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):
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.