Thoughts on the “Romans 7 Christian”

The following is an excerpt on a book I am writing on reading passages of Scripture theologically. Title TBD. This is the conclusion of a chapter on Romans 7:14-25.

[Note: I believe that Paul, in these verses, is describing his life as a believer (not a pre-Christian experience) and thus is describing our reality as believers in Christ. While others have taken a different view of this passage, it doesn’t change the fact that believers continue to struggle with sin throughout the course of their lives until they go to be with Jesus.]

The theology of this passage is immensely practical. Who among us has not dealt with the frustrations and guilt feelings of ongoing sin?

There is a dynamic that happens to believers that as we grow, we tend to see our own sin more clearly, leading to the kind of inner dialog we see in Romans 7:14-25. Here’s how it happens:

  1. As we grow closer to the Lord, we see more and more distinctly the holiness of God.
  2. In comparison, we become more and more aware of our sinfulness.
  3. As life goes on and this dynamic continues, the gap between the holiness of God and our actual experience grows.*

The irony in this is that as we grow, we may feel more sinful. We are not actually; we were simply not as aware of our sinfulness in our earlier walk with Christ. Let’s get real here; let’s talk in specifics.

For example, let’s say that Jeff struggles with an addiction to pornography and habitual masturbation. He knows it to be wrong, and he sincerely hates his sin and wants to forsake it. His self-talk is full of Romans 7: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Now suppose that in time, through knowing that his old self was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6), considering himself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11), Jeff begins to no longer present his members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness but presents himself to God (Rom. 6:13). He stops letting sin reign in his mortal body and no longer obeys the passions of the flesh in this matter (Rom. 6:12). Jeff puts away pornography from his life and stops the habit of masturbation. Victory!

Jeff might at this point think that the battle is over. This was a big deal for him. And let’s not minimize this victory. Anyone who has experienced an addiction knows how exceedingly difficult it is to overcome. So Jeff praises God and thanks Jesus for the victory he has seen in his life. However,

If Romans 7 describes the normal Christian life of the believer [and I believe it does], a life-long war with indwelling sin, Jeff needs to be aware of two things. First, without diligence, he may fall right back into the same patterns of sin. Many, many believers have given testimony to this happening. Jeff will never be “done” with this temptation. Second, Jeff will now begin to see other sins in his life, because he will continue to grow in his knowledge of the holiness of God.

Where the teachers of old thought that they were OK if they didn’t commit adultery, Jesus raised the bar and said that if you look with lust at a woman you have broken the law against adultery (Matthew 5: 27-28). Jeff may think he’s done with this because he has put away the very outward sins of pornography and masturbation, but having put those away, he may still find that his real sin was lust occurring in his mind, and he has more work to do.

How often does this happen to each of us? We put away outbursts of anger (yelling, screaming, cursing, fighting), only to find that we still must battle against the inward sins of grumbling, complaining, anger that is internalized. We stop gossiping and creating division, and discover that there are still the sins of self-comparison and self-righteousness that we now must fight.

This is why we will never “leave Romans 7.” We become more and more aware of the depth of our sin even as we overcome and achieve victories. The only reason to leave Romans 7 is to encounter the present comfort and future deliverance described in Romans 8. But our reality is still one of warfare, the flesh against the Spirit. The “Romans 7 Christian” is not a defeated Christian; she is a fighting Christian. A fight that will continue until we see Jesus! Brothers and sisters, let us never give up that fight.

*Thune, Robert H. and Walker, Will. The Gospel-Centered Life, New Growth Press, 2011. pp. 12-14.