Grace Theological Journal 2.2 (Fall 1981) 239-57
Copyright © 1981 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
PAULINE TENSION IN THE
DAVID S. DOCKERY
The interpretation of Rom -25 has been problematic his-
torically. Does the passage reflect Paul’s pre-conversion experience
under the law? This was a major interpretation of the church fathers,
or does this passage describe Paul’s tension in the Christian life? The
latter position is defended here by an interpretation of the
considerations and an examination of the theological implications.
* * *
ROM 7:14-25 has without exaggeration been described as "the most
discussed and fought over part”1 of the epistle. In this grand
epistle there are several perplexing problems for the interpreter.
Without a doubt, Rom 5:12-21 and 9:1-11:36 guarantee a difficult
task for the interpreter.2 Yet, as MacGorman says, "My nomination
for the most difficult passage in this letter to interpret is Romans
7:1-25.”3 Nygren says:
It presents us with one of the greatest problems in the New Testament.
It was already recognized in the first century; and since that time it has
never come to rest. (4)
The predominant question in the interpretation of these verses is
one on which there have been deep-seated differences of judgment in
1. A. Nygren, A Commentary on Romans, translated by C. Rasmussen
2. Cf. S. L. Johnson. Jr.. "Romans 5:12-An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology” in
New Dimensions in New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 298-316,
and B. Corley, "Romans 9-11”in Southwestern Journal of Theology 19 (Fall, 1976) 43ff.
3. J.W. MacGorman, "Romans 7 Once More," in Southwestern Journal of
Theology 19 (Fall, 1976) 31.
4. Nygren, A Commentary on Romans, 284.
240 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the history of the church.5 This essay will seek to answer the
important exegetical questions and attempt to relate it to Paul's
theology. Romans 7 is thus seen as one of the pivotal passages in
Since the passage is located at the heart of Paul's explanation of
the outworking of one's salvation, the view which is adopted will have
a tremendous impact upon one's theology of the Christian life. "One
side sees too much bondage to sin for a Christian, and the other sees
too much desire for the good for a sinner.”6 A proper understanding
of the nature of indwelling sin will have a significant effect upon the
first of these views, if indeed it can be demonstrated that this passage
refers to the Christian experience.
In this section and the previous verses (7-13), Paul appears to be
speaking autobiographically. The reader cannot help but notice the
extensive use of the personal pronoun "I." In vv 7-21, Paul uses “I,”
“me” and “my” no less than 46 times, as translated in the NASB. In
the Greek text, the eight emphatic uses of the personal pronoun “I”
further enhance that aspect. The question which must be answered is
whether this usage is rhetorical, typical, or autobiographical.7
In vv 14-25, Paul continues to speak in the first person singular,
but he leaves the past tense and turns to the present tense. The
meaning and significance of this change has great bearing upon one’s
interpretation. The problem that should be considered “concerns the
temporal reference of the passage and the identity of the subject.”8
What sounded like past testimony in vv 7-13 seems to be present
experience in vv 14-25. Present tenses regularly describe action or
state of being which is contemporary with the writer. The present
tenses also signify a characterization of condition.9
The third problem is the meaning of the anthropological or
psychological terms which are so frequently used, as well as the
5. J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT;
6. D. Moody, Romans, in The Broadman Bible
Commentary (12 vols.,
Broadman, 1970) 10.207.
7. C. E. B. Cranfield in his commentary on Romans lists several suggestions which
have been proposed. He concludes that it is “an example of the general use of the first
person singular.” He continues saying that this is “due not, merely to a desire for
rhetorical vividness, but also to his deep sense of personal involvement, his conscious-
ness, that in drawing out the general truth, he is disclosing the truth about himself.
Cf. Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975) 1.343.
8. R. Y. K. Fung, “The Impotence of the Law: Toward a Fresh Understanding of
l4-25,” in Scripture, Tradition, and
Eerdmans, 1978) 34.
The present tenses are sometimes taken as historical presents to describe the
past in a vivid manner, but this is the exception and not the normal interpretation.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 241
intensity of the language expressed in military terms. The definition
of these terms will be most important for a proper understanding of
the conflict described.
The fourth major problem is the usage of “law.” The interpreter
must seek to determine whether it is law as principle, the law of God
(Torah), or another possible meaning. The context will aid greatly in
the consideration of this question.
Throughout the history of the Church, many interpretations
have been offered for this much-debated passage. It is not my
purpose to explain each of these views, but only to summarize briefly
those which are significant. The various interpretations, as it will be
seen, cannot necessarily be grouped into certain theological or
denominational camps. Does the passage describe his present struggle
as a Christian or his former experience as a man under law? Or does
it possibly transcend the "then" and "now" categories?10
It is much debated whether the experience recounted is that of
Paul as an unregenerate or as a regenerate person.11 The former
position has generally been the prevalent view of most interpreters.
Interpreters who take this position point especially to v 14, "I am
made of flesh sold under the bondage of sin," and affirm that this
could hardly be said of a Christian, especially in light of Paul's
statement in Romans 6. The Greek fathers generally adopted this
position, as have Althaus, Kertelge, Kuzinger, Dodd, Sanday-
Headlam, Moffatt, and Wesley.12 Kurzinger says that to understand
Romans 7 as referring to Paul's post-conversion experience is a
misunderstanding of Paul's intent.13
The change of tense is explained by exponents of this view in
terms of a close logical connection between the two sections; the
latter section merely describes the result of the irrevocable history
10. J.W. MacGorman, "Romans 7 Once More." 34.
11. For a detailed summary of the various views, the reader is encouraged to see
S. Lyonnet, "L 'historre du salut selon le chapitre vii do l'epitre aux Romains," Bib
43 (1962) 117-51, and A. Nygren, A Commentary on Romans, 284ff.
12. See the listings in K. von Kertelge, "Exegetische Uberlegungen zum Verstandnis
der paulinischen Anthropologie nach Romer 7," ZNW62 (1971) 105, and MacGorman,
"Romans 7 Once More," 35. C. H. Dodd is probably the outstanding representative of
Cf C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the
13. J. Kursinger, "Der Schlussel zum Verstandnis von Rom 7," BZ 7 (1963) 274.
242 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
narrated in the earlier section, but both the history and result are a
part of the past. (14) One of the difficulties involved in this view is v 25b,
if actual deliverance has arrived in the preceding verses (14-25a).
Thus, men like Michel attempt to transpose the verses,15 but there is
absolutely no textual evidence for such a transposition.16 The sugges-
tion involves supposing a drastic change in subject between v 24 (non-
Christian) and v 25a (Christian).17
Bornkamm notes that there seems to be a growing consensus
that this interpretation is the case of Paul, that of viewing his non-
Christian experience through his present experience. Thus, this view
holds that Paul is writing in general about man under the law, man
before converion, man seeking to live righteously by his own efforts.
He makes his account vivid, therefore, by illustrating its verification
through his own experience. The above interpretation primarily views
this section as autobiographical, though this does not rule out the
possibility of typical application.
This perspective owes its revival in modern theology to Pietism
and was the dominant interpretation of Romans 7 at the beginning
of this century. It is thus seen in contrast to Romans 8, which
describes the transition for Paul from law to grace.
There are some interpreters who understand the emphasis of the
passage to be the law. It says that it is "the experience of any man
who tries the experiment, whether he be regenerate or unregenerate.18
Thomas sees these verses as describing "a man who is trying to be
good and holy by his own efforts and is beaten back every time by the
power of indwelling sin."19 Thus he concludes that the conflict
represented is not between the two natures of the believer, but refers
to the effect of the law on a heart that recognizes its spirituality.20
14. Cf. G. Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience (2 vols.,
15. 0. Michel, Der Brief an die
16. R. Y. K. Fung, "The Impotence of the Law," 35.
17. Ibid. Also cf. J. Kurzinger, "Der Schlussel zum Verstandnis von Rom 7," 271,
who says that v 25b is the key to this interpretation.
18. W. H. Griffith Thomas,
Commentary (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1911) 42.
19. lbid. It must be stated in response to this view that the present tenses in these
verses cannot be understood as tendential presents. The present tenses cannot be
handled in such fashion due to contextual considerations.
20. Ibid., 44.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 243
Similarly, C. L. Mitton states that the text is
a description of the distressing experience of any morally earnest
whether Christian or not, who attempts to live up to the commands of
'on his own' (au]toj
e]gw< ), without that constant reliance upon the
uninterrupted supply of the resources of God which is characteristic of
the mature Christian. It is essentially applicable to a man 'under the
law,' even if he be nominally a Christian. It can also be true of the
converted Christian who has slipped...into a legalistic attitude to
God and to righteousness 21
In this interpretation, “the present tenses describe not merely a past
experience but one which is potentially ever-present.”22 Lightfoot notes
that the important aspect of this interpretation is the understanding
of au]toj e]gw. 23
This view is regarded as autobiographical by some interpreters
and non-autobiographical by others.
There have been some commentators who have understood this
passage to refer to the years immediately following Paul's conversion.
It is thus a picture of someone who loves the law of God and longs to
do it but is forced by a stronger power than himself to do things
which he detests. This is "no abstract argument but the echo of the
personal experience of an anguished soul.”24 It is supposedly a
description of Paul still living under the law before learning of the life
according to the Spirit. While being primarily autobiographical, it
can also be understood representatively of all young or immature
There are many who either expound this view or lean in its
direction. It has become very prevalent in parts of evangelicalism,
especially in "victorious life" circles.25 The basis for such an interpre-
tation is the conspicuous absence of the Holy Spirit and the prevalent
usage of "I." This is contrasted with the relative absence of "I" in
Romans 8 and the emphasis upon the Holy Spirit. Those advocating
this position see the passage as a struggle between the two natures in
21. C. L. Mitton, "Romans vii Reconsidered," ExpTim 65 (1954) 133.
22. A. M Hunter, The Epistle to the Romans (London: SCM, 1955) 74.
J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles
1895) 305. It should be noted that this interpretation is dependent on many other important
factors which lead to this position.
24. M. Gougel, The Birth of Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), p. 213.
25. Cf. L.S. Chafer, He That Is Spiritual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1918), 115-18.
244 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the believer. In Romans 7, the old nature is viewed as the victor
because he has chosen to be under the law and not under grace (cf.
Rom and Gal 5: 16-21). Thus, defeat is inevitable because there is
no spiritual victory under the law. Romans 7 “describes the abject
misery and failure of a Christian who attempts to please God under
the Mosaic system.”26
Concerning the inability of a Christian to live a successful
spiritual life under the law, it can be said that,
The child of God, in his inner nature, desires to obey the Mosaic
commandments, but his sin nature immediately thwarts his noble
intentions. The fault lies not with the law, but with the Christian. It is
important then to see that the conflict of the believer in Romans 7
takes place under the law.27
Likewise, Fung, with reference to the Christian's inability,
the implication of the present passage would seem to be that the
Christian is not to live hypo nomon, submitting to the law of God as a
legal code and trying to keep it by his own efforts, for neither these nor
God's law can enable him to overcome his indwelling sin; but that he is
to walk kata pneuma, who imparts that power which the law cannot
supply, and who alone can break the domination of sin and flesh in the
Christian's life and enable him to fulfill the righteous requirements of
These men agree that this is not spiritual victory and add that one
does not permanently remain in Romans 7, but moves upward into
Romans 8, which is a higher level of the Christian life.29 Ramm asks,
"What mature Christian has not occasionally felt I'm in Romans 7
again?”30 He then adds, "How well many of us know that we cannot
get to Romans 8 without going through Romans 7.31 Thus, Romans 7
is viewed as the picture of a carnal believer or one on a lower plain of
spirituality. This view is both autobiographical and typical in that it
can apply to all believers.
S. D. Toussaint, "The Contrast Between the Spiritual Conflict in Romans
7 and Galatians 5,” BSac 123 (1966) 312.
28. Fung, "The Impotence of the Law,” 45-46.
29. B. Ramm, "The Double and Romans 7,” Christianity Today (April 9,
30. Ibid., 19.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 245
Augustine at one time understood Paul to be speaking in the
name of the unregenerate man, but later retracted his earlier view and
maintained that Paul was speaking in his own name as a Christian.32
This perspective has been adopted to a
large extent by the
Church, by the Reformers, the Puritans, and by some of the ablest
scholars of recent times. (33) The Reformers said that Rom -25 is a
picture of a righteous man who is still a sinner. Luther said, "homo
simul iustus et peccator bezogen."34 Calvin also adopted this view but
had difficulties applying v 14 to a Christian, so he regarded the
transition as taking place at v 15.35 Those who take this to be the
condition which characterizes the Christian life point to v 22, "I
joyfully agree with the law of God in the inner man." These
commentators argue that an unconverted person could hardly speak
in such a manner. Furthermore, great significance is placed upon the
consistent use of the present tense throughout the passage. J. I. Packer
maintains that "the only natural way for Paul's readers to interpret
the present tenses of verses 14ff. is as having a present reference,"
since there is no recognized linguistic idiom which will account for
the change of tense.36
This final option, probably the minority interpretation, is offered
in this paper. The two primary reasons for this position are: (1) that it
seems to be the most normal interpretation of Romans 7 itself and of
Romans 7 in its immediate context, and (2) it presents a picture of
Paul's larger understanding of what the experience of grace means to
each believer in his present state. It is a picture of tension, that of life
in the Spirit and the flesh in the dual nature of Christian experience.
Chapter seven might be characterized as the great contradiction.
It has been said that, "nowhere else in the letters, and nowhere else in
32. Cf. Cranfield, Romans,
Ibid., 345-46, lists advocates of this view as Methodius, the Latins,
Augustine, Ambrose, Ambrosiaster, Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Nygren, Barrett, and Murray.
Cited by Kertelge, "Exegetische Überlegungen," 106. This simply means
that a person is righteous and a sinner at the same time
35. J. Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947) 149.
J. I. Packer, "The Wretched Man of Romans 7," Studia Evangelica 2: I
(1964) 624. He adds that the use of the historic present in the gospels to give vividness to the
narrative does not provide a parallel, for here the narrative part is in the aorist, and
what is in the present is not narrative, but generalized explanatory comment.
246 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
ancient literature, Greek or Jewish, is there such a penetrating
description of man's plight and
contradiction as in
The first six verses of the chapter assert strongly the fact of the
believer's death to the law. This is done by a somewhat imperfect
analogy with the husband and wife. The following verses demonstrate
the character of the law, i.e., it is "holy, just and good." This is done
by expressing the character of the law and its relation to Paul in his
transitional experience before his conversion (7:7-13). This can be
demonstrated primarily by the past tense verbs. The shift to the
present tense in vv 14-25 is indicative that this section describes Paul's
struggle with sin as a believer. Vv 24 and 25 form a conclusion to this
There are three cycles that can be seen in the apostle's discussion
of the problem of indwelling sin. The first cycle contains vv 14-17.
The second cycle, which is almost a repetition of the first, involves
vv 18-20. The conclusion of the passage, containing vv 21-25, com-
poses the third cycle. The results arrived at in each cycle are the same.
All reveal the unhappy condition of one who is a bond- slave to
In v 14, there is a significant change in the verb tenses. The
present tenses thus inform the reader that the statements of vv 14-25
are characteristic of the apostle's life, and by application this
characterization still holds true for all believers. This is the first
reason for interpreting this much disputed passage as applicable to
the Christian. Some have suggested that these are historic presents
but, following Packer, this is to be rejected.
Paul, inversely, wants it understood that he is not depreciating
the law. In the first section of this chapter, he says that the law is
(vv 22, 25) who is Spirit (John ).”38 Paul then proceeds to contrast
this with the character which is "fleshen, sold under the bondage of
sin." For those who recognize this section as referring to the Christian,
this phrase presents the most difficult problem.39
The law is recognized as spiritual, which refers to its divine
origin and character. Since it is spiritual, it is possessed of those
qualities which are divine-"holy, just and good." In vv 14, 16
and 22, the apostle is primarily referring to the Mosaic Law.
The comprehension of έγώ, which occurs in vv 14, 17, 20, and 24
takes the interpreter a long way toward the interpretation of vv 14-25.
37. G. Bornkamm, The New Testament: A Guide to its Writings Phi1ade1phlia: Fortress, 1973) 107.
38. E. F. Harrison, "Romans," The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (12 vols.,
39. Bruce Corley and Curtis Vaughan, Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 87.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 247
The best solution is to apply the e]gw< to the life of every Christian and
the dialectic simul iustus et peccator. The "I" should be referred to
the unregenerate state in vv 7-13, but to the regenerate in vv 14-25.
The first person singular is used just as it has been throughout
the chapter, but now for the first time with the present tense. Some
expositors want to insist that this idea belongs to a stage of the
Christian life which can be left behind, a stage in which the Christian
is living under the law or struggling in his own strength. But
We are convinced that it is possible to do justice to the text of
Paul-and also to the facts of Christian living wherever they are to be
observed-only if we resolutely hold chapters 7 and 8 together, in spite
of the obvious tension between them, and see in them not two
successive stages but two different aspects, two contemporaneous
realities, of the Christian life, both of which continue so long as the
Christian is in the flesh.40
The domination of sin describes Paul's condition. Because of the
similar statement in I Kgs. and 2 Kgs ,41 it has been said
that this phrase (Rom 7: 14b) is proof that the passage could not refer
to the regenerate.42 In the OT passages, the person is the active agent;
in the Romans passage, he is subjected to a power that is alien to his
own will. Thus, Paul is seen to deplore this power which has
domination over him. He recognizes it for what it truly is--sin.
Though on the surface the phrase appears to prove that the passage
cannot refer to a regenerate person, the situation is actually quite the
opposite.43 "The more seriously a Christian strives to live from grace
and submit to the discipline of the gospel, the more sensitive he
becomes to the fact that even his very best acts and activities are
disfigured by the egotism which is still powerful within him--and no
less evil because it is often more subtly disguised than formerly."44
Yet this is no excuse for complacent Christian living, but even more
of an exhortation to push forward in the Christian life.45 The
dilemma involves that which is willed contrasted to that which is
done.46 This man wills and fails to do and does what he does not will.
40. Cranfield, 1. 356.
41. The Hebrew is the Hithpael j~r;k,mat;hi
42. S0 J. Denney, "
Testament (5 vols.; reprint;
teachings has led many to misunderstand this difficult text.
44. Cranfield, Romans,
45. For an excellent discussion of this important subject, see G. C. Berkouwer, Faith
and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952) 59ff.
46. G. Schrenk, "qe<lw" TDNT 3 (1965) 50.
248 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The willing and doing are irreconcilably opposed.47 "Willing" is
linked with katerga<zomai in vv 15, 18, and 20; pra<ssein in vv l5
and 19; and poiei?n in vv 15, 16, 19, 20, and 21.48
It is here (v 15) that Paul begins the series of contradictions
which are taking place in his life. "For that which Paul is continually
doing, he does not know." Paul, by ou] ginw<skw, probably does not
mean "I do not know," but "I do not delight in" or even better, "I do
Paul knows what he is doing, but does not approve of it. This
power of sin, to which he is enslaved, dominates him. Again it should
be observed that he recognizes sin for what it is and is judging it as
evil. This is an act which only a regenerate man can do-that is, to
agree with God concerning sin.
With Paul, the willing is present, but the doing is absent. Paul is
willing to do good. "Willing" denotes "definite purpose and readiness
to do the divine will" and is opposed by his "doing.”50 The verse ends
with the phrase describing his hatred for his actions. He despises that
which he is doing because it is opposed to the divine will of God.
The problem is the indwelling sin, which not only existed and
wrought in him, but had its abode in him, as it has in all those who
are regenerated and will have so long as they are in the body. Paul's
intention is not to escape from his responsibility for his actions, but
rather "to show how completely he is under the thraldom of
indwelling sin.”51 Man's history is so obviously in opposition to God
that he must acknowledge in effect, "Adam is in me."52 Such is
Paul's statement in v 17, which is restated and amplified in vv 18-20.
(1) The flesh is wholly sinful-no good thing dwells in it.
(2) The flesh is still associated with his person-the flesh is his flesh
and it is in him.
(3) Sin is also associated with his person, for it is in his flesh that sin
Sin is not external, but it is internal because it is "in my flesh.”
Flesh, therefore, should not be understood as an external, peripheral
48. Ibid. Also cf. C. Maurer, " pra<ssw” TDNT 4 (1967) 636-38.
49. Cf. Murray, Romans, 261.
50. Schrenk, “qe<lw” 50.
51. Fung. "The Impotence of the Law," 43.
52. R. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971) 92.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 249
factor.54 The meaning of "flesh" in Paul's thought is "the willing
instrument of sin, and is subject to sin to such a degree that wherever
flesh is, all forms of sin are likewise present and no good thing can
live in the flesh.”55
It is clear that the word has an ethical sense and refers to man or man's
human nature, considered from the standpoint of his weakness and
creaturely state in contrast to God, and also as the seat of sin...the
flesh has absolutely no good in it. This is because it is ruled by the sin
principle, not because there is inherent evil in the flesh!56
Flesh can have a purely neutral sense. It is because of its
association with "sin" in vv 17 and 25 that it has this ethical sense.57
Dunn comments on Paul's usage of flesh:
As is generally recognized, sa<rc in Paul is not evil, otherwise he could
not use it in a neutral sense, or speak of it being cleansed (2 Cor. 7:1).
Flesh is not evil, it is simply weak and corruptible. It signifies man in
his weakness and corruptibility, his belonging to the world. In
particular it is that dimension of the human personality through which
sin attacks, which sin uses as its instrument (Rom 7:5, 18, 25)-thus
sa<rc a[martia<j. That is to say, sa<rc a[martia<j does not signify guilty man,
but man in his fallenness--man subject to temptation, to human
appetites and desires, to death, The "sinful flesh" is nothing other than
the "sinful body" (Rom 6:6), the "body doomed to death" (Rom. ).58
Paul indeed desires to achieve what is good. But actually he
achieves the evil which he does not desire, namely death.59 He
explains that there is a great contradiction between his principles and
his conduct. The reason is that in his flesh there "dwells no good
thing." In himself, he was entirely depraved. He was definitely a
renewed man, but in his flesh, there was nothing good.
The final verses bring about the conclusion to this difficult
section. One of the features which makes the last five verses of
chap. 7 especially problematic is the repeated use of the word "law."
Also, the emphasis of the conflict is amplified with the usage of the
military terms. The concluding verses have been viewed by many as
54. F. Leenhardt, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Lulterworth, 1961) 191.
55. BAGD, 751.
56. S. Lewis Johnson, "A Survey of Biblical Psychology in the Epistle to the
Unpublished Doctor of Theology Dissertation (
Seminary, 1949) 75.
57. Cf. R. Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms (Leiden: Brill, 1971) 145ff.
58. J. D. G. Dunn, "Paul's Understanding of the Death of Jesus," Reconciliation
and Hope, ed. R. Banks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 127-28.
59. A. C. Thiselton,
250 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the determining factors for the correct understanding of this passage.
V 21 is used to introduce a conclusive statement, thus introducing
the conclusion to the entire argument.
The law is perceived by some as the Mosaic law,60 but it seems
best to explain it as a rule or principle of action.61 The usage of the
article with no<moj in these verses does not mean that it refers to the
Mosaic law necessarily. The adjective or genitive construction
associated with "law" gives the correct identity. The law is to be
interpreted to mean a principle in vv 21, 23, and 25.62
The genitival construction leaves no doubt that the "law" in v 22
refers to the Mosaic law. The "other law" (v 23) is equated with the
“law of sin” (v 23) or the sin principle.63 This verse along with the
present tenses, is a most deciding factor in determining the identifica-
tion of "I" in this context as Paul in his regenerate experience.
Cunh<domaiι is an emotional statement and means, "I rejoice in."
Barrett's "I agree with God's law.”64
is far too weak for the intent of the
apostle. Delight in the law that is celebrated in Psalm 119 takes place
in the inward man or inmost self.65
Paul delights in the law in his "inner man." It would seem
reasonable to interpret the phrase "inner man" in the same manner as
the similar usage in 2 Cor. 4:16.66 It is the "inner man" which can
delight in the law of God and also recognize the inner conflict which
is being described.67 The delight is not peripheral, but belongs to that
which is deepest in his spiritual being.68 Cranfield comments that the
meaning of "inner man"
must be much the same as that of o[ nou?j mou in v. 23 and o[ nou<j in
v. 25, which must be understood in the light of the reference to the
a]nakai<nwsij in 12. 2. The mind which recognizes, and is
bound to, God's law is the mind which is being renewed by God's
Cf. H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle of Paul
the Apostle to the Romans (Cambridge:
Cambridge University, 1892) 200.
61. Cf. Sanday and Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle
to the Romans (ICC; T. & T. Clark, reprinted, 1977) 182.
62. H. H. Esser, "Law," NIDNTT 2. 443ff.
63. Cf. R. St. John Parry, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans
(Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1912) 107.
64. Barrett, Romans, 150.
65. Cf. Psa 19:8; 119:14, 16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 92.
66. R. A. Harrisville, "Is the Coexistence of the Old and New Man Biblical?" The
Lutheran Quarterly 8 (Fall, 1956) 22. Also cf. Eph 3:16; ; Co1. and Rom 6:6. For
an excellent discussion, cf. Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms, 391ff.
67. G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 466.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 251
and the inner man of which Paul speaks is the working of God's Spirit
within the Christian.69
The previous observations explain the antithetical role of the law
of the mind and the law of sin.70 "Another law" is obviously a law
different from the law of God in v 22. The other law is waging war
with the law of his mind. It also seems quite normal to understand
"law of mind" to be the same as the "law of God.”71 Bruce identifies
the other law as the tyranny of indwelling sin72 and thus is
synonymous with the "law of sin.”73
It is quite natural to understand "my mind" to mean "that which
my mind acknowledges”74 and to identify "the law of my mind" with
"the law of God" (v 22). When understood in this manner, vv 22
and 23 depict two laws in opposition to each other.
In contrast, the law of sin represents the power, the authority,
the control, exercised over believers. Thus the power of indwelling sin
is warring and usurping the position of the Word of God; such is the
essence of Paul's conflict. There are two laws or governing principles
at war in his life. His faculties and powers are in enemy-occupied
territory. Sin had invaded them and was fighting to stamp out every
attempt at resistance and succeeding again and again. "The strength
of the expression is analogous to 'sold under sin' in verse 14 and
should be interpreted in the same way." (75) He is thus led captive to the
law of sin. This captivity is expressed in strong military language.
The military figure of warfare is carried on and is expressed in
the clauses "bringing me into captivity" and "waging war." Both
terms are common in Pauline literature. (76) The indwelling sin is
warring against the apostle and taking him captive in what he calls
The meaning of this term should be viewed in the sense of the
same usage in Rom 6:13, 19.
If the thought is focused on our physical members, as appeared
necessary in the earlier instances, we are not to suppose that 'the law
of sin’ springs from or has its seat in the physical. It would merely
indicate, as has been maintained already, that the apostle brings to the
69. Cranfield, Romans 1. 363.
70. Harrisville, "Coexistence," 26.
71. It is best to understand two different laws and not four, as Calvin proposes.
72. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 154.
Cranfield, Romans 1. 364. For a view
which contrasts the interpretation given
above, cf. Paul Tillich, "The Good I Will, I Do Not," USQR 14 (1959) 17-23.
76. There are similar terms in Rom 7:8, 11; Gal 5:17; 2 Cor 10:5; and I Pet .
252 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
forefront the concrete and overt ways in which the law of sin expresses
itself and that our physical members cannot be divorced from the
operation of the law of sin. Our captivity to the law of sin is evidenced
by the fact that our physical members are the agents and instruments
of the power which sin wields over us. But again we are reminded, as in
, that, however significant may be our physical members, the
captivity resulting is not that merely of our members but that of our
persons-‘bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my
Paul begins the final remarks to this section with "a wail of
anguish and a cry for help."78 The phrase "wretched man am I" is a
nominative of exclamation. The nominative is used without a verb
when it is used to stress great distinctness. Many commentators have
stated quite dogmatically that it cannot be a Christian who speaks
here. Some would like to view this as Paul looking back on days as a
young Jew or a Pharisee. Longenecker describes this position.
It has frequently been suggested that Paul had an unhappy adolescence,
crushed under legalism and casuistry of his religion and longing for
something of love and inwardness. This supposition is based in large
measure on an autobiographical interpretation of Romans 7:7-25, where
in Paul is viewed as describing a time in his boyhood when he came to
realize the awful demands of the Law and was therefore plunged into a
perpetual and fruitless struggle with an uneasy conscience. It has
sometimes also been supposed that this tension was the basis for his
persecution of Christians: that he was attempting to externalize the
conflict within by identifying what he detested in himself with some
other body and was trying to silence his doubts by activity.79
But such is not the case. This is an attempt to read some of the
dramatic conversions like those of Augustine or Luther into Paul's
experience. This is mere conjecture. Rather, it is better to view it as
the height of one's spiritual condition. True spirituality is recognizing
and judging sin in one's own life. This is the case when one views sin
in his life as an offence toward a holy God and not just loss of
personal victory! As one matures and progresses in his spiritual
pilgrimage and knowledge of God, such will be the case. Granted that
the word "wretched" indicates a state of distress, but it is not a state
of hopelessness.80 Cranfield's comments on this are excellent:
78. E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (
79. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul, 29.
80. Corley and Vaughan, Romans, 89.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 253
The truth is, surely, that inability to recognize the distress reflected in
this cry as characteristic of Christian existence argues a failure to grasp
the full seriousness of the Christian's obligation to express his gratitude
to God by obedience of life. The farther men advance in the Christian
life, and the more mature their discipleship, the clearer becomes their
perception of the heights to which God calls them, and the more
painfully sharp their consciousness of the distance between what they
ought, and want, to be, and what they are.81
The greatest difficulty in this verse concerns the meaning of "who
shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Even though "this" is
taken with "body" in the NIV,
be on death and thus "this" should be taken with "death" (NASB). It
is therefore properly used in a predicate construction.
"Body" in v 24 refers to the material human organism, as in
Rom 6:6. "Paul uses sw<ma for human life enslaved to sin (Rom. ;
6:6; ; , 13; cf. Col. 3:5).82 The body is not inherently sinful,
but the sin principle is still operating in its members, the natural
result of which is death.
The emphasis of this passage seems to fall on "this death." It is
"this death" which comes from the indwelling sin. Even though Paul
is renewed and justified, death is still a reality.83 Hence what Paul
longs for is deliverance from sin in all its aspects and consequences.
The body can be regarded as the body of this death--the bodily
members are the sphere in which the law of sin is operative unto that
death which is the wages of sin.84 Barth concludes, "Indissolubly and
indistinguishably one with his mortal body, he bears about with him
always the reminder that he-yes, precisely he-must die.”85
V 25 gives an indirect answer to the question of v 24. The
deliverance is to be taken as future in the resurrection (Rom ;
I Cor. ). Fung, however, opts for a present deliverance which is
available from the sin which dominates him.86 He supposes a change
of speaker between v 24, which he views as the Christian, and v 25,
whom he understands to be Paul.87 This presents quite a difficulty in
his exegesis. Thus, it is proper to apprehend deliverance as future. It
81. Cranfield, Romans 1. 366. It is a picture of honesty in the Christian life. There
seems to be no reason to view this phrase as Paul looking back on his days as a Pharisee.
82. R. Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology With Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology
(SNTSMS 29; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1976) 36.
83. Cf. Rom 6:23; 8: 1ff. Paul knew that future deliverance was a reality ().
84. T. Barrosse, "Death and Sin
85. K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University, 1933) 269.
86. Fung, "The Impotence of the Law," 45.
254 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
is true because v 25b would seem to sum up the present experience.
This section concerns the struggle with indwelling sin which
characterizes the normal Christian condition. Those who advocate
v 25a as a present deliverance have no answer for Paul's summary
statement in v 25b.
The indirect answer suggests that the speaker knows either that
God has already fulfilled for him the wish expressed by the question
or that God will surely fulfill it for him in the future. He has not been
delivered but he knows that God will surely deliver him from it in the
future. The key to the right understanding of v 25a is the recognition
that the man who speaks in v 24 is already a Christian, for that saves
us from the necessity of conjecturing a drastic change between vv 24
The previous understanding prevents the embarrassment of
having to ignore v 25b or view it as a textual gloss.88 Therefore, far
from being an anticlimactic or incongruous intrusion, it is a summing
up of the entire argument begun at v 14.
Au]to<j e]gw< is translated "I myself" and not "I by myself' or "left
to myself” (
present delivery from the indwelling sin and then 25b as harking back
to the prior state of 25a when the believer who lives at a lower level of
spirituality or even the unbeliever is again left to himself. This is a
definite misunderstanding of Paul's summary phrase. The reiteration
of vv 14-24 in v 25b indicates that the triumphant thanksgiving in the
early part of the verse does not itself bring to an end the conflict
which has been described. The warfare continues, but Paul is upheld
and strengthened because of the confident assurance that finally there
will be complete deliverance.
The text is gripped with tension. It paints for the readers a
picture of the Christian life with all its anguish and its simultaneous
hopefulness. This is the struggle with which the Christian is involved
throughout his life. Deliverance is promised, but it is an eschatologi-
cal hope. The interpretation is not to be taken as an excuse for a
slothful Christian life or for a life of continual sinning. Such a view
would be quite out of line with the rest of Holy Scripture. Yet the
present tenses indicate that this state is characteristic of the Christian
throughout his life. The recognition of the law as good and spiritual
and the determined will to practice the good are evidences that this
passage speaks of a regenerate man. The continuance of indwelling
sin is the reason that the struggle is one which remains for the
believer in this present life. At the same time, it is the picture of a
man constantly and honestly persevering for the good.
88. E.g., J.
Moffatt. The New Testament: A New
and Brothers, 1950).
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 255
Both the struggle of chap. seven and the deliverance of chap.
eight are true and real in the believer's life. Although Paul speaks
autobiographically of the tensions of life as he experienced them, it
is apparent that he speaks by implication for all who have the
struggle and need for God's guidance and blessing.89
It has become widely accepted that Paul's soteriology is
characterized by an "already/not yet" tension, the eschatological
tension present between the "already" of Jesus' resurrection and the
"not yet" of his παρουσία (90) The believer is caught between fulfillment
and consummation. The old age of flesh is still in existence, even
though the new age of resurrection has already begun. No one has
elaborated this aspect of Pauline theology more helpfully than Oscar
Cullmann: "It is characteristic of all N.T. salvation history that
between Christ's resurrection and his return there is an interval, the
essence of which is determined by this tension.”91
This tension is very much present in the Christian experience of
grace, particularly as it relates to the theology of Rom 7:14-25. For
Paul, the Christian experience is a continuing experience of death as
well as of life. (90) The present experience of the believer is characterized
by weakness, suffering, and death. This is clearly seen in other
passages, such as Rom 8:17, 2 Cor. 12:9; 2 Cor. 4:7-5:5, and Phil 3:10-14.
Romans 7 is man as flesh, man in his frailty, mortality, cor-
ruptibility, man as heading for a death which he cannot escape.
'The body is dead because of sin' (8, 10), because death entered the
world through sin, as the consequence and outcome of sin (5, 12). Here
it becomes evident that 'death' for Paul has a spectrum of meaning
similar to that of sa<rc--that is, it includes both a physical connotation
(death of the body) and a moral connotation (man as sinner dead to
God, the believer as having the responsibility to kill the deeds of the
body--8, 13). The death and dying which Paul welcomes is a complex
experience of the frailty and corruption of the physical and the
suffering of persecution, of the deadness of one dimension of the
personality through sin and the mortification of selfishness. He welcomes
it because this dying is for him a participation in Christ's sufferings, a
growing conformity even to Christ's death, as so holds promise of a
growing participation in Christ's resurrection power and ultimate
89. G. Vanderlip, Paul and Romans (Valley Forge: Judson, 1967) 59.
90. Cf. G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (
91. O. Cullmann, Salvation in History (London: SCM, 1967) 202.
92. J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975) 55.
256 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
resurrection like his. It is the recognition of this spectrum of
meaning of both
sa<rc and "death" in Paul's thought that enables us to appreciate more fully
the paradox of Christian experience for Paul.93
Our entire Christian life is to be lived in the light of the tension
between what we already are in Christ and what we hope to be some
day.94 Thus, the already/not yet balance in Paul's soteriology must be
maintained. This is quite different from the popular view advocated
by men who view Rom -25 as the experience of the Christian who
is living at a level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who
is still trying to live the Christian life either under the law or in his
own strength. Conversion is only the beginning; the new has not
swallowed up the old. While it is true that Paul says "we died to sin"
(Rom 6:2ff; Gal 2: 19;
and gone in the believer's experience. (95) Rather it is an emphasis of the
"already" aspect just as the "not yet" aspect is seen in Rom 8:10;
2 Cor. 4:10; and Phil. 3:10ff. (96) The balance in Paul's theology must be
maintained. To overemphasize either aspect leads to perfectionism or
The struggle in which the Christian is involved is a life-long one.
To be sure, we cannot attain sinless perfection in this life. But our
continuing imperfection does not give us an excuse for irresponsible
living nor imply that we may just stop trying to do what is pleasing to
God. We can, in fact, continue to live with the not yet only in light of
The Christian never reaches a state of perfection in this life, nor is he
ever freed from life / death tension.98 The believer remains in the
conflict of which he is ever aware and responsible. Even though he
wills to do God's will and is constantly exerting himself onward, the
only way of escape is death.99
93. J. D. G. Dunn, "Romans -25 in the Theology of Paul," TZ 31 (1975) 270.
94. A. Hoekema, "Already, Not Yet: Christian Living in Tension" The Reformed
Journal 29 (1979) 18.
96. Cf. H. Ridderbos, Paul, An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 267-72.
97. Hoekema, "Already, Not Yet," 16.
98. David Needham's new work, Birthright, comes dangerously close to teaching
99. It should be mentioned that the admonitions such as Rom , etc., must be
taken seriously. The Christian must persevere in this struggle so as not to be
characterized as living according to the flesh. Yet the complete transformation does not.
DOCKERY: PAULINE TENSION IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 257
Finally, this aspect of Paul's theology must be included in the
church's proclamation. "Proclamation of a gospel which promises
only pardon, peace and power will result in converts who sooner or
later become disillusioned or deceitful about their Christian
experience.”100 While this understanding is not an excuse for slothful
living, the believer need not be depressed nor conclude that grace has
lost the struggle. On the contrary, the struggle is an indication of life
for the believer. The true, persevering believer will be constantly
struggling with this indwelling sin and judging its manifestations as
an offence toward a holy God. The tension of the struggle, the
paradox of life and death, must be maintained to the end. Rom
is the life-long cry of frustration; 7:25a is his thanksgiving of
eschatological hope; and 7:25b is the expression of realism. Paul's
conflict is not a picture representing only a minority of the regenerate
community, but of the whole church struggling with the tension of sin
and constantly in need of God's enablement and blessing.
take place until the consummation. David Wenham's "The Christian Life: A Life of
Tension? - A Consideration of the Nature of Christian Experience in Paul” in Pauline
Studies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 80ff. has grasped the seriousness of maintaining
the Pauline tension.
100. Dunn, "Romans -25 in the Theology of Paul," 273.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
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