22 Sept 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Thirdly, this man appears to know nothing, either in understanding or in experience, of the Holy Spirit. Many commentators have paid insufficient attention to what Bishop Handley Moule called ‘this absolute and eloquent silence’ in Romans 7 about the Holy Spirit. He is mentioned only in verse 6. Since that verse characterisers the Christian era as the age of the Spirit, one would have expected this chapter to be full of the Spirit. Instead, Romans 7 is full of the law (mentioned, with its synonyms, thirty-one times). It is Romans 8 which is full of the Spirit (mentioned twenty-one times) and which calls the indwelling of the Spirit the authenticating mark of belonging to Christ (8:9). If then we are looking for a description of the normal Christian life we will find it in Romans 8; Romans 7, with its concentration on the law and its omission of the Spirit, cannot be held to describe Christian normality.
To sum up, the three salient features of the person portrayed in Romans 7:14-25 are that he or she loves the law (and therefore is regenerate), is still a slave of sin (and therefore not a liberated Christian) and knows nothing of the Holy Spirit (and therefore is not a New Testament believer). Who then is this extraordinary person?
If we approach the question from the perspective of ‘salvation history’, that is, of the story of God’s unfolding purpose, the ‘I’ seems to be an Old Testament believer, an Israelite who is living under the law, including even the disciples of Jesus before Pentecost and probably many Jewish Christian contemporaries of Paul. Such people were regenerate. Old Testament believers were almost ecstatic about the law. ‘Blessed is the man…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord (Ps. 1:1f.). The Lord’s precepts give both ‘joy to the heart’ and ‘light to the eyes’ (Ps. 19:8). ‘I delight in your commands because I love them’ (Ps. 119:47). ‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long’ (Ps. 119:97). This is the language of born-again believers.
But these same Old Testament believers who loved the law lacked the Spirit. And the penitential psalms bear witness to their inability to keep the law they loved. They were born of the Spirit but not indwelt by the Spirit. He came upon special people to anoint them for special tasks. But the prospect of the Spirit’s continuous indwelling belonged to the messianic age. ‘I will put my Spirit in you,’ God promised through Ezekiel (Ezk. 36:27). And Jesus confirmed this: ‘He lives with you and will be in you.’ (Jn. 14:17). It seems accurate, therefore, to describe pre-Pentecost believers in terms of ‘love for the law but lack of the Spirit’. And even after Pentecost it appears that many Jewish Christians took time to adjust to the transition from the old aeon to the new. To be sure, they loved the law, but they were also still ‘under’ it. Even those who had grasped that they were ‘not under law but under grace’ for justification had not all grasped that they should also be ‘not under law but under the Spirit’ for sanctification. They had not yet come out of the Old Testament into the New, or exchanged ‘the old way of the written code’ for ‘the new way of the Spirit’ (7:6).
Hence their painful struggle, their humiliating defeat. They were relying on the law, and had not yet come to terms with its weakness. In order to emphasise this, Paul identifies with that stage of his own pilgrimage. He proclaims the impotence of the law by dramatising it in the vivid terms of personal experience. He describes what happens to anybody who tries to live according to the law instead of the gospel, according to the flesh instead of the Spirit. The resulting defeat is not the law’s fault, for the law is good, although weak. The culprit is *sin living in me* (17, 20), the power of the indwelling sin which the law is powerless to control. Not until Romans 8:9ff will the apostle bear witness to the indwelling Spirit as alone able to subdue indwelling sin. Before that, however, he will refer specifically to the law as ‘weakened by the sinful nature’, and will declare that God himself has done what the sin-weakened law could not do. He sent his Son to die for our sins in that the law’s requirement might be fulfilled in us, provided that we live ‘not according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit’ (8:3-4). Only when the gospel has replaced the law, and the Holy Spirit the written code, can defeat be replaced by victory.
If the ‘wretched man’ of verse 24 is typical of many Jewish Christians of Paul’s day, regenerated but not liberated, under the law and not yet in or under the Spirit, does Romans 7 have any application to us today? Or must we jettison it as having historical interest only but no contemporary relevance? I want to suggest that there is both a wrong and a right way to apply this passage to ourselves. The wrong way is to regard it as a pattern of normal Christian experience, so that we all have to pass ‘through Romans 7 into Romans 8’. This would create a two-stage stereotype of Christian initiation, in which the Holy Spirit first regenerates us and only later indwells us, and in which defeat is the necessary prelude to victory. But that was a once-for-all, Old Testament/New Testament, ‘salvation-history’ development. God does not intend it to be repeated in everybody today. For we live on this side of Pentecost, so that the indwelling of the Spirit is the birthright and hallmark of all who belong to Christ (8:9).
The right way of applying Romans 7-8 is to recognise that some church-goers today might be termed ‘Old Testament Christians’. The contradiction implied in this expression indicates what an anomaly they are. They show signs of new birth in their love for the church and the Bible, yet their religion is law, not the gospel; flesh, not Spirit; the ‘oldness’ of slavery to rules and regulations, not the ‘newness’ of freedom through Jesus Christ. They are like Lazarus when he first emerged from the tomb, alive but still bound hand and foot. They need to add to their life liberty.
As we now turn to the text (14-25), it divides itself naturally into two paragraphs (14-20 and 21-25), both of which open with a positive reference to the law *We know that the law is spiritual* (14), and *in my inner being I delight in God’s law* (22). The tragedy is, however, that the writer (or rather the half-saved person Paul is impersonating) cannot keep this law. Nor can it keep (or save) him. So both paragraphs elaborate the weakness of the law, which is attributed to sin.