Romans 7:14-25

Question
Would you briefly explain the basic biblical framework of how we should view Paul's struggle in Romans 7:14-25?
Answer
There are differing interpretations of Romans 7:14-25 in the Reformed tradition, as well as in Christianity at large. Some teach that Paul is speaking of himself prior to his salvation, so that the struggle between the spirit and the flesh in this passage describes an unregenerate Jew, not a regenerate Christian. The case for this interpretation is usually made on the grounds that our new identity in Christ prevents us from being identified as sinners (compare for example 1 Cor. 6:9-11). The most obvious response to this is that nowhere in this section of Romans does Paul identify himself as a sinner. In fact, he specifically identifies the sin with who he is not (Rom. 7:17,20).

Another way that people attempt to prove that Paul was not yet regenerate in this passage is by arguing that Christians do not have these kinds of struggles with sin. The most obvious rebuttals to this argument are the facts that the Bible never teaches that Christians don't stuggle with sin, that it shows quite plainly that true Christians do struggle with sin, and that a large number of respectable Christians testify that they do struggle in this way. Paul himself struggled with pride even as an apostle, and required a "thorn" from God to keep him humble (2 Cor. 12:7). Likewise, Peter three times denies his Lord (Matt. 26:69-75), even though he had been warned that this would happen and protested that he would not buckle under the pressure (Matt. 26:34-35). Paul also extended this struggle to all believers by saying that we don't even know how to pray rightly (Rom. 8:26), that we groan as we wait for our glorified bodies (Rom. 8:23), and that even as regenerate believers we must war against the deeds of the body and put them to death (Rom. 8:11).

Further, if in Romans 7:14-25 Paul spoke of himself (or of anyone else) who was not saved, then he taught that an unsaved person could "joyfully concur with the law of God in [his] mind" (Rom. 7:22). But Paul disallowed this in the very next chapter, teaching that those who are unsaved ("in the flesh") are hostile to God, and cannot please him (Rom. 8:7-8).

Moreover, if Paul spoke of himself in the past, and not of his current struggle, then the grammar is confusing at best. Specifically, he wrote in the present tense throughout this section. While it is conceivable that he wrote in the "historic present" (using the present tense to speak of the past more vividly), we have no other example of Paul writing such an extended passage in the historic present. Rather, the normal use of the historic present is as emphasis in a context in which the author has already established that the actions took place in the past. Also, the historic present normally appears alongside true past tense verbs. However, there is no clear establishment of a past tense situation here, and there is no mixture of past and present tense as one would expect with the historic present.

A somewhat better minority-position argument is that Paul was speaking of a time when he was saved, but when he tried to live righteously by his own strength rather than by God's grace. While this does not contradict biblical teaching, it does not really seem to be Paul's point in Romans 7:14-25. In fact, Paul seems to have been relying strongly on God's grace even as he struggled: "Who will save me ... ? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then, I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin" (Rom. 7:24-25). He expressed reliance on God's grace, but added that the struggle continued. Additionally, this minority position also suffers from the assertion that Paul was speaking in the historic present.

A third minority position is that Paul was not even talking about himself, but about hypothetical unsaved people who try to attain salvation by works of the Law. The most obvious problem with this argument is that it requires that the text be terribly misleading. It suggests that in the context of a letter written in the first person and in which Paul had established the pattern of speaking about himself and from his own perspective, Paul launched into an unannounced hypothetical and impersonal use of the first person. Again, it is grammatically possible, but one fails to find any indication in the text that this is what Paul intended.

All the interpretations listed so far are guided by theological concerns, not by literary concerns. Almost all proponents of these arguments defend their positions by explaining why the text does not really mean what it appears to mean, thereby granting that it does indeed appear that Paul was speaking about his own present struggle.

The best interpretation, in my opinion, is the obvious one, the one all the other positions take great pains to disprove, the one that would have been most obvious to Paul's original audience who did not know Paul, and who had not learned his particular vocabulary or theology. This interpretation is that Paul was speaking of his own present struggle in order to reassure his readers that their own struggles did not exclude them from salvation. Notice also that this is exactly what Paul though he had proven by this argument, as he went on to conclude in Romans 8:1, "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

So then, what is the nature of the struggle between the spirit/mind "me" and the flesh/body "me"? The NIV seems to imply that Paul was speaking of his present struggle, but also that Paul was not talking about sin indwelling his physical being but rather indwelling his "sinful nature" (Rom. 7:18 NIV). The NLT goes so far as to eliminate from its text any mention of physical being. However, in the Greek Paul used a broad range of words to refer to his body, so that there might be no misunderstanding. He used the words: "flesh" (sarx [Rom. 7:18,25]); "members" or "body parts" (melos [twice in Rom. 7:23]); and "body" (soma [Rom. 7:24]). He also used the Greek word sarkinos, over which there has been much controversy. Some say sarkinos does not mean "made of flesh" but rather "unspiritual, oriented toward earthly life." Also, some argue that "flesh" (sarx) may refer generically to things of this world, or to our "old man." While it is true that "flesh" (sarx) often carries these meanings metaphorically, it is nonetheless true that its basic literal meaning is simply "flesh," the stuff of which our bodies consist. Moreover, there is no legitimate argument over the meanings of "members" or of "body." The plain meaning of the text is that Paul was speaking of sin indwelling his actual, physical body. No other meaning would not have been so evident to Paul's original audience, particularly given the Greek (dualistic) background of many of them, and especially given the fact that Paul had already introduced this language and this struggle in Romans 6:12-13 by using the unambiguous words "bodies" (soma) and "members" (melos).

Moreover, Paul spent much of the next chapter speaking of this same struggle between flesh and spirit, in the context of which he mentioned that Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). The reason that Christ came in the "likeness" of sinful flesh was that his flesh was without sin -- but unless "flesh" refers to Christ's physical body, there is no definition of "flesh" available that permits Christ to have flesh and to be sinless. Further, if "flesh" is understood as "sinful nature" or as anything else other than physical being, there does not seem to be any good way to explain the fact that Christ bore the likeness of sinful flesh. How does one bear the likeness of a sinful nature without actually having a sinful nature? Also, in Romans 8:13, Paul equated "living according to the flesh" with "deeds of the body," making it clear by this parallelism that "flesh" was the same as "body." Body cannot mean anything but physical being in this context: "He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies" (Rom. 8:11). It certainly seems to me that Paul intended "flesh" to identify physical being.

Paul also spent much of chapter 8 explaining that our salvation is not yet complete because we await the redemption of our physical bodies at our glorification (Rom. 8:11,17,23,30). This accords perfectly with the argument that Romans 7:14-25 refers to our yet unredeemed and still sin-infected bodies. Having explained the source of our struggle with sin even as Christians, Paul offered hope for future relief from the sin which indwells our bodies (cf. Rom. 7:24: "Who will save me from the body of this death?"). It ought to go without saying that we won't receive our glorified, perfected bodies until after this life when the final resurrection occurs (1 Cor. 15). Notice also that in this context Paul again affirmed the struggle we endure as Christians by saying that we don't even know how to pray rightly (Rom. 8:26), that we groan as we wait for our glorified bodies (Rom. 8:23), and that even as regenerate believers we must war against the deeds of the body and put them to death (Rom. 8:11).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.