No one should claim Romans 7 as their Christian experience

I can come up with a plausible interpretation of Romans 7 as the believer’s experience, and I respect that view. So this is no attack. I simply have another interpretation and had to choose one. I also do not like that I seem to be in the minority view historically, but I am willing to put myself out there a little since my theology lines up with all of my heroes anyway. In other words, a disagreement on this passage does not seem to affect overall theology in a dangerous manner, though I think the payoff for getting it right is great.

I am helped immensely by Charles Leiter, author of Justification and Regeneration, a book that all should read, where he has an appendix on this very issue, and articulates masterfully.

Why I do not believe this is meant to be a Christian experience:

  • vv14-25 seem to expand on v13. In verse 13 Paul asked if the good law brought death to him, but he said that it was sin bringing death through the law, for the purpose of showing how sinful sin really is. Verses 14-25 show us how sinful sin really is before coming to Christ. Even when you want to do good you cannot do it.
  • v14 says “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” That seems impossible to reconcile with Rom 6.6, “that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin,” and Rom 6.18, “and having been set free from sin have become slaves of righteousness,” and Rom 7.6, “but now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve no longer under the old written code, but in the new life of the spirit.”
  • v23 also contradicts those verses in a similar manner- “but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
  • If we understand Romans 7.13-25 as saying “human beings are doomed without Jesus, no matter how badly they want to do good,” it makes much more sense of the “therefore” in Romans 8.1.
  • If we understand Romans 7.13-25 as saying “this was my experience before I became a Christian,” it makes much more sense of the “now” in Romans 8.1.

Objections:

  • Why is it in the present tense? We could argue about Greek tenses and the frequent fluidity between aorist and present, and about aspectual theory, but all I will say is I am willing to face the difficulties of the present tense over the difficulties faced by those things mentioned above.
  • What about v22, “for I delight in the Law of God, in my inner being”? Would a non-Christian say that? A devout Jew would definitely say that. And so would many unbelievers who believe there is a god.
  • One friend recently asked, “What about Philippians 3.4-6, where Paul says his life as a Pharisee was ‘blameless'”? How does that reconcile with this passage if Paul is saying he was sinful? Well, it reconciles in the same way it would have to reconcile with Romans 7.7-12, where everyone agrees he is talking about his former life.

I’m open to discussing other objections, and still open to changing my view if the evidence goes the other way, but I think the payoff for counseling believers in sin is immense. Oh, if we could use the word to drive Christians to an even more victorious life over sin!

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4 responses to “No one should claim Romans 7 as their Christian experience

  1. I fear the pre-conversion interpretation will lead to perfectionism or despair. Fred Malone argues this point in the Founders Journal here: http://www.founders.org/journal/fj02/article1_fr.html. John Piper argues the traditional interpretation here (and in the other sermons in this series): http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/who-is-this-divided-man-part-3.

    • Todd Morikawa

      Thanks for the links, Chuck. I also have the same fears as you, but I think we can agree that those fears should not be the reason we interpret passages differently, but rather simply interpret the passages. That is a great article by Malone! Again, I have much sympathies and am pulled back a little, but I cannot help but notice that the majority of his arguments are practical arguments for what might happen if you interpret Romans 7 as a pre-conversion. He is unfair in his conclusion that it would lead to despair or antinomianism, for I am in neither camp. In fact, I am joyful in Christ and take obedience seriously. He also ignored v23 and the language of “making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” But again, he has many great arguments and at least we all agree Rom 8.1-4 is for all believers, everyday! Blessings to you

  2. Dude, it just doesn’t make sense in the flow of Romans. And I fear we have yet to see the fallout of counseling along these lines. It is far more hope-inducing to read Romans 6-8 in one fell swoop, and break through with joy into “Jesus sets me free!!” as a believer than to insist that someone caught in a deep Romans 7 type struggle is not a believer. In some ways I don’t think it matters, because the answer for both struggling believer (who is trying to achieve victory through law) and despairing unbeliever (also trying to achieve right standing before God through law) is the perfect Law-keeping life of Jesus! I wonder if that’s not the point– that Rom 7 describes anyone, saved or unsaved, mature or immature, who is trying to gain victory over sin in their own strength.

    • Hey Christina, just want to pick out three things you said that I think could help these conversations move forward: first, I hope you can see that the fear of counseling fallout and figuring out what would be more hope-inducing are both not exegetical arguments. I definitely see what you are saying there, but I think we can agree that we want to interpret the text right first, then think through all the implications. Second, I am not sure it is fair to say that I would insist someone in a “Romans 7 type struggle” is not a believer. I’ve been there as a believer personally. And it is one thing to say “you are not a Christian” and another thing to say “the way you are fighting this sin does not line up with who you really are.” Lastly, I think you may be helping all of us get closer to the truth with your point about this debate about Romans 7 not really mattering in the end, as Christ is the answer for both believer and unbeliever. Thanks!

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