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When We Were in the Flesh

Should Rom. 7:7ff. Shape the Christian’s Self Image?

by Jon Zens

“It must be granted that we Calvinists have had a difficult time maintaining a proper self image. I find, for instance, that in the Form for Baptism used by our Christian Reformed Church, we are admonished “to loathe ourselves,” while in the old Lord’s Supper Form, we are told that we must “abhor ourselves.”

We have a similar situation with some of our hymns. We used to sing a version of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” which went like this in the second stanza:

And from my smitten heart with tears,
Two wonders I confess:

The wonders of His glorious love
And my own worthlessness

But the hymn that takes the prize here — still unchallenged, I’m sorry to say — is Isaac Watt’s “Alas and did my Savior bleed,” the first stanza of which ends as follows:

Would He devote that sacred head,
For such a worm as I?

Generally, in our Calvinistic circles, we have a self image that accentuates the negative. We see ourselves commonly through the purple-colored glasses of total depravity. We have been writing our constant sinfulness in capital letters and our newness in Christ in small letters.”

(Anthony Hoekema, “The Christian Self Image A Biblical and Theological Study,” Preceedings of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies[April, 1971], pp. 108-115), quoted by Dr Edward McAllister, “The Self Concept Structure of Evangelical/Fundamentalist Ministers,” Russell Sage College, Troy, New York, 1981, pp 1-2.

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How we view ourselves obviously has the utmost of practical effects in our Christian experience. If we have an essentially negative view of ourselves, we will be of little service to others. If our self image is low, we will find ourselves in a spiritual quandary. If we have a positive view of ourselves, then we are in a position to serve others, for we can only then love others as we love ourselves (Galatians 5:13-15). In any event, it is imperative that we come to a realistic, Scriptural view of ourselves.

The above observations of Dr. Hoekema, I believe, confront us with some facts we must face. I do not personally have a great problem with contemplating myself (in singing a hymn) as a “wretch” before my conversion. The problem comes when we transport this “worm”-syndrome over into our new life in Christ, and allow it to dominate our outlook.

The history of theology would indicate that the passage most often used to substantiate the frustrating struggle of the Christian in sanctification is Romans 7:7 ff. Historically, theological traditions that view Romans 7 as normal, inevitable Christian experience have produced people with essentially negative self concepts.

In my study of this passage over the last five years, I have come to the conclusion that Romans 7 describes pre-Christian, in the flesh, and under law existence. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers concerning this passage. But I do present the following reflections on this text for your consideration.

Paul’s Four Questions

In the section Romans 6:1-7 25, Paul asks and answers four questions. We must listen to what Paul is saying. One problem I have encountered in studying treatments of Romans 6-7 is that issues are raised and discussed that are foreign to the specific questions Paul is responding to.

Paul’s questions are:

(1) “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1)

(2) “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (6:15)

(3) “Is the law sin?” (7:7)

(4) “Was then that which is good made death to me?” (7:13)

Paul answers each one of these questions with a quick and decisive “May it never be!” and then elaborates.

Romans 5:12-21 — The Background for the First Question

In this section, Paul teaches that God deals with men in terms of two legal heads. By God’s appointment, Adam represented the human race. When Adam broke the law set before him, all men were brought under condemnation, and constituted as sinners (5:18-19). But by the obedience of one, Christ Jesus, all who believe are declared “not guilty” (justification) and constituted as righteous (3:22, 5:19).

In v 20, Paul teaches that the law came in along side of the reign of sin and magnified offenses. But where sin abounded, grace has now more abounded in Christ. This remark becomes the basis for Paul’s first question.

QUESTION #1

“Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”

If grace abounds where sin abounded, then perhaps we should keep on sinning so that grace will be magnified. “God forbid!” Paul immediately responds (6:2).

In 6:2-14, Paul further responds to this question, and indicates that all who have believed in Christ are also incorporated into His holy history — His death, burial and resurrection. To be in union with Christ is to be dead to sin and alive to God (6:4).

Based on the fact that Christians are “dead’’ to the reign of sin, and “alive” to God, Paul exhorts believers to not let sin reign in their bodies (6:11-12)

QUESTION #2

“Shall we sin, because we are not under law but under grace?”

In 6:14 Paul makes a categorical statement that sin can no longer reign experientially in the Christian because he is under a mighty reign of grace, not under a frustrating dominion of law.

John 1:14-17

The manifestation of this reign of grace is unfolded in John 1:14-17. The Word, Who created all things, came in flesh. This incarnation of God (“Immanuel,” God with us) was accompanied with glory, and Christ was “full of grace and truth” (1:14).

Those who are Christ’s receive of His fullness. This fullness comes to expression in the lives of believers in terms of “grace upon grace” (1:16, Greek: charin anti charitos) Literally, this means “grace in the place of grace” — like one wave rolling in after another endlessly on the shore.

John then immediately reflects upon what characterized the past age, and what now characterizes the new age. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (1:17). A reign of condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:9) has been succeeded by a reign of grace.

This does not mean that there was no “grace” under Moses, and no “law” in Christ. But it does mean that the coming of Christ ushered in grace in such a decisive way that it is as though grace is only now in the fullness of time bursting into human history (just as Paul marks the appearance of “law” with the time of Moses, Romans 5:13-14).

Can you now better understand what Paul means when he states that Christians are “not under law, but under grace” (6:14)? In the new age, “grace” is now our teacher (Titus 2 11-14).

But this causes a natural question to be raised: If we are no longer under law, does this open the door for us to sin? Again, Paul says, “God forbid!”

The question implies that if you do not have law to “hedge” a person he will be given to sin. Actually, the opposite it the case in Paul’s thought. He is implicitly saying in 6:14 that to be under law is equivalent to being under the dominion of sin. We must be out from under the dominion of law in order for sin not to lord it over us. In 7:6, this is exactly what Paul states: union with Christ releases us from the law, so that we can serve in “newness of Spirit.”

In 6:16-22, Paul explains that the Romans’ embracing of the gospel brought them to pursue holiness instead of their past life-style of sin.

The occasion for question #1 was the suggestion that grace abounds where sin abounded, the occasion for question #2 was the idea that the reign of grace might not be sufficient to keep the believer from sin.

The Background For Question # 3 — Romans 7:1-6

John Murray sees Romans 7:1 ff. as connected to the question asked in 6:15 (Romans, vol. 1, p. 239). Paul is going to illustrate this crucial point: When is it that Christians pass from being under law to being under grace?

The illustration of the woman and her husband, and the law becomes the springboard for Paul’s conclusion, “you brethren, have become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that you should be married to another . . . . that we should bring forth fruit to God” (7:4). “Marriage” (union) with Christ brings freedom from the power of sin — and the strength of sin, the law (1 Corinthians 15:56).

Note: the period when the law had dominion is pre-Christian, the period of newness of life is “in Christ. “ In terms of approaching Romans 7:7-25, then, we must ask ourselves, “What period of time — pre-Christian or post-Christian — does Paul seem to be dealing with?”

“When We Were in the Flesh” (7:5)

To me, 7:5 is crucial in seeing the direction Paul will take in 7:7 ff. Notice the components of this verse:

(1)  the time reference: “when we were in the flesh.” This refers to pre-Christian existence. In Romans 8:8, Paul states that those “in the flesh” cannot please God. In 8:9 he addresses Christians and says, “but you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.”

(2)  the condition in this state: “the passions of sins did work in our members.”

(3)  the agency in this state: “which were by the law.”

(4)  the result in this state: “to bring forth fruit to death.”

Romans 7:5 contains all the elements that are unfolded in 7:7-25. Notice the parallel of “passions of sins which were by the law” with 7:8, and the parallel of “fruit to death with 7:9, 10, 11, 13.

In 7:6, Paul goes on to joyfully exclaim, “but now [in the Spirit] we are released from the law . . .” The “now” indicates life in Christ, in stark contrast to life “in the flesh” (7:5). Union with Christ breaks the lordship of sin (6:14) and the reign of law (7:6). If union with Christ severs us from the law (7:6), and if the body of Christ makes us dead to the law (7:4), then this becomes the occasion for Paul’s third question.

QUESTION #3

“Is the law sin?”

If Christ releases us from the dominion of law, and puts us “under grace,” then is the law sinful? “May it never be!” Paul, in 7:7-12, explains that the law itself is “holy, and the commandment holy, and lust, and good. “ But this law — in contact with the sinner — stimulates the passions of sins (7:8) and results in death (7:10).

Paul’s points here — in response to question #3 — are that the law is not sinful, men are sinful, and that the law causes the offense to abound in sinful men. Clearly, the description in 7:7-11 is pre-Christian. Paul is showing that the law (which is good) has certain inevitable consequences upon men “in the flesh.”

Certainly, here, the law does not and cannot improve the sinner, it only stimulates the passions of sins and results in death. Sin, not law, is the cause of death, law acts only as an agent (7:8, 11).

QUESTION #4

“Was then that which is good made death to me?”

In light of 7:7-11, the conclusion might be drawn that the law  —  which Paul has shown is not sinful — nevertheless brings death. Romans 7:13 shows that sin brings forth death (cf. 6:23).

The “for” of 7:14 connects the following section with the question of v. 13. The section 7:14-25 has been cited as a prime example of the Christian struggle. Is this the case? I think not. Rather, I believe it is a further response to the question of what is to blame in the fruit of death.

“Sold under Sin”

In light of the clear descriptions of Christians in Romans 6 and 8 as those “in the Spirit” (8:9), those over whom sin no longer has dominion (6:14), as those who are “servants of righteousness” (6:18), as those who “mind the things of the Spirit” (8:5), etc., how can we here designate the Christian as “carnal, sold under sin [in] captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (7:14, 23)? The man in Romans 7 is struggling “under law,” not walking “under grace.”

 “The Good That I Would I Do Not”

Again, it must be asked, does this inability to do “the good” square with the clear New Testament description of the Christian as one who can accomplish good works? God is working in His elect to do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13, Hebrews 13:21). The man in Romans 7 is utterly frustrated — he simply cannot perform “the good” (7:18).

 “The Good”

What is “the good” in this context? I always used to read into “the good” the desire of the Christian to please God However, “the good” in Romans 7 is equated with the law The picture here is a man seeking to keep the law, but who cannot “the law is good but to perform that which is good I find not” (7 16,18)

 “I Delight in the Law of God after The Inner Man”

Many have submitted that this description cannot refer to an unregenerate man. However, this description can easily fit those who are “under law,” but have no capacity to fulfill it. Did the Jews not “delight” in God’s law? Robert Gundry observes:

“Agreement with and delight in God’s law . . . . do not reflect Christian experience, which would have to include performance as well (8:4); instead, they correspond to the zeal for the law Paul attributes to his pre-Christian self and to unbelieving Jews . . . . The zealous but unbelieving Jews Paul writes about do not delight in breaking the law. Though they break it, they learn it, rely on it, approve the excellent things it teaches, teach it to others, and boast in God — a description that matches agreeing with and delighting in the law (cf. Romans 2:17-20) . . . . The inner man is not the man in Christ, which has to do with sanctification (Ephesians 2:15, 4:24, Colossians 3:10), but the nonphysical part of man’s constitution, which has to do with physical feelings it . . . . should not surprise us that the unrenewed mind of a nomistic Jew agrees with and delights in God’s law.

(“The Moral Frustration of Paul Before His Conversion: Sexual Lust in Romans 7:7-25,” Pauline Studies, eds. Donald Hagner and Murray Harris [Eerdmans, 1980], p 235)

Think of all the Mormons, Adventists, etc, who truly profess to delight in the law, but who know in their hearts that they cannot produce performance. The man in Romans 7 has a “delight” for the law, but can only do the bad, and ends up in death. Hardly a description that can be reconciled with the Christian man in Romans 6 and 8.

 Galatians 5:17

But is not Romans 7:14-25 an expanded commentary of Galatians 5:17? No! Robert Gundry remarks:

“But wide differences separate the two passages. The desire of the Spirit figures prominently in Galatians 5:16-17, but delight in God’s law is related to the inner man or mind, not the Spirit, in Romans 7:14-25. In Galatians 5:16-17 the Spirit opposes the flesh, in Romans 7:14ff the mind, or inner man, opposes sin. In Galatians 5:16-17 the flesh is virtually equivalent to sin (cf. vv. 19-21), in Romans 7:14-25 flesh is equivalent to the members of the body, differs from sin as its dwelling place and means of action, and is sin’s victim rather than the Spirit’s opponent. The “I” suffers defeat in Romans 7:14-25, the Spirit gives victory in Galatians 5:16-17, 22-24. Romans 7:14-25 is a dismal description, Galatians 5:16-17 a confident exhortation . . . . Since “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24), the power of sin in Romans 7:14-25 makes Galatians 5:16-24 damaging rather than helpful to the case for regenerate experience in Romans 7:14-25 (“Moral Frustration . . . .,“ pp. 238-239).

Anthony Hoekema briefly observes that the atmosphere of Galatians 5:17 “is not one of defeat but victory” (“Excerpts from The Christian Looks At Himself,” Baptist Reformation Review, vol. 9, #3 [Autumn, 1980], pp. 16, 19). The phrase in Galatians 5:17, “so that you cannot do the things that you would,” is reflective of Paul’s confident assertion that if we “walk in the Spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” (5:16). Also, here in Galatians 5:18 is a general parallel with Romans 6:14 — “if you are led of the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

 Romans 8:1-4

Paul bursts forth with the declaration that “there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus” (8:1). The man in Romans 7 is “under law,” and condemned. But the Christian married to Christ is not condemned and is free to serve God and neighbor in newness of Spirit.

The man in Romans 7 is under the law of sin and death. That is obvious from any objective study of 7:7 ff. But the Christian man has been made free from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (8:2, cf 7:6).

The law could only magnify sin, it could not bring righteousness (8:3a). But in the historical manifestation of Christ sin was condemned in His flesh (8:3b). The goal of His manifestation was that the righteousness of the law would be fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit (8:4). The man in Romans 7 is totally lacking in actual performance. The man in Christ is actually able to do good works

 Why Romans 7:7 ff?

The issues covered in Romans 7:7 ff. were occasioned by Paul’s “under sin-under law/under grace-in the Spirit” discussion. Our release from the law in union with Christ (7:6) elicited the questions, “Is the law sin?” and “Is that which is good made death to me?” The content of 7:7ff cannot be located in the “under grace,” but the “under law” life-style Romans 7:5 stands as a summary of all that unfolds in 7:7ff and locates the “time” of these experiences “in the flesh.

 Some Implications

1.  Should Romans 7 shape the Christian’s outlook on himself? No. If the experience Paul describes in Romans 7:7 ff. takes place “in the flesh” (7:5), then it is wrong and misleading to direct the Christian to the negative, defeated outlook delineated in this section.

Rather, a positive “in Christ” perspective must control our self image. If “called,” then we are “justified” (Romans 8:30). We are not condemned, we are accepted for Christ’s sake by the Father. God does not view Christians as “worthless, filthy, vile worms.” They are viewed as absolutely righteous — covered by the imputed righteousness of Christ. They are viewed as “dead to sin and alive to God.”

To make Romans 7:7 ff. normal Christian experience will produce — and, historically, has produced — an unhealthy negativism towards one’s self, and results in depression, frustration, and a gloomy outlook. What else can you come away with if you take the passage seriously? The utterly positive presentations of Romans 6 and 8 must be the foundation of our self-image.

That is to say, our justification must daily control our approach to sanctification. We can never put our justification on the shelf in the name of “moving on” to better things in sanctification.

Our sins, our failures, and our shortcomings demand continual repentance, but our repentant sorrow arises out of an established relationship in which we come to the Father Who accepts us for the sake of His Son (cf. Appendix below).

2.  Is Romans 7:7 ff., therefore, irrelevant to Christians? No. This passage stands as a warning for Christians to maintain their “under grace” position, and avoid moving back “under law. “ The Galatians began to go backwards. Paul reminds them that they “began in the Spirit” (Galatians 3:3). Because of their growing “under law” orientation, Paul asks them “Where then is the sense of blessing you had?” (Galatians 4:15).

Spurgeon lamented that some wanted to leave Romans 7 (referring to the Keswick, “deeper life” movement), and said:

“Some glib professors talk of having got out of the 7th of Romans, I hope they will grow in grace until they get into the 7th of Romans! It seems to me as if they were in the 1st of Romans, so they have a long way to travel before they will get into the 7th of Romans” (Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 50, Sermon #2873, p 114).

But the “under law” experience of Romans 7:7 ff. should not be desired by any Christian.  The fact that so many feel comfortable in identifying with Romans 7 should perhaps indicate to us the kind of orientation we have in our conception of Christianity.

3.  Does our release from the law mean that we are under no moral obligation? No Paul sufficiently answers this query in 6:1 ff. and 8:9 ff. But consider the moral demand of the gospel. After explicating the gospel Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice” (12:1). The only appropriate response to the gospel is a sacrificial life-style.

Paul goes on in chapter 12 to explain some crucial areas where our sacrifice must be evidenced: “members one of another. . . in honor preferring one another . . . distributing to the needs of saints . . . given to hospitality . . . avenge not yourselves . . . feed your enemy . . . overcome evil with good .”

In response to the love of Christ in dying for us (John 13:34-35), we must (among many things) show mercy, make peace, turn our cheek, freely give, and love our enemies (Matthew 5:7, 9, 39, 42, 44).

The freedom (liberty) given to us by Christ (Galatians 5:1) must he channeled into loving service, particularized in the kind of things listed above from Romans 12 and Matthew 5 (Galatians 5:13). The most damaging thing about moving hack “under law’’ is that it incapacitates one from serving his neighbor. We must have our liberty in Christ in order to be useful to others. That is why people wrapped up in legalism are hindered from sacrificial deeds to others Instead, there is strife and every evil work (Galatians 5:15, 26, James 3:16).

 An Illustration

In the Reformed tradition, the view that Romans 7 describes inevitable Christian experience has generally, based on my observation and the comments of others who have grown up in this tradition, created the feeling of a dark cloud hanging over the head of too many. This often results in a negative self image because the “total depravity” of the believer is emphasized. But, as Hoekema points out, “total depravity” originally described men apart from grace, not men in grace (“Excerpts . . .,” Baptist Reformation Review, pp.14-15).

To give an example of what can happen with such an emphasis, consider the following story. A United Pentecostal pastor over a period of time came into the doctrines of grace. Finally, he felt he had to withdraw from that group. After leaving, he decided to visit a nearby Reformed church. He attended the morning and evening services for two consecutive Sundays, and then had breakfast with the Calvinistic pastor on that Monday.

The brother made the following observations “Pastor, in your public prayers, all you did was run the congregation in the ground by telling God what rotten, filthy failures you all were. In your preaching, you emphasized duty, duty, duty, and how far short the people were of what they should be doing. There was little encouragement. And the singing sounded like a funeral dirge.”

Of course, not all Reformed churches are like that. But why is it that this kind of “mood” is often present?

In order to avoid an atmosphere of depression and defeat, we must let Paul’s descriptions of Christians control our outlook on ourselves and others “there is therefore now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus . . . He has made us accented in the Beloved . . . Sin shall not have dominion over you . . . Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body . . . But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit . . . If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Romans 8:1; Ephesians 1:6; Romans 6:14, 11; 8:9; Galatians 5:25).

There is, I believe, much textual and contextual evidence to suggest that Romans 7:7 ff. should not be used to describe normal, inevitable Christian experience. If this is the case, a healthy, Biblical self image will not be encouraged or realized by pointing Christians to Romans 7:7 ff. As Hoekema, I believe, rightly observes:

The interpretation of Romans 7 given above has important implications for our view of the Christian self image. To understand the passage in this way does not imply that there is no struggle against sin in the Christian life, it only implies that Romans 7:13-25 does not describe that struggle in its usual form. I do not believe it is proper, for example, for a Christian who has fallen into some sin to quote from this passage as a kind of “excuse” for his lapse. I do not think it is a responsible use of the chapter for a believer to say, “It’s no wonder I fall so short of what I ought to be, for even the great saint, the Apostle Paul, had to confess, “I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It is Romans 8, not Romans 7, which pictures what the normal Christian life is like. Accordingly, the biblical view of the Christian’s self image is to be drawn, not from Romans 7, but from Romans 8 (“Excerpts . . .” Baptist Reformation Review, p. 20)

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 Appendix

Sanctification cannot exist without justification, for the heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification (C.C. Berkouwer). And justification cannot exist without sanctification any more than light can exist without heat.

The mainspring of Christian existence is justification by faith. Here is the pulsating heart of biblical revelation and all true evangelical religion.

Sanctification is what God does inside the believer. Important as it is, it is neither the basis of salvation nor the foundation of the Christian’s hope. Sanctification, of course, is a work of grace, but it is fed from the springs of a higher, more primary work of grace. Unless sanctification is rooted in justification and constantly returns to justification, it cannot escape the poisonous miasma of subjectivism, moralism or Pharisaism . . .

A life of sanctification (fellowship with God) is not possible unless we are first persuaded that we are acceptable and pleasing to God. This persuasion cannot be grounded on our past, present or future performance. God wants us first to know that He is fully satisfied with Jesus. He has found Him righteous, and with Him is well pleased . . . If a believer tries to live the Christian life to either secure or consolidate his acceptance with God, immediately the springs of free, grateful and spontaneous obedience are dried up . . . .

Since the life of holiness is fueled and fired by justification by faith, sanctification must constantly return to justification. Otherwise, the Christian cannot possibly escape arriving at a new self-righteousness. We cannot reach a point in sanctification where our fellowship with God does not rest completely on forgiveness of sins . . .

Justification and sanctification must be seen as two parallel lines which cannot meet this side of glory. Justification looks back to the finished work of God in Jesus Christ and declares you are complete (Colossians 2:10), sanctification points us away to the return of Christ and says, not already perfect (Philippians 3:12).

Why does and why must this paradox between justification and sanctification exist? It exists because of the separation of the two advents of Christ.

Justification, therefore, is no mere filling station along the way or nor mere door that we enter hut once. To accept God’s justification in faith is our whole work for our whole life. We never get past it. We never get beyond it. And certainly (as Luther warned many times) we never learn it too well.

(From How To Live The Victorious Life, Robert D. Brinsmead, pp 32-34, 4, 14, 22, 27).

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