Believer, You Are A Romans 7:25 Christian

Against The Presumption Of Perfectionism

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, consequently, on the one hand, I myself serve the law of God with my mind but, on the other, with the flesh I serve the law of sin.”1

“Certain are the faithful about final victory and full liberation.”2 These were the opening words of Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) on this verse but we might suspect that were this verse not in holy Scripture that one would find oneself in trouble for even uttering v. 25b. Nevertheless, this is just how, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul spoke about his struggle with sin as a Christian and about his assurance of his right standing with God (justification) and salvation despite his ongoing struggle with sin. In short, this is Paul’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinner).

The perfectionists (e.g., Wesleyans and the Nazarenes), however, cannot speak this way and neither can the legalists or moralists. For the latter group our “final salvation” (as they say) is always in doubt and for the former, the struggle with sin has ostensibly ended. In the history of the Christian church, one of the first and most influential perfectionists and moralists was Pelagius, a British monk who appeared Melchizedek-like in the late fourth century. He was attracted to moralistic preaching, i.e., preaching that featured a great deal of emphasis on law and our obligations as Christians and very little talk of grace or God’s free acceptance of sinners. He was also deeply offended by Augustine’s prayer in his Confessions to God, “Give what you command and command what you will.”3

Like all perfectionists and moralists, however, Pelagius knew a priori that Paul could not have been speaking about his Christian experience. He knew a priori that Paul must have created a persona for the purposes of Romans chapter 7.

Augustine Versus The Pelagians On Romans 7

The Augustinian and historic Reformed understanding of Romans 7, however, is that Paul was speaking about his struggle, as a Christian, with sin. Against the Pelagians Augustine wrote,

And it had once appeared to me also that the apostle was in this argument of his describing a man under the law. But afterwards I was constrained to give up the idea by those words where he says, “Now, then, it is no more I that do it.” For to this belongs what he says subsequently also: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And because I do not see how a man under the law should say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man;” since this very delight in good, by which, moreover, he does not consent to evil, not from fear of penalty, but from love of righteousness (for this is meant by “delighting”), can only be attributed to grace.4

Calvin took the same approach. In his commentary on Romans 7:25 he wrote,

So I myself, &c.” A short epilogue, in which he teaches us, that the faithful never reach the goal of righteousness as long as they dwell in the flesh, but that they are running their course, until they put off the body. He again gives the name of mind, not to the rational part of the soul which philosophers extol, but to that which is illuminated by the Spirit of God, so that it understands and wills aright: for there is a mention made not of the understanding alone, but connected with it is the earnest desire of the heart. However, by the exception he makes, he confesses, that he was devoted to God in such a manner, that while creeping on the earth he was defiled with many corruptions. This is a suitable passage to disprove the most pernicious dogma of the Purists, (Catharorum,) which some turbulent spirits attempt to revive at the present day.5

In a footnote to the older translation of Calvin here, the editor reports that Theodore Beza wrote on this verse, “[t]his was suitable to what follows, by which one man seems to have been divided into two.” By the flesh, wrote Pareus, “is not meant physically the muscular substance, but theologically the depravity of nature,—not sensuality alone, but the unregenerated reason, will, and affections.” Pareus was reflecting the older Reformed way of using the term “regeneration,” meaning sanctified. E.g., Olevianus wrote that, even after we have been given new life by the Spirit, we are still only “partly regenerated,” i.e., partly sanctified.

The Structure Of Romans

In order to overcome the Pelagian presumption, which is surprisingly widespread in Presbyterian and Reformed circles, we need to understand the structure of Romans and where Romans chapter 7 falls in Paul’s argument and why it does.

Like the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Romans is in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. We may consider Romans 1:1–17 the prologue to the epistle. The guilt section runs from 1:18–3:20. Here Paul is preaching the law in its first use to convict the world of sin and its need for a Savior. Failure to understand how Paul has structured Romans and what this entire section is has led to serious confusion and misunderstanding about e.g., Romans 2:13, where, contra one popular modern misinterpretation, Paul was not offering eternal life to Christians, under a sort of legalized covenant of grace (were such a thing possible), who cooperate sufficiently with grace. He was re-stating the covenant of works: do this and live (Gen 2:17; Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28). In the second section (Romans 3:21–11:36) Paul preached the gospel, i.e., the good news of free salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) and some of its consequences, i.e., the supernatural fruit of grace in sanctification and good works and the outworking of redemptive history (e.g., the salvation of all the elect both Jew and Gentile). In the third section of Romans, the gratitude section (Romans 12:1–16:27) Paul details the consequences of our free salvation and describes what our new life in Christ is and how it manifests itself in sanctification, good works, love for the brothers and sisters, obedience to the magistrate (even Nero!) etc.

We find Romans chapter 7 in the grace section of Romans. After explaining the good news of free justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, in Romans 3:21–5:21, Paul turns, in chapter 6, to one of the chief implications and benefits of grace: our new life in Christ. Progressive sanctification is the (super)natural fruit and evidence of God’s free favor to elect sinners. The gospel is the good news of what Christ has done for us, outside of us but as Calvin wrote in Institutes 3.1.1, ” as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”6 In other words, the Holy Spirit has to apply the work of Christ to us, which is the focus of book 3 of the Institutes. The Spirit must grant us new life (regeneration), give us the gift of faith, and through faith unite us mystically to Christ, and adopt us as sons. These are what Olevianus called “the benefits of Christ” given in the “order of salvation” (ordo salutis).

Thus, in Romans 6, believers are said to be identified with Christ in baptism, which illustrates our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. The old man has been put to death and, in Christ, we have been raised to new life. For that reason sin shall not reign in us because we are, as Paul says, “not under law but under grace.” We are no longer under the covenant of works but now we are under the covenant of grace. We are free to obey. Because of our new life and union with Christ we are no longer obligated to sin, i.e., we are no longer slaves to it. Now, in the covenant of grace, we are obligated to Christ.

The Gospel Of Romans 7

That does not mean, however, that we no longer struggle mightily with sin. Indeed, in chapter 7, Paul makes clear that the problem has never been the fault of God’s holy law. The law is good and righteous. The problem has always been our sin (Rom 7:1–9). He speaks about what he used to think, when he was outside of Christ. Before he was given new life and true faith he thought that he could keep the covenant of works: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:10–12; ESV). In Christ we are freed from the covenant of works (Rom 7:1–3). The pedagogical expression of the of the covenant of works, in the history of redemption, was the law given at Sinai in the form of covenant of works. Again, in its first use, the law says to sinners: “do this and live.” Now that we are in Christ, however, we know that we cannot “do this and live” and that Christ has done it all for us. While we were under the covenant of works, the law, combined with our sinful nature, bore fruit for death (Rom 7:5) but now, in Christ, we are free to live the new life, in the Spirit, in union with Christ (Rom 7:6).

From Romans 7:13 to Romans 7:23 he describes the struggle of the Christian life. We belong to Christ. We have new life and yet, because we are not fully sanctified, not completely regenerated as Olevianus wrote, there is a division within us. There is the new “I” and the old man so that both principles are real within us. The new “I” is free but it is also true “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14; ESV). The titanic struggle with the old self rages daily: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom 7:17; ESV). In the Christian’s “inner man” (ἔσω ἄνθρωπον) he delights in God’s holy law but sees within himself a “another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Rom 7:23; ESV).

The struggle continues though the end of the chapter. In v. 24 he exclaimed the words that the Pelagians and Perfectionists cannot understand (because they do not understand the biblical doctrine of sin): “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24; ESV). Unbelievers do not speak this way. Paul knew that because he did not have this struggle until he was in Christ. He already told us this when he said that he once thought that he could keep the covenant of works (e.g., Rom 2:13), that he could perform the law and meet its demands and thus present himself to God on the basis of his performance. He told us the same thing in Philippians 3:1–6:

…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

When, on the Damascus Road, Christ met him, he preached the law to him. By the work of the Spirit, through the law, the law broke him and drove him to his knees and taught him the greatness of his sin and misery. Then, by the same Spirit, through the gospel, Christ brought him to life and gave him the gift of faith, and through faith, mystical union with himself. Paul learned (Phil 3:7–11) that, in Christ, he is free from the condemnation of the law (but not free from its consequent moral obligations). He learned that the redeemed can and must strive toward Christlikeness, toward the mortification of the old man and vivification of the new (Heidelberg Catechism 88–90).

Who will deliver believers from “this body of death?” Christ! “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25a; ESV). This is the doxology of the believer, united to Christ, who knows that, despite the struggle and in the midst of the struggle with temptation and sin, that Christ has won the victory for all of us and we all, despite our sins—simul iustus et peccator—have been saved. Yet, in Romans 7, Paul acknowledges the struggle to the very end: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7:25b; ESV).

The resolution does not come until Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” For the rest of chapter 8 he returns to the things that are true of us, in Christ, which he had already begun to discuss in chapter 6. Paul adopts no persona (redemptive-historical or otherwise) in Romans 7. His testimony in Romans 7 is as raw, biographical, and realistic as any passage in Scripture about the realities of the Christian life.

Believer, you are a Romans 7:25 Christian. We are all Romans 7:25 Christians. There is no other kind of Christian. Any Christian who pretends to have reached perfection (complete sanctification) in this life is deluded and has redefined sin out of existence. Discouragement about one’s sanctification is a tool of the Evil One, who wants us to give up but we should not give up the struggle of the new life because it is only those who have new life who struggle. It is only believers who cry out to God as Paul does in Romans 7 and it is only believers, free from condemnation, who are able to speak as Paul does in Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

NOTES

1. χάρις δὲ τῷ θεῷ διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν. Ἄρα οὖν αὐτὸς ἐγὼ τῷ μὲν νοῒ δουλεύω νόμῳ θεοῦ τῇ δὲ σαρκὶ νόμῳ ἁμαρτίας (Rom 7:25, NA28).

2. Caspar Olevianus, Ad romanos notae (Geneva, 1579), 312.

3. “Da quod iubes et iube quod vis.” Augustine of Hippo, St. Augustine’s Confessions. , Vol. 2: Latin Text. ed. T. E. Page and W. H. D. Rouse. Trans. William Watts. 2 vols. The Loeb Classical Library (New York; London: The Macmillan Co.; William Heinemann, 1912), 10.29.

4. Augustine of Hippo, A Treatise against Two Letters of the Pelagians, cap. 22, in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 384.

5. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 274–75.

6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 537.

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15 comments

  1. I’m not sure how Romans 7:18 squares with your interpretation, Dr. Clark. It appears to teach total inability to do what is right before God—i.e., the state of man prior to conversion, enslaved to sin.

    If memory serves me correctly, I think Tom Schreiner’s commentary puts forth the interpretation that this is not a passage on the Christian life but Paul reflecting back on OT Israel’s situation under the Law. Even if one disagrees if the “I” is OT Israel under the Law or just simply Paul prior to conversion, I think Gal 5:16-17 clearly teaches the doctrine of the struggle believers face in battling sin in the Christian life. So I most certainly agree with what you’re teaching about sanctification; I’m just not sure that is what Paul is doing in Rom 7.

    Not trying to nitpick or be facetious, but how would you interact with interpreters like Schreiner who aren’t perfectionists, legalists, or moralists, but who simply think the interpretation you advocate is a case of “right doctrine, wrong text”?

    • Brandon,

      I alluded to Schreiner‘s interpretation in the article but I didn’t deal with it at length. This view comes from Herman Ridderbos, A Dutch reformed Biblical Theological Seminary from the mid-20th century through the early 1980s.

      I am well aware of his theory. It is a version of the “persona” approach. I do not find it persuasive because I do not understand why between chapters 6 and eight Paul suddenly adopts a redemptive-historical persona. The unstated premise is the One that I do address in this article: Paul could not be speaking of himself as a believer. This is the premise with which Pelagias and Arminius also began. It is a bad premise.

      Paul speaks in the first person singular. In order for me to accept the hypothesis that he has adopted a redemptive historical persona I should need a very clear indication and some parallel perhaps from his other epistles. Where else does he do this? I am unaware of any place in the Pauline corpus where he adopts such a persona.

      I don’t think there was anything about verse 18 that necessitates Ridderbos‘s approach. It certainly is not superior to the Augustinian reading of this chapter.

      Take a look at the resources below the article. I did a series of four radio broadcasts where I worked through Romans seven very closely and addressed in Ridderbos hypothesis.

      Here it is:

      https://heidelblog.net/romans-7/

  2. This jump (shameless self-reference) might work on that author: under “Top Critical Review”

    https://www.amazon.com/Views-Works-Final-Judgment-Counterpoints/product-reviews/0310490332/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_show_all_btm?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews

    Mr Criner, I think the phrase partial sanctification is indicated by Paul in that verse, when he does the qualification “in me, that is, in my flesh.” This implies that he is not referring to total lack of ability of the unbeliever, but that “in me,” not “in my flesh” — dwells good.

  3. This article was incredibly encouraging.

    The closing paragraph should be etched onto plaques and placed in churches far and wide. Bravo!

  4. It took some twenty long painful years to only recently come to the truth you so clearly explained above. From Catholicism to pentecostalism through various SBC churches that preached a mixed message with some works thrown in, finally arriving home. This wonderful gospel of grace message finally got through to me from R.C. Sproul, W. Robert Godfrey and yourself, and I am eternally grateful.

  5. I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that not many commentators point out that Romans 6 describes the Christian life walking in the Spirit and is contrasted with the Christian in Romans 7 who is walking in the flesh. As redeemed sinners, we have that choice, and in Romans 8 Paul expounds the Big Picture. We can choose to walk in the flesh, presenting our selves as slaves to the flesh, to sin or, we may choose to walk in the Spirit, presenting ourselves as bond-slaves, joyfully, to our Lord Christ. Paul is warning us of the dangers inherent in going down the way of Romans 7, and because of the fact of indwelling sin, we may easily slip into that choice, but, thanks be to God, we are enabled to walk in the Spirit, crying , “Abba, Father!”

    • David – I would agree up to the point where many evangelicals have interpreted Romans 8 in succession to the previous chapter to mean having achieved the “victorious Christian life.” That is a aberration that seems to have crept into Protestantism via the 17th Century anabaptist pietists and amplified in this country during the first two great revivals (great awakenings).

    • David,

      This reading of Romans 7 fairly reeks of the quasi-perfectionist presumption that Romans 7 could not be about the ordinary Christian life. Thus, it must be about a “carnal” Christian. The operative word here is must.

      In order to accept such a reading I should need very strong evidence indeed, which, when we read Romans 7 in it the context of chapters 6 and 8 and when we follow Romans 7 itself closely, simply doesn’t appear.

      The prologue, if you will, to the chapter isn’t about a carnal Christian. So where does this shift in identity (thus this view is a variant on the theme that Paul has adopted a persona) occur in the chapter?

      The proposed view is too tidy, almost antiseptic.

  6. Dr Clark, I do need to think more on this, but if I may respond off the cuff, I have to say that I would want nothing to do with the carnal Christian doctrine. I’m supposing that the states described in Romans 6,7,8 are not permanent but rather states into which we may fall through wise or foolish choices as we go through our day. This scenario is anything but tidy or antiseptic. Rather it’s extremely messy! What I’m suggesting is that Paul is shining the light on the realities of the Christian life and exposing what’s really going on in our day-to-day experience by revealing something of the consequences of our choices and actions. The warning is, that if we fool ourselves into following the flesh to the neglect of the Spirit, we could end up where that path leads. We have seen in recent years prominent Christian pastors who have sadly made shipwreck of their ministries by giving themselves permission to indulge the desires of the flesh, while pretending to follow the Spirit. Indwelling sin cannot be denied, but it can be overcome by the honest cultivation of the walk in the Spirit.

    • David,

      I like this better though I don’t think we should think of the Romans 7 Christian as exceptional or unique or having fallen into particularly gross sin. To be clear, the Augustinian view, the Reformed view, is correct. This is the ordinary Christian life being described here. This is Pauline realism.

  7. I found the following insight from J.I. Packer on Romans 7 very helpful:

    “How can the regenerate Paul—man of God that he is, and author of Romans 6 and 8—be experiencing such a struggle with sin as we see in Romans 7?

    Packer gently leaned over the table, looked me in the eye, and said, “Young man, Paul wasn’t struggling with sin because he was such a sinner. Paul was struggling because he was such a saint. Sin makes you numb. People who sin over and over again become desensitized to sin. The reason Paul’s “struggle” was so intense was not because he was caught in a web of sin, or because he thought of himself as hopelessly doomed to giving into the temptations that he faced. Rather, it was because Paul lived a life so sensitive to the Holy Spirit and passionate about the glory of God that he intensely felt his sins whenever he became aware that he had committed a sin (since he was not, of course, sinlessly perfect).”

    In other words, you can see a black spider crawling up your shirt a lot better if you are wearing a white shirt than if you are wearing a black shirt.”

    https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2012/a-key-insight-about-romans-7-from-a-conversation-with-j-i-packer

    • Theo,

      That reading involves a quasi-Wesleyan supposition. It’s not driven by the language of the text. Heidelberg 60’s reading is more faithful to the text.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I think Packer’s insight is compatible both with the comments from Calvin that you posted on the 29th of April and with Heidelberg question 60. I assume you refer to the phrase prone to all evil. And since we’re not talking about perfection I’m not sure how this reading is related to weasleyan theology.

    I think one important paragraph from the linked article is the following:

    “If you could ask Paul, “What are some examples of the types of sins you were thinking about when you wrote about this “struggle”? and then he told you, you might find yourself a bit flummoxed by his answer. You might respond, “Does that even count as sin?” This is because Paul had a much lower tolerance for sin in his life than most of us do; and he had such sensitivity to the Holy Spirit that he quickly dealt with anything that might not please the Lord he loved so much.”

    This is my understanding of Paul also from my reading of his Epistles. I believe that Paul, the writers of the Heidelberg catechism, Puritans such as John Owen, etc would be socked if they were to realize that the life of the average church goer is considered to be the standard of ordinary Christian living today.

    • I meant to say: the life of the *contemporary 21st century American average Church goer

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