Romans 7:14-25 is a passage concerning which there has been a great deal of discussion and disagreement in the history of God’s church. The passage reads: “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 under the law that it is good. Now 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. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 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. 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.” There have been three main interpretations of this passage which may be summed up as follows: 1) The passage is Paul’s autobiographical account of his pre-conversion experience. 2) The passage is not autobiographical, but pictures man in general, or the Jew in particular, apart from Christ, under the law. 3) The passage describes Paul’s own experience as a believer. The first interpretation was that of Arminius himself. (Cf.Arminius: A Study In The Dutch Reformation, Carl Bangs, pp. 186 ff.) Others holding this view of the passage were Pelagius, Erasmus, Socinus, Episcopius, and Grotius. The second view, currently rather popular, was introduced by W. G. Kummel, a German theologian. This position is followed by H. Ridderbos (Paul) and A. Hoekema (The Christian Looks At Himself). Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Reformed theologians in general maintain the third view of the passage. It is not possible to give a detailed exegesis of this passage in one article and we do not intend to try. (Those who wish to study the passage in more detail may consult H; Hoeksema’sDogmatics, pp. 533-546.) What we wish to accomplish is to emphasize the importance of maintaining the correct view of this passage and, at the same time, to indicate some of the serious implications of the Arminian interpretation.
According to the Arminian this is Paul speaking of his experience and struggle before his conversion. In other words, this is unregenerate man speaking in Romans seven. Consider the serious, even absurd implications of this. If this view were correct it would mean that the unregenerate is able to know that the law of God is spiritual and that he is carnal, sold under sin (Rom. 7:14); condemns the evil which he does (Rom. 7:15); wills the good and hates the evil (Rom. 7:15, 19); wills not to do the evil (Rom. 7:16, 20); delights in the law of God (Rom. 7:22); thanks God through Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:24, 25). All this, according to the Arminian, is possible for one who is outside of Christ, who lacks the principle of the life of Christ. Such a person, it would seem, would have little need for a Savior!
This view runs contrary to the entire message and emphasis of the Epistle to the Romans. In chapter one Scripture describes the process of sin in the life of the reprobate (unregenerate). They refuse to glorify and thank God, they are vain in their imagination, they become fools, they change the glory of the uncorruptible God into images made like to corruptible man and animals, God gives them over to their lusts and all kinds of vile affections (homosexuality, lesbianism). These are the unregenerate according toRomans 1:18ff. Upon them the wrath of God is revealed. Who dares to say these unregenerate “delight in the law of God”? Scripture states categorically: “There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are altogether unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 2:10-12). Verses 13 through 18 (Romans 2) present a fearful description of all who stand outside of Christ, the unregenerate. The whole world of unregenerate stands guilty before God (Rom. 2:19).
This is Scripture throughout. Ephesians 2:1-3 speaks of the unregenerate in these terms: “And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” This is what we are by nature, apart from grace. The unregenerate is dead in trespasses and sins. He revels in sin. And he can do nought else. How is it possible for him to delight in the law of God or to hate sin? All who are outside of Christ and untouched by the grace of God are dead in sin. Jesus expressed this same truth to the seeking, questioning Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Unless a man be born anew with the spiritual resurrection life of Jesus Christ he cannot even see the Kingdom, much less enter it.
Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is this truth put more plainly than in Romans 8:5-7: “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmityagainst God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Notice, they who are after the flesh, the unregenerate, mind fleshly things. These surely do not hate evil and delight in the law of God! The reason they mind the things of the flesh is stated in verse six. To be carnally minded is death! The reason for this is stated in verse seven. The carnal mind, (literally, “the mind of the flesh,” R.D.D.) is enmity (hatred) against God. That mind of the flesh is not subject to the law of God and it cannot be subject to the law of God. The carnal mind does not have the ability to be subject to the law of God! How then could the unregenerate person delight in the law of God! Absurd! This is the doctrine of total depravity. Man by nature, and this means apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, is inclined to all evil and incapable of doing any good. By nature he is prone to hate God and the neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days II, III).
The Reformed interpretation (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et. al.) of Romans seven is certainly correct. This passage describes for us what is normal in the life of the child of God. The difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate is not that the former does nothing but sin while the latter sins no more. The unregenerate deliberately and willingly transgresses God’s law. He holds the truth under in unrighteousness. And he delights in that. He loves sin. God’s child, born again with the life of Christ, sins but he hates that sin. He fights against sin and flees from evil. He strives to serve the. Lord and finds his joy in doing the will of God. When he through weakness falls into sin he neither despairs of God’s mercy nor continues in sin. Rather, he is earnestly sorry for his sins. He confesses them before God and in godly sorrow he repents (II Corinthians 7:10). All of this is impossible for the unregenerate. He cannot be subject to the law of God (Romans 8:7).
This is the teaching of Romans 7:14-25. The regenerated child of God still retains “the flesh” (Rom. 7:18), “indwelling sin” (Rom. 7:17, 20), “another law in his members” (Rom. 7:23). This “flesh” Scripture elsewhere calls the “old man of sin.” (Cf. Ephesians 4:20ff.) That “old man” must be put off. According to the flesh the regenerated child of God is “carnal,” “sold under sin.” He does evil and fails to do good. According to “the inward man” (Rom. 7:22), or the “new man” (Ephesians 4:20ff.), or what we call the principle of regeneration, the child of God wills the good and hates the evil and delights in the law of God. The regenerated child of God cries out, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?” In the same breath he exclaims, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24, 25).
This means that the life of the spiritually healthy child of God is characterized by tension. Precisely because he is born again he has a deep, profound awareness of his sinful nature and the sins he daily commits according to that sinful nature. When he confesses in the communion of the saints, “I believe. . . the forgiveness of sins,” he is confessing “that God for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature (emphasis mine, R.D.D.), against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 56). The battle of faith begins and rages within the child of God. Daily he strives to serve his Lord, daily he sins, daily he repents of his sin and strives against it. This continues until the Lord delivers him to glory where he shall sin no more.
That is the glory which awaits God’s children. Through death we shed the “flesh,” the “old man of sin.” Finally, in the new heaven and earth, we shall be raised up incorruptible, immortal, and we shall rejoice in God’s presence through our Lord Jesus Christ forever. In his characteristic way Martin Luther put in like this:
Paul, good man that he was, longed to be without sin, but to it he was chained. I too, in common with many others, long to stand outside it, but this cannot be. We belch forth the vapors of sin, we fall into it, rise up again, buffet and torment ourselves night and day; but, since we are confined in this flesh, since we have to bear about with us everywhere this stinking sack, we cannot rid ourselves completely of it, or even knock it senseless. We make vigorous attempts to do so, but the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited in the grave. (Luther, Cited by C. Pronk, The Outlook, Nov. 1978)