The last half of the seventh chapter of Romans (7:13-25) has been a matter of theological debate from the time of the early church. Is Paul describing himself while under the law, before salvation or afterwards—his condition under the grace of salvation? The Puritan author John Owen can shed some light on the passage in his seminal work, Indwelling Sin in Believers. In the first chapter of Indwelling Sin, Owen acknowledged the dispute over how to understand the passage, but quickly declared the apostle was describing the condition of the regenerate person, “with respect to the remaining power of indwelling sin.” As if the title wasn’t a dead giveaway.
Clear thinking on this passage is essential, for we live in a time where there are renewed disputes about how to understand the doctrine of original sin. But before turning to Owen’s work, I want to note some of the biblical arguments for both positions. In his New American Commentary: Romans, Robert Mounce said that both positions could be persuasively argued. In support of Paul writing of his experience before conversion in 7:13-25 are several phrases throughout the passage. Paul said he was “sold under sin” (v. 14). He knew that nothing good dwelt in him (v. 18). He was “captive to the law of sin” (v. 23) and a wretched man in need of deliverance (v. 24).
The dramatic contrast of chapter seven with the victory of chapter eight in Romans is further evidence to argue for a preconversion setting. In chapter seven Paul was crying out for deliverance. In chapter eight, he said a believer was set free from the law of sin and death (v. 8:2) and controlled by the Spirit of God (v. 8:9). Another strong argument for Paul describing his spiritual experience before conversion in chapter seven is the “quagmire of impotence and misery” described there. “How could this be the abundant life that Jesus came to bring (John 10:10)?”
On the other hand, throughout the entire passage (7:13-25) Paul used the present tense—over twenty times. For example, in verse fifteen Paul said: “I do not understand my own actions.” If he was speaking of his life before conversion, would he not have said something like: “I don’t understand what I did.” Then there are statements that seem incompatible with the experience of a nonbeliever, as in verse 22: “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.” Earlier, in Romans Paul said about those who were outside of Christ although they knew God, they sought to suppress the truth of God (1:18-21). There was no one who was righteous, who seeks God (3:10-12).
Mounce said he thought Paul was revealing his difficulty “meeting the radical demands of the Christian faith.” He used his own experience to describe the inevitability of spiritual defeat when a believer fails to trust in Christ for victory over their indwelling sin. Recognizing our inability to live up to our desire to do what is right (chapter 7), we know that in Christ, we are more than conquerors (chapter 8). “Sanctification is a gradual process that repeatedly takes the believer through this recurring sequence of failure through dependency upon self to triumph through the indwelling Spirit.”
Douglas Moo pointed out that most of the early church fathers thought the verses described a preconversion Paul. However, Augustine had a change of heart that seems to have been at least partly due to his battle with Pelagius over the freedom of the will. We see this in his work, A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. Augustine wrote this treatise in response to two letters he received from Pope Boniface. One was from Julian and the other from eighteen bishops, including Julian. The letters challenged the catholic faith and attacked Augustine personally. In chapter 22 of book one, Augustine said he once thought that Paul was describing a man under the law (preconversion).
But afterwards I was constrained to give up the idea by those words where he says, “Now, then, it is no more I that do it.” For to this belongs what he says subsequently also: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And because I do not see how a man under the law should say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man;” since this very delight in good, by which, moreover, he does not consent to evil, not from fear of penalty, but from love of righteousness (for this is meant by “delighting”), can only be attributed to grace.
Almost all of the Reformers, particularly Luther, agreed with Augustine that the passage depicted a believer in Christ. Writing in the century after the Reformation, Owen was clearly influenced by their thought. His opening declaration was:
It is of indwelling sin, and that in the remainders of it in persons after their conversion to God, with its power, efficacy, and effects that we intend to treat. This also is the great design of the apostle to manifest and evince in chap. 7 of the Epistle to the Romans.
Beginning with verse 7:21, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand,” Owen observed four things. First, Paul referred to indwelling sin as “a law.” Second, he experienced this law within himself. Third, despite the inhabitation of this law of sin, the general framework of believers is to do good. And fourth, when the believer would do good, evil is close at hand.
By calling indwelling sin a law, Owen thought Paul meant it was an inward principle that inclines and presses the believer towards actions agreeable and consistent with its own nature, namely that of sin. It is a law in them, but not to them. “Though its rule be broken, its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified, yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy. There, where it is least felt, it is most powerful.”
In saying he found this law within him, Paul meant that he found it within himself. It is one thing to know in general there is a law of sin. It is entirely another thing to experience the power of the law of sin within your being. Owen saw this experience of the law of sin is the great preservative of divine truth in the soul. When we are taught it from the Scriptures and then find it exists within us, we truly know it. “He shall find the stream to be strong who swims against it, though he who rolls along with it be insensible of it.”
Notwithstanding the indwelling of the law of sin, the habitual inclination of believers is towards good. “There is, and there is through grace, kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.” Good things come from the good treasures of the heart. But you can only see the evidence of this disposition by its fruits. “A will of doing good without doing good is but pretended.”
Whenever a believer would do good, they should consider two things. While there is a gracious principle residing within the will, there is also a contrary principle inclined towards evil. So then, “Indwelling sin is effectually operative in rebelling and inclining to evil, when the will of doing good is in a particular manner active and inclining unto obedience.”
So this is a description of the person who is a believer and a sinner. And “everyone who is the former is the latter also.” Their actions and operations are implied in these expressions: “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21); and: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17).
Owen then concluded his first chapter for Indwelling Sin as follows:
Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is any thing of the ways of God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also. He is at work, by all ways of force and craft, as we shall see. Would you not dishonour God and his gospel; would you not scandalize the saints and ways of God; would you not wound your consciences and endanger your souls; would you not grieve the good and holy Spirit of God, the author of all your comforts; would you keep your garments undefiled, and escape the woeful temptations and pollutions of the days wherein we live; would you be preserved from the number of the apostates in these latter days;—awake to the consideration of this cursed enemy, which is the spring of all these and innumerable other evils, as also of the ruin of all the souls that perish in this world!
So John Owen and Augustine see Paul speaking of life after conversion. Douglas Moo and others see him remembering his life before conversion. Personally, I find truth in both positions. Experientially, the truth of Owen’s metaphor of swimming against the stream rings true for me. Awareness of the stream of indwelling sin and the strength of its current within me is stronger now than before my conversion. But unconverted, that same stream would have swept me faster downstream, though I was insensible to it. Whether preconversion or postconversion, the answer is still the same: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.