Which Paul Is It? An Argument for Paul’s Christian Experience in Romans 7:14-25

Romans 7:14-25 is one of the most debated passages in the Bible. There are three major positions that have vied for interpretational prominence over the years. One view sees Paul’s description of his struggle with sin as his pre-conversion experience. The other sees Paul’s description as his post-conversion experience. A third—articulated by Martyn Lloyd-Jones—argues that we ask the wrong question if we inquire about Paul’s spiritual status in Romans 7:14-25. Rather, as the Doctor asserts, Paul is explaining what happens when someone pursues sanctification according to the law rather than by the Spirit. Each of these positions has been articulated and defended by skilled and sound exegetes, a fact which makes me recognize, again, how demanding the task biblical interpretation really is.

I do not want to enter into the intricacies of the debate in this post. Rather, I only want to offer my defense of a post-conversion reading.  That is, I believe Paul is describing his Christian experience in Romans 7:14-25. Here’s why.

(1) Paul’s description of his struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-25 is nowhere found in his pre-conversion testimony or in the description of other Pharisees. Paul’s description of his struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-25 seems to be at odds with how he describes his life before Christ elsewhere in the New Testament. Philippians 3:4-6 does not indicate that Paul wrestled with or agonized over his sin like he does in Romans 7:14-25, nor do the personal narratives he offered in Acts 24:1-27 and Acts 261-32 indicate that Paul was deeply troubled over his sin prior to his conversion to Christ. Furthermore, Jesus’ description of the Pharisees–of which Paul was one—in Matthew 23:24-26 appears to undo the idea that a pre-converted Jewish leader would have wrestled mightily with the inconsistency between his desires and actions.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt 23:27-28 ESV)

Rather than depicting a violent struggle with sin, Jesus portrays these men as those who had fully yielded to their inward sinfulness and hypocrisy. There is simply no indication in Paul’s description of his life before Christ or in Jesus’ description of the Pharisees that they would have grappled with sin the way Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25.

(2) Paul, in Romans 7:5-13, spoke of past realities; in 7:14-25, he speaks of present realities. Starting with Romans 7:5, it seems natural to read the flow of Paul’s argument moving from his pre-conversion experience to his experience of conviction of sin, to his post-conversion experience. The question Paul is answering in Romans 7:7-25 is how God’s good law relates to a sinful person. Specifically, if we need to die to the law, should we conclude that the law is bad? No, Paul answers. The problem isn’t with the law; it is with our sinful flesh. Before we were converted, the law aroused our sinful passions and we continually bore fruit for death. The law came to Paul and said, “Do not covet,” and his flesh responded by producing all kinds of coveting. The commandment, therefore, “killed” him.

What we need to notice is that Paul speaks in terms of a past experience in Romans 7:5-13. When we were in the flesh, our sinful passions “were at work.” Sin “produced” all kinds of coveting. The law “killed” Paul. Sin came alive and Paul “died.” When we enter into Romans 7:14-25, Paul speaks exclusively in the present-tense. This change of perspective would argue for a change in Paul’s spiritual status. In Romans 7:5-13, he is describing his pre-conversion experience. In Romans 7:14-25, Paul is describing his present Christian experience.

(3) Paul distinguishes between the “I” and the “flesh” or “sin” that dwells in him (7:17-22). Throughout Romans 7:14-25, Paul repeatedly makes a distinction between the “I” and the “sin” that troubles him. This distinction between the “I” and the “flesh” is further expressed in another distinction, namely, between Paul’s desires and his actions.

  • Romans 7:15 – I do not do [action] what I want [desire], but I do [action] what I hate [desire]
  • Romans 7:16 – If I do [actions] what I do not want [desire], I agree [desire?] with the law that it is good
  • Romans 7:17 – So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me
  • Romans 7:18 – For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out [action].
  • Romans 7:19 – For I do not do [action] the good I want [desire], but the evil I do not want [desire] I keep on doing [action]
  • Romans 7:20 – Now if I do [action] what I do not want [desire], it is not longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
  • Romans 7:25 – Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Paul’s point, I would argue, is that his relationship to the flesh and to the law is substantially different to what it was in Romans 7:5-13. There is a new “I” with new “desires” that battles against this flesh and doesn’t merely yields to it as it once did. The flesh is still potent, but it no longer characterizes Paul at a fundamental level of his personhood. The controlling “I” is the new Paul. This interpretation fits well with Paul has just described in Romans 6:1-23 with regard to the Christian’s freedom from slavery to sin. It also fits well with how we understand the New Covenant, which leads to my next point.

(4) Paul delights in the law of God in the inward man (Romans 7:22). One of the first and most basic marks of true conversion is a desire for the Word of God. This desire is not the mere enjoyment of a new intellectual stimulus or aesthetic beauty. This is a delighting and tasting and loving the Word of God as one’s very life (see Psalm 119:16, 24, 35, 47). For the believer, the Word of God is bread and drink to the soul (Matt 4:4). This new spiritual taste is the fruit of the New Covenant.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek 36:26-27; see also Jer 31:31-34)

Paul’s confession of his inward delight of the law does not square with the experience of an unconverted person. God’s Word may create some kind of superficial joy in an unbeliever (Matt 13:20) but it is never a deep and abiding spiritual enjoyment. Indeed, it is the trouble brought about by the Word of God that causes the unbeliever to retreat (Matt 13:21). Yet, it is precisely Paul’s delight in the law that compels the apostle to war against indwelling sin.

(5) Paul describes this experience in a similar way in Galatians 5:17, and the passage in Galatians clearly refers to believers. The language of Galatians 5:17 appears to match the experience Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25. In Galatians 5:17, there is no question that Paul is referring to believers:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5:16-18; emphasis added)

(6) This is my experience. Finally, I believe Paul is referring to his Christian experience because Romans 7:14-25 describes my experience. I put this point last because it is the least important among all the other reasons. My experience cannot be used to twist a biblical text to say what I want it to say. I must yield to is what is objectively, in the text, no matter what my experience seems to tell me. Nevertheless, Scripture tells us that experience can serve to open our eyes to what is really there in the text, so my experience should not be quickly set aside. The Psalmist, for example, says, “It was good that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps 119:71). In the case of the Psalmist, he was enabled to learn something about God’s Word that he would have not otherwise learned had he not experienced what he experienced. I cannot ultimately appeal to my experience, however. I must appeal to the text and to sound argument. That’s why reasons 1-5 come first.

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