The identity of the ἐγὼ in Romans 7 has been a topic of much debate through the centuries. That debate still rages today. It is not hard to see why, since even Peter admits that Paul writes “some things hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16). One wonders if Peter did not perhaps have Romans 7 in mind (among other passages in the Pauline corpus) when he wrote that, because commentors have long expressed their struggle to give a clear, sound, convincing exegesis of this passage. The purpose of this article is to weigh in on this debate. I will seek to make a case for the traditional Augustinian and Reformed interpretation of the ἐγὼ in Romans 7:14–25, which understands it to refer to Paul in a state of grace.

Framing the Debate

John Murray, in his commentary on Romans, summarizes the crux of the matter:

“The main question in the interpretation of verses 14–25 is one on which there has been deep-seated difference of judgment in the history of interpretation. Does Paul continue to delineate for us his pre-regenerate experience as in verses 7–13? Or does the present tense of verse 14 indicate that he has made a transition to the description of his present experience in the state of grace?”[1]

To further explicate our position, it is our conviction that Romans 7:14ff. represents Paul as a believer—regenerated, converted, in the process of being sanctified. In the words of James Montgomery Boice, “Paul is speaking of himself, describing a fierce internal struggle with sin.”[2] It is thus autobiographical in nature, but not mere autobiography. “He is not saying, ‘I will tell you what happened to me. You can profit from my example.’ Rather he is saying, ‘This is how the law confronts people. Let me illustrate it from my own experience.’”[3] Inasmuch as the law’s confrontation of human sinfulness is ongoing in the life of the Christian, Paul’s description is meant to correlate with the regenerate believer’s ongoing experience. Indeed, Paul stresses “the inadequacy of the law and the powerlessness of the flesh”[4] to free God’s people from the power or influence of sin. He writes to instruct the church regarding the role of the law and its relationship to sin and sanctification in the life of the believer while presenting a kind of theodicy, a vindication of God and his ways, relative to the purpose and functions of the law.[5] Murray sums up this position:

“In verses 7–13 the apostle has delineated for us some phase of his experience. Since his experience as thus portrayed arose from his own sinfulness and from the operations and effects of the law of God as it was registered in his consciousness, he is aware that his experience cannot be unique. Other men are likewise sinful and the law of God must evoke and occasion similar experiences in the hearts of others. He is writing thus as representative of what must occur in the experience of others. And his main interest is, without doubt, not to put on record a chapter in human biography but to set forth the relations of the law of God to our sin and, particularly, while, on the one hand, demonstrating the impotency of the law to deliver from sin, yet, on the other, vindicating the law from any aspersion as the author of sin.”[6]

This ’regenerate man view,’ or some close variation of it, is espoused by the likes of Augustine of Hippo, the Latin Fathers and most pastor-theologians of the Western tradition,[7] Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Charles Hodge, John Murray, John Stott, C.E.B. Cranfield, Leon Morris, popular preachers John MacArthur and John Piper (among many others), and the vast majority of Calvinists today. Because of its historical association with Augustine and the Protestant and Reformed theological tradition, sometimes this view is referred to variously according to these titles.

Not everyone has agreed with this interpretation, however. Many have held that the description in Romans 7:14ff can only be harmonized with an ‘unregenerate man’ view. This view, or a variation of it, is represented by the likes of the church fathers Origen and Chrysostom, most of the earliest Greek and Eastern fathers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Richard Gaffin, Robert Reymond, Dennis Johnson, Anthony Hoekema, and Douglas J. Moo. This view was also taken by Erasmus, Bultmann, C.H. Dodd, and many others. Following Jacob Arminius, most Arminian commentators take this position as well, including John Wesley. Even in circles that adhere to Reformed theology, while there is an overwhelming consensus in favor of the traditional Augustinian view, there is a diversity of opinions among the minority. The most common minority position is the view that the “speaker” in Romans 7:14ff. represents a pre-regenerate or pre-conversion Paul, under conscious conviction of sin but not yet alleviated from that burden by the peace and power of the gospel.

So, which one is it? First, I will summarize the most cogent arguments for the ‘unregenerate ἐγὼ position’ and suggest an exegetically informed solution to each one. Then, I will summarize several cogent exegetical arguments for the ‘regenerate ἐγὼ’ position in the attempt to make a convincing case for it. Finally, I will sketch out some of the practical consequences of my position with some experiential applications that flow from the Augustinian position and are of no small import for the Christian life.

The ‘Unregenerate ἐγὼ’ Position

Some of the strongest and most frequently utilized arguments for this position include:

(1) Paul’s dismal descriptions of the ἐγὼ in Romans 7:14ff. are incompatible with a ‘regenerate ἐγὼ’ position because they contradict Paul’s description of the Christian elsewhere (especially in Romans 6 and 8) and fit better with his descriptions of the unregenerate. The man is described as “carnal, sold under sin” (v. 14), unable to perform what is “good” (v. 15), as that in which “dwelleth no good thing” (v. 18), and as being in “captivity to the law of sin” (v. 23). As all admit, this is strong language, describing slavery. But elsewhere, Paul teaches that Christians are not enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:6–22). If the regenerate is no longer under sin’s dominion (cf. 6:14), does this not mean that the enslaved man in Romans 7 is a description of an unregenerate condition? Lloyd-Jones considers this argument to be compelling, constituting the greatest difficulty for the ‘regenerate man’ view.[8]

In response, I admit there is some difficulty here. But contextual considerations and other exegetical verities lead me to conclude differently. It is true that the adjective σάρκινος (“carnal” or “fleshly,” v. 14) overlaps with what Paul calls “the flesh” (σάρξ) and relates to it just as an adjectival form of any root would relate to its corresponding substantival form (obviously). At least this is true from a linguistic perspective, but naked etymology and roots cannot determine, much less strictly limit, the semantic range of a term’s possible meaning. To help us get at that, we must consult the usage of the term in question. As we do so, a couple of things can be observed about the Pauline usage of the adjectival σάρκινος that should give us some pause.

In the first place, it is true that Paul teaches that believers “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9), but he also teaches that believers still possess σάρξ, even σάρξ that bears inherent moral corruption (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1; Gal. 5:17). So using σάρξ in description of a regenerate believer is not entirely without precedent in Pauline usage; and this fact alone means it is quite possible—at least possible—that he applies σάρκινος to the regenerate here.

Second, there are two (and only two) other undisputed Pauline uses of σάρκινος in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 2 Corinthians 3:3.[9] Both of these use σάρκινος to describe Christians. The latter is the clearest, where the Spirit of God imprints his holy nature “in the fleshly tables of the heart” (ἐν πλαξὶν καρδίας σαρκίναις). This is a clear allusion to Ezekiel 36:25–27, where the Lord promises to grant a new heart and put a new Spirit in his elect people during the “salvation consummated and applied” epoch of new covenant fulfillment.[10] What is striking is that σάρκινος in this case describes precisely what happens in regeneration: the heart of stone is removed and a fleshly (σάρκινος) heart is inserted in its place. In this case, σάρκινος speaks of something good and positive, namely, a heart that is alive to God. While Paul’s use of σάρκινος in Romans 7:14 is different (there it has negative connotations expressive of human sinfulness), it is noteworthy that he uses the term not only to describe regenerate believers who were struggling with their remaining sinfulness (1 Cor. 3:3), but also to refer to the locus classicus of the OT’s teaching on regeneration (Ezek. 36:25–27). In both cases, σάρκινος describes the regenerate, not the unregenerate. Again, this does not prove that Paul intends to use the adjective in the same way here, but it does at least demonstrate that the word itself does not necessarily describe an unregenerate condition. Thus the ‘unregenerate man’ view is clearly divested from its weightiest argument.[11]

In addition, Paul goes on to clarify and nuance his assertions, mitigating the force of his assertion that he is σάρκινος. In v. 18, he says, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” The qualification appended to the statement (τοῦτʼ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου) issues a nuanced clarification that is intended to be partitive in nature, referring to a part or portion of the whole of the thing. When he says that no good thing dwells in him, he means to make that assertion concerning his flesh, and only concerning his flesh.

Therefore, when he says in v. 14 that he is σάρκινος, in v. 18, he immediately qualifies that statement by clarifying that the carnality is not absolute or total, i.e., it does not characterize the totality of his being. It is not the whole truth of the matter. There is yet a regenerate ‘part’ or ‘portion’ or ‘aspect’ of his being in which good does inhere by the grace of the Spirit. In the words of the Protestant Reformer, Robert Rollock (1555-1599): “[Paul] injects this clarification [in v. 18] in order to correct a misunderstanding: for sin dwells in his other self, the part that is not regenerate. This is inserted in passing, lest someone should think that he is speaking of himself as a regenerate man according to his to einai (being), for his essential being as a regenerate man comes from the Spirit of sanctification.”[12] Verse 17 also lends support to this.

(2) Paul’s transition to the present tense in v. 14 is a “historical present,” describing his past (pre-conversion) experience.[13] Those familiar with the Greek text of the Gospels know that the historical present is a common and important phenomenon in the NT. It is basically a linguistic convention in which the past is described with present tense language to achieve some purpose, usually to make a narrative more dramatic by conceptualizing it as if present. The switch to the present tense in Romans 7:14 does not fit with what we know about the historical present. Daniel Wallace says the historical present occurs in narrative,[14] but the genre of Romans is not narratival; it is a didactic epistle.

Also, in Romans 7:14, Paul speaks in the first person singular (ἐγὼ δὲ σαρκικός εἰμι), which does not fit the syntax of any demonstrably evident historical present in the NT. Wallace rules it out here by implication when he writes, “the historical present is always in the indicative mood and all clear examples of historical presents in the NT are in the third person.”[15] The burden of proof is on those who posit the unregenerate man position. Where do we see usages of the historical present in the epistolatory genre in the Koiné period? On what basis can their position be maintained if they fail to furnish a single example in the Pauline corpus of a historical present framed in the first person? The entirety of the non-Augustinian interpretation of Romans 7 rests on v. 14 being a historical present or dramatic present (otherwise it would be a real present tense describing Paul at the time of writing). The foundation of their position has a fatal flaw, syntactically speaking.

(3) The marriage metaphor of Romans 7:1–4 describes Christians as “dead to the law,” but vv. 14–25 describe the ἐγὼ as being very much alive and existentially conversant with the law. In response, we must observe that Paul nowhere says that the law has died to the Christian, but that the Christian has died to the law. The change is not in the law but in the believer. The law remains immutable as the standard of righteousness, but a person’s relationship to the law changes when they are savingly united to Christ. The law of God always remains applicable, valid, and authoritative as the righteous revelation of God’s holy character. Indeed, “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). In its holiness and justice, it accentuates and exposes human sinfulness (Rom. 3:19).

Being “dead to the law through the body of Christ” means that Christ has freed us from the penal curse sanction and condemnatory verdict of God’s law. The believer who is in Christ is freed from the law as a covenant of works, meaning he or she is not obliged under the pain of eternal damnation to render personal and perfect obedience to all that the law requires as the condition of eternal life. The Christian is no longer “in Adam” but “in Christ,” not under the covenant of works but related to God “in Christ,” in the covenant of grace (cf. Rom. 6:14). The moral law, however, still serves as God’s perfect standard of righteousness.

(4) There is much talk about “I” and “the law” in Romans 7:14–25, but the Holy Spirit is not mentioned.[16] It is argued that the apparent egocentricity, law-oriented focus, and the absence of the Spirit in Paul’s self-depiction in Romans 7 are emphases that best fit with a description of an unconverted Paul who had not yet come to know the power of the Spirit to free him from the law’s dominion. The description, it is alleged, best fits with that of a legalistic and unconverted Paul.

The glaring problem with this argument is that it boils down to little more than an argument from silence, which is a logical fallacy if said argument is posited to present a proof of the notion. Just because the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned relative to his soteric agency in the life of the believer in the chapter does not mean that his saving agency is absent. The Spirit is not mentioned in many a chapter of the Scriptures where his salvation is not absent. The book of Esther never mentions the name of God. Was the Lord not at work to accomplish redemptive feats in the history recorded in Esther, just because he is not mentioned? Paul’s omission of the saving activity of the Spirit in Romans 7 can be explained simply by appealing to his authorial intention, his purpose in writing the pericope: his focus was simply on other things for didactic purposes. Again, we see that the argument may lend weight to the possibility of the ‘unregenerate man’ view, but it certainly does not prove or establish it. Be that as it may, further considerations lead me to conclude definitively against it.

The ‘Regenerate ἐγὼ’ Position

Some of the strongest arguments in favor of this position include:

(1) The transition to the present tense in v. 14 speaks of Paul’s experience at the time of writing. J.I. Packer explains, “Paul’s shift from the past tense to the present in verse 14 has no natural explanation save that he now moves on from talking about his experience with God’s law in his pre-Christian days to talking about his experience as it was at the time of writing.”[17] This is a powerful argument for the ‘natural sense’ of the text, which is to take the present tense verbs conjoined to ἐγὼ as Paul referring to himself contemporaneously at the moment of authorship. There must be sufficient warrant provided if we are to interpret his words contrary to the natural sense. But coming up with such warrant is a stretch, to say the least. “The first question that comes to mind is whether there is any compelling reason to take Paul’s words in a way contrary to the seemingly natural sense. When the author of a book utilizes the first person pronoun, should we automatically assume that it refers to anyone other than the author and his personal experience?”[18] Those of the ‘unregenerate ἐγὼ’ view may respond that in their estimation, there are significant contextual warrants for interpreting the ἐγὼ as something other than Paul at the time of the epistle’s inscripturation. But those alleged warrants were examined above, and having been tried, they are found wanting. The ‘unregenerate man’ view contradicts what at least appears to be the straightforward, natural meaning of Paul’s language.

(2) The “mind” (νοός) of the man in Romans 7:23 and v. 25 serves God’s law, but the mind of the unregenerate does not and cannot. Moo, notwithstanding his disagreement with the ‘regenerate man’ view, summarizes this argument well: “Whereas the ‘mind’ of people outside of Christ is universally presented by Paul as opposed to God and his will (cf. Rom. 1:28; Eph. 4:17; Col. 2:18; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8; Tit. 2:15), the ‘mind’ of egō in this text is a positive medium, by which egō ‘serves the law of God’ (vv. 22 [sic.; it is v. 23], 25).”[19] We can add to this by pointing out that there is a key Old Testament passage that foretold of the writing of God’s law on the minds of his people: Jeremiah 33:31-34. Curiously, it also describes what happens in personal, soteric regeneration. It would seem that Paul is conceptualizing his present experience in the light of this text. If Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the personal regeneration of new covenant believers is what Paul had in mind—which is probable—this one fact alone would necessitate that we take the ‘regenerate man’ view.

(3) Only the regenerate believer truly delights in the law of God, which is what the man in Romans 7:14ff. does. Paul says in vv. 22–23, “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (συνήδομαι γὰρ τῷ νόμῳ τοῦ Θεοῦ κατὰ τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον). The language of holy affection toward the law of God, of love and desire which produce delight in the thing, is reminiscent of the many passages in the Psalms that employ this precise language (e.g. Pss. 1:2; 19:8–10; 40:8; 119:16, 24, 35, 47, 48, 72, 92, 97–104, 111, 113, 127, 167, 174).

As a theologian enmeshed in the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul’s mind would have naturally defaulted to such texts regularly. Psalm 119:174 is of particular interest, because the psalmist declares his love for God’s law (ὁ νόμος σου, LXX) in response to the Lord’s “salvation” (τὸ σωτήριόν σου Κύριε, LXX). It reads, “I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD; and thy law is my delight.” Is it possible Paul had this precise text in mind when he declared what he did in Romans 7:22? Paul would have probably interpreted the psalmist’s “longing” for the salvation the Lord brings to be a hope-filled reference to Messianic redemption (remember Simeon and his longing? See Luke 2:25);[20] the psalmist has a forward-looking, eschatological orientation in his outlook. This psalmist, in other words, longs for perfect holiness, but the attainment of it is at some point in his future.

The similarity with Paul’s sentiments in Romans 7:22 is striking. Like the psalmist, Paul delights in the law of God; and like the psalmist, Paul has a forward-looking, eschatological expectation for future salvation—he longs for the day when he will be perfectly freed from the contaminating presense and power of sin. Further, from Paul’s redemptive-historical perspective, the salvation the psalmist longs for had been introduced partially but not in all its fullness. Like the psalmist, Paul finds himself struggling between his love for the law and his desire to sin, but even that tension and that struggle cause him to long all the more for perfect holiness when the Lord’s salvation will be fully consummated. Paul found himself caught up in the overlap of the ages (“this age” and “the age to come”) and because of this, the flesh of this aeon overlaps with the aeon of the Spirit in the coming kingdom, occasioning a sharp antithesis between the flesh and the Spirit, giving rise to the ongoing struggle between the two.

The parallels between Romans 7:22 and Psalm 119:174 are too similar, too many, and too striking to brush them off as mere coincidence. I think Paul had Psalm 119:174 in mind and portrays himself like the psalmist, as one whose greatest desire was to be perfectly sanctified so he could be perfectly obedient to God’s good law. The idealism of perfect holiness (which is promised in the future) clashes with the realism of still battling with indwelling sin (which is Paul’s present experience at the time of writing, along with the experience of every regenerate believer).

On top of this, Paul’s delight in the law cannot be reflective of the experience of the unregenerate, according to his own teaching. The apostle describes the unregenerate in Romans 8:7: “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” The mind of the unregenerate does not and cannot submit to or serve God’s law. That is what the Reformed called the doctrine of total depravity, or man’s total moral inability. In Romans 7:14ff., on the other hand, Paul esteems the spirituality of the law (v. 14), assents to and agrees with the law (v. 16), delights in the law (v. 22), and serves the law (v. 25). The combined force of these statements does not allow for them to be describing an unregenerate condition if we compare them with Romans 8:7. If it were otherwise, how could we reconcile Paul’s holy affections and hopeful longings with the doctrine of total depravity? To posit an unregenerate Paul would be to attribute far too much ability to a corrupt man still in the state of nature, and would be logically inconsistent with Reformed theology, by inference. This could help explain why the overwhelming majority of Reformed divines take Paul to be regenerate. The ‘regenerate man’ view and the doctrine of total depravity ‘fit’ together with clear theological consistency.

(4) The “inner man” (ἔσω ἄνθρωπον, v. 22) is only possessed by the regenerate according to Pauline usage. I agree with Robert Haldane (1764–1842), who, in his excellent commentary on Romans states that the “inner man” is the same as the “mind” mentioned previously.[21] To elaborate this point more particularly, there are only two other passages where the apostle speaks of the “inner man.” Second Corinthians 4:16 reads, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man [ὁ ἔσωθεν, following Textus Receptus; ἔσω ἄνθρωπον, following other ancient mss.][22] is renewed day by day.” The unregenerate are not being internally renewed, for they are perishing outwardly and inwardly. The “inner man” that is “being renewed day by day” is Paul’s regenerate self, which is his truest and most central identity. In Ephesians 3:16, Paul prays, “That [the Lord] would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man (ἔσω ἄνθρωπον).” Here, the “inner man” is that part of the human constitution upon which the Holy Spirit exerts his empowering influence, which is the case only in the regenerate. In both cases, the language of “inner man” corresponds to a reality that is only true of the regenerate and could not possibly refer to the unregenerate without reducing the passages to nonsense. In light of 1 Corinthians 4:16 and Ephesians 3:16, it would be a stretch to posit that Paul would speak of an “inner man” that is unregenerate and that loves God’s good and holy law.

(5) The pericope concludes with a summary statement that articulates the internal conflict between Paul’s mind and Paul’s practice, and conflict of this nature is only true of the regenerate. In vv. 24–25, Paul sums up the entire passage: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” Moo, in spite of disagreement with the ‘regenerate man’ view, summarizes this argument well: “The passage concludes, after Paul’s mention of the deliverance wrought by God in Christ, with a reiteration of the divided state of the egō (vv. 24–25).” That is all-important for ascertaining the correct interpretation, because the reiteration of the struggle after the declaration of victory in Christ shows that the struggle remains even though the victory is guaranteed and expected. Moo summarizes, “This shows that the division and struggle of the egō that Paul depicts in these verses is that of the person already saved by God in Christ.”[23]

(6) The internal conflict between remaining sin and the desire for perfect holiness reflects the eschatological dualism (i.e. “already and not yet” dynamic) that is so pronounced in Pauline and New Testament theology. This was somewhat explained above (under point #4), but it bears pointing out more explicitly because it amounts to an additional, distinguishable argument for the ‘regenerate man’ view.[24]

(7) The speaker of Romans 7 concludes the pericope by glorying in Christ—something true only of the regenerate. The exuberant declaration, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” is located after the cry for deliverance (v. 24) and prior to the summary that states the ongoing nature of the conflict with indwelling sin. It is a statement of victory surrounded by the bleak reality of sin’s presence and influence. To glory in, rejoice in, or boast in Christ Jesus despite depressing circumstances or the influence of sin and corruption is a conspicuous and distinctive mark of Pauline spirituality (2 Cor. 12:10–11; 1 Cor. 1:29–31; Gal. 6:14; cf. Ps. 105:3; Isa. 45:25; Jer. 9:23–24).

(8) The intense struggle for personal holiness‑—or sanctification—and accompanying frustration depicted in Romans 7:14ff. is common to the experience of all regenerate believers. In my experience, the majority of new believers who read through Romans understand it to be describing the regenerate because they resonate with the struggle described. This does not necessarily make the position right, but it does indicate that the shared experience between ‘the Romans 7 man’ and the Christian is probably more than a forced application of the text. A.W. Pink writes,

“The second half of Romans 7 describes the conflict of the two natures in the child of God: it simply sets forth in detail what is summarized in Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:14, 15, 18, 19, 21 are now true of every believer on earth. Every Christian falls far, far short of the standard set before him—we mean God’s standard, not that of the so-called “victorious life” teachers. If any Christian reader is read to say that Romans 7:19 does not describe his life, we say in all kindness, that he is sadly deceived. We do not mean by this that every Christian breaks the laws of men, or that he is an overt transgressor of the laws of God. But we do mean that his life is far, far below the level of the life our Savior lived here on earth. We do mean that there is much of “the flesh” still evident in every Christian—not the least in those who make such loud boastings of their spiritual attainments. We do mean that every Christian has urgent need to daily pray for the forgiveness of his daily sins (Luke 11:4), for “in many things we all stumble” (Jas. 3:2, R. V.).”[25]

Such is the experience of the Christian who is walking in the light as God is in the light. His remaining sinfulness is being constantly exposed; he is confessing, repenting, longing for holiness, and growing through intense struggles in the war with sin  (see 1 John 1:7–9). Pink goes on to declare,

“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.”[26]

Recognizing and confessing our wretchedness as we long for deliverance by the grace of Christ is a sign of spiritual sensitivity to the Spirit and holiness of God. Charles Hodge said, “From the days of Job and David to the present hour, the holiest men have been the most ready to acknowledge and deplore the existence and power of indwelling sin.”[27] Paul the Pharisee had no such sensitivity or conviction; he thought he was “blameless” in his self-righteousness (Phil. 3:6). It was only after his encounter on the Road to Damascus that he was awakened to his sin and cried out, trembling, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). When the light of Christ’s gospel shines into our hearts, so does the light of his holiness, which shines the light on the corruption of our hearts. And with greater growth in grace comes increased discernment of and hatred for sin. The Romans 7 man is no subpar Christian, but a seasoned apostle and saint of the Lamb who strove to maintain a pure conscience before God and men. That explains the intensity of the warfare depicted in Romans 7, and it explains why the apostle lamented his remaining sinfulness with such angst and passion.

Practical Consequences of Paul’s Doctrine

We have examined some of the strongest arguments for the ‘unregenerate ἐγὼ’ view and have demonstrated that they are not as conclusive as some would have us to believe. None of the arguments necessitates an ‘unregenerate ἐγὼ’ reading. As I sought to demonstrate, alternative explanations seem to make better sense in every case. Anyone who would argue for the ‘unregenerate ἐγὼ’ view will need to show why my alternative explanations are not viable before they can even make way for the case of an unregenerate Paul. In addition, they will need to demonstrate why my arguments in favor of the Augustinian position do not hold.

We argued in favor of the ‘regenerate ἐγὼ’ position with the following points (to summarize all in short compass): (1) the transition to the present tense in v. 14 speaks of Paul’s experience at the time of writing; (2) the “mind” of the man in Romans 7:23 and v. 25 serves God’s law, but the mind of the unregenerate does not and cannot; (3) only the regenerate believer truly delights in the law of God, and Paul’s language reflects the psalmist’s; (4) the “inner man” is only possessed by the regenerate according to Pauline usage; (5) the pericope concludes with a summary statement that articulates the internal conflict between Paul’s mind and Paul’s practice, and conflict of this nature is only a reality in the regenerate; (6) the internal conflict between remaining sin and the desire for perfect holiness reflects the eschatological dualism that is so pronounced in Pauline theology; (7) the speaker of Romans 7 concludes the pericope by glorying in Christ—something true only of the regenerate; (8) the intense struggle for personal holiness and accompanying frustration depicted in Romans 7:14ff. is common to the experience of all regenerate believers.

Many practical conclusions follow from Paul’s teaching in Romans 7:14ff.; the following are suggestive:

(1) Original sin, the inherent moral corruption of our fallen human constitution, will never be fully eradicated in this life. Recognizing this truth will spare us from entertaining any presumptuous thoughts about the possibility of attaining to a state of moral perfection in this life. Perfectionists of all stripes, whether of the semi-Pelagian or Pelagian camps, must deny that Romans 7 describes the regenerate man at his best. But if descriptive of Paul the apostle, then it goes without saying that none of us could presume to every attain to his spiritual stature in grace. But even if we did, we could only hope to attain to a state in which we would deeply feel and deeply regret our remaining sinfulness. Oftentimes, the more holy we grow, the less holy we feel. Our position leads us to a robust Christian anthropology, one that is both realistic and idealistic.[28] The realism consoles us (the mighty and holy Paul had the same kinds of struggles we do!) while the idealism spurs us to press on toward perfect holiness (see Phil. 3:12). We need both. Realism without idealism leads to defeat; idealism without realism leads to presumption. Realism with idealism keeps us humble (admitting our lowly estate by nature) and hopeful (longing for the glory of perfect holiness in Christ’s presence forever).

(2) The battle against indwelling sin continues throughout the Christian’s life. It is an incessant warfare to be dutifully and diligently engaged in day and night. Not a moment goes by when indwelling sin is completely dormant, or in which it has ceased to exert its evil influence. John Owen (1616–1683) speaks about “those grievous complaints the apostle makes” of indwelling sin in Romans 7 and exhorts his readers in the light of this teaching:

“So that sin is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting. Who can say that he had ever any thing to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not a hand in the corrupting of what he did? And this trade will it drive more or less all our days. If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so whilst we live in this world.”[29]

(3) There is no provision of soteriological righteousness for us in the law but only and all-sufficiently in the gospel. We cannot be justified by the law, and we cannot expect to receive help or power or grace or ability by the law to enable or empower practical sanctification. To be sure, the law informs our sanctification by setting forth the ideal standard we are to aspire to and serving for us as the preceptive revelation of God’s will for us. The pedagogical, convicting role of the law, taken strictly in its right and compared with our poor performance of its requirements, tends to condemn and produce a sense of despair; but a proper use of the law is meant to drive us to gospel.

(4) Romans 7 does not justify, promote, commend, whitewash, or downplay the serious nature of sin in the life of the Christian. Nominal Christians and antinomians have long used the passage to justify the practice of willful and even scandalous sin in the life of the Christian. That is a misuse of the holy text of Scripture, which is meant by the Holy Spirit to work holiness in our lives. We must never lose sight of the fact that “without [holiness], no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). There is no soteriological justification without a corresponding, Spirit-wrought sanctification (i.e. salvation in union with Christ makes us partakers of the twofold grace of pardon and purity [cf. Calvin’s duplex gratia]). Salvation is through faith alone, but there is no faith where there is no manifest love and evidence of good works.

Employing the analogy of faith (analogia fide) to Romans 7 causes us to see that Paul is not confessing that he was continually practicing willful, voluntary sin of a particularly heinous nature, for whoever is born of God does not go on sinning (1 John 3:6–9). Paul is instead dramatically conveying his sanctified sentiments as he wrestles with indwelling sin in all its subtlety, as sin exerts its influence on the desires and the will. While the will is liberated from sin’s bondage and desires to do what is good, the desires of the flesh are still corrupt, inclining toward evil due to concupiscence. That is the conclusion of Romans 7:25: “with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”



[1] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 256.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 755.

[3] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1988), 284.

[4] Herman N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997), 127. Though I disagree with Ridderbos’s overall interpretation of this passage, I nonetheless agree with him that Paul’s point is to demonstrate the inefficacy of the law to save from sin and the inability of the flesh to do what is pleasing in God’s sight.

[5] “Having vindicated the law in verses 7–13 as not responsible for sin or death, Paul now proceeds to show that nevertheless the law cannot be responsible for our holiness either.” John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 205.

[6] Murray, Romans, 254–255.

[7] Augustine held to the ‘unregenerate man’ view early on, but upon reflecting on sin and human nature in the debates with Pelagius, he changed his position. His influence set the agenda for the Western tradition after him.

[8] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits, Exposition of Chapters 7.1-8.4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 190.

[9] Three occurrences if we consider the epistle to the Hebrews to be of Pauline authorship (Heb. 7:16, but this passage does not use the adjective to describe Christians, but the ceremonial externalism of the old covenant cultic system.

[10] The Septuagint (LXX) also uses σάρκινος in Ezekiel 36:26 and 11:19.

[11] Even Moo is constrained to admit it: “Since ‘fleshly’ in 1 Cor. 3:1 is applied to Christians, it is clear that this adjective itself does not require that the egō be unregenerate.” Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testmaent (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 454.

[12] Timothy F. George, ed., Romans 1–8, New Testament VII, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 398.

[13] Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 93.

[14] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 526.

[15] Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, xi.

[16] Dennis E. Johnson, “The Function of Romans 7:13–25 in Paul’s Argument for the Law’s Impotence and the Spirit’s Power, and Its Bearing on the Identity of the Schizophrenic ‘I,’” in Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington, eds., Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2008), 14.

[17] J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 143–44.

[18] Donald V Engebretson, “Romans 7: Personal Struggle, Defense of the Law, or Israel’s Struggle?,” Logia 20, no. 4 (2011): 25; page 28.

[19] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, 454.

[20] An illustration of this Messianic longing and expectation for redemption to be accomplished can be seen in the case of Simeon. It was revealed to him by prophecy that he would not die until his eyes saw the Messiah. Once he does, he prays, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart In peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:29–30). The psalmist says, “I long for thy salvation.” Simeon says, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation”!

[21] Robert Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1858), 298–299.

[22] P46 reads ἔσω ἄνθρωπον, as well as numerous other ancient mss. See Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, “P46,” in The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 2 Co 4:16–18. While the variant could hardly change the meaning of the passage, ἔσω ἄνθρωπον seems better attested and is the precise syntactical form as Paul’s reference to “the inner man” elsewhere. The identical syntax in each occurrence may strengthen the likelihood that the referent is precisely the same thing in all three ocurrences in the NT.

[23] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, 446.

[24] Johnson, “The Function of Romans 7:13-25” in Resurrection and Eschatology, 4–6.

[25] Arthur Walkington Pink, The Arthur Pink Anthology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), (pages not numbered).

[26] Pink, The Arthur Pink Anthology, (pages not numbered).

[27] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, New Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Louis Kregel, 1882), 380.

[28] Will N. Timmins, Romans 7 and Christian Identity: A Study of the ‘I’ in Its Literary Context, Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 170 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 206; Joel R. Beeke, Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of God’s People (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 24-25.

[29] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 11.