by Al Maxey

Issue #143 ------- August 27, 2004
Be always displeased at what thou art, if
thou desirest to attain to what thou art not.
St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430)

Fighting The Battle Within
Romans 7:14-25 -- Is Paul Presenting
Pre- or Post-Redemption Reality?

Romans 7 presents to our view several rather difficult theological concepts. These have been debated heatedly since the days of the early church itself. The first six verses have been used by some disciples, for example, to try and justify a very rigid doctrinal stance regarding divorce and remarriage. I dealt with that matter in my article: The Law of the Husband -- Reflections #106. In this current study, however, I would like for us to turn our attention to the latter portion of this rather complex chapter from the pen of Paul. In this section the apostle deals with a great inner struggle. At the end of his life he reflected that he had "fought the good fight" and "kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). Few pause to consider that some of that battle may well have been with himself.

There are some very serious questions that must be addressed if we would truly perceive the authorial intent. "First of all, is Paul giving a truly autobiographical sketch, or is the use of the first person a vehicle to present man in his extremity, a means to universalize the experience treated here?" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 83). Some scholars believe Paul was speaking of his own inner conflict; others feel the depth of spiritual struggle confessed could not possibly characterize the heart and mind of such a disciple as Paul. The latter group, therefore, feels Paul was applying the struggle of others to himself simply for the sake of illustration (much as we find him doing in his first epistle to the Corinthian believers -- "Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes" ... 1 Cor. 4:6). Which interpretation is the correct one? Scholars admit, "It is difficult to decide. The first person was occasionally used in antiquity as a rhetorical device for expressing something applicable to others. It was so used somewhat by the Rabbis" (ibid). Some suggest maybe it is a bit of both. "Perhaps the personal and the universal are intended to mingle here" (ibid).

The above is not even the major hermeneutical battleground, however. There are some even bigger questions! "The more strenuously debated issue is the question of interpretation of the material itself. Are we to regard the state pictured here as that of the unsaved man or of the Christian?" (ibid). There are some powerful arguments on both sides of the debate. This is clearly not an easily solved interpretive dilemma. My own personal view has always been that Paul was speaking of himself, and that this inner struggle was his ongoing post-redemption reality! I continue to believe that to be the most likely and logical authorial intent, although I am unwilling to be dogmatic about my perception .... after all, I could very well be wrong. I have changed my mind before on certain matters, after additional study and reflection, and certainly don't mind doing so again!

One of the readers of these Reflections from the state of Oklahoma wrote, "Al, I truly enjoy the way you discern the Word of God, but I must disagree with your understanding of Romans 7:14-25 as being the Christian Paul and not the pre-Christian Paul. I recognize the verb tense problem, but the context seems too powerful for me to see Paul struggling to this degree after becoming a Christian. I realize that he continued to buffet his body after becoming a Christian, but I just don't believe that he struggled with the carnal nature to this degree."

As previously noted, there are some rather strong arguments on either side of this debate. I will list briefly some of the major ones for both sides. Those who consider the text to be a depiction of the unsaved man, whether that man be Paul or all who are outside of Christ, give the following reasons for their view:

  1. This was the prevailing view of the Greek Fathers of the early church. Although this is a strong witness, it is hardly determinative of ultimate Truth in the matter. It merely shows the prevailing opinion of the Greek scholars of the early church. Many scholars in the Western Church, Augustine among them, disagreed with this opinion very strongly.

  2. Phrases such as "sold into bondage to sin" (Rom. 7:14), "I am of flesh" (vs. 14, the NIV says "unspiritual"), "sin indwells me" (vs. 17, 20) seem to be a more fitting description of the unsaved than the saved. A biblical scholar by the name of Donald Davies observed, "The main message of chapter six is that in Christ a man is free from sin. How then could Paul, describing a situation of tension in his Christian experience, say that he was sold under sin? Where then is the freedom from sin which he insists on in the previous chapter?"

  3. It is felt the word "now" (Rom. 8:1) suggests Paul is transitioning from a pre-redemption state to one's present condition "in Christ Jesus."

  4. The absence of any mention of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit (which is stressed in chapter 8), but of being indwelt by sin instead, seems to indicate a state prior to the reception of the gift of God's Spirit. There is also no mention made of Jesus in the course of this inner struggle until the very end, which some feel again indicates a pre-Christian state.

  5. With respect to Paul himself, as alluded to by the reader from Oklahoma, many simply do not believe a devoted disciple like Paul, who had been a Christian for many years at the time Romans was written, would have such an intense struggle with sin in his life. This is not to suggest he was sinless, but just that he had overcome it to a far greater degree than seems to be evidenced in Romans 7:14-25.

These are, admittedly, some very strong arguments for a Pre-Redemption interpretation of the text, and these arguments should not be lightly dismissed. There is no question that the inner struggle depicted in the latter part of Romans 7 does indeed accurately reflect the condition of many prior to their rejection of a life of sin and their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Savior. Both sides of the debate readily admit, however, that it does not reflect the condition of all those outside of Christ, for, after all, there are many in the world who do NOT struggle with feelings of guilt over their sin ... they are, rather, wholly and willfully given over to it. There is NO battle within, for they have already surrendered to the forces of darkness.

But, there are some valid, and equally strong, arguments to be made for those who feel the passage reflects Paul's own inner struggle after coming to Christ Jesus, or, if not his struggle, at least the struggle of many disciples of Christ who still battle sin in their lives. They give the following reasons for their view:

  1. This was the interpretation of Augustine and the Reformed church scholars. As noted above, however, this is hardly determinative of ultimate Truth in the matter, even though it is a strong witness and should not be lightly discarded as theologically irrelevant.

  2. There is a very noticeable grammatical change from the use of the past tense in Rom. 7:7-13 to the use of the present tense in Rom. 7:14-25. Even the reader from Oklahoma admitted, "I recognize the verb tense problem" .... and it is indeed a major problem which must be addressed by all sides in the debate. This dramatic change in verb tense "is understandable if the former section relates to Paul's pre-Christian experience and the rest of the chapter to his post-conversion experience" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 84).

  3. Christians are not without sin in their lives, and thus there is an obvious daily struggle that occurs within each of us. Our desire is to walk in the light, but because we are still "in the flesh," and because our enemy is a cunning foe, we often stumble in our earthly journey. John, in his first epistle, makes it abundantly clear that if we say we are without sin in our lives we are liars and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, 10). Paul himself declares this fact of the saint's inner conflict -- "For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don't do what you want" (Galatians 5:17).

  4. The passage in question clearly speaks of a man who has his heart set upon doing God's will, and who is deeply grieved by the failings he perceives in his own life. It is argued that such an attitude is hardly characteristic of the unsaved. It seems far more likely to be a depiction of the inner struggle of one committed to the Lord, but who still sees weakness within himself.

  5. "The close of the chapter (vs. 25) acknowledges the deliverance in Christ, yet then goes on to state the very problem sketched in vs. 14-24 as though it continues to be a problem for one who knows the Lord" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 84). In other words, verse 25 clearly seems to suggest the person experiencing the struggle has found Christ Jesus, and that the Lord is part of his life, but that the struggle continues. The hope of the Christian, therefore, lies not in the cessation of personal struggle, but in the fact that there is no longer any condemnation for one's daily failings. Our victory is that CHRIST has conquered sin and death, NOT that we ourselves no longer struggle with sin on a daily basis. Our heart still breaks over the sin we see in our lives, but we nevertheless rejoice in the reality that our Father has saved "wretched men," which describes each of us, through the sacrifice of His Son.

"The wide difference between these two views puts the general reader in a dilemma. Which view is correct? Which has the better of the argument?" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 84). In my view, Romans 7:14-25 is really about disciples of Christ engaging in some very serious, and very frank and honest, personal introspection. Who am I, really?! Am I as "holy" as I often seek to present myself unto others? Or, are there still pockets of darkness lurking within me that need to be addressed? I think the reality for most all of us is the latter. Our goal, as children of the Father, is to walk in perfect light; our reality is that we still stumble about in the darkness far more than we wish. A careful examination of our hearts, minds and actions will reveal the truth that we all fall far short of God's intended purpose for our lives. We are finite and we are flawed, and, if we are sincere in our desire to live for Him, that awareness grieves us deeply. Too frequently we find ourselves evidencing attitudes and engaging in activities we know are sinful. Our own weakness and folly at times troubles and even perplexes us. I believe it is this -- the daily inner struggle of flesh versus Spirit -- that Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25; an inner conflict that applies not just to himself, but to each of us as well.

The apostle Paul was often his own worst critic. He knew himself intimately, and he was often less than pleased with what he saw. Paul, by no means, considered himself to have "arrived" at a state of perfect holiness (Philp. 3:12). He told the young evangelist Timothy, as he approached the final years of his life, "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I AM (Greek: eimi ego = emphatic Present Tense) foremost of all" (1 Tim. 1:15). This was not a retrospection, but an introspection. Paul is not saying, "I was the foremost of sinners" ... he is saying, "I AM." And yet, he found mercy and acceptance IN CHRIST JESUS. The marvelous reality of grace is -- we are all saved in spite of ourselves.

Paul was entrusted with the gospel message to the Gentiles, and yet he considered himself unworthy of such divine honor. "This grace was given to me -- the least of all the saints! -- to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of the Messiah" (Eph. 3:8). He even stated, "For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle" (1 Cor. 15:9). He knew he needed to keep ever vigilant over his own struggle lest he succumb to the darkness -- "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27). Nevertheless, he was able to say, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain" (vs. 10). Paul knew only too well his own unworthiness and sinfulness. He also knew firsthand the power of God's grace to save even the most wretched ... and to continue to use in effective service those who by nature were less than perfect. Paul seems to allude to this truth in 2 Cor. 4:7 where he says, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves." We are all fragile vessels made of clay, but God can use us for great things nonetheless! We are each vessels so horribly flawed that the Potter would be fully justified in destroying these wretched vessels, yet this Great Potter, with infinite patience and mercy, chose to use them/us to His glory instead (Romans 9:22-23).

Dr. Kenneth Wuest, a noted NT Greek scholar, observed, "Paul does not understand his experience as a Christian. He says, 'For that which I desire, this I do not practice, but that which I hate, this I am doing.' That is, the very thing he desires to do, namely, good, this he does not do, and that which he hates, this is the thing he does do. It is clear that Paul is recounting his experience as a saved man. He desires to do good and hates sin. No unsaved man does that" (Word Studies in the Greek NT, vol. 1 -- "Romans in the Greek NT," p. 121). Dr. William G.T. Shedd wrote that this passage in Romans is "a reference to the experience of the believer." He notes that in the previous section of the chapter Paul examined "the experience of the unregenerate," but that "St. Paul now turns to the experience of the regenerate. The sudden and striking change, in verse 14, and continuing through the entire section, from the past tense to the present tense, together with the Greek pote in verse 9, indicates this" (A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, p. 189).

Lenski rebukes those who "cannot admit that a man like Paul still battles with his flesh and his sin" (The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 474). "All men who have had no experience of regeneration, and most of those whose experience is pathological, will not understand Paul. What he says agrees with all else that the Scriptures say regarding the flesh that is still left in us after conversion and regeneration. It has been well pointed out that he who wrote 1 John 3:9 and 5:18, first wrote 1 John 1:8 and carefully included himself" (ibid). Lenski stressed, "Let it at once be said that this .... is written from the standpoint of a regenerate man" (ibid, p. 475). The late and lamented brother Moses E. Lard, who wrote his commentary on Romans from Lexington, Kentucky over 130 years ago, and dedicated the entire work "To My Savior," wrote, "I Paul am fleshly; though redeemed, and pardoned, and accepted, I am still fleshly; not wholly so, but fleshly, fleshly because still in a body of flesh, from the influence of which, so long as I am in it, I can never become entirely freed. Not only so; I am fleshly, and therefore sold under sin, not completely so, as before my conversion, but still under it, and under it to a certain extent as abjectly as is the slave under his master. For struggle against sin as I may, I still commit it. I seem powerless to abstain from it entirely. Such I believe to be the meaning of a passage which has certainly been very differently construed, but, as I consider, without good reason. The Apostle is merely putting a fact boldly, which is true of every Christian, the best as surely as the worst" (Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Romans, p. 236-237).

But, on the other hand, we find commentators like Adam Clarke (and many others could be listed as well), who very forcefully oppose such a theological position -- "It is difficult to conceive how the opinion could have crept into the Church, or prevailed there, that 'the apostle speaks here of his regenerate state; and that what was, in such a state, true of himself, must be true of all others in the same state.' This opinion has, most pitifully and most shamefully, not only lowered the standard of Christianity, but destroyed its influence and disgraced its character" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 86).


As one can quickly discern, this is an interpretive matter over which emotions have run high for centuries. Frankly, extremists on both sides have needlessly, and at times shamefully, overstated the "horrors" of the opposing position. Other noted scholars have rejected all the positions mentioned above, opting for an interpretation where Paul is merely contrasting one's fate under LAW as opposed to under GRACE. Seeking to be justified by any system of law will result in ultimate failure ... and a state of personal wretchedness. No one will stand justified before God by law. Therefore, "who will save me from this certain death?" Thanks be to God -- the answer is Christ Jesus. Under grace, and filled with the Holy Spirit, who personally indwells us, we are justified, sanctified and redeemed ... even though we are still in the flesh, and thus still flawed. There is certainly much to commend this view, and it goes along quite well with the view that Paul is speaking of a personal struggle with sin, but finding his redemption in the covering of the blood of Christ. Thus, he is saved not by perfect compliance with law, or by works of law, but by grace through faith.

Although I would not be dogmatic about it, my own personal view of this passage is that Paul intends to teach the Christian man, woman and young person that even though they are "in Christ Jesus," nevertheless the inner struggle with temptation and sin continues. We don't suddenly rise above all temptation, nor do we cease falling victim to human weakness, merely by virtue of being added to the Lord. When Jesus charged us to "remain faithful, even unto death" (Rev. 2:10), He understood that this would be a daily self-struggle. Nevertheless, with the Spirit indwelling us, we have the divine resources available to complete the journey successfully. Coincidental with this reality is the fact that we are indeed no longer under bondage to a system of law, but rather freed men abiding in a state of grace.

Yes, Paul was a sinner, even though he was no longer under obligation to a system of law. In his own mind, he was not only a sinner, but the foremost of sinners. When Paul took a good, close look at himself, Paul was less than thrilled with what he saw. That is true of all of us. We are sinners .... but sinners who are saved by grace. Thanks be unto our merciful, loving Father for that blessed reality. This, I believe, is the intent of the passage before us. It really does not need to be the theological battleground that it historically has been ... and in some quarters continues to be. It is a simple biblical teaching that we are all finite and flawed, even after becoming the children of God. And yet, we are sinful children who have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:1-2). "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). Praise God for His matchless GRACE.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Loved the Wheat Grain Pattern article. It hit home with me -- my wife has had Celiac Sprue Disease since 1987, and has been packing her own rice cracker since then. Two of my three daughters have it as well. We are blazing the path on this! My wife is reading your article as I'm writing. I'm sure she'll have a comment for you and be happy to answer any questions you may have. The latest stat's show perhaps 1 in 133 people have this condition. Many who have Spastic Colon, or other "weird" digestive disorders, may really be Celiac Sprue sufferers. A lot of them haven't been properly diagnosed by doctors yet. It definitely has genetic ties.

From a Reader in Michigan:

It is almost impossible for me to conceive of someone, or of some group, being the legalistic patternists you described in your last message on Wheat Grain Patternists. Talk about making up minors to major in! I can just see them standing off to the side of the Great White Throne with their Bibles in hand passing judgment on God over who He lets into heaven!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I continue to be encouraged by your excellent exposition of the Word and the way you show the inconsistencies of those who veer off course in trying to bind things that the Lord has not bound. May you continue to "be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might."

From a Reader in Kansas:

As I share Reflections #30 with my friends --- The Lord's Supper: Focusing on Frequency --- the biggest hurdle for them seems to be the actual common meal setting of the early church, as opposed to our present day "ritual wafer/shot glass" communion setting. It appears to me that what we have today (wafers/shot glasses) is an "evolution" from the common meal of Acts 2 and 1 Cor. 11, even though the patternists try to "make it all fit" into the apostolic example. I would illustrate that with the modern churches that sprinkle, as opposed to immersion. Do you think that the rejection of the "common meal" as the setting for the Lord's Supper today stems from our becoming accustomed to our present ritualistic form? Are we, therefore, like the folks who try to justify sprinkling?

From an Elder/Editor in Indiana:

Al, We have corresponded before. I'm a member of the Church of Christ (instrumental, for what it's worth) in Indiana. I'm an elder here. I am also the associate editor of our local newspaper. I edit the "Worship" page in our Friday afternoon newspaper. I look for the kind of stories that make my readers think; I like to think that someone might take the page with them to Sunday School for discussion. I gave rather prominent play to the story of the New Jersey girl with the wheat intolerance. I figured that someone would raise the very issues that you raised in your latest Reflections. Well done, again, sir!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

"If it ain't wheat; we don't eat," is priceless, and I laughed aloud. Your article on "Wheat Grain Patternists" shows that making rules out of man's assumptions is the norm rather than the exception. When you look at all these rules and regulations taken from simple biblical statements, and ask, "Is this God speaking, or man making an assumption?" it becomes readily apparent that a large number are based on assumption. Once a person becomes convinced he is right and has the truth, no amount of discussion will persuade him. We must get our brethren to question these things.

From a Reader in Arizona:

You made some very excellent points in this last Reflections ... Good job! In the "Reflections from Readers" section, I was surprised and pleased by the comment from the "Reader in California" that his congregation is seriously studying the Lord's Supper with a desire to observe it in true 1st century fashion, instead of blindly continuing the rigid and ritual pattern of tradition in which it is observed today. If it's possible, I'd really like to have a copy of the study results these California brethren end up with, and if and how they plan to implement what they've learned.

Two sources they can use in their studies, if they haven't found them already, are two books by Robert Banks, "Going to Church in the First Century" and "Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting." I have not read the second book. The first book is a very small thing and is a dramatization (fictional story) of a 1st century church meeting. I found it interesting. Another author who may have pertinent information for their study of the Lord's Supper is Frank Viola. His writings, as with Banks, are geared primarily toward house churches ... but the whole idea behind the house church movement is a return to 1st century patterns of assembly, so the research done by those in that movement will be helpful to them. Blessings to you, Al.

From a Minister in Texas:

I recently received my first issue of Reflections and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a shame that even in my congregation people have challenged my historical observations regarding "table bread" in communion by insisting we use bread like Jesus did at the Last Supper. If this is so, then why does our Matzos package say "Not for Passover use" (and have trans fats)? Also, I did a search on your name so I could relocate your site -- I see you have certainly got the attention of the legalists. Keep the faith!

From a Pastor in California:

I have saved your article in which you gave your views on the NIV. I would like to show it to the members of my church who have been troubled by the "KJV-only fanatics." Thanks, and God bless you.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Al, in your last issue you made some of the following comments -- "Appealing to the OT writings for NT authority is anathema to the legalists and patternists. They scream bloody murder when anyone attempts it .... and then they turn around and do so themselves! Consistency ... thy name is most certainly NOT conservatism .... I would sincerely like to hear a patternist address this inconsistency! .... but I won't hold my breath waiting!!" Al, once again you have hit the nail on the head. Whenever I have broached the topic with some of the conservative Church of Christ people they either: 1) completely ignored the question, or 2) forgot the topic and attacked me personally. Plus, it seems that the people who hold on the tightest to the "pattern" are the ones who seem to be the least consistent. Ya' know, you are going to have to stop writing these Reflections soon, I am running out of compliments! Keep on keepin' on, brother!

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