by Fred Malone
The 7th chapter of Romans is teeming with important pastoral and theological insights. A careful study of it yields help for Christians who are confused or despondent over their remaining sin. Paul’s comments in 7:14-8:4 contain important practical principles which dispel many erroneous and superficial depictions of the Christian life.
Consider the following theological questions as we approach this text:
- What is the function of God’s Law for the unconverted? What is the function of the Law for the converted? And which Law is God’s Law? The Ten Commandments; the Nine Commandments; more or less?
- Is the man in Rom. 7:14-25 regenerate, unregenerate?
- If the man is a Christian, is this his entire Christian experience? Is it a periodic lapse from which he recovers? Or is this only a normal part of the daily Christian walk? Does one ever get out of Rom. 7 into Rom. 8?
- Does the Christian have one nature or two natures? Is the Christian an Old Man and a New Man butting heads? Or is the Christian one unified nature? Where does sin come from in the Christian life? The Old Man, the New Man, or the bodily flesh?
These vital questions, which have implications for evangelism, sanctification, pastoral care, assurance of salvation and more, must be answered in the light of the seventh chapter of Romans. Specifically, verses 14-25 should be studied.
The New Covenant Christian
By delineating the biblical characteristics of a New Covenant Christian and comparing them to Rom. 7:14-25 we recognize that the kind of person which Paul has in mind is nothing less than a believer.
From Jer. 31:31-34 (fulfilled in Hebrews 8 and 10), we learn that a New Covenant Christian has two main characteristics: (l) a new record and (2) a new heart. His new record through the work of Christ is described this way: “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” And this is the new heart provided by the work of the Spirit: “I will put my laws upon their heart, and upon their mind I will write them.” This is what it means to be born again by God’s Spirit.
One of the major differences between the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant is this: God’s law has been internalized in every covenant believer by the regenerating work of the Spirit. The Christian has a new attitude toward God’s law as well as having the forgiveness of sins and the knowledge of God.
Which Law? The same law which Jeremiah understood when he prophesied; the same law the Israelites understood when they heard the prophecy; and the same law the Jewish readers of Hebrews understood. It is the only Law which God Himself wrote: the Ten Words, specifically called “the covenant” in Deut. 4:13. Old Testament exegesis demands this understanding of Law in Heb. 8:8-12. Further, Paul illustrates his meaning of moral Law in Rom. 7:7-25 by describing the tenth of the Ten Words in 7:7. God’s moral Law has not changed between the Old and the New Covenants. Rather, it has been internalized in the heart of every New Covenant believer.
In Rom. 7:7-13, Paul uses the first person, past tense to recount his pre-conversion state. Before conversion, he was blameless as a law-keeper in his own eyes and before his countrymen (Phil. 3:6). However, when the Tenth Commandment came to his conscience, “Thou shalt not covet,” it killed Paul before God. It stirred up his heart, revealed coveting before God, and killed his self-righteous soul sometime before (or when) he looked into the righteous face of Christ on the Damascus road.
Rom. 7:7-13 perfectly parallels Paul’s past tense description of every Christian’s pre-conversion state in 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body, to bear fruit for death.” In Paul’s unconverted state, God took the Sword of His Holy Law and pierced his heart, unleashing all manner of filth and degradation which killed him before God. There was nothing wrong with the Law. Paul was the problem.
In Rom. 7:14-8:4, Paul moves to the first person, present tense. This is a perfect parallel to the shift from the past tense in 7:5 to the present in 7:6: “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” The shift from the past pre-converted state of every believer in 7:5 to the present converted state in 7:6 is illustrated by Paul’s personal experience in 7:7-13 and 7:14-8:4 respectively. The man of 7:14-8:4 is described in the first person, present tense. He is Paul as a Christian.
What characterizes this Christian man? In 7:14, he believes that “the Law is spiritual.” In 7:22, he “joyfully concurs with (delights in) the Law of God in the inner man.” In 7:25, he serves the Law of God with his mind inwardly and spiritually in a way that he did not before. The Law, described as one of the Ten Words in 7:7, is no longer written only on tablets of stone. Now it is written on Paul’s heart by the Holy Spirit. This is exactly the description of the New Covenant Christian above.
J. I. Packer was once asked if he really thought that Paul’s use of the present tense in Rom. 7:14-25 refers to Paul as a believer. Dr. Packer’s learned and scholarly reply was: “Of course!” The man in Rom. 7:14-8:4 is a Christian.
Objections to This View
The main objection to this view argues that Paul uses a first person, historical present tense in 7:14-25 to describe his pre-Christian state. This position states that surely no Christian, much less Paul, could say “I am carnal, sold under sin . . . nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh . . . wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death” (7:14, 15, 25). Rather, the argument goes, this must be the non-Christian of 8:7-8.
The problem with this objection is that it refuses to let 7:14-25 be admitted as evidence for the Christian life. This is presuppositional. This word “carnal” is used in 1 Cor. 3:1-3 of Christians caught in particular sins and acting as “babes in Christ.” How were they “carnal?” They were arguing over the best preacher and his baptism. They were not totally “carnal” as is popularly conceived in the erroneous, so-called “carnal Christian” doctrine. Neither were they treated as non-Christians because they acted “carnal, fleshly” in this area of division over preachers. There is no such thing as a totally “carnal” Christian nor a totally “spiritual” one.
Paul’s claim, “I am carnal, sold into bondage to sin,” is explained by Horatius Bonar in the following way:
This is not the language of an unregenerate or half-regenerate man. When, however, he adds, “I am carnal, sold under sin,” is it really Paul, the new creature in Christ, that he is describing? It is; and they who think it impossible for a saint to speak thus, must know little of sin, and less of themselves. A right apprehension of sin; of one sin or fragment of sin (if such a thing there be), would produce the oppressive sensation here described by the apostle–a sensation 20 or 30 years progress would rather intensify than weaken. They are far mistaken in their estimate of evil, who think that it is the multitude of sins that gives rise to the bitter outcry, “I am carnal.” One sin left behind would produce the feeling here expressed. Who can say, “I need the Word less and the Spirit less than I did 20 years ago”?
The true Christian knows very well that every time he falls into sin that “The Law is spiritual . . . [but] I am carnal, sold into bondage to sin.”
The same man who cries “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death (of this body of death)?” also cries, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (7:25-8:1). This man is not convicted under the weight of his sin’s condemnation. he is groaning as a regenerate man convicted under the weight of his remaining condition of sin. He cries out to Jesus Christ for help because he wants to be free from the condition of indwelling sin.
Granted, this is not all that there is to Christian experience. The man in 7:14-25 is also the man in 8:1-4 at the same time. He repents (7:14-25) and believes (8:1-4) daily. Rom. 7:14-24 is but one aspect of the mature Paul and every Christian. All Christians feel within the inward struggle against remaining sin. This is the man in whom God has written his Law upon the heart and who mourns over his daily failures to please the God of Grace. If you see yourself in 7:14-25, you are in the company of an Apostle of Jesus Christ.
First, every Christian delights in the Law of God in the inner man, agreeing that it is spiritual and good. To put it another way: You cannot have Jesus as Savior unless you bow to Him as Lord. By the very definition of the New Covenant, the covenant Law of Sinai (the Ten Words) is written upon the Christian heart by the Holy Spirit (Heb. 8:8-12). While we may be ignorant in many ways of the implications of those Laws, failing in many ways to keep them, still the saint has a disposition to walk in the commandments of God. And he is grieved and hurt and he mourns when he fails daily. Yet every mourner has this hope: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
No passage in the Bible better enables the saint to look within and know that he has come to know God (1 John 2:4). If he cannot say “I do all the good that I wish,” he can always say “the good that I wish, I do not do.” This is no excuse for sin, but it deals realistically and biblically with remaining sin. Pastors ought to open up God’s Word in Rom. 7:14-25 and read to struggling saints their spiritual condition so that they might know that God has not left them to hardness of heart. They must learn from 7:14-25 that repentance is still at work in their soul and is deepening. They must understand the Rom. 7 comfort that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:16). This is not “negative preaching” and “joyless experience.” It is the binding up of the broken-hearted. Should not every Christian say of every remaining sin: “I am carnal, sold into bondage under sin,” yet “I delight after the Law of God in the inner man?” Should not every Christian yearn to be free from this body of death?
Second, this passage teaches that sin remains in the New Covenant Christian. Some have tried to teach that there is no sin in the new creature and have been driven to distorted views of the Christian’s nature and life. This has resulted in the spiritual bondage of many. This error usually quotes Rom. 7:16-17 as a proof-text to divorce the existence of remaining sin from the new creature: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.” In other words, some say that when the Christian sins, he does not sin with his new heart. Rather, sin has a separated existence in the Christian. This path inevitably leads to irresponsibility, laxity, and antinomianism. This error takes several different forms.
One form of this teaching says that the Christian has two natures within–the sinful Old Man and the perfect New Man. Each is in a continual battle for supremacy. Sometimes the Old Man wins and sins. Sometimes the New Man wins and does righteous acts. They butt heads in Rom. 7:14-25. Theoretically, if one can “make Jesus Lord” and surrender to Him in an act of absolute faith and “total commitment,” He will take control and live His life through the New Man. Some proponents of this view go so far as to claim that perfectionism (of a limited kind) is possible.
However, if this line of reasoning is correct, when (not if) the Christian sins, who is responsible for the sin committed? In this view, the New Man cannot be responsible because he is “perfect” and “cannot sin.” The true saint who has surrendered all to Christ has to figure out how the Old Man (or Satan) became stronger than Christ who controls the New Man. How did Christ fail to prevent sin once He took over? This causes doubt, despair, depression, lack of assurance of salvation, and even suicidal thoughts in some because of this confused teaching. Others will not examine themselves. They overlook sin since the New Man is not responsible. The result is a prideful, arrogant, spiritual elite who will not deal seriously with God’s Law. Because of these errors the pastor who teaches holiness and obedience to God’s Law should expect despair from some and opposition from others.
Further, if this teaching is true, when one sins, who needs the forgiveness? It cannot be the New Man for he is perfect and needs no forgiveness. It cannot be the Old Man, for he cannot go to heaven or repent or change.
Finally, who is it that makes progress against sin? Not the New Man, for he is perfect. Not the Old Man, for he is beyond change. The two-nature view does not explain adequately the responsibility for sin in the Christian life, nor the need of forgiveness, nor the truth of progressive sanctification.
Another form of this view is that of David Needham in his work entitled Birthright. Needham rightly contends for a one-nature view of the Christian against the confusing two-nature view. However, he advocates that the New Man is perfectly new and does not sin. Rather sin resides in the bodily flesh of the Christian in his brain patterns, thoughts, and desires.
The problem with Needham’s view is that he does not explain satisfactorily how one can separate one’s sinful thoughts and desires in the bodily flesh from the New Man’s pure thoughts and desires, especially since the will of the Christian cooperates in the sin. Further, how can the sinful flesh overcome the perfect New Man, yielding sin? The practical effect of Needham’s one-nature plus sin-in-the-flesh is the same as the two-nature view. Either the Christian must deny full responsibility for sin when he sins or he must be cast into despair and confusion when he feels guilt for sin.
The truth that sin is found in the New Man is revealed in Rom. 7:14-8:4. Paul identifies sin as the culprit, but it is sin which indwells his new nature when he sins. “I do it,” he says, over and over. Paul summarizes and clarifies himself in 7:25, saying: “So then, on the one hand, I myself with my mind am serving the Law of God, but on the other (I myself) with my flesh am serving the law of sin.” “I myself” is the New Man who serves both the Law of God with his mind and the principle of sin with his flesh at the same time.
How can this be? Rom. 6:6 explains: “Our old man was crucified with Christ, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” The two-nature view above tends to say that the Old Man is only judicially dead, that he still exists, and must be reckoned as crucified daily by faith. But Paul states that our Old Man (our former pre-Christian nature) dominated by sin and hostility to God and His Law, has been done away with through the work of the cross and its application to us by the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Now the Christian is a New Man: “If any man is in Christ, he is [not has] a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). “Since you have laid aside the old man with its evil practices, and have put on the new man who is being renewed . . . .” (Col. 3:9-10). No longer are Christians slaves to sin as when they were Old Men. Now they are New Men, dominated by slavery to God and grace and righteousness and delight in his Law. The Old Man is dead. Our slavery to sin is broken. However, the sins which once dominated us remain in the imperfect New Man.
This position is not popular. “Has God made the New Man imperfectly? Has He done an imperfect job? But God does nothing imperfectly,” say the objectors. This objection is full of emotion, not Biblical argument. The fact is that God has chosen to make the New Man so that the sinner’s (not God’s) sins remain. When Thomas Boston described regeneration in his Human Nature in its Fourfold State, he said:
It is a universal change; “All things become new.” It is a blessed leaven, that leavens the whole lump, the whole spirit, and soul, and body. . . . Yet it is but an imperfect change. Though every part of man is renewed, there is no part of him perfectly renewed.
John Murray clarifies this state in his Principles of Conduct:
The believer is a new man, a new creation, but he is a new man not yet made perfect. Sin dwells in him still, and he still commits sin. He is necessarily the subject of progressive renewal; he needs to be transfigured into the image of the Lord from glory to glory.
Rom. 7:14-25 teaches that the Christian has one nature, now dominated by service to God but in which remains sin. His mind seeks to know God’s ways, his affections seek to please God, and his will seeks to obey God. Slavery to sin is broken. But the existence of sin remains in his mind, his affections, and his will so that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you may not do the things that you please. “
Who then is responsible for obedience to God’s Law? It is the New Man who loves Christ and seeks to keep His commandments. He cries out to Christ for help and deliverance from his remaining sins by the power of the Spirit. He cooperates with God’s Spirit in obeying Christ and fighting against sin.
Who then is responsible for sin? It is the New Man who grows in sensitivity to remaining sin, who is grieved when he finds it each day, who confesses his sin and finds God faithful and just to forgive him his sins and to cleanse him from all unrighteousness. He continues to repent of his sins and deepens his repentance. He continues to believe and when he sins, he flees to His Advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. He is not surprised by sin anymore. He knows he needs Christ daily. He knows that he must guard and keep his heart every day until he sees Christ in glory.
Rom. 7:14-25 teaches that the Christian has one nature. A new work has begun, but it is not yet perfected. There is hope here for those who struggle with sin, yearning to be free of it. There is assurance here for those who mourn over their remaining sins. And there is joy here for convicted ones because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
A third lesson which Rom. 7:14-8:4 teaches is that the Christian life is not so much a stairstep by degrees to holiness nor a dramatic second experience, but it is an increasing dynamic of repentance and faith daily exercised. The Christian never gets out of Rom. 7:14-25 into 8:1-4 because he always lives in both chapters! Faith increases on the upper plane though sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger as we live by grace. We increasingly depend upon the blood and righteousness of Christ. We increasingly love Him and seek to keep His commandments. Moreover, repentance deepens on the lower plane, though sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger as we discover more sins that need putting to death. Daily we mourn and cry out, “I am carnal.” Daily we rejoice in the truth that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Daily we die to sin. Daily we live to righteousness. Daily by the Spirit we “put to death the deeds of the body that we might live.” Daily we put aside anger, wrath, malice, and slander while the inner man is being renewed day by day.
Rom. 7:14-25 and Rom. 8:1-4 speak of the Christian from different aspects. The first is the Christian’s inward battle against remaining sin and his imperfect obedience to God’s Law. The second is the Christian on the counterattack with faith in Christ and the Spirit’s assistance to fulfill the righteousness of the Law. Both aspects are a continual dynamic in Christian experience. This is a mark of true conversion. In 7:14-25 it is our guide to point out remaining sins and to deepen our hatred of them, and to increase our heart love for Christ and His graces (for he that is forgiven much loves much). In 8:1-4 it is our teacher to lead us in the paths of righteousness by the power of the Spirit. For “He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” If you live in Rom. 7 and find repentance deepening and live in Rom. 8 and still flee to Christ for redemption and the Spirit’s help to fulfill the righteousness of the Law, it is enough.
Do not deny that Rom. 7:14-25 is the Christian. You will despair if you are honest with your soul. Do not think that you will ever get out of Rom. 7 into Rom. 8. If you do, you will chase a figment of men’s theological imaginations which will destroy your assurance of salvation and blind you to the work of God in your soul or else it will foster a spiritual pride and antinomianism which may end up destroying your soul in hell. Rather, look into Rom. 7:14-25 and see the work of God begun in the Christian soul and rejoice that He has not left you alone to harden your conscience against sin. Rejoice that the dominion of sin is broken and he is leading you into deeper repentance, increased holiness, and greater dependence upon Christ and joy in His free and ever available grace. Then do with your people what Bunyan did: “I preached what I smartingly did feel.”
There will be a day when faith will be needed no more. For then faith will become sight in His beautiful face. And repentance will be no more, for the need of it will be gone–eradicated from our glorified soul. But until then we live in need of deepened repentance and increased faith every day as we endeavor to love Him and keep His commandments. Learn the lessons of Romans 7. “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
John Newton has expressed it well:
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with his own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried,
‘Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?’
‘Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied,
‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.
‘These inward trials I employ
‘From self and pride to set thee free;
‘And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
‘That thou may’st seek thy all in me.’