Romans 7: Christian or Non-Christian Experience?

To whom does the inner struggle between good and evil apply in Romans 7: 7-25 ?7 What is Paul’s view of sanctification from Romans?

 Throughout church history, Romans 7:7-25 has proved to be a passage which has divided the opinions of commentators sharply. The controversy has been whether it is a description of a Christian or a non-Christian in their struggle with evil. After surveying some of the major arguments for both sides, this essay follows Schreiner’s (1998:390) argument in suggesting that the passage has relevance to both in its discussion of how the law has no power to transform the sinful nature of humans. Paul’s view of sanctification flows out of an understanding of the tension between the present age and that to come, and the appropriation by faith of the blessings of the gospel.

The sharp division in opinion over this passage arises because of the remarkable strength of arguments on both sides. Some commentators strongly contend that the passage must be a description of the life of Paul before he was converted. Firstly, the passage is summarised it is suggested by 7:5-6, in which is contrasted our unconverted life in the flesh with our new life in the Spirit (Schreiner 1998:1385). Throughout the passage there is a strong emphasis on the flesh, with a complete absence of the Holy Spirit. This ties closely to the description of our unconverted life in the flesh as described in 7:5. Secondly, the language used of the person in 7:7-25 contradicts the language Paul has already used to describe Christians (Moo 1996:448). Christians have had their “body of sin done away with“ (6:6) and have “been set free from sin” (6:18), yet the person described in this passage is “sold under sin“ (7:14), in captivity to the law of sin (7:23), and longing for deliverance from “this body of death” (7:24).

A third argument is the way chapter 8 succeeds chapter 7 (Schreiner 1998:1387). Chapter 8 speaks of two types of people, some who walk according to the flesh and some who walk according to the spirit. These are clearly non-Christians and Christians in view, as is seen in v9: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you”. Thus, the logic of the argument implies that if in chapter 8 there are only two types of people, Christians and non-Christians, the person described in chapter 7 living by the flesh must by implication correspond to the non-Christian. There is no mention of a third “carnal Christian” type in Romans 8: 1-14 which would be expected if it was present in chapter 7.

However, others contend that on the contrary the passage must be a description of the struggle of a Christian to live a sanctified life. Firstly, it is argued that Paul’s use of the first person and the present tense most naturally leads to the assumption that Paul is referring to the sort of struggle that he himself goes through in his present experience (Morris 1988:1285). Secondly, it is argued that the desire to please and serve God that is in evidence in v18 and v22 is not a natural description of a non-Christian; by contrast, the non-Christian does not “seek after God” (Rom 3:11) and cannot “submit to the law of God“ (8:7) (Moo 1996:446). Thirdly, in verse 25, after Paul’s reference to Christ’s deliverance, Paul again reiterates the fact of the conflicting struggle of the will, showing that it is an ongoing feature of the Christians life (Cranfield 1985:170).

The most compelling argument of this second view would be the use of the present tense. The second argument regarding the unbelievers desire to please God may be contested easily by pointing to examples such as Romans 9:31-32 and 10:2 (Schreiner 1998:388). Furthermore, the third argument may be rebutted by pointing out that the phrase after Paul’s thanksgiving for Christ’s deliverance doesn’t easily fit either view of the passage. If it is referring to a Christian’s life, why does Paul still serve with the flesh the law of sin even though he has just mentioned the deliverance that is his through Christ?

However, the argument regarding the use of the first person and the present tense is more difficult. Some argue that Paul here takes on the identity of another, such as Adam, or the nation of Israel. But there is no explicit indication anywhere from Paul that he has suddenly started “impersonating” somebody else, and it would be expected that Paul would make this clear if it was his intention. Certainly Paul’s description may have elements in common with Adam or Israel, but this does not in itself demand an identity switch. The fact that he speaks with such passion and so personally later in the chapter (eg v24) gives the most straightforward expectation that he speaks about himself (Cranfield 1985:157).

But neither must he be talking about himself in terms of real historical experiences that he has undergone. The words “I was alive once without the law” (v9) or “by it sin killed me” (v11) are very difficult to assign to actual events that he has undergone in real life (see Stott’s (1994: 199) summary of the difficulties). More likely is he possibly speaking of himself in a rhetorical narrative style to describe a theological point with more vividness. This is suggested by the fact that both sin and the law are continually personified throughout the chapter (eg v1,8,9,23) as actors working on Paul. The events described regarding the effect of the law and sin on Paul do not have to convey real historical events, but rather may be understood to be there to answer the theological question “Is the law sin?” in a dramatically vivid way (Cranfield 1985:156).

This leads us to now consider the second half of the passage in which the present tense comes into play. If the context gives us the expectation that it should refer to an unregenerate man, why does he speak as if his struggle for sanctification is one he is engaged in as a Christian? Firstly, continuing from the paragraph above, it should be seen as an explanation of Paul’s theology before being seen as Paul’s recount of his biography (Morris 1988:284). Paul is expressing himself in a vivid personal manner to illustrate his theology, not to tell his life story. It is a portrait of how it is to live under the law, without the aid of the Spirit of God. Morris (1988:284) writes, “there is autobiography here, but the passage is not basically Paul’s account of his experience. He is not saying “ I will tell you what happened to me. You can profit from my experience.” Rather he is saying ‘This is how the law confronts people. Let me illustrate from my own experience.” Had it been simply a piece of autobiography it would have doubtless been clearer whether we should see the regenerate or the unregenerate here. But Paul is talking about the law and its demands and showing the reader what it cannot do.” Rather than being primarily a historical description of Paul’s experience (whether regenerate or unregenerate), it is a theological description of the flesh, which is present in Paul, and also in all humanity.

Does this passage apply then to the regenerate or the unregenerate? It certainly applies to the unregenerate. That is who Paul has in mind in saying “when we were in the flesh” in 7:5 and in his description of those who walk according to the flesh in 8:6,13 who are heading for death. But as Bruce (1985: 143) writes, “Christians live in tension between two worlds, having passed spiritually from death to life, but being still present in their sinful bodies. Although we have been set free from sin (8:2) and are under no condemnation (8:1), Paul still has to tell the Christians that they are not debtors to the flesh (8:12), and that they need to “put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13).

Thus in as far as the sinful nature is still present in the believer’s mortal body, this passage which describes the sinful nature has relevance to the Christian. This is possibly why so many Christians do immediately relate to Romans 7 in their struggle with sin in their daily lives. It is also possibly why Paul uses the present tense here, because he is aware of the sinful nature which still lurks within him, seeking to rob him of his freedom in Christ.

Thus, Paul’s view of sanctification is consistently clear throughout Romans 6-8. True Christians live in consistence with the spiritual blessings God has brought them into in Christ. Our body of sin has been “done away with that we should no longer be slaves of sin”(6:6), we have been “set free from sin“ and become “slaves of righteousness”, we have been “delivered from the law” (7:6) and we have received the Spirit of life who sets us free (8:2). However, we are also told that it is our responsibility to appropriate these truths in our lives by “reckoning yourself dead to sin“ (6:11) by not “letting sin reign in your mortal body” (6:12) and by “putting to death the deeds of the body through the Spirit” (8:13).

It is by living out the truths that God has blessed us with that we prove the reality of the blessings of salvation and the presence of the Spirit in our lives. This tension between having already received by faith blessings such as freedom from sin, and yet our ever present responsibility to deal with it personally in our lives is the paradox involved in our sanctification according to Paul.

Thus, it is suggested that this passage, does not deal specifically with either the regenerate or the unregenerate, but rather with the flesh which all men have in their struggle with the law. This conflict is present in unbeliever as they lack the Spirit’s power to live in righteousness, but also in the Christian as they live in this present age, having received spiritual blessings yet still being physically present in their mortal bodies. Sanctification according to Paul involves an appropriation by faith of the blessings of the gospel in our freedom from sin and reception of the Holy Spirit for a life of godliness.


Bruce, F. (1985) Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series: Romans,2nd Edn, IVP, Leicester.

Cranfield, C.E.B. (1985) Romans: A Shorter Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Moo, D. (1996) The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The

Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Morris, L. (1988) The Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Schreiner, T.R. (1998) Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:

Romans, Baker, Grand Rapids.

Stott, J. (1994) The Message of Romans, IVP, Leicester.