Dr. Stott on Romans 7

On Sunday, we dug into the seventh chapter of Romans, in a section that is highly misunderstood by popular evangelical teachers today that dominate the media and celebrity church culture. In any case, we dove into the text, labored to exegete it and unpack the original meaning and authorial intention. As a follow up to this week's study, check out the renowned New Testament scholar, Dr. John Stott, as he explains the text, possible interpretations and the best reading of Paul's writing and theology here. While I do differ with Stott theologically in ways and even in his writing below, I think this is a good supplement to Sunday's study and will hopefully reinforce the corrective to the pop noise out there. Dig into the word sisters and brother and enjoy! 

--Pastor Matt



The weakness of the law: an inner conflict ([Romans 7:]14–25)

Dr. John Stott 


Having vindicated the law in [Romans 7] verses 7–13 as not responsible for sin or death, Paul now proceeds to show that nevertheless the law cannot be responsible for our holiness either. The law is good, but it is also weak. In itself it is holy, but it is impotent to make us holy. This important truth lies behind the whole final section of Romans 7. It depicts the hopeless struggle of people who are still ‘under the law’. They are right to look to the law for moral guidance, but wrong to look to it for saving power.

As we turn to this passage, what immediately catches our attention is that, although he retains the personal ‘I’, Paul changes the tenses of all his verbs. He has been using the past tense: ‘Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came … I died’ (9). This was his past, pre-conversion experience. But now suddenly his verbs are in the present tense: ‘What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’ (15). It sounds like his present, post-conversion experience. This would be the natural interpretation of the personal pronouns and the present tense. But is this really the Christian apostle who is describing his own continuing painful conflict between what he wants and what he does, between desire and performance? Or is he impersonating somebody else?

Before studying the text, it is essential to probe the identity of this ‘I’.

Is this ‘I’ regenerate or unregenerate?

The earliest Greek interpreters from Origen onwards repudiated the view that Paul was referring to his own moral struggles. They could not accept that a regenerate and mature believer like Paul could describe himself as sold as a slave to sin (14), when he has just celebrated his transfer to another slavery which in reality is freedom (6:6, 17–18, 22). Could this Paul confess that he cannot do what he wants to do, while he does do what he hates (15)? Could it be Paul who cries out in great anguish and wretchedness for deliverance (24), apparently now forgetting the peace, joy, freedom and hope of the justified people of God which he has previously portrayed (5:1ff.)? So these commentators concluded that Paul was impersonating an unregenerate person, at least until 8:1ff., and was portraying the human being in Adam, not in Christ. Some contemporary scholars who hold this position back it up with a quotation from the first-century Roman poet Ovid: ‘I see and approve the better things, but I pursue the worse.’

The western church, however, followed Augustine, who first espoused the view of the Greek commentators but subsequently changed his mind, and then influenced the Protestant Reformers. Their view was that Paul is writing as a truly regenerate and even mature believer. Three characteristics of his self-portrait support this. The first concerns his opinion of himself. He calls himself unspiritual (14; RSV ‘carnal’) and declares that nothing good lives in him, that is, in his sinful nature (18). But unbelievers are self-righteous and self-confident; only believers think and speak of themselves in self-disgust and self-despair.

Secondly, there is Paul’s attitude to the law. He not only calls it holy, righteous and good (12), and spiritual (14), but also refers to it as the good I want to do (19). He states both that in my inner being I delight in God’s law (22) and that I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law (25). So here is a man who not only acknowledges the intrinsic goodness of the law, but who loves it, delights in it, longs for it, and considers himself enslaved to it. This is not the language of the unregenerate. For in the next chapter Paul declares that ‘the sinful mind [AV ‘the carnal mind’] is hostile to God’ and that ‘it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so’ (8:7). Paul, however, feels love for the law, not enmity; and is submissive to it, not rebellious.
Thirdly, consider Paul’s longing for final deliverance. The wretched man’s cry (24) expresses desire rather than despair. He yearns to be rescued ‘out of this body of death’, that is, out of this present state of sinfulness and mortality into a new and glorious resurrection body. Is not this an example of the inward ‘groaning’ of God’s people who are eagerly waiting for the redemption of their bodies (8:23)?

Such a person, deploring evil in his fallen nature, delighting himself in God’s law, and longing for the promised full and final salvation, seems to provide ample evidence of being regenerate and even mature.
Commentators still range themselves on both sides of this debate. The most eloquent recent defence of the ‘unregenerate’ position is provided by Douglas Moo.51 He sees Paul as ‘looking back from his Christian understanding to the situation of himself, and other Jews like him living under the law of Moses’.52 What was decisive for him in reaching his conclusion was the contrast between Paul’s self-designation here as sin’s slave (14) and his statements in Romans 6 and 8 of Christian freedom.

The most cogent statement of the alternative position has been provided by Charles Cranfield,53 who writes that these verses in Romans 7 ‘depict vividly the inner conflict characteristic of the true Christian, a conflict such as is possible only in the man in whom the Holy Spirit is active, and whose mind is being renewed under the discipline of the gospel’.

But neither position is wholly satisfactory. It would be as strange for unregenerate people to want ardently to do what is good as for regenerate people to confess that they cannot do it (15–19). How can a regenerate person, who has been set free from sin (6:18, 22; 8:2), describe himself as still its slave and prisoner (7:14, 23–25)? And how can an unregenerate person, who is hostile to God’s law (8:7), declare that he delights in it (7:22)? There is an inherent contradiction here, which makes both extreme positions unacceptable.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones rejects both. Anyone who delights in God’s law ‘cannot possibly be … unregenerate’, and anyone who calls himself sin’s slave cannot possibly be a ‘fully regenerate’ person either. The wretched man’s cry is entirely incompatible with the profile of a Christian in the rest of the New Testament. He suggests, therefore, that the people Paul is describing are those who in times of revival are ‘brought under conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit’, feel themselves ‘utterly condemned’, struggle to keep the law in their own strength, but have not yet grasped the gospel. They are for a time ‘neither unregenerate nor regenerate’, for they experience ‘conviction but not conversion’.58 He cites John Bunyan’s intense agony of spirit portrayed in Grace Abounding as an example, and refers to the teaching of several Puritans, especially William Perkins. My hesitation in accepting this view is that what distinguishes the people Paul is depicting, indeed impersonating, is not the unusual situation of revival, but rather their peculiar relation to the law. Their anomaly was that, although they were Christian enough to delight in God’s law, they were not Christian enough to obey it. They were making the mistake of looking to the law, instead of to the Spirit, for their sanctification.

Professor Dunn lays his emphasis on ‘the eschatological tension of being caught between the two epochs of Adam and Christ’. He believes that Paul is giving voice to his experience as a regenerate Christian, who had indeed died in Christ to sin and the law, but who has not yet fully shared in the resurrection. So he ‘is suspended (so uncomfortably) between the death and resurrection of Christ’.  Consequently the believer’s ‘ “I” is split, suspended between the epochs, divided between my belonging to Christ and my belonging to this age’. This is ‘the two-sidedness of the believer’s experience’, being simultaneously in Adam and in Christ, enslaved and liberated. And the piteous cry of verse 24 is for ‘escape from the tension of being suspended between the two ages’.

In response to this explanation, we must certainly agree that Christians are caught in the tension between the ‘already’ of the kingdom’s inauguration and the ‘not yet’ of its consummation, and that this tension can be painful. But is not the antithesis between freedom and slavery too stark for them to be combined in the same person at the same time? Can we really maintain that all Christians are simultaneously ‘set free from sin’ and ‘sold as slaves to sin’? This is not a tension, but a contradiction.

If we go back to the beginning, and try to construct a profile of the ‘I’ of Romans 7:14–25, we come up against three stubborn facts which cannot be avoided. First, he is regenerate. If the unregenerate mind is hostile to God’s law and refuses to submit to it (8:7), then somebody who loves God’s law and longs to submit to it is regenerate. Secondly, although regenerate, he is not a normal, healthy, mature believer. For believers ‘used to be slaves to sin’ but now ‘have been set free from sin’ and have become slaves of God and righteousness (6:17ff.), whereas this believer declares himself to be still the slave and the prisoner of sin (14, 23). True, conflict between flesh and Spirit is normal Christian experience, and Reformed commentators have tended to identify Romans 7:14ff. with Galatians 5:16ff. Thus Calvin writes in his comment on verse 15: ‘This is the Christian warfare between flesh and Spirit, of which Paul speaks in Gal. 5:17.’ But is it? Galatians 5 promises victory now to those who walk in the Spirit; Romans 7, however, while expressing assurance of ultimate deliverance (25), describes only unremitting defeat.

Thirdly, this man appears to know nothing, either in understanding or in experience, of the Holy Spirit. Many commentators have paid insufficient attention to what Bishop Handley Moule called ‘this absolute and eloquent silence’ in Romans 7 about the Holy Spirit. He is mentioned only in verse 6. Since that verse characterizes the Christian era as the age of the Spirit, one would have expected this chapter to be full of the Spirit. Instead, Romans 7 is full of the law (mentioned, with its synonyms, thirty-one times). It is Romans 8 which is full of the Spirit (mentioned twenty-one times) and which calls the indwelling of the Spirit the authenticating mark of belonging to Christ (8:9). If then we are looking for a description of the normal Christian life we will find it in Romans 8; Romans 7, with its concentration on the law and its omission of the Spirit, cannot be held to describe Christian normality.

To sum up, the three salient features of the person portrayed in Romans 7:14–25 are that he or she loves the law (and therefore is regenerate), is still a slave of sin (and therefore is not a liberated Christian) and knows nothing of the Holy Spirit (and therefore is not a New Testament believer). Who then is this extraordinary person?

If we approach the question from the perspective of ‘salvation history’, that is, of the story of God’s unfolding purpose, the ‘I’ seems to be an Old Testament believer, an Israelite who is living under the law, including even the disciples of Jesus before Pentecost and probably many Jewish Christian contemporaries of Paul. Such people were regenerate. Old Testament believers were almost ecstatic about the law. ‘Blessed is the man … [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD.’ The Lord’s precepts give both ‘joy to the heart’ and ‘light to the eyes’. ‘I delight in your commands because I love them.’ ‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.’ This is the language of born-again believers.

But these same Old Testament believers who loved the law lacked the Spirit. And the penitential psalms bear witness to their inability to keep the law they loved. They were born of the Spirit, but not indwelt by the Spirit. He came upon special people to anoint them for special tasks. But the prospect of the Spirit’s continuous indwelling belonged to the messianic age. ‘I will put my Spirit in you,’ God promised through Ezekiel. And Jesus confirmed this: ‘He lives with you and will be in you.’ It seems accurate, therefore, to describe pre-Pentecost believers in terms of ‘love for the law but lack of the Spirit’. And even after Pentecost it appears that many Jewish Christians took time to adjust to the transition from the old aeon to the new. To be sure, they loved the law, but they were also still ‘under’ it. Even those who had grasped that they were ‘not under law but under grace’ for justification had not all grasped that they should also be ‘not under law but under the Spirit’ for sanctification. They had not yet come out of the Old Testament into the New, or exchanged ‘the old way of the written code’ for ‘the new way of the Spirit’ (7:6).

Hence their painful struggle, their humiliating defeat. They were relying on the law, and had not yet come to terms with its weakness. In order to emphasize this, Paul identifies with that stage of his own pilgrimage. He proclaims the impotence of the law by dramatizing it in the vivid terms of personal experience. He describes what happens to anybody who tries to live according to the law instead of the gospel, according to the flesh instead of the Spirit. The resulting defeat is not the law’s fault, for the law is good, although weak. The culprit is sin living in me (17, 20), the power of indwelling sin which the law is powerless to control. Not until Romans 8:9ff. will the apostle bear witness to the indwelling Spirit as alone able to subdue indwelling sin. Before that, however, he will refer specifically to the law as ‘weakened by the sinful nature’, and will declare that God himself has done what the sin-weakened law could not do. He sent his Son to die for our sins in order that the law’s requirement might be fulfilled in us, provided that we live ‘not according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit’ (8:3–4). Only when the gospel has replaced the law, and the Holy Spirit the written code, can defeat be replaced by victory.

If the ‘wretched man’ of verse 24 is typical of many Jewish Christians of Paul’s day, regenerated but not liberated, under the law and not yet in or under the Spirit, does Romans 7 have any application to us today? Or must we jettison it as having historical interest only but no contemporary relevance? I want to suggest that there is both a wrong and a right way to apply this passage to ourselves. The wrong way is to regard it as a pattern of normal Christian experience, so that we all have to pass ‘through Romans 7 into Romans 8’. This would create a two-stage stereotype of Christian initiation, in which the Holy Spirit first regenerates us and only later indwells us, and in which defeat is the necessary prelude to victory. But that was a once-for-all, Old Testament/New Testament, ‘salvation-history’ development. God does not intend it to be repeated in everybody today. For we live on this side of Pentecost, so that the indwelling of the Spirit is the birthright and hallmark of all who belong to Christ (8:9).



John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 205–210.