A Study of ROMANS 7
When some unknown first put forth the premise that ROMANS is a Doctrinal Epistle a thick fog descended over this letter, distorting its true message. That ROMANS is for the most part a doctrinal epistle gives us the impression that Paul wrote this letter to teach a variety of foundational doctrines which the Church needed. Howbeit, the Roman Church had been in existence probably longer then Paul had been a believer. They were way beyond the point of needing a foundation. Paul's intentions in writing this letter sprung from something beyond simply giving them doctrine. He had a specific theme in writing ROMANS which if missed throws the reader off the scent in discovering the truths buried therein. For a more comprehensive explanation of an understanding of ROMANS than we have space here to give, I recommend Paul Minear's work, The Obedience of Faith. Otherwise, in a nutshell, here is Paul's purpose for this most important epistle.
Let us first endeavor to understand to whom was he writing. There were in the Synagogues and small home fellowships at Rome basically three different groups of Christians.
First group. This group was comprised of Jewish Christians still zealous for all of the traditions of the Law, who are referred to in ROMANS as the weak in faith.
a). Some of these Judeans were antagonistic towards the new Gentile converts, thinking that they needed to first observe the Mosaic Law before they could be saved.
b). Others however accepted the new Gentile converts as genuinely saved by faith.
Second group. This group was comprised of Gentile Christians feeling no obligation whatsoever to the Mosaic Law. They are referred to in ROMANS as the strong in faith.
a). Some of these Gentile Christians ridiculed the Legalistic Jews of the first group for their strict adherence to the Mosaic Law.
b). Yet others freely and without judgment accepted the Legalistic Jews as brethren.
Third group. This group was made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians who were not always sure which of the other two groups to attach themselves with. They are referred to in ROMANS as the doubters.
As indicated above, within the first group there were two sub-groups of Jewish Christians. Some of these Jewish Christians were committed to the belief that no Gentile could be saved unless he obeyed the Law of Moses but then there were others who were not so legalistic towards the Gentile Christians and were content to allow them to live as they pleased.
Yet, in the second group there were also two sub-groups of Gentile Christians. Some of these Gentile Christians flaunted their freedom from the Law and ridiculed the Legalistic Jews of the first group for thinking that they or any other Christian must observe the Mosaic Law, but then there were other Gentile Christians who were indifferent to the prejudices of the Legalistic Jews and embraced them as brothers regardless.
Finally there were those of the third group who are called the doubters. They drifted back and forth between the other two groups not maintaining a solid conviction either way. The Apostle wrote to all of these groups in his epistle. Sometimes to one group particularly and sometimes to all of them collectively.
Paul Minear wrote the following concerning those of Paul's audience.
Although he addressed the Gentile Christians in Rome as distinguished from the Jewish believers, he immediately saluted 'all God's beloved', and thus intimated that he expected his letter to be read in some congregations which were Gentile, in some which were Jewish, and in some where both would be present. It is to be expected therefore that in various sections of his letter the apostle would have one of these three types of congregations especially in mind. If in each successive paragraph the identity of this group can be determined, the reader's understanding of Paul's ideas will be enhanced. From the beginning to the end, the reader is led to suppose that a paragraph intended primarily for Jewish Christians will be overheard by Gentile Christians, and vice versa. Only an apostle who was adept in dealing with many factions could orient his argument in such a way as to be effective with each separately and with all collectively. And to do that he must use and redefine the words which were essential with the differing meanings of which were involved in the confrontations: faith, righteousness, sin, law, Jew, Gentile, salvation, life, gospel, death, resurrection, grace, obedience. The understanding of these terms was decisive in chapters 1 and 14; it also determined the flow of the arguments in the sections between.
The Obedience of Faith, page 44
The to whom that Paul wrote, answers much for us as to why he wrote. Many of these Jewish and Gentile Christians quarreled with one another about the necessity of observing the Law of Moses. Some of the Jewish Christians absolutely refused to eat with or fellowship with any Gentile Christians who failed to observe the Law. Likewise, some of the Gentile Christians scoffed at and belittled these Legalistic Jews, calling them weak. Thus, the purpose of Paul's letter was an attempt to mend the divisions, so to speak.
He initially endeavored to get the Legalistic Jews to recognize that the Gentile Christians were in fact saved, by faith. As he argued that point, he tried to show the Gentile believers that they owed a huge debt of gratitude to the Jewish Christians, to whom were first committed the "oracles of GOD" (3:2) and to whom Yeshua was originally sent (9:5; 15:8). But Paul also wrote that the Jewish Christians needed to quit judging the Gentile Christians (2:17-25) and that the Gentile Christians needed to show more toleration, love and appreciation for their Jewish counterparts (11:18,20,25; 12:3,16). To the doubters he wrote that "whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats....for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (14:23).
Paul brings everything to a head in chapters 14 and 15, when he writes, "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him", and "the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost", and then, "the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God".
Thus we see his repeated admonition that they put aside their prejudices and embrace one another as brethren. Any true understanding of this epistle must begin with the reader viewing it in this context. Each passage must be read in this light, otherwise the reader's understanding will be clouded, fragmented and frustrated. The whole epistle must flow together with one theme, which we believe is the one outlined above. When each passage is read with this perspective, only then does it fully open up before us.
With this introduction, let us begin in chapter seven to consider the topic of this paper, No Condemnation? In the previous chapter of ROMANS Paul had been setting forth to the Gentile Christians the reality that sin is indeed contrary to GOD's will. "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" No! is his unwavering answer. He continues to demonstrate to them that though they are not under the Law, it is still not a small matter for them to sin.
Then in chapter seven he turns his attention to the Jewish Christians to further confront the belief of some that these Gentile Christians must observe all the details of the Law of Moses. That is the context of chapters seven and eight of this epistle. Realizing this is the only way to accurately understand what Paul is really trying to get across to his readers in this most remarkable section of scripture.
He begins by rehearsing with them that the Law has dominion over a Jew only until he dies, and that because they have "become dead to the law by the body of Christ" (7:4), that they are then free from the burden of the Law. He continues that Jewish Christians are "delivered from the Law" and that they should now "serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter" (vs. 6).
Howbeit, not wanting to lose them to their prejudices, he quickly adds, "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid". The Law was not evil, but rather it was "holy, and just, and good" (vs. 12). What was evil and unfortunate, was how we Jewish Christians, so he reasoned, interpreted and used the Law in an unholy, and unjust, and un-good way. The best and right and perfect example he could give them for this supposition was one that was close to his own heart, an illustration more dear to him than any other. It was the example of his own miss-interpretation of the Law, when he as a zealous Pharisee, thinking he was defending the integrity of the Law, imprisoned and persecuted the true believers.
Matthew Henry has a well written summation of Paul's own zealousness, in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, from ACTS 26:1-11.
There is not a more violent principle in the world than conscience misinformed. When Paul thought it his duty to do all he could against the name of Christ, he spared no pains nor cost in it. He gives an account of what he did of that kind, and aggravates it as one that was truly penitent for it: I was a blasphemer, a persecutor, (1 Tim. 1:13).
[1.] He filled the jails with Christians, as if they had been the worst of criminals, designing hereby not only to terrify them, but to make them odious to the people. He was the devil that cast some of them into prison (Rev. 2:10), took them into custody, in order to their being prosecuted. Many of the saints did I shut up in prison (Act.26:10), both men and women, (Act.8:3).
[2.] He made himself the tool of the chief priests. Herein from them he received authority, as an inferior officer, to put their laws in execution, and proud enough he was to be a man in authority for such a purpose.
[3.] He was very officious to vote, unasked for, the putting of Christians to death, particularly Stephen, to whose death Saul was consenting (Act.8:1), and so made himself particeps crimini—partaker of the crime. Perhaps he was, for his great zeal, though young, made a member of the Sanhedrin, and there voted for the condemning of Christians to die; or, after they were condemned, he justified what was done, and commended it, and so made himself guilty ex post fact—after the deed was committed, as if he had been a judge or jury-man.
[4.] He brought them under punishments of an inferior nature, in the synagogues, where they were scourged as transgressors of the rules of the synagogue. He had a hand in the punishing of many; nay, it should seem the same persons were by his means often punished, as he himself was five times, (2 Co. 11:24).
[5.] He not only punished them for their religion, but, taking a pride in triumphing over men’s consciences, he forced them to abjure their religion, by putting them to the torture: "I compelled them to blaspheme Christ, and to say he was a deceiver and they were deceived in him- compelled them to deny their Master, and renounce their obligations to him." Nothing will lie heavier upon persecutors than forcing men’s consciences, how much so ever they may now triumph in the proselytes they have made by their violence's.
[6.] His rage swelled so against Christians and Christianity that Jerusalem itself was too narrow a stage for it to act upon, but, being exceedingly mad against them, he persecuted them even to strange cities. He was mad at them, to see how much they had to say for themselves, notwithstanding all he did against them, mad to see them multiply the more for their being afflicted. He was exceedingly mad; the stream of his fury would admit no banks, no bounds, but he was as much a terror to himself as he was to them, so great was his vexation within himself that he could not prevail, as well as his indignation against them. Persecutors are mad men, and some of them exceedingly mad. Paul was mad to see that those in other cities were not so outrageous against the Christians, and therefore made himself busy where he had no business, and persecuted the Christians even in strange cities. There is not a more restless principle than malice, especially that which pretends conscience.
Having Paul's evil deeds prior to his conversion now fresh in our minds, let us read again this portion of ROMANS and with a fresh perspective see if we can understand what has been so misunderstood by Christianity throughout the ages. Chapter seven of ROMANS has been miss-interpreted for too long, teaching us that Christians are enslaved to sin. We are taught by Church Tradition that no matter how much we want not to sin, we will still sin because we are born sinners, destined to sin. We will sin regardless of our desire not to sin because we are chained to this dead body of sin. We have no choice in the matter, so we have been taught. Yet Scripture is clear, elsewhere, that we are not to sin. Indeed, Paul had just written an entire chapter about this very issue.
Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid! (6:1-2).
He that is dead is freed from sin (6:6).
Let not sin reign in your mortal body (6:12).
Sin shall not have dominion over you (6:14).
You were the servants of sin, but have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered to you (6:17).
Being then free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness (6:18).
Being now made free from sin, ye have your fruit unto holiness (6:22).
After all this, how could Paul turn immediately around in the next chapter and write that he himself was unable to resist sin, that he was enslaved to sin? We should hold suspect any suggestion that Paul had taught such a thing, and instead look for a more harmonious understanding.
Elsewhere in Paul's epistles he often warned he readers not to sin, and of the dreadful consequences if they failed to heed his warnings (GALATIANS 5:16-21 EPHESIANS 4:17-22 PHILIPPIANS 1:10-11 COLOSSIANS 1:10; 2:13; 3:5-10; 1 THESSALONIANS 4:1-7 2 THESSALONIANS 2:12 TITUS 2:12). The idea that Paul in ROMANS 7 now writes about his own utter failure in living sinless flows violently against the rest of scripture. Even during the Gospel period Yeshua Himself had repeatedly admonished His followers to "sin no more". Were these Roman believers, who now had holy spirit, less able to resist sin then they in the Gospels were, who had not yet received the gift of holy spirit? I think not.
As Paul dictates ROMANS 7, he is not thinking of some continuing struggle with sin. Rather, he is explaining to his Jewish counterparts how sin gains access through the Law. He is writing to his fellow Jews about a phase of his own life when he himself so much misunderstood the true nature of the Law, and because of that misunderstanding sin deceived and slew him. The context in this entire chapter is that the Jews, himself included, had failed to understand the true nature of the Law.
ESV ROMANS 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet."
Paul intimates here that at some time in his life he had coveted something of another's. Howbeit, shortly after writing this epistle he confidently declared to the elders from Ephesus that "I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel" (ACTS 20:33). As such, if he had indeed coveted something, I think we must go way back to before he was a Christian to see what it was. When we look, we find that immediately before Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin on charges of blaspheme, there is an interesting note given to us in scripture.
ESV ACTS 6:7-9 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.
Can we not read between the lines here, that then, after telling us all that the disciples were accomplishing, that then "certain of the synagogue" disputed with Stephen? They were no doubt envious of these disciples of Yeshua, who were drawing away from the Synagogue great multitudes, even "a great many of the priests"? This together with the fact that they themselves lacked Stephen's ability to perform "great wonders and signs among the people" must have contributed to their hatred of him. So much so that they even bribed men and set up false witnesses against him.
It is not too much to suspect that Paul, being from Cilicia, was also in attendance when Stephen aroused such a stir. But even if Paul was not yet with them in presence, he was surely with them in spirit, for the record ends with Paul being pleased with Stephen's murder. Paul and his company no doubt envied Stephen and the other followers of the Nazarene, who were attracting unto themselves a great number of disciples even from among the Pharisees and priests. Of course that would mean that their own numbers were diminishing, which, considering the lengths they went to in order to have Stephen convicted of blasphemy, obviously disturbed them immensely.
Elsewhere, scripture is careful to preserve for us in passage after passage incidents where these same Jews envied and coveted some thing of the believers. We read of these same Pharisees "who were covetous" of Yeshua (LUKE 16:14). We read of them again where Yeshua Himself says of them, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do" (JOHN 8:44). Then in ACTS 13:45 we read, "But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming". And again in ACTS we read, "But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people" (ACTS 17:5).
If there is a place in scripture where it is revealed that the zealous Pharisee Saul (Paul) did indeed covet something, I think that there is a good argument that ACTS 6-7 is the place. Holding in our minds this probability, that Paul is indeed writing in ROMANS 7 about this incident with Stephen and the other believers which he then began to persecute, let us then see what else we can draw out from the record to help us see how Paul applies this covetousness to his argument with these Jewish Christians of Rome, about the connection between the Law and sin. We should also keep in mind that the record in ACTS concerning Stephen is the exact point where scripture informs us that Paul had begun his violent and cruel persecutions against the believers.
ROMANS 7:8-9 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence [lusts]. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.
He is writing to legalistic Jewish Christians in Rome [7:1], who are themselves zealous for the Law, who themselves believe that all Gentiles must observe the Law to be saved. Thus he is rehearsing with them his former lifestyle, where he himself was likewise zealously committed to the observance of the Law.
Concerning his former life, Paul wrote later that he "was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers" (ESV GALATIANS 1:14). Thus, in his youth he was no doubt a vibrant, energetic Hebrew, driven to fulfill the Law, full of life, indeed, he was alive, so he thought. But when these Nazarenes began to multiply and teach that Yeshua was the final Passover sacrifice, and that He was the true Temple of the LORD, and that there was now a change due in the rites and customs of Moses (ACTS 6:14), Paul and his fellow Pharisees became frantic in their madness.
Then, according to ROMANS 7:9, the commandment came and Paul died. What commandment? What is our context? Is it such a stretch to see that the context wherein Paul is writing is indeed his own persecution of the Church? The commandment that came was the one that declared that any person who blasphemed the name of GOD must be stoned.
LEVITICUS 24:16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death.
What was it that drove Paul to such madness? What drove him to persecute the Church with such insane devotion? The commandment! Thus, Stephen had to be stoned. Indeed, all who called on this name, Yeshua, must be stoned to death. And who better or more able than Paul to head up and carry out this ghastly business. Thus he began a terrifying journey into the bowels of torture and death. But he did it for all the right reasons, so he thought.
He didn't necessarily hate these followers of the Nazarene, he just knew he had to stand up for the integrity of the Law. He must defend the traditions of the elders. And any disciple who would not blaspheme this false Messiah, was therefore blaspheming GOD, so Paul had convinced himself. If they would not recant at first, he would bring to bear upon them whatever was necessary to make them, to compel them, to see the light.
Yes, Paul knew all too well the spirit that now moved his fellow Jews in Rome. Already in the second chapter he had written of their misunderstanding of the true nature of the Law, and that they had missed the true purpose of GOD in setting them up as "lights on a hill".
ROMANS 2:17-20 Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.
This is precisely where Paul was before he was converted, and he knew its perversions all too well. It was exactly as Stephen had charged them, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (ACTS 7:51). Thus those in the council were cut to the heart and rushed upon Stephen and murdered him.
But as Paul then began and continued his own persecutions against the disciples, he died also, for how can one go unscathed when torturing innocents so as to get them to admit something which they just will not admit? How many honest decent people does one have to imprison, and hurt and kill before it takes its toll upon you. And so Paul could write that, "The very commandment that promised life [LEVITICUS 18:5] proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me" (ROMANS 7:10-11).
His zealousness to defend the honor of the Law deceived him into thinking that the end justified the means. Whatever the cost, he had believed that he must defend the Law. Sure it was an unpleasant and ugly undertaking, but it had to be done, so he thought.
Howbeit, the essential point he is endeavoring to drive home to his fellow Jews at Rome, is that the Law itself was not sinful, nor wrong. Rather it was he, rather it was them, the Legalistic Jews who were wrong. That is the lesson he is trying to bring in through the back door of this chapter, so to speak. He recounts for them his own struggle.
ESV ROMANS 7:13-21 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
Thus, we see that Paul wanted first and foremost to be a defender of the Law. He supposed the best route to that end was the evil which he continued in, though for some reason the desired result kept eluding him. His desire to do what was right was to return all these misguided Nazarenes to the true path; to return them to the Temple and its sacrifices, but the more he hurts them, the more they seem to flourish and multiply. He is indeed kicking against the pricks. And the further he descends down this despicable path, the further removed from the righteousness of the Law he finds himself.
I think that just prior to the time Yeshua finally appeared to Paul in ACTS 9, he had become a terribly disillusioned man, a wretched man. He pushed on of course, because that was the sort of man he was. He had unbelievable tenacity. Nothing could distract him from his insane mission. Nothing except the risen Lord.
ROMANS 7:24-25 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord....
The body of this death are the hands which brutally tortured and killed innocent believers. These are more then just words in a letter. This is about Paul not being able to erase from his own mind how he forcibly subdued and separated fathers from sons, mothers from children, imprisoning them, even torturing and murdering them. And for what? They rarely recanted and this spreading flame called Christianity just continued to grow, growing out of control.
And so he writes his fellow Jews at Rome, his brethren according to the flesh, that he himself had also once been miserably directed and motivated by a miss-understanding of the Law. He also, supposing he was defending the Law, had done worse things then they ever will. But when he saw the risen Christ then he began to realize that he had somewhere gone terribly wrong. And the point where it all went wrong, was when he coveted what Stephen and the other disciples possessed.
Here Paul might have related to them the incident where the scribes and the Pharisees brought unto Yeshua the woman taken in the very act of adultery, demanding of Him what needed to be done with her.
JOHN 8:5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
According to the Mosaic Law, their Law, she must be stoned. But Yeshua was trying to move His nation beyond the law of sin and death and unto the law of the spirit, and so He replied, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her". This also is what Paul was now trying to do in this epistle, move his brethren beyond the law of sin and death unto the law of life in Christ Jesus. Paul had already demonstrated that none of them, neither Jew nor Gentile, were without sin (3:9). And so he now writes, therefore...
ESV ROMANS 8:1-4 There is therefore now no condemnation [no judgment, no burden of debt] for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
We had long thought that this no condemnation applied to ourselves, but no longer, for now we see that it is set in the context of chapter seven. We had been taught that when we sinned we could simply fall back on this verse and flippantly declare, 'Oh well, no condemnation!' How we were deceived. How sin deceives. No, the true context of no condemnation, is that these Jewish Christians were no longer to judge or condemn there fellow believers, the Gentile Christians (see 14:10). GOD had accomplished through Christ what the Law was not able to do. HE had made these Gentile Christians righteous, not by their fulfilling all of the peculiarities of the Law, but rather by them walking "not according to the flesh but according to the spirit".
The phrase "there is no condemnation" is perhaps better rendered as "no one can condemn".
If we continue to believe that we can never rise above our sins and that we will never be able to live righteously, we will forever be tethered to the Church so as to have our sins forgiven. The Church hierarchy teaches that our sins can only be forgiven, by a priest for the Catholics or communion for the rest of us. That is their business, selling purification. Whatever their incantations may be, it is all to make us think that as sinners we can somehow be cleansed only by coming to them. This is so similar to how the Jews routinely sacrificed animals for the very same reason. The whole ceremony kept the people coming back year after year, festival after festival, with their cash in hand. Yet it is no more than an illusion perpetrated upon an unwary congregation.
ESV ROMANS 8:34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.