Does Romans 7 Describe a Believer or Unbeliever?

Preston Sprinkle

John Piper just gave a presentation at the Desiring God conference, where he argued (in part of his talk) that Romans 7 (specifically vv. 14-25) describes a believer rather than an unbeliever. And as much as I love John Piper and side with him on most theological points, I think his interpretation here is wrong. [See now this blog by Adrian Warnock, who also attended the session.] Let me first address some of his arguments and then lay out why I believe the text makes the “believer” interpretation very difficult.
First, Piper points out that the person in question “delight[s] in the Law of God, in my inner being” (7:22) and he argues that an unbeliever does not delight in the Law of God. But actually, a first-century Jew would most absolutely delight in the “Law of God” (= the Law of Moses). Circumcision, food laws, observing the Sabbath—what first century Jew would not delight in these things? (Remember, Paul is addressing those who “know the Law;” cf. 7:1). The phrase “Law of God” is not talking about just general obedience to God, but specifically the Law of Moses. The problem Paul addresses here is not lack of allegiance to Moses’ Law, but the lack of deliverance provided by the old covenant Law.

Second, Piper says that he (and probably every other Christian) experiences the intense struggle with sin described in Romans 7. And there is certainly some truth to this. In fact, I resonate with Piper and others who read Romans 7 as a mirror into their own life. Sometimes sin is so powerful that it feels like it’s overpowering our desire to do good. “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). Yeah, I’ve been there. I get it.

But—should we interpret the Bible based on our experience? Sometimes our experience agrees with the Bible, but sometimes our experience can steer us away from what the author is trying to say. So my resonance with the “I” of Romans 7 should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, I feel the struggle with sin. But that does not mean that’s what Paul’s talking about here in this passage. In fact, he’s not.

Piper’s third argument was that the “I” (Greek: ego) in Romans 7 most naturally refers to Paul himself as he is writing, not some personified Jew, Israel, or any other fictitious person. And again, when a biblical writer says “I” in most cases he is referring to himself. But not always. Paul himself uses “I” in 1 Corinthians 13 to refer generically to a human person (“if I speak in tongues but lack love,” etc.); he’s not giving an autobiography there. Plus, the “I” in Romans 7:7-12 cannot refer to Paul as he is presently writing, as almost every commentator recognizes. The “I” in vv. 7-12 probably refers back to Adam in the garden, who’s the only person who could say “I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (7:9). Paul is simply personifying the biblical narrative to make a theological point about the Law’s susceptibility to be hijacked by sin and its inability to rescue humans from sin’s damning power.

In short, I’m not too compelled by the strongest arguments in favor of the “believer” view, and the “unbeliever” (or pre-converted Jew) view makes more sense of several things in the context. Here are two that come to mind.

First, Romans 7:14-25 must be read in light of the summary statements in Romans 7:5-6.

5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh,[a] the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Rom 7:5-6)

Read it closely. Pay attention. Romans 7:5 describes life under the Law (of Moses!) and is further spelled out in 7:14-25, while Romans 7:6 describes life in the Spirit and is unpacked in 8:1-11.

  • Romans 7:5 sums up 7:14-25
  • Romans 7:6 sums up 8:1-11

If this is true (and the linguistic connections almost demand it), then Romans 7:14-25 can’t refer to a believer since 7:5 does not refer to a believer.

Put differently, Romans 7 cannot be understood apart from its relationship with Romans 8. The two chapters belong together. Romans 7 gives the problem—the Law’s inability to deliver one from sin (frustratingly felt by Paul as a pre-converted Jew)—and Romans 8 gives the solution: Divine deliverance through Christ and the Spirit.

Second, Romans 7 doesn’t describe someone struggling with sin, but someone defeated by sin. I struggle with sin. Piper struggles with sin. You struggle with sin. But Romans 7 describes someone who lacks the ability NOT to sin. Sin is not a struggle for the “I;” it’s his master. “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (7:18). “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:19).

Does this sound like a believer in Christ? Or better: does this sound like Paul’s own description of a believer empowered by the Spirit? “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, BUT those who live according to the Sprit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5). “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (8:8-9a). Is this really the same person as the one who is “of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14)? To say that Paul describes a Christian in Romans 7 and in Romans 8 borders on contradiction. Paul’s description of a believer in Romans 8 is contrasted, not correlated, with the description of the pre-converted Jew trying to find deliverance and salvation through the Mosaic Law in Romans 7.

In summary, I can see why people read Romans 7 as describing a believer, but the main reason that seems to come up again and again is: “I see myself in Paul’s description.” “Sanctification is a struggle.” “Sin has a very real presence in my life.” “I can’t stop looking at porn but I love Jesus too.” When read in light of our own experience, Romans 7 gives us comfort; Paul too struggled deeply with sin. But, while Paul certainly struggled with sin, I don’t think the “believer” interpretation makes much sense of Paul’s argument in Romans 7-8. If you want a good description of a believer’s struggle with sin, go to Romans 6, not Romans 7.

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