What State of the Soul is Portrayed in Romans 7:14-24? (Romans 7)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from Romans:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 1987) 
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study


        What happens if a Bible teacher regularly gives a verse a wrong explanation?  For example, Luke 18:1-8 was originally told (verse 1 tells us) to illustrate the need for persistence in prayer.  Verse 8 closes with these words, "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?"  If this verse is regularly used to prove that there will be a falling away from the Christian faith before the return of Jesus, it is very possible to miss what it is really saying about faith to continue in prayer.  In other words, if we use a verse out of its context to prove what may be a true doctrine, we never learn what the verse really says to us, and we are impoverished. 

        Bible teachers do need to speak as the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11).  It is necessary to speak it as rightly as we can as we teach or preach.  Instead of 'right sermon – wrong verse,' the intent must always be to strive for 'right sermon – right verse.' 

        Romans 7 has been a disputed passage for hundreds of years.  It is doubtful that this study can settle the dispute.  What is intended within this Special Study is to collect in a convenient order the arguments pro and con for some of the more popular interpretations, so that the student may more easily evaluate the arguments, and thus arrive at his own studied conclusion on this controverted subject.



        According to this interpretation, Paul speaks of his own experiences because they are representative of the struggles with sin and with the sinful fleshly nature that every Christian experiences.  The citadel (often identified as being the "will") has been freed (by redemption), but there are still battles in the outer works (because the sinful fleshly nature still remains after conversion); and, according to the usual interpretation, deliverance from this continual struggle will not be complete until the Christian is no longer living in his fleshly, mortal body.

     A.  Bible Students Who Have Held and Taught This View

        The truth or error of any theological position is not ultimately decided by the number of scholars who can be amassed on either side of a question; rather, the truth of a position is determined simply by what God Himself said on the subject.  However, it can be instructive to study history, to see how a theological viewpoint came to grow and be passed along to succeeding generations.

        Methodius (c.260‑c.311 AD), a Greek church leader who opposed Origen, in his Discourse on the Resurrection, shows his belief that the Christian struggles with his evil nature until the time of his physical death.1  Augustine, as a result of his battle with Pelagius, eventually came to interpret Romans 7 as the Christian's struggles with his evil nature.2  In AD 394, prior to the Pelagian controversy, Augustine's stated view was that Romans 7:14ff pictures the struggle with sin in an unregenerate person (see his Expositio Quarundam Prop. Ep. Rom, Prop. 45).  This same view was repeated in Ad Simplicianus, about AD 397, and in Confessions, vii.21, c.AD 400.  The Pelagian controversy began about AD 412.  It was not until c. AD 420 that Augustine's view, that Romans 7:14ff pictures the Christian's struggles with sin, was presented in Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum ad Boniface, i.12.  This changed view was then repeated in Retractiones, i.23, written c. AD 427, and in Contra Julianum, vi. 13, written about the same time.3  The Latin church leaders (Hilary, Gregory, Ambrose, Anselm, Aquinas) generally followed Augustine's lead.  After the Reformation, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin (and those Reformed scholars who follow in Calvin's train), and Beza all opted for the interpretation that Romans 7 reflects the Christian's struggles with sin.  Likewise taught the Scotch theologians, Brown, Haldane, and Chalmers.  Eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who defended this interpretation include Delitzsch, Alford, Barnes, Lard,4 Philippi,5 and Fraser.6  Twentieth century writers include Barth, Barrett, Batey, Bavinck, Berkhof, Berkouwer, Bruce, Cranfield, Hamilton, Lenski, Nygren, Vine, and Wilson.

     B.  Arguments Alleged to Demonstrate the Truth of This Interpretation

1. There is a Change of Verb Tenses Which Must be Explained.        

        In verses 7-13 the aorist tense is used, and in 8:1ff the aorist tense is used.  But in verses 14-24 the present tense is used.  Since verses 7-13 (where the verb is past tense) spoke of the time under the Law, verses 14-24 must speak of the time since being freed from the Law (i.e., the present time even as Paul the Christian is writing).  In this way the change of verb tense easily can be explained, it is argued.7

2. Every Expression in this Whole Paragraph is a Statement to Which Even the Holiest of Men Can Agree.

        Not only the personal experience of every Christian attests to the continuing struggle with sin, but the Bible elsewhere specifically affirms that such a contest between the Christian and temptations to sin is a continuing fact of life.  Romans 6:12-23 has implied this when the Christian is exhorted to stop presenting his members to sin as tools of unrighteousness.  Galatians 5:17, that well-known passage about the flesh versus the Spirit, is written to warn Christians that continued living as the flesh prompts will end in eternal punishment.  Unless there is a continuing struggle with sin, this warning is pointless.  Christians are exhorted to mortify the deeds of the flesh (Colossians 3:5).8

3. There are Statements in the Paragraph that No Unconverted Man Could Say.

        The expressions often appealed to are "we know that the Law is spiritual" (verse 14); "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man" (verse 22); and "with my mind I am serving the law of God" (verse 25).  In addition, the person portrayed is one who wishes to do that which is good (verses 15,18,19,21), and this is alleged to be totally unlike the unconverted man.9  Furthermore, verse 25 must be a Christian thanking God for his deliverance; and if verse 25 is a Christian speaking, then the whole paragraph must be a Christian speaking.  The argument thus says that, since there are statements a non-Christian could not make, this passage must picture the Christian's struggles with sin.

     C.  Arguments Offered to Show the Impropriety of this Interpretation

1. The Unusual Explanation that Must be Given to "the Law"        

       To interpret verses 14-24 as being the Christian's struggles with sin requires an unusual interpretation to be given to the words "the Law" and "the Law of God" (verses 12,14,16,22,25).  This unusual interpretation must be given to keep this passage from contradicting those clear New Testament references which show that the Law of Moses is not binding on the Christian.  To be forced by the theory being defended to say that the verses in question do not have particular reference to the Law of Moses, but refer to "God's laws in general," is a serious, and likely fatal, problem for this proposed interpretation.

2. The Context, both Preceding and Following, is Against this Interpretation.

        It is true that in Romans 5 and 6, some blessed results of God's way of saving man (justification by faith) have been brought into view, including the fact that in baptism into Christ a man is "freed from sin."  But on the other hand, it must be admitted that 7:7-13 refer to the pre-Christian position of a man.  And 8:1 contrasts "now" (how it is now with the Christian) with what was said in 7:14-25.  The context on both sides of the paragraph in question would lead the reader to think that 7:14-25 also spoke of the experiences of a man under the Law, before he became a Christian.

3. The Arguments Given to Substantiate the Other View 

        All the arguments in favor of the interpretation that it is the unconverted man whose struggles with sin are pictured in Romans 7:14-24 are, in fact, arguments against the idea that this paragraph speaks of the Christian's struggles with sin.10



        Not all writers hold either to the unregenerate man or to the Christian man view.  There are some "intermediate" views.  Since relatively few writers have proposed and/or defended these views, we might call them "minority" views. 

     A.  An Enlightened Jew, in the Process of Being Converted

        Hodge and Gifford both opt for this method of explaining the verses, and illustrate it by suggesting Paul is revealing his inner struggles and torment while on the way to Damascus.  To this commentator, it seems this is but a variation on the theme that it is Paul the Jew whose experiences are being portrayed.  However, since such an interpretation is hard to harmonize with Augustinian and Calvinistic views of inherited sin and total depravity, have Hodge and Gifford tried to get around that problem by suggesting that we are looking at a man who has already experienced what would be called (by them) a first work of grace?  If so, this would allow them to hold the doctrines of inherited sin as taught in the creeds (such as the Westminster Confession of Faith) and at the same time give a plausible commentary on the paragraph in question.

     B.  An Immature Christian 

        Hendriksen presents this option, only to reject it in favor of the usual Reformed view his comments represent.  According to this proposed method of explaining the passage, three stages of religious development are pictured by Paul:  (1) A person still unconverted and in slavery to sin (7:5,9);  (2) The babe in Christ who is struggling; he hates his sin, but is not very far advanced on the road to sanctification (7:14-25);  and (3) The mature believer for whom there is no more condemnation (8:1-4).  Hendriksen then rejects this view by observing that it is the mature believer who hates his sin the most, and who is most distressed by it when he does sin. 



        According to this method of explaining the verses, for the time being (until 8:1), the redemptive work of Christ is left out of the picture because Paul wanted to show what the Law of Moses could and could not accomplish with reference to a man's sin problem.  The Law could not redeem.  It could not even remove the feeling of guilt.  In fact, a man aware of the requirements of the Law and comparing them with his own behavior was "wretched" and looking for deliverance "from the body of this death."

     A.  Bible Students Who Have Held and Taught This View 

        The Greek church leaders, generally, such as Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, held this view.  So did Augustine before his controversy with Pelagius,11 and Jerome (who seems to have changed his views, much as did Augustine).  Erasmus, Faustus Socinus, Arminius, and others so explained it in the time of the Reformation.  Post-Reformation theologians espousing this view include Muller, Neander, Tholuck, Hengstengberg, DeWette, Ewald, Whitby, Stuart, Lechler, Meyer, Bengel, Godet, Sanday and Headlam, Denney, Ellicott, Doddridge, Macknight, Conybeare and Howson, and the Restoration Movement writers, Grubbs, B.W. Johnson, Lipscomb, and McGarvey.  Twentieth century scholars who have held that 7:14-24 is a picture of the unregenerate man and his inner struggles with sin include W.G. Kummel, Ridderbos, Bultmann, and C.H. Dodd.12

     B.  Arguments Alleged to Demonstrate the Truth of This Interpretation

1. Appeal is Made to Certain Expressions Not Suitable for a Christian to Say.

        "I am of flesh" (verse 14).  Does not this mean the same as "in the flesh" as stated in verse 5?  If so, it speaks of a man under the dominion of sin at a time in history when the Law was present, but was of no help.13 

        "Sold into bondage to sin" (verse 14).  Is this not synonymous with being what was called a slave to sin in 6:6?  Is not a slave the opposite of being under grace (6:14)?14 

        "The wishing is present in me, but the doing of good is not" (verse 18).  Are we to suppose that the man in whom the powers of grace are operative (as is true of the regenerate) is destitute of good works which are the fruit of the Spirit? 

        "Wretched man that I am!" (verse 24).  Surely this complaint is far from being the state of mind of one who has entered into the joy and liberty of the gospel (7:6, 5:1-5). 

        "Nothing good dwells in me" (verse 18).  This can hardly be harmonized with what Paul himself writes about the indwelling Holy Spirit in chapter 8, especially verses 9-11.

2. The Relation to the Law of Moses Assumed in Verses 14-24 Would Hardly be Different from that in Verses 7-13.

        The "for" (gar) which connects verse 14 with the preceding verses denotes a con­tinuance of thought; verses 14-25 continue the same line of thought that was in verse 13 and before.  Further, we find in 7:5 and 7:6 the obvious theses of the two major sections that follow (in the remainder of chapter 7 and chapter 8, respectively).  7:5 distinctly expresses the state of being under Law (which the rest of chapter 7 discusses) and 7:6 speaks of the state of being delivered from the Law (which chapter 8 will develop).

3. Parallels to the Expressions Paul Uses are Found in Pagan Literature.

        Far from being expressions that only a born-again Christian could make, statements similar to verses 14-24 have been found in such non-Christian writers as Ovid, Euripides, Xenophon, Seneca, Epictetus, and others.15

The verses in question (verses 17,20,22) do not, in fact, express more than the apostle elsewhere allows man to be capable of, and what observation of fact allows him to be capable of, though not having yet attained to Christian faith; viz., approval of, longing for, and even striving for, what is good.  It is not more than sincere and earnest men, even in the Gentile world, have been already credited with in chapter 2 of this epistle (verses 7,10, 14,16,26,29).16

 4. The Change of Verb Tense Can Be Explained.

        Paul's deliberate change from past tense verbs to present tense verbs in verses 14‑24 may be the strongest argument against the idea that he is portraying a time long past in his life.  However, this change can be given a plausible explanation.  The use of the present tense is deliberate, in order to dramatically bring home to the consciousness of his readers what they had all personally, and sadly, experienced.  Each of his readers knew all too well what Paul was talking about. 

5. Total Depravity is a Dogma Not Likely Supported by Scripture.

        "However 'far from original righteousness' man outside the gospel may be, still that utter depravity attributed to him by some theologians is neither consonant with observed fact nor declared in Holy Writ.  The image of God in which men were created is represented as defaced, not obliterated."17  Interpreting 7:14ff as a portrayal of the Christian's struggles with sin forces the interpreter to speak of the evil propensities in the flesh with which the Christian has to contend.  Such an interpretation leaves much to be desired, as far as accurately reflecting what the apostle Paul wrote.

6. Between 8:1 and 7:14‑25, There is a Sharp Contrast.

        8:1 begins with "now" and draws a sharp contrast with the deplorable condition that existed before, about which 7:14-25 spoke.  If 7:14-25 is the Christian state, how do we explain the contrast introduced in 8:1?  But if 7:14-25 is the unconverted state, the contrast introduced in 8:1 makes beautiful sense. 

7. 7:14-25 Must Surely Harmonize with Statements Already Made in Romans 6.

        The view that 7:14-25 pictures a slavery, a bondage, that still remains after a man becomes a Christian seems to conflict with statements already made in Romans 6.  Sin is a dethroned master, the slave to sin has been freed, he has risen to walk in the same newness of life that Jesus did following His resurrection.  How can such statements in Romans 6 be harmonized with the idea of some that the "I" (inner man) of 7:14-25 represents the new man, redeemed by Christ, but still a slave to evil propensities, a slavery he will not escape until he leaves this life to enter Heaven?



        Given the arguments pro and con, and seeing how some of them fit into historical and dogmatic contexts as much or more than simply being exegetical comments, this commentator has concluded that 7:14-25 speaks of the struggles with sin that the person under the Law of Moses had, indeed the struggles that any unregenerate man may have as he tries to abide by the Light he has.  Those struggles are vividly displayed here, and as we look into the Word Paul has written, we can see ourselves reflected in this mirror.  Having reached an accountable age, we too have seen the devil deceive us and make us slaves who do hurtful and ruinous things to ourselves and to others.  We too can identify with the wretchedness that cries out for a Deliverer! 

        As has also been stated in the comments, although Romans 7 is not the chapter to use to prove it, there is no absolute exemption from temptation for the Christian, nor does the practice of self‑control as the Christian is tempted always come easily.  The devil keeps trying to regain his old mastery over the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  But there are limitations put on the devil, by God, for the Christian's benefit, and the old forced slavery to the devil is a thing of the past.  What is needed now is for the Christian to watch his mind and desires for those temptations, and when they occur, to resist in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:1,2).  This holy resistance, coupled with a conscious presentation of one's whole self to God for His service, will put an end to the immediate temptation, and an end to the struggle until the devil is again permitted to tempt God's child. 

        But talking about the need for the practice of self-control when the devil tempts is very far different from the doctrine that says the tendency to evil is inherent in the fleshly body we live in, and therefore always present to harass and cause us grief.  To present the doctrine that the Christian can be victorious over temptation to sin, rather than always having to be helpless in its power, is as different as night and day.




Cranfield, C.E.B., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.  Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1975. 
Dodd, C.H., The Epistle of Paul to the Romans.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1932. 
Espy, John M., "Paul's 'Robust Conscience' Re-Examined," New Testament Studies, 31 (1985), p.161‑188. 
Jewett, R., Paul's Anthropological Terms:  A Study of their Use in Conflict Settings.  Leiden:  E.J. Brill, 1971. 
Lloyd‑Jones, D. Martyn, Romans:  An Exposition of Chapters 7:1-8:4.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1973. 
Martin, B.L., "Some Reflections on the Identity of ego in Rom. 7:14‑25," Scottish Journal of Theology, 34:1 (1981), p.39‑47. 
Mile, D.J.W., "Romans 7:7‑12.  Paul's Pre-Conversion Experience," Reformed Theological Review, 43:1 (1984), p.9‑17. 
Mitton, C.L., "Romans 7 Reconsidered," Expository Times 65 (1953,1954), p.78‑81, 99‑103, 132‑35. 
Wenham, David, "The Christian Life:  A Life of Tension?" in Pauline Studies, edited by Donald A. Hagner and Murray J. Harris.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.  p.80‑94.




     1 Methodius, "On the Resurrection," in The Ante‑Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951), Vol.6, p.371ff.
     2 See page 235ff in the author's commentary on Romans for a brief rehearsal of the debate between Augustine v. Pelagius regarding the interpretation of Romans 7.
     3 Meyer and Lange attribute this change in Augustine's views to the exigencies of the Pelagian controversy.  And with them, this commentator agrees.  Calvin and Hodge, on the other hand, attribute the change "to a deeper insight into his own heart, and a more thorough investigation of the Scriptures."
     4 Moses E. Lard is one of the few early Restoration Movement writers who taught this view, but because his commentary on Romans was long a standard work in the Movement, the idea has been widely taught since.
     5 F.A. Philippi, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1878), is a good reference for a detailed presentation of the interpretation that Romans 7 is the Christian's struggles with sin.
     6 James Fraser, A Treatise on Sanctification (London:  Bliss, Sands & Co., 1898), p.254ff.
     7 In reply, proponents of other views ask, Is the change of tense a sufficient reason to justify so marked a change of subject as this interpretation implies?  Is it not possible that in 7:14-23, Paul is answering some standard Jewish objections to Christian doctrine, and to make his point emphatic, Paul puts the verbs in the present tense, to make the reminder of every Jew's experience even that much more vivid and real?
     8 The careful reader must observe that the question under discussion is not "Does the Christian still have to practice a control over his flesh after the devil tempts?" but whether or not Romans 7 is one of the passages to be used when teaching on this topic of the Christian's struggles with sin.  Remember, if one takes the position that Romans 7 is the Christian's struggles with sin, then one must also teach that such struggles are "in vain" (cf. Bruce, Romans, p.152) because the adversary (sin) is so overpowering.  Does this last conclusion ring true with the presentation in the rest of New Testament, e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:13?
     9 The reader will observe that the presupposition behind this argument is that total depravity, inherited from Adam, renders an unconverted man totally unable to say such things as this.
     10 See Part III, section B, below, where these arguments are listed.
     11 "Augustine was for a time involved in the common error, but having more thoroughly examined the passage, not only retracted what he had falsely thought, but in his first book to Boniface proves, by many forceful arguments, that what is said cannot be applied to any but the regenerate."  John Calvin, Romans, p.264.  Calvin's language not only gives what he thought caused Augustine to change, but also expresses his own attitude toward any other interpretation.  "What weighed with Augustine was that in verses 17,20,22, more propension to good is implied than his doctrinal theory allowed to the natural man ... If, however, St. Paul's intention, obvious from his own writing, does not fit in with Augustinian or Calvinistic theology, so much the worse for the latter."  Barmby, Romans, p. 185.
     12 In certain conservative circles, the reader's attention would be drawn to the fact that in the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the scholars who have espoused this interpretation of Romans 7 have been theologically liberal, and of course, their comments would be influenced by their presupposition that man has greater natural abilities than the Bible (seen through Calvinistic eyes) is thought to allow.  This commentator would reply to both, that neither dogmatic theology nor the currently popular philosophy should be permitted to color a man's comments on Scripture if he expects to understand what God Himself has said on the subject.
     13 It might be noted here that Calvin circumvented this argument by regarding the transition to the regenerate man's struggles as taking place at verse 15.  If Calvin's view is adopted, then the difficulties of applying the expressions of verse 14 – "I am of flesh" and "sold into bondage to sin" – to a regenerate person disappear.  In reply to Calvin's proposed point of transition, why is it that the verb tenses change at verse 14 and not at verse 15, if the transition really is at verse 15 as he urges?
     14 This does not deny what was said in 6:16 about how a Christian can relapse into the old slavery, but it is hard to see how "sold into bondage to sin" is the same thing that 6:16 spoke of, namely, a voluntary presentation of one's self to sin, a presentation made after the old slavery had been broken.
     15 "Paul's contemporaries well knew this feeling, as indeed, we know it ourselves.  Seneca talked of 'our helplessness in necessary things.'  He talked about how men hate their sins and love them at the same time. Ovid, the Roman poet, had penned this famous tag, 'I see the better things, and I approve them, but I follow the worse.'  No one knew this problem better than the Jews.  The Jews had solved it by saying that in every man there were two natures, two tendencies, two impulses.  They called them the Yetser hatob [mind of good] and Yetser hara [mind of evil]."  Barclay, Romans, p.101.  See also the quotes cited in footnote #86 associated with the comments at 7:15 in the author's commentary on Romans, p.309-310.
     16 Barmby, Romans, p.185.
     17 Barmby, Romans, p.185,186.
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