Disagreeing with Piper Over the Man in Romans 7

Disagreeing with Piper Over the Man in Romans 7 June 20, 2008

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)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • 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.

    • David

      I think that you are onto something. Paul, looking at himself as he is in himself apart from his union with Christ, realizes that he has no inherent resource to keep the Law, however much he loves it. Therefore remaining bound to the Law, and hence not joined to Christ, would place him in the untenable position of wanting desperately to obey God but never being able to do it. How wretched to contemplate! Therefore, the Christian remaining united to the Law creates a logical and moral absurdity: a believer, who with his mind, emotions and will constantly serves the Law of God but who with his “members” constantly serves the Law of sin. It is a similar absurdity to the ones he points to in Chapter 6–that a servant of God going back and serving his old master, Sin, or of a man dead to sin continuing to live in it. This interpretation seems to place Romans 7 in line with Romans 6 in its defense of the ethical validity of the Gospel.

      The only weakness that I can see right off is that I don’t see any grammatical indication that Paul is speaking of a hypothetical case, i.e. of Paul the Christian considered apart from his union with Christ. However, the context may warrant such a supposition.

      I was wondering if you have run across this interpretation elsewhere.

      Many thanks,

      • Richard Dempsey

        Hi David,

        Thank you for taking the time to reply and for your very positive comments. You are so right when you say that “this interpretation seems to place Romans 7 in line with Romans 6 in its defence of the ethical validity of the Gospel.” I agree with you wholeheartedly and I think that is Paul’s design.

        I don’t believe that Paul is using a hypothetical case, as such, but, rather that he is describing the reality of how his flesh still operates, even now (after conversion). So I take your point regarding the grammatical structure and agree with you fully.
        Rather, my point is that Paul is speaking of himself, not ‘apart from Christ’ in the sense of not believing in and seeking to follow Christ (e.g. a person may have a car but choose to walk long distances, carrying heavy luggage rather then drive, or may own a house but choose to live outside in the garden rather than indoors). So I don’t believe that Paul is talking of himself as being ‘apart from Christ’ but is simply describing the reality of what it would mean to continue in the flesh (the implication of remaining ‘under the law’) after having received the Spirit of Christ in which we should all now walk. In other words, unless he chooses (as Paul himself clearly does) to ‘walk in the Spirit’ (and thereby ‘put off the flesh’ – a faith walk), then the believer remains in a hopeless and helpless position (as do we all) because the flesh itself will bind you to sin. If we compare Paul’s statement in Romans 7:19 (how that, with the flesh, he is unable to do what he knows is right), with the warning to the believers at Galatia (Gal 5:17) that, by their reliance on the flesh, “ye cannot do the things that ye would” [no matter how hard they may try to do the right thing] then we can see that Paul is not describing his personal ‘experience’ in Rom 7 but, rather, the reality of his flesh condition. His only means of escape is to continue to ‘walk in the Spirit’. This ‘body of death’ offers no hope whatever.
        Paul’s main point then, in Romans 7 is that, if we choose to remain ‘under the law’, then we are choosing to remain ‘in the flesh’ and this will result in our continuing to be enslaved to sin.
        I must confess that I haven’t come across this interpretation elsewhere, but, nevertheless for me, Paul’s theology only appears consistent and logical, throughout chapters 6,7 & 8, if his argument in chapter 7 is viewed in this way. Also, the last verse of the chapter (v 25), which can sound so troublesome when read in the light of other views, becomes a thoroughly positive and accurate summary of the reality Paul has so clearly portrayed, concerning his flesh and how it operates. It could be paraphrased something like this: “So then, though I may serve the law of God with my mind, with my flesh, I have no choice but to serve the law of sin.” Therefore, he chooses not to walk in the flesh but to walk in the Spirit and, in doing so, he is no longer under the law.
        Also, the word of thanksgiving that precedes this closing statement, links to the thanksgiving statement in the previous chapter: “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.” (6:17). This link helps us to see that the ‘walk in the Spirit’ Paul is pointing us to, is a faith walk.
        Rom 8:1 then follows quite logically from the summary of Paul’s argument in 7:25 (i.e. revealing that we simply cannot continue to live and walk in the flesh).
        I hope that makes some sense.

        • David

          I appreciate the thoughtful reply and clarification.
          Thanks again.

          • Richard Dempsey

            Thanks David.
            It’s a great passage of scripture.
            Yours in the fight.

          • Richard Dempsey

            Hi again David,

            You had asked if I had come across this viewpoint before and I confessed that I hadn’t. However, I recently came across this which comment which provides precisely the same explanation: Here is the quote I found…

            “Wayne Barber has an interesting approach to this controversial section, as explained in his introductory comments on Romans 7:14-25…

            When a person understands what it means to “live under grace,” he understands the hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour.” He is a person like the apostle Paul who has learned to never again put any confidence in his own flesh. He has learned that the only works the flesh can produce are unrighteous works. He understands that sin is when he has failed to put his trust into Christ and His Spirit to do in him what he failed to admit that he could not do. He realizes that just as his own self-effort to please God could not save himself, neither could his self-effort sanctify himself.

            It is comforting to hear the reports of revival that is happening all over our country. I was listening to a tape of a pastor in Texas sharing what took place in his church. The thing that impressed me, was not what took place in his church, but what took place in him. He came to the realization that grace brings us all, that all of his training, all of his efforts were useless apart from the empowering grace of God. In short, he realized that “he could not, and God never said he could, but God could and always said He would.”

            In Ro 5:2 (note) Paul told us how the transforming power of grace is accessed. He says, “through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.”

            When we cast all of our expectations upon Christ and upon His Word, trusting only in Him, then we have just accessed His grace, which is not only His undeserved favour, but His transforming power. If we choose to put ourselves back under law, instead of His grace, we are putting ourselves back under bondage to the very thing from which Christ has freed us.

            In chapters 6 and 7, Paul is showing us the connection between the controlling power of sin and the law. Have you seen it yet? It is under the law that flesh is energized. It is dead apart from the law, but, when you take your focus off of Jesus, and begin to trust in your own efforts, then you are once again back up under the law, performing for God, and your flesh will frustrate you beyond measure.

            How sad for a free person to foolishly put himself back under the bondage of sin. You see, under the Law, the flesh is commanded to perform, and then it is condemned in all that it does because it cannot measure up to the same law that commanded it.

            Well, it is with these thoughts that we encounter Romans 7:14. Remember I told you that I’m preaching this as “I SEE IT!” For years I missed the point of what Paul is doing in Romans 7:14-25. A lot of folks spin their wheels trying to decide whether the use of the first person singular pronoun is Paul referring to a time when he was lost, etc. His use of the present tense when it comes to not being able to do what God requires also causes confusion. But, if you go back to the premise of being under the law and the flesh being commanded to perform but being unable to do so in a way that pleases God, then the problem with interpretation is not as great. (See his sermon Frustration…Under Law)

            Any time you place yourself back up under the Law, and you depend upon your self efforts to please God, you will encounter frustration, and experience bondage to your flesh.”

            Just thought that might add to the discussion.

  • John Walters

    Is it perhaps possible to look too closely at particular verses and as a result miss the bigger picture?

  • Brian Lindsay

    To me the Romans 7 man is Paul the christian. Though, I do not believe him to be a victorious Christian here in this experience he describes. The way I see it is as Paul is writing this letter to the Romans he now is living the biblical normal for the christian. He just finished telling us in chapter 6 how we are now freed from “the sin’s” reigning power over us because of Christ’s finished work. He explained what actually took place the moment we believed(Romans 6:3-4). We have been set free! He is explaining there how it is an impossibility(6:2) to live in a state of continual habitual sin with “the sin” reigning as king in our lives. I realize there are christians where this seems to be very possible and I will get to that in a moment. Then he goes on to how we are no longer under law but under grace. I see this as 2 different governments or jurisdictions with each having its own set of princples or constants involved (Romans 8:2 law of sin and death and law of the Spirit). We are now “under the government or jurisdiction of grace” where sin does no longer reign. Paul moves on in Romans 7 to show us our relationship to the law. We have died to it just as we died to “the sin.” He uses his analogy to show us this. Then I believe Paul shows us his own experience as a christian who hasn’t come to the revelation of his death in/with Christ and so naturally this he goes back to law as a means to holiness. We know the law was never intended to make us holy but too often we go back to law or rules as a way to righteousness. This is what Paul explained the Galatians were doing and says they were actually putting themselves back “under law”(4:21). The Galatians were trying to perfect in the flesh what was begun in the spirit. This is putting yourself back under law. So in Romans 7 Paul is recounting his time as a christian who was doing just as the Galatians did. Of course if Paul was trying to perfect in the flesh with the law that was supposed to “result in life” only death would come through sin because this is the law’s purpose(to bring sin out and be a tutor to lead us to Christ). This is the same principle that will continue under the law forever. The law will bring sin out and sin will become exceedingly sinful and we see what that looks like even for a born again Paul in Romans 7:14-25. We see that Paul cries out “wretched man that I am” and in a sense a christian should live with the knowing of this is us, in and of ourselves, if we try to sanctify ourselves and attain righteousness through rules or law. Thank God for the revelation of the cross to Paul so we can know it is possible to live victorious this side of eternity!

    • Brian Lindsay

      So when we as Christians put ourselves back under law we place ourselves back into that place where sin reigns as king and this is why it is possible for this to be Paul the Christian here in Romans 7. I stress though this is not a normal biblical christian, it is a defeated christian not knowing and/or believing the finished work of Christ.