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The Phantom of Romans 7

 

Introduction

In Romans 7 Paul expresses his anguish about not being able to control his behaviour, doing what he wishes not to do and not doing what he wants to do.

He says:

"For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish." (Rom 7:19 NASB)

Paul is saying this just after having come into the kingdom of God and from being near to legalistic perfection as a Pharisee, that he cannot attain righteousness, nor stop himself from sinning. Having come into the freedom of the Gospel of Christ, he is saying that his coming into freedom has left him as a sinner without any control over his behaviour. What a state to be in, when he had thought that his conversion would have him serve His Lord in perfection!

Believers who have not understand exactly what was going on here, believe that they too in this age, should experience these same troubles - this continuing fight between good and evil. Consequently they miss out on the fullness of the Spirit of God that Paul had in Romans 8 and everywhere else in his epistles. Nowhere in his writings did he ever again express this same anguish that appeared in Romans 7:14-24. Why is this so? The answer is simple. It is because he never ever again did experience that same anguish that he expressed that one time. It was in a process of learning that was controlled by the Spirit of God.

The purpose of this article is to examine and expose who or what is the "I" he mentions so often in Romans 7:14-24, what a misinterpretation of this passage does to our understanding of the Gospel and how an identifying of this "I" opens some doorways towards fullness of life in Christ.

The sequence of Romans 3-5, 6, 7, 8.

Romans 3-5 says that believers are justified by faith and have peace through Christ.
Romans 6 says that believers are dead to sin and alive to God
Romans 7 says that believers are united to Christ and released from the law.
Romans 8 says believers have no condemnation and have been set free from the law of sin and death.

An apparently good and proper sequence it would seem - and yes it is. Justification, peace, dead to sin, alive to God, united to Christ, released from the law, no condemnation, and set free from sin and death. The complete gospel in a nutshell. From being guilty as every man in Romans 3, and sons of disobedience of Ephesians 2:2 believers are now set free and partake of the divine nature.

Paul tells us we were sons of disobedience and subject to Satan:

"And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." (Eph 2:1-2 NASB )

Peter reminds us of our escape from corruption into being partakers of the Divine Nature.

"For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust." (2 Pet 1:4 NASB)

However, Paul's description of his struggles in Romans 7:14-24 has muddied the waters. From my experience of church life and pulpit preaching and teaching, the gospel we hear is rather watered down and weak in nature. It is certainly not the full Gospel that Paul preached and used in his ministry, because it presents the essential nature of the Christian life as one of conflict. Conflict has its part, but is not central - abiding in Christ is central.

Examination of the "I"

The force of the word "I" in this passage is great. It is mentioned no less than 23 times in 11 verses, whilst "me" is mentioned 6 times and "my" 3 times. So in just 11 verses Paul's personal self ( as he saw it at the time) is mentioned no less that 32 times, nearly three times per verse. So what is he talking about and what does it mean?

To answer that we need to go back to Romans 6 and compare it with Romans 8. As we have already noted, Paul came to the conclusion in Romans 6 that he was dead to sin. He was no longer a sinner - he was declared dead to sin. And in Romans 8 we see Paul in fullness of life. And to get the full picture we need to remind ourselves that Paul's "I" in Romans 7 was in all sorts of sin and confusion. How could that be if he was dead to sin in Romans 6 and in fullness of life in Romans 8? In summary this is what we are looking at..

Romans 6 - Dead to sin. .............. Romans 7 - Sin and confusion ................. Romans 8 - Fullness of life

The question might be asked, "Did Paul really go through sin and confusion, seeing as we know he did not stay in it as Romans 8 states?" The answer is - Yes he did go through a confusing period when he had no control over what he did, despite his best efforts, in his human strength.

Prior to his conversion Paul was a son of disobedience - as we all were before our conversion. In Romans 6 he states he is now a son of God, because he says in verse 11 that he is dead to sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. So he has gone from being a son of disobedience to a son of God. Please notice that this describes two states only. One is as an unsaved person, the other as a saved person. Two states, one being under the control of Satan, the other being under the control of God.

This then begs the question as to who Paul is talking about in Romans 7 when he uses , "ME" or "MY". Is he talking about himself as an unsaved person or as a saved person? Is he a sinner or a saint? Is he under Satan's control or under the control of the Holy Spirit?

The short answer is that he is saved, a saint and under the control of the Holy Spirit, although as we will see, he was not yet fully under the control of the Holy Spirit as there was a great lesson still to learn. As we shall also see, Paul's focus was in a wrong direction. He was still focussing on his own self, the one that was striving against the law to do right, be righteous and not sin.

Paul's lesson

Let us first do a slight historical diversion. In Chapter 1 of Galations Paul tells us that after his conversion he went to Arabia and after that returned to Damascus. There was a 3 year period which he spent in either Arabia or Damascus or both. ( Most commentators say he was in Arabia for 3 years, although the text does not quite say that - it matters little - the important thing was that he had a 3 year break after his conversion before going to Jerusalem to see some of the Apostles ) During the three years in Arabia from A.D. 38 to A.D. 40 he appears to have been taught by the Holy Spirit about the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Most people do not realise that he did not write about that experience in Arabia/Damascus until he wrote Romans in A.D. 57, some 17 years later. Those 17 years were filled with successful ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Everywhere, he was led by the Spirit of God. The confusion about the relevance of Romans 7:14-24 comes about because many people think that these verses were his current (A.D. 57) experience. But he was not writing about his current experience in Romans 7 but reporting on his struggle of getting into the fullness of the Spirit that he then described in Romans 8.

The lesson that Paul had to learn was that he had to obtain fullness of the Spirit of God by faith alone and not by striving, because striving by human effort brought him up against the power of the law, sinful behaviour and certain failure. He discovered this by reference to the sin of coveting - commandment number 10 in the Mosaic law.

"I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." (Rom 7:7 NASB)

Notice the issue.

"For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." (Rom 7:5 NASB)

Not being aware that he had been released from the law he strove against it - coveting in particular - thus guaranteeing failure. His own striving for perfection brought him against the law. Presumably, the Holy Spirit had to stand by and let Paul make these mistakes, as the Spirit also strove with Paul to teach him that control of all these things only came through the power that the Holy Spirit alone could provide - and that Holy Spirit power only came to him through faith.

"But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." (Rom 7:6 NASB)

So Paul had to learn that he did not have to strive against sin or the law. He was already dead to both! All he had to do - and it was a big and important "all", was to believe that the Holy Spirit could work through the presence of Christ in him - the Christ who is our life - Paul's Christ in you, as per the following scriptures.

"When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory."... (Col 3:4 NASB)

"to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Col 1:27 NASB)

The life of Christ in Paul, because it was indeed the power of the Holy Spirit was Paul's actual new life. He did not have to strive, only believe by faith that this life was there within him. Quite a contrast from striving against sin all the time!

Paul's focus on self

We can now examine what the "I" in Romans 7 was - as it appeared to Paul as he isolated himself for 3 years. We must first say that Paul, being a Pharisee of note, who was used to human effort in living out the law, would know all about the relationship between sin and the law. As far as would have been humanly possible, he would have been used to making sure he did not sin, by attempting to observe all the requirements of the law. He was used to striving against sin. It appears that although he was converted and therefore now belonged to Christ, he was still focussed on self during some part of this 3 year period. Seventeen years later, his exasperation of that time is shown in verse 24 of chapter 7 of Romans.

"Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Rom 7:24 NASB)

This call indicates that at some stage he must have thought he was never going to break free and be able to live without sin. Indeed, this would have been the case, except for the intervention and teaching of the Holy Spirit during that time. ( as it must be for all of us)

So at that time, all Paul"s focus was on "self", not on the Holy Spirit where it should have been. The question now is - did this self really exist? To answer this question we have to go back to the previously mentioned facts that there are only two states, not saved and saved, sons of disobedience or sons of God. The truth is that Paul was a son of God through all of this - all through Romans 5-8. However, because he did not yet realize in A.D 38-40) that the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit only came through faith and not through the works of striving against sin, he thought that this "self" that gave him so much trouble was really him. But it was not - it did not exist - it was a phantom! Only two possible states exist. There is no intermediate or independent self. Unsaved peoples move from being unsaved to being saved and if they understand the fullness of the Gospel expressed in many scriptures, then they also know that they immediately have available the fullness of God through the Holy Spirit. The phantom state is Paul in partial unbelief and lacking in knowledge trying to live his Christian life by virtue of personal effort.

Comparison with modern Christianity

How does this compare with modern Christianity? From my observation, many if not most Christians still believe, that even in a believer, there are two natures fighting it out for control - that there is a continuing conflict which never ends this side of heaven. The author has written another article about this matter of getting the correct interpretation of Romans 7 and how its affect on obtaining the fullness of the Spirit of God. 

Do Christians have to go through their own Romans 7 experience?

Christians who have lived striving to beat sin because they did not realise they were dead to sin and believed that the two natures were in constant conflict, will have to, in some form, correct their inadequate view of the Gospel, go though some sort of experience as Paul did, until the Spirit of God witnesses to them that they are indeed controlled by the Spirit of God and do not have to strive against either sin or law. However, if people who are connected with or responsible for people who have just entered the kingdom of God by virtue of their conversion to Christ, really know and experience this fullness for themselves, then I see no reason why new believers should be taught these things from the beginning. It would save much confusion, heartache and other errors derived from wrong interpretation.

Conclusion

Believers who identify themselves with the self (I, me, my) in Romans 7:14-24 do themselves a grievous dis-service. They need to realize that this phantom self cannot exist if the believer has a true and full appreciation of his position in Christ. This phantom self can only exist if believers are confused about the fact that they are really dead to sin and law. They might also be confused because Paul experienced this problem in his lifetime and wrote about it. Therefore they might believe it must be theirs also. It is a phantom they cannot afford to entertain.

Ken Walker
July 2001