Understanding Romans 7 and 8
Author: Alan Marshall - 1 October 2000
The seventh chapter of Romans has been a source of contention within the church since the time of the church fathers. The controversy concerns whether the failure to conquer sin, which Paul discusses in v.14-25, describes still unconverted persons or whether the situation applies to Christians. Even Augustine had difficulty, believing it applied to the unconverted, but later being persuaded it applied to believers.
Despite the difficulties, these chapters are of immense interest, as they deal with the dynamics of Christian living, the practical outworking of our faith in Christ, through which we are justified.
For a number of years I thought the answer was in the example that Paul gives earlier from his own experience. Commentators who believe v.14-25 applies to the unconverted, do so because they cannot accept that Christians should continue to struggle with their previous sinful lifestyle of lying, stealing, and sexual immorality. Paul however, as a Pharisee, was not guilty of such outward, public acts. Rather, the problem he describes in v.7-8 concerns the tenth commandment which governs the thought life.
I expect Paul struggled with his thought life before his conversion, and perhaps after as well. What is it that the tenth commandment specifically mentions? Firstly, you should not entertain desires for "your neighbourís house", and secondly for "your neighbourís wife" (Exodus 20:17). Paul owned no house that we know of. Unlike the other apostles at that time, he was an itinerant preacher. He was also a single man. In 1 Corinthians 9:4-5, where Paul fiercely defends his apostleship, we see perhaps a hint of envy:
Donít we have the right to food and drink? Donít we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do other apostles and the Lordís brothers and Cephas?
Consider for a moment Jesusí "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 5. He reaffirmed the ten commandments, and specifically the prohibitions against murder and adultery. But he went further. In the spirit of the tenth commandment, he extended the application of these commandments into the thought life. He preached against hate and lust. The whole thrust of Jesusí message here is that it is not just outward acts we should be concerned about, but matters of the heart. His audience included religious persons, and included those who believed in him.
Now if we go back and look at Romans 7:14-25 in this light, and see that for those with some instruction in religious matters, that sin is more a matter of the thought life, of the heart, then we can accept that Paul included Christians (and ourselves) in his application.
I have found this understanding of personal benefit in seeking to manage my own thought life. There is consolation in knowing Paul wrestled with these things too. But we canít be satisfied with a mere explanation of our condition. We need to change. Jesus was calling his audience to change, and he would not want us to be defeatist when it comes to sin in the heart. Both Jesus and Paul want us to move beyond Romans 7 and into Romans 8.
With this background, I want to share with you a new fresh understanding of these chapters. I think much of the confusion over chapter 7 has been because commentators have been asking the wrong question. Paul is not concerned with whether this battle with the sinful nature is before or after conversion. His concern is by what means the subject is seeking to overcome the sinful nature.
The introduction to these chapters is in 7:1-6. Here Paul talks about two husbands. The first is the law, and the second is Christ. The first husband must die before the woman, who represents the church, can belong to the second husband. The key verse is v.6:
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Chapter 6:14 also helps set the scene:
For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
I believe that the rest of chapter 7 describes what it is like bound to the first husband, trying to serve in "the old way of the written code", while chapter 8 teaches us what it means to belong to the second husband, living in "the new way of the Spirit".
For those who interpret 7:14-25 as a pattern for the Christian life, the main reason is the change in tense between v.13 and v.14. In v.13 Paul says the law "is good", but that it "produced death in me" (past tense). In v.14 he says the law "is spiritual", but I "am unspiritual" (present tense). My point is that although there is a change in tense, these phrases mean the same the thing. In other words, there is continuity of theme across this supposed division, and that the passage 7:7-25 should be read as a whole. The experience Paul describes in 7:7-12 is exactly the same experience he describes in 7:14-25. It is an experience of failure, despite oneís best efforts. The only change, apart from tense, is perhaps a move from a specific personal example to the general condition of those seeking to serve by the written code.Chapter 8:1-17
Chapter 7 closes (v.21-25) with a sense of futility in trying to live by the law, but points the way to the only solution, who is Christ. This contrast is repeated in the opening of chapter 8 (v.1-4):
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
What does it mean to live "according to the Spirit"? It means to do what the Spirit desires (v.5), but this is not under compulsion (cf. 2 Cor 9:7), but because "the Spirit of God lives in you" (Romans 8:9). The Spiritís desires become our desires, and because He is the Spirit of Christ (v.9), Jesusí desires become our desires.
This explains where the source of our renewed desire to please God, but what is the source of the strength, or means, to please him? There is an objective source to this strength, and also a subjective source.
In relation to our minds, the objective source of strength is the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf. The power of Christís death means that the "righteous requirements of the law" are "fully met in us" (v.4). This righteousness frees us from condemnation (v.1), and makes our spirits live (v.10). The power of Christís resurrection means our bodies will live (v.11), and be cleansed of the sinful nature.
It is of critical importance to understand that Christís death an effective remedy not just for past sin, but for sin at any point in our life. This must be so, or else we could not be said to have "died to the law" (7:4). But the law, our first husband, has died, and we are released (7:3). Godís grace is ongoing (8:32), Christ is "interceding for us" (note the present continuous tense) in 8:34.
In relation to our hearts, the subjective source of strength is his love which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (5:5). This is love for him springs from the recognition of his love for us (8:32, 1 John 4:8-10), and being released from fear (Romans 8:15). It is a recognition that we "belong to Christ" (Romans 8:9), that we sons of God (v.14), that we share in Christís inheritance from his (and our) father (v.17), indeed, that we can call him "Dad" (v.15).
The new way of the Spirit does not mean we ignore the written code. Both Jesus (Mark 10:17-19) and Paul (3:31) believe we should uphold it. Jesus death for us is proof the law still matters. But freed from fear of condemnation, we can follow it from the heart. Its essence is love, which Jesus says is his "new commandment" (John 10:34, Mark 10:20-21) and Paul says is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).Chapter 8:18-27
This section focuses on the age to come, when victory over sin is final. The word that captures the longing for that is "groaning", and Paul uses it three times. Creation groans as it looks forward in hope to its renewal (8:22). We groan inwardly as we wait for the resurrection. Our spirits are saved, but the salvation of our bodies is yet to be completed. In this world we still struggle, in varying degrees, with the sinful nature, and we long for complete deliverance from that. The Spirit also groans on our behalf, and "intercedes for the saints in accordance with Godís will".
Some commentators worry about attributing a work of intercession to the Spirit, for they see that as Jesusí role alone. Indeed there is "one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ" (1 Timothy 2:5), but I see no conflict. As discussed above, Paul teaches us that our confidence is in Christ, and it his continued intercession "at the right hand of God" (Romans 8:34) that covers our sin. But that intercession takes place in heaven.
Now we are connected to heaven by the Spirit, who is called the "Spirit of God" (v.14), and also called the "Spirit of Christ" (v.9). The Spirit is imparted to us by the grace of God. The place where the Spirit interacts with our spirit is the boundary between heaven and earth, and I have no problem with the use of the word "intercession" in relation to the Spirit conveying our deepest longings, whether conscious or unconscious, to God. It refers to the way in which our needs are taken to God, not the basis on which they are satisfied, who is Christ.
Finally, we should note from this section that, at Christís return, creation will be restored (v.21). Whether this means rejuvenation or replacement is something I donít care to debate. However those who think this physical Earth is temporary, and of no eternal value should note that, at Christís return, rather than the saints departing for some far-off heaven, it is heaven that comes to Earth (Revelation 21, 2 Peter 3:13). If the physical creation is part of the Kingdom of God after Christís return, then its care is part of the work of the Kingdom of God now. I believe we therefore need to care for creation according to the mandate given mankind by God (Genesis 1:26-28).Chapter 8:28-39
The last section of chapter 8 is rich indeed, and is the culmination of all that Paul has said in chapters 7 and 8. If 7:7-25 overflows with a sense of the failure of self-effort, the failure that follows attempts to please God on the basis of the written code, then this section overflows with an awesome sense of the grace of God. This grace begins with foreknowledge and ends with our glorification (8:29-30). It is worth spending a little time pondering the meaning of each term in the sequence:
"foreknew": God is not bound by time, he transcends it. He not only anticipates relationships with those he foreknows, he already knows and senses those relationships.
"predestined": Before the world was created, the salvation of those God foreknew was planned in every detail.
"called": God has always known his own. The call is the work of the Spirit that enables his own to know him.
"justified": Literally to "make or declare righteous". God sees Christ as having fulfilled the law on our behalf, and so declares us righteous. This righteousness comes from God and is through faith (3:22). It is a righteousness that is outside of our earthly selves, and complete without any merit on our part (3:28). Through the work of the Spirit, this righteousness also becomes a reality in our lives (6:13,16), though this cannot be complete this side of glory.
"glorified": When Christ returns, and sin and death are done away, we will be made as Christ now is. We will be given new bodies that are both physical and eternal (8:23), and the sinful nature will be forever destroyed.
If our salvation is accomplished from start to finish by the grace of God, then we need have no fear that anything can separate us from the love of Christ. This is the theme of the concluding verses in v.31-39. Paul expects us to face trouble and opposition, just as Christ did (v.17), but with Christ as our intercessor, and God who "is for us", this opposition cannot overwhelm us.
That little phrase "God is for us" (v.31) has been of great comfort to me. As important as theology is, and Romans is full of it, our personal relationship with God can be expressed in no simpler words than these. Just as a child understands that their father and mother are for him or her, so are we to trust (7:15) in a God who not only sympathises with us, but one who loves us, provides for us, instructs us, and defends us from danger. Provided we remember that the basis of this care is our identification with Christ, and not our own merit, these words summarise the gospel and what it means to be a Christian.
All quotations of the scriptures, unless otherwise stated, are from the New International Version (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, USA), 1984.
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