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The “I” of Romans 7

March 12, 2023 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans

Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 7:14–25




Over the next two weeks, we’re planning to study the most controversial passage in Romans. As I read it in a moment, I want you to answer two questions. First, what is Paul’s point? Second, what is the spiritual condition of the person speaking (read)?

You got it, right? It’s clear as day! If that’s what you think, I can almost guarantee you missed something important. This is a complex passage. The big challenge is the spiritual condition of the narrator. Most everyone agrees that Paul is primarily describing himself, but at what stage of his spiritual journey? Is he describing his pre-conversion life as a legalistic Pharisee? Is he describing his early, immature Christian experience? Or is he describing his normal Christian experience? It’s a hard question to answer.

And the debate is not between liberals and conservatives or Catholics and Protestants. The debate is among people who share our theology. The church has gone back and forth on this passage for centuries, and scholars have written untold pages on the debate. Yet, there’s still no consensus. I saw that very clearly in the different conclusions of the sources I read and listened to this week.

I recognize that some people love these debates, while others have little patience for them. If you are the latter, I hope you will be patient with me because this passage has a lot of practical significance. It has greatly ministered to many of God’s people. But the debate does influence how we use it to counsel ourselves and others. If we love the Bible, we should want to use it the way God intended.

And hopefully, a sermon like this also provides a pattern to increase everyone’s capacity to work through other difficult passages yourself. That’s important because we need to learn how to mine the difficult passages of Scripture, not just the easy ones.

That said, my plan for today is to give the 30,000’ view of this passage. I’ll address the debates and pursue the overall meaning of the text. I’ll close with three important applications of that meaning. Next week, we’ll walk verse by verse through the passage and apply the smaller sections. I’d like to begin on an encouraging note. That is, while Christians have important differences over this passage, we agree that it has a clear, central message.

I.  The Agreement

I appreciate how Doug Moo begins his discussion, “As we approach this controversial paragraph, we must keep in mind that Paul’s focus is still on the Mosaic law. And what Paul says about the Mosaic law comes to much the same thing, whatever we decide about the identity and spiritual condition of the person whose situation is depicted…One can preach this paragraph in its basic intention, without even making a definite identification of the egō (Greek term for ‘I”).” We should aspire to more than basic intention, but I want to emphasize that the basic message is clear.

So, remember that the purpose of Romans 7 is to clarify Paul’s earlier statements about the Law of Moses and to prove they are true. Specifically, Paul has argued that we cannot possibly be saved through the works of the Law because we always fall short. Therefore, the Law cannot make us righteous; it can only reveal our sin.

Therefore, God made a new way through Christ. Romans 6:14 declares, “You are not under law but under grace.” We live in a new age defined by grace. This grace empowers us to pursue godliness in a way that the Law of Moses never could. It’s a massive change, and Romans 7 explains why this transition was necessary.

Everyone agrees on this. Therefore, everyone agrees that the basic message of vv. 14–25 is, “The Law of Moses alone cannot produce genuine godliness.” And Paul fleshes this out through two simple ideas. 1st

Sin hijacks our best efforts to keep the Law. Again, everyone agrees that most of the passage records a frustrated personal testimony of defeat (v. 15). Paul is befuddled. He wants to obey the Law, but he keeps doing what he hates. Most of the passage describes his frustration.

In the process, he affirms the two big ideas we talked about last week. First, the Law is good (v. 16). Second, the fault lies with Paul’s sin nature (v. 18).

We are sinners; therefore, the Law of Moses can’t make anyone righteous nor can any other set of rules and regulations. We need something more if we have any hope of holiness and victory. That’s Paul’s main point. But he can’t just leave us in in despair, so he adds a second idea…

Christ is our only hope of deliverance. Notice the frustrated cry of v. 24 and the gospel hope of v. 25a (read). My only hope of salvation or of genuine holiness is divine power. I need the age of grace.

Everyone agrees on this. Christ is my only hope for victory over sin. You cannot save yourself. You need to receive Christ. And once you are saved, don’t ever think that you can graduate from dependence on the gospel. You must run to Christ and daily drink of his grace if you are to thrive spiritually. I’ll say more about that at the end.

But while we agree on these truths, there’s clearly more going on in the passage. We want to understand all that God’s inspired Word says, and we want to apply it well. So, we need to think about the fundamental challenge of this passage.

II.  The Challenging: Identifying the “I”

I said last week, the simplest way to understand this passage is to assume that Paul is the “I.” He’s talking about himself, though his experience mirrors that of many others. But what stage of his spiritual journey is he describing.

There are 3 basic views. First, Paul could be describing his pre-conversion life as a legalistic Pharisee. Second, he could be describing his early, immature/carnal Christian experience. Or third, he could be describing his normal Christian experience?

Why is this such a complicated debate? It’s because there are real strengths and weaknesses to each view. Doug Moo lists 6 major arguments for the unregenerate view and 5 for the regenerate view. But for the sake of time, I want to boil them down into 6 challenging questions.

Paul speaks in the present tense, so shouldn’t we assume he is talking about the present? Beginning with v. 14, the passage suddenly shifts from the past tense to the present tense. Almost every verb in vv. 14–25 is present tense. So, shouldn’t we assume that Paul is talking about the present? It’s a strong argument that Paul is describing his present life as a mature Christian. And another major reason for assuming Paul is describing his present struggle as a mature Christian is…

Can an unbeliever delight in God’s Law and strive to obey it? Notice how Paul describes his desires. Verses 15–21 repeatedly express Paul’s frustration that he wants to obey the Law but can’t (v. 21). Paul “wants to do good.”

And notice his love for the Law in v. 22. Many scholars have argued that there is no way Paul would put those words in the mouth of an unbeliever considering what Romans 1–3 say about the unbeliever. He is hostile to God, so how could he possibly “joyfully concur with the law of God”?

I’ll go ahead and mention that from college until recently, I was convinced that this passage describes a Christian, and this point was my biggest reason. I couldn’t see how an unbeliever could sincerely state v. 22.

As well, notice how v. 25 closes the passage (read). Christ is our only hope of deliverance, and he seems to conclude by declaring his desire to live out this new life. And again, how could an unbeliever “serve the Law of God” with his mind? That sounds like a Christian. A 3rd question on the side of the believer view is…

Doesn’t the author’s frustration sound like my Christian experience? I really resonate with this point. I am often frustrated with my failure to be what I want to be and to change as quickly as I want. Verse 19 reflects how I feel (read). Do you ever feel that way?

I’ve listened to many Christians express the same frustration. They hate their sin, but they can’t seem to break free. I’ve used v. 19 many times to encourage them that they aren’t alone. “Even Paul struggled and failed.” If you hunger for godliness, you find so much comfort there.

So, there are very good reasons to believe this passage describes the normal Christian experience. But this view also faces some big challenges.

Can a believer truly be in bondage to sin? Notice how Paul describes himself in v. 14. Paul says I am “sold into bondage to sin.” Compare that to what Paul said in 6:16–18 about the difference between a believer and an unbeliever (read).

Paul uses similar language about slavery, and he says that slaves to sin are doomed to spiritual death, meaning condemnation. However, Christians are no longer slaves to sin. We “became obedient from the heart.” If that’s true how can 7:14 describe a mature believer as “sold into bondage to sin.”

And while every Christian struggles with sin and often fails, much of the language of this passage seems to go much further than this. There’s a despair in this passage that seems contrary to the hopefulness of chapter 6 and chapter 8.

For example, 6:14 says, “Sin shall not be master over you,” but 7:18b says, “The willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” And notice just how oppressive sin is in v. 23. Again, believers absolutely can struggle, but nowhere else does Paul describe the normal, healthy Christian as “a prisoner of the Law of sin.” We are victors, not losers. Another question that is important on the side of the unregenerate view is…

How would a sudden switch to Christian experience fit the context? Frankly, this is the issue that has pushed me to a new view. In particular, Paul begins rehearsing his personal testimony in v. 7, and everyone agrees that vv. 7–13 describe his legalistic efforts as a Pharisee to earn righteousness through the Law of Moses (v. 11). Paul is clearly describing is failed efforts to earn salvation through keeping the Law.

In the process, he makes two big points—the Law is good, and I am sinner. And vv. 14–25 emphasize the same themes (v. 14). Therefore, without an obvious transition to the present, we should assume that vv. 14–25 are still describing his legalistic life under the law.

Yes, Paul does switch the present tense, but there is nothing else in the text to indicate that Paul has suddenly switched gears to the normal Christian experience. I really doubt Paul would expect his Roman audience to catch such a big shift based on such a subtle change.

Afterall, we are very used to speaking in the historical present. “There I was in 8th I’m working hard…” We do it all the time. No, the big transition comes in 8:1. He follows by expanding on the radically new life we have in the Spirit that he introduced in 7:6 (8:2–4).

So, yes, if you lift 7:14–25 out of context, it can sound like a Christian, but context is king when you study the Bible. One of the most important principles of Bible interpretation is to see in the flow of the broader argument. Finally…

Why would Paul strive to obey the Law of Moses after Christ freed him from it? Notice the transformation that Paul describes in 7:6. We are not bound by the Law of Moses. Then vv. 7–13 say that the Law can only condemn. Finally vv. 14–25 describe Paul’s frustrated attempts to obey the Law. Again, the simplest view is that he is continuing to describe his Pharisaical life. Therefore, over the past few weeks I’ve become convinced that vv. 14 –25 describe Paul’s life as a Pharisee. And I’d like to drive home 3 reasons why.

III.  Defense of Unbeliever View

It fits the context. I’ve covered this pretty well. Romans 7 functions within the book to describe why the transition from the Law of Moses to the Age of Grace was necessary. The unregenerate view does a better job of completing the argument of vv. 1–13 by demonstrating the Law’s failure.

It fits the contrast between the old man and the new man. I want to be very clear that Christians still struggle with sin. If you feel defeated or you aren’t progressing as fast as you would lie, that doesn’t mean you are lost or that you are doing something wrong. It just means you are a sinner like the rest of us. I’m not saying that Christians can’t struggle and lose.

But Romans 6, 8 teach that a radical change has occurred (6:6). Yes, Christians are sometimes defeated, but we do not live in a state of defeat. So, the unregenerate view best fits the image of Christianity in Romans.

Unbelieving Jews loved the Law and tried to obey it. This point was huge for making me comfortable changing views. Afterall, my biggest problem with the unregenerate view has always been that an unbeliever cannot love God’s Law.

But I’m now convinced that I was guilty of oversimplifying Paul’s view of the unbeliever and especially of the unbelieving Jew. Yes, before Paul was saved, he was dead in sin like any other unbeliever. But that doesn’t mean unbelievers have no desire to obey God’s will (2:14–15). Because of God’s common grace, all people have some natural drive toward righteousness.

And the passage that really changed my thinking is 9:31–10:3. Paul says that the Jews are “pursuing a law of righteousness.” That sounds a lot like the guy in our text. And he even says that they “have a zeal for God” just “not in accordance with knowledge.”

Yes, the Jew will always fall short, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sincerely trying to keep the law or that in some sense they don’t love the Law. Rather, the Jews clearly loved the Law and prided themselves in their efforts to obey it, even if they missed its fundamental intent.

With this perspective, it’s not that hard to understand how an unbelieving Jew, especially one as devoted as Paul, could make the statements about the Law that our text makes.

Bible study is hard sometimes, isn’t it? 2,000 years separate us from Paul’s language and culture. As well, we know little about the other interaction Paul had with the churches which surely helped them understand what he meant.

It’s hard, but it’s worth the effort. The Bible is rich and deep. You’ll never exhaust the riches of Scripture if you keep digging. Don’t be content with the easy pickings. Work hard and think hard and stand on the shoulders of other people who have spent their lives meditating on the text. We need strong meat if we are going to mature.

And don’t get frustrated if you don’t see it all the first time. I’ve spent a lot of time in Romans over the years, and I’m still learning. Studying the Bible is like any discipline. The more you do it, the better you get. Be patient and persevere.

Next week, we’ll walk carefully through the details of the text, but I’d like to pull everything I’ve said today into 3 applications.

IV.  Application

For the Lost: You cannot earn salvation by keeping the Law. Most people who are trying to earn salvation, become numb to how often they fail. They convince themselves that they are doing quite well.

But if you honestly face the righteousness of God, and then you sincerely try to live up to that standard, you will find yourself identifying with this text. You are going to fail, you are going to feel defeated, and you are going to search for a different solution. So, please see how far you fall short. You cannot keep the Law.

Then see that Christ is the only one who can deliver you. You need to receive Christ and be forgiven of all your sin. And you need Christ to give you new life and new power if you have any hope of escaping the bondage of your own sin nature. Please, see yourself in this passage and talk with us afterwards about how to receive Christ.

For the Christian: You must rely on Christ to be sanctified. Again, I don’t believe that this passage is primarily describing spiritual growth, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help us grow.

In particular, many Christians understand that they are saved by grace alone, but they essentially believe in sanctification by law. For them the Christian life is about setting up a standard of holiness and then working as hard as I can to achieve it. Even prayer, Bible study, and worship are items on a checklist rather than disciplines of grace.

But this passage reminds us that sinners cannot be sanctified by mere law. We need divine power. Therefore, even as we are new creatures in Christ and we have received every spiritual blessing in Christ, we also need to actively run to the grace God provides.

I really like to emphasize that Bible study, prayer, and worship are disciplines of grace. We don’t just do them because they are right; we do them because God’s grace flows to us through his Word, time at the throne of grace, and while sitting under the preaching of his Word and while worshipping with his church.

Christian don’t return to legalism. Yes, obey the Law of Christ. But strive to do so from rhythms of life that are rooted in grace. Christ is your only hope of genuine godliness.

For Ministry: All our counseling must be anchored in the gospel. Most counseling is legalism. People have a problem, and here are 7 steps to solving it. It’s about law and human effort. It sometimes helps with practical problems, but if righteousness is the goal, it’s going to leave people feeling like this passage.

Yet so much of the counseling we do as Christian parents, youth workers, and friends is not much different. We’re telling people how to fix themselves.

But they can’t fix themselves. Only Jesus can. That’s not to say that we don’t use rules, steps, or consequences. But everything must be anchored in the gospel. People must be saved before they can be godly. And once they are saved, they must obey law in conscious dependence on grace. It’s your job as a parent, a minister, and a counselor to build rhythms of life that are rooted in grace. Grace changes us, not law. We’ll build on that next week.

More in Romans

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May 12, 2024

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April 28, 2024

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