Roy Ingle, “The Misuse of Romans 7”

, posted by SEA

One of the worst misuses of Scripture to justify sinful living comes from Romans 7. How often have I heard people trying to justify their struggle with a particular sin by appealing to Romans 7. The problem with Romans 7 is trying to decide whether Paul is speaking of himself in his current life in verses 13-25 or is he speaking of his pre-conversion. Within Arminianism you will find a wide range of perspectives from those who do believe that Romans 7 is speaking of Christians and then those who believe that Romans 7 is speaking to unbelievers. Most Calvinists simply teach that Romans 7:13-25 not only reflects Paul, but all Christians.

To be fair, I believe that most of us would admit that we are sinners who are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). We should all recognize that without Jesus we have no salvation (Hebrews 9:22) and that without Jesus’ Spirit living within us, we would have no victory over our flesh (Romans 8:1-4). But we must be careful not to allow our sinfulness to read into our exegesis of Scripture. Too often people read Romans 7 and conclude that Paul struggled with lust, with pride, with stealing, with lying, with adultery, with covetousness, etc. just as they do. Men addicted to viewing pornography read Romans 7 and somehow find comfort for their own sinfulness. Women who battle gossip (or etc.) read Romans 7 and find comfort.

Is this what Romans 7:13-25 is trying to teach us: that Paul struggled with sin just as many others do today? Does this mean that Paul did not walk in the Spirit and in victory over the flesh but instead lived in gross immorality?

The Calvinist View of Romans 7:13-25

Some Calvinists such as Dr. John Piper appealed to this passage not as a license to sin, but as a view of the continual conflict of the believer. Piper’s outline of Romans 7:13-25 is thus:

I. What Paul is saying is not that Christians live in continual defeat, but that no Christian lives in continual victory over sin.
II. There are four pairs of Esteem for Law and Acknowledgement of Indwelling Sin.
III. This passage is about the normal Christian experience of conflict and struggle.
IV. The Christian life is an already-and-not-yet experience—Already: Decisively and Irrevocably Free; Not Yet: Finally and Perfectly Free.

Piper goes on to say that what Romans 7:13-25 specifically does is that it keeps the Christian from having to live in a spirit of perfectionism.

Other Calvinists such as Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and John Murray all believe that Romans 7:13-25 teaches that Christians struggle with sin their entire lives. Some “non-Lordship” Calvinists teach that this describes a backslider (Charles Ryrie, Zane Hodges, many Dallas Theological Seminary teachers).

Arminain Perspectives of Romans 7:13-25
Arminian perspectives vary from person to person. Here are a few quotes:
The semi-Pelagian Charles Finney (who is not Arminian in its truest sense) wrote this about Romans 7:
You see, from this subject, the true position of a vast many church members. They are all the while struggling under the law. They approve of the law, both in its precept and its penalty, they feel condemned, and desire relief. But still they are unhappy. They have no spirit of prayer, no communion with God, no evidence of adoption. They only refer to the 7th of Romans as their evidence. Such a one will say, “There is my experience exactly.” Let me tell you, that if this is your experience, you are yet in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity. You feel that you are in the bonds of guilt, and you are overcome by iniquity, and surely you know that it is bitter as gall. Now, don’t cheat your soul by supposing that with such an experience as this, you can go and sit down by the side of the apostle Paul. You are yet carnal, sold under sin, and unless you embrace the gospel, you will be damned. (Lectures To Professing Christians).
The late Daniel Steele of the Salvation Army wrote:
Some who wish to adopt our interpretation {The Arminian} are perplexed by the last verse of the chapter. If the two sentences of the verse were interchanged they would be relieved. But, in the present order, the doctrine seems to be taught that after victory, “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” there is a lapse into the old struggle. Not so. The last sentence of the chapter is an epitome of the whole struggle between the “mind,” or moral reason, and the flesh. (Half Hours With Saint Paul).
John Wesley taught that Romans 7:13-25 was speaking of a believer not yet sanctified by faith. Many early Methodists agreed. Adam Clarke, for example, did not teach that Romans 7:13-25 was the case for the standard Christian but was for those who yet were to be entirely sanctified by the Holy Spirit whether born again yet or not. This is confusing to me at this point and there seems to be no common agreement among early Methodists on this passage. Wesley’s good friend and theologian, John Fletcher, taught much the same.
Arminius had this to say about Romans 7:13-25:
Wherefore, from the 24th verse, when rightly understood, I argue thus for the establishment of my own opinion: Those men who are placed under grace are not wretched; But this man is wretched; Therefore, this man is not placed under grace. He who desires to be delivered from the body of this death, that is, from the dominion and tyranny of sin, is not placed under grace, but under the law. But this man desires to be delivered from the dominion and tyranny of sin; therefore, this man is not placed under grace, but under the law. The proposition is true, because regenerate men, and those who are placed under grace, are free from the servitude and tyranny of sin. (emphasis mine)
Free Will Baptist theologian F. Leroy Forlines makes a strong point when he writes:
It is obvious that the death referred to in 7:24 and the other occurrences in 7:7-25 is not the death believers died in Christ either to sin or to the law. To have died to sin with Christ or to the law is good. The death in 7:7-25 is bad. If death in v. 24 is a reference to the penalty for sin, the case is settled on the side of understanding Paul to be talking about an unregenerate person.
Romans 7:13-25: Regenerate or Not?
I believe a strong case can be made either way but I tend to lean toward understanding Paul to be describing the Christian life but not one of giving into sin but one who in which we must stay focused on Christ Jesus for victory over our flesh. Apart from Christ, I will not tend to live a righteous life but a life of sin and depravity. I believe that the man described in Romans 7:13-25 is not Paul presently living in sinful struggle in which he is losing nor should these verses be used to describe the normal Christian life in the sense of a carnal struggle. For example, when you come to Paul’s description of his life in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 you don’t find a man who is living in his sins, so to use Romans 7:13-25 to find comfort for one’s sinfulness is very incorrect and does not reflect the biblical teaching on holiness.
Romans 7:1-6 reveals the believer is dead to the Law. This is in keeping with the previous section (Romans 6:1-23) on the principle of sanctification. In Romans 7:7-13 Paul shows us what the experience we have under the Law is. The Law of God teaches us about our sinfulness (v.7; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; James 2:8-13). The Law is good (v.12).
But in Romans 7:13-25 Paul describes the present reality in the life of the believer. Some, such as F. Leroy Forlines, take the position that Paul is describing himself before his conversion. Forlines points out that verse 18 reflects a sense of failure and wretchedness (v.24). Does a genuine Christian have such feelings? Must a Christian say, “I am carnal, sold under sin” (v.14)?
Others, however, add: Does a sinner really experience the kind of intense struggle described here? Sinners tend not to battle between right and wrong (although some may) and although sinners are subject to moral laws, most do not delight in laws (v.22). How many sinners do you know that “delight in the law of God according to the inward man” (v.22 NKJV)? How many sinners really want to obey God but find that they cannot (vv.18-21)? Paul has already established that there are “none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-18).
I believe the key to Romans 7:13-25 lies in the last two verses of the section (vv.24-25). As you are about to see, these verses fit perfectly into both Arminian and Calvinist teachings on perseverance of the saints. The conflict listed in Romans 7:13-25 is real. Within each of us is that something that wants something. We are, by nature, children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). All of us need Jesus since we have all sinned (Romans 3:23; 5:12). Further, without Jesus we have no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22) unless we are perfect according to the law of God (Matthew 19:16-22). Unless we have perfect righteousness (Matthew 5:48) we can not enter into the presence of God (Isaiah 59:2).
If you and I were to begin to seek God’s perfect righteousness apart from Jesus then we would quickly gravitate toward the situation described in Romans 7:23. We must obey Galatians 5:16-17 and we must walk in the Spirit (Romans 8:10). Whenever I get my eyes off of Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2) and onto my own good works then I quickly will find myself moving not only toward Romans 7:23 but also to Isaiah 64:6 and I must turn quickly back to Titus 3:5-7. Apart from Jesus I have nothing (John 15:5). Jesus alone is my salvation (Romans 6:23) and Jesus alone is my righteousness (Romans 10:4; Philippians 3:8-10). I have eternal life because of Jesus and all my sins are forgiven only in Jesus (1 John 1:7).
Conclusion
So here is the bottom line of the issue of Romans 7:13-25. Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in necessary perseverance. While we disagree over the reasons for necessary perseverance (elect vs. conditional), we both agree that the elect must persevere (albeit Calvinist out of necessity because of unconditional election but Arminians on the basis of conditional election). Yet we both agree that the “wretched man” of Romans 7:24 describes us without Jesus. We also know that the only way we can be rescued from this “body of death” is through Christ. Further, the renewed mind of the disciple in Romans 7:25 must stay focused on Jesus and not our own righteousness, for if we take our eyes off of Jesus and put them on ourselves, then we will find ourselves serving the law of sin.
The key to Romans 7:13-25 is not to try to find comfort for our sinfulness but rather victory through Christ. Jesus alone can rescue us from the law of sin. No religion or personal reformation is enough but only the perfect righteousness and forgiveness that comes only by faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:16-3:4). To debate whether this is a genuine Christian or not to me is missing the point. It’s not about us but about Jesus! And to this I believe both John Calvin and James Arminius would agree.
[Link to original post and comments on Roy Ingle’s blog, Arminian Today]