Romans 7 and the Present Tense

I would like to add this aside concerning one of the biggest stumbling blocks to what I believe is the proper place of Romans 7:14-25 in the timeline of the life of Paul.  As I stated in our first post on this topic, I think the apostle is describing his experience prior to conversion.  I made a very brief summary argument for that position based primarily on the context of Romans 5 through 8 and what I believe to be the predominant message of the New Testament regarding our new moral resemblance to Christ.  But the challenge of Paul’s use of the present tense is still unresolved.

The best I can offer is the following.  Paul is writing with a strong sense of purpose and may be using the present tense to drive home his point.  For example, if life as a kid was tough for me (for the record it was actually quite bucolic), I might tell you the following story.  “When I was a kid, this is what my life was like…I get up at 4:00 AM.  I drag myself out to the barn to milk the cows.  I freeze my fingers to the bone.  I come back to the house.  I skip breakfast and try to get a few more minutes of sleep.  Sooner than I would like, I climb on the school bus and sit out the one hour ride to school.”

I used all present tense verbs in that story to try and bring you into the action.  I get up, I drag, I freeze, I skip, I try, I climb, and I sit.  You well understand that I am not describing my current life, but putting my past experience in the present tense for emphasis.  Could Paul be doing the same thing?  No guarantees, but something similar is easy for me to visualize in Paul’s style of writing.  The bottom line to me is still the fact that Romans 7:14-25 only makes sense with the rest of the New Testament teaching regarding the believer’s relationship with sin if it encapsulates Paul’s experience prior to conversion.

Finally, I would like to address the suggestion that Romans 7:14-25 has to be Paul’s present experience because the doctrine of the total depravity of man does not fit Paul’s stated desire in this passage to do the right thing prior to his conversion.  Without going into the specifics of this doctrine, suffice it to say that the unsaved have, in various degrees, plenty of desire to do the right thing.  There are many unbelievers who are unselfish in their marriages, contribute to worthwhile causes, and look out for the welfare of others.  Our conscience, and the ramifications that come with it, is part of the common grace we share with all humanity by virtue of being created in God’s image.

In the particular case of the apostle Paul, there should be no surprise that prior to his conversion he desired to obey God’s law.  He described himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil 3:5), a Pharisee in regard to the law (3:5), and zealous for God (Acts 22:3) prior to his conversion.  His problem in Romans 7 was not a lack of desire, but a lack of power having not yet experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit that comes at our new birth.  While these answers have been short and in summary form, I believe interpreting Romans 7:14-25 to reflect Paul’s pre-conversion experience is the best fit for the message and context of this passage.

Romans 7 in Context

Last post I made a strong statement that Romans 7:14-25 does not apply to the believer’s walk.  I did so without much substantiation which I hope to humbly correct this time.  I recognize this thought process goes against the typical interpretation of this passage and I may be heading out to the end of a long limb, but bear with me and see if this flow makes biblical sense.

The first of the challenges mentioned in my last post is the challenge of interpreting the passage itself.  We need to start with the big picture and when we do we will see that attributing Paul’s lament to prior to his conversion is a perfect fit with the context of Paul’s Romans chapters 5 through 8 argument concerning the normal Christian life.  (See my article, A Fresh Start, for a verse-by-verse detail commentary of where Romans 7:14-25 fits in the context of Romans chapters 5 through 8.)

Paul’s introduction to Romans chapter 7, found in verses 1 through 6, sets the stage for the rest of the chapter, including our problem passage.  To paraphrase Romans 7:1-6, Paul writes, “Let me put our union with Christ and newness of life another way by showing how our relationship with the Law changed at our new birth.  Just as a married person is committed to a relationship with their spouse while the spouse is alive, you were ‘married’ to the Law until Christ’s arrival on the scene put the Law to death.  When Christ died, the Law as it affects your relationship with God died as well and you were now free to marry a new groom, Christ Himself.  You are now joined to a new partner, Jesus Christ, to bear righteous fruit.  Prior to your new birth in Christ, your sinful passions, aroused by the Law, were working in your body to bear dead fruit, not righteous fruit.  Through Christ’s death, we died to the Law that bound us.  We no longer live under the ‘old arrangement,’ i.e. Old Testament, law-keeping system.  We now live under a ‘new arrangement’ and walk in the newness of the Spirit rather than the oldness of the letter of the Law.  Our new walk is carried out in the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us.” (Rom 7:1-6, paraphrase)

Then, starting with verse 7 and continuing to verse 25, Paul sets out on a giant parentheses as if to say, “Even though we are now dead to the law, let me add this parting thought about what life was like for me under the law.”  He then goes on to describe the tension he lived under prior to his conversion.  We know this is prior to the new birth because the use of phrases such as sin leading to spiritual death, the active role of the Law (which we subsequently died to), being of flesh and sold into the bondage of sin, the overwhelming power of sin, the continuing practice of evil, and describing himself as a prisoner, or slave, to sin are all in direct contradiction to Romans 7:1-6 above as well as almost all of Romans chapters 5, 6, and 8.  In fact, there is nowhere else I can think of in the New Testament, whether Paul or other writers, that give this type of negative description for the normal Christian life.

That is why Romans 7 has become the go-to passage for the “life is a civil war” view.  Because it is the only one we can find to support it.  The attribution of this much power to the sin nature in a believer is nowhere else to be found in the New Testament.  My suggestion is that when we properly understand Romans 7:14-25 as prior to conversion, we will go from one to zero in passages that support this view.  Then we can move on to what is the common theme in the message of the New Testament; the idea that when you joined God’s family, you took on a moral resemblance to God your Father and Christ your brother and literally have God living inside you by the Holy Spirit and victory over sin is the normal result of the Spirit-infused life.

Am I preaching perfection from sin?  NO.  That will not happen in this earthly life.  The realities and fallibility of life on this fallen planet is something I am only too aware of.  But we can do much better than we typically think.  While sin will always be with us, nipping at our heels, it is not destined to rule over us or to be our normal practice.  Because of our new nature we can say with the apostle John, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (I Jn 3:9).  That is, because Christ’s nature has become our predominant nature – “God’s seed abides in us” – sin is no longer our natural way of life.  Sin is no longer our normal practice.  Sin is no longer our propensity.  Thanks be to God who has set us free from the penalty and power of sin.

Romans 7 and the Normal Christian Life

The idea starter, some time ago, for Fanning the Flames was the growing realization of the incredible depth of our new covenant relationship with God.  Our motive in continuing this blog is an effort to flesh out what the new covenant looks like in practice.  How do the tremendous riches we have in our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection play out in the warp and woof of life?  During this period of study and writing on this topic, I have become very aware of old covenant thinking that still finds its way into our spiritual formation literature.

It seems everywhere I turn these days, I encounter Romans 7:14-25 ¹  as a proof text for the believer’s relationship with sin.  From books on relationships to articles in Christian periodicals, Romans 7 seems to be the go-to passage for describing our grueling struggle with sin.  In this famous passage, the apostle Paul laments the internal struggle prior to his salvation; the struggle between knowing the law and having no power to carry it out.  The internal war between knowing the right thing to do yet feeling powerless under the influence of his sin nature.  Paul concludes – in Romans 7:25 to Romans 8:4 – that only Christ and the new nature He imparts can rescue us from this life of contradiction.  In short, after Christ, after our rescue, Romans 7:14-25 no longer applies to the life we live.

So if Romans 7:14-25 does not apply to those who have placed their faith in Christ, why do Christian authors keep coming back to it as typical of the Christian life?  I believe there are at least three reasons.  The first is the challenge of interpreting the passage itself.  Paul’s use of run on sentences and present tense verbs is especially confusing.  Second, does Romans 7:14-25 describe our own struggle with sin?  Is our own Christian life or those we love typified more by the Romans 7 description than the myriad of New Testament promises of the believer’s victory over sin?  And finally, do we prefer a “ministry of condemnation” (II Cor 3:9) toward ourselves and others?  Are we more comfortable in an old covenant law keeping system?  After all, I can measure how well myself – and more importantly those around me – are doing in a law keeping system.  Measuring the fruit of the Spirit is much more difficult.  How do you measure love, joy, peace?

We will take up the thought process behind these three reasons in order starting next time.


¹ 1     14For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.  15For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.  16But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good.  17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.  18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.  19For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.  20But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.  21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good.  22For I joyfully concur with the Law of God in the inner man, 23But I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.  24Wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from this body of death?  25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.  (Romans 7:14-25).

Following the New Testament Money Trail

What started as a post about “Wealth with Wings” and putting our financial eggs in God’s basket has morphed into a series of posts following just a small section of the New Testament money trail (hopefully not a rabbit trail).  I think the length was necessary to really get us thinking about the seriousness of what Jesus said about investing our money.  I hope you have picked up some food for thought along the way.

In practical terms, what might this “send it on ahead” approach to financial planning look like in today’s world.  Keeping in mind the admonition to use our wealth to make friends that will welcome us into the eternal dwellings, it might look like this:

It might be sponsoring a child in an impoverished country, providing money for his physical needs and prayers and letters for his spiritual needs.  I can’t think of too many situations that are as close to making friends that will greet us in eternity as this.  Or how about buying groceries for a family where both parents are out of work?  Will they be the ones to greet you in your eternal dwelling?  Have you considered giving your car to a family that needs transportation instead of trading it in?  But I can’t get the car I want if I don’t have my trade-in to contribute to the cost.  Maybe the car you want is not the car you need.  Giving away a car can be a huge blessing to someone in need.  Or maybe it is giving money to a family member to improve their living situation.  Remember, our contributions do not have to be to a tax-deductible ministry to count in God’s eternal ledger.

What about hosting a Bible study or worship time for students at your house?  They might kill the grass or put a hole in a wall or leave your basketball out in the rain.  Does that make you think, “Let’s leave that for Mr. Whitaker?”  Or maybe you could host a pot-luck to welcome new folks into your neighborhood or into the community of your church.

Another investment option is financially supporting missionaries and the world-wide mission effort.  Are you willing to say “no” to something to support your friends who have said “no” to the comforts of home to follow the path God has outlined for them?  This is not a guilt trip.  This is looking at your giving decisions with the intentionality of making it an investment.  This is following the path God has for us and helping our brothers and sisters in the ministry God has given to them.  The list is as long as our imagination.

This type of investing is not just giving your money away willy-nilly.  It is not about giving money out of obligation.  It is prayerfully recognizing the people and needs God has placed in your path and responding with generosity.  It is making a conscious choice to invest in people rather than build up our own bank account.  And it imitates our Lord Himself whose generosity to us is beyond measure.

Money and the Early Church

The most quoted passage in the New Testament describing the early church is Acts 2:42-47.  “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.  And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.  Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

If you are like me, you have heard this passage preached many times.  And an interesting subplot to these messages is how we always leap over verses 44 and 45 (in italics above) in regard to application to today’s church.  I am always curious why this is so.  Everyone wants to be a New Testament church.  Everyone wants to emulate the early church.  But for some reason we want to leave out the selling and sharing.

I used to think that the verses smacked too much of socialism or communism and since that used to describe our sworn enemy, no proper American – Christian or otherwise – should have any part in property redistribution.  But I think the reason we ignore these verses is more personal than country allegiance.

These verses, quite frankly, step on our space.  I am good with listening to the apostles’ teaching.  I am good with sharing meals together.  I am good with fellowship (even though the Greek word used here for fellowship [koinonia] implies the sharing of goods).  I am good with prayer.  I am good with praising God.  But selling things, or choosing not to buy things, and giving to my brother or sister in need; that is stepping on my space.

Maybe I am looking at this too simply.  But I can’t find a context reason to not read this just as it is written.  It would seem to me that if we want to follow the example of the early church – and it appears here that they are living out the “send it on ahead” investment strategy of Jesus – we should be a community who looks after the material needs of our family of faith.

One more thought.  Could this be one reason the American church does not stand out in the wonder and awe department like the Acts 2 community (vs 43)?  We look just like the rest of America in our investment decisions focused on which investment strategy increases our nest egg the fastest.  Sharing our possessions not only blesses our brothers and sisters in Christ, but announces to the watching world our dependence on the God we serve and our radical love for one another.