Romans 7 Understood
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I (Rom 7:14-15).
Perhaps no other verses have been the subject of such intense debate as the above passage. To the Present day Church this passage represents a never-ending struggle with sin which will inevitably end in failure until the day one dies, because of the fallacy of Original Sin. But For the Real Christian it represents the life of spiritual struggle (before conversion) that God wants to deliver mankind from via the experience of regeneration.
While the best way to interpret a passage will always be to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture there is also much to be gained by studying the ways that the early Christians who followed in the footsteps of the Apostles interpreted a passage. It will be the purpose of this article to examine the ancient Christian interpretation of Romans chapter seven. This paper incorporates information from A Dissertation Of The True And Genuine Sense Of The Seventh Chapter Of St. Paul’s Epistle To The Romans. An extensive search of Christian literature up until the fifth century revealed that prior to the fourth century no known Christian writer interpreted Romans seven in a the present day manner. Rather, it was always understood up until that time to be either an unbeliever.
Throughout this paper I have focused only on those writers who commented directly upon Romans 7. There is a good amount of indirect testimony to this subject in the form of statements which indicate that various early Christian writers understood the Christian experience to be one that entailed complete victory over sin. These quotes have been left out for brevity sake but if included would add even more weight to the conclusion that no writer before the fourth century assigned the traditional Calvinistic interpretation to this passage.
The earliest existing writer to comment directly upon this passage was Irenaeus of Lyons (120-202) in the second century. In Against Heresies he connected Paul’s statement “that there dwells in my flesh no good thing” as typical of human infirmity which Jesus came to deliver men from [3:20:33]. In commenting upon the parable of the two sons in which one represented the repentant sinners of Jesus’ day, the other the unrepentant Pharisees (Matt 21:28-32) Irenaeus described the Pharisees using Romans 7 [4:36:8].
Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.220), a North African Christian teacher, in Stromata, a refutation of Gnosticism, indicated his belief that when Paul emphasized the war between the law of God and the law of his mind (Rom 7:22-23) it was only to show that Jesus rescues men from this through salvation [3:76-78].
Tertullian (c.150-240), another North African Christian leader, indicated that the Holy Spirit makes men free from the law of sin and death in our members (Rom 7:23). After this experience of being set free, “Our members, therefore, will no longer be subject to the law of death, because they cease to serve that of sin, from both which they have been set free” [On The Resurrection Of The Flesh, Ch. 46]. Elsewhere he noted his understanding that Paul was referring in Romans 7 to his pre-Christian days as an unbelieving Jew stating that “even if he has affirmed that ‘good dwelleth not in his flesh,’ yet he means according to ‘the law of the letter,’ in which he ‘was’; but according to ‘the law of the Spirit,’ to which he annexes us, he frees us from the ‘infirmity of the flesh’”[On Modesty, Ch. 17].
In analyzing the early Christian understanding of Romans 7 it has become very clear that the early church did not understand this passage to teach the necessity of sin in believers, usually attributing to it the interpretation that it was a man who was striving to please God under the Law of Moses. In fact this interpretation was so prevalent that when discussing this passage around 415AD, Pelagius (c.350-c.420?) could write in his now lost work entitled Inv Defense Of The Freedom Of The Will, which is preserved by Augustine in On The Grace Of Christ And On Original Sin [1:43] that “that which you wish us to understand of the apostle himself, all Church writers assert that he spoke in the person of the sinner, and of one who was still under the law. . . .” Augustine, in his attempt to refute this statement of Pelagius, was unable to offer any church writers who disagreed with Pelagius.