How to Understand and Preach Romans 7

chris gordonMy impression is that, over the last few decades, the historic Reformed reading of Romans 7 has taken one on the chin, as it were. Perhaps that’s not so. I’ve not done a survey to see how pastors are reading and preaching it so perhaps the historic and confessional Reformed reading of Romans 7 is doing just fine. Nevertheless, on the supposition that the theory that when Paul says “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (ESV), he had adopted the persona of an unbeliever (that was the view of both Pelagius and Arminius), that he was not speaking as a Christian, has been influential among Reformed folk, I point you to a recent sermon on Romans 7:13–24 by my pastor, the Rev. Mr. Chris Gordon (Escondido URC) as a good example of how Romans 7 ought to be read and preached. Thanks too to HB reader Jack Miller for re-posting Kim Riddlebarger’s excellent essay on Romans 7 on “The Normal Christian Life.”

10 comments

  1. Hi Dr. Clark,
    It was this very passage that brought me to realize that our salvation does not eliminate struggle, it begets it. That is why I am so thankful for sleep each night, the Lord’s Day each week, and that final Day ultimately.
    Doesn’t this passage also remind you of Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis.
    I hope you have a blessed day.

    Ginger

  2. Thank you for this post Dr. Clark. I have two quick questions:

    1. Didn’t the “red flags” first go up concerning Arminius because of his interpreting Romans 7 as being Paul as a non believer? I.E., wasn’t his interpretation of Rom. 7 what initially signaled to people that he was trouble… leading to his ultimate condemnation at Dort?

    2. I have heard that Paul Middendorf’s book, The “I” in the Storm: A Study of Romans 7, is really good, and does a thorough exegetical and historical study of this passage. Have you read it or are you familiar with it? If so, do you recommend it?

    • Hi Chuck,

      Arminius was ordained in 1588. He was in trouble by 1590. I don’t remember exactly when but in the mid 90s he was preaching through Romans and grave concerns were being expressed. His views on Rom 7 definitely raised a red flag.

      I’ve not read that volume and can’t comment. You might take a look at Joel Kim’s chapter in Always Reformed on Arminius views.

  3. I would like to question whether the interpretation you endorse should be classified as “the historic and confessional Reformed reading.” It may well be the “historic” one (in terms of the mainstream), but the latter qualifier is to suggest that (certain) alternative readings are in fact “un-confessional.” I do not see how for example Herman Ridderbos’ exegesis exemplified in “Romans 7” or Dennis Johnson’s careful analysis in his contribution to Gaffin’s festschrift could be construed as contra-confessional: in fact, the conclusions they reach are very much the same ones of Reformed doctrine in the areas of justification and sanctification. Admittedly the emphases and applications will be different depending on which track you take. But overlapping with Arminius in one area does not make one an Arminian. I guess it has to do with whether one thinks this is the proverbial dangerous “camel’s nose” to get in the (Reformed) tent?

    • Hi Ken,

      When I say historic, there’s not much doubt about how the Reformed historically interpreted Romans 7, is there? They appealed to Romans 7 consistently to explain the Christian’s struggle with sin. When Arminius proposed his “persona” interpretation, it was controversial.

      When I say confessional, I’m thinking of

      56. What do you believe concerning the “forgiveness of sins”?

      That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction,1 will no more remember my sins, nor the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long; but graciously imputes to me the righteousness of Christ,2 that I may nevermore come into condemnation.3

      1 I John 2:2. 2 2 Cor 5:19, 21. Rom 7:24, 25. Ps 103:3,10,12. Jer 31:34. Rom 8;1-4. 3 John 3:18. * Eph 1:7. * Rom 4:7,8. * Rom 7:18.

      and HC 60:

      60. How are you righteous before God?

      Only by true faith in Jesus Christ;1 that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,2 and am still prone always to all evil;3 yet God without any merit of mine,4 of mere grace,5 grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction,6 righteousness, and holiness of Christ,7 as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me;8 if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.9

      1 Rom 3:21-25. Gal 2:16. Eph 2:8,9. Phil 3:9. 2 Rom 3:9,10. 3 Rom 7:23.; 4 Titus 3:5. 5 Rom 3:24. Eph 2:8.
      6 I John 2:2. 7 I John 2:1. Rom 4:4,5. 2 Cor 5:19. 8 2 Cor 5:21. 9 John 3:18. * Rom 3:28. * Rom 10:10.

      When the HC says, “am still prone always to all evil” it is reflecting the way Calvin, Ursinus, Olevianus and just about everyone else in the period read Romans 7.

      It’s true that the proof texts supplied here are later additions so I’m not claiming confessional status for them but I do the citation of Rom 7 does reflect the original intent of the documents.

      The OPC edition of the Confession of Faith and Catechisms cites as a proof text Rom 7:14-24 under WCF 9.4.

      For a long time I had the impression that Ridderbos’ reading of Rom 7 was one thing and Arminius’ was another. Now, I think, there is less distance between them than I once thought. I think it’s useful to know the history of interpretation as we do our own work.

  4. It may well be the “historic” one (in terms of the mainstream), but the latter qualifier is to suggest that (certain) alternative readings are in fact “un-confessional.”

    I was thinking the same thing. T. David Gordon also compellingly argues that the “I” in the latter part of chapter seven represents the plight of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. I can certainly read my own experience into the “normal Christian life” view, but the redemptive historical view also seems appealing, in that it undergirds the law-gospel distinction, and it ultimately seems more satisfying exegetically. But to say this is “unconfessional” seems to suggest that a ministerial candidate holding this view would need to take an exception, which I doubt (correct me if I’m wrong).

    • I have tried to synthesize the RH reading with the traditional reading–and no interpretation is problem-free–but I keep coming back to the traditional reading as the one that fits best with chapters 6 and 8.

      Over the years I have also become increasingly uncomfortable with the a priori notion that Paul couldn’t be describing the Christian in chapter 7. The idea that when Paul says “sold as a slave” he couldn’t be speaking as a Christian I think rests in assumptions that I don’t share.

  5. In the middle of listening right now; he mentions an expanded understanding of gluttony, and says “The law came home to me; the law got in my heart.” Do you think this bears on Jer 31/Heb 8 with God writing his law on the heart in the New Covenant?

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