses the first person singular: “I would not have come to know . . . I would not have known. . .” “It is significant that, beginning with verse 7 and continuing through this chapter, the Apostle Paul turned to the first person singular . . . Up to this point he had used the third person, the second person, and even the first person plural.”1 Why the switch in number continuing through v. 13? And even more, why the switch in tenses (past to present) from vv. 7-13 to vv. 14-25? The second question will be dealt with later. As for the first, Cranfield lists six possibilities for explanation in these verses:

(1) that the passage is strictly autobiographical;
(2) that Paul is using the first person singular to depict the experience of the typical Jewish individual;
(3) that he is speaking in the name of Adam;
(4) that he is presenting the experience of the Jewish people as a whole;
(5) that he speaks in the name of mankind as a whole;
(6) that Paul is using the first person singular in a generalizing way without intending a specific reference to any particular individual or clearly defined group, in order to depict vividly the situation of man in the absence of the law and in its presence.2

Lambrecht see this section (as well as this whole chapter) as autobiographical of Paul before his conversion.3 Since sanctification in the Christian life is the context of Romans 6-8, and not the autobiography of Paul, the first option, as well as the second, may be eliminated logically. For how could Paul (in v. 9) “. . . conceivably say either of himself or of any other Jew who had been circumcised on the eighth day . . . [‘And I (ejgw—emphatic) was once alive apart from the Law’].”4 Granted the emphatic nature of the “I” suggests an autobiographical approach, but it does not require that Paul speaks of the experience as his alone. The tenor of the passage is general in nature, and while options 3-4 are possible, they are inherent in option 5 which seems to fit the general context best. Option 3 is good (as inherent in option 5) in that it uses Adam as a representative of the experience of the human race, and yet it should not be limited strictly to Adam’s experience. Lambrecht says that

Romans 5:12 and 19 mentioned the invasion of sin, and it is precisely these verses which militate against the supposition that sin was already present in Adam before the Fall. This supposition, according to 7:7-12, would be necessary if the “I” of Romans 7 were Adam.5

While Lambrecht does not see the passage as referring to Adam (or especially to Adam as a representative), but only to Paul, he also does not see the passage as using Paul as a illustration.

Commentators have tried to see the “I” as representing every human being. . . Text and context, however, do not seem to allow such a broad interpretation. With the “I” Paul must have had in mind a person who belongs to the Jewish people. . . The specific items and allusions in this epistle clearly concern law and Jewish matters and problems. This overall context itself makes it hardly conceivable that Paul was writing in a ‘timeless’ manner and was pointing to universal human experiences and conditions.”6

This is simply not a clear fact in “this epistle” of Romans. It was written to not only Jews, but also to Gentiles, as the first two chapters allude. Chapter 5 has universal implications, so why can not ch. 7? Lambrecht concedes that the pattern of sin’s deception in Romans 7 mirrors that of Adam’s fall: “Such an agreement is hardly accidental. While composing Romans 7:11 Paul must have had the story of the Fall in mind. . . The literary impact of Genesis 2-3 upon Romans 5 and 7 can hardly be denied.”7 If he concedes such, then why is it so difficult to concede that Paul could be using the pattern of Adam’s experience, illustrated by Paul’s own experience, to show the general experience of all? The experience of ch. 7 cannot be simply a Jewish experience, because if, as Lambrecht says, Genesis 2-3’s pattern is present, why would Paul use Genesis’ pattern of a non-Jewish Adam in a so-called strictly Jewish context? It makes more sense that Paul used Genesis’ pattern to show the general way sin works as a deception and how it uses the good law for evil purposes, and to illustrate that general pattern in the life of Paul, who happened to be a Jew.

Regarding option 5, if Cranfield means, assuming my modifications, “that he [Paul] speaks [of his own experience] in the name of mankind as a whole” I agree that this is the meaning of this section and not strictly option 6. This seems to be Cranfield’s position as he suggests “. . . that the choice should be between (3) and (6), or perhaps a modification of the latter.”8 This modification would include Paul as the experience which illustrates the general principle (this is essentially my qualified option 5). It is legitimate to speak generally of the Christian life by speaking of one’s self specifically, for what is specifically true for one must also be generally true, by principle, for all (cf. 5:12-21). This does not mean that all specifically covet like Paul did in v. 7, but the principle of coming to know sin, as Paul specifically did in coveting, is generally true of all people in relation to the Law regardless of the commandment. Gundry even gets very explicit regarding the nature of Paul’s coveting, saying that it was a sexual desire that awakened at puberty;9 this is hardly able to be confirmed. Paul simply uses a specific personal illustration to show a general principle. This is the same thing he did in the verses prior to this (vv. 1-6). Paul employed a specific illustration of marriage to show a general principle regarding being dead to the Law. Cranfield’s “modification” seems to concur that these verses are:

. . . an example of the general use of the first person singular; but at the same time we shall probably be right to assume that his choice of this form of speech is, in the present case, due not merely to a desire for rhetorical vividness but also to his deep sense of personal involvement, his consciousness that in drawing out the general truth he is disclosing the truth about himself (emphasis mine).10

Bruce, as well, sees this section as autobiographical and typical:

In considering how far the ‘I’ of verses 7-13 (and of verses 14-25) is strictly autobiographical or how far Paul is relating his personal experience, we must bear in mind that there is no evidence that Paul, before his conversion, suffered from an uneasy conscience. Up to the moment when the risen Lord appeared to him on the Damascus road, he was confident that his persecution of the church was an acceptable service to God. In so far as the ‘I’ is autobiographical, “here Paul’s autobiography is the biography of Everyman.”11

Paul’s use of “I” in v. 9 follows this general line of interpretation: And I (emphatic) was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died. Cranfield states that the emphatic “I” refers not to Paul’s experience here, but “. . . Paul is using the first person in a general sense, and refers to man’s situation before the giving of the law, along with which Paul probably has in mind the state of man pictured in Gen. 1.28ff.”12 The problem with this is inconsistency. Why would Paul use “I” emphatically in vv. 9-10 to not refer to himself (which Cranfield himself assumes not to be true in the previous quote from pp. 343-44), and then use “I” again in vv. 14-25 to refer to himself? It is more logical and consistent that not only, as we shall see, is Paul using his own experience through the emphatic “I” to prove a universal truth in vv. 14-25, but he is also doing the same through the emphatic “I” in vv. 7-13. With this Bruce agrees:

Paul did not think of his own experience as unique; the account he gives here is in a greater or lesser degree of the human race. A parallel can be traced between 7:13-8:2 and the outline of human history in 5:12-21; in both passages one can distinguish three phrases: (a) before the law; (b) under the law; (c) set free from the law in Christ.13

What then, is Paul’s experience in v. 9 of being “alive apart from the Law”? Simply what he said before in v. 7, that he did not know what sin was except through the Law. Then (as in v. 9) “when the commandment came, sin became alive,” that is, he knew that coveting was undoubtedly sin against God.

Lambrecht sees this section as an unconverted Jewish Paul partly because of the absence of the mention of the Spirit in contrast to the similar struggle in Galatians 5:15-18 where the Spirit is present. Lambrecht assumes that since the Spirit is not mentioned, He is not present: “It must be added that one does not see where. . . the tragic event of 7:7-11 could be placed in the life of a Christian.”14 On the contrary, the similarity of the Galatians passage does not negate the “I” in Romans 7 from being a Christian simply because the Spirit is not mentioned, rather, it reinforces the purpose of Romans 7. Without the aid of the Spirit the believer is powerless to appropriate the freedom from sin revealed in ch. 6. Chapter 7 shows the need for ch. 8 which is the means by which ch. 6 is applied. Vv. 7-13 are not necessarily discussing the life of a believer, but rather the life of all men generally from the perspective of a Jewish believer, Paul.

Simply stated, in vv. 7-13 Paul uses a specific personal illustration to demonstrate a general principle (as he had done in vv. 1-6—though not personal, it was specific). Just as in vv. 7-13 Paul is the icon for all of mankind (not just before the Law, but after it, as Paul includes himself), so in vv. 14-25 he is the icon for all Christians. Vv. 7-13 answer the question, “Is the Law sin?” with a resounding “No!” The Law revealed sin as sin, and sin used the Law, which is good, for its own evil purposes of making man want to do the evil the Law forbids. Vv. 14-25 then deals with one who would want to blame the Law for sin, for Paul shows that it is the flesh that houses the sin principle, and that even a Christian, apart from the Law and dead to sin, still will struggle with the flesh as a slave to sin.

As in vv. 7-13 there are a number of interpretations for Paul’s use of the emphatic “I” in vv. 14-25. This section is, again, considered separately because of the obvious change in tenses from past (vv. 7-13) to present (vv. 14-25). Why the change? And who is the “I” in these verses? Cranfield lists the options for the identification of the “I”:

(1) that it is autobiographical, the reference being to Paul’s present experience as a Christian;
(2) that it is autobiographical, the reference being to his past experience (before conversion) as seen by him at the time referred to;
(3) that it is autobiographical, the reference being to his pre-conversion past but as seen by him now in the light of his Christian faith;
(4) that it presents the experience of the non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself;
(5) that it presents the experience of the non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes;
(6) that it presents the experience of the Christian who is living at a level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is still trying to fight the battle in his own strength;
(7) that it presents the experience of the Christians generally, including the very best and most mature.15

The second option is held by Lambrecht, who writes: “. . . within the ‘I’, besides the will to do the good, there is also the consciousness of this wretched condition. . .”16 This second option, as well as the fourth, contradict Paul’s contentedness as a Pharisee17 and the Jews’ arrogant contentment with their own righteousness in the time of Christ and the Apostles18 (which Paul has already clearly revealed in ch. 2). There is no knowledge of wretchedness in the Jews; there was only self-righteousness. Also against the second option (as well as the third option, discussed next) is the use of the present tense in vv. 14-25.

The third option (autobiographical, referring to his pre-conversion past but seen in the light of his Christian faith) is held by G. Campbell Morgan who writes, “While thus the apostle wrote the words which reveal the agony of his past condition, he wrote them from his present sense of victory and deliverance, and so parenthetically answered his question, in the words, ‘I thank God through Christ Jesus our Lord.’”19 Newell quotes Darby, who holds this view (which is an odd support, because Newell holds option 6):

Romans Seven is not the present experience of anyone, but a delivered person describing the state of an undelivered one. A man in a morass does not quietly describe how a man sinks into it, because he fears to sink and stay there. The end of Romans Seven is a man out of the morass showing in peace the principle and manner in which one sinks in it.20

The problem with both Morgan and Darby’s position is that it does not explain why, after the victory statement of v. 24, Paul immediately retorts with the same “agony” position he had before the “victory” statement (this is a problem as well for options 2-6). Some say that this verse must be misplaced, even though there is absolutely no textual evidence to indicate so, and even though “so then” followed by “on the one hand . . . but on the other” seems to indicate a conclusion for the chapter. Cranfield is helpful:

It is hardly surprising that many of those who have seen in v. 24 the cry of an unconverted man . . . have felt this sentence to be an embarrassment, since, coming after the thanksgiving, it appears to imply that the conditions of the speaker after his deliverance is exactly the same as it was before it. . . an exegesis which rests on a re-arrangement of sentences . . . when there is not the slightest suggestion of support in the textual tradition for either procedure, is exceedingly hazardous, and, when sense can be made of the text as it stands, has little claim to be regarded as responsible . . . the Christian, so long as he remains in this present life, remains in a real sense a slave of sin, since he still has a fallen nature.21

Also against this option (as well as the second, as mentioned before), is the use of the present tense in vv. 14-25.

. . . the use of the present tense is here sustained too consistently and for too long and contrasts too strongly with the past tenses characteristic of vv. 7-13 to be at all plausibly explained as an example of the present used for the sake of vividness in describing past events which are vividly remembered. Moreover, v. 24 would be highly melodramatic, if it were not a cry for deliverance from present distress.22

The sixth option (the Christian who is living at a level which can be left behind, who is still trying to fight the battle in his own strength) is held by Bruce:

Here is a picture of life under the law, without the aid of the Holy Spirit, portrayed form the perspective of one who had now experienced the liberating power of life in the Spirit. . . M. Goguel may be right in assigning Paul’s personal experience of this inner conflict to the period immediately following his conversion. But, whatever may be said about this [here is where Bruce shoots himself in the foot], the man who, even at the height of his apostolic career, made it his daily business to discipline himself so as not to be disqualified in the spiritual contest, the man who pressed on to the goal of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus, knew that the ‘immortal garland’ was to be run for ‘not without dust and heat’.23

Paul struggled at the end of his career, not with a lack of information to appropriate the Spirit’s power, but with his flesh, as here in Romans 7. Newell also holds the same view as Bruce:

Mark also that while the indwelling Holy Spirit is the Christian’s sole power against the flesh, He is not known in this struggle; but it is Paul himself against the flesh—with the Law prescribing a holy walk, but furnishing no power whatever for it.

Even the fact of deliverance through Christ from the Law, is most evidently not known during this conflict with the flesh. (This fact itself marks the conflict as one that preceded the revelation to the apostle of his being dead to the Law, not under Law: for such knowledge would have made the struggle impossible.)

Therefore this conflict of Paul’s, instead of being an example to you, is a warning to you to keep out of it my means of God’s plain words that you are not under law but under grace.24

It is true that the conflict is here between Paul and his flesh, but this does not necessarily negate the presence of, much less the knowledge of, the Holy Spirit. Paul’s cry of victory is in the midst of his struggle (cf. vv. 24-25). It is not merely a knowledge (through “plain words”) of one’s freedom from sin and Law that gives spiritual victory any more than it is a knowledge of the Law of God that gives justification. Rather, on both counts the revelation gives condemnation, because man, in his own power, is unable to justify himself (ch. 3) or to sanctify himself (ch. 7) simply on the basis of revelation. The point is not the Holy Spirit’s absence but man’s impotence apart from the implementation of the Holy Spirit’s power.

“Augustine at one time understood Paul to be speaking in the name of the unregenerate man . . . but later he retracted his earlier view . . . and maintained that Paul was speaking in his own name as a Christian.”25 I believe Augustine was right. A combination of the first option (autobiographical, of Paul’s present Christian) and the seventh (general experience of Christians, including the most mature) is quite good and matches the previously defended context (in vv. 7-13). In fact, the word “I” (ejgw) is used exclusively to denote an emphasis, in different contexts, of the literal first person singular26 (hence, the term “personal” pronoun). While not holding the general view, Lambrecht concedes that the passage must be autobiographical:

There is also the style itself. In the final analysis, even the highly passionate, personal style with the “I” appears to plead for a strong autobiographical dimension of the passage. . . it cannot be denied that in this pericope Paul speaks in a vivid, emotional and pathetic manner. Personal experience is presumably to a large extent responsible for this kind of speech.27

The Relevance of Paul’s “I” to Sanctification

The context of Romans 6-8 is something often forgotten. Paul’s purpose in this section is to show the practical outworking for the Christian of the justification described in ch. 1-5. It is taking Romans 7 out of its intended broad sanctification context to say, as Hoekema has, “. . . that the biblical description of the normal Christian life is found, not in Romans 7:14-25, but in Romans 6 and 8.”28 Lambrecht, in an attempt to see Romans 7 as an unbelieving Paul, is at least honest in his attempt to solve this inconsistency:

One can ask why Paul in this section of his letter, devoted to the justified life of the Christian (chapters 5-8), speaks at such length of this pre-Christian, unregenerate situation, a condition of death. Our answer must refer to what has already been underlined: only through and after justification Paul did duly realize his pre-Christian state of estrangement and misery. . . Through the negative picture of the Jew before and without Christ he evidently wants to promote the appreciation of Christian existence and, at the same time, to encourage a life which corresponds to the gift of the Spirit. The past, being remembered, is per se not really past but present. Only after deliverance do we understand what it was to be captive. Nonetheless, at the same time, it is only against that negative background that we are able to appreciate fully what it means to be free.29

This is a true principle, but Romans 7 does not require it to be true in itself. Paul also wrote chapters 1-5 from a converted perspective, and they alone are more than sufficient to give the “appreciation” Lambrecht says ch. 7 is meant to give. Also if ch. 7 is to only “encourage” the Jew, what is the relevancy for the Roman Gentile readers?

It is better understood another way. The placing of Romans 7 after Romans 6 is crucial for its interpretation and application. Romans 6 teaches that a believer is free from the power of sin, yet Romans 7 shows that the presence of sin seems to still be very much alive! If ch. 7 had come before ch. 6 we might then have concluded, as many have anyway, that ch. 7 is referring to the life of someone under the law and unsaved, struggling with a power that he is not free from (Romans 6 would then provide the answer). But since the order is as it is there must be another reason for the seeming inconsistency on Paul’s part, especially if he is referring to himself as the epitome of all believers. The reason is this: just as the unbeliever could potentially earn salvation through his own efforts in ch. 3 (but he does not because he is a sinner), so the believer is said to be able to potentially “earn” sanctification through his own efforts in ch. 6 (but he does not, even though he is free from the power of sin). Just as in ch. 1-4 Paul demonstrated that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, so in ch. 7 Paul shows the need for that same grace in sanctification, because while the believer is free from the power of sin (ch. 6), he still struggles with the presence of sin (ch. 7). God’s provisional grace is still necessary, not only for holy standing, but also for holy living, because man in his own power is powerless to gain either. Having described in Romans 6 the new identification the believer has in Jesus Christ, no longer being in Adam (the point of 5:12-21), Paul wrote, beginning in ch. 7, of the Christian’s relationship to the Law—essentially, that he is dead to it. Yet simply being identified with Christ and dead to the Law, and even having a knowledge of such, does not give the believer victory in the Christian life. There still is an intense struggle within the believer which Paul illustrates personally in 7:15-25. In fact, knowing what ch. 6— 7:14 teaches only serves to frustrate the believer, because he, in his own strength, cannot apply the liberating truth found therein.

The sanctification tension, and therefore relevancy, is described most vividly in vv. 14-25 and is aptly put by Paul in vv. 15 and 19: For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I {would} like to {do,} but I am doing the very thing I hate. . . For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. His sincere desire is to do what is right, but he does not; in fact he does outright what he hates! “Paul has within him an independent witness, the voice of conscious, which, by condemning his failure to keep the law, bears testimony to the perfection of the law.”30 “The fact that there is such a conflict in the Christian proves that there is within him that which acknowledges the goodness and rightness of the law.”31

Paul’s understanding of the source of this struggle is thus stated in vv. 17 and 20: So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. . . But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. “This does not mean Paul was avoiding personal responsibility for his actions; he was speaking of the conflict between his desires and the sin within him.”32 It is “. . . an acknowledgment of the extent to which sin, dwelling in the Christian, usurps control over his life.”33 The “sin” Paul refers to is literally “the sin,” referring to the same principle of sin he taught as entering the world through Adam in ch. 5 and to which Christians are dead to in ch. 6. He also refers to this, by name, as the “principle,” or “law of sin” in v. 24. This sin is said to “indwell” Paul. This is true not only of Paul, but also of all believers—actually of all people everywhere; this was demonstrated in 5:12-21.

“There is something in humanity, even in regenerate humanity, which objects to God and seeks to be independent of him. This ‘something’ is what Paul calls his ‘flesh.’”34 “This is not literal physical or material flesh, but the principle of sin that expresses itself through one’s mind and body.”35 When Paul writes in v. 18: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. . . he defines what he means by nothing good dwelling in him as meaning only in his flesh “. . . since in the Christian the Holy Spirit [also] dwells. . .”36 The NIV translates the word “flesh” as “sinful nature.” This “nature” and the flesh must be understood in this context as indicative of the attributes and desires of the pre-conversion man that are still present within him. In that sense, the believer has two natures in that the flesh’s desires are certainly different than that of the “inner man.” Yet in other contexts “nature” must be understood in a different sense—that a believer has a completely new nature, himself being made new. Understanding then the need for both definitions, there understandably may be two coexisting “natures” within the one “new nature” of every Christian. 37

“Paul recognized that even as a believer he had an indwelling principle of sin that once owned him as a slave and that still expressed itself through him to do things he did not want to do and not to do things he desired to do. This is a problem common to all believers.”38 Toussaint writes, “. . . this is what Paul is driving home in Romans 7—there can be no spiritual victory under law. In other words, Romans 7:13-24 portrays more than a conflict; it describes the abject misery and failure of a Christian who attempts to please God under the Mosaic system. He is doomed to defeat.”39 I think it demonstrates more than a Christian attempting to live out what the previous section taught him he is free from (cf. vv. 1-13); it demonstrates the inability to please God under any system but grace.

Romans 7 shows the painful struggle of the Christian. Martin Luther wrote, “I am a sinner, and I feel sin in me, for I have not yet put off the flesh, in which sin dwelleth so long as it liveth. . . Let no man marvel therefore, or be dismayed, when he feeleth in his body this battle . . .”40 The Christian cannot live victoriously alone, and Paul describes why that is so, namely, that there are two laws which conflict within him. The conflict is real: I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good (v. 21). The principle is explained that there is, within the Christian who desires to do good, the flesh (cf. v. 18a) that desires to do evil. Herein lies the struggle in sanctification! The complete inability of the Christian to do what he, with all his heart and soul, desires to do! This must be a saved person’s struggle, as Cranfield notes:

The mind which recognizes, and is bound to, God’s law is the mind which is being renewed by God’s Spirit; and the inner man of which Paul speaks is the working of God’s Spirit within the Christian.41

Newell writes practically:

It is the unwillingness to own this different law, this settled state of enmity, toward God, in our own members, that so terribly bars spiritual blessing and advancement. As long as we think lightly of the fact of the presence with us of the fallen nature, (I speak of Christians) we are far from deliverance. . . There is no strength or power in ourselves against the law of sin which is in our members. God has left us as much dependent on Christ’s work for our deliverance as for our forgiveness!42

Toussaint concurs:

In Romans 7:13-24 there is no mention of faith and consequently there is no reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course defeat is the consequence of such a situation. . . the believer is called upon to be decisive and constant in drawing upon all of the resources of Christ in order to know God’s victory in his day-by-day walk. This is the message of Romans 7:13-25 by implication . . .43

The implication to rely on God is declared clearly in Romans 8, but the purpose for Romans 7, again, as seen in its broad intended sanctification context, is showing the need for the Holy Spirit by showing the ultimate helplessness of the Christian to obey Christ in the power of the flesh. The hopelessness of self-sanctification, it’s solution in Christ, and the summary for the whole of ch. 7 is nowhere better epitomized than in vv. 24-25: Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

This struggle within a Christian is to be understood as normative, and yet, in almost having to defend a Christian perfectionism, Lambrecht disagrees:

In Romans 7 Paul has depicted his pre-Christian, not his Christian situation. We, present-day Christians, cannot agree with the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinner). The adage, at least in the way most commentators understand it, is incorrect and, moreover dangerous. The indwelling Spirit will never admit a compromise between righteousness and sin. Christians should not resign themselves to evil as if it were unavoidable.44

This resignation was Paul’s point in ch. 6, that Christians are no longer slaves to sin. But does this mean the Spirit will not allow conflict within the believer to show his need of Him? This is the point of ch. 7. Does not Galatians 5 teach that the Spirit not only allows such conflict but also is an active part in it? In a better understanding, Cranfield excels:

The farther men advance in the Christian life, and the more mature their discipleship, the clearer becomes their perception of the heights to which God calls them, and the more painfully sharp their consciousness of the distance between what they ought, and want, to be, and what they are. The assertion that this cry could only come from an unconverted heart, and that the apostle must be expressing not what he feels as he writes but the vividly remembered experience of the unconverted man, is, we believe, totally untrue. . . The man, whose cry this is, is one who, knowing himself to be righteous by faith, desires from the depths of his being to respond to the claims which the gospel makes upon him. It is the very clarity of his understanding of the gospel and the very sincerity of his love to God, which make his pain at this continuing sinfulness so sharp. But be it noted, v. 24, while it is a cry of real and deep anguish, is not at all a cry of despair.45

Having already had this sin/death rendered powerless in ch. 6, ch. 7 shows the inability to benefit from this freedom within one’s own strength. Paul’s longing here not is a desire not for the glorification of ch. 8, but for the empowerment revealed in ch. 8, through the Holy Spirit, who enables the believer to utilize the freedom acquired in ch. 6 and to quench the cry for freedom in v. 24. So, the freedom cried for is not just a physical freedom from the body of death, but a practical freedom from having to succumb to the law of sin within the body of death/sin that battles against the mind of the believer’s inner man. This is why, I believe, Paul makes the mind a poignant sanctification theme in 8 (vv. 6-746). This inability of the fleshly mind to obey echoes the same theme of ch. 7. With this interpretation Bruce agrees: “. . . meanwhile [before glorification], when the longed-for deliverance has been obtained through the ‘law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (8:2), it serves as a vehicle for the glorifying of God. . .”47

Conclusion and Application

This whole chapter so sadly smacks of American Christianity. Self-willed, self-directed arrogance that tries to pull oneself up by the bootstraps characterizes the so-called piety of our nation, as it did the nation Israel in the time of Paul and in the centuries beforehand. Today, even a faith that is so liberating (freedom from sin, freedom from the law, empowerment of the Spirit) can be completely debilitating if attempted to live on one’s own strength. In Numbers 14, when the nation was terrified at the report of the spies, they refused to enter Canaan because of unbelief. Then, after a hearty rebuke of being told they would wander and die in the desert, they attempted to enter the land (i.e. fulfill God’s purpose) without God! Moses made it so clear, “Do not go up, lest you be struck down before your enemies, for the LORD is not among you” (Num. 14:42). When we attempt to fulfill God’s purpose, apart from God’s Holy Spirit, in our own strength, we will utterly fail. Even after the emancipating truth of Romans 6:1-7:13, there is still an intense struggle with sin within the believer which Paul demonstrates in 7:15-25. Just as in ch. 1-4 Paul demonstrated that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, so in ch. 7 Paul shows the need for that same grace in sanctification, because while the believer is free from the power of sin (ch. 6), he still struggles with the presence of sin (ch. 7). God’s provisional grace is shown to be still necessary, not only for holy standing, but also for holy living, because man in his own power is powerless to do either. “Most humbling of all confessions. Renewed, desiring to proceed—we cannot! We are dependent on the Holy Spirit as our only spiritual power, just as on Christ our only righteousness.”48

A lesson to learn here, as teachers, would be not to teach the liberating truth of ch. 6:1-7:13 (freedom from sin and Law) without teaching the struggle of ch. 7:14-25 as normative for one who tries to live out the Christian life in his own strength, and without the empowering truth found in relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit, as explained in ch. 8. I believe a fair exposition may be given of ch. 6-7 even if one gives away the “answer” of ch. 8. After all, if sanctification is our goal, it is that “answer” we should always arrive at.

Thanks be to God! Who gave us Romans chapter eight!

1 John Witmer, Bible Knowledge Commentary, 466

2 C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans, 1:342

3 Jan S.J Lambrecht, The Wretched “I” and Its Liberation, 60, 86, 90

4 Cranfield, 1:343

5 Lambrecht, 63

6 Lambrecht, 80, 63

7 Lambrecht, 82, 63

8 Cranfield, 1:343

9 Robert Horten Gundry, “The Moral Frustration of Paul before His Conversion: Sexual Lust in Romans 7:7-25,” 228-245

10 Cranfield, 1:343-44

11 F. F. Bruce, Romans, 139 (he quotes T. W. Manson)

12 Cranfield, 1:351

13 Bruce, 140-141

14 Lambrecht, 67

15 Cranfield, 1:344

16 Lambrecht, 86

17 Observe Paul’s Pharisaic contentment in Philippians 3:6: “. . . as to the righteousness which is in the Law, [he was] found blameless.”

18 The rich young ruler demonstrates his piety in Mark 10:20: “And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’” The Pharisees’ arrogant ignorance of their own sin in John 9:34 “They answered . . ., ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?’” and Matthew 21:32 Jesus told them, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him [i.e. and repent].”

19 G. Campbell Morgan, An Exposition of the Whole Bible, 464

20 Newell, 271 footnote (admittedly, a secondary source)

21 Cranfield, 1:368, 370

22 Cranfield, 1:344-345

23 Bruce, 143-144

24 Newell, 262

25 Cranfield, 1:345 footnote

26 “I, used w. a verb to emphasize the pers.” BAGD, 217

27 Lambrecht, 78

28 Hoekema, Five Views. . ., 232

29 Lambrecht, 87

30 Bruce, 146

31 Cranfield, 1:360

32 Witmer, 468

33 Cranfield, 1:360

34 Bruce, 145

35 Witmer, 468

36 Cranfield, 1:361

37 Charles Smith, “Two Natures—Or One?,” Voice 62, 21

38 Witmer, 468

39 Stanley Toussaint, “The Contrast between the Spiritual Conflict in Romans 7 and Galatians 5,” Bib Sac, Oct.-Dec., 1966, 312

40 Luther, Galatians, 504, 503

41 Cranfield, 1:363

42 Newell, 278

43 Toussaint, 314

44 Lambrecht, 90

45 Cranfield, 1:366

46 “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able {to do so}.”

47 Bruce, 147

48 Newell, 274

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification, Sanctification

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