Could Piper be wrong about the man in Romans 7 and does it matter?

Could Piper be wrong about the man in Romans 7 and does it matter? September 28, 2014

The three sessions in Romans with John Piper yesterday were food for the soul. They were enjoyable, engaging, and illuminating. In fact they were life-changing.  Nothing I am going to say in this article should in an way take away from that. And I would urge everyone reading this article to take the time to watch the entire series of five talks from this conference online. Three of them are available already:

What is crucial about these talks is that Piper opens the lid on how he approaches the text. These will not only teach you doctrine, they will teach you how to learn doctrine direct from the Bible. And crucially you don’t have to agree with him on every point to benefit from listening. I have already spoken about the strong impact that the first talk had on me.

The fact that I am not sure I agree on who the man of Romans 7 is doesn’t detract from the value of these talks one iota. When it comes to considering whether Paul is talking about his past, a hypothetical person, or himself as a mature Christian there are two dangers in my view. And they centre on the wretchedness of the man, crying out for deliverance. The key phrase reads as follows

“Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God!”

The question is at its core, is has this deliverance already happened? Or is Paul still in a state of wretchedness waiting for it?

There are some who do not think Paul is speaking of his current self, like me and heroes of mine like Terry Virgo and Lloyd-Jones.  Our risk that we run is that we so want to focus on the deliverance, the new identity of the believer, and the victory against sin that Jesus has achieved, that we might neglect to mention that believers still do have a battle against sin.

Fellow Patheosian Theology in the raw also recently posted an article arguing for the position that I do tend to hold, that Romans 7 cannot be describing a mature believer.

The risk for those, like Piper, who think Romans 7 is as good as it gets, is that it can lead to the sense that even mature Christians can only expect to know defeat in their battle against sin.

However, Piper did not fall into that trap this weekend. In his talk Free from Judgment, Fighting Sin, Full Assurance, just as when he spoke previously about Romans 7 he made it very clear that he believes the Christian has been given a victory against sin. So he said, for example, ““Christ took my condemnation to set me free so that I might walk by his Spirit.” and ““Our victory in Christ is not a deliverance from the battle, but an assurance that we will win.””

So whilst I do disagree with Piper, it is mainly because I want to ensure Christians do not think being defeated by sin is the best they can hope for.  And Piper does not believe that. He does believe that at conversion there is both a legal chance “there is therefore now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1)  AND a genuine transformation, “set you free” (Romans 8:2).

This conversation about Romans 7 is worth having, mostly because of the errors we can be at risk of falling into on both sides. The conclusions you come to on this matter need not themselves lead to either error.  And as I said when I first wrote about this matter,

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.  READ THE REST

I hope you will follow the links in this article and enjoy studying this. Theology is not merely of academic interest, but it can help us in our walk with Christ.



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  • Gabriel Heter

    I feel like one of the most important reasons to get Rom 7 right revolves around the issue of the Law, and the transition from Old to New covenants. Paul wants his fellow Jews (or anyone who trys to follow the Law) to know that they are released from the Law because of Christs death. To say that Rom 7 is the Christian life confuses this significant truth.

  • To think that Paul as talking about himself and his ongoing struggles with sin in Romans 7 is to discredit his writing ability. Was he really that distracted in his writing, to interrupt the flow of chs. 6 through 8 with a personal confession that seriously undermines his exposition?

    It is helpful to compare ch. 2, where he clearly uses a sudden change in voice to the second person for rhetorical effect. The “you” in ch. 2 is a hypothetical “you” that stands for a Jew under the law (see Rom 2:17). Likewise, in ch. 7, the sudden shift to the first person in 7:7 is for rhetorical effect only, the hypothetical “I” once again standing for the Jew under the law, who really “delights in the law” but is condemned by it. This interpretation reinforces the first part of ch. 7 about “the old written code,” and respects Paul’s mastery of his writing art.

  • Mark Byron

    Garden-variety Reformed folks have a tendency of being pessimistic about human nature and downplay the role of the Holy Spirit, although Piper has more respect for Him than most. As a Reformed charismatic, you have a broader view of the the Holy Spirit’s role.

    In addition, the Holiness roots of many charismatics might have rubbed off on you a bit in expecting a solid run at perfection.

  • Kevin

    Could it be that Romans 7 and 8 both describe the Christian life but Romans 7 considers what the Christian life looks like viewed through the lens of the law and Romans 8 what it looks like viewed from the perspective of the Gospel?

  • Scott Andersen

    I would like to propose that Romans 7 follows perfectly from romans 1-6. Romans 1-3 lays down the plight of sinful man and the desparate condition without Christ: Ch1 – all are without excuse, Ch2 If by Law it must be perfectly kept – not hearers but doers as in also Gal 3:10, Ch3 What does the scriptures say? none that does good, none that fears God. Ch4 answers the need raised in Chs 1-3 and brings hope with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness Abraham believed and it was counted to him for righteousness. Ch5 – But ch4 raises another question: “How can what one has done benefit many?” – and the principal of headship/representation is set forth – Adam a figure of him that was to come. see Rom 5:19. Ch6 – but this news is too good to be true and is like teaching “lets just sin that grace may abound.” So Ch6 answers with mortification and vivification: ie dying to sin and living to God. Then comes Ch7 answering the question/problem that arose from chapter 6. “This is too hard – in me that is in my flesh dwells no good thing, how to perform that which is good I find not. All this dying to sin and living to God is impossible in myself.” And then Ch 8 comes along with the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus setting me free from the law of sin and death. Hallelujah! Seeing chap 7 as flowing out from chap 6 as a response to the great call to holiness puts this very much in the life of a true believer intent on pursuing Christ according to the Spirit without whom he is nothing and is able to do nothing.

  • Romans 7 may be the most misunderstood chapter in the entire New Testament, and with tragic consequences. Whom we think the “wretched man” is in Romans 7 greatly influences our interpretation of Romans 6 and 8, and affects our ability to live in sanctification by faith. Here is my take on this chapter:

  • Romans 7 may be the most misunderstood chapter in the entire New Testament, and with tragic consequences. Whom we think the “wretched man” is in Romans 7 greatly influences our interpretation of Romans 6 and 7, and directly affects our ability to live by faith in sanctification. Here is my take on this chapter:

    • Nick H

      Peter, while I understand your concern for God’s grace in your post, I really don’t think that should allow you to read a passage such as Romans 7:13-25 to fit in with your theology. Our first concern must be, what does the passage say?

      I believe, following most of the best commentators, that the language Paul uses is not compatible with the “I” being any other than the converted Paul. Can any unbeliever be said to, “have the desire to do what is right”, or, “delight in the law of God, in my inner being”? We must then work on how this fits into Paul’s argument in Romans as a whole. I believe the clue to this is that he doesn’t stop at the “wretched man”, but praises God and continues into Chapter 8.

      So Paul is saying that the wretched man part is true Christian experience, but not ALL of true Christian experience! This fits in with 1 John where John can say, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”, and then, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin.” Your post seems to get round this by giving Christians a different standard of holiness, love; but the point is that love summarises the law – it does not reduce the requirements of it! It is only through grace that our stumbling, still sinful, attempts to serve God are acceptable to him, through Christ. The Spirit enables us to truly serve God, but not sinlessly serve God.

      I know that not all agree with this interpretation, but I don’t think it deserves your condemnation, “Those who teach that the miserable soul enslaved to sin in Romans Chapter Seven is a portrait of the normal Christian life should repent from this misunderstanding of the Scriptures and begin to lead God’s people into the truth. Otherwise, they will incur God’s strict judgment for keeping His people captive to sin and lawlessness.” Perhaps you should be slower to condemnation?

  • Nick: you raise some interesting points. I agree with you that love does not replace or reduce the requirements of the law; however, it does fulfill the law (Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8). I do not believe in greasy grace: the grace of God enables us to resist sin; it does not give us a license to sin (Titus 2:11-12; Jude 4). As Paul said in Romans
    6:15: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace?
    May it never be!” The identity of the “wretched man” in Roman 7 is not a merely an academic issue; it is critical to understanding and teaching the message of the cross and the gospel of Christ. Why is this? If you believe that you are that “wretched man,” do you also believe that you still have a sinful nature? If you believe that you still have a sinful nature, then Christ died on the cross needlessly (Galatians 2:20-21). If we think
    the “wretched man” is a born again believer, then our interpretation of Romans 6, 7 and 8 is almost certainly wrong. And if our understanding of Romans 6, 7 and 8 is wrong, then we cannot possibly walk in sanctification by faith. And without sanctification, we cannot see the Lord. In other words, if I get the identity of the “wretched man” wrong, then my gospel is likely wrong. And if my gospel is wrong, then my soul is accountable to God. But if I presume to be a teacher and teach others a wrong gospel, then I am also accountable to God for their souls. The Bible says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).” Finally, I don’t condemn anyone; God is the one who judges and condemns. However, I am accountable to
    God to warn those who teach a wrong gospel that they should repent; otherwise
    they will incur God’s judgment.