Was Paul referring to his pre-converted state or his converted state in Romans 7:14? By Jack Kettler
As in previous studies, definitions will be looked at along with scriptures, commentary evidence, and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how to live.
There is no intention of casting aspersions on any believer who takes a contrary position on this question. In this study, the commentary material surveyed takes the position that Romans 7:1-13 Paul is referring to his unconverted state, whereas, in Roman 7:14-25 he is referring to his struggles as a Christian.
In the two sections, 7:1-13 and 7:14-25, the verb tenses are crucial for the correct understanding of the text.
In Romans 7:1-13, Paul is using the past tense when referring to himself.
For example, from Romans 7:7:
7 “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”
From Strong’s Lexicon:
would not have been aware of
Verb - Pluperfect Indicative Active - 1st Person Singular
Strong's Greek 1492: To know, remember, appreciate.
From Strong's Exhaustive Concordance:
be aware, behold, consider, perceive
A primary verb; used only in certain past tenses, the others being borrowed from the equivalent optanomai and horao; properly, to see (literally or figuratively); by implication, (in the perfect tense only) to know -- be aware, behold, X can (+ not tell), consider, (have) know(-ledge), look (on), perceive, see, be sure, tell, understand, wish, wot. Compare optanomai.
see GREEK optanomai
In contrast, in Roman 7:14-25 Paul uses the past tense.
For example, from Romans 7:14:
14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I (ἐγὼ) am (εἰμι) carnal, sold under sin.
From Strong’s Lexicon:
Personal / Possessive Pronoun - Nominative 1st Person Singular
Strong's Greek 1473: I, the first-person pronoun. A primary pronoun of the first person I.
Verb - Present Indicative Active - 1st Person Singular
Strong's Greek 1510: I am, exist. The first person singular present indicative; a prolonged form of a primary and defective verb; I exist.
Because of the verb tense in 7:14-25, Paul has to be referring to himself in the present. Consider the next entry from respected Dutch commentator William Hendriksen, who argues for this understanding.
From the New Testament Commentary by William Hendriksen on Romans 7:14:
“Paul Himself, and by Extension, Believers Generally, Including Even the Most Mature
In line with the humble and self-incriminating language of eminent believers is the fact that Paul too, in referring to himself elsewhere, uses language not far removed from “Wretched man that I am!”
Note the following:
“I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God!” (1Cor. 15:9).
“To me, the very least of all the saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
“Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I!” (1Tim. 1:15).
The person described in Rom. 7:14–25 hates sin (7:15), wishes to do what is good (verses 19, 21), in his inner being delights in God’s law (verse 22), deeply regrets his sins (verses 15, 18–24), and thanks God for his deliverance (verse 25). Is it at all probable that such a person has not been regenerated by the Spirit of God? Contrast all this with the description of the unregenerate (7:5, 9a; 8:5a). Clearly, in Rom. 7:14–25 the apostle, in the words of John Calvin, “in his own person describes the weakness of believers and how great it is” (Romans, p. 264).
Important also is the change of tense between 7:5, 9a, on the one hand, and 7:14–25, on the other. Surely, the most natural explanation is that there has been a radical change; that is, that the “I” of the second passage is no longer the unregenerate of 7:5, 9a but is spiritually reborn.
But this regenerated individual is still experiencing a struggle. He has not yet reached heaven. Those who reject the existence of a kind of dualism within the rescued person Paul and, in general, within believers, find it very difficult to explain 7:24, 25:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself with my mind serve the law of God, but with my flesh the law of sin.”
The reasons for believing that in 7:14–25 the regenerated individual, Paul, is describing his own condition and that of believers generally, have been given. It has been shown that it cannot be the unbeliever who is here being pictured. Something should now be said about the claim that the opposite view was held by many in the early church and is cherished by most present-day exegetes.
It has already been admitted that there was a time when Augustine, along with many others, supported the view according to which the person described in Rom. 7:14–25 is the unregenerate. Calvin points out what happened next, and, in doing so, also again reveals his own interpretation of the disputed passage:
“Augustine was for a time involved in the common error, but having more thoroughly examined the passage, not only retracted what he had falsely thought, but in his first book to Boniface proves, by many forceful arguments, that what is said cannot be applied to any but the regenerate” (Calvin on Romans, p. 264).
It has also been admitted that throughout the centuries many exegetes, especially but by no means exclusively Pelagians, have endorsed the theory according to which Rom. 7:14–25 is a description of the unregenerate, and that today that view is being propagated, at times even by those confessing the Reformed faith.
However, it certainly merits serious reflection that in one way or another, and with varying opinions on details, the belief according to which Paul is here referring to himself and, in general, to believers, is endorsed by the following, among many others:
Batey, R. A., The Letter of Paul to the Romans, Austin, 1969, pp. 98–104.
Bavinck, H., Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, third edition, Vol. III, p. 65f.; IV, pp. 282, 283.
Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, 1949, p. 540.
Berkouwer, G. C., Dogmatische Studiën, Geloof En Heiliging, Kampen, 1949, p. 61, tr. Faith and Sanctification, pp. 59, 60.
Bruce, F. F., The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, (Tyndale Bible Commentaries), Grand Rapids, 1963, pp. 150–156.
Calvin, J., as has been shown.
Cranfield, C. E. B., op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 344, 355–370.
Fraser, J., A Treatise on Sanctification, London, 1898, pp. 254–356.
Greijdanus, S., op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 337–339.
Haldane, R., The Epistle to the Romans, London, 1966, p. 299.
Hamilton, F. E., The Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids, 1958, pp. 111–121.
Hodge, C., op. cit., pp. 357, 386.
Knox, J., op. cit., pp. 498–500.
Kuyper, A., Het Werk van den Heiligen Geest, Kampen, 1927, pp. 583, 612. Engl. tr., The Work of the Holy Spirit, Grand Rapids, 1941, pp. 636–640.
Lenski, R. C. H., op. cit., pp. 473–492.
Luther, M., Lectures on Romans, p. 203.
Murray, J., op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 256–273.
Nygren, A., Commentary on Romans, Philadelphia, 1949, pp. 284–296.
Pronk, C., “Who is the man of Romans 7:14–25?,” article in The Outlook (Journal of Reformed Fellowship, published in Grand Rapids, Mich.), Nov. 1978, pp. 9–13.
Steele, D. N., and Thomas, C. C., Romans, An Interpretive Outline, Philadelphia, 1963. pp. 126–130.
Van Andel, J., Paulus’ Brief Aan De Romeinen, Kampen, 1904, pp. 143–151.
Van Leeuwen and Jacobs, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 124–137.
Wilson, G. B., op. cit., pp. 117–126.
This is also the stand taken by Evangelical Creeds:
The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, speaking about the believers’ “best works” (Chapter XVI, par. VI), states, “they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.” The annexed scriptural passages include Rom. 7:15, 18. See Creeds of Christendom, edited by Philip Schaff, Vol. III, p. 635.
The Belgic Confession, 1561, referring to those who have received Jesus Christ as their only Savior (Article XXIX), states, “But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life …” To the French text of the quoted words are appended the following references: Rom. 7:6, 17, etc.;
For Lutheran creedal support for this interpretation, see Lenski, op. cit., pp. 473, 474.” (1)
In the next entry by Dr. Lawson breaks down the verb tenses that are crucial for a proper understanding of Paul in the Romans text.
Dr. Steven J. Lawson, The “I” Problem - Romans 7:14:
“1. Change in Verb Tenses
First, we must note the change in verb tenses from the first half of the chapter to the second half. In verses 1-13, Paul was discussing his pre-conversion state. All the verbs that Paul used were in the aorist past tense. This represented his past life before Christ. In verse 14, there is a noticeable change in verb tense as Paul begins using the present tense “I am.” In verses 14-25, there are thirty-six verbs that are translated as being Paul’s current experience. The first of these is in verse 14 in which Paul states, “I am” in the present tense. In verse 15, he writes in the present tense, “For what I am doing.” He continues to write in the present tense through the end of chapter seven. Paul is describing the reality of his current experience as he is writing the book of Romans.” (2)
From the historical commentary by Matthew Poole's on Romans 7:14:
“He goes on to clear the law, and excuse it, giving it another commendation, that it is spiritual; i.e. it requires such obedience as is not only outward, but inward and spiritual; it forbids spiritual as well as fleshly sins. Read Christ’s exposition of it, in Matthew 5:1-48.
I am carnal; i.e. in part, because of the remainders of sin and of the flesh that are still in me; in respect of which, those who are regenerated are said to be carnal. Compare 1 Corinthians 1:2, with 1 Corinthians 3:1.
Sold under sin: he did not actively sell himself to sin, or to commit sin, which is said of Ahab, 1 Kings 21:20, 25, and of the idolatrous Israelites, 2 Kings 17:17. He was not sin’s servant or slave; but many times he was sin’s captive against his will; see Romans 7:23. Against his will and consent, he was still subject to the violent lusts and assaults of sin, and not able wholly to free himself: though he always made stout resistance, yet many times he was overcome. Hitherto the apostle hath spoken of the power of the law and sin in unregenerate persons, even as he himself had experienced whilst he was yet in such a state; but now he cometh to speak of himself as he then was, and to declare what power the remainders of sinful flesh had still in him, though regenerated, and in part renewed. That the following part of this chapter is to be applied to a regenerate person, is evident, because the apostle (speaking of himself in the former verses) uses the preter-perfect tense, or speaks of that which was past; but here he changeth the tense, and speaks of the present time. From Romans 7:7-14, he tells us how it had been with him formerly; and then from Romans 7:14-25, he relates how it was with him now; I was so and so, I am thus and thus. The changing of the tense and time doth plainly argue a change in the person.” (3)
Arthur W. Pink writes:
“This moan, 'O wretched man that I am,' expresses the normal experience of the Christian, and any Christian who does not so moan is in an abnormal and unhealthy state spiritually. The man who does not utter this cry daily is either so out of communion with Christ, or so ignorant of the teaching of Scripture, or so deceived about his actual condition, that he knows not the corruptions of his own heart and the abject failure of his own life. The one who is truly in communion with Christ, will…emit this groan…daily and hourly.” (4)
In Roman 7:7-13, Paul uses the first person, past tense to describe his pre-conversion state. Then in Romans 7:14-25, Paul uses the first person, present tense to describe his post-conversion state as a believer. It seems inescapable that Paul is talking about himself as a Christian in the Romans 7:14 text.
It can be concluded that even though the power of sin has been broken in believer’s lives, its presence remains. The believer still sins but does not practice sin. “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1John 3:9 NAS)
The Christian, along with Paul, still moans when sin gets the best of him. When this happens, the Holy Spirit manifests the sin and brings the conviction of repentance and restores fellowship with God.
Two quotes from Charles H. Spurgeon:
“Our prayers have stains in them, our faith is mixed with unbelief, our repentance is not so tender as it should be, our communion is distant and interrupted. We cannot pray without sinning, and there is filth even in our tears.”
“When a man is saved by divine grace, he is not wholly cleansed from the corruption of his heart. When we believe in Jesus Christ all our sins are pardoned; yet the power of sin, albeit that it is weakened and kept under by the dominion of the new-born nature which God doth infuse into our souls, doth not cease, but still tarrieth in us, and will do so to our dying day.”
1. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Romans, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 227-230.
2. Dr. Steven J. Lawson, The “I” Problem - Romans 7:14, http://www.onepassionministries.org/transcripts/2018/11/15/the-i-problem-romans-714.
3. Matthew Poole's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Romans, Vol.3 (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 500.
4. Arthur W. Pink The Christian in Romans 7:14-25
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com