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.

8 thoughts on “Which Paul Is It? An Argument for Paul’s Christian Experience in Romans 7:14-25”

  1. Paul is not describing his Christian experience nor the experience of Christians. What he is describing (in the latter part) is his human condition, which if considered in isolation from the spirit remains as flesh in control. It is what happens if you are under law, pure and simple. Paul has no need of the law if He is a Christian, following the Spirit. To get this wrong is to get it all wrong.

    1. Crossroman,

      Thank you for taking time to comment on this blog.

      Yes, I noted in the blog post that there are other interpretations of this passage. But you have only made assertions about your position, not arguments, and you have not engaged any of the reasons I gave for why I take Romans 7:14-25 to be Paul’s Christian experience. All that you’ve basically said is, “I don’t agree with you.” That’s fine, but you won’t persuade anyone to embrace your interpretation if you are unwilling to engage the arguments of those who differ from you. The comment section is an excellent place to do this, and I welcome you to interact with my arguments and present arguments for your position so that we can gain clarity on whose interpretation makes the most sense of the passage.

      Derek

  2. Hi Derek. I have already addressed Romans 7 multiple times but will try to address your points, understanding that it is sometimes harder to do this from an error basis than from the correct perspective in the first place. This is a link to the last time I wrote on this. https://crossroman.wordpress.com/2017/05/011/the-critical-importance-of -romans-7-336a/ Conceptually first I might say that Paul is explaining the need for the change of covenants. Paul is arguing how it is the knowledge of good and evil that enslaves man to sin. Of Jesus it is said “For he knew what was in man”. It is what is in man that Paul addresses.

    1. Paul has not previously gone into such detail before because it was not opportune to do so. It is something which He is able to explain because he is now in possession of the Spirit and in Romans is explaining the complete doctrine with emphasis on the change from law to grace. He explains how it was the law that kept man bound to sin, and he explains the processes within man by relating his experience in this regard.
    2. The initial words are in the past tense – Paul has just finished Romans 6 and also those details which were necessary to portray as past tense. The shift into present tense brings his “I” into focus, in which he describes the processes that occur within a man under law, and as He was a man under law, and is now a man of the Spirit, makes him perfectly qualified to talk about. These are the processes that happen under law, without Spirit, which empowers sin. This whole chapter is in the context of law. It is ludicrous to say that Paul was describing both his experiences under law and in the Spirit simultaneously. He is either in the old covenant under law, or in the new covenant under grace. He is describing what would still be a present tense reality for him if he were indeed under law, but which he is not. That is to say, that the mechanism within him that is still there to promote sin, would become active in him if he were not, had not, by faith entered into the death Jesus provided for him on his behalf, death to the flesh.
    3. Paul, though accepting that bad actions are coming from him, denies his basic responsibility for it, claiming it is not him but sin that lives in him. He is not in control, it is sin that is in control of him, his will is powerless to do the good that he knows (by law) should be done, only the bad results. He is a slave to sin. V25 is an interjection to show that there is an answer through Christ, but he then continues with his explanation of man’s condition under law, it does not mean he has shifted gears into spirit territory. He now goes on to conclude with the results of his investigation of flesh under law. ‘So then I OF MYSELF, can align the law of God with my mind [which he has already shown is to no effect because of the control of sin], but my flesh follows a law of sin. This sets the scene (R8) for the introduction of the Spirit, of grace, of the new covenant, by which the flesh and sin are DISEMPOWERED and his mind is then freed from the power of the flesh, of sin, to follow the leading of the Spirit. He regains his will power and submits it to Jesus.
    4. Paul “delights in the law”. It should be fairly obvious that the old covenant “came with glory”. There are many examples in the OT of people exalting the word and the law. The context in R7 shows that even though he recognised the righteousness of the law and delighted in that revealed righteousness, he was unable to “do” that righteousness. And that is the whole point.
    5. Galatians. If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. If you are operating by the new covenant, you are not operating in the old covenant, or you should not be.There is no victory under law, victory is only by the Spirit.
    6. People’s experience will always include sin, but especially will this be so if they do not understand Romans 7 correctly, if they believe they are still subject to the power of sin which is the case under the law. The cross gives us total victory over law, unless we allow law to gain victory over us. Wrongly explaining this chapter gives power to those who would insist that law is still valid over Christians, still controlling them. Only the knowledge that the power of sin has been completely dealt with, as Paul is explaining here in its context to law, will sufficiently empower Christians to be able to overcome.

  3. Sorry, just a quick further note Derek – Paul’s “desire” agreeance is with the law, it is the requirement of the law that he “desires” to follow, and which he is completely powerless to do. This is a chapter of TOTAL and absolute defeat. In R7 it is a “war” between mind and flesh, one which the mind loses. Galatians is different, Our “war” is to remain in the Spirit and the achieved victory.

  4. Roman,

    Thank you for your comments and for taking the time to engage the post.

    However, I was a little discouraged by your introduction. You begin by assuming my position is wrong and your interpretation is correct, so your attempt to interact with it will be difficult because you have to answer me from “an error basis.” Really? Have I read you correctly here? If I have, I must say that such a condescending approach to these kinds of debates not only hinders conversation; it is historically naïve. Whether right or wrong, my position has solid historical, exegetical, and theological footing and cannot be brushed aside with a dismissive wave of the hand. Both of our positions have endured for ages and been defended by solid exegetes and theologians.

    By and large, the biggest problem I see is that much of your response is built on assumptions brought to the text rather than arguments drawn out of the text. I say this, not because I am without assumptions, but only to point out that the interpretation of this passage is not so cut and dry as you make it sound in your response to me.

    For example, you begin, “Conceptually first I might say that Paul is explaining the need for the change of covenants. Paul is arguing how it is the knowledge of good and evil that enslaves man to sin.” But where is this in the text? I’m not saying that you’re wrong to make these theological assumptions like this, but you must be aware that they are, in fact, assumptions. There is no place in the text that says explicitly that Paul is explaining the need for a change in covenants. He believes that a change in covenants is necessary, to be sure, but you are assuming that this is a primary concern in Romans 7:14-25. Nor is there an immediate textual basis to say that “Paul is arguing how it is the knowledge of good and evil that enslaves man to sin.” I’m not even sure I believe this theologically. We are enslaved to sin because of our sinful nature; and where in Romans does it say that we are enslaved to sin because of the knowledge of good and evil? A conclusion that is more faithful to the text of Romans would be to say that we are enslaved to sin because we are “in Adam” (Rom 5:12-21) and “in the flesh” (Rom 8:7-8) and because of our “old man” (Rom 6:5).

    Next, my argument in the post was that Paul’s use of present tense should be taken as evidence that he is speaking about his present (Christian) experience. Whether I’m correct or not in my overall interpretation, this seems like a reasonable deduction. You answer this argument by saying, “The shift into present tense brings his ‘I’ into focus, in which he describes the processes that occur within a man under law, and as He was a man under law, and is now a man of the Spirit, makes him perfectly qualified to talk about…. “[Paul] is describing what would still be a present tense reality for him if he were indeed under law, but which he is not.” Yet, I wonder how you know that Paul is describing someone under the law? Isn’t this what the entire debate is about? You’ve assumed your position as you argue for it, which is illegitimate (i.e., it begs the question). What you’ve basically said is, “Derek, you are wrong to argue that Paul is describing his present Christian experience in Romans 7:14-25 because he is describing his experience under the law. The reason I know he is describing his experience under the law is because Paul wouldn’t talk this way unless he was under the law.” That’s a circular argument; you’ve assumed your conclusion.

    My point in drawing attention to Paul’s description of his pre-Christ life elsewhere in the NT (Argument #1) is to gain some clarity on what it sounds like when someone is pursuing obedience to the law while under the law. As I noted, there is no place (as far as I can tell) in the NT where Pharisees are described as having an inner turmoil like Paul is experiencing in Romans 7:14-25. You might say, “He has the Spirit now and is able to accurately reflect on his pre-Christ experience under the law.” Sure, but Paul has the Spirit in every other NT text in which he reflects on his pre-Christian experience. Philippians 3:5-6, for example, gives no indication that Paul’s life as a Pharisee was characterized by such inner struggle with sin, obedience, and a delight in the law of God.

    You continue: “It is ludicrous to say that Paul was describing both his experiences under law and in the Spirit simultaneously.” But no one is saying this. Nor is anyone suggesting that Paul is floating between or existing in two states—under the law and under the Spirit. You are assuming that Paul is describing his experience under the law and then reading that assumption into my interpretation. But I disagree with you that Paul is under the law in this passage. That’s the whole point! I believe he is describing his experience as a believer who now has a new relationship with sin (warfare) and the law (true inner delight).

    In answer to #3 you say, “Paul, though accepting that bad actions are coming from him, denies his basic responsibility for it, claiming it is not him but sin that lives in him.” I see this as a theologically problematic argument. On what basis could an unbeliever legitimately deny responsibility for his sin, claiming that it wasn’t “him” but “sin?” The unbeliever is wholly in the flesh (Rom 8:6-8). The old man *is* the “I.” If what you say is true, then God would be unjust to punish unbelieving sinners for their sin because it wasn’t “they” who did it; it was sin. But sin as an abstract concept doesn’t get punished in hell; people do. Given a biblical anthropology, I think the only way we can make sense of an “I” who is “not responsible” for the sin they commit would be a regenerate believer who is, fundamentally, a new person but who has remaining sinful flesh that hinders their sanctification that must be put to death. Granted, this “not responsible” language leaves much to be desired, for even Paul took “responsibility” for his own sin. I believe that what he is saying in Romans 7:14-25 is that sin no longer flows from the “I” as it once did, for Paul is a new person—with new desires that reflect his new nature—yet the remaining flesh is still active and powerful.

    In answer to #4 and my argument that Paul’s delight in the law with the inner man cannot describe an unbeliever, you say, “It should be fairly obvious that the old covenant ‘came with glory.’ There are many examples in the OT of people exalting the word and the law. The context in R7 shows that even though he recognised the righteousness of the law and delighted in that revealed righteousness, he was unable to “do” that righteousness. And that is the whole point.” But I’m having a difficult time seeing what your reference to glory of the Old Covenant or the OT people who delighted in God’s law is supposed to prove. We are not talking about saints in the OT who actually followed Yahweh in faith (e.g., Psalm 119); we are talking about a former Pharisee whose pre-Christian life cannot be characterized by an inner delighting in the law in any sense (see Matt 23:28).

    Your response to my argument from Galatians simply assumes that I’m wrong. The language between the two texts is nearly identical. On what basis are you arguing that Romans is pre-Christ and Galatians refers to believers? Actually, you haven’t argued for it; you just assert it. Again, what you’ve said is, “I don’t agree with you because you’re wrong.” That’s not an argument; that’s just shouting someone down.

    Finally, I sympathize with your practical concerns about Romans 7—I’m a pastor and I deal with these issues on a regular basis—but your specific concerns can be turned in the other direction rather easily. If we get Romans 7:14-25 wrong, we can potentially nurture deadly self-righteousness or trap people in despair because they don’t have any categories to understand their sin. If believers don’t grasp the incredible power and pervasiveness of their sin, they will be easy prey for the enemy. John Owen makes this case rather convincingly in Sin and Temptation.

    Concerning these practical concerns you also say, “Wrongly explaining this chapter gives power to those who would insist that law is still valid over Christians, still controlling them.” Yes, historically that was the concern of some theologians a few centuries ago who thought that the “Paul’s Christian experience” interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 would open the door to spiritual complacency. But this claim doesn’t stand up to empirical evidence. What about the many godly men and women over the centuries who taught and currently teach and preach this passage as describing Paul’s Christian experience who have walked closely with Christ and nurtured godly saints through their ministry? History and the present experience of many Christians undermine your claim at this point. Yes, I’m sure you could tally experiences of saints who have been “harmed” by my interpretation of this passage. My point is not to weigh subjective experiences of various Christians, but only to point out that your concern about “giving power” to Christians who “insist the law is still valid” is easily countered. That’s the reason I kept the “subjective” reasons till the end: they carry the least weight when it comes to determining the meaning of biblical texts. We need to be careful that our personal experiences and practical concerns don’t drive our exegesis of texts. That goes for me and you.

    Beyond this discussion about Romans 7:14-25, I am curious why you write anonymously. I treat your arguments on their own terms, of course, but it makes me less inclined to engage you in a discussion when you are unwilling to put your name on what you write. Perhaps your legal name is Cross Roman or Roman Cross. If it is, forgive my presumption.

    Derek

    1. Well Derek, I think you have out-shouted me. I will have to leave you with your academic appraisal. For some reason I did not receive the usual email when comments are responded to, I have only just seen this post. To all of this I would only emphasise Jesus’ words, which I believe supremely apply in R7. “Without me you can do nothing”. May God bless you.

  5. “To all of this I would only emphasise Jesus’ words, which I believe supremely apply in R7. ‘Without me you can do nothing’. May God bless you.”

    Amen, brother!

    Grace and peace,

    Derek

  6. It is often stated that both sides have sound footing and history on their side. As if it doesn’t matter how you interpret the text.
    But only one interpretation can be correct in spite of all the history and experience, somebody is dead wrong and so twists the words of the apostle.

    I pray God has mercy on the man that twists the words of the apostle.

    For me so much doctrine hinges on this text.

    If R7 man is a “mature Christian” then I cant make any sense of James or John or Jesus…

    Do no more sin

    Be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.

    You can not serve two masters

    Do not let anyone deceive you.

    I write this to you so that you do not sin…

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