A special thanks to Jay Street for all the hard study that led to this video!
This video was adapted from his 6-part podcast series on Romans 7:7 - 8:4.
Check out this series on Bible Crux as well as all his other good content!
If you would like to study this issue from a more technical point of view, you can read Jay Street's article for the Master's Seminary Journal.
A special thanks to Sam Yang for making the intro music!
Check out his YouTube channel, Jungi Geetah!
"Getting Ready" by Sam Yang
"Happy & Inspirational Acoustic" by BestBackgroundMusic
WallDeca: Dry-Erase Thick Fine Line Markers
CONCLUSION: THE FINAL VERDICT AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
So, is Romans 7 about a Christian struggling with sin? Not hardly. That’s because Romans 7 is not so much about Christian sanctification, as some have assumed, but more about the law and its relationship to sanctification (7:7, 13). The question Romans 7 is trying to answer is this: Does the law have any power to help a Christian grow? Paul’s answer is no. For this reason, Paul focuses his attention on the Jews in his Roman audience, so that he can make sure that they will not try to replace the gospel with the law for their sanctification (7:1). Paul drives this point home dramatically by transitioning from talking to the Jews directly to talking about himself from the perspective of an average Jew under the law (7:7–25). He also talks about this average Jew’s experience under the law with present tense language to make it powerful and relatable. And he describes this Jew’s life as defeating and hopeless. There is no Holy Spirit to help him (7:6; 8:2). There is no spiritual progress to speak of (7:15, 18, 19). There is only enslavement to sin (7:14, 23, 25), which does not match the free condition of a Christian under the power of the New Covenant (6:6, 14, 20–22; 7:4–6; 8:2–4).
This is the person Paul is really talking about in Romans 7. It’s not Paul’s Christian struggle with sin; it’s not even your average Christian’s struggle with sin. It’s the plight of a Jew under the confines of the law before the time of Christ. He doesn’t have the power of the New Covenant yet to help him obey God’s law, and so he’s hopelessly enslaved to his sin, even though he desperately wants to obey.
A natural question arises from this conclusion: Is this Jew a believer or an unbeliever? He may not be a Christian, because a Christian is a follower of Christ in the days of the New Testament and beyond. But he still could be a believer in the days of the Old Testament before Christ came. It is also clear that this person does not have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, but that would not disqualify him from being saved, if he lived before the time of Christ. No one had the Holy Spirit dwelling in them back in the Old Testament (Ezek 36:26) and yet many were still believers (i.e., Abraham in Genesis 15:6). It appears that this Jew is a believer based on his godly desires outlined in Romans 7 (7:15, 18, 19, 21, 22, 25). He wants to do what’s right, but is finding it impossible at the present moment. However, there’s a chance he’s not a believer based on the language Paul uses to describe the outcome of his condition. Paul calls it a “body of death” in 7:24 and admits that the Holy Spirit frees such a person from the “law of death” in 8:2. He also transitions from the hopelessness of chapter 7 to the hope of chapter 8 with the famous verse, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). This would appear to imply that chapter 7 was marked by condemnation. Still, I tend to think that the Jew Paul is envisioning is a believer based on those godly desires. But since this person is hypothetical, I also believe there is room to see it either way. Perhaps, it was Paul’s intention to keep the state of his soul obscure, so that this Jew could fully represent the entire Jewish experience under the law, believer or unbeliever.
Whatever the case, the state of this individual’s soul before God is not the point of Romans 7. The ineffectiveness of the law is. The law in and of itself had no power to help you obey God. Only a heart transformed could cause you to obey, which was something Israel did not have access to before the New Covenant. But the good news is that those days are over. The gospel is not only powerful enough to save us all (Romans 1–5); it’s powerful enough to sanctify us all (Romans 6–8). No one has to rely on the law anymore, which was never intended to give us the power to change anyway. We have the Holy Spirit, who daily gives Christians the grace to obey, Jews included.
So, if Romans 7 is not about a Christian struggling with sin, but rather about an Old Testament Jew mastered by his sin, what bearing does that have on our lives as New Covenant believers, most of whom are Gentiles? I believe there are at least three important ways it affects us.
1. A RIGHT VIEW OF ROMANS 7 POINTS US TO THE GOSPEL AS THE ONLY WAY TO GROW
There are so many implications we could discuss about Romans 7, but this one is the most important, because it is the most direct. If the whole point of Romans 7 is to show us that the law cannot sanctify us the way the gospel can, then we must run to the gospel (and the gospel alone) for help. Our Christian culture, 2,000 years removed from the book of Romans, usually does not struggle with making the law our primary source of sanctification. In fact, we often struggle with the opposite: Neglecting the law to the point where it is no longer relevant for us anymore. But as Paul himself defends in Romans 7:12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” There’s nothing wrong with the law; it’s quite valuable. But it was never intended to change your heart and make you obey. However, just because we don’t struggle with making the law our source of sanctification, doesn’t mean we don’t have other sources we turn to. Christians today are quite fond of turning to psychology, drugs, behavior modification, rehab, and even ourselves to try to break patterns of sin. But Romans 7 gives us a powerful warning that even if the law, as perfect and divine as it was, could not help you change, what makes you think that an imperfect and man-made method is ever going to help you change? We profess with our mouths the power of the gospel and then deny it by our actions when we turn to humanly devised techniques to stop our sinful behavior. No, it is by the power of the Spirit through the gospel alone that we all change. Nothing more. Nothing less.
2. A RIGHT VIEW OF ROMANS 7 PROTECTS US FROM MAKING A WEAK PAUL OUR STANDARD OF GODLINESS
One fundamental danger of believing Paul is talking as a Christian in Romans 7 is that it turns the weakest version of Paul into your standard of godliness. It’s true, no one who takes the “Paul is a Christian” position would condone this kind of implication. But this, unfortunately, becomes the inevitable mindset of many believers in this camp. It’s easy for Christians, especially those who have struggled or are currently struggling with sin, to identify with Paul’s struggles. As a result, Paul becomes their standard of godliness and they become more comfortable in their sin. You don’t need to go far before you hear a Christian talking about how encouraging Romans 7 is because Paul mightily struggled with sin. But anytime sin becomes comfortable or encouraging we’re already going the wrong way. Sin must be taken seriously, and believing that Paul struggles as a Christian in Romans 7 does not lend itself to taking sin seriously. I realize that this danger doesn’t automatically make the “Christian” position wrong or that all people in this camp treat sin lightly. But it does expose a real problem that must be addressed, and it can be solved by interpreting Romans 7 the way I have. Paul wants people to see the power of the New Covenant in Romans 8 in contrast to the powerlessness of the Old Covenant in Romans 7. Our hope is in what the Spirit can do in us, not in that Paul may have struggled like us.
3. A RIGHT VIEW OF ROMANS 7 PREVENTS US FROM DEFINING SPIRITUAL PROGRESS BY DESIRES ALONE
It’s a natural tendency for Christians, who believe Paul is describing a Christian experience in Romans 7, to treat Paul’s desires as evidence of spiritual progress. However, Paul minces no words about his progress in Romans 7: There is no progress (Rom 7:15, 18, 19). That’s because Paul himself in Romans 7 defines progress as obedience to God, not desires for holiness. This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament (Matt 7:21; Mark 4:16–17; John 15:1–8; Jas 1:22). But there is a growing trend in Christianity today that insists that warm affections and feelings for God is all that a Christian really needs to prove he is a Christian. Obedience may be encouraged, but it’s not necessarily required. This camp desperately tries to avoid the stigma of legalism. But in so doing, they neglect the myriad of New Testament passages commanding us to obey the Lord. In addition, they fail to see that the Christian is still subject to God’s law—not the law of the Old Testament, of course (Rom 6:12), but rather the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2; Jas 1:25; 2:8, 12). Romans 7 does not condone a persistent lifestyle of disobedience; it warns against it! Those who do not bear fruit today are living lives consistent with those who trusted in the law and trusted in their own efforts apart from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, those who continue to not bear fruit today are not acting like New Covenant believers. They may need to reexamine themselves to see if they really are Christians in the first place (2 Cor 13:5).
These are just three of many implications that I have derived from this Romans 7 position. The consequences are not insignificant. How you view Romans 7 has an incredible impact on the way you live your life every day.
Do you trust in the full power of the gospel alone to help you change? Or do you find yourself running toward worldly methods that will never get you to change inside and out?
Is “Christ formed in you” your standard of godliness (Gal 4:19)? Or are you content to let a misguided understanding of Paul struggling with his sin be your excuse to not take your own sin as seriously as you should?
Do you define spiritual progress or assurance of salvation by visible fruit in your life? Or do you settle for just your desires, thinking that’s all that God really cares about anyway?
Christians do struggle with sin. Christians can sometimes struggle with sin for a long time. But a Christian also bears fruit. He continues seeking the Lord, even when change is slow or hard to come by. And the great news is that for every Christian there is always the hope of a powerful gospel to help us change today.