by Anthony Hoekema
We have seen that the New Testament teaches the believer to look at himself as a new man who has been delivered from the slavery of sin, as a new creature, as someone who is more than a conqueror through Christ who loves him.
All this sounds very good, someone might say at this point, but how about Romans 7? Doesn't Paul in this chapter teach us that even we who are Christians don't do the good we want to do, and do the evil we don't want to do? Doesn't he tell us that although we can will what is right, we cannot do it? Doesn't he assure us that although we may indeed delight in the law of God in our inmost self, there is another law in our members which makes us captives of sin? If this chapter describes the Christian believer, how can such a constantly frustrated person have a positive self-image? How can he see himself as a victor in Christ when he finds himself repeatedly defeated by sin? How can he view himself as a new creature when there is still so much of the old in him?
The problem here concerns particularly the interpretation of Romans 7:13-25. Does this passage describe the situation of the regenerate person? Do these words give us a picture of the struggle against sin which takes place in the daily life of every believer? Is this passage a description of the normal Christian life?
It must be granted that a great many interpreters, both past and represent, so understand these words. But it should also be said that there are a number of evangelical scholars who hold to a different understanding of the passage.
I believe that what we have here in Romans 7:13-25 is not a description of the regenerate man, but of the unregenerate man who is trying to fight sin through the law alone, apart from the strength of the Holy Spirit. I grant that this is a picture of the unregenerate man seen through the eyes of a regenerate man, since Paul wrote these words after his conversion. This fact helps us to understand the vivid and perceptive way in which sin is here described. But it is the struggle of the unregenerate man (or the regenerate man when he tries to "go it alone") that is here depicted, not the normal life of the believer.
My reasons for interpreting the passage this way are as follows:
(1) Romans 7:13-25 reflects and elaborates on the condition pictured in 7:5. In 7:4 we read, "Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God." You believers, Paul is saying, died to the law because you were crucified with Christ; since you are one with Christ not only in His death but also in His resurrection, you have now been made to belong to Christ—you have been married to Christ, so to speak—so that you might bear fruit for God. In the next verse, however (v. 5), Paul goes on to say, "While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death." Obviously what is here being described is a state previous to conversion, when we believers were still "living in the flesh." At that time we were not keeping the law, but rather found that the law aroused our sinful passions; as a result, we were then bringing forth fruit not for God, but for death.
If we may for the moment skip over verse 6, we shall see that the condition described in verse 5 is precisely the condition reflected in Romans 7:13-25. Verse 13 sums up the situation pictured in verse 5: "Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure." Verse 14, which follows, begins with the word "for" (unfortunately omitted in the Revised Standard Version): "For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin." It is important also to observe that the Greek text of the next verse contains two "for"s, only one of which is reproduced in the Revised Standard Version: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." By means of these "for"s Paul is tying in what follows with what he has said before. The rest of chapter 7 is thus an elaboration of the condition described in verse 5. It will be recalled that the condition described in verse 5 is a state prior to conversion, when the people pictured in that verse were still "living in the flesh."
(2) One finds no mention of the Holy Spirit or of the strength He provides for overcoming sin in Romans 7:13-25, whereas there are at least sixteen references to the Holy Spirit in chapter 8. This fact cannot be without significance.
(3) The mood of frustration and defeat which permeates Romans 7:13-25 does not comport with the mood of victory in terms of which Paul usually describes the normal life of the Christian. We have already noted that in Galatians 5:16-25 Paul depicts the Christian struggle as between flesh and Spirit—but in an atmosphere of victory, not defeat. When Paul says, for instance, in Romans 7:23 that he sees in his members another law at war with the law of his mind, making him captive to the law of sin which dwells in his members, he certainly does not seem to be picturing the same situation as that which he describes in Romans 8:2: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death."
(4) Many commentators have called attention to the unusual words found in Romans 7:25, "So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." The words "of myself" are emphatic. They suggest that Paul is indeed describing a person who tries to "go it himself" or "go it alone"—to live the obedient life in his own strength, instead of in the strength of the Spirit.
(5) As I have already suggested, there is an abrupt change of mood as we go from Romans 7 to Romans 8. Romans 8:2 tells us how we have obtained freedom from the "law of sin and death": "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death." Paul uses the word "law" in various ways in his writings; in the verse just quoted he uses law in the sense of "principle" or "power." The power of the Spirit, he says, has set me free from the power of sin and death. This power of sin and death is what he has been experiencing during his unregenerate state. It is precisely the workings of this "law of sin and death" which have been described in such lurid colors in the second half of Romans 7 (note how often the very words "sin" and "death" occur in that passage). But now, Paul says triumphantly in 8:2, by the power of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, I and all believers with me have been set free from the slavery of sin and death!
What Paul says in 8:2, therefore, is actually a restatement of what he had said in 7:6, "but now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit." These words obviously describe, not the unregenerate man who is still "living in the flesh," but the regenerate man who has been delivered from the slavery of sin. The rest of chapter 7, beginning with the seventh verse, is an elaboration of the unregenerate condition pictured in verse 5. One could say, therefore, that 7:7-25 constitutes a kind of interlude, elaborating on and vividly dramatizing the condition pictured in 7:5, but that chapter 8 goes back to 7:6 and expands upon the state set forth there—that of the regenerate man.
(6) Romans 8:4 teaches us that the reason why God sent His Son into the world is "that that just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." These words do not expound the fact that Christ has kept the law for us (for in that case the preposition before "us" would have to be something other than "in"), but they affirm that God sent His Son so that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us or by us. This passage, further, does not speak only of what will be the case in the life to come; it obviously has a present reference. This being so, we must conclude that believers are not doomed to perpetual defeat in trying to keep the law—the kind of defeat pictured in Romans 7—but are now able to fulfill the law's just requirement, in principle though not yet in perfection, through the indwelling Spirit who enables and strengthens them.
What we have, therefore, in Romans 7:13-25 is a vivid description of the inability of a person to do what is pleasing to God in his own strength with only the law to help him. This description would strike home to the Jews among Paul's readers who set great stock by the law and thought the way to the good life was to be found through keeping the law. Such an effort, Paul is saying here, can only lead to perpetual frustration! It would also be possible, I agree, for a regenerate Christian to slip into the type of life described in the latter half of Romans 7, if he stopped walking by the Spirit and tried to keep the law of God in his own strength. But I do not believe, for the reasons given above, that the passage in question describes the typical life-style of the regenerate believer.
The interpretation of Romans 7 given above has important implications for our view of the Christian self-image. To understand the passage in this way does not imply that there is no struggle against sin in the Christian life; it only implies that Romans 7:13-25 does not describe that struggle in its usual form. I do not believe it is proper, for example, for a Christian who has fallen into some sin to quote from this passage as a kind of "excuse" for his lapse. I do not think it is a responsible use of the chapter for a believer to say, "it's no wonder I fall so far short of what I ought to be, for even that great saint, the Apostle Paul, had to confess, 'I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.'"
Understanding Romans 7:13-25 in the way described above will help us come to greater clarity on the question of the Christian's self-image. There is struggle in the Christian life, to be sure, but the struggle is to be carried on, not in an atmosphere of constant defeat, but in an atmosphere of victory. The person described in the second half of Romans 7 seems doomed to perpetual frustration; he is continually hitting his head against the wall. But the person described in Romans 8 is one who, strengthened by the Spirit, is fulfilling the just requirement of the law, is putting to death the deeds of the body, is setting his mind on the things of the Spirit, and is therefore more than a conqueror through the One who loved him. It is Romans 8, not Romans 7, which pictures what the normal Christian life is like. Accordingly, the biblical view of the Christian's self-image is to be drawn, not from Romans 7, but from Romans 8.