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Today we’ll be looking at Romans chapter 7, specifically verses 14-25, and discussing whether or not Paul is regenerate (born-again) or unregenerate in this text. To frame it another way, is this text a text about the current Christian plight or something else? Or is it even about the subject of regeneration or something else? This text has been discussed for centuries, which hopefully can humble us when approaching the text. The format for this article will be different from others, so it may be easier to work through the article with your bible open in front of you.

I believe this text is good to cover because it is an excellent example of how our theological frameworks and experiences can turn a passage a certain way. When interpreting a text, we should be emphatic on laying aside our systems and presuppositions. I’ll be using Douglas Moo’s New International Commentary on the Letter to the Romans as the backbone of this episode, to which it would be fitting to quote him now. If you haven’t utilized that commentary by Moo, it is fantastic, and you won’t regret it.

In fact, we can begin with a citation from him,

“Romans 7 is like fitting pieces of a puzzle together when one is not sure of the final outline; the best interpretation is the one that is able to fit the most pieces together in the most natural ways. Because of this, it is inconclusive, and even misleading, to cite several arguments in favor of one’s own view and conclude that the issue has been settled. The best interpretation will be the one that is able to do most justice to all the data of the text within the immediate and larger Pauline context.”

The Bare Bones:

It seems reasonable and necessary to begin by stating the bare-bones point of the passage. Regardless of one’s position on the Regenerate – Unregenerate man debate, we can still understand the primary point of this passage. This is significant because we often get too caught up in the questions we bring to the text that aren’t blatantly or directly answered within the text. To follow suit with many individuals, including Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I’ll state that this text is firstly dealing with attempted salvation and victory over sin by means of the law. Lloyd-Jones was not conceived that Paul was seeking to speak to regeneration, but rather a “hypothetical, imaginary picture of a man who sees the complete hopelessness of salvation by the law.” He did take a ‘loose’ stance on the issue, but this is where we will leave this discussion.

In this text, in the context, Paul is still looking at the Mosaic law. He states, that the law is good, and spiritual, and I am unable to do that which the law requires because only God can deliver me from the sin that perverts the law. The law gives us the requirements of God, but not the means by which we can fulfill such requirements. It cannot save us but instead shows us how deep our sin goes and ultimately condemns us.

This is all to say that Paul’s primary point is that the law cannot save. It cannot rescue us from our sin. 

The Views: 

Before getting into the Regenerate and Unregenerate views, some views fall in the “middle.” Some include seeing a person under conviction of sin, but not quite regenerate which is seen to explain how Paul can will the good and be concerned with the law of God yet live in the defeat of slavery in Christ.

Another view is that the text describes a new or immature believer working in their own power, that is, apart from the Spirit. In effect, chapter 7 is a transition between Romans 6 and Romans 8.

Another view is that this text describes Jews under the law in general and the Gentile “God-fearers.” Douglas Moo holds that this is Paul looking back on his life under the law of Moses to relate to the Jewish people. We must not forget that one can be zealous for morality and law and still be in error in heart.

Our Main Discussion Outlined (again utilizing Moo):

Regenerate ArgumentsUnregenerate Arguments
“I” must refer to Paul himself, and the shift from the past tenses of 7-13 to the present tense in 14-25 can be explained only if Paul is describing in these latter verses his present experience as a Christian. The strong connection of εγω (Ι) and the flesh (v. 14,18,25) suggests that Paul is elaborating on the unregenerate condition mentioned in 7:5 – being “in the flesh.”
Only the regenerate truly ‘delight in God’s law’ (v. 22), seek to obey it (v. 15-20), serve it (v. 25); the unregenerate do not ‘seek after God’ (3:11) and cannot submit to the law of God (8:7)“I” throughout the passage struggles on his own (v. 25) without the aid of the Holy Spirit
Whereas Paul typically presents the mind of people outside of Christ as opposed to God and his will, the mind of “I” in this text is a positive medium by which “I” serves the law of God (v. 22;25)“I” is “under the power of sin” (v. 14b) a state from which every believer is released (6:2, 6, 11, 18, 22). 
“I” must be a Christian because only a Christian can possess the ‘inner person’; see the other phrases 2 Cor. 4:16; Ephesians 3:16. The struggle is unsuccessful in verses 16-20 and “I” is described as a “prisoner of the law of sin” (v. 23). Romans 8:2 stresses believers being free from this law of sin. 
The passage concludes after Paul’s mention of deliverance by Christ with a reiteration of the divided state of “I” (v. 24-25). This shows the division and struggle of “I” that Paul depicts in these verses of someone saved by Christ. Paul makes it clear that believers will struggle with sin, what is in 7:14-25 is not a struggle with sin but a defeat. This is a more pessimistic view than that found in Pauline theology.
 The “I” in these verses struggles with the need to obey the Mosaic law; yet Paul has already proclaimed the release of the believer from the dictates of the law (6:14; 7:4-6). 

Brief Historical Consideration: 

  • Most of the early church fathers thought that these verses described an unregenerate person. Augustine as well, but he changed his position after the controversy with Pelagius. Almost all of the reformers held to the regenerate interpretation. It was the basis of Luther’s ‘simul iustus et peccator.’ 

Regenerate Key Arguments: 

  • Paul delights in the law in “his inner being” (7:22). This is taken as contrary to a superficial sense or in a sense of hypocrisy, especially because of Paul’s usage of it elsewhere such as in Ephesians 3:16; 4:24. For this position, Paul is not saying he delights in the law of God while his heart is far from God (such as in Matthew 15:8), but he delights in his inner being and “serve God with my mind.” 
  • Another argument is that Paul’s discussion is not a continuous experience, but rather a defeat at an occasion. John Piper in his article, which was a series on Romans 7 by the Gospel Coalition (links below), notes, “For example when he says, if I do what I do not want it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me, he is referring to an occasion in life, not the totality of life.” Further clarified, when he says he is captive to the law of sin he means that he doesn’t live in a state of captivity but that captivity happens to him. Piper then clarifies, as I think most who hold this view would agree with, “When I describe Romans 7:14-25 as a Christian experience, I don’t mean ideal experience or normal steady-state experience, I mean that when a genuine Christian does the very thing he hates, this is what really happened to Paul in the Christian in moments of weakness or defeat.”
  • The victory of Romans is in verse 25 showing that the struggle in this occasion is over leading into Romans 8. For the regenerate view, this is something that occurs in various periods of the believers’ lives. 

Unregenerate Arguments: 

  • There is a lack of the Holy Spirit in the text, while Romans 8 contains the Holy Spirit 15 times suggesting a transition from 7 to 8 wherein the individual has the Spirit in chapter 8. 
  • They argue that Paul characterizes his pre-Christian situation from his present Christian perspective. 
  • There is total defeat in the chapter. While Christians stumble and struggle, the narrative of Romans 7 is being ‘sold under sin,’ in captivity to sin. This contradicts what Paul has noted about the Christian state in Chapter 6. Paul elsewhere (chapters 6 and 8) notes that being free from the power of sin, and the law of sin and death, are realities for every Christian. 
Sold under Sin (Rom. 7:14)“set free from sin” ( Rom. 6:18)
Imprisoned by the law of sin (Rom. 7:24)“set free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2)
  • For “delighting in the law of God in my inner being,” they view the text as applying to many pious Jews who loved God’s law but didn’t know God, which Paul seems to allude to in Romans 10:2. They point to the zeal and delight in the law such as the Pharisees despite them not being truly saved. In regards to ‘inner person,’ Moo notes that it occurs twice in Paul’s writings but states that it was used to denote ‘man according to his Godward, immortal side’ or the imago dei. Moo says “Paul, reflecting on his own experience, focuses in this passage on a pious Jew – one who took his religion seriously and sought to do what was required of him.” Perhaps an articulation being – a delight for the letter, rather than love for the giver, but that is my expression. So it is possibly inaccurate for adherents of this view. 
  • Further, it is argued that what Paul wills is to keep the law. More so than out of love for God. Douglas Moo notes, “His [Paul’s] point is that Jews under the law, and by extension, other non-Christians, do have a genuine striving to do what is right, as defined by God (see also 2:14-15). But this striving after the right, because of the unbroken power of sin, can never so take over the mind and the will that it can effectively and consistently direct the body to do what is good.” 
  • The present tense shift in 14-25 doesn’t necessarily denote the present time but can be used for the past or future. Tense is argued to deal primarily with aspect. They argue then, that the tense denotes the state or the condition of the individual within the text. 

My Own Observations [all emphasis mine]:

  • Beginning in chapter 6, after Paul talks about our new life in Christ, Paul notes that “For when you were slaves to sin” (v. 20), speaking to his community who “were once slaves” of sin. In verse 22 he notes, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God.” 
  • He continues this discussion about dying to the law – which relates back to dying with Christ in chapter 6 and he makes the connection explicit in verse 4, “likewise, my brothers, you have also died to the law through the body of Christ.” Verse 5 notes, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit of death, but now (v 6) we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” This is important because the next section speaks about living in relation to the law (written code) and chapter eight speaks of living in the Spirit. Paul says that we serve in the new way of the Spirit now not the way of the old written code. 
  • The Law being good is the subsequent discussion – is the law bad? – to which Paul says “by no means.” He explains that it was sin in him that produced more sin. This discussion continues up to our text regarding the law being good and sin producing more sin through the law. 
  • Paul moves in to say “the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” This is a point for the unregenerate side because of, “I am of the flesh sold under sin.”In chapter 6, Paul denotes freedom from this captivity. I think this is also significant for the unregenerate view because he says “the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh.” I think the contrast is significant given that we are “in the new way of the Spirit (v. 6) according to Romans 6 and 8. This could tie into the ‘lack of the Spirit in text.” Being spiritual in our new lives and being spiritually alive is a significant reality Paul points to fairly often. 
  • Verse 15 is difficult because of Paul’s desires. In the regenerate view, these desires are contrary to being unregenerate because they seek to do what is good. However, in the unregenerate view, if Paul merely wants to be an excellent religious individual and follow the letter or be a moralist (for ease of terms), then this seems fair. 
  • Verse 18, denotes solely the flesh and “not the ability to carry it out”, that which is right. This is a solid point for the unregenerate view unless Paul is saying here that he merely has no ability from himself. If it is seeking sanctification by the law then the regenerate view seems applicable. However, I think the weight falls in favor of the unregenerate view because I believe contextually it is not sanctification being discussed, but salvation. (Perhaps that is the more significant discussion in the background – what is Paul referencing the law about specifically?)
  • Verses 19-20, in regards to desire favor the regenerate view, but only if [in my mind ] he is talking about obedience to God via the Law, not merely just obeying the law which is put forth by the unregenerate view. 
  • Verse 22 is the discussion on inner being but what almost cancels out this argument is the point of “making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members,” which again has problems when faced with Romans 6. 
  • Verse 25 ultimately throws a wrench into the entire discussion. Paul thanks God and says again he serves the law of God with his mind, but with his flesh, he serves the law of sin, the major talking points of both positions. However, verses 8:1-2 transition, I think, more smoothly in the unregenerate view “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” The transition seems smoother because of Paul’s words in chapter 7 about being captive and the introduction of the Spirit.

My Concluding Thoughts:

After holding to the regenerate view for some time, part of me is leaning toward the unregenerate view because of those difficulties between Romans 6 and 8. Not only this, but Paul often speaks about the Christian life in terms of victory, which is compelling as well in Paul’s discussion in chapter 7 (characterized by defeat). What makes the text difficult is the reality that many of us have experienced a struggle that fits with the “I do what I don’t want to do.”

Ultimately while the discussion is solid intellectual exercise, I don’t believe this is a question Paul was seeking to answer. Instead, we are asking more from the text than what the text was attempting to answer. I think a determining factor on this particular text is “how is Paul speaking to the law?” If he is speaking to the law in terms of sanctification by the law, I think the regenerate view makes sense. If he is speaking to salvation by the law, the unregenerate view makes sense. 

This is all to say – I lean unregenerate, primarily because it is more challenging to deal with the “captive to sin” in juxtaposition with the freedom presented in Romans 6 previously. The discussion on desire is harder to ascertain in terms of “is Paul speaking about obedience to God out of love or love for the letter.” If we pick a side that (as Moo suggests) encompasses all of the data, I think the unregenerate view does reasonably well despite how much this passage clicks with our experiences. In either case, Paul clarifies that we simply cannot do anything by flesh or by the letter, but instead by the power of the Spirit, which he moves into in chapter 8. 

Further reading:

Romans 7 DOES describe your Christian Experience

Romans 7 DOES NOT describe your Christian Experience

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