The apostle Paul was not perfect. He did sin. But, did he constantly struggle with sin and regularly lose the battle? Some think that’s what Paul meant in Romans 7:14-25. For instance, Paul wrote:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15 ESV).
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing (Romans 17:18b-19 ESV).
When we pull these verses out on their own, it certainly sounds like Paul lacked victory over sin. In fact, Christians often cite Romans 7:14-25 as Scriptural backup to support our own defeat. After all, if Paul battled sin on a daily basis and lost more than he won, our lack of power to resist temptation is somehow justified.
But, is that what Paul meant? Was Paul even talking about himself?
Sincere biblical scholars differ in their understanding of Romans 7:14-25. The ongoing discussion over this passage deals primarily with two questions:
- Who is the “I?”
- Is the “I” a Christian or a non-Christian?
The predominant understanding has shifted back and forth since Paul penned this letter to the believers in Rome. The early church held that Paul used “I” as a rhetorical device to describe a non-Christian, an unregenerate person who struggled under the guilt of trying to follow the law. Then, more than a millennium later, the reformers held the view that Paul described the normal Christian experience. Today scholars are divided.
The Trouble is in Our Interpretation
Every passage in the Bible has one right meaning – what God originally meant when He inspired it to be written. Our job as students of Scripture is to properly observe and interpret the text so that we can understand God’s truth and apply it to our lives. God wants us to know His truth.
So why do Christians sometimes disagree over the meaning of a particular passage? The problem is in our understanding, not in the Scripture. Sometimes we handle a passage incorrectly. We may come with preconceptions about the passage or the topic that skew our understanding. And sometimes the passage is unclear for us. The distance created by time and culture and a lack of all the information known by the original recipients can limit our understanding. (See also “4 Tips for Handling Difficult Bible Passages.”)
Proper Bible study is not hard, but without the right tools and approach it is easy to incorrectly understand a passage. Here’s a few things we want to keep in mind when we study any Bible passage:
- The larger literary context of the particular passage
- The historical and cultural context of the author and original recipients (See also “4 Things to Consider for Biblical Context.“)
- Literary genre of the Bible book
- Other Scriptures in the Bible on this same subject (See also “4 Tips to Help You Understand the Bible.“)
- The overall meta-narrative (big story) of the Bible
The larger literary context will particularly help us best understand Romans 7:14-25.
Why does our understanding of this passage matter?
What we believe about the spiritual status of the person described in Romans 7 directly impacts how we understand the daily life of the believer and our ongoing struggle with sin. Is victory over sin by following the Spirit merely “positional” or is it practical for our everyday lives? Should we expect to constantly lose our battle with temptation or does the indwelling Holy Spirit provide the power we need to say “no” to sin and “yes” to a godly life that pleases God?
For years, I held to the view that Paul described his own life as a believer – a constant struggle with sin and little to no power to choose righteousness. Then once after reading through the entire book of Romans over a couple of weeks, I noticed some themes and running arguments that didn’t jive with that understanding. So, I reread chapters 6-8 in one sitting and my perspective shifted.
You don’t have to agree with the conclusions I detail below, but I do encourage you to take a fresh and objective look at the passage. This post is a great example of how we as believers can approach Scripture and dig into it on our own!
Who was “I” and what was his spiritual condition?
Scholars are divided today. Some think Paul was talking about himself and others think he used “I” to represent someone else. Ancient writers often used a rhetorical device like Paul’s “I” to adopt the character of someone else. Based on the literary context and other Scriptures, I believe Paul used this tool to represent all who had tried to please God by attempting to follow the Jewish law. That includes himself, the Jews, and God-fearing Gentiles.
But does this representative “I” describe the normal Christian experience? Paul tells us that “I” agrees with the law (7:16), desires to do what’s right (7:18), and delights in God’s law (7:22).
However, these characteristics are not exclusive to Christians. They would also describe any Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who tried to please God by following the law.
Evidence from the Larger Context
Based on my study, far more evidence exists to support the view that “I” describes an unregenerate person. (I encourage you to read chapters 6-8 in one sitting to keep 7:14-25 within the larger context.) The following key points, based on the larger context, are just a few of many supporting the view that Paul’s “I” describes a non-Christian trying to please God by adhering to the law:
- Believers are dead to sin and alive to Christ (6:2, 11), yet “I” is “sold under sin” (7:14)
- Believers are no longer slaves to sin (6:6-7), but “I” is captive to the law of sin (7:23)
- God commands Christians to not yield ourselves to sin, but instead give ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness (6:11-13)
- Sin has no power over believers because we are under God’s grace, not the law (6:14)
- Believers are dead to the law/sin so we can serve the Spirit/righteousness (7:4-6)
- Those without the Spirit are powerless against sin (8:5-7)
- The indwelling Spirit, present in every believer, gives us the power to say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness (8:8-10)
- Believers are obligated to follow the Spirit (8:12-14)
What is the conclusion?
Do believers have to regularly struggle with sin? I strongly believe Paul described a non-Christian, an unregenerate person in Romans 7:14-25. This person is completely powerless over sin. The Holy Spirit is not at work in her life. She is defeated, held captive by sin and the law.
This friend, is not our life in Christ Jesus. Although we will not be perfect this side of heaven, our struggle with sin is not the helpless, hopeless struggle depicted in the seventh chapter of Romans. We do not have to yield to temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). The indwelling Holy Spirit gives us the power to say “no” to sin and “yes” to godliness. (For articles on both sides of this passage see “Paul’s Fight with Sin?” and “Does Romans 7 Describe a Christian?”)
How have you understood Romans 7:14-25 in the past? Are you up to the challenge to take another look?
Want to learn more about Romans?
The newest volume in the Deep Rooted devotional series walks through Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome. Recapture the awe of your life in Christ with this 40-day pilgrimage through the book of Romans. In this volume of Deep Rooted you will:
- Gain a fresh awareness of God’s lavish, saving grace
- Sit and soak in the deep truths of the gospel
- Find practical help for living a victorious, Spirit-empowered life
- Develop a burden for the spiritually lost
- Cultivate a gospel-soaked faith