24 June 2006

Is Romans 7 the normal Christian life?

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote space at the beginning of each week to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive.

This excerpt is from "The Fainting Warrior," a sermon preached January 23rd, 1859, at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens. I chose this excerpt today because Spurgeon's text here was Romans 7:24-25, and I'm preaching on Romans 7 this weekend.

Of course, one of the tough questions people always raise about that passage is whether Paul was describing his experience as a mature apostle—because if he struggled with sin the way he describes here, there's little hope any of us will attain any kind of perfection in this life. If Paul was calling himself "wretched" as a believer, this text more or less deals a death-blow to perfectionist doctrine of every kind.

Anyway, I like the way Spurgeon basically brushes aside the suggestion that Paul was above struggling with sin and temptation:

IF I chose to occupy your time with controversial matter, I might prove to a demonstration that the apostle Paul is here describing his own experience as a Christian. Some have affirmed that he is merely declaring what he was before conversion, and not what he was when he became the recipient of the grace of God.

But such persons are evidently mistaken, and I believe wilfully mistaken; for any ample-hearted, candid mind, reading through this chapter, could not fall into such an error. It is Paul the apostle, who was not less than the very greatest of the apostles—it is Paul, the mighty servant of God, a very prince in Israel, one of the King's mighty men—it is Paul, the saint and the apostle, who here exclaims, "O wretched man that I am!"

Now, humble Christians are often the dupes of a very foolish error. They look up to certain advanced saints and able ministers, and they say, "Surely, such men as these do not suffer as I do; they do not contend with the same evil passions as those which vex and trouble me."

Ah! if they knew the heart of those men, if they could read their inward conflicts, they would soon discover that the nearer a man lives to God, the more intensely has he to mourn over his own evil heart, and the more his Master honors him in his service, the more also doth the evil of the flesh vex and tease him day by day.

Perhaps, this error is more natural, as it is certainly more common, with regard to apostolic saints. We have been in the habit of saying, Saint Paul, and Saint John, as if they were more saints than any other of the children of God. They are all saints whom God has called by his grace, and sanctified by his Spirit; but somehow we very foolishly put the apostles and the early saints into another list, and do not venture to look on them as common mortals. We look upon them as some extraordinary beings, who could not be men of like passions with ourselves.

We are told in Scripture that our Saviour was "tempted in all points like as we are;" and yet we fall into the egregious error of imagining that the apostles, who were far inferior to the Lord Jesus, escaped these temptations, and were ignorant of these conflicts.

The fact is, if you had seen the apostle Paul, you would have thought he was remarkably like the rest of the chosen family: and if you had talked with him, you would have said, "Why, Paul, I find that your experience and mine exactly agree. You are more faithful, more holy, and more deeply taught than I, but you have the self same trials to endure. Nay, in some respects you are more sorely tried than I."

Do not look upon the ancient saints as being exempt either from infirmities or sins, and do not regard them with that mystic reverence which almost makes you an idolater. Their holiness is attainable even by you, and their faults are to be censured as much as your own.

I believe it is a Christian's duty to force his way into the inner circle of saintship; and if these saints were superior to us in their attainments, as they certainly were, let us follow them; let us press forward up to, yea, and beyond them, for I do not see that this is impossible. We have the same light that they had, the same grace is accessible to us, and why should we rest satisfied until we have distanced them in the heavenly race?

Let us bring them down to the sphere of common mortals. If Jesus was the Son of man, and very man, "bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh;" so were the apostles; and it is an egregious error to suppose that they were not the subjects of the same emotions, and the same inward trials, as the very meanest of the people of God. So far, this may tend to our comfort and to our encouragement, when we find that we are engaged in a battle in which apostles themselves have had to fight.

C. H. Spurgeon

I think Romans 7 is a pivotal passage, and I have never quite understood the difficulty some people have with the idea that Paul was describing his own daily experience. If you think the battle with temptation in Romans 7 is something mature Christians shouldn't have to face, your ideas about sanctification probably need an overhaul.

Phil's signature


Ole said...

I just want to ask for permission for using the name Team Pyro for a danish site about revival, www.teampyro.dk the url will be


William Roper III said...

I know a lot Calvinists get more than a little upset when Arminians give a "refutation" of Calvinism which makes it plain that they havn't bothered to try and understand what Calvinists actually teach. I'm therefore always puzzelled when they post with such aproval passages like this from Spurgeon which show a remarkable williness to criticize the doctorines of Roman Catholics and High Church Protestants without making the slightest effort to check he has undertood them correcly. There is a article on Papal Infallibility by Spurgeon displayed prominently on the archive which is really in the Ergun Canner league.

I mean, seriously, did Spurgeon really think that those of us who hold the catholic doctorine of saints believe that the saints were not tempted or were tempted less than others? How could someone of his obvious intelignce write such drivel?

Taliesin said...

william roper iii wrote:
I mean, seriously, did Spurgeon really think that those of us who hold the catholic doctorine of saints believe that the saints were not tempted or were tempted less than others? How could someone of his obvious intelignce write such drivel?

Bill, don't critize too quickly. First, the article isn't even about the Catholic doctrine of the saints. The "saints" he is primarily referencing are the apostles, whom even Protestants used to be in the habit of calling St. Paul and St. John (as in "The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans").

Second, we can know that other references, like the reference to "certain advanced saints and able ministers, are not about the Catholic view of sainthood. Why? Because Spurgeon's whole point to his audience was for them (Baptists) not to assume that they were alone in struggling with sin. Spurgeon's entire point is lost if this is about Catholic saints.

Third, if Spurgeon were speaking about the Catholic doctrine of the saints, you would know. He had no problem with being blunt.

So if it seems like he does a poor job describing the Catholic doctrine of the saints, it's because that is not what this sermon is about. It's about the tendency of Christians to look at their struggle with sin (particularly the internal struggle) and assume that they alone have experienced this.

centuri0n said...


The final vote (and power of veto) rests with Phil, but may I suggest a few alternatives to TeamPyro:

Fire Brigade
Tongues of Fire
Fire Marshals

Those are off the top of my head. I'll bet if you ponderized it a few minutes you could do better than TeamPyro.

centuri0n said...

Mr. Roper:

I'm not sure Spurgeon here is criticizing theology. I think he's criticizing praxis. While I'm pretty much right there with you on making sure we are throwing eggs at the right target (so to speak), let's make sure we get what Spurgeon's message here is.

The great preacher is here saying that when we for get that the human condition is both universal and consistent (meaning that everyone's got it and everybody deals with it), we do ourselve as people striving for holiness a disservice.

It's a very fair plea, if you ask me -- and Baptists are just as bad, as I pointed out last week in the Spurgeon supplement, because many of them put their pastors in that company of superholy icons, and are flabbergasted to find out that they are men with feet of flesh who wear underwear.

As for a debate on Catholicism breaking out in the meta here, I'm agin' it -- agin' a debate breaking out. If you want to do that, by blog (for example) would be a fine place to ome and tell me how badly Protestants muff their criticisms of Rome on a consistent basis, and to find out if the distinction between Rome and the other claimants to Western Christianity is valid or invalid.

DJP said...

Phil I imagine that you also are taken aback at the quality of some of the interpreters that opt for other views of Romans 7. When I particularly wrested through the interpretation, what held me then is what holds me now: the shift in v. 14 to the consistent use of the first person present active indicative.

Are there alternate views as to the meaning of that? Yes. Are they the most natural reading? Not to me.

Phil Johnson said...


Teampyro is not a registered trademark, so I don't know if you need anyone's permission to use it. However:

1. It's going to cause confusion. Someone is certain to think you have some affiliation with this blog.

2. The likelihood that this would be a bad thing for you is pretty high. We're not politically correct in the USA, much less in Europe.

3. We'd prefer not to have to deal with the potential confusion, either.

So my preference would be that you come up with a different URL, though as I said, we have no strong legal claim to exclusive use of the name.

Wm Roper III:

I'm surprised you seized on Spurgeon's comments here. He doesn't even mention RCism. His remarks here are really nothing more than an observation the near-universal tendency to see certain saints and apostles as living on a higher plane of sanctfication than the rest of us.

This is, however, undeniably a particularly pernicious tendency in RCism, which may be why you took offense. When you reserve the term "saint" for people canonized by the church, paint them with halos, and "venerate" them by praying to them and bowing to their statues, Spurgeon's words here do apply in a particular way. So no wonder you felt your toes were stepped on.

But it was inadvertent. Protestants as well as Catholics tend to think too highly of certain saints and apostles. And it was Protestants whom Spurgeon was speaking to here.

DJP said...

Protestants as well as Catholics tend to think too highly of certain saints....

Okay, Phil, come on -- stop whacking on NT Wright!


Ole said...

good point Phil

God bless


Alex Chediak said...


Thanks for a great blog.

Have you seen Doug Moo's treatment of this passage in his seminal Romans commentary (perhaps the best in print)? I think he treats both arguments quite fairly. Just because someone takes Paul as an unbeliever in that passage does not mean they necessarily hold to some sort of higher life teaching on sanctification.

In my estimation, Galatians 5:17 ("the Spirit lusts against the flesh, and the flesh lusts against the Spirit") seems like a more clear passage to address the ongoing struggle with sin that all Christians experience.

Jim Crigler said...

Been there. Done that. Didn't get the T-shirt 'cause those guys don't give 'em; they only give scars. And in Christian Science-like fashion, they get scarred by their own sin and then deny the scars and go on pretending that the struggle with sin isn't a daily struggle that we have all the time. The ones who are most realistic about it actually confess their sins and go to the cross for forgiveness and then believe the wrong thing about it; more egregiously (I love that word!) those who are less realistic about it eventually crash and burn, like my friend from college, the minister who officiated at my wedding, who was caught up in sin and continued to deny it and is now, to the best of my knowledge, divorced and out of the ministry.

In two weeks, I'm going to be teaching a Sunday School lesson centering on Galatians 2:20-21. Generally, we pose this as a great doctrinal statement on the preaching of the Gospel, and that's correct. But there is also a personal, practical aspect to it: If you take these two verses apart grammatically, verse 20 says that the way I live my life daily is through faith --- not triumphalistic, "I've already won" kind of faith; but this faith has an object, the Son of God; the faith has content, and that content is the cross where the Son of God hung for my sins, including the way I looked at the Jaguar in the parking lot a little while ago. (This works for regular people who want a Jaguar as well as for tree huggers who want to slash the tires.) And verse 21 says that if I add anything to that cross for my daily life (that's the context in the light of verse 20), then I have rendered the cross useless, null and void. And if the cross is useless, null and void, then I am still lost in my sins.

Doug Wilson was right when I heard him say (I think it was at Ligonier '03) that if we want our hearts to be tender toward God, then the Word of God has to be hard on our hearts. Like this object in its proper domain.


Sojourner said...

I agree with Spurgeon on this, and I am thankful for this post. I have found that the height of joy in Christ is directly proportional to the depth of conviction over our sin.

donsands said...

Very encouraging words from Pastor Spurgeon.
Paul knew he was born-again, and yet "sold under sin". He loved the law of God, and he hated his sin.

"But the proof of a foolish, carnal man is this, that he regards himself as spiritual and is pleased with himself." -Luther

SolaMeanie said...

It's basically the old argument over progressive vs. instantaneous (my choice of term) sanctification. Sadly, I got into a bit of an argument with my stepfather over this the other night. He has an affinity for the holiness movements around the turn of the century and is drawn to their idea of sanctification being instantaneous, or "Christian perfection" as it is sometimes termed. I told him that I didn't know anyone who had ever attained that status and I doubted that he did either. Christ's work in sanctifying us over the course of our lives and as we grow in Him makes much more biblical sense. It is borne out in experience as well.

As always, Spurgeon inspires.

Rick Potter said...


You wrote:
"If you think the battle with temptation in Romans 7 is something mature Christians shouldn't have to face, your ideas about sanctification probably need an overhaul."

One of the first posts I posted on here was titled "I, yet not I" or something like that. During that time I was stuggling with some of the things mentioned in this post. And, of course, my ideas of sanctification did need a "major" overhaul. They're still being worked on (my ideas, that is). Anyway, thanks for the post. I've learned a lot here in the months I've been coming here and most of the books that have been mentioned here from time to time have greatly accelerated that process.

Just wanted to say thanks,


Carla said...


I appreciate you posting this. This is one of those teachings that was delivered in a rather messed up way to me, when I was a new believer.

For nearly two years I struggled constantly with what I believed and why, and a lot of it had to do with the way this teaching in Romans 7 was explained to me. It was confusing and I wasn't convinced it was true, but I even battled with that - assuming it was my own rebellion keeping me from seeing "truth".

One of my favorite quotes from Spurgeon is this one:

"IT IS A GREAT THING to begin the Christian life by believing good solid doctrine." - C.H. Spurgeon, A Defense of Calvinism.

I didn't have that, what Spurgeon speaks of. Many others that I know didn't have it either, and it's a great joy to know there are really good, really solid writers, teachers and pastors out there that know this. They have made it their life's work to deliver a solid Biblical truth.

So I said all that to simply say thank you, Phil.


Krakowian said...

When I particularly wrested through the interpretation, what held me then is what holds me now: the shift in v. 14 to the consistent use of the first person present active indicative

Are there alternate views as to the meaning of that? Yes. Are they the most natural reading? Not to me.

Please allow me to interject myself into this conversation (albeit a bit late--but I only discovered this site today). I'm speaking on this very chapter (Romans 7), and probably this very part of the chapter this coming Sunday. So, my post is at least as much for myself, as it is for you to read. ;-)

The sudden change to the first person that you are describing is very telling, but not in the way that you would first suspect--that he was describing his own anguish. On the other hand, I think that he is trying to tell us something else. Here is what I believe Paul is saying in this passage.

As I see it, Rom. ch. 7.7 - ch. 8 stands as a whole... a contrast between the law of sin and death and the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. As such, the use of the "I" (which occurs something like 26 times in 7.14-25) is a literary device to show just why the Law is futile--incapable of providing peace and victory over sin and death. In other words, the main thrust of ch. 7 is not a struggle against sin, per se, but a struggle with the Law. It is the reason why the Law is incapable of giving victory over sin and death--because it is dependent upon "I".

In contrast to ch. 7, stands ch. 8, in which, in the first 16 verses, the word "Spirit" occurs 15 times. It shows that victory comes, not through the flesh, but through the Spirit. It shows the life, not dependent on "I" but upon the Holy Spirit. Notice the contrast in tone and mood between these two chapters. The use of the "I" in 7 is a vital part in creating that contrast.

Viewed this way, I think we have a more consistent flow in this part of Romans, and we don't have some sudden personal introspection violently, and awkwardly inserting itself into this important passage. Instead, we have a smooth flow of thought. I personally think that this is the best way to view chapter 7.7-25. And it doesn't force one to "choose sides" in a never-ending, non-essential debate. ;-)

Barefoot Guy said...

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I am a musician and I would be honored if you would check out my music. All my music is free for download. Anyway, I don't mean to be a pest, just thought I'd share.

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James Jay said...

Hi there;

In Romans 7:19 Paul states that he ~~Practices~~ sin! The Greek word is -Prasso- Strong's #4238.

In Galatians 5:21 Paul states that people who ~Practice~ sin shall -not- inherit the Kingdom of God. There Paul uses the Exact Same Greek word; Prasso.

And in Colossians 3:9 Paul states of Christians;
Col 3:9 Do not lie to one another, having put off the old man with his practices,....

There the word "practices" is... Praxis; Strong's #4234, which is the Noun form of the verb Prasso.

Now here's the question;
Do you believe that the man in Romans 7 has "put off the old man with his ~~Practices,~~" and that he -will- inherit the Kingdom of God...[because he's a regenerate man]?

I don't because to answer Yes to the above is to make the Bible contradict itself and people who contradict the word of God cannot be regenerate and be indwelt by the Spirit of Truth.

If you are interested see these papers;




Thanks for your time;
God's chosen idiot; Acts 4:13;
James Kirby

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

On Romans 7... I don't think there is any doubt that all Christians struggle with temptation and sin, and if our experience is the key to interpreting Scripture than this seems to settle the matter.

Yet I think the question still remains whether PAUL (and the Holy Spirit) in Romans 7 meant to describe normal Christian experience.

Understanding the flow of Paul's argument from Romans 5-8 is no doubt difficult, but I see the basic argument of Paul as a refutation of salvation through the law because of the weakness of the flesh and not the fault of the law.

In the second half of Romans 7 Paul seems to saying that if ANYONE might be saved "by the flesh" it would have been him, that he is as intent on doing good as anyone, but that even in that he found himself to be a miserable failure at pleasing God when confronted by the law (especially "no coveting") and that his own conscience even damned him.

It is hard to see in this flow of argument that Paul intended to talk about "the normal Christian experience" one way or another. He is taking about the failure of living in the flesh. The question still would remain about how much a Christian can live "in the flesh."

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

Clarification - I think the repeated use of "I" should be seen as Paul's admission of him "on his own", "in the flesh" and apart from the power of Christ.

Paul's redemption theology is better summed up by "not I, but Christ."

DJP said...

Except that the first person singular present active indicative is quite consistent in vv. 14-25. That simply does not naturally communicate anything other than that this is Paul's present, ongoing experience.

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

Romans 8 does certainly seem to promote itself as the answer to Romans 7 and that there is a damning nature to the mind bound in the flesh that can (and must) be redeemed by the Spirit.

I'm not ready to embrace "perfectionism" but Romans 8 must be part of our theology too and wonder if Paul hadn't thought yet of, or experienced, Romans 8 when he was writing Romans 7.

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

As far as the present tense is concerned I don't think it is at all un-Pauline for him to think of "HIM" as lost even while being saved (and transformed) by CHRIST.

Besides other tenses would rob the power and point of the passage in describing HIM ("I") in his best of intentions in the flesh. Christians know the power of the flesh even when not being dominated by it. Are we to think of the past tense Paul in the flesh as sinful but the present tense Paul in the flesh as able to be righteous? This would deny Paul's basic theology.

Romans 6 & 8 strongly suggest that Christians are not bound to the flesh anymore. Romans 7 points to the necessity of the Spirit in Romans 8. We must not be robbed of the Spirit by living in Romans 7.

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

Rom 6 is based in answering the objection that Christian doctrine promotes sin.

Can we imagine a worse response than Romans 7 to this objection if Rom 7 describes the normal Christian life? What good is a belief system that leaves us bound under the law of sin?

Paul argues extensively in Romans 6that we are NOT slaves of sin and do not need to obey its lusts anymore.

In Romans 7 he says HE IS a SLAVE OF SIN and that he is bound like a helpless slave in sin (could Romans 7 be any more clear about this bondage?) even when he he wants to do the law.

Romans 7 denies the position of Romans 6 and is trumped by Romans 8.

It seems to me the best answer to sin is not "the super Christian life" that rises about the typical Christian life bound in sin, but is the Christian life itself.

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

Doesn't it make more sense to see Romans 7 as "turning the tables" on the legalists who believe the law is the answer to sin? Isn't it Paul's admission that his experience as a devoted law keeper that the law is completely powerless to deliver from the bondage from sin and death because the weakness of the self ("I")?

It seems we are tempted to read our experience into the text to make it say something Paul doesn't say (here anyway).

Pastor Timothy G. Smith said...

I think the present tense (and the thrust of the passage)says more than those who see it as a description of the Christian life admit. They insist on emphasizing the present tense, and then later minimize the present tense as an overstatment, not to be pressed too far.

The present tense describes the on-going quality of a thing, it indicates the nature of the thing at the moment.... Paul is saying that his "I" is bound helplessly in sin by at the very nature of his being.

Those who see Romans 7 as a normal Christian seem to tone down the text to only mean Paul's experience in some matters (after all other texts show Paul as amazingly obedient!) and in some ways (perhaps at a very high and internal standard).

I don't see that the text actually says this. The text reads as if Paul cannot help but sin, always, not just sometimes, and not just at a very high standard, but in anything. The text says that he is characterized by sin as the pattern of his life and that he is powerless to do otherwise.

Yet, I don't think the present requires non-stop action. I disagree that the present tense in 1John means that difference between the lost and saved is that the lost sin continually while the saved sin less than continually.

However the present tense in Romans 7 DOES seem to match the present tense in 1John. Is not Paul saying what 1John says can't be true of a Christian IS true of him. His nature is that of one bound in sin?

J Koos said...

I put together the above article which argues for a different way of considering what Paul was describing as indwelling sin. Comments appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is an ancient comment thread, but I hope someone's still watching it. I'm looking for something that I suspect one of you pyromaniacs can help me find.

I once read a quote by Spurgeon to the effect that he never expected to get out of the seventh OR eighth of Romans, meaning that he expected to experience both a lifelong battle with sin and the lifelong power of the Spirit to overcome sin. Any idea where I could find that? Thanks!

Bill said...

I know this is a few years old but it is absolutely critical for an understanding of sanctification and the work of the spirit. I wholeheartedly agree that Romans 7 is the christian life, whether somebody is new in the faith or mature in the faith. It describes the process God uses to sanctify a believer when the holy spirit convicts him of his remaining sin. Some bible scholars seem to think that when a christian matures he moves to Romans 8 and is a victorious christian. This is a fallacy, Romans 7 will be experienced by christians all their lives on earth.