Why I Think Romans 7 Is Describing Indwelling Sin in Believers

The main argument employed by those who don’t think that Romans 7 is describing the experience of believers is simply that in Romans 6 Paul has described believers as dead to sin (6:2), crucified with Christ and no longer enslaved to sin (6:6), and thus, having died, believers are set free from sin (6:7). These things being the case, it is argued that when Paul writes in Romans 7 of the one who is “sold under sin” (7:14) and serving the law of sin in the flesh (7:25), he cannot be describing believers.

There are several reasons I find this unpersuasive. There are probably more than the ones I will articulate here, but these are the ones that come to mind (influenced by Tom Schreiner’s commentary on Romans and John Piper’s sermon on Romans 7).

(1) Having described the way that believers have been freed from sin through union with Christ in his death in Romans 6:1–10, Paul commands believers in 6:11, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (ESV). This tells us that while there is a positional reality that has been described in 6:1–10, there is an ongoing process of “mental transformation” (12:1–2) that still needs to happen in the experience of believers. Believers must “reckon” themselves dead to sin, and this “reckoning” is described with the same Greek verb used repeatedly in Romans 4 to describe Abraham being “reckoned” righteous not because of what he had done but according to grace (e.g., 4:3–5). So it seems to me that just as Abraham was “reckoned” righteous by faith in spite of his sin, so also believers must “reckon” themselves dead to sin even though they will groan til the day when they are set free from corruption (8:18–25). Why does Paul have to command believers to “reckon” themselves dead to sin? Because of the reality he names in Romans 7:17, 20, and 23—indwelling sin. (See also the command in 6:19, and the reasoning in 6:20–22).

(2) Why would Paul use the first person singular pronoun (“I”) in Romans 7 if he were not describing a reality that he himself experiences? Is there another place in Paul’s writings where he speaks in the first person singular (“I”) but is really not describing himself? The pervasive use of the first person singulars (“I” “me” “my”) and the lack of any indication that Paul is not describing himself argues against the position that Paul is not, in fact, describing himself.

(3) The poignancy of the anguished statements in 7:24–25 should be taken as indicative of Paul’s own feelings (Compare his anguish in 9:1–3). If the desperate cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” in 7:24 is not describing Paul’s own experience, don’t these words seem a little melodramatic? Wouldn’t it be more typical of Paul to describe the inability of unbelievers in a more detached way as we see in Rom 8:7, 1 Cor 2:14, or 2 Cor 4:4?

(4) If Paul is not describing his own experience as a Christian in Romans 7, he sure confuses the matter with the concluding words of the chapter: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:25b). If Paul meant to describe the experience of an unbeliever, which culminates in the wretched cry in 7:24 (“Who will rescue me?”), shouldn’t the opening words of 7:25 (“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”) be followed by a Romans 6 type affirmation? In other words, the answer to the cry in 7:24 is given in 7:25a—Jesus will rescue me from this body of death, thank God! If Paul has been describing an unbeliever, why doesn’t Rom 7:25b read like Rom 6:7? Shouldn’t 7:25b, according to this interpretation, read more on the lines of: “now you’ve died with Christ and you’re set free from sin!”?

I submit, then, that the reason Paul has to write Romans 6 at all, the reason he has to command the Roman believers to “reckon” themselves to be what they (positionally in Christ) are in 6:11, is explained in Romans 7. In Romans 6, Paul introduces some of the only commands in all of Romans 1–11 because believers find themselves in the conflicted state described in Romans 7—we want to do good but we often do what we hate instead (cf. 7:15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).

The answer to this dilemma is then explained in Romans 8:1–17, where Paul describes the difference between living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit. Those who walk according to the Spirit will indeed “fulfill the law” (8:4), but this walking according to the Spirit entails putting to death the “deeds of the body” by the power of the Spirit (8:13). Here again, these “deeds of the body” have to be “put to death” because they arise from the “indwelling sin” described in Romans 7.

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  1. Jim,
    Hmmm, yeah, maybe, I don’t know? Romans 7 is one of the hardest passages in the NT to work with. I think you have to work in the way that Paul uses this passage as a defence of the giving of the law in redemptive-history even though it is not a means for righteousness or even the primary guideline for Christian ethics. But you raise some good points all the same.

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for your note. I think that Paul’s purpose is to answer first the question in 7:13 as to whether the holy, righteous, good law became sin to him. He explains that the problem is not with the law but with the indwelling sin in his own flesh, and the lack of the Spirit to enable him to obey the law (8:1-4).

    I think there are (at least) two levels at which the “now” of Rom 8:1 works–the redemptive historical level and the personal level. In salvation history, the Christ event unleashes the Spirit inaugurating the eschaton; in one’s personal experience, being regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit gives us a new ability to obey the law.

    What do you think?

    Great to hear from you!


  3. Jim,
    When the suggestion that Romans 7 is addressing Paul’s pre-regenerate state is followed by the conclusion that believers are not dualistic in nature, I become concerned for several reasons. Not only does this raise problems in interpreting Romans 6,7, and 8 but also for Galations 5 and I Cor 3:1, and to some degree the passages in Ezek that refer to God restoring a heart of stone with a heart of flesh. Further problems come from pulling the prooftexts out of context. I believe it is clear that we struggle in a battle between the flesh and the spirit and have seen this truth impact many in counseling when they begin to distinguish the responsiblity of putting to death the things of the flesh and beginning to walk in the spirit. I think this is why I react so strongly to hearing this when it is a foundational truth in much of my counseling. I don’t see this as an assault on human voalition, and would like to do more research into Jonathan Edwards views on this. Doesn’t he write of the bondage of the will?

    Furthermore, wouldn’t it be prudent to examine whether this teaching may contribute to other faulty hermaneutic and theological discourse.

  4. I am so confused with this Christian Liberty; freedom from the law. Here I am a Christian for decades and I cannot understand Romans 6 to 8. When Paul is much older in his faith he gives examples to the churches that are carnal and warns them and later through the letters Peter and James and 1st John to 3rd John – you would almost have to be God him-self to live under these righteous commands continually that is. What about those verses which say in the letters of John – Those who commit sin shall not see God or is of God? Why are we not seeing power to overcome sin in our lives? This bothers me. I was looking at brother Andrew Strom’s website last week and it has put me back to where I almost started from. He said we have to repent and rarely sin if at all. and goes onto say we need the power of the Holy Spirit like they had in Acts. I do not want to give up on God. I do not want to try to be a Christian. I want God’s power. I have kept saying to my-self I reckon my-self dead to sin and then desires and temptations come and I give in. Usually, I repent and get on with it. But after reading Andrew Strom’s website (revivalschool.com) I feel I am going back to when I was an original Christian. He almost sounds legalistic in his teachings. I understand what he is saying; we should be holy like God is holy, but wait a second; as soon as I try to keep the holy commandments of the epistles; I am back to square one – I sin.
    Even if we are in the word continually; does not mean we will stop sinning – perhaps less, but you know what I am more conscious of my sin when in the word than not studying it.
    Is it his work according to Romans 8? Or our work where it says: work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Then we have the guy next to Jesus on the cross just believing on him and he is in paradise the same day. Some thing is not right here?
    IF we sin, (if) is the key word. – He is faithful and just to forgive us from all sin and unrighteousness. Yeah, we shouldn’t be just sinning because we have the liberty of grace…I agree, God forbid, but what about our weak flesh (man who is single and lusts and asks God for a wife and nothing for years and still nothing)? I am such a wretch! I agree! Yes, there is no condemnation. I know that. We are back to square one. Whose work is this? God’s or mine or both of ours? My answer would be both, but then one is not a work unto getting into heaven, because we are sealed for those that have the Spirit indwelling them, but my work is trusting God to work out his will in my life. I am going to keep talking more and more, so I will end it here for now. Thank you for reading this mumbo Jumbo. -Dave

  5. Dr. Hamilton,

    I have one thought on this interesting topic. I think Christians do tend to find themselves in the middle of Romans 7 from time to time experientially, but I still think it is the description of the life pattern of an unbelieving, legalistic, self vindicator, (like the Pharisee Saul), who just cannot seem to keep the Law good enough to be righteous.

    The most persuasive argument I have heard in favor of this came from my Greek professor at MBTS concerning the language of not doing what is desired. My professor asserted that the way slaves were identified by 1st Century inscriptions was by their inability to do what they wanted to. Hence, the language of Paul not being able to do the good he desired, amounts to slave talk.

  6. One of the reasons why I have concluded that the second half of Romans 7 refers to the unbeliever is the flow of the argument given in 6 thru 8. Chapter 6 suggests that we are capable of putting to death the deeds of the flesh and receiving the gift of eternal life. The first half of chapter 7 goes into an analogy about the law being like a marriage that you are free from when the spouse dies. Then Paul launches into a diatribe that shows how the human life expresses this analogy. End of Romans 7 is the marriage to the law; beginning of Romans 8 is what happens when the law is killed in Christ. That is, Christ fulfilled the law and then died to the law so that all who are baptized into him / believe in him are united to him in his death and resurrection. Therefore, when we are baptized into him, our former spouse is killed! Now we are free to marry another – Christ. The flesh was unable to please God. The law was unable to do anything except describe the righteous life. It could not enable the righteous life. The spirit, on the other hand, does enable the righteous life. I believe that Paul is not merely talking about forensic justification (I have become righteous “officially”), but he hates sin and loves righteousness. So the Spirit enables the Christian to live in the life of God (cf. Galatians 5). If we continue to live in the flesh we reap the wages of death. If we live by the spirit we receive the gift of eternal life. Why is one a wage and one a gift? Because we all deserve death. But by faith in Christ we can be dead to sin and its wages and receive eternal life.

  7. Paul was talking about his own life. As believers we do not want sin in our lives, but their is a war going on inside of us. The closer we get to the Lord the more you can see how sinful and vile we truly are. The Spiritual man always want to obey God, but the war begins when we obey. I am learning that the battle is already won. I do not have to fight a war that is already won. Faith in Jesus is the key. The Bible says he who has begun avoid work in you will perform it. I trust this scripture. I did not begin it and I certainly cannot finish it.

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