Friday, January 18, 2013

So What's Really Up With Romans 7?

by Stephen Altrogge

I know, I know, I’ve been on this Romans 7 soapbox for a couple posts now. I’ve been ranting and raving, saying that Romans 7:7-25 is not about Christians at all. I promise I’ll get down after this post and the tendons in my neck will go back to normal levels, non-fanatical levels. But there’s one question that seems to linger in the air when I talk about Romans 7:7-25:

Why do so many people think the passage is about Christians?
I mean, come on, I’m disagreeing with John Piper, J.C. Ryle, John Owen, and a lot of other dangerously smart, godly guys. Yes I am. I humbly and respectfully think that they’re wrong. But I can understand why they, and so many others, think that Romans 7:7-25 is about the Christian.

First, in some ways, the passage seems to describe what we experience as Christians. When Paul describes, in the present tense (“didn’t Stephen’s mom ever teach him about grammar?”), the internal battle of wanting to obey God, yet finding himself disobeying, we can relate to that. The battle against sin is hard and feels like a struggle! Fighting against sin can be exhausting! We do fail and stumble. We all can relate at some level to the struggle that Paul is describing.

But does Paul speaking in the present tense mean that he is describing the Christian experience? I don’t think so. Gordon Fee helpfully says:
What Paul describes throughout is what it was like to live under the law; and whatever else is true of the Christian Paul, he did not consider himself to be under the law. What he describes from his now Christian perspective, is what it was like to live under law before Christ and the Spirit. The use of “I” and the present tense of the verbs only heighten the intensity of his feelings toward the utter helplessness of the law to do anything about the real problem of sin. (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, pg. 134)
The second reason so many people think this passage is about Christians is that we in the Reformed circles tend to lean pretty heavily on the Puritans, and nobody was more introspective about sin than the Puritans. I mean, seriously, they named their kids things like “Killing Sin” and “Fighting the Devil”.

John Owen, who was basically the Captain America of the Puritans, wrote some incredibly helpful things about the fight against sin. He believed that Romans 7:7-25 described the Christian experience and a portion of his writings flowed out of that perspective. His writings have shaped the way we Reformed folks think about the doctrine of indwelling sin.

Now, it’s quite possible that I could be wrong in my interpretation of Romans 7:7-25. After all, lots of ninja smart guys disagree with me. But I do think it’s important to sort through this question. If we interpret the passage as describing the Christian then it makes failure in our battle against sin much more acceptable. After all, if Paul felt this way, then surely I will too. But if it is describing a person without the Holy Spirit, it gives me much more faith that the Spirit will empower me in my battle against sin. As Paul says, I will be delivered from this body of death.

Okay, now I’ll step down.