THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A CHRISTIAN AND SIN
The Controversy—Few passages in the New Testament have been interpreted so many different ways as Romans 7:14-25. Beginning in verse 14 Paul switches to the present tense in discussing the power of sin in his life. He admits that he can’t keep the law. He wants to but his ability is lacking-“the law is spiritual but I am of flesh”. He talks about the presence of sin within him. Obviously Paul wrote this when he was a believer so the easiest way to interpret this passage is that he is discussing his current existence as a Christian, and it is applicable to all Christians experience.
The Other View
Nevertheless many interpret this passage in light of Romans 6:2-6, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” and “We know that our old self was crucified with Christ so that the sinful body might be destroyed…for he who has died to sin is freed from sin”. They would say based on Rom.6 that Paul could hardly be describing the same existence in Rom.7:14 when he says, “I am fleshly, sold under sin”. This school of thought then interprets Rom.7:14-25 as Paul’s pre-conversion state, and that the despair described in attempting to fulfill the law drove him to embrace Christ as his hope of deliverance(7:25). After all, how can he say that Christians have been freed from sin’s slavery in ch.6 and then say he is a slave to sin in ch.7 ?
The difficulty is there is no evidence that in his pre-conversion state as a Pharisee that the law drove him to despair. On the contrary, quite the opposite is the case. Paul claimed in Philippians 3:6 that before Christ, he was quite convinced he had fulfilled the law. In Rom.7 Paul is distressed over his inability to keep the law but the evidence is that before Christ Paul never thought like that.
A Convicted Believer
Therefore I believe that Paul is talking about his post conversion Christian experience of the struggle within him between the flesh and the Spirit. Only in Paul’s post conversion state was he humbled before God, realizing that nothing good dwells in his humanness. As you read this passage don’t forget what Paul wrote in Rom.1:18-21 about the unbeliever. He not only hates God’s truth but suppresses it. He rejects the evidence of God and he arrogantly disobeys God’s law. It seems certain then that in ch7 the Apostle is talking about the believer. Even in Rom.6 Paul indicates that believers still do battle with sin in their own lives. As he wrote, “do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin”(6:13).
The Proof Is In The Pudding
A legalist, like Paul was before Christ, is self satisfied and proud in his self righteousness so that he does not struggle in his hypocrisy. It seems then Paul is even describing a mature Christian who is very sensitive to sin. He has a heightened conscience, totally aware of all his shortcomings and of his inability apart from the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. I believe the spiritual insight and contrition of the author of Rom.7 are marks of a mature believer who has no trust in his own moral/ethical ability.
What Is Your Experience ?
Romans 7:14-25 describes a believers conscious and determined battle against sin which is still a powerful enemy, but no longer his master. I’m sure he is out there, but I have yet to encounter a Christian who doesn’t experience the tension between the desires in his flesh and the leading of the H.S. Paul warned against losing this battle when he wrote “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” and “do not quench the Holy Spirit”. This interpretation is consistent with other Pauline writings about the internal struggle of believers like Gal.5:17, “for the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh for these are in opposition to one another”. The continuing presence of sin in the believer’s life should be obvious from the wealth of N.T. passages that seek to deal with it. Most of the epistles are written to churches either as admonishment against sin in that church(like Corinth), or exhortations to avoid sin(like Ephesus).
What did Jesus say ?
Remember the old cliché, “I have met the enemy and he is me” ? This is why Jesus told his closest disciples in John 15 about the importance of an abiding relationship with Christ. Even as a Christian if we are not abiding in Christ we can bear no fruit, or as the author of Hebrews puts it in Heb.11:6, “It is impossible to please God without faith”.
Church Fathers and Reformers
In my research I have found that most of them including Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin believed Paul was writing in the present tense about his life as a mature Christian describing his continuing conflict with sin.
The Christian life is the process of coming increasingly to see how sinful we are so that we will depend constantly on Jesus Christ. The application is—Be aware of the struggle, understand the warfare within us between the flesh and the Spirit so that you might come increasingly to “walk by the Spirit”.