Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Romans 7 Is NOT About Christians!

by Stephen Altrogge

I used to think that Romans 7:7-25 was describing the Christian experience of the battle against sin. I don’t think that anymore. In fact, I don’t think the passage is talking about Christians at all, and in the next several posts I hope to show you why.

But before I rush headlong into this thorn bush of a passage, let me issue a few disclaimers. First, lots of Christians, including some ultra-smart (like, able to bend spoons with their mind kind of smart) believe that this is talking about Christians. So I’m in the minority here. Second, these posts are not going to be a place for theological cage fighting. I would love to hear your perspective and be sharpened by your thoughts, but there won’t be any comment bashing on this blog. If your comment stinks, I’ll probably delete it.

And, I realize that there are a lot of questions that this post and future posts will raise. I’ll try to answer them as they come up, but I can’t promise that I can answer every question.

Let me tell you right up front who I think Romans 7 is talking about (that’s a terribly constructed sentence, but it’s 9AM and the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet). Romans 7:7-25 was written to describe the experience of a pious Jew, possibly Paul himself before conversion, who is seeking to obey the law, yet finds himself unable to obey apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is not written about a Christian trying to follow Jesus and constantly failing.

NO HOLY SPIRIT!

The first and primary reason I believe that this is not about Christians is the complete lack of any mention of the Holy Spirit in these verses. In Romans 7:6 Paul says:
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
This pretty much sums up Paul’s thinking on pursuing holiness as a Christian. We serve in the new way of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in us, empowering us to overcome and to conquer sin. We are no longer slaves, we are sons. Under the law we were powerless to obey God and his commands, but under the new covenant we have the law written on our hearts.

In Galatians 5:16, Paul says:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
There is such certainty in this verse! If we walk by the Spirit we absolutely will not gratify the desires of the flesh. We won’t be dominated by our desires, we will have victory over them by the power of the Spirit.

But in Romans 7:18-19, Paul says:
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
That statement simply does not line up with everything else Paul says about living the Christian life. As a Christian, he does have the ability to carry out the desire to what’s right. As a Christian, he does not have to keep doing the evil he does not want to do. He is a new creation in Christ, with the law written on his heart.

As Gordon Fee says regarding Romans 7:7-25:
The person here described never wins. Being under the helpless law, in the face of the more powerful flesh and sin, means being sold as a slave under sin, and thus incapable of doing the good thing the law demands. Such a description is absolutely incompatible with Paul’s view of life in Christ, empowered by the Spirit. (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, pg. 134)
Paul is not describing his life as a Christian. He’s describing what it was like to be a Jew who genuinely sought to obey the law of God, yet felt himself to be powerless apart from the Spirit.

The hard thing about this passage is that it describes many of our experience in the battle against sin. What are we to make of that? More on that later.