Romans 7 may very well be the most misunderstood chapter in the Bible. It is here where we read the following words:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … 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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. Romans 7:15-20
Someone over at Quora asked me a while ago to explain the meaning of these verses. I know it is an issue for many Christians, so here is my answer.
I found it quite befuddling that the majority of responses to your question (by far) suggest that Romans 7:15–25 is about the “two natures” that battle within a Christian. This is in fact not the case, and it is evident from a few observations:
- Paul’s references in Romans 7, “I agree with the Law” (verse 16) and “I delight in the Law” (verse 22) occur nowhere else in the New Testament, and are irreconcilable with his statement that we have been “released from the Law” (verse 6) and that we have “died to the Law” (verse 4). Clearly the man of Romans 7 finds his moral guidance in the “old way of the written code” and not in “the new way of the Spirit” (verse 6). Similarly, his statement in verse 18, “I have the desire to do what is right,” contradicts his confession as a regenerate man in Philippians 3, namely that his main desire is no longer to do right according to the Law’s prescription (Phil. 3:9), but to “know Christ” (Phil. 3:10).
- The use of the present tense in the passage does not necessarily mean that Paul is speaking about a present experience. As some Bible commentators have pointed out, the tense that Paul is using here can be described as the “dramatic present.” (See, for instance, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4, The Law: Its Function and Limits, Guildford and London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973, p184.) This means that Paul is using the same type of language as a man describing an accident scene that he had witnessed days before: “Here I am, standing on the pavement, ready to cross the road. The next moment I see this car. It jumps the red light and collides with a truck…” This person is clearly not speaking about his present experience, but is describing a past experience in the way that he experienced it while it was taking place. Thus, he is transporting his listener to the event for dramatic effect.
- In line with the above, readers regularly miss the fact that Romans 7’s own testimony, found in its opening verses, tells us how the chapter should be interpreted. Note verse 5: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Paul is using the past tense (while we were living in the flesh) to describe a life that once was (sinful passions, aroused by the law, that bore fruit for death). As you will see, the rest of Romans 7 is about the experience of sinful passions that are aroused by the Law, and this includes Paul’s words about being unable to do the things that he wants to do! Thus, it is an account of a past experience, namely a life lived in the flesh void of the Spirit of God.
- The struggle of the man in Romans 7 is not with the Law in general, but with one single commandment, namely the prohibition to “covet” or “desire” (verses 7 and 8). The man in Romans 7 says that it was this commandment that enabled him to know sin, for it produced in him “all kinds of covetousness.” Thus, without it he simply would not have known sin for the powerful force that it is.
- The prohibition to “covet” is found in the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, and represents the sin of the heart as opposed to the misdeeds of the body. As I explained elsewhere: While the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the tenth commandment prohibits the intention that precedes those actions. Note that the seventh commandment tells a person not to “commit adultery,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s wife.” Also note that the eighth commandment tells a person not to “steal,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” Clearly we break the tenth commandment every single time before we break any one of the other nine. And the reason is clear: We first desire to do something before we go ahead and do it. Put differently, we first do it in our hearts before we do it in our deeds.
- Romans starts off in Chapter 1 with a discussion of the entrance of sin into the world, and explains that it took place when God “handed us over to covetousness/desire” as a just retribution for having rejected his revelation towards us. This desire underlies the entire list of external “sins” that are listed in Chapter 1, and is “irresistible” due to the fact that God handed us over to it. Romans 7 tells us that the Law was given not only as a restraint against committing “sins” (plural), but also as an instrument to reveal the unconquerable power of “sin” (singular) within us, so as to make us look away from ourselves to a Saviour. Romans 7 can never be understood if it is not seen as a response to the problem of Romans 1!
- The pattern of desire underlying sins is confirmed by the Genesis account of the fall of humanity: The woman “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). The desire then overcame her and she ate the fruit.
- Similarly, James tells us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)
- Peter and Paul independently identified desire as the single force that has corrupted humans and causes them to behave in the ways that they do:…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:4)…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. (Ephesians 4:22)
- Paul’s ultimate answer to the problem of irresistible desire is found in Galatians 5:24, and is there represented as the mark of the regenerate Christian: And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
- The message of Romans 7 is that the spiritually astute Rabbi Saul of Tarsus was no exception to the rule above. While he could keep himself from doing any deed that was prohibited by the Law, he could not suppress the inclination of his heart that yearned to do them! The tenth commandment tells us that God is concerned with more than an outward allegiance to his Law. What he wants is an inward desire to please him. We should stop sinning not because we have to, but because we want to. And the only way in which that can happen is if we have a change of heart. Put differently: To keep the first nine commandments, one merely needs a measure of determination and will power. To keep the tenth, one needs a heart-circumcision, namely the crucifixion of the flesh as pointed out in “9” above. In this way the “Law is our schoolmaster to Christ.”
- To be regenerated is to experience a change of desire, and to identify Jesus Christ as the bread and water that alone can satisfy the appetites of the heart. It is to be enabled to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.” When this happens, the underlying motive for treating others unjustly disappears, for they are no longer regarded as potential sources for one’s well-being. One is then regulated from within, and no longer requires the Law as a restraint. In this way the “righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled,” as stated in the opening verses of Chapter 8. Chapter 13 completes this message of Romans by stating that “love is the fulfilment of the Law.” The Biblical definition of love is nothing but a redirection of our passions and desires back to their rightful object, namely God. From that position of utter joy and contentment we are free to love others, for we no longer wish to complete ourselves by desiring those things that belong to them.
- To be totally and completely delivered from the power of desire has nothing to do with a hypocritical claim to “Christian perfectionism,” but is the simple testimony of a person who has encountered an object of affection that far outweighs all other preceding attractions. It is to fall in love, and to spend the rest of your life growing in that love. This is God’s only prescription for the problem of human, idolatrous desire. Thus, it is not far-fetched to reject the notion of “two natures” battling within, and to assert that Romans 7 and 8 present us with a beautiful picture of a life that has been captured by the power of love for God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In fact, every believer should have this testimony. If not, they have never tasted the fulness of the satisfaction that is found in Christ alone.
- Lastly, the idea that the defeat of the man in Romans 7 is synonomous with the normal Christian experience is completely contradicted by the context of Romans 6 to 8. Note the following verses: How can we who died to sin still live in it? (6:2); We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (6:3); We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (6:6); For sin will have no dominion over you… (6:14); …you who were once slaves of sin…(6:17); …having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness. (6:18); For when you were slaves of sin… (6:20); But now that you have been set free from sin… (6:22); For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (7:5); For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (8:2); …he condemned sin in the flesh… (8:3). In line with the above, note the contradiction between 7:14, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin,” and 8:9 “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” It is impossible that both statements can be true at the same time, and refer to the same person.