Sanctification and the Battle with Sin
(a) The Man of Romans 7
This passage in Romans 7 is one of the most controversial in the entire book. The multitude of views found in Christian literature can be confusing when endeavouring to understand the teaching aright. The problem that the Bible student is faced with when examining the passage is, “Who is the man whom Paul describes in the passage? Is he a Christian or an unrepentant sinner?”. Such an enquiry is never academic when God’s Word is the subject material. Paul here is describing the relationship between man and sin, therefore it is most important that we ascertain who Paul is describing here. As Paul writes in the first person he is obviously describing his own experience at some point in his life either in his days before conversion or his life after the Damascus Road. Is the application to the saved or unsaved? Before we attempt to understand the passage we must form some opinion as to who the man of Romans 7 is.
This study will examine the various interpretations of this man together with the pros and cons of each argument in an attempt to form a balanced and a consistent exposition.
A Is he an unsaved man?
History: It would appear that during the first three centuries this was the prevailing view among Christian authors. Augustine of Hippo initially adopted this view but in later years altered his thinking arguing that the man of Romans 7 was indeed a Christian. For centuries this view was most unpopular but was revived by Arminian authors, although not by Arminius himself.
The Case For: Paul could not say that he was a slave to sin when he has already stated that the believer is a slave to righteousness (6:18).
The Case Against: Paul speaks in the present tense throughout the passage. In our last study he describes his condition before he was converted in the past tense. Paul claims that he was distressed over his sinfulness. In Philippians 3:6 he describes himself as being proud in his unconverted state, not distressed. Sinful man knows nothing of guilt before God unless the Spirit moves in his life. Nor can unconverted people delight in God’s law as he does in v14.
B Is he a Carnal Christian?
History: This is a very modern interpretation and is popular today among those who say Christianity is a two stage process. In stage 1 the sinner accepts Christ as Saviour but then must accept Christ as Lord.
The Case For: The man of Romans 7 is defeated and this should not be true of a mature believer. The focus of this man is upon self (the word “I” occurs 26 times). The carnal Christian lives the life of Romans 7 but he must dethrone self and reach the Holy Ghost empowered life of Romans 8.
The Case Against: The “Carnal Christian View” does emphasises certain truths, that Christians do have a sinful nature and that victory can be achieved only through the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless the underlying premise is wrong – a Christian does not need a two stage experience to be complete, we are all complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10). The contrast in Romans is never between the “carnal” Christian and the mature Christian, but rather the apostle draws the distinction between the spiritual man (saved) and the natural man (unsaved), Romans 6:17-18, Romans 8:5-9.
C Is he an unconverted man under conviction?
History: This view was advanced by Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones, although it does not carry a wide breadth of support.
The Case For: The unsaved person in his state of death cannot mourn over his sin nor can he speak highly of God’s law. On the other hand the Christian cannot speak in terms of defeat. Here we have a man who is defeated yet he yearns for a better life. Therefore he must be a sinner under conviction.
The Case Against: Again the change from the past tense in v9-11 to the present tense in v14-21 is a problem because it suggests that this is Paul’s present experience. Also the man in Romans 7 is not totally defeated because he is assured of victory through Christ, v25.
D Is he a mature Christian?
History: From the later writings of Augustine through to the Reformers and the Puritans this view has dominated the thinking of the Church, particularly that section of the Church which embraced the Reformed Faith.
The Case For: As the law was unable to justify an individual, Paul was also teaching that the law was unable to sanctify. Attempting to grow in grace by mechanically observing the precepts of the law will only result in failure and a consciousness of sin. The Word of God also teaches us in this passage that every Christian has an old nature, a body of death, which hinders and frustrates us. Even the most mature believer experiences this battle within. This argument is consistent with the flow of the chapter, with the form of words used, with the teaching in Romans and with the teaching of God’s word (Ephesians 5:16-17).
The Case Against: Arguments in the contrary expressed in the other views are overwhelmingly answered by both the weaknesses of those expositions and by the strength of the case for the man being the mature Christian.