I have been doing some work lately on the nature of the Christian life from Paul’s grand expression in Romans 6, 7, and 8. Having spoken of the universality and the totality of man’s natural depravity in the first three chapters, the freeness of gospel grace and the wonder of justification by faith alone in the next two, Paul goes on to give a fit description of the Christian life and situates it in what has been called the “already-not-yet” tension. In Romans 6 he majestically points out the “already” of our identity, which is union with Christ in his death and resurrection. In Romans 7 he grapples with the “not yet,” as he struggles with indwelling sin. And in Romans 8, simply one of the greatest chapters in the entire Bible, he reminds those who live in that tension of the certain victory in Jesus Christ who has made us more than conquerors.
Unless I can be convinced otherwise, I think maintaining the tension of Romans 6, 7, and 8 is absolutely necessary. To be too much in the “already” leads to a deflated view of indwelling sin and the need to mortify the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit (Romans 8:13). To be too much in the “not yet” leads to a deflated view of our positive identity in Jesus Christ. All that to say, as we walk the seeming knife’s edge, on one side is the danger of legalism, and the other is antinomianism, both equally dangerous and condemning doctrines (and both are prevailing today!). Douglas Moo is right about one thing, “It may be generally said that the interpretation of few passages has been more influenced by one’s broad theological perspective and experience” (Romans, 443).
Of course, one of the important questions regarding Romans 7 is who is the “man” of Romans 7:14-25? Can a Christian suffer the experience which is described here, or is this struggle only that of an unregenerate person? Historically, many of the early church fathers saw this passage speaking of the unregenerate. Even Augustine in his early years adopted this view, but in the midst of the Pelegian controversy he came to see it as speaking of the believer. This interpretation was accepted by nearly all the Reformed and Lutheran right down to today—and is still widely held. For my part, recognizing some of the difficulties, I agree with the Reformers. Beyond being a fine exegetical point, I think the church is in danger of being robbed of much comfort if we fail to see the man of Romans 7 as a believer struggling with indwelling sin. My simple argument is that I don’t see how an unregenerate person could possibly say the things that are said here, while I can conceive how the believer can. Here are five reasons why many view this as speaking of the regenerate man (see Murray, Romans, 1:257-259):
- In v 22 Paul says, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.” This cannot be said of an unregenerate person, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot” (Romans 8:4).
- There is v 25, “I myself serve the law of God with my mind.” Again, this service is not merely external, but of the heart and mind and is impossible for the unregenerate man because he is “in the flesh,” and has “the mind of the flesh” (Romans 8:5-8).
- The man portrayed here is inclined towards the good (vv 15, 18, 19, 21) and the bad which he does he regards as going against that which he loves (vv 16, 19, 20). This is unlike the unregenerate who hates the good, but the man here hates the evil (Romans 8:5-8).
- The tension here between doing what he hates and not doing what he loves is inevitable in a regenerate person so long as sin remains in him. We cannot ignore the fact that sin persists in the believer. There is a certain contradiction in every believer, and the more sensitive one grows to the demands of holiness and the more he sees the strength of indwelling sin, the more he is brought to complain “Wretched man that I am” (v 24).
- This doesn’t mean the Christian is defeated. Paul’s complaint in v 24 is answered by his praise in v 25, which is an assured confidence and a great gospel hope. This word of thanksgiving is not the language of an unregenerate man.