That fact is painfully obvious to anyone who has ever met one.
But we need to be able to explain why this is the case. Haven’t Christians been rescued from sin and death by the death and resurrection of Jesus? Don’t we have the Holy Spirit at work in us now, bringing about inner transformation and obedience? Shouldn’t Christians be different to the world around us?
The answer to all those questions is an emphatic “yes!”
And yet Christians do sin and the Bible warns that we deceive ourselves to think or expect otherwise (1 John 1:8). How do these things fit together?
Why People Disagree about Romans 7
Let’s look one of the most disputed passages in the Bible. Christians have long disagreed on the meaning of Romans 7:15-25, a passage which narrates a man’s experience of sin. The Apostle Paul appears to be talking about himself: the man is referred to as “I” throughout. But he makes some very strong, defeated-sounding statements about his experience of sin (Romans 7:18) and even sounds like he still belongs under the rule of sin rather than under that of Jesus (Romans 7:14).
Who is this self-professed ‘wretched man’ (Romans 7:24)?
Is it Paul himself? Is he dramatising a non-Christian Jew’s experience of the law? Is this a Christian? Another option?
The identity of this “wretched man” of Romans 7 has major implications for our expectations of how we are able obey God. Should Christians expect to find themselves frustrated by our inability to obey God consistently? Or is that itself just a sinful excuse for disobedience?
Many argue that the ‘wretched man’ in this passage can’t possibly refer to Paul the Christian, or to Christians generally, since then this passage would contradict other nearby statements in Romans:
- This man is a ‘slave to sin’ (Rom 7:14), whereas Christians are ‘set free from sin’ (Rom 6:7, 17, 18, 20).
- This man is ‘unspiritual’ (Rom 7:14), whereas Christians have the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9).
- This man is a ‘prisoner of the law of sin’ (Rom 7:23), whereas sin will not be the master of Christians (Rom 6:14).
- This man is unable to do good (Rom 7:18-19), whereas Christians are empowered by God’s Spirit to obey (Rom 7:6; 8:4).
Those seem like compelling reasons to reject the idea that this passage describes Christian experience. The theological outcome of this way of reading the passage is that it teaches a simple distinction between new and old, Christian and non-Christian, like what we observed previously:
However, things are not so simple. Yes, Christians are ‘sanctified’ and marked out as ‘holy’ in Christ now. We fully belong to him. However, our transformation has only just begun (2 Corinthians 3:18). God plans to comprehensively transform us to be like Christ when he returns (1 John 3:2-3). Resurrection and perfection go together since only resurrected people can live truly godly lives. That means that there is an intermediate step between the Old and fully New life of the age to come:
The old man is enslaved to sin and death. The new man is freed from sin and death, and into righteousness and life. In between, in the present ‘overlap of the ages’, Christians begin to live the transformed life of the Spirit now, but in pre-resurrected, death-bound bodies.
There are signs that the ‘wretched man’ in Romans 7 has experienced this inner-transformation by the Spirit. Indeed, some details of Romans 7 are incompatible with the view that the wretched man is an unbeliever. For example, he has a ‘desire to do what is good’ (Romans 7:18) and a ‘delight in God’s law’ (Romans 7:22). The next chapter claims that such desires come from the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5). The ‘wretched man’ doesn’t appear to have a ‘mind governed by the flesh’ which is ‘hostile to God’ (Romans 8:7; cf. 1:28). He wants to obey God. The entire reason that he is upset is that he is dissatisfied by his level of obedience to God.
Resurrection: the Key to Understanding Romans 7
Romans 7:14-25 is indeed about one side of Christian experience. Notice: one side. Romans 6-8 teaches that there are two sides to Christian experience that must both be recognised lest we fall into the false extremes of either perfectionism or spiritual apathy.
Christian experience is about the power of the New Creation invading the present. We live in the ‘overlap of the ages‘. That is how Christians can presently experience the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of the life of the future New Creation. When Jesus returns he will renew all creation by his Spirit so that it will be full of life and righteousness, through-and-through (Romans 8:18-23). But the Holy Spirit also lives inside Christians now, meaning that the Spirit’s New-Creation power is also at work in us now. The Spirit has begun renewing Christians inwardly in anticipation of the time at which he will renew us entirely—inside and out—in the resurrection (Romans 8:11).
To understand Romans 7 we must pay close attention to how Paul describes different aspects of our humanity in relation to the Spirit’s present work. Paul is very specific in the way in which he speaks of our bodies, flesh, mind and heart. In short, he teaches that until the resurrection Christians will find that their bodies and flesh are at war with their heart and mind. The Holy Spirit is renewing our heart and mind now but will not renew our bodies (i.e. resurrection) until he returns.
Our death-bound bodies are part of the old order. This is what it means that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 15:50). You can’t put decaying, death-bound bodies into a resurrected ecosystem! Our bodies must be resurrected first. On the other hand, whilst we are ‘outwardly wasting away’ (referring to our bodily existence) ‘inwardly we are being renewed’ by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Romans 7 reflects this way of seeing things. Notice how Paul uses the word Body. At present ‘sin reigns in [our] mortal bodies’ (Romans 6:12), such that we each have a ‘body of sin’ (Romans 6:6). For Christians, the Spirit is alive in us though ‘the body is dead’ (Romans 8:10) and so we await the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:23).
Flesh is a related idea that also refers to our physical existence. But whereas ‘body’ focuses on our mortality, flesh focuses on unruly bodily desires that lead us astray (Romans 7:5). When led by our base instincts, humans are little more than animals driven by desires for food, sex, and avoidance of suffering. People led by the flesh are willing to do whatever it takes to get those things (Romans 8:5; cf. 1:21-32). ‘Flesh’ refers to how such desires tend to dominate us since we are often too weak to oppose them effectively (Romans 7:17-18; 8:3). Fleshly weakness leads to sin.
Contrast that to how Paul describes the inner-life of the Heart and Mind. The Spirit is renewing these faculties in Christians now. Renewed hearts desire to obey God (Romans 6:17). Renewed minds set out to obey the Spirit rather than the flesh (Romans 8:5-7).
Paul wrote Romans to instruct renewed Christian hearts and minds on the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26). He calls Christians to refuse to be ‘conformed to the pattern of age’, meaning the old era of sin and death. Instead we are to ‘offer our bodies as living sacrifices’ of obedience (Romans 12:1-2). That’s a difficult thing to do given that we still live in pre-resurrection bodies bound for the grave. So how do we go about doing that? Answer: “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2). Christian obedience is a matter of bringing our weak, mortal bodies (specimens of this present age) into conformity with what our renewed hearts and minds know and love. You get a sense of why devotion to Scripture is so important! Our inner-life must continue to be renewed by God’s Spirit through his word.
The ‘eschatological tension’ runs through the middle of every Christian. Our hearts and minds pull us toward the life of the Kingdom of God, even whilst our fleshly nature continues to pull us toward sin and death. God is at work in his people, renewing our love and knowledge of him so that we not only know how to obey him, but we desperately want to.
Christian Experience in the Last Days
With those concepts in place it is clear that Romans 7 is about Paul’s own experience. It describes one side of normal Christian experience:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing.Romans 7:18-19
Notice that he distinguishes between his flesh and his renewed inner-life. In his flesh good does not dwell (7:18), but in his ‘inner being’ he desires ‘to do what is good’. He loves God’s law (Romans 7:22) but at the same time his flesh is ‘waging war’ against his renewed mind (7:23) making it impossible to for him to obey in accordance with his inner-desires.
The passage makes stronger claims still. The fleshly pre-resurrection aspect of Christians is not the real us. Paul might sound like he is trying to excuse himself from responsibility when he claims that when he sins ‘it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it…’ (Romans 7:20). But that isn’t his point at all. His point is that the old Paul (Saul of Tarsus) is dead. Unfortunately, until the resurrection his zombie corpse keeps dragging the new Paul into sin. This is true of all Christians. At conversion, we are born anew into resurrection life and our old self dies (Romans 6:1-6). However we are still the same ‘fleshly’ embodiment as before. Our sinful flesh continues to lead us astray, contrary to our renewed heart and mind.
In our present, pre-resurrection state Christians often fall into sin. However Christians have renewed desires, which will lead to new responses to sin: grief, repentance, and eager hope for the day of our final rescue. As Paul says:
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my flesh a slave to the law of sin.Romans 7:24-25
We will only be rescued from our body of death when we are finally resurrected. Christians currently experience two competing slaveries to two masters who are at war with one another. But the old is passing away, the new is begun, and is soon to arrive in all its fullness. Praise God for the hope of resurrection glory!
Read Romans 6-8 for yourself. I believe this way of reading Romans 7 makes sense of the details. It’s also worth noting that Galatians 5:16-18 makes the same point about pre-resurrection conflict within believers.
Two Extremes to Avoid
We must be careful to not exaggerate either side of what this passage says. On the one hand Christians should have confidence that God’s Spirit truly is at work in us to lead us to obey. You truly can obey God! Falling into spiritual apathy is both profoundly unChristian and spiritually dangerous. The Holy Spirit will never let us remain satisfied with less than full holiness. So let’s prayerfully seek to obey God in the Spirit!
On the other hand, we must recognise the reality of the state we live in. We must not give in to the unbiblical and unliveable doctrine of perfectionism, the idea that you can reach sinless perfection in this life. The aspiration is a godly one: we should all seek to be perfect like Jesus (Matthew 5:48). However, the frustrating truth is that we won’t achieve this until Christ reappears.
It is this sense of dissatisfaction in the face of sin that will lead us to pray “Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).