The Man in Romans 7

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As promised, some words about my changing understanding of Romans 7. This is not in any way original, but the result of some really helpful Bible studies we've been having at church, in the context of my previous thinking.

At University, I was exposed to two views, which seem to be the two main views:

The Defeated Christian

According to this theory, the man who says "the good that I will to do, I do not do" is a Christian, and will make it to heaven, but he's not living as he could be living. He's constantly defeated by sin, probably because he's trying to do it in his own strength. He needs to come into the triumph of Romans 8, where he will live victoriously, being more than a conqueror, and not having to worry about sin.

This is the view you'll find in Watchman Nee's "The Normal Christian Life", and in many other places. At Uni I came across this book (in a book shop's bargain basement, like the good student I was). I read it very critically (I mean that in the good sense of the word), and in fact found plenty to criticise:

  • Watchman Nee is incredibly selective, and simply ignores anything that does not agree with his "let go and let God" type philosophy. He has some really good things to say in Romans 6, but essentially stays there, refusing to even notice the many other verses that talk about struggling and fighting towards the goal of sanctification.

  • He turns some scripture completely on its head to make it fit. The classic was Philippians 2:13: "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do according to His good pleasure.". Nee argues that this means that we mustn't work at our sanctification - but both his conclusion and his logic exactly contradict what this verse and the one that immediately precedes it are clearly saying!

In short this view goes against so many parts of the Bible that talk about our own very active role in sanctification that I could not be happy with it. What's more, it involves holding a very poor caricature of Romans 8 - you have to pretty much ignore Romans 8:13, and Romans 8:23, which show the Christian still fighting and still groaning.

Also, those who talk this way never act consistently with it (except those who lead blatantly sinful lives and don't care). If sanctification is something I just sit back and let God do, why would I go to the effort of reading a book such as one of Watchman Nee's, or the Bible, or even bother to think through these things? No-one who cares about sanctifcation really puts this view into practice.

The Normal Christian Life

Not much later, I heard a sermon at the University Christian Union with this title, obviously playing off Watchman Nee, but stating the exact opposite - that the man in Romans 7 is a healthy, normal Christian! It's the healthy Christian who realises how sinful he is etc. This is the typical 'reformed' view. It apparently dates to Augustine, who went against the accepted thinking of his time, and was popularised again through the reformers.

I've never been particularly comfortable with this view. Romans 7:14 says "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin." which is exactly the kind of description given of non-Christians in Romans 6. It also seems so contrary to the way in which Christians ought to think about sanctification, and has generally just left me cold. I guess my view until recently was that Romans 7 is 'the honest Christian', but that his condition is far from one to envy or be satisfied with!

But the problem that both these views have is that neither makes any sense of the beginning of Romans 8. How on earth do you get from a Christian saying "with my flesh I serve the law of sin" to "There is therefore now condemnation", especially when Romans 8:13 insists that "if you live according to the flesh, you will die"? With either of these theologies, you've got a complete non sequitur which I have only ever resolved by effectively treating Romans 7 as an aside (but where the aside starts, I don't know).

Not a Christian at all

This leads me to a third view, that my pastor has been trying to convince us of (and I'm happily convinced!) - the man in Romans 7 is not a Christian at all.

Romans 7 starts off making a point about the law, that we are no longer married to it (as Brad has written about). And the rest of the chapter is not suddenly an excursion into personal testimony about Christian life (defeated, healthy or otherwise) - he is still making a point about the law.

Those reading the beginning of chapter 7 might think that Paul was anti-law, especially as he even says that the law makes things worse (Romans 7:8-11). So Paul has to say "not at all - the law is holy and just and good - but powerless to help you". That's his point - the law, for all its goodness, cannot help you get to God, because of the weakness of your flesh. The point is made using a vivid illustration of a man (perhaps Paul himself) who has God's law and has begun to appreciate the goodness and beauty of the law, and is trying to keep it. But he ends up defeated and frustrated (and perhaps, beginning to see that he needs a Saviour, hallelujah!), because he simply cannot do what the law requires.

Now we get to Romans 8:

1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak though the flesh, God did by sending His on Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

And now it makes sense: Why is there no condemnation? Because God has done what the law could not do! (The words 'God did' are a wonderful summary of the gospel - shame that 'did' is actually an English insertion so that it makes sense). Serving the law of sin undoubtedly leads to condemnation, and the man was powerless to change his behaviour despite many good intentions, but he is rescued in this - God did what neither he nor the law could do.

And how has God done it? He condemned sin in the flesh by condemning His own Son in our place, which means two things:

  1. The righteous requirements of the law are now fully met - so I am free from the law of 'sin and death'

  2. On the basis of His death, and on that basis alone, Christ sends His Spirit into those for whom He has died, so that we are now free from the ruling power of sin in our lives, as well as its judicial penalty.

This view doesn't involve a glib triumphalism - it takes seriously the injunction of Romans 8:13, and the reality of Galatians 5:16,17 (which is talking about Christians, as only they have the Spirit). But it does remove any excuses for sin, or any acceptance of sin. I am now a regenerate person, with Holy Spirit help for removing sin from my life. The reality is that I am dead to sin (Romans 6:6,11), and my destiny is to be utterly free from its presence in my life: how then can I let it reign?

Apparently this is essentially the view of Lloyd Jones, but Lloyd Jones confuses it slightly by saying about the man in Romans 7 "You can't call him unregenerate". Of course, there are still difficulties in the passage, but you can understand the thrust and the point without understanding every word.


  • Can a non-Christian say: "I delight in the law of God according to the inward man"? (Romans 7:22).

    The non-Christian probably cannot say it in the same way a Christian can, but that's not to say he can't say it at all. Many non-Christians have come to appreciate the beauty of God's law - Ghandi (IIRC) used to love the sermon on the mount, and read it weekly, and he tried with more success than many to put it into practice. There are very many things that an enlightened person can appreciate, without being actually regenerate (e.g. see Hebrews 6:4-6).

  • "I thank God - through Jesus Christ our Lord" - a non-Christian surely can't say that?

    Perhaps that is Paul's comment from the perspective he now has.

  • But this means I have to stop sinning!

    Yeah, sorry about that. That means you, Luke.

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