Most today who read this text believe this struggle is speaking of a believers daily battle against sin. But if you really follow the structure of Paul’s thought here it is possible that he is speaking from the perspective of a person before coming to Christ. There are good cases for both sides.
And I held both of them in the weeks preceding preaching on this text. You’ll see why when you consider the arguments. I’m summing up Tom Schreiner here:
Arguments for Christian Experience
- A shift to the present tense in verse 14.
- Verse 25b doesn’t end on a note of salvation but of continued struggle.
- There is a war within the “I”. Such a duality isn’t present with an unbeliever. Paul doesn’t speak of those without Christ engaging in such a battle.
- Do unbelievers really desire to keep God’s Law?
- Notice the already/not yet of verse 25a. Paul loves speaking of the already/not yet of redemption. Here is another one of those places.
- Can’t you relate to this as a believer? Doesn’t this describe the battle you face on a daily basis?
Arguments for Unbelieving Experience
- If you follow the flow of Paul’s argument it is natural to read this from the perspective of a Jew struggling with the Law. To take the “Christian experience” position you have to force a major break at v14.
- Consider the contrast between this and Romans 8.
- There is no mention of the Holy Spirit in this passage but He is all over the place in Romans 8.
- Would Paul really say that a Christian is “of the flesh, sold under sin”?
- This would be such a bleak experience for a Christian. Contrast this with what Paul says in Romans 6 and 8 about believers.
- The present tense and duality is not enough to make it necessary to see this as a Christian experience.
For me I have a difficult time accepting the Unbelieving Experience position because I have a hard time seeing what Paul is saying in 25b. And I have a difficult time accepting the Christian Experience position because of what Paul says in verse 14.
As I studied this passage more—and got a bit of help from Tom Schreiner’s commentary—I have embraced a third position. Neither/Both. In other words, I don’t believe we are even asking the correct question.
Paul’s point in Romans 7:13-25 is to answer the question of how the good Law could arouse sin (7:5) and how one could be killed through the commandment (7:11). Doesn’t this make the Law evil?
If the Law is evil then God is evil. And if God is evil then Paul’s gospel is no gospel. And so Paul has to defend the goodness , holiness, and righteousness of the Law but explain how we are still in a sense killed by the Law. Paul’s answer to this objection is to say the problem is not with the Law the problem is with our sinful nature.
HIs major point is this:
Because of our sinful nature the Law is powerless to give life.
Or to put that another way, the answer to his question in verse 24 can never be, “The Law” or “the flesh” and certainly not the combination of the two. Our only deliverance from this body of death is the Lord Jesus Christ.
This passage, then, has application both for a believer and for an unbeliever. Even as believers we struggle with answering the question of verse 24 (Who will deliver me) with things that are not Jesus. Perhaps our circumstances, our behavior, our self-esteem, or our religiosity will deliver us from the body of death.
None of these will do. Only Jesus Christ will deliver you from the body of death. No matter what you are struggling with, believer, the answer is found in the shed blood and resurrecting power of Jesus Christ.
If you are an unbeliever—and especially an unbeliever attempting to make life work—you need to know as well that none of your efforts will deliver you from this body of death. Only Jesus can.
How do you interpret and apply Romans 7:13-25?
Picture used from here.