One of the most widely debated portions of Scripture in the history of biblical interpretation is, no doubt, that portion of Romans 7 in which Paul speaks of what has been commonly called “indwelling sin” in the life of a believer (Rom. 7:14-25). Many commentators have suggested, in light of what Paul said in chapter 6 and what he says in chapter 8, that Romans 7 cannot be Paul speaking about the ordinary experience of believers in this life. Insisting that a true believer could never say that he is presently “sold under sin,” we are told that this must be Paul continuing to speak of a pre-conversion experience. Others, agree that this cannot be a Christian experience, and so suggest that Paul is speaking redemptive-historically as one in union with Adam–the representative of all fallen men. Then there are some who say that Paul is speaking as an Old Covenant believer who had not yet experienced the full outpouring of the Spirit, which he would come to in Rom. 8 as the solution to the problem of chapter 7. Still others have said that it is not a statement about “the regenerate nor the unregenerate”–but the man who is under deep conviction of sin prior to converstion.1 Nevertheless, the opinion of Anselm, Augustine, John Calvin, John Owen, James Frazier, J.I. Packer, John Murray, Sinclair Ferguson et al–that exegetically and experientially we must conclude that this is the Apostle speaking of the reality of indwelling sin in believers in this life–is the most exegetically, experientially and historically satisfying to me.
In 2001, John Piper preached six sermons on this passage under the title, “Who Is This Divided Man?” In the last four of those sermons, Piper gave 10 reasons why he believed that we have to take this passage as speaking of the experience of the believer. Here are his 10 reasons (with abbreviated explanations):
1. Paul’s Use of First-Person Pronouns
The most natural way to understand Paul’s use of the first person “I” and the present tense, is that he is talking about himself and a part of his life that he experiences now as a believer. He uses “I” or “me” or “my” about 40 times in this text. And he explains his situation in the present tense all the way through: “I am of flesh . . . what I am doing, I do not understand . . . I do the very thing I do not want . . . I find then the principle that evil is present in me . . . For I joyfully concur with the law of God . . . with my mind I am serving the law of God . . .”
2. Paul Speaks of the Law as Only a Christian Could
Paul speaks about the Law of God in this passage in a way that sounds like the way a Christian believer would talk about it, not the way an unregenerate, non-Christian Jewish man would talk about it. I am thinking not just of him calling the law “good” (7:16) or even “spiritual” (7:14), but especially 7:22 when he says, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” It’s this phrase “inner man” that sounds so much like the way Paul talks about the Christian’s real, inner self. And when you put that together with the word “joyfully concur” (“I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man”) it sounds to me like Paul’s description of his present deep joy in the truth and law of God, not a carnal and superficial and ungodly joy that would be the experience of an unregenerate Pharisee. So it seems to me that Paul treats the law in this passage the way a believer would.
3. Paul’s Other Pre-Conversion Descriptions Do not Match Romans 7
And what about the description of Paul as a divided and sometimes tormented man in relation to the law? Does that fit with what we know about Paul before his conversion? No it doesn’t. Paul gives us a few glimpses of his pre-Christian life, and what we see there is anything but a man who is torn because of any perceived failures to live up to the law of God.
For example, in Galatians 1:13-14 he says,
For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.
So Paul saw his life before his conversion as a life of unrivaled zeal for the law and the traditions. He doesn’t give us any hint of torment or conflict or inner division as we see in Romans 7.
4. Paul Speaks of Himself as Only a Christian Could
Paul talks about himself in a way that I don’t think he would have talked about a person who is not a new creature in Christ – a person without faith and the Holy Spirit. The main verse that I have in mind here is Romans 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Two things stand out in this statement. First, is the devastating self-assessment, “I know that nothing good dwells in me.” This does not sound like the self-confident pre-Christian Paul that said he was blameless before the law (Philippians 3:6). It sounds like what a broken-hearted and meek sinner might say who has been saved by grace alone and who knows that he was dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:5) and that “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10).
5. Peter as an Example of a Divided Man
We all know how Peter denied Christ three times. I don’t doubt that as we went away and wept bitterly he said something like, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this cowardly body of death?” But some might say, “Well, that was before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Peter did not have the full strength of the Spirit, and so it is not a fair example.
So let’s go onto another illustration from Peter’s life long after he was filled with the Spirit. In Galatians 2:11ff Paul describes a failure of Peter that was so serious Paul had to rebuke him in public.
6. A Divided You
Argument # 6 is that in Galatians 5:17 Paul uses language very close to Romans 7, but everyone agrees that in Galatians it is a description of Christian experience. He is talking to Christians who have the Holy Spirit and yet who also have another power at work in them. He calls it the flesh. He says in verse 17, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that [now here comes the language of Romans 7] you may not do the things that you please.”
Notice this carefully. Paul does not merely talk about Spirit opposing flesh and flesh opposing Spirit – as though we somehow were innocent bystanders watching the battle happen. No, he does the same thing that he does in Romans 7and talks about a divided you. So at the end of Galatians 5:17 he says, “you do not do the things that you please (i[na mh. a] eva.n qe,lhte tau/ta poih/te).” You want to do one thing. You do another thing. There is a divided will. I think this is the very experience of Romans 7. In Galatians, it is the experience of the Christian person who has the Holy Spirit. So this is argument # 6 that Romans 7 is Christian experience.
7. Sin as a Slave Master
It is not impossible that Paul could speak of a Christian as temporarily “sold under sin.” Paul doesn’t have to be saying that the person who sins moves from being a Christian to being a non-Christian. He may only be saying that in the moment of failure, sin got the upper hand, like a slave master temporarily getting control of a person who is not really his.
Isn’t this exactly what Paul warns against in Romans 6:12? He says to Christians, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts.” In other words, since you are not really slaves of sin and sin will not have dominion over you, therefore act like it. Stay free. Don’t give sin any victories as an alien slave master. Don’t sell yourself to sin! But the assumption seems to be: We might for a season “let sin reign,” that is, give in to the old slave master.
8. The Body of This Death
Some would ask, “Can a real Christian cry out with the words of verse 24b, ‘Who will set me free from the body of this death?’ Is a Christian trapped or enslaved or imprisoned in a ‘body of death'”? My answer to this is: “Can a real Christian NOT cry out, ‘Who will set me free from the body of this death?'”
Of course the cry is accompanied by the answer to the cry in the following words in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In other words, God will set me free from the body of this death. And he will do it through Jesus Christ our Lord.
9. The Law of Sin and Death
When Paul says in Romans 7:23 that the “law of sin” takes him captive, and then says in Romans 8:2 that the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set him free from the law of sin, I think he means that the defeat and captivity of Romans 7:23 is not his chief or final condition. The Spirit has set him free from the “law of sin” as the decisive, final power to defeat and destroy him. The Spirit often gives him the victory. And increasingly gives him the victory. And in the end will give him the final victory. And he cannot be destroyed by the “law of sin” because the back of the enemy has been broken. His head has been severed from his body. We fight him as we fight a defeated foe. And in Christ Jesus who has bought the victory we will win.
10. The Sober Summary of Verse 25b
Argument #10 is that Paul’s shout of victory in verse 25a, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” is not a signal that he has moved to a new, triumphant kind of life above the battles and losses of Romans 7. Instead this shout of hope is followed by a sober, realistic summary of everything we have seen, namely that Paul, the Christian, is both a new man and an old man. He is both indwelt by the Spirit and harassed by the flesh. He is freed from the dominion of sin and indwelt by remaining corruption. This will be his lot until he dies or until Christ comes. That is the Biblical realism of Romans 7.
But let’s think more closely about this last part of verse 25: “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” What kind of life is Paul describing here? He is not describing a life that only has failureor only has success. His point here is not how successful he is, or how often he is triumphant or defeated. He is only saying that these two realities exist in him and they explain why he and other Christians are not perfect. The culprit is not the law of God. The culprit is theflesh. Or what he calls in verses 17 and 20, “indwelling sin.” Or what he calls in verse 21, the “evil that is present with me.”
1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4: The Law: Its Functions and Limits (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 2010) pp. 176-257