Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Romans 7 Debate: How a Believer Who Holds a Non-Believer View Can Still Relate

Romans 7:14-25 is notorious. The much-debated question is this: is Paul describing the internal struggle of his present Christian life, regretting how often he is unsuccessful in fighting sin, or is he using all the first person pronouns and present tense verbs to vividly describe what it was like to always fail to live a holy life before God apart from the Spirit? More simply, is it a believer's struggle or a non-believer's struggle?

It is a non-believer's struggle. More specifically, it is the struggle of a Jew trying to please God through the Law. So as a Jew, Paul could say that he did desire to please God but was unable to do so because he was constrained by his sinful flesh (7:18).

I have no delusions of settling this debate in a blog post and my real purpose is a little further down the page. Still, it may be helpful if I at least lay out some of the most compelling arguments are for my position (though I will not be exhaustive here):
  1. Romans 6 and 8 both characterize the Christian as victorious over sin. "Sold under sin" (7:14) and "I have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out" (7:18) sure don't sound like "For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus..." (8:2).
  2. Context. 7:7ff seem to clearly be talking about a non-believer, and there is no reason to see a switch when the present section starts.
  3. Christ delivers Paul from the body of death (7:24-25). The "body of death" seems to be shorthand for the struggle described in the preceding verses, which the Christian is then delivered from.
Now, if I am not primarily trying to settle this debate, what am I trying to do? Glad you asked.

Since I began to hold this position, I have also affirmed two other points: (1) Christians do still struggle with sin- I am no perfectionist; (2) Nonetheless, Rom. 8, Jn. 15, and other texts seem to make clear that victory over sin is not only possible, but should increasingly characterize the life of those who are truly Christians.

But still, if Rom. 7 is talking about a non-believer, why is it that so many of us really, honestly feel that internal struggle with sin? Even if we see Christian growth, we agree with John Owen: "Who can say that he had ever anything to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the corrupting of what he did?" (John Owen, "Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers", In Overcoming Sin and Temptation, Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, eds.; Wheaton: Crossway, 2006; 52).

Further, since I began to affirm a non-believer view, I have always asked myself, "Does Rom. 7:14-25 apply in any way to Christians now? Or is my only preaching point here about the non-believers total inability to overcome sin apart from Christ?"

With all this in mind, let me suggest (to myself, I suppose) a third affirmation that a fairly obvious bit of theological interpretation yields: since the reason that Christians still sin despite their victory in Christ is because our victory is the already-but-not-yet, inaugurated-but-not-consummated victory of Christ's kingdom, we can fairly apply Rom. 7 to the believer's struggle with sin in partial measure.

Sin is still a problem precisely because the battle is not done. At the return of our victorious Lord, we will no longer be debating Romans 7- we will be living meditations of Romans 8. Until then, we still feel the struggle, only with more victory than what Paul describes.

It may even be best to stop thinking about it in terms of non-believer vs. believer entirely. Schreiner says, "But the passage does not intend to adjudicate between Christian and pre-Christian experience. It centers on the inherent inability of the law to transform...The law, although good, cannot be the agent of transformation and renewal, for the law itself does not bestow the ability to keep its commands." (Thomas Schreiner, Romans, BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; 379).

This seems right: the point is that flesh and law do not produce righteousness; Christ and the Spirit do. That is true whether you are a Christian or not. So long as we abide in Christ and by the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13), then we will overcome sin. That will simply not be complete until our Lord returns.

And that, friends, is how a believer who holds a non-believer view of Romans 7 can still relate.


Religious Chic said...

If the entirety of Romans 7 is referring to a non-believer what do you think of the following verses?

1) Verses 15. Paul describes how he commits what he hates. He hates sin. An unbeliever does not hate sin, maybe the consequences of sin (man's punishments and opinions) but not sin itself.

2) Verse 16. Paul does what he does not want to do. Again a nonbeliever loves sin and does not see sin as something to be escaped from (until the Holy Spirit opens their eyes and mind).

3) Verse 18. Paul does not see any good in himself. Non believers see themselves as good people. The rich young ruler approached Jesus and called him "good", he even thought of himself as being good by obeying most of the commandments.

4) Paul commits the evil he does not want to do. He recognized that he couldn't obey the law which was good.

In contrast, in Paul's unconverted state he saw himself as righteous and a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil 3:4-6, Acts 26:4-5).

5) Verse 21. Paul delights in God's law. This is not a statement by the unbeliever.

P.S. I'm not advocating a view of the Christian life as one to do whatever he or she pleases because they "accepted Jesus into their heart or whatever". I do believe we can have victory over sin and are commanded to live holy and godly in this present age.

Jared Totten said...


Since Andrew's not around often enough to answer your comment, I'll have to do my best in his stead.

Your points are fair and good ones, and I think the nonbeliever you have described and have in mind certainly does exist--and is probably the most common form we meet today. One who does not hate sin itself, loves sin, sees plenty of good in themselves, and does not delight in God's law.

However, I think Andrew's clarification in the post is an important one, Paul is writing as "a Jew trying to please God through the Law". This is made clear in vv. 7-12.

Secondly, we must understand all of your points within the context. For instance, immediately before saying "I do the very things I hate" in verse 15, Paul says in verse 14 "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin."

That being said, I would ask you (and Andrew if he were still reading this), so what? What is the consequence or result? What is the conclusion or application if Paul is speaking of his current Christian state versus his former lawful Jewish state?

Thanks for your feedback!