Joseph D. McPherson, “What Manner of Man Is He, Described in the Seventh of Romans”

, posted by Jon Gossman

What manner of man is he who, while describing his spiritual state, says, “I am carnal, sold under sin”? Can he be classified as one who is born again? “For, that which I do,” says he, “I allow not; for, what I would, that do I not; but what I hate that do I.” Is it possible that such an one has experienced regeneration? Is he to be considered a child of God who speaks of being brought “into captivity to the law of sin”?

While seeking the answers to these questions a number of years ago, this writer was not disappointed when, by searching, he obtained much help from other parts of the New Testament concerning this passage in the seventh of Romans. The use of these New Testament references will be evident to the reader. Further assistance came by way of the writings of Mr. Wesley, the founder of Methodism (Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, pp. 544-5) together with those of Adam Clarke, well known theologian of early Methodism and renowned scholar of biblical interpretation (Clarke’s Commentary, 6:86-93). It is to the latter that we are most indebted for several useful observations and quotations found in this paper.

The doctrine of holiness is a most precious one and soundly scriptural. It has been observed, however, that many present day advocates of the doctrine have over anxiously sought support for two works of grace on every page of the New Testament, as it were. One consequence of this has been the coming of an instruction, the type of which noticeably cheapens the concept of the first work of God in the heart so as to make room, so to speak, for the second. The end product is distressing, for we find those who have been professing believers for some time, who later experience for the first time the kingdom of heaven within and conclude they are entirely sanctified. Others there are who in a similar fashion lightly pass over the first work, seek and claim the second and attain neither. Some who seek the second experience attain only to a reclamation of the first, but claim both, etc. We therefore believe it to be very urgent that a renewed emphasis upon and understanding of the first work be revived in the present day Church.

Too often the impression prevails among clergy and people alike that the first crisis experience is confined to justification or the forgiveness of sins, only. Little emphasis is given to regeneration as a work accomplished at one and the same time with justification. In reality the work of regeneration produces within the heart no small change. When God effectually touches the heart in regeneration, sanctification is begun. This is not intended to mean that such a one is, by any means, entirely sanctified, but the process of purification has begun. He is changed from a “child of the devil” to a “child of God.” He is “born again,” yea, “born of the Spirit.” This great change and contrast is decisively portrayed by the Apostle John in the third chapter of his first letter. He writes, “Little children [babes in Christ] let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; . . . Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin . . . because he is born of God” (1 John 3:7,9). In the light of these verses, how can he who is described from verse 7 in Romans 7 be considered as either a “child of God” or one who is free from sin in any degree?

That we may more clearly understand the kind of person the Apostle Paul is describing from verse 7 to the end of the chapter, it is necessary that we view the fifth verse as a general description of the state of a Jew in servitude to sin. He is considered as under mere law. In the sixth verse, however, Paul gives a short summary account of the state of a Christian, or a Jew now effectually believing the gospel, and the marked advantages he enjoys therein. It is very important that we now be mindful of the following. From verse 7 to the end of the chapter, the apostle is making further comment upon the state of a Jew, in servitude to sin as initially described in verse 5. It is not until chapter 8, verses 1-11 that he enlarges upon a description of the state of a Christian or believing Jew as briefly described in verse 6.

In his notes upon this passage, Mr. Wesley adds the following explanation. “This is a kind of digression (from verse 7) to the beginning of the next chapter,” says he, “wherein the apostle, in order to show in the most lively manner the weakness and inefficacy of the law, changes the person and speaks as of himself, concerning the misery of one under the law. This St. Paul frequently does, when he is not speaking of his own person, but only assuming another character (Romans 3:5; 1 Corinthians 10:30, 4:6). The character here assumed is that of a man, first ignorant of the law, then under it, and sincerely but ineffectually striving to serve God. To have spoken this of himself or any true believer, would have been foreign to the whole scope of his discourse; nay, utterly contrary thereto, as well as to what is expressly asserted (Romans 8:2).”

A most important verse in this passage in verse 14, into which we desire to look next. “For, we know,” says the apostle, “that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.” One cannot have a true concept of sin without knowledge of the law of God. He must therefore pass through this dispensation of the law prior to entering that dispensation of grace unto justification and regeneration. Where the moral law is not preached, true repentance is not to be expected. “Those who preach only the Gospel to sinners,” says Dr. Adam Clarke, “at best only heal the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly. The law, therefore, is the grand instrument in the hands of a faithful minister, to alarm and awaken sinners: and he may safely show that every sinner is under the curse, who has not fled for refuge to the hope held out by the Gospel: for, in this sense also, ‘Jesus Christ is the end of the law for justification to them that believe.'”

So it is that the law is a spiritual system because it reaches to the most hidden thoughts, desires, dispositions and purposes of the heart. It reproves and condemns everything, without hope of reprieve or pardon, that is contrary to eternal truth and rectitude.

When the apostle, in his description, says “but I am carnal, sold under sin,” it is certain that he endeavors to show the insufficiency of the law in contrast to the gospel. The law provides the knowledge of sin, while the gospel provides the cure of sin. “Therefore by ‘I’ here he cannot mean himself, nor any Christian believer,” writes Dr. Clarke. “If the contrary could be proved, the argument of the apostle would go far to demonstrate the insufficiency of the Gospel as well as the law.” Profound concern is expressed when he writes that “it is difficult to conceive how the opinion could have crept into the Church, or prevailed there, that ‘the apostle speaks here of the regenerate state.’ This opinion,” he continues, “has most pitifully and most shamefully, not only lowered the standard of Christianity, but destroyed its influence and disgraced its character.”

There are those who maintain the opinion that the word “carnal” as used by the apostle in this fourteenth verse signifies that corruption remaining in him after his conversion. Dr. Clarke assures us that this belief is “founded on a very great mistake; for, although there may be, after justification, the remains of the carnal mind, which will be less or more felt till the soul is completely sanctified, yet the man is never denominated from the inferior principle, which is under control, but from the superior principle which habitually prevails.” In other words, it is of utmost importance for us to understand that one who is, by the first work of God in his heart, both justified and regenerated, has grace sufficient to commit sin no more.

Where the terms “carnality” and “inbred sin” are mentioned, they are seldom thought of in reference to any but those who are justified, yet not fully sanctified. But, does not the unregenerate have the whole sin problem, including inbred sin and the carnal nature? If the regenerate or justified have some of the remains of a carnal mind residing in them, will not the case be much more so with the unregenerate? Is not the awakened and convicted penitent often found unsuccessfully striving against an evil and carnal heart (inbred sin) prior to deliverance through faith in Christ Just such a case is here described by the apostle. It is a case in which a conflict in quite apparent between prevenient grace actively working on the soul and sin or carnality in the heart.

The phrase “sold under sin” as found in the last part of verse 14 must be understood as referring to such a soul as is found pressed into the slavery and drudgery of sin. Having been sold over to the service of this tyrant’s will until redeemed by one who proves to be more powerful. In no portion of the Scriptures is it ever said that the children of God are sold under sin. Are we not rather taught that Christ came to deliver the captive? Does not the Word of God inform us that He came to take away the prey from the mighty? “Whom the Son maketh free, they are free indeed” (John 8:36). From that time, they “yield not up their members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; for sin shall not have the dominion over them, because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus had made them free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 6:13-14; 8:2).

From verse 15 through 23, the apostle provides a more detailed description of one who is “carnal, sold under sin.” He says, “For, that which I do, I allow not: for, what I would, that do I not: but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then, [it] is not more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me: but how to perform that which is good, I find not. For, the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do. Now, if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God, after the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”

Here we are provided with a clear illustration of one who is not yet justified, but rather awakened to the standard of righteousness required by the law. The moral law with which he had come in contact, sheds light on the nature of sin, but neither by means of the law not his natural strength can he find power to liberate himself from evil doings and consistently do that which is righteous. He testifies and says, “What I hate, that do I.” It is clear that he is a slave and subject to the absolute control of his tyrannical master. He despises and hates the service he renders to such an abominable master, but is obliged and thoroughly compelled to work his will.

“Who, without blaspheming,” says Dr. Clarke, “can assert that the apostle is speaking this of a man in whom the Spirit of the Lord dwells?” Nay, he who is still unable to do that which is righteous and refrain from doing that which is sinful, cannot possibly experience the witness of the Spirit that he is a justified child of God.

Dr. Taylor, from whom Clarke borrows the following, explains that from verse 7 to verse 15 “the apostle denotes the Jew in the flesh by a single I; here, he divides that I into two I’s, or figurative persons; representing two different and opposite principles which were in him.” In verse 16 we see that the one I, or principle, agrees and assents to the law that it is good, and even wills and chooses that the other I does not practice. In verse 22 we are told that this principle is the inward man; the law of the mind in verse 23; the mind, or rational faculty in verse 25. In a person who was carnal and sold under sin there could never have been found any other inward man, or law of the mind, but the rational faculty. It is evident enough in verse 23 that the other I or principle transgresses the law which is, according to St. John’s definition, sin. He does these transgressions even while the former principle allows it not. The apostle in verse 18 expressly tells us that this principle is “the flesh,” or in verse 23 the “law in the members,” better understood as irregular and unruly sensual appetites. In the last verse the apostle concludes that these two principles are opposite to each other. Those two principles which are found in conflict with each other and yet residing in the same person are, therefore, reason on the one hand and lust, or sin that dwells within, on the other.

Even though some would have us believe that the words “inward man” used here by the apostle, means the regenerate part of the soul, Dr. Clarke assures us that it “is supportable by no argument.” “Inward man” is an expression “frequently in use among the purest Greek ethic writers, to signify . . . the rational part of man, in opposition to the body or flesh.”

If there are those who would say that it is impossible for an unregenerate man “to delight in the law of God,” the experience of multitudes will surely contradict the assertion. It is rightly observed that all true penitents, (awakened and convicted sinners) admire the moral law. They earnestly long for a conformity to it and sense that they can never be satisfied until they wake up with the divine likeness. They, even in their own eyes, despise themselves, because they are conscious of having violated the law and their evil passions, they realize to be still in a state of hostility to it.

The expression “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (verse 23) is one particularly adapted to the principles of the Pharisees of whom the Apostle Paul was one previous to his conversion. It is known that they believed the law to be the oracles of God, confessing that it deserved the most serious attention and reverence. This veneration of the law that was reflected by the Pharisees was inspired by a sense of its having originated with God and by a full and sure conviction that it was true. They not only read and expounded it often in their synagogues, but took delight in studying its precepts in private. On that account, both the prophets as well as our Lord agree in declaring that “they delight in the law of God,” though they heeded not its chief and most essential precepts. So far, then, is it from being true that only the regenerate can “delight in the law of God,” we see that even a proud, unhumbled Pharisee can delight in it. How much more is it possible for a poor awakened sinner, who is also humbled under a sense of his sin, to see with the help and light of God both the spirituality and excellence of the divine law

We must say in conclusion that although it is popular to take this description of inward conflict and sin’s dominion provided us here in the seventh of Romans and press it into the supposed experience of the justified, yet it is both inconsistent with the Scriptures and dangerous to the souls exposed to such a teaching. It must be readily granted that there are many who are called Christians and who are probably sincere, whose experience fits the description made, but we must consider them to be in the same state with Saul of Tarsus prior to his conversion. That they must continue in this state as some believe, who teach that there is no deliverance from sin in this life, is nowhere taught us in the gospel of Christ.

“We must take heed,” writes Dr. Clarke, “how we make our experience, which is the result of our unbelief and unfaithfulness, the standard for the people of God, and lower down Christianity to our most reprehensible and dwarfish state at the same time, we should not be discouraged at what we thus feel, but apply to God through Christ, as Paul did; and then we shall soon be able, with him to declare, to the eternal glory of God’s grace, that ‘the law of the Spirit of life, in Christ Jesus, has made us free from the law of sin and death.'”


From: McPherson, Joseph D. “What Manner Of Man Is He, Described In The Seventh Of Romans.” The Arminian: A Publication of the Fundamental Wesleyan Society, vol. 1, no.1, 1980. Web.