What About Romans 7?

So what about Romans 7? If Christian growth is not changing who you are but rather becoming who you are in Christ, why does Paul say such negative things about himself? He writes, “I know that nothing good dwells in me” (v18) and “Oh wretched man that I am!” (v24). That sounds like a guy at war with himself, not a guy trying to grow up into his new self. Why does he sound like that?

Because Paul is not a Christian in Romans 7. 

Of course, Paul was a Christian when he wrote Romans 7, but he is not describing himself as a Christian in Romans 7. Yes, Christians battle with sin—and sometimes they lose! There are days when genuine believers feel like they are living in Romans 7—doing what they hate and not doing what they want. Yet the question we should ask is not “Do I sometimes feel like this?” but rather “What is the Holy Spirit saying here?” 

Whole books have been written about Romans 7, with very respectable scholars coming down on both sides. I’ve even changed my own view recently, so that what I’m writing here contradicts what I preached in 2014. Lots could be said about whether Romans 7 is a Christian experience. But I’ll give you two quick reasons I don’t think it is.

First, context. Romans 7 is written to explain Romans 6:14: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Reading that, the thoughtful person asks, “Why is the dominion of sin linked to the Law? Is the Law the problem?” That’s precisely the question Paul asks in Romans 7:7: “What then shall we say? Is the law sin?” The rest of the chapter is his answer. In a nutshell, he says: “God’s Law is good and perfect, even though it has truly awful effects in the life of a person who is still in the flesh rather than in the Spirit.” In context, he’s not describing a Christian’s ongoing struggle with sin; he’s describing a man who knows God’s law but has no new power to keep it.

Second, degree. Paul makes statements in Romans 7 that go too far for a Christian. “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (v14) directly contradicts what he writes of Christians in Romans 8:9: “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” The man in Romans 7 is not just struggling with sin; he’s utterly defeated by it. And that is not the norm for a believer in whom the Spirit dwells.