Putting Romans 7:14-25 into Perspective
The Two Ages
While the Greeks thought in terms of a dualism of matter and spirit, the Hebrews thought in terms of a dualism of time. Time was divided into two distinct ages: this present age and the age to come. (See Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Gal. 1:4; Heb. 6:5; 1 Cor. 10:11. Where the Authorized Version uses the word world, the Greek literally reads aeon or age.)
The present age is evil, for in it there are sin, death and the activity of the devil. There is nothing wrong with the created order as such. God made it; and as it came from His hand, it was "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Sin has entered, however, and has disrupted the relationship between God, man and the created order. The concept of salvation which unfolds in the Old Testament is not after the Greek fashion of escape from the created order. Rather, it is the redemption and restoration of all that God has made.
In the Old Testament the result of man's sin is poignantly delineated. We see exile, captivity, disaster, sorrow, disappointment and death. Man's nature seems to be incurably evil. The earth was destroyed by a flood because "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and . . . every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). But God had to say the same thing about man after the flood, even though the world was as yet populated only by righteous Noah and his family (see Gen. 8:21). Israel, the chosen people, were exceedingly stiff-necked and perverse. The covenant between God and His people seemed to fail again and again. The present age was truly a night of weeping, a day when darkness covered the earth and dense darkness the people.
Yet the prophets dreamed of a new age. One day God would rise up and inaugurate it. The Judge of all the earth would arise and deal with sin. He would banish death, sorrow, crying and the enemy, and then would begin the age of light, everlasting joy, peace and security. The Old Testament looks beyond this present age to the glorious age to come.
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a' joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of My people, and Mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, saith the Lord (Isa. 65:17-25).
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of His people shall He take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.
And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation (Isa. 25:6-9).
The Old Testament is forward looking. It declares: "Behold, the days come. . . ." "It shall come to pass that in the last days. . . ." "In that day . . ." The saints of the Old Testament stand on tiptoe, waiting for God's great act of salvation at the end of the age. The pious Jew came to view the present age as a preparation for the age to come.
The New Testament proclaims the astounding message that the long-looked-for "age to come" has already arrived in Jesus Christ. God's eschatological act of salvation has already taken place in the death and resurrection of Christ. Sin has been put away (Heb. 1:3; 9:26), death has been abolished (2 Tim. 1:10), and Satan has been defeated (Heb. 2:14; John 12:31). In the long-looked-for Messiah, the kingdom of God has arrived (Mark 1:15) and the new creation has already taken place (2 Cor. 5:17). The life of the age to come (zoe aionios—eternal life) has already broken in upon us.
No Jew, least of all Paul, could have written or read Romans 8 without being aware that what was being rehearsed and embraced in hope was the glory which God had promised would finally shine on his people Israel. The language in this chapter—of election, of calling, of justification, of glorification, of the saints, of God's foreknowledge, of his purpose, of redemption, of sonship, of inheritance—all belonged to the theology, and specifically to the eschatology of Israel. . . . Paul has just been exulting in the hope of glory which awaits those Jews whose patriarchal heritage has been confirmed to them (4:12), whose law has been therein established (3:31), and who lack nothing of all God promised them.—D. W. B. Robinson. Art. "The Priesthood of Paul in the Gospel of Hope," Reconciliation and Hope, ed. Robert Banks (Eerdmans, 1974).
The arrival of the eternal life of the new age—the new covenant, the new creation, the new Israel—is proclaimed in the gospel and seen only by faith. Its visible manifestation will not take place until the return of Jesus. Although the age to come has already broken into history in the Christ event, the old age will continue until His second coming. We may diagram the overlapping of the two ages as follows:
This means that the New Testament Christian, who lives between the two advents of Christ, also lives where the two ages have overlapped. On the one hand, eternal life, righteousness, salvation, the kingdom of God and the new creation have already come. And on the other hand, the believer waits for eternal life, righteousness, salvation, the kingdom of God and the new creation at the return of Christ at the end of the world (Titus 1:2; Gal. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:8; Matt. 6:10; Rev. 21-22). By faith the Christian is already part of the new order with all of its blessings. Yet he still waits in hope to possess this by empirical reality.
This tension between having and not having may not be surrendered without surrendering the basic framework of the New Testament message and its entire perspective. It is essential to see that the believer is related to both ages at the same time. By faith (signified in baptism) he has been incorporated into Christ. All that humanity is in Christ, he is. He has been put to death, buried, resurrected and translated, and he now sits in heavenly places in Christ (Rom. 6:2-7; Col. 3:1-3; 1:13; Eph. 2:1-6). The old age has passed away. The new has arrived. And the Christian is already part of the new creation, which is yet to be visibly disclosed at the end of the world (2 Cor. 5:17). In Christ he is justified, translated, perfected forevermore and glorified at God's right hand (Gal. 3:24; Col. 1:13; Heb. 10:14; John 17:22). Because he lives and believes on Christ, he shall never die (John 11:26). He has passed from death unto life and has perfect righteousness and eternal life (John 5:24; Rom. 3:21-26).
But that is not all that needs to be said about the believer. He is not only related to the new age which we have described. He is also still related to this old, dying age. He must live here on this earth much the same as everyone else. He still has a sinful nature like everyone else. He faces the prospect of death like everyone else. And he is dependent on earthly things and must eat, work and sleep like everyone else.
At this point we may see that there are two types of sinners, both of whom miss the way of truth. One type lives only for this age. The god of this world has blinded him to the glorious gospel. He does not see that this age has been judged and condemned. He fails to discern that the victorious new age has already arrived and that Christ is Lord. Therefore he lives wholly for this present evil world. He not only uses the things of this age, but he gives them ultimate significance. He is addicted to them, worships them and is enslaved by them. He lives only for this age because he is blind to the next.
But there is another type of sinner who is brought to view in the New Testament. He is not such an evident, open sinner as the one described above. Yet as far as Paul is concerned, he is far more troublesome in the church. He is the "pious" sinner, the super-saint. He claims to be so completely identified with the new age that he has no real relationship to the old one. He has blurred the distinction between the "now" and the "not yet," between faith and hope. His is an exaggerated spirituality which distorts reality. He has tried to prematurely seize the glory which shall be and, by so doing, has lost the real hope of the New Testament. This was the error of the first-century perfectionists, charismatics and ascetics.
True faith does not distort the reality of our situation. It does not mean living in a world of make-believe. By faith the Christian is righteous because he is related to Christ. By empirical reality he is yet sinful because he is still related to the old life of flesh and blood. He is, as Luther would say, simul iustus et peccator—at the same time righteous and a sinner. However, there is a difference between the way the believer relates to this age and the way an unbeliever relates to it. The believer cannot give ultimate significance to the things of this age. Therefore they do not rule and enslave him. He knows what Paul meant when he said:
But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away (1 Cor. 7:29-31).
Just as Christ's death and resurrection inaugurated the new age, so only the believer's death and his resurrection at the last day will end his relationship to the old age. Until then he must live in the tension of "the times between." As depicted by Paul, this can be an agonizing situation. Faith and the gift of the Spirit do not put an end to tension. Rather, they inaugurate it. The fight of faith is not just a pretty-sounding cliche. It is a flesh-and-blood reality. There can be no release until faith is swallowed up in victory at the eschaton.
We believe that Romans 7:14-25 is a classical description of the believer who is justified and regenerated and who possesses the Spirit of "the age to come." Yet he is a man who must still live in the agonizing situation of being related to the old order with all that this means.
The conflict is due to the tension of the two ages and the believer's relation to both. It is not—as the older exegetes used to describe it—as if the good part of man were opposed to the bad part. No, the believer is wholly righteous by relation to Christ and the new age. And in himself he is wholly sinful by his relation to the old age.
The Law of God
It would be a grave mistake and a serious distortion to read Romans 7:14-25 as if it were the total picture of the Christian life. We need to give full weight to what Paul says about the peace, joy and freedom of the Christian in Romans 5:1-11; 6:2-7,14-19; 7:4-6; and 8:24. But neither should we read Romans 7:14-25 as if it were a description of a believer falling into acts of open transgression against the commandments of God. Unfortunately, the passage has often been read this way and has encouraged a pessimistic, defeatist view of the Christian life. Instead of serving God in the ardent and dedicated fervor of Paul, some have excused their lack of spirituality and devotion by saying: "Oh well, am I not just like Paul, who said, 'That which I do I allow not; and what I hate, that do I'? If that was true of Paul, you can't expect too much from me." A. J. Gordon once said, "It ill becomes Christian worldlings to throw stones at the Christian perfectionist."
Let us look at Romans 7:14-25, thinking of it as a description of one who is genuinely awakened to the glory, splendor and far-reaching claims of God's law. Indeed, this man is not one who can sin lightly. Much less is he one who rushes into sin. It is the greatest trouble and sorrow of his life. He loves and delights in the law of God. But he has such a keen sense and perception of its spirituality and the perfection of its divine standard that he always sees his best and holiest duties as falling far short of this law which is a beam of God's glory.
It is not an unconverted man who has such a marked sense of his shortcomings. Not even an awakened sinner has this keen appreciation of the glory, spirituality and far-reaching claims of God's law. Indeed, it is doubtful whether a newly converted Christian has the sharp insight of the man of Romans 7.
The law has the office of conducting the sinner to Christ so that he might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). This is how it is used by Paul in Romans 1 to 3. Yet we must not get the idea that justification is merely a one-time event. Paul does not just talk of it in the aorist tense. In Romans 3:23 he says, "For all have sinned [past], and come short [present continuous] of the glory of God." Justification is not merely a matter of provision for the "have sinned [past]" but for the "come short [present]."
". . . by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). It should be noticed that Paul does not say "become justified" but "be justified." If he had said "become justified," this would confine justification to a punctiliar event—i.e., Christian initiation. But the passage applies to a man who has been a saint for years as much as to a sinner who has never been converted. Paul means that at no time is there any point where a person can be righteous in God's sight if he is judged on the basis of how well he keeps the law. Many can be brought to see that the unregenerate sinner cannot become righteous before God by his life of obedience. But how about the man who is regenerate, who has the Holy Spirit and who walks in the way of new obedience? Paul teaches us that not even this man of God, with his many excellent virtues, can measure up to the undimmed splendor of God's law. This point becomes clear when we remember that in Romans 3:20 Paul is citing the words of David, "And enter not into judgment with Thy servant: for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified" (Ps. 143:2). When David said this, he was not an open, unconverted sinner. Rather, he was God's servant who could also say in another place, " ... thy servant loveth it [the law]" (Ps. 119: 140). He rejoiced in God's law and could weep to see others despise it (see Ps. 119). Yet, in view of all this, he still confessed that he could not stand before God with an easy conscience on the basis of his piety.
When Paul cites Abraham's being counted righteous through faith (Rom. 4:3), Abraham had already been a believer and friend of God for many years and had exhibited many excellent virtues. Nevertheless, the law requires a better righteousness than David or Abraham could give, saints though they were. It is no accident that when Paul says "being justified freely by His grace" (Rom. 3:24), he uses the present continuous tense.
The implications of this present continuous nature of justification by grace are brought out in Romans 7:14-25. This passage holds an insight into Christian existence which is so necessary for a mature view of justification by faith. Here is portrayed a believer who has already been baptized into Christ.
Yet there are many who too quickly say, "I know that I can't keep the law to the satisfaction of divine justice in my own strength." They think that the whole point of the new covenant is to give them the Holy Spirit so that they can now carry out the terms of the covenant. But any believer who really has the Holy Spirit will know that even his new obedience cannot stand before the law of God and satisfy its divine standard. He may climb the alpine heights of holy living. Yet beyond and above him stands the law, demanding, "Holier yet!"
The law is not only necessary to lead a sinner to Christ in the first place. It is also necessary to keep the believer depending on the "alien righteousness" of Christ, which alone fulfills and satisfies the law. Without this continuing office of the law, the believer could easily settle down in a complacent, self-satisfied condition (like the blind Laodiceans), not knowing that in himself he is wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.
This is why the doctrine of "the third use of the law" (the law as a rule of life) is so necessary for Christians. Unless they take God's law with radical seriousness, they will soon become "secure and lazy by the continual preaching of grace" (Luther). There is no time or point in this life where we can do without this disciplinary function of the law.
We suggest, therefore, that Romans 7:14-25 is not describing a situation where a believer is committing overt acts of sin against his intentions. Rather, he is confessing that, judged by the law, when he wills to do good (not in the Greek sense of static and abstract intent but in the dynamic Hebrew sense of actively willing and doing) he has not done good. For the law can only acknowledge that good has been done if it has been done to the perfection of the divine standard. And when this man really hates evil, resists sin and refrains from wicked acts, he cannot on this account stand before the law with an easy conscience. For the law demands that sin not only be avoided but that it be hated with perfect and instant hatred. Where there is any secret inclination to evil, the law condemns a person as if the evil had been done. So this man of Romans 7 is confessing that, judged by the glory of the law, when he does good he has not done it at all, and when he hates evil he has not avoided it at all. Thus he is prevented from making a golden calf out of his sanctification.
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 vapours 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. The Kingdom of God is a foreign country, so foreign that even the saints must pray: "Almighty God, I acknowledge my sin unto thee. Reckon not unto me my guiltiness, 0 Lord." There is no sinless Christian. If thou chancest upon such a man, he is no Christian, but an anti-Christ.—Cited in Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p.263.
How vast a gulf separates the nineteenth-century conquering-hero attitude to religion from that disgust of men at themselves, which is the characteristic mark of true religion!—Ibid, p.269.
Romans 7:14-25 was well understood by the Reformers. They used it effectively to establish the doctrine of indwelling sin in all believers, to shatter the perfectionism of their opponents and to raise up again the mighty Pauline doctrine of righteousness by faith alone.