Sunday, August 1, 2010

Romans 7: Converted or Unconverted?

Conservative bible scholars debate many issues among themselves but few have the practical importance as the question related to the condition of the speaker in Romans chapter 7, particularly verses 13-25. There is a long history of disagreement about whether Paul is speaking here as a believer in Christ or is describing his condition prior to conversion. If he is speaking as a believer then Paul is telling us that the struggle with sin remains with the believer even after conversion which has important theological consequences.

[13] Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. [14] For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. [15] For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. [18] 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. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

(Romans 7:13-25 ESV)

The Pre-Conversion View

Paul’s language in this section is inconsistent with the way he normally speaks of believers. Chapter 7 is part of a teaching segment that begins in Chapter 6 where Paul explains that Christians are under grace and not under the law (6:14) and are therefore no longer slaves to sin (6:17). This teaching segment culminates in Chapter 8 which describes the victorious life of the Christian. The person described in 7:23 is still a captive to the law and is intended to be a contrast to the Christian experience.

There are various clues in the language of chapter 7 that support this view. For example, references to the Holy Spirit are virtually absent from the entire chapter (mentioned only once in verse 6) but abound in chapter 8 when he returns to a discussion of the life of the believer. The key transitional verse is 7:13 where Paul shows that the law brought death to him as an unbeliever, unable to attain righteousness on his own. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (ESV) When a person compares their life to the perfect law of God they realize that the judgment is death.

Much has been made of the fact that Paul is writing this passage in the present tense, however, it is not necessary that the present tense imply that Paul is describing a current state of affairs. Greek allows for the use of the present tense in what is known as the “historical present” to emphasize the significance or intensity of past events. Paul is emphasizing that as an unbeliever it is impossible to overcome the condemnation of the law. He is recounting the experience of an unsaved person who encounters the law and realizes that they are incapable of fulfilling it.

Romans 7:13-25 is a description of the futility, angst, and impossibility of trying to be justified through the law. It is a contrast to Paul’s description of the victory of Christ whereby sinners are given victory over sin through His sacrifice. To view this passage as post-conversion undermines the reality of the power of the Gospel in this life and opens the door to a complacency with sin in the life of the believer.

The Post-Conversion View

Rather than view 7:13-25 as a digression it is better to view it as part of the main argument extending from chapter 5 through chapter 8 showing that to walk in the flesh is to be subject to the law. Paul is illustrating that there is a continual struggle between the spirit of God and the desires of the flesh within believers and encourages his readers to overcome the flesh through the power of Christ. The tense shifts in 7:14 from the past tense to the present tense and the most natural reading of this is to assume that Paul is describing his present experience.

It is grammatically possible that this section is an example of the use of the “historical present” but there are a number of other indicators in the text that would support a plain present tense reading. First, he pauses after making the statement that “nothing good dwells within him”, adding the explanation, “that is, in my flesh”. Paul does not wish to denigrate the work of the Spirit in his life so he provides this caveat for clarity. Secondly, he explains that it is his desire to do what is right and that he hates his sin even saying that he delights in the law of God. It is not consistent with Paul’s normal way of speaking to say that an unbeliever delights in the things of God or that they hate sin. In fact, in the next chapter he says ”For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.”

If this passage is meant to highlight the tension of living under that law that exists prior to conversion then verse 25 is strange. In the very same sentence, in the present tense, we see Paul stating clearly that he is thanking God through Christ the savior because he is serving the law of God with his mind and also makes a distinction between that and the struggle of the flesh. This distinction between the mind and the flesh is not confined to verse 25. Paul makes a repeated distinction between himself "I" and the flesh developing the theme that Christians have died to sin which was introduced much earlier in the book and is present throughout chapter 7 (including the example of law and marriage). If this were not a description of a believer then it is difficult to understand Paul’s statement, Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me., because the unbeliever has not yet died to the law. Assuming that the indwelling of the Spirit is unique to believers then it is difficult to understand this dichotomy in an unbeliever.

Although the language of Romans 7 is more personal than we find elsewhere the concept is not unique. Paul’s teaching in this section is not inconsistent with the way he normally speaks of believers. It is essentially the same message that he gives to the Church in Ephesus:

…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24 (ESV)

And in even more similar language to the church at Galatia:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Galatians 5:16-26 (ESV)

Romans chapter 7 is the description of the struggle with sin in the life of a believer as the spirit of God works in their life against the desires of the flesh. This does not free us to simply accept sin in our life but rather gives confidence that if we trust in Christ and rely upon his sacrifice, yielding to the Spirit, we will persevere. It is Paul telling us that he knows we have struggles but that Christ has overcome them in us. We are to pursue holiness not in order to be justified by the law but as a result of the justification we have freely received.


What I have provided here is just a summary of the most common and compelling points on each side of this issue. There are strong points on both sides and I can understand how people come to either conclusion. Personally, I find the support for the post-conversion view to be more compelling and that is how I currently understand it. As always, I am open to changing my view if it can be demonstrated to me from the Word of God that I am wrong but I think that the post-conversion view fits better with the overall argument of Romans, Paul’s teaching on sin and the law, and the grammar of the passage.

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