Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Wretched Man is not a Christian

I've been preparing further notes on Romans 7 for one of my courses today. Here's my solid gold, top four arguments why the Wretched Man is not a Christian:

(1) Paul asks two questions in Rom 7.7 (What then should we say? That the law is sin?) and Rom. 7.13 (Did what is good, then, bring death to me?) which relates to the thoughts about pre-conversion stated in Rom 7.5 about how the law aroused sin and lead to death. Paul argues that while the law activated sin leading to death, the law is not the author of sin and death.

(2) The references to being in the ‘flesh’ (vv. 14, 18, 25) show that 7.14-25 are a commentary on what the life in flesh first mentioned in 7.5 looks like.

(3) When Paul describes the ‘I’ as ‘sold under sin’ (Rom. 7.14) this conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declares that they have been freed from sin (Rom. 6.6-7, 17-18, 22).

(4) The subject struggles to obey the law (Rom. 7.22, 25), while Christians are free from the law (Rom. 6.14-15; 7.6).

Paul Meyer wrote: ‘There is not a syllable in Romans 7:7-25 about life in Christ, and … Paul himself has signaled to his readings in both 7:6 and 8:1-2 that the rest of chapter 7 is to be understood as the antithesis to chapter 8 and not in simple continuity with it’.[1].Ultimately what is described here is not the Christian’s struggle with sin, but the absolute defeat of the self by sin’s power in the unregenerate state.[2]

[1] Paul W. Meyer, ‘The Worm at the Core of the Apple: Exegetical Reflections on Romans 7,’ in The Conversation Continues: Studies in Paul and John, ed. R.T. Fortna and B.R. Gaventa (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 68.
[2] Charles H. Talbert, Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 188-89.


Samuel said...

Well, so much for using that text when I have sinful inclinations in my heart...sigh..

John Thomson said...

Your nemesis for the unregenerate man is vv21-24.

No unregenerate man delights in the law of God or sees himself as a wretched man wishing deliverance and rejoicing it is found in Christ. No unregenerate man is in his mind a slave to God's law but in the flesh a slave to the principle of sin.

Stott and Moo?? are surely right that we have here a description of an OT believing Jew seeking to live by the law and finding it a bondage (Ps 119). Only freedom from the law (absolutely in Christ) and new life lived in the Spirit gives freedom. I.e Roms 8.

You know all this of course.

Craig L. Adams said...

Many unregenerate people desire to live moral lives and feel themselves to be in bondage to desires and drives they cannot control. It's a simple observation, account for it as you will. Romans 7 is a good description of an unregenerate person seeking (unsuccessfully) to live a moral life "in the flesh." It is a poor description of the deliverance from sin and guilt promised to the Christian.

Unknown said...

I think also important is Paul's opening line to preface the passage, right in verse 1: "I am speaking to those who know the law".

It's so frustrating when Christians think this applies to life in Christ.

Gerald said...

Quoting Westerholm's summary of Kummel on Romans 7...

"Those who are anxious to preserve Romans 7:14-25 as a witness to Christian experience emphasize the inner struggle there depicted as an essential part of Christian living. But 7:14-25 speaks not merely of a struggle, but of utter helplessness, slavery to sin, and despair of deliverance...If, after all, there is a question that needs to be asked, it is rather this: why does our Christianity depart so widely from Paul's that we recognize ourselves in his description of non-Christians?"


Generally, the OT believing Jew (as seen in the OT, particularly Psalm 119) does not have anywhere near the angst regarding Law keeping that Paul displays in Romans 7.

Sean said...

Gerald, do you have a reference for that Westerholm quote?

John Thomson said...

1. To live a moral life is quite different from 'delighting in the law of God in the inner man'.

2. I do not think it describes Christian experience and especially not the height of Christian experience (though there is some verbal/theological similarity to the conflict in Roms 7 and the conflict between flesh and Spirit in Galatians which keeps me from being too dogmatic). It seems to me to be describing the difference between living in two epochs - OT saints before the Kingdom and NT saints in the Kingdom.

3. When Paul describes the unconverted in sin in Ch 1-3 there is little hint of unconverted people 'delighting in the law of God in the inner man'. Indeed, I wonder if such a conflict in unconverted people is found anywhere in Scripture.

4. Vv14-25 seem to refer back to v5 which in turn refers back to v1. Paul speaks here to his own Jewish kinsmen, indeed to Jewish believers in Rome - 'men who know the law'. Part of Paul's purpose is to unite Jew and Gentile believers in Rome. To do this he must show that the new epoch of the Spirit means being removed totally (through the death of Christ) to the epoch and world where law has authority - ie life in the flesh as opposed to being in the Spirit. The problem is epochally speaking OT Israel, under law, were 'in the flesh'. Being 'in the flesh' it seems to me applies not only to OT unbelieving Jews but also to OT believing Jews. They were in some sense 'in the flesh' rather than 'in the Spirit',a distinctly New Covenant blessing.

One last question, this raises for me (and so far I have found little that addresses the issue)and this is the relationship of the OT average believer to the Spirit. Given regeneration and all growth in faith is through the Spirit what are we to say about OT believers?

Ken Schenck said...


John, the key is to realize that Paul can hardly be thinking of anything but something related to the Jewish Law (we are so used to thinking of the moral law in abstraction we are prone to miss this overwhelming contextual likelihood). It is quite easy to imagine that there were many Jews without the Holy Spirit who were quite eager to keep the heart of the Law.

Chrys Theo said...

How about this:
"Romans 7:7ff does not contain Paul's confessions, or a description of the spiritual state of unredeemed man, but the presentation of the objective nature of unredeemed man from the viewpoint of the one who is dedeemed."
Rudolf Bultmann,The Old and New Man, Richmond, John Knox Press, 1967, p.16)

Gerald said...


Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The Lutheran Paul and his Critics, pg 143.


Regarding your last question. I feel the tension you're talking about.

I think it is very difficult to say OT believers were regenerated (in the contemporary sense we use the term "regenerate" in theological discourse). To posit the existence of OT regeneration makes one wonder what the whole "circumcision of the heart" and "heart of flesh" aspects of the New Covenant were really about. If the OT saints could be granted ontological renewal apart from the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ...well, that doesn't seem quite right. And frankly, I think the whole thrust of Paul's basic soteriology (particularly in Galatians) is that spiritual regeneration is a primary aspect of the covenant promises.

I know this creates a number of problems (particularly for the Calvinist) regarding the mechanics of conversion, since we typically like to put regeneration prior to faith. How can Abraham have faith without regeneration? (Pelagian warning bells are sounding!). I'm a Calvinist, but I think we have to be careful about forcing our soteriology onto the text.

Following Augustine and Edwards, I think looking to illumination rather than regeneration (or construing regeneration in terms of illumination) as the basis of faith provides some relief to the tension here.

Eilidh said...

Interestingly, I've been reading JC Ryle on why Romans 7 does refer to mature Christians. Romans looks like it'll be a fun module...

Michael J. Gorman said...

In a number of places Jan Lambrecht has argued that Rom 7 does not speak of believers but that a *somewhat* similar experience is not completely unknown to believers, as seen in Galatians.

Allen said...

As John Greenview alludes to, and my Romans prof here at GCTS showed us, the vocabulary of the Spirit is decidedly absent in Rom 7. Sanctification is mentioned in Rom 6. And the Spirit is discussed multiple times in Rom 8. But if Rom 7 were to be about a follower of Christ, why no discussion of the Spirit or His work?

John Thomson said...

I wonder if asking the question whether the 'wretched man' of Roms 7 is regenerate or unregenerate is asking the wrong question. In a sense the description given fits neatly into neither category, certainly this side of the cross.

Paul's concern surely is simply to make clear that the Law neither justifies (earlier in the book) nor sanctifies (Roms 7). For Paul the law can only expose and excite sin. It has no ability to empower. Humanity is 'without strength' and the Law does not supply this strength. Indeed the only strength it gives is to sin (the strength of sin is the law....).

Godliness requires a new covenant, a new epoch, a new administration - married to Christ and the life of the Spirit.

If we wish to ask the question what is the believer's relationship to law we need only ask what is Christ's present relationship to the law. He is beyond it - outside the sphere where law has any jurisdiction - so therefore are we in Christ.

In some senses therefore Rom 7 may (perhaps) best be understood as describing a theoretical person. If not its nearest parallel's are

1. OT godly Israel delighting in the law but without new covenant power.

2. Someone as was pointed out illuminated by the Spirit but not regenerate (MLJ's position).

3. Perhaps frequently our own practical position as we live below gospel grace. Christians who focus only on rules and the need to keep them and lose sight of their 'no condemnation in Christ' and the need to walk daily depending on the Spirit are likely to find themselves in a Roms 7 experience - not simply repentance for specific sins but experiencing a deep powerlessnes and failure that produces a cry of wretchedness. I guess we all know this.

We are called to live gospel lives looking beyond ourselves to all the resources in Christ. Law-living causes us to turn in on ourselves. Note the number of times 'I' is used in Roms 7.

In summary to get caught up in the question is the man of Roms 7 regenerate or unregenerate is a mistake. The contrast is not between two men but two epochs, two administrations. The Law, which promised life (this do and you will live) could only deliver death. Life is found only in Christ. In the words of 8:1,2

Rom 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

abcaneday said...

For whatever it's worth, Michael, I have made the same argument in my teaching of Romans for many years using almost the same wording of your four points concerning the wretched man of Romans 7.

mbrankatelli said...

I am only a novice at Greek so I'm using my NASB here. In 7:25 Paul summarizes the pitiful state of the wretched man correct? He seems divided between
A: a mind that is serving the
law of God
B: a flesh that is serving the
law of sin.

Chapter 8 then talks about how the relationship between these two. First in 8:2 we see Paul connecting the idea of the Law with the Spirit.
8:5-6 seem to take his argument to the next level by claiming a person who has their mind on this Spirit (the source of the LAW of life 8:2) has life and peace.

Is there a reason not to connect the Law of God (7:25) with the Law of the Spirit of Life (8:2)? If these two are related, then 8:5-6 seem to define the wretched man of 7:25 as in possession of the Kingdom traits of "life" and "peace?" Forgive me if I'm way off or missing something, just wanted to know if the broader context of Paul's "spirit/flesh" dichotomy had more implications.