The Dilemma of the Man of Romans Seven

By Colin and Russell Standish

Through the eyes of the pagan concepts contained in Manicheism, Augustine saw the man described in Romans chapter seven as a converted man, a man struggling, though saved. Since that time myriads, including large segments of evangelical Protestantism, have used the seventh chapter of Romans as a Biblical defense of the claim that we are saved in our sins. Paul's theme is not difficult to discern, and is succinctly summed up as follows:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. . . . 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 (Romans 7:15, 18-19).

The struggle between the Spirit and the flesh, as recorded in Romans chapters seven and eight, and in Galatians chapter five, greatly attracted the mind of Augustine, bishop of Hippo, because of his predisposition to the pagan concept of the balance of all cosmic forces within the universe. In Romans chapter seven Augustine perceived a cosmic tension between good and evil:

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Augustine saw an unresolvable conflict, a conflict where the flesh and the Spirit were ever in battle, with neither gaining the final victory or ascendancy. He saw a similar struggle in Galatians.

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Galatians 5:17).

Thus Augustine came to the conclusion that the converted man, whom he believed to be predestined of God to eternal life, would continue to sin throughout his life, unable to have victory over the works of the flesh. Others have claimed that Romans chapter seven does not represent man at his worst, but man at his best. One scholar expressed this view in the following words: "In short, Romans 7:14-25 . . . Paul is not describing himself at his worst, but himself at his best" (R. Brinsmead, Present Truth, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 61). But we have a number of grave problems with such a concept. The man of Romans chapter seven lacks even the slightest indication of the peace and contentment of those who are followers of Jesus Christ. It is little wonder that with unresolved frustration he cries out in great despair and helplessness,

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24).

The Central Question

The question of course that must be settled is whether Paul is here illustrating the experience of a regenerated Christian, or of a man who has as yet not given himself unreservedly to Christ. While man's reasoning cannot settle any Scriptural question, nevertheless, it would seem strange indeed if a man fully possessed by the Spirit of God, one who has fully surrendered self, were still doing the works of self. Further, if Christ had already become supreme in the life of this poor wretch, why does he not declare that Christ has delivered him, rather than cry out, "Who shall deliver me?", looking to Christ as his future deliverer? One cannot see in the plaintive cry of this tormented soul the absolute assurance so central to the theme of evangelical Protestantism. How different the turmoil of spirit and the repeated dejection of this man, from the calm victories of the redeemed who submit totally to God. Where is the confident assurance that Job expresses in his most pitiful dilemma?

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth (Job 19:25).

Where is the calm assurance of Paul as he faced the executioner's block?

For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

In Romans chapter seven we witness a man emotionally tormented and tortured. How do we reconcile a life of continued obedience with that of the man of Romans seven, who lived a life of continual disobedience? They are clearly not one and the same person. The problem of this man is plainly seen in the statement of Paul in verses seventeen and twenty.

Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. . . . Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me (Romans 7:17, 20).

How do we reconcile this man with the man of Galatians 2:20?

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

We cannot reconcile them, for one is described as a converted man and the other a man who is unconverted. Christ cannot reside in the life that is in bondage to Satan and sin. It is impossible. Now lest we be misunderstood, we make it clear that this man is not an atheist, an agnostic, nor is he a man who is indifferent to the claims of Christ upon his life. He sincerely and earnestly wants to be saved. He is doing everything he knows to do to measure up to the standard of salvation. But this man is trapped in the awful clutches of legalism, so common among many earnest but unsurrendered people. This man wants to be saved; he wants to live a life in harmony with the Lord; he wants to do good; but in his human strength he has failed miserably, and has reached a culminating crisis. He reaches the conviction at last, that he is wholly unable to live the life of a Christian. But with wonderful assurance, this man finds the answer to his agonizing dilemma.

I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:25).

Only through the daily, total surrender of his life to Christ will he ever live the life of a converted Christian. Only through the power of Jesus can he have victory and peace. We have spent many years in the study of psychology and, in the case of Russell, psychiatry as well, and full well we know the helpless misery of guilt. We understand that a large percentage of the psychiatric beds of hospitals could be closed if men and women were not suffering from the emotional trauma resulting from guilt. God has the only satisfying answer to guilt. The man of Romans seven has reached a state of neurotic despair. People have committed suicide when in this strait. Others, convinced that Christianity does not work for them, have severed any connection with Christianity, accepting that they will try to find a little pleasure out of this life and take the consequences of the life to come. Still others have decided that they can continue to sin and somehow find a way to enter the kingdom. But Paul gives the only true answer, that of victory through Christ. This answer is magnificently brought out in the eighth chapter of Romans as Paul continues his discourse on this subject.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).

The Internal Evidence

To hypothesize that the man of Romans seven could be a converted man is to deny the internal evidence of Paul's arguments here.

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin (Romans 7:14).

When we consider this wretched man who recognizes that he is carnal, sold under sin, in slavery and bondage to a life of defeat, we must compare his plight with the message of Romans 8:6.

For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace (Romans 8:6).

Before finding Christ as the sole answer to his life, this man is carnally minded and therefore on the broad road that leads to destruction. While he retains the carnal mind, he will never have peace. That peace comes to those who love the law of God.

Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them (Psalm 119:165).

Likewise, when we examine Galatians chapter five, we find exactly the same situation. To extract verse seventeen out of its context is to do grave disservice to the inspired counsel that Paul is giving.

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Galatians 5:17).

Let us look at verse sixteen.

This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).

Here the great victory that God wants for His children is presented. Verse eighteen confirms it.

But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law (Galatians 5:18).

So that we cannot in any way misunderstand his message, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. Some have carelessly claimed that if evil is defined in terms of our acts of sin, then righteousness must be defined in terms of acts also. But Paul, while defining evil in terms of works, defined righteousness in terms of fruit. The Holy Spirit transforms the character in harmony with the righteousness of Christ. From a holy life flow good works.

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in times past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:19-24).

It will be seen that evil of every kind will lead to eternal destruction, but that when Jesus reigns in our lives we will have fruit unto salvation. Salvation now; peace and contentment now; victory now; as opposed to the torment of those seeking salvation through their own efforts. The man of Romans seven finds victory only when he has acknowledged that he cannot be victorious of himself, that he must have the power of the indwelling Christ in his life. Once he has accepted Christ and has surrendered the totality of his will to Him, then he is indeed "a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). To hold the Augustinian view that Romans chapter seven deals with the converted man is a most dangerous pathway. It gives "security" to those who have no victory at all; it emasculates God's power and does not invite dependence upon Christ for strength to obey. Thousands of Christians are being deluded into a totally false assurance by this indefensible interpretation.

The Context

If only Romans chapter seven were studied in the context of the chapters before and after it, there would be no problem. The sixth chapter of Romans makes plain the fact that a man who has crucified self is free from sin and no longer is a slave to it.

Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin (Romans 6:6-7).

Every man is dead. We are either dead in trespasses and sin and thus a slave to sin; or we are, in Christ's strength, dead to sin and thus freed from it. The man of Romans seven falls into the first category, the man of Romans eight into the second. It is clearly a travesty of Scriptural interpretation to proclaim the manifest error that a man who is a slave to sin has reached the highest plane of Christian liberty. The carnally minded man cannot be accepted by God.

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8).

How could a man who is at enmity with God, who cannot please Him, and who minds the things of the flesh, have reached the acme of spiritual experience? Of course, there are still severe tests for the victorious Christian, but Romans seven depicts struggle and failure, while Romans eight depicts unbroken victory which ends in the great crescendo of the last few verses.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).

Sold Under Sin

It is helpful to understand that the term "sold under sin" is of Old Testament origin. On each occasion that it is used in the Old Testament it is applied to lost sinners. Never once is it used to describe one saved. Two instances of the use of this term are illustrated:

And Ahab said unto Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord (1 Kings 21:20).

And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger (2 Kings 17:17).

It was with the background knowledge of these Old Testament passages that Paul wrote Romans seven.

The power of Christ in the life provides liberation from the enslavement to sin.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).

As we compare Romans 7:17 and 20 with Galatians 2:20, we see the contrast. The unconverted man is controlled by indwelling sin; the converted man is fully empowered by Christ. The former has continual defeat; the second, continual victory. The former is a man in despair, the latter a man at peace. When this understanding of Romans chapters seven and eight is clearly assimilated, it will lead the believer to a daily surrender of his will to Jesus Christ, praying for Christ to take his life and work His miracle of salvation in him. It will be in this understanding that we will fulfill the counsel of James:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).

This submission must be the daily practice of our lives. How far such Pauline truth is from the teachings in most contemporary evangelical pulpits! We are not dealing here with peripheral issues. Eternity is at stake, in how we understand and respond to these central pillars of human salvation.

To learn more about the danger of the false doctrines seen in the Evangelical movement today and the extent of their spread order your own copy of the entire book The Evangelical Dilemma, by Colin and Russell Standish, from which this article was taken. This book is available through Hartland Publications: PO Box 1, Rapidan, VA, 22733. Phone: 1-800-774-3566. Or order online at

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