Hope for These Bodies of Death: Understanding Romans 7

Reading Time: 10 mins

There’s no possibility of understanding the grace of Romans 6 and the glory of Romans 8 unless you identify with the excruciating struggle of Romans 7.

If you were to make a list of the “most important chapters in the New Testament,” a majority of them would likely come from the Apostle Paul, and for good reason. Paul’s writings have echoed throughout the epochs of church history with the purest and loudest notes of good news for all to hear, receive, and believe. We credit much of the success of the early church to his efforts as an expositor, evangelist, and church planter, as he carried on and, indeed, built upon the apostolic tradition of Old Testament exposition and annunciation in ways that we’re still endeavoring to fully ascertain today. But of all the notable pieces of writing that come from his pen, Romans 7 is, perhaps, the most critical (which is saying something). Romans 7 is undoubtedly one of the most eye-opening and eye-brow-raising chapters in the New Testament, let alone the entire Bible, as Paul proceeds to make a series of brazen assertions about the law alongside some excruciating confessions about himself, all of which leave us nearly doubting Paul’s salvation.

I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it is, indeed, startling to hear such dreadful honesty coming from one who claims to believe in Christ crucified, let alone the foremost leader of the church. Paul writes: “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:14–19).

Who says things like that? What faithful churchgoer do you know is so readily and willingly owning up to the fact that there are a number of things that they hate that they keep on doing? The things they want to do they don’t do, and the things they don’t want to do they end up doing, over and over and over. What kind of Christian admits to their complete inability to do any “good thing”? If someone from church came up to us and started talking like this, we’d likely be more inclined to distance ourselves from them. Indeed, if Paul said some of these things in the church today, he’d surely have his pastoral authority and acumen called into question. His words don’t sound like they come from any “good,” solid Christian you know, right? Or do they? Actually, through his honest handling of these startling truths, Paul gets at the very marrow of the gospel itself.

What Paul does throughout Romans 7 has served to perplex theologians and commentators for centuries. They appear to be the words of a very conflicted man, incessantly see-sawing between living for the Lord and languishing under the demands of God’s law. At times, the author comes across as a learned scholar who possesses a depth of spiritual insight. Other times, he gives the impression that he’s unfit to run a small group Bible study. There is struggle apparent in nearly every syllable, which stands in stark contrast to the surrounding texts. Indeed, one of the most befuddling aspects of Paul’s seminal chapter 7 is simply its placement within the letter to the Romans at all. Things would, certainly, be much cleaner and simpler if we could jump straight from chapter 6 to chapter 8, bypassing that dour and difficult chapter 7 altogether. So we think. After all, then we wouldn’t have to try and explain why Paul’s words sound so different.

Reading chapters 6 and 8 makes chapter 7 sound like it was written by an entirely different person. In chapter 6, the author is definitive, decisive, and triumphant. He talks of the freedom from sin and death we have in Christ, and how we are raised to “walk in newness of life” along with him (Rom. 6:10–14). All that’s left for us to do, then, is carry on living according as we are “alive unto God through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:11). Likewise, in chapter 8, the author writes with similar verve about how nothing and no one can separate those who believe from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31–39). Confirming and reminding us of this along our way is the Holy Spirit of God, who aids and empowers Christians to go on “yielding” themselves as “instruments of righteousness” for the rest of their lives because they walk “not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). The more we walk with the Spirit, the more we grow in the things of God, the more we are “conformed to the image of his Son,” until, one day, we find ourselves in glory, singing and dancing around heaven’s throne with glorified bodies. That’s the Christian life in a nutshell, so to speak. At least, that’s how it’s often caricatured. It is a clean and simple progression from sin to faith to growth to glory. But does that really hold up? Can such a straightforward system of advancing from one level to the next in our spiritual walk survive the scrutiny of what we experience on a daily basis? I’d hasten to say that it doesn’t, but let me put it to you another way.

Imagine the trajectory of the average Christian life. What does it look like? Picture all the “checkpoints” on the narrow road of Christianity. What do you see? What does the arc of a sinner who’s been converted to the faith look like? No doubt, you have a very distinct image in mind, one of continually upward ascension. If you were to put the average depiction of the Christian life on a graph, it would look like a line that slants ever-heavenward on the way to glory. It’s a clean and simple ascent as we go from wallowing in sin to growing in holiness as we soar towards Zion. That, I think, is the image of the Christian life that’s often presented in the church. If you skip Romans 7, that’s the picture you’re left with. It arranges the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” as a series of levels that are waiting to be achieved by the very faithful among us. “You’re a level two Christian? Well, I’m on level nine already. I’ve read The Purpose Driven Life too many times to count and this is my third overseas missions trip.” Framing conversation about the Christian life in that way might sound banal, but it’s often the way we carry ourselves in and among the church.

Such language twists the beauty of discipleship into an ugly game of “competitive righteousness,” with the obvious loser being anyone who identifies with Paul in Romans 7. We might shudder to think of what would happen if we were caught dead thinking such things, let alone confessing them, but isn’t that how we often live? Maybe we see a fellow-churchgoer making increasingly worse decisions, falling deeper and deeper into sin, and what’s our first reaction? “Boy, I’m glad I’m not like them,” we think to ourselves. “At least I’m not that bad,” we mutter under our breath. “Did you hear what happened to so-and-so?” we whisper. And then comes our prayer: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are” (Luke 18:11). Such is the language of the “Christian competitor.” And such is precisely the notion that Paul aims to dismantle.

In an effort to make sense of the enigmatic and problematic words of Paul in Romans 7, some have taken to re-interpreting them through a more palatable lens. Most often they say that these are merely the words of a man “before” salvation. They re-frame the apostle’s apparent struggle as simply that of a man under conviction of sin prior to repentance, faith, and redemption. Therefore, when Paul writes that in his flesh “dwelleth no good thing,” he’s obviously referring to life before his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, before the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, before all that stuff. Because no “good” Christian person struggles like that, right? This is where those “re-interpreters” would supply the rhetoric that now Paul does have the will “to perform that which is good” because he has the Holy Spirit. And, to a certain extent, that’s true. But rigidly framing the words of Romans 7 in that way leads to the fundamental point of Romans 7 being missed entirely. Paul’s not just talking about “doing good,” he’s talking about righteousness. He’s talking about perfection. And no matter how hard he tries, that’s what he can never do, because there are a bevy of sins he just can’t seem to shake. And all you need to do is look at the grammar: “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin…O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:14, 24).

Paul’s not just talking about “doing good,” he’s talking about righteousness. He’s talking about perfection. And no matter how hard he tries, that’s what he can never do, because there are a bevy of sins he just can’t seem to shake.

The apostle’s troublesome confessions are all articulated in the present tense, meaning that he’s not describing the past actions of his former self. Rather, he’s describing his current experience as a child of God and servant of Jesus Christ. Even though he knows all that Christ Jesus accomplished for him in the gospel (Romans 5-6), he’s still plagued inevitable and inescapable iniquity (Rom. 7:15–16). He knows what to do, what the law says, but he continues to do the very opposite. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19). As much effort as he puts forth, he can’t get out of his own way. This, by the way, describes me, too — and I’d wager you’d have to admit the same. We’re aware of what God’s Word says, but we are woefully incapable of keeping its demands. The “level up Christians” would jump through hoops to argue that they can keep it. But Paul testifies that he’s never found that to be the case.

And why is that? Because he’s not just a perp who does sinful things. He’s a sinner to the very core of his being (Rom. 7:17, 20). And, as he’s already demonstrated, so is everyone else (Rom. 5:12). Living the Christian life, therefore, isn’t a clean and simple case of progressively “doing better.” I wish that were so but “life” tells me otherwise. The reality is, the message of the gospel was never accompanied by any promises of a clean and simple life, with all our holiness badges tidily arrayed on our sashes. In fact, the message of the gospel is inherently an invitation to a life of tension. “The believer,” writes C. Marvin Pate, “is caught between the two ages, between wanting to obey God (the age to come) and not in fact doing so (this age)” (161). By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we live a life of “already” and “not yet.” We are “already” justified in the eyes of God, but we are “not yet” glorified in his presence. We are “already” free from the penalty of sin (Christ took that for us), but we are “not yet” free from the presence of sin (the Spirit’s rooting that out of us). We are sinners and saints at the same time. (If only there was a phrase that captured the essence of that in a succinct way!)

Until we get to glory and stare the Savior in the eyes, there will always be a war that rages inside of us (Rom. 7:22–23). Scripture depicts this war as the “old man” versus the “new man” (Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9-10; 2 Cor. 5:17). In short, it’s a war which concerns whether or not the gospel is, in fact, true. The gospel tells us that our “old man” was put to death when Christ was crucified (Rom. 6:6). When Jesus was buried, so, too, were our sins. But because we’re sinners, and sin dwells inside of us, we’re constantly digging them back up. We keep running back to that grave, back to that life of slavery to sin and death. We keep doing the things we hate and putting ourselves in fetters. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling. Paul was, too, which is why his resolve at the close of the chapter rings so true: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:24–25).

He’s come to the end of himself. Nothing he’s tried has worked. He cannot help himself. He can’t make himself better, whole, holy, righteous. No matter how hard he tries, the stench of sin still clings to him. Like that sweatshirt you’ve worn around the campfire one too many times. No matter how much fabric softener you use, you can’t get the smell of smoke out of the fibers. Paul’s words are even more visceral than that, though. The ancient Romans, as you might know, were experts in the realm of human torture and cruelty, sadistically perfecting the art of crucifixion. But another manner in which Roman magistrates oftentimes meted out punishment would be to decree convicted murderers to have their victim’s corpse shackled to their back. Arms and waists and legs would be cinched so tight the rotting flesh of the dead would end up melding with the skin of their assailant. A criminal’s last days, then, would be lived in horrid shame and stinking putrefaction. Such, I think, is the image Paul has in mind.

If you’ve tried meeting the demands of the law by your own means; if you’ve tried (and failed) to battle the constant onslaught of sin on your own; God in Christ is your Deliverer. In and of ourselves, there is no hope to bring about any deliverance from the “sin that so easily ensnares us” (Heb. 12:1). You and I possess zero ability to rescue ourselves from these inescapable bodies of death. Our only hope is in a God who takes on a body of his own to die a death of his own in order to rescue those who are dying. And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what he has done for you and for me and for everyone in the whole world. He has put himself between you and your sin by becoming the criminal that wears that stinking body of death in shame. Only the crime wasn’t his, it was yours. “The Lord Jesus Christ,” D. G. Barnhouse affirms, “stepped between the wrath of God and the sinner who deserved His wrath, and took the blow upon Himself, thus paying the penalty for us forever. Every demand of a holy God was fully met by the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:2.245).

Romans 7 affords us a vulnerable glimpse into the normative Christian experience. It describes in painful detail the life of sin and grace with which we’re all too familiar.

And the good news even exceeds all that by telling us that no matter how many times you run back to that corpse and strap it on your back, again, God in Christ is there to pry it off your back. His Spirit is there to remind you that the Son has already paid for that sin and freed you from that sin, forever. It’s not yours anymore. “How many times?” you might ask. “How many times will he keep that up? What’s the limit?” Well, Jesus has already told us: “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21–22). Indeed, nothing can separate you from “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

Consequently, getting Romans 7 wrong means you’ll likely get the gospel wrong, too. Far from being an outlier or an exception to the rule, Romans 7 affords us a vulnerable glimpse into the normative Christian experience. It describes in painful detail the life of sin and grace with which we’re all too familiar. “Believer,” R. Scott Clark affirms, “you are a Romans 7:25 Christian. We are all Romans 7:25 Christians. There is no other kind of Christian. Any Christian who pretends to have reached perfection (complete sanctification) in this life is deluded and has redefined sin out of existence.” Romans 7, then, is the death-knell of all notions of progressively experiential evangelical perfection. It’s an incendiary to our static systems of Christian growth and discipleship. Indeed, there’s no possibility of understanding the grace of Romans 6 and the glory of Romans 8 unless you identify with the excruciating struggle of Romans 7. Sandwiched in between such declarative pronouncements of love and mercy is the frustrating reality of the believer’s life. By faith — faith alone in Christ alone — the triumph of the Son is brought to bear for each and every stinking sinner. Thanks be to God.