Who is the man in Romans 7?

Scream Edvard MunchRomans 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. 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)
  10. 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.
  11. 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.”
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.

The Root of Desire (II)

The Law: God’s Instrument to Reveal the Universal Problem of Desire

As most of us know, the real purpose behind the law is to show us that we are sinners: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

In the final analysis, the law was not given to be kept but broken, showing us that we are in need of a savior. “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin”, Paul says (Romans 7:7). In this sense the law was the “schoolmaster” that led us to Christ (Galatians 2:24). Of course this does not reveal any deficiency on the law’s part. The deficiency is with us, as we shall promptly see.

The problem is that this phenomenal truth of Scripture is usually proclaimed up to the point that I have just made, and then left for all kinds of conclusions to be drawn. And so it is assumed that the “knowledge of sin” brought about by the law is a “knowledge of sins”, that is, a revelation of all the wrong deeds that we are prohibited to do: As we struggle to live up to all these moral commandments we eventually become despondent, and so we are led to Christ who will then save us and empower us to live up to God’s holy commands.

This is not the teaching of the Bible, and our understanding of Christianity is sadly lacking if that is the way we understand the law, sin and redemption.

The Man in Romans 7

Two paragraphs earlier I quoted the apostle Paul as saying “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” This statement comes from Romans 7, a chapter that is devoted in its entirety to illustrating that those who are “in the flesh” cannot live up to the law’s righteous requirements.

Paul’s famous statement “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” comes from this chapter. Paul does not speak here about his Christian experience, as is oftentimes assumed, but about the experience of a man in the flesh who tries to keep the law but cannot. The result is that he cries out at the end of the chapter “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

It is this cry of despair that ultimately causes Paul to look away from himself and to Jesus Christ for deliverance. And so Romans 8 introduces us to the “life in the Spirit”, a life that transcends the limitations of the law brought about by the weakness of the flesh.

Whilst the key to Romans 7 is “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (verse 18) and “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8), the key to Romans 8 is “but you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (8:9) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

Wow. What a teaching. These two classic chapters are foundational to any discussion of the deeper Christian life. And so they should be. Yet our understanding of them is sadly lacking if we stop here.

The Meaning of Romans 7:7

Go back to Romans 7:7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Now read the rest of the verse and further: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”

Wait a minute… Romans 7 is not about the whole of the law. It is only about one, single commandment: “You shall not covet.” Paul never struggled with adultery, or murder, or lying, or theft. In fact, he wrote to the Philippians that Saul the Pharisee was “faultless” as far as legalistic righteousness was concerned.

So what happened in Romans 7? The answer is simple: Here Paul tells us about the one commandment that he could not keep: The tenth. Covetousness is not a word we use often, and is better translated today as “eagerly desirous”. Romans 7 is the biographical account of a Pharisee who kept the whole of the law, but could not curb “all kinds of covetousness”. And so, he says, he would not have “known sin” if it were not for this commandment.

Whilst the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the final commandmend prohibits an intention. As we saw in the previous post, desire is the root and sinful deeds the fruit. The first nine commandments addresses the fruit, the tenth addresses the root. We always break the tenth before we break one of the first nine. You first covet your neighbour’s wife (Tenth command) before committing adultery with her (Seventh command). Likewise, you first covet your neighbour’s possessions (Tenth command) before you steal from your neighbour (Eighth command). In fact, every time you break one of the first nine commandments, you end up breaking two commandments: The one in question, as well as the tenth!

Whilst it is possible to refrain from external sins, it is impossible to refrain from the motive underlying it.

As I have written elsewhere:

The real origin of sin, in other words, can be traced back to the problem of covetousness. In fact, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, where covetousness is present sin has already been committed (Matt. 5:27-28), and the carrying out of covetous intentions is mere coincidence and formality. In this sense we can say that the command not to covet is really a summary of the Ten Commandments, for where coveting is no longer present sin would no longer follow.

The problem of sin, therefore, is an inward one, and it is the purpose of the tenth commandment to illustrate this. To put it another way: The problem of sin is a spiritual problem, and this can only be pointed out by a spiritual commandment. When the tenth commandment confronted Paul, he acknowledged it as ‘spiritual’, but in failing to keep it he had to acknowledge himself as ‘unspiritual, a slave to sin’ (v. 14). While the first nine commandments revealed to Paul his ability to meet the external demands of the law, the tenth commandment revealed to him his inability to live up to the law’s spiritual requirements. In this sense sin was ‘recognised as sin’ in his life (v. 13).

Paul’s despair, culminating in his ‘wretched man that I am’, came about solely as a result of the one commandment that he found impossible to keep. It is this experience, more than anything else, that revealed to him his need of salvation, and that prepared him for the conviction that something needed to be done about his ‘un-spirituality’.

Romans 7 is the Bible’s greatest exposition of the problem of desire, and its conclusion is clear: The most righteous Pharisee in all of history, who could boast more “in his flesh” than any other (Philippians 3:4), could not overcome desire. And so the great Saul was revealed to be a lawbreaker, for “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Of course this does not only apply to Saul the Pharisee, but also to you and I.

It would appear that the law is much more “spiritual” than what we have been led to believe. Its aim is not legal conformance to external requirements, but the revelation that we are in need of a Savior who can transform our desirous Adamic nature.

More about that in the next posts.