The importance of context
Romans 7 is a great chapter… but not so much for so many people who refuse to read it in the context of the rest of Romans and the Epistles.
It is constantly brought up when I say we have no sinful nature. People can’t seem to read it in any other light, so today I’m going to try point to Romans 7′s context and ask that you take a fresh look at verses 14-25 with me today in the greater context of the scriptures.
First lets look at what Paul thought of His sinful nature, I think the Bible is clear enough of what Paul thought, but many seem to disagree, lets start in the immediate context of Romans 7 by looking at the prior chapter.
RIP sinful nature.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Romans 6:1&2
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Romans 6:3
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Romans 6:6
“For one who has died has been set free from sin.” Romans 6:7
“Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Romans 6:8
“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:11
“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Romans 6:14
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,” Romans 6:17
“and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:18
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” Romans 6:22
That’s just a brief example of the context, but He starts in Romans 4 explaining the old nature of man and building up the argument that the old man is dead and you are a completely new creation (2 Cor 5:17) In fact he uses euphemisms for death 42 times in chapters 4-8. It’s not a topic he vaguely touches upon, it is rather the very centre of the message!
My favourite way Paul chooses to explain just how much sinful nature is not a part of you is in Col 2:11 – it’s really so graphic it’s hilarious.
He states that the sinful nature has been circumcised. Wow. Thanks Paul for such a poetic image. The point being you don’t see many circumcised men with their foreskin taped back on! Sorry, now it’s me painting the gross picture.
So from Romans 6 Paul clearly states that we are dead to sin and it should be impossible for us to sin (v2), we are slaves to righteousness (v18).
So why do we struggle? I touched on this before in my blog titled “Why do I sin?” Since some people seem to be having a hard time with that blog I will explain again in hopefully in more depth.
By grace through faith
Grace flows from Faith.
“that is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,” Romans 4:16
“Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:2
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Ephesians 2:8
Paul talks about the importance of our minds later on again in Ephesians 4:20-24
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
He here stated that by renewing our minds we put off the old self and put on the new self… sounds something like Romans 12:2
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It’s not just Paul!
But what do other New Testament authors have to say about this?
Peter says it in this way in 1 Peter 1:13-15
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”
He says that it is ignorance that causes us to fall into our past passions the NKJV says it like this “not conforming yourselves to former lusts in your ignorance”
Even James talks about our faith creating good works. He states again and again in chapter 2 that it is faith that leads to good works.
True spiritual warfare
This is the reason that Paul constantly tells us to take our thoughts captive and renew our minds!
In 2 Cor 10:4-5 he says:
“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,”
Wow… sounds like Paul is going to war against his mind! How many demons or sinful natures does he mention going to war against here? This is a very famous passage of Paul telling the Corinthians how to clean up their actions and yet he doesn’t tell them to war against their flesh or spiritual attack, rather against their thoughts!
Anyway, lets not get derailed by the multitudes of scriptures which talk of the sin nature having died and the war only being in our mind, lets look at Romans 7.
Romans 7:1-6 – The law died and we are married to grace
Paul continues to build his argument about us being free from sinful nature for the first half of the chapter!
First of all lets remember as he starts Romans 7 he states very clearly
Verse 1 – “Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives?”
He is talking about how the law is over man as long as he lives. And then uses an analogy of how we are married to the law, but as soon as the law died we were free to marry grace. We would in fact be cheating on grace if we were to go back to the law.
Read verse 2&4:
Verse 2 – ”For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.”
Verse 4 – ”Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”
Lets read on – I’m going to break this up with thoughts so you can follow it
Verse 5 – “For while we were living in the flesh,…”
It’s clear Paul thinks we no longer are!
Verse 5 continued – “…our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”
Verse 6 – “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
So even here at the beginning of chapter 7 Paul is still telling us we are free from the law which would lead to sin. We don’t live under the law any more but rather in the Spirit which causes Godly fruit.
Romans 7:7-13 – The law was good for one thing
Paul then goes on what seems to be a derailment in v7-13 to make sure we all know he is saying the law is not bad and that it had a purpose, but that purpose was to expose sin and had no power to stop it in any way. He’s saying very clearly that while the law is good, perfect and holy, it cannot make someone good, perfect or holy. He then continues to talk about the law being good but bringing death in verses 14.
What we don’t see in most non-literal translations is the first word of verse 14, FOR, it’s key however because it links the past tense passage to the present tense passage, these are not two separate thoughts!
Romans 7:14-25 – Here it goes
With all that building to the controversial v14-25 lets read the whole batch now in the context of the rest of the scripture:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Romans 7:14-25
First of all lets stand in awe at how short this passage is, this passage, which has single-handedly been used to argue that man still has a sinful nature. It’s crazy that so many throughout history have hung so much on the reading of this one short passage out of context.
Secondly, lets look at what history has done with the passage, before St. Augustine in the fifth century the Christian body was unanimous that Romans 7:14-25 was referring to a pre-Christian experience. I’m going to say that again to be sure you got it – for more than 300 years after the New Testament was penned NOBODY thought it was the Christian experience to struggle with sinful nature and they rather thought this passage referred to a pre-Christian experience. After Augustine stated that it was in fact “the highest stage of Christian experience” (whatever he meant by that) it was held as common opinion that it was a present Christian reality for around a thousand years. Whilst a few contested it throughout those thousand years it was not until the 1600′s that it was again really challenged on a significant level when Jacob Hermansz, more commonly known as Jacobus Arminius asked how it could possibly be the case in the context of the rest of Paul’s writings. Since then there has been strong followings of both sides of the argument.
It’s also interesting to note that Augustine personally documents in his writings that he has a massive struggle with sexual sin among other sins. All it takes for bad doctrine to creep into the church is for one man of prominence to have a bad idea that lines up with some bad theology.
So how do I choose to read this passage?
Interpretation – The options
There are three primary options that are the main trains of thought in today’s church.
1) It is either Paul talking of past experience as a Pharisee under the law, knowing he shouldn’t and trying not to sin but seeing the law waking in his sinful nature the desire to sin.
2) It is Paul, an ex-Pharisee, a man who is trying to renew his mind not to be a slave to the law talking about what happens when he gives in to that desire and goes back to trying to do things in his own effort. He empowers the law to breed sin because he is not resting in the truth that he has been set free from the law.
3) Paul is struggling with a sinful nature and is asking God to save him from his wretched sinful nature.
Option number 3 in my opinion just seems incredibly weak when read with the rest of Romans and the rest of scripture.
The first two to me would suitably fit the passage in its immediate context of just Romans 7:14-25 and in the greater context of Romans and the whole New Testament. I personally think whichever of the first two you believe is kind of irrelevant though. In my opinion the context of this chapter doesn’t seem to be about a “sinful nature” at all but rather about the law. It’s probably a mixture of both option 1 and 2 as it speaks into both situations equally whichever you choose.
However first I want to tackle one issue that will exist for many, especially those who don’t like option 1.
It’s in present tense!
To help those of you who are struggling with the matter of the ”tense” I refer to page 185 of “A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament” by H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey in which it explains how the present tense can be used as what it calls, “historical present”. It states that in historical present, “The present tense is thus employed when a past event is viewed with vividness of a present occurrence.” Now whether or not it is the case in Romans 7:14-25 is still up for interpretation, but please don’t think it isn’t a good solid argument just because of the text’s present tense.
It’s not about sinful nature at all but rather about the law
The issue Paul is arguing here works either for a non-believer or a believer because this is not an issue of the nature of man, be it sinful or righteous. Rather it’s a statement of the problem man has, either way, when they choose to go back to the law. He’s stating – “when I try to do what is right I end up messing up, and when I try to avoid what is wrong I end up doing it anyway.” What’s he saying? “When I try to live by the law, I fall short!”
The passage is about the truth that whether you love Jesus or not – if you try to go it alone and make it about your right or wrong actions you will fail in your self-righteous attempts.
Even after you are saved and set free from a sinful nature and set free from the law, if you go back to the law it will cause sin and ultimately death to spring forth in your life.
It’s clearly not about a struggle with sinful nature itself. How can I state that? Because Paul killed that thing 42 times over the space of the previous 3 and a half chapters! It’s a statement of the state of man under the law and a cry for help for someone to redeem him from this constant need to walk under the law. Who will redeem him from this curse? Jesus. Now Paul no longer walks according to the law which brings sin and death but according to the Spirit which brings freedom.
Let’s read on – Chapter 8
Verse 1 – There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
What’s Paul saying here? We don’t walk according to the flesh – i.e. according to our actions based upon what we can do, but according to the Spirit, based upon what HE can do.
Verse 2 – For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
He is stating that the law of the Spirit is what sets us free from the law that brings sin and death. The “law of the Spirit” is walking in tune with the voice of the Holy Spirit. The “law of sin and death” is living based upon what is right and wrong by our own efforts.
Verse 3 – For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
So again, we couldn’t do this on our own, our own efforts to perform the law were weak and failed. We must rely on His ability to work good works through us.
Now I really want you to get this last bit here…
Verse 5 – For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.
Verse 6 – For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
Verse 7 – Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.
Verse 8 – So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
This sums up Romans 7 perfectly… if you are going to focus on your own flesh, your own abilities to do right and wrong you will always fail. You can not please God and will in fact end up at enmity with God – God hates self-righteousness and only desires you to enjoy being a vessel of His righteousness. Why? Because self-righteousness hurts us more than we could ever know.
Note: For more info on the law and self-righteousness I’d encourage you to read my article “What’s the role of the law in the new covenant?” which goes into this topic in much more depth.
Conclusion – Gnosticism is alive and well in the church today
I’m sure this won’t have convinced many who disagree with me, but at least if it hasn’t I pray that it at least clarifies where I am coming from and that you can see I’m not just making up my argument. I’d honestly be really interested to see someone exegetically teach the presence of a sinful nature in the believer as well as I can the absence of it and I’m no Bible teacher! It’s just too obvious when you read through Romans in context.
The idea that we still have a sinful nature, that only our spirit is whole while our body and soul are still sinful is actually a Gnostic teaching. It’s really interesting when you read historically how much the first church father’s attacked this. In fact you don’t even need to leave the Bible to the first church fathers… John and Paul attacked this Gnostic teaching all the time in their writings! What is more interesting is how we allowed such a heresy to come into the church and not only that but allow it to become a generally accepted teaching!
I can’t help but see this as being a classic case of people reading their experience into scripture. Because we struggle with sin we build a Biblical argument that agrees with us struggling, rather than look to the Bible to see what we should do to free ourselves from the struggle. Namely, believe the struggle is over.