A Response to John Piper on Romans 7

A Response to John Piper on Romans 7 October 7, 2014

Andrian Warnock and I both responded to John Piper’s interpretation of Romans 7, to which Piper has recently posted a response on the Desiring God blog. I’d like offer a counter response to Piper’s strongest arguments for his view. Again, Piper believes that Paul is describing a believer in Romans 7:14-25, whereas Andrian and I do not. Or more specifically, I believe Paul is identifying with an unconverted, though zealous and pious, Jew who is trying to conquer sin by obeying the Mosaic Law apart from the Spirit. And Paul has first-hand experience with such an attempt.

Let me say up front that when I first read Piper’s response, my first reaction was, “Say whaaaaat? Piper reads my blog?!” I’m both honored and a bit giddy—yes, in a school-girl sort of way—that the man who has shaped my Christian thinking more than any other human would take time to read and respond to my post. Piper probably doesn’t remember, but when I ran into him in Cambridge many years ago, I told him that he had been a Jonathan Edwards to me in my most formative years as a Christian thinker. So my disagreement with pastor John is in the context of deep respect and admiration.

As far as Piper’s response, he made two arguments that carry a lot of weight. That is, the first and third of his three points (the second one seems to be directed more at Adrian than myself). Piper’s first point has to do with the phrase in Rom 7:22 that “I delight in the law of God in my inner being,” to which he writers:

When I say that an unregenerate Paul would not say, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22), I don’t mean that a first-century Jew couldn’t say that. I mean that the term “inner being” (esō anthrōpon) is Paul’s way of saying, “I don’t mean this hypocritically, or superficially, or Pharisaically. I mean that I myself really do, in the depths of my new regenerate man (cf. Ephesians 3:16; 4:24), love the law of God.”

I’ll admit, this is probably the strongest argument for the “Christian” view of Romans 7. It’s one thing to say “I delight in the Law of God”—any faithful first-century Jew would say that (see Rom 10:2). But Paul here says that “I delight…in my inner being.”

Now, Piper cf.’s Eph 3:16 and 4:24 as parallel ideas. But actually, the phrase “inner person” (eso anthropos) is only used in Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16 and not in Eph 4:24, where he has “new person ” not “inner person,” and the difference is important. While the contrast between “old person” and “new person” in Eph 4:24 IS between an unregenerate and regenerate person, the contrast between “inner” and “outer person” is not. Take 2 Cor 4:16, for instance:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self (exo hemon anthropos) is wasting away, our inner self (ho eso hemon) is being renewed day by day.

The contrast is between our body that is wasting away and our spirit (or “soul” in the Greek sense but not Hebrew sense) that is being renewed through the Spirit. As Doug Moo says, “the two phrases [outer and inner self] are not soteriological but anthropological…it could be said that all people possess both an ‘outer person’ and an ‘inner person’: the difference for the Christian is that his or her ‘inner person’ is being ‘renewed’” (Romans, 462 n. 67).

Going back to Romans 7:22, the phrase “inner person” is not a Pauline code word for “believer” or “the regenerated aspect of our being.” It simply means “deep down,” “whole heartily,” or “in my spirit or mind.” And again, many faithful, Law-abiding first century Jews could easily say that they delight in circumcision, keeping Sabbath, and not eating the food of Gentiles. Again, look at Rom 10:2 or Paul’s own pre-conversion zeal in Gal 1:13-14 and Phil 3:2-6. First-century Jews delighted in the Law of Moses in their inner being. The problem is that the Law apart from the Spirit can’t deliver you from your sin. And that’s Paul’s point in Romans 7.

So while I admit that Romans 7:22 present a good case for he Christian view, I don’t think it’s decisive enough to overturn the many problems that this view creates.

Piper’s second argument is also a good one. He points out that Paul clearly proclaims victory in Christ in Rom 7:25a, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” but then returns to talk about his struggle with sin in 7:25b, “So then, I myself am serving the Law God with mind but the law of sin with my flesh.” I think Piper has a good point here:

Paul follows his exultation of triumph in verse 25 with a strong inference (ara oun) that returns us to the conflict and “war” of verse 23. The Christian experience view makes good sense of this sequence. But I have not seen a compelling answer to this argument.

All I would say is that 7:25a simply anticipates the victory that Paul will talk about in 8:1-11 and 7:25b returns to sum up his previous point about the ineffectual nature of the Law. I’ll admit, it would have been smoother if Paul had switched his statements; that is, if he summed up his argument in 7:25a and then announced the victory in Christ in 7:25b. If I were to write Romans, I probably would have written it this way.

While my reading may be a little more choppy, it’s perfectly legitimate. It’s well within the bounds of rhetoric to proclaim the solution (7:25a), then return to sum up the problem (7:25b), and then move on to expand in detail on the solution (8:1-11).

But even if you don’t buy my understanding of 7:25, the “Christian” view still must deal with the several (to my mind) decisive textual arguments in favor of the non-Christian view. To sum them up ever so briefly.

1. Romans 7:5 describes life under the Law of Moses and is further spelled out in 7:14-25, while Romans 7:6 describes life in the Spirit and is unpacked in 8:1-11.

  • Romans 7:5 sums up 7:14-25
  • Romans 7:6 sums up 8:1-11

If this is true (and the linguistic connections almost demand it), then Romans 7:14-25 can’t refer to a believer since 7:5 does not refer to a believer.

2. Paul’s statements that “I am sold under sin” (7:14) and a “prisoner of the law of sin” (7:23) make much more Pauline sense when taken to describe a believer, and these statements go directly against Paul’s many other assertions that believers have been “set free from sin” (Rom 6:18, 22), are no longer “under [the condemning power of] sin” (Rom 3:9), are no longer “slaves to sin,” have “died to sin” (Rom 6:2), and have been “set free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). Again, Rom 7:14-25 does not describe just a struggle with sin, but living in bondage to sin.

3. It’s tough to think that Paul would describe a Christian struggling with sin without mentioning the Spirit. That’s right. The Spirit is never mentioned in 7:14-25.

4. Lastly, 7:14-25 (the whole chapter, really) is primarily about the ineffectual nature of the Law of Moses in delivering people from sin. The Christian view usually misses the emphasis on the Law of Moses and understands the passage as depicting a Christian struggling to obey God’s will in general; in other words, Christian obedience, or obedience to the Law of Christ. I find it very difficult to think that Paul was advocating for trying to obey the Law of Moses here, when everywhere else in his letters he says that Christians are not under the Law of Moses but under the Law of Christ.

In summary, John Piper is probably right, because he’s…well, John Piper. And I would probably sleep better if I just coughed up my youthful stubbornness and agreed with my mentor. But I just can’t get past the many exegetical problems that the Christian view creates, and I’ve yet to hear a good, exegetical response to the arguments in favor of the non-Christian view.

Again, Christians struggle with sin. No doubt! But that’s not what Paul’s describing here in Romans 7.

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