21 Sept 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Commentators still range themselves on both sides of this debate. The most eloquent recent defence of the ‘unregenerate’ position is provided by Douglas Moo. He sees Paul as ‘looking back from his Christian understanding to the situation of himself, and other Jews like him living under the law of Moses’. What was decisive for him in reaching his conclusion was the contrast between Paul’s self-designation here as sin’s slave (14) and his statements in Romans 6 and 8 of Christian freedom.
The most cogent statement of the alternative position has been provided by Charles Cranfield, who writes that these verses in Romans 7 ‘depict vividly the inner conflict characteristic of the true Christian, a conflict such as is possible only in the man in whom the Holy Spirit is active, and whose mind is being renewed under the discipline of the gospel’.
But neither position is wholly satisfactory. It would be as strange for unregenerate people to want ardently to do what is good as for regenerate people to confess that they cannot do it (15-19). How can a regenerate person, who has been set free from sin (6:18; 22; 8:2), describe himself as still its slave and prisoner (7:14, 23-25)? And how can an unregenerate person, who is hostile to God’s law (8:7), declare that he delights in it (7:22)? There is an inherent contradiction here, which make both extreme positions unacceptable.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones rejects both. Anyone who delights in God’s law ‘cannot possibly be…unregenerate’, and anyone who calls himself sin’s slave cannot possibly be a ‘fully regenerate’ person either. The wretched man’s cry is entirely incompatible with the profile of a Christian in the rest of the New Testament. He suggests, therefore, that the people Paul is describing are those who in times of revival are ‘brought under conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit’, feel themselves ‘utterly condemned’, struggle to keep the law in their own strength, but have not yet grasped the gospel. They are for a time ‘neither unregenerate nor regenerate’, for they experience ‘conviction but not conversion’. He cites John Bunyan’s intense agony of spirit portrayed in *Grace abounding* as an example, and refers to the teaching of several Puritans, especially William Perkins. My hesitation in accepting this view is that what distinguishes the people Paul is depicting, indeed impersonating, is not the unusual situation or revival, but rather their peculiar relation to the law. Their anomaly was that, although they were Christian enough to delight in God’s law, they were not Christian enough to obey it. They were making the mistake of looking to the law, instead of to the Spirit, for their sanctification.
Professor Dunn lays his emphasis on ‘the eschatological tension of being caught between the two epochs of Adam and Christ’. He believes that Paul is giving voice to his experience as a regenerate Christian, who had indeed died in Christ to sin and the law, but who has not yet fully shared in the resurrection. So he ‘is suspended (so uncomfortably) between the death and resurrection of Christ’. Consequently the believer’s ‘”I” is split, suspended between the epochs, divided between my belonging to Christ and my belonging to this age’. This is ‘the two- sidedness of the believers experience’, being simultaneously in Adam and in Christ, enslaved and liberated. And the piteous cry of verse 24 is for ‘escape from the tension of being suspended between the two ages’.
In response to this explanation, we must certainly agree that Christians are caught in the tension between the ‘already’ of the kingdom’s inauguration and the ‘not yet’ of its consummation, and that this tension can be painful. But is not the antithesis between freedom and slavery too stark for them to be combined in the same person at the same time? Can we really maintain that all Christians are simultaneously ‘set free from sin’ and ‘sold as slaves to sin’? This is not a tension, but a contradiction.
If we go back to the beginning, and try to construct a profile of the ‘I’ of Romans 7:14-25, we come up against three stubborn facts which cannot be avoided. First, he is regenerate. If the unregenerate mind is hostile to God’s law and refuses to submit to it (8:7), then somebody who loves God’s law and longs to submit to it is regenerate. Secondly, although regenerate, he is not a normal, healthy, mature believer. For believers ‘used to be slaves to sin’ but now ‘have been set free from sin’ and have become slaves to God and righteousness (6:17ff.), whereas this believer declares himself to be still the slave and the prisoner of sin (14, 23). True, conflict between flesh and Spirit is normal Christian experience, and Reformed commentators have tended to identity Romans 7:14ff. with Galatians 5:16ff. Thus Calvin writes in his comment on verse 15: ‘This is the Christian warfare between flesh and Spirit, of which Paul speaks in Gal. 5:17.’ (Gal. 5:16f.). But is it? Galatians 5 promises victory now to those who walk in the Spirit; Romans 7, however, while expressing assurance of ultimate deliverance (25), describes only unremitting defeat.