Romans 7:13-25 is one of the most controversial passages in the Bible, namely because many thoughtful people disagree over what it means. Some people believe a Christian cannot experience what the Apostle Paul describes. They think the person in Romans 7 is a Christian, but a defeated Christian who lacks the victory of Romans 8. They see Romans 7 as describing “past Paul.” I think Romans 7 is “present Paul.” I view this chapter as the normal Christian experience.
Paul describes a normal Christian as someone who experiences multiple versions of themselves. Sometimes she wants this, and sometimes she wants that. Sometimes he wants to be this, and sometimes he wants to be that.
I believe the Christian has and always will (until heaven) possess conflicting desires, as described in Romans 7:15 and restated in verse 19:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Let’s look at four fictional Christians and how Romans 7 can set them free.
Sue grew up in church. She never knew a day when she did not know and trust Jesus. Her testimony always seemed, well, boring. Throughout her Christian life Sue wondered, “Am I missing something?” Sue did not struggle with bad sins, and for those she did struggle with, she found that with a little extra self-discipline, determination, Bible study and prayer, she could handle them. When those things stopped working, she could not restrain her anger or suppress her rising romantic desires and fantasies or alleviate her stress and anxiety. She felt spiritually desperate. Romans 7 can help Sue.
Sam was a dynamic ministry leader in the largest ministry on campus, and no one was surprised by his call to ministry. Yet even when God used him greatly, deep inside Sam felt there must be something more to the Christian life. Fast forward 10 years into his life as a pastor, and someone says, “Hey, Sam, you’ve got to read this book.” He did, and it changed his life. The book talked about what was missing in Sam’s Christian life, and he thought he’d found the secret to something more. Romans 7, however, solves the riddle of Sam differently.
Samantha had always felt the weight of her sin. Those closest to her said, “Samantha is unhealthily introspective, constantly checking her spiritual pulse to see how she’s doing.” Then Samantha did something far worse than anything she had ever done before, worse than anything she ever dreamed she could do. It was traumatic. Samantha did not know what to do; she had no categories for what happened. Romans 7 provides the spiritual resource Sandy needs.
Stewart believed everyone is basically good. “So,” he reasoned, “if someone does something really evil it must be because something bad happened to them.” But then Stewart did something really evil, and nothing bad had happened to him. Stewart’s view of human nature was crushed. His view of himself was shattered. Romans 7 calls Stewart to healing.
In Romans 7, Paul is not saying everything there is to say about the Christian life, but he is saying something crucial: Own your struggle with sin.
Why does the Christian still sin, still have conflicting desires? The answer is because Biblical life change is a heart transformation, not a heart transplant. Life change is not dualism — old heart versus new heart. Life change is God restoring and healing our heart.
Practically speaking, life change for a Christian looks like the dethroned sin condition still having desires while the restored you also has desires at the same time. This is why Paul says, “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (verse 17). When the Christian sins, it is no longer their true self, the real self in union with Christ, or their identity in Christ who does it, but rather the old false self.
Own your struggle with sin because it is a gracious mark of being a Christian, not the shocking evidence that something is wrong with you or proof that you are missing something. Ultimately, what is wrong with all of us and missing in all of us is glory, as discussed in Romans 8.
The Christian is free to joyfully and fearlessly struggle with sin in the same way one of the most godly men who ever lived struggled in Romans 7:24-25: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul’s cry is the normal Christian life. Imagine a life of such freedom. Imagine relationships built around such safety, acceptance and encouragement. Imagine a church culture of such humility and gutsy grace. Imagine Romans 7 becoming real.