The wretched man
Possibly the most misunderstood chapter in scripture, Romans 7 has held countless Christians in an identity crisis.
Today we examine the ‘wretched Romans 7 man’. Without a proper context in mind as we read, Romans 7 can seem to be describing the normal Christian experience. A battle with sin that can never truly end in this life, because sin remains part of our nature post-conversion (v17, v20). The problem is that this drastically contradicts the explicit message of Paul’s epistles that we are no longer under sin’s dominion. We were actually set free from the sin nature itself when we were co-crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6, Col. 3:3, Gal. 2:20, 2 Cor. 5:21).
Another problem is that the Romans 7 man is not having an occasional experience of sin, but an utter defeat by sin (v14, v24).
If we conclude that Romans 7 is the Christian experience, than we must agree with Paul that we are “carnal”, “sold under sin”, and “wretched” to the core.
We are destined for failure, a life of sinfulness no different to unbelievers. The conclusion must be made that we are left in the exact same state as before we were born again, remaining under the Jewish law (a huge contradiction to the new covenant which I will address in future posts) and that we cannot expect liberation from sin in this life. This is what Romans 7 is teaching if we believe it refers to the Christian experience.
Not exactly good news right?
The true message of the New Covenant is that we are now light with no darkness (Eph. 5:8). We are new creations with the old nature gone and the new fully come (2 Cor 5:17). We are partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3), free from sin (Rom. 6:2-7-11-18-22), and saints (over 60 verses). These powerful statements of our identity must be explained away as ‘positional’, or theoretical if we embrace the idea that Romans 7 represents the Christian experience.
Or have we possibly misunderstood this passage of scripture?
There are far fewer paradoxes in scripture than we ever imagined, but this is only seen when we begin to read in context.
My Romans 7 chapter
I did not conclude that the Romans 7 experience is not the Christian life because I have never related to the experience of the Romans 7 man. I had a striking resemblance to this man before I discovered the truth! But we must never let our experience determine truth for us.
Scripture must dictate truth to us, and then our experience will submit itself to the truth as we learn to embrace it by faith, despite what our experience might try to declare on the matter.
I was travelling in India, four years into my Christian faith, struggling with sin. Lust, drinking too much, selfishness and much more. I was a brand new creation from the day of my conversion, but was deceived. Without the knowledge of righteousness and the finished work of Jesus on my behalf, I was living as lost as I had before I met Jesus. Only now, I had a new heart and the divine nature living inside me, so was far more miserable when I sinned, because I was no longer compatible with it. I believed I was a ‘sinner saved by grace’, and so my experience was one of sin, and turmoil. One day, while travelling on the famous Indian train lines, I found myself reading my pocket bible and came across Romans 7 for the first time.
I read Paul’s present tense, first person words about doing what he did not want to do, and not doing what he wanted to do (v15, v19). I read his comments about being a wretched man, sold under sin (v14, v24).
I found myself strangely comforted as I read, concluding that Paul must have had the same experience I was having!
“Paul also lived a life of struggle with sin” I thought. “He was also defeated by it constantly even though he did not want to be”! I had not found an answer that could make me free from sin, but I thought I had a mutual experience with Paul, and that was comforting.
I slumped back into the Romans 7 ‘sofa’, a place of comfort in sin, a place of resolving that sin was just a lifelong battle to resign myself to.
If the amazing apostle Paul struggled with sin to the degree he mentions in Romans 7 then I was obviously destined to as well. I resolved that God forgave me eternally and in His grace He would always love me in my sin, but He simply had not saved me from my sin. I resolved that there was no way to be free from sin in this life. At best, I could slightly progress in sanctification and make some ground in holiness. For the rest of my life I would just need to continually ask forgiveness and be happy with a future promise of liberation. I was comforted because I had an answer for my experience finally, a dis-empowering one, but an answer none the less.
Jesus saved us from our sin, not in our sin
When a message of a real and infused nature of righteousness found its way to me years later, I had to have my fingers pried off my Romans 7 comfort. Because of my long history with sin and having defined myself as a sinner still, my life had continued to digress. I had come to a place of complacency in sin, even though I did not have an enjoyable experience in life and was powerless to overcome sin. The problem is that sin is never satisfied, it takes and takes from us with an insatiable appetite, hence the continual digression.
I then had a powerful experience with God one day while being prayed for. I was set free of some things I thought I would never be free from in this life. I started to hear a message of identity in Christ, of sonship, of adoption. I started to see righteousness on every page of my bible, and not merely as a future promise, but as a present tense inheritance! I had to humble myself and reconsider my conclusions of Romans 7.
I had to acknowledge that perhaps my experience had interpreted scripture for me, instead of scripture defining and transforming my experience.
I know that many who read this, will have a very similar association with Romans 7, and if still in that place, are having a battle with sin right now. I can boldly say, the battle was won on the cross. The Lamb of God saved us from our sin, not in our sin (John 1:29)! Having discovered the reality of the finished work, and the proper context of Romans 7, I could finally embrace the explicit message of righteousness made in the gospel, and walk free from sin!
I still feel temptation at times, and have had some rare stumbles too. But now I see sin for what it really is, outside of me trying to make me submit to it’s deception.
God removed sin from our nature, but not from the earth.
It has a way of trying to convince us we have not changed and aims to rule in our lives by deceiving us. I have discovered that it has no power or authority except that which I give it by a lack of understanding or by giving myself to lies. Faith meets expectation. If we expect a battle with sin as Christians, guess what we are going to get? Sin will take opportunity through our misunderstanding. Our experience then will continue to reinforce our idea that Romans 7 is the Christian life, because that is where our faith has rested.
If you believe you are a dog, it will be normal for you to bark. If you believe you are a sinner, it will be normal for you to sin. I wonder what would happen if you believed you are a saint.
I can boldly say that I live a life of liberty that would offend and confuse many, and it is because of this revelation. I know many others who do too. Radical freedom. When you discover His righteousness, freely infused to your redeemed nature, this gives you access to a life of intimacy with the Father that will overwhelm you. As you recognise that He recreated you in His perfect likeness, any opposing feeling or thought can clearly be distinguished from your new nature. You will truly rest in Father God and deeply enjoy your union with Him.
If you are not the Romans 7 man then who is?
Let’s look at a brief overview of Romans 5-8 to get a clearer idea of who the Romans 7 man is.
Romans 5: Death in Adam, life in Christ. Distinguishing our old life in Adam from our new life in Christ. We are justified now by Jesus’ resurrection.
Romans 6: In light of Romans 5, we are therefore free from sin (Stated at least four times)! We died Jesus’ death with him and are raised in the likeness of His resurrection! We are not under law but under grace as new creations.
Romans 7: Paul now anticipates questions from the Jewish believers about their relationship to the law as Christians. Paul begins by saying:
“Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives?” Rom 7:1.
He then explains that we died to the law when we were wedded to Christ! A powerful transition for Jewish thinking believers. Paul uses present tense language to define His own past experience under the law. He knows the Jewish believers can fully relate to this. He reasons that the law was designed to expose and increase our sinfulness so that we would recognise our helplessness without a Saviour. He makes the Christians death to the law absolutely clear so that the Jewish readers are able to fully embrace the fullness of the finished work. “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” Rom 7:6. The context becomes very clear now.
Romans 8: Paul can now conclude his thoughts on the law, summing up the subject of Romans 7 with: “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.” Rom 8:1. He proceeds now to unpacking our life in the spirit as sons and daughters of God, liberated from the law, and alive in our adoption.
The nuts and bolts
Here are three huge inconsistencies that we must explain if we maintain that the Romans 7 experience is the Christian experience:
- “For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.” (Rom 7:5)
- “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” (Rom 7:23)
In verse 5, we see that sinful passions were (past tense) at work in our members when we were (past tense) in the flesh.
In verse 23, Paul uses the same terms, but refers to the law of sin still being in his members! In verse 23 we see Paul state the opposite of verse 5, that the law of sin was still very much in his members.
If Paul speaks of his current experience in verse 14-24 where first person language is used, then he has contradicted himself with opposite themes here. The flesh is not something that can scripturally be defined as the sinful nature, or an evil facet of the Christian. It is an often misunderstood term.
If the spirit of God dwells in you, then the flesh does not (Rom. 8:9)
The flesh when referring to the ‘old man’ was circumcised once for all by the crucifixion of Christ (Col. 2:11). Galatians 5:24 tells us that “anyone who is in Christ has crucified the flesh, with its desires”. We now have a neutral flesh (sarx), referring to our human body, and an ability to think according to the flesh (carnal thinking), but we no longer have the ‘flesh’ of the old nature. Further posts will unpack the ‘flesh’, but for now note the stark contradiction in these two verses in Romans 7.
- “For he who has died has been freed from sin.” Rom 6:7. “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Rom 6:18. “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” Rom 6:22.
- “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.” Rom 7:14
The whole chapter of Romans 6 declares our freedom from sin to the point of repetitiveness. In Romans 7:14 the man describes himself as sold under sin however. Are we free from sin, or sold under it, still? We cannot be both. Paul cannot be referring to the Christian experience in Romans 7.
- “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Rom 7:23
- “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Rom 8:2
Remember that there was no chapter breaks in Paul’s original letter. Here in Romans 7:23, Paul says he is in captivity to the law of sin. However, Paul’s conclusion of Romans 7 four verses later in Romans 8:2, is that we are free from the law of sin by the spirit of life in Christ! Either Paul was having a dull moment as he wrote and contradicted himself on all these points, or he is simply not talking about the Christian life in Romans 7.
A Little more
Multiple modern commentators agree that Paul is not referring to the Christian experience in Romans 7:14-25. It creates far too many unexplainable inconsistencies, not to mention the blatant opposition it would mean to the explicit message of scripture that in Christ we have moved from death to life. Douglas J. Moo is an exceptional commentator on Romans for those wanting to get some more insight.
There are two popular alternative thoughts about the Romans 7 man.
- Paul is referring strictly to his own past experience under the law. He uses present-past tense language so that the Jewish believers can associate themselves with this past, too.
- Paul is associating with the entire Israelite nation and its experience under the law, using present-past tense language still.
Either of these alternatives are possible and I am not dogmatic about either of them. The critical thing to settle is that Romans 7:14-25 is absolutely not speaking of the Christian experience.
When read through the right lens, it is incredible to see how we have misunderstood Romans 7. Misunderstandings like this have done far more damage than we have realised. In order for the church to live in the fullness of what Jesus purchased us for, we must remove these ‘hindrances to holiness’ in our traditions.
Jesus did not win us in a rotary club raffle. He did not wake up one day and make an impulsive decision to redeem us. He purchased us with his precious blood, an eternal price, with eternal ramifications
He had all eternity past to anticipate our redemption, and never thought twice about the cost. You are not a sinner any more, it is time for your experience to bow to this reality as you embrace His righteous nature within you! He has seated you in His very own being, He has restored you from every hindrance that ever could have separated you from Him! Do not miss out on your inheritance by believing lies about who you are.
Jesus has declared our own value to us in the lengths he went to for our restoration
We must explore what restoration, regeneration, redemption and reconciliation really mean for us today. No more ‘future promise’ business. We must overcome the things which keep us from His intimate love. We must stand for the truth, no matter the contradiction. We are blood bought, and must pursue to honour the price He paid in our lives. We can, and must give the Lamb that was slain the reward of His suffering.