Chris Atwood’s latest post, Who Is the “Man of Romans 7”?, looks at how Luther interacted with Augustine and “Ambroisaster” (prime candidate, Chris suggests, for “the cuckoo who laid the egg of Evangelicalism that Luther hatched”) in interpreting the final section of Romans 7, taking it as a foundational text for the principle of simil iustus et peccator – that as Christians, we are at the same time saved and sinful.
This called to mind a lecture by Dick Lucas on Romans 7 that I was listening to earlier this week. This had some very helpful material on this chapter, some of which I thought I’d pass on in the hope that other will also find it helps them understand what Paul is saying here.
First of all, Romans 7:7-12 , where Paul describes the impact that his covetousness had on his understanding of sin.
Lucas describes how he used to think this was just an “autobiographical fragment”, as Paul describes the day the tenth commandment leapt out at him and came alive for him (which is certainly how I had previously understood these verses). But, as Lucas points out, there is more going on there: if we look carefully at this paragraph, we can see clear parallels with Genesis 3 (try replacing the word “sin” with “serpent” in v.8a to see this).
So “covetousness” is not merely a sin: it is the essence of sin, the announcement to God that we are going to value our desires above God’s commands. And Paul is not talking about a particular sin that tripped him up at a particular time. He is describing how he learnt that he was a child of Adam:
He learnt that Adam’s sin dwelt in him too, and that it had deceived him too, and that it had led to his death too.
However, as noted above the section that causes most controversy in Romans 7 is vv.14-25. This has been interpreted in any number of ways: as describing Paul’s pre-Christian experience; as describing the experience of a “carnal” Christian who has yet to “move from Romans 7 to Romans 8” by becoming a “spiritual” Christian; or as describing an experience that is to be regarded as typical for all Christians.
Lucas identifies that the problem with vv.14-25 is that it contains, in a single paragraph, things that surely could never be said by a Christian, but also things that could surely never be said by a non-Christian. After all, what Christian could say things like v.14b:
…but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
…but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
But then, on the other hand, how could anyone who is not a Christian say v.22:
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So here we have someone speaking as only a Christian can speak, and at the same time speaking as only a non-Christian can speak. How are we to reconcile these two aspects?
Lucas argues that the natural way to take these verses is to take them at face value. For example, the switch from the past tense in vv.5-13, to the present tense in vv.14-25. So how do we resolve the problem that Paul is speaking one moment like someone redeemed, and the next moment like someone not redeemed? As Lucas puts it:
The answer is that Paul cannot speak in any other way, because this dualism … of Christian experience is true of every Christian. It is the dualism that is inevitable when you have a regenerate mind and heart alongside unregenerate flesh.
We live between the first resurrection (our spiritual resurrection, in baptism) and the second resurrection (of our flesh, at the return of Christ), and consequently “I am torn in two, between Adam and Christ”.
So Paul is saying two things repeatedly in these verses. First he speaks as a Christian awaiting the redemption of his body, and tied down by sin in the meantime. Three times (vv.17, 20, 23) he says that sin dwells within him.
Secondly, as a Christian Paul enjoys newness of life. But (given that the entire chapter’s focus is on the law) what is Paul the Christian’s attitude to the law? Lucas draws our attention to a point that was, as he puts it, a “revelation” to him: that, from v.15, every verse without exception includes a more-or-less clear statement of Paul’s attitude towards the law. For example, in v.15: “For I do not do what I want” – and what do I want to do, as a redeemed Christian? To obey the law.
So sin dwells within him, but at the same time he wants to do what is right, he wants to obey the law. Thus v.24 is what all Christians feel (or ought to feel) and cry out for themselves:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Not to mention v.25b, which summarises the whole chapter, and the dualism we find within ourselves:
So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
That is still not the end of the story, however. The additional factor in our lives – the work of the Holy Spirit – is what is then dealt with in chapter 8.