Disagreeing with Piper Over the Man in Romans 7

To whom is Paul referring when he writes the following words?

“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

There are some theological questions that are not important. There are others that are potentially important. And then there are some that are always important. The question I want to throw out today falls into the middle group. It is very possible for us to disagree over who the man in Romans 7 is intended to be and still love each other, work together, and actually even have similar theologies because of how we interpret other Scriptures. But different opinions about this chapter can lead to a significant problem in our life if we come to certain conclusions.

There are two main interpretations that are frequently held (although see Piper’s work below for a fuller list of different viewpoints). John Piper, for example, believes that this man is intended quite simply to represent the typical Christian life. John MacArthur would support him, as would many reformed scholars. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Terry Virgo are among those who would disagree and say, as Virgo did in the third of a series of talks on Philippians, that this is a “description of life before and outside of Christ, but looked at from the perspective of life in the Spirit.”

When Piper taught on Romans 7 he argued that his perspective on this verse would help protect against the idea, on the one hand, that Christians can ever become perfect and sinless in this life, and on the other hand, a passive failure to fight against sin. You can decide for yourself how well you feel he holds this balance. Here, though, are some of Piper’s introductory words:

One of the biggest disagreements over this text is who this man is. Whose experience is Paul describing? Is this the experience of Paul, the believer? Or is this the experience of Paul, the unbeliever? Christian or non-Christian? Or should we pose the question with more precision: Is this a morally awakened but unconverted Paul? Or is this the spiritually quickened converted Paul who is new and immature in the faith? Or could this be the mature Christian Paul, but in times of lapsed faith and vigilance? I don’t think I will tell you today what I think the answer is. I would like you to be thinking and studying this passage for yourselves without being sure what I think.

John PiperI do believe you can make a more or less plausible case for all of these possibilities and that none of them necessarily leads you into false teaching on the larger, over-all view of sanctification. In other words, it is possible to be wrong on our interpretation of one text but right in our view of the Christian life. You might say, “This text is not about Christian experience,” and still believe that Christians have experiences like this – sometimes doing what we don’t want to do. Or you might say, “This text is about Christian experience,” and still believe that much more victory over sin is possible than this in the Christian life.

So what we conclude (about whether Romans 7:14-25 refers to Christian experience or not) does not describe our whole view of Christian experience. There are dozens of other very important texts in the New Testament that we have to stir into the mix to see the bigger picture of the Christian life. Beware of people who build their views on isolated passages. That is where most cults and quirky interpretations come from . . .

If the man is a Christian or not a Christian, in either case his misery (“O, wretched man that I am,” verse 24) is caused by his indwelling sin, not by the Law. The Law is not sinful and the Law is not poison. I am sinful, and my sin is deadly poison.

Three times at least Paul makes the point. Verse 14: “The Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh.” Verse 16: “If I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.” Verse 22: “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” So the Law is “spiritual” and “good” and a “joy.”

This is true whether we decide that this divided man is a struggling believer or a conscience-quickened unbeliever. In either case, Paul’s main point is the same: Justification by faith apart from works of the Law (3:28) stands, because it does not imply that the Law is sin or poison. And sanctification by faith through death to the Law (7:4) stands, because it does not imply that the Law is sin or poison.

Piper goes on to state that he believes this man of Romans 7 is, in fact, a normal Christian. I do agree with Piper that it is possible to come to different positions on Romans 7 without it affecting one’s overall theological position. However, I also believe it is indisputable that if you do hold Piper’s position—that this indeed represents the Christian—there is a very real danger that, unlike I am sure Piper himself, you might actually conclude that it is all right for a Christian to feel pretty helpless against sin and, frankly, become despairing.

Because of this result, and in light of my study of the matter, I am unusually ready to say here that I think Piper is wrong and Lloyd-Jones and Virgo are right. Why do I say this?

First, Romans 7 and Romans 8 seem to be setting forth two different life styles that are mutually inconsistent. The man who knows no freedom in Romans 7 has been set free from the law in Romans 8. While it is true that without the Spirit we can have the will to do good, but lack the ability to do it, with the Spirit it is no longer true that we cannot carry out good. Paul seems to almost yell at us in Romans 8—you CAN do it! I am no believer in Christians becoming perfect, but I do so hope that your view of Romans 7 doesn’t lead you to a feeling of despair against ever enjoying living a victorious Christian life.

Lloyd-Jones expresses some of his reasons for believing the man of Romans 7 does NOT reflect the normal Christian life as follows:

“When the Christian talks about his sin and failure he does not talk about it primarily in terms of the law; he talks about it primarily in terms of love, about his failure to live to his glory. The Christian does not go on speaking in terms of the law as the man in Romans 7 does. He is no longer ‘under
the law’ but ‘under grace.’ Furthermore, as the Apostle will show us . . . the Christian must never allow himself to feel the condemnation of the law . . . the whole object of this great 8th chapter is to emphasise that: ‘No condemnation . . . no separation.’ [MLJ Romans 7:1 to Romans 8:4 pp. 262-263. Cited online here.]

As one writer who holds a similar position to Virgo and Lloyd-Jones on this passage explains, with the understanding of Romans 7 that it does NOT represent the ideal Christian life, greater optimism about our fight against sin is possible:

“If, however, we, Christians, have “died to sin” (Romans 6:2), have been “freed from sin” (Romans 6:7) and are now “in (not ‘controlled by’) the Spirit” (Romans 8:9), then the possibilities of living lives that glorify God are as high and wide and broad and deep as the God who has called us. As people who are “spiritual,” not “fleshly,” we need not fall helplessly before the onslaught of sin (which was our life before Christ) but may with full confidence place our trust in Christ, through whom we have been freed from sin. Whereas before we had no choice but to go on doing the evil that we hated and not the good that we wished, now there is a choice.”

I found the earlier quote from Virgo as part of my preparation for a sermon I will be preaching on Sunday on Philippians. Terry made the link between Romans 7 and the problems with willpower and inability, contrasting it with Paul’s glorious challenge to us which shows that God gives us both the willpower and the ability to be broadly successful in our battle against sin.

“. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock has been a blogger since April 2003, and part of the leadership team of Jubilee Church, London for more than ten years, serving alongside Tope Koleoso. His book, Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything was published by Crossway, January 2010. Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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  • Richard Dempsey

    Hi Adrian, many thanks for a very fine article. I also disagree with Piper.
    It seems clear to me that the one who is speaking in Romans 7:14-25 is not only a mature Christian but an apostle at that. However, I believe the apostle is speaking here about himself as he is naturally (i.e. ‘in the flesh’ vs.14; 18) and not about his identity in Christ (his ‘participation in Christ’, through his living and walking in the Spirit, as described in chapters 6 and 8). The fact is, the seventh chapter of this epistle isn’t meant to produce a hiatus in the flow of the apostle’s argument, as it is often made to appear, but rather his argument should slide smoothly from chapter 6 into chapter 8 as a continuous and brilliant piece of theo-logic. In other words, in chapter 7, he is following on from the point he has already made in the previous chapter (6): that we are no longer under the law but under grace.
    He now goes on to explain, in chapter 7 (and 8) WHY that is and WHAT that means.
    Why are we no longer under the law? Paul’s answer: “because we are no longer in the flesh” (6:15). The law speaks to the flesh and demands a response from the flesh, but, the problem is, the flesh is simply incapable of a right response, and, in fact, desires the very opposite to what the Spirit (the law derives from the Spirit) desires (Gal 5:16-17). Paul knows what his flesh is like and how it naturally reacts against the demands of the law (Rom 7:14-25) but, as he has already explained (e.g. in chapter 6), he himself no longer walks according to the flesh or lives ‘in the flesh’ but lives and walks in the Spirit. He is certainly not perfect, he may still be subject to carnal moments, which is the very reason he “beats his body daily” (1 Cor 9:27), but sin is no longer the hallmark of the apostle’s life. However, if he were to still consider himself as remaining ‘under that law’, then, he must rely on himself (i.e. his flesh) to respond to the demands of that law, as it is to the flesh that the law speaks. Yet such a right response from the flesh, as the apostle is keen to point out, is impossible; hence, in order to drive this point home, his description of how his flesh (‘the natural man’) functions,though he no longer ‘walks in in the flesh’: (7:15-21). His conclusion is (v.25): “So then [if I remain 'under the law' and therefore continue 'in the flesh'] with my mind I serve the law of God (that’s where my desire is) but with my flesh, [I can only serve] the law of sin (the flesh will always pull me in the opposite direction if I choose to rely on it and continue to ‘walk in it’. The natural man simply has no choice, given the sinful nature or ‘law of sin’ within v.23).”
    Condemnation and death is the result (v.11). That’s why Paul is no longer ‘in the flesh’ (ruled by the flesh) but ‘in the Spirit’ (ruled by the Spirit) and that’s why he is no longer under the law, because the law speaks to the flesh, not to the Spirit (Gal 5:23), and demands a flesh response (1 Tim 1:9).
    What does it mean that we are no longer under the law (hence, no longer ‘in the flesh’)?
    The answer is in the second part of v.25 (the cry in the first part is rhetorical) “I thank God THROUGH Jesus Christ our Lord”. It is Paul’s (and every Christian’s) ‘participation in Christ’ that enables him to escape the flesh and live and walk in the Spirit. It is Christ’s life in him, not his own natural life which is the source of the new creation (the ‘new man’ Eph 2:15; 4:25; Col 3:10).
    But thank God for what? Does the apostle tell us? He does so in the previous chapter: “But God be thanked, that [I was once] the [servant] of sin, but have [now] obeyed from the heart..(have found salvation by faith alone in Christ alone).” Walking in the spirit is a faith walk and a ‘participation’ in the life of the risen Lord; by which our ‘old man’ is crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and we walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4).
    And what does this all mean? It means: “…therefore [since we are no longer in the flesh and no longer under the law], there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit (Rom 8:1).
    Yours in the fight.
    Richard.