Who Is This Man: Romans 7 Unveiled
THE ROMANS SEVEN CONTROVERSY
adapted from a tract written by Charlie Kennon
No other chapter of the Bible has intrigued me more than the seventh chapter of Romans. It has been a bone of contention among theologians and a stumbling block to many honest inquirers. Unfortunately, many have perverted it into a refuge of lies seeking to justify their sin. Perhaps you have never truly looked into this passage with unbiased eyes apart from the generally accepted interpretation. I sincerely ask you, can this “carnal wretch sold into captivity under the awful tyranny of sin” be a portrait of God’s great salvation? Or, could this be the experience of Saul the Pharisee rather than Paul the Christian? Dear reader, I urge you to honestly consider these thoughts as we discover who this man really is.
“The theory that this is the experience of all Christians has most pitifully and most shamefully not only lowered the standard of Christianity but destroyed its influence and disgraced its character. If this were indeed the Christian experience it would do nothing but demonstrate the insufficiency of the gospel as well as the law.”
According to one noted scholar the church as a whole for the first three centuries unanimously applied this passage to an unregenerate man seeking to obey the law in his own strength apart from grace. John Wesley, John Fletcher, Charles Finney, Adam Clarke, Jacob Arminius, and A.B. Simpson (to name a few) all believed that Romans seven described the battle in an awakened sinner between indwelling sin and conscience.
Roman’s 8:7 …The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
Romans 7:14-24 is a perfect commentary on the above verse. Until the sin that dwells in us (7:17,20) is judged and the Spirit that raised up Christ reign as King in our hearts, we to will not be able to be subject to the law of God.
Romans 7:1 …the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?
According to verse one, the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives…or until he satisfies its demand, which is death. The death penalty upon sinners has never been waived. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Jesus did not die that we may live, but that we may die and He may live His perfect life through us. Therefore, until one submits to the judgment of the cross upon the fugitive of the old man, “he liveth.” Consequently, the evidence of the law’s dominion will be manifest in the struggle of Romans 7:14-24.
LAW OR GRACE?
By embracing the sentence of the law upon our flesh we become free from the law’s dominion. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:19…“For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.” Christ can then indwell and rule the believer through His Spirit, which is what it means to be under grace. Simply stated, the difference between Romans chapter seven and eight is the difference between law and grace. As long as the flesh is alive, we are under the dominion of law. To be under grace is to be under the lordship of Christ through the indwelling Spirit (Gal 5:18).
It is interesting to note that the word “grace” does not appear once in this chapter. In contrast, the word “law” appears 23 times (more than in any other chapter in the NT). It is also quite revealing that there is no mention of the presence of the Spirit of God in this awful struggle, but rather this man uses the personal pronouns “I, me and myself” 52 times. In light of these facts alone I ask you…”Can this experience be that of a Christian under the covenant of grace indwelt by God’s Spirit?”
THE GOVERNING ANALOGY
The woman spoken of in the analogy is married to “Adam”, or the flesh, and can only be free from his law through death. Sadly, many are seeking to obey Christ as their lord while still “married” to the flesh, and therefore, are experiencing the struggle of Romans seven. By faith we can be identified with Christ in His death, thus becoming free to serve God in newness of spirit. “That” which held us under the dominion of the law in verse six is the flesh, which must be crucified. This flesh is the “body of death” from which Paul seeks deliverance. Moreover, the law is not the problem; it is “holy, and just and good,” but it is “weak through the flesh” in that it can only demand and not enable obedience.
Romans 7:5 “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.”
This verse is a summary of verses 14-24 and notice that it speaks of a past state (his present state is described in 7:6). The law by commanding, forbidding, and threatening us in our unregenerate state, yet offering no grace for cure, stirs up the corruption of the carnal nature. Like the sun shining upon a dunghill draws up its filthy stench, so the law excites the rebellion and sin of an unregenerate heart.
THE FUNCTION OF THE LAW
In verses 7-13, Paul upholds the sanctity of the law and explains its purpose in “bringing the knowledge of sin” to the careless sinner and then leading him as a “schoolmaster” to Christ the Deliverer (v. 14-24).
Was Paul “…carnal; sold under sin”?
Roman’s 7:14 … I am carnal, sold under sin.
No! Paul was not carnal but spiritual. The Bible clearly reveals that the great Apostle was not sold under the dominion of sin, but rather ransomed from its power. Here Paul uses a literary device known as “hypotyposis” in which writers use the present tense to relate things past in order to make their narration livelier. Paul is using his past experience to describe the struggle of a man under the law. We see the terrible struggle of an awakened sinner seeking to obey the law in his own strength. Those who attempt to obey God’s commandments without the saving grace of the indwelling Spirit will also find themselves unable to accomplish the good intentions of their heart.
In v. 17 this man states, “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” Notice, this man say, “not I but sin.” In contrast, Paul’s glorious testimony was “not I but Christ” (Gal 2:20). The word “dwell” speaks of a fixed and governing resident. Christ and sin cannot both rule in this sense within a believer (II Cor 6:14-16).
He then exposes himself as an utter stranger to grace, “For I know that in me…dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (v. 18-20). This man has intellectual knowledge of the will of God but does not have the power or grace to do it. A man under grace proclaims with Paul that, “God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
Many falsely believe that because they approve of what is right that they are born-again. But the most depraved people will praise virtue and justice in the abstract (Isa 58:2). We must never confuse noble desires with noble character nor should we mistake admiration for possession.
Jesus did not suffer and shed His Blood to merely give us good intentions, but to give us power to please the Father through obedience. In Romans seven we have a man convinced by the law but not yet changed by the gospel. In fact, he says that he is “brought into captivity” to the law of sin (Note this man is a captive to sin and not stumbling on occasion). However, Paul states in chapter eight that those who are subject to the Spirit are free from this law of sin (8:2). One cannot be a captive to the law of sin and at the same time be free from it! Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty, not captivity!
Paul then summarizes the awful condition of the awakened sinner in v. 25…”So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” In essence he is saying…”I myself, alone on the plane of nature without the aid of Christ, can do no better than render dual service. With my mind serving the law of God by my admiration of its excellence, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
Abraham knew the will of God, but tried to fulfill it through the flesh, bringing forth that which God would not accept. We must cast out the carnal mind of the flesh through crucifixion and enter into the glorious victory of the New Covenant described in chapter eight.
“The Apostle is speaking here neither of the natural man in his state of ignorance nor of the child of God set free from sin by the blood and animated by the Spirit of God. But of a man whose conscience has been awakened by the law and has entered sincerely with fear and trembling, but still in his own strength, into a desperate and futile struggle against sin.”
When God created Adam in his innocence, the Holy Spirit resided in the royal residence of Adam’s spirit and imparted the life of God. He had exclusive access to Adam’s soul, the “music room,” and He alone had the right to sit at the keyboard of human personality. Instructing the mind, controlling the emotions, and directing the will, the Spirit of Truth struck every cord in perfect harmony with the heart of God. Thus, the beautiful melody, which rang out, was evidence that God was reigning in his heart. God, however, had given to man the key to the music room, which was his free will. The Holy Spirit would stay as long as He was given complete access to this room. One day the deceiver came and persuaded Adam that he could play the song of God himself. Adam believed him and locked the music room. The flesh then broke in and began pounding away at the piano. For the most part, the flesh pounds away furiously in the hearts of men. However, there are some who attempt to play by their feeble strength. Nevertheless, no matter how refined or determined, man will never be able to play the song of God’s law. Hence, the struggle of Romans seven is man’s best and futile attempt to play that song in his own strength.
Roman’s 8:3-4 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.