If you could ask a dozen New Testament scholars to list the five most difficult passages in the New Testament, most would include Romans 7:14-25 on their list. That same group would likely disagree with one another on what interpretive framework is most helpful for interpreting that passage. (Even among those who blog at the Good Book Blog, I know for a fact that there is a diversity of opinion on how best to address this passage). Does Romans 7:14-25 describe Paul’s own struggle with sin as a believer? Does it describe the struggle with sin of someone who has not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, that is, an unbeliever? Perhaps it is the struggle of a pious old covenant Jew who loves the law of God but struggles to fulfill it? Or maybe it isn’t personal at all; maybe it is a grand analogy of the change from the old covenant to the new covenant?

You can check out standard commentaries on this topic to see the diversity of opinions on this matter.[1] I won’t directly argue for a position (since it is a blog post, not a monograph, after all!), though I do think that there are solid and (in my mind) quite compelling exegetical reasons to take the autobiographical reading of this passage (that is, that the struggle of Romans 7 is Paul’s own struggle with sin as representative of the type of struggle Christians will—and should—experience whenever they sin). My goal here is far more modest; I simply want to share a key insight I learned years ago from J. I. Packer in a conversation I was privileged to have with him when I was a young college student. The reason I share this insight is because the single most important reason people reject the autobiographical reading of Romans 7 is that they cannot see how Paul could have sandwiched such a negative assessment of dealing with sin between such a positive assessment in chapters 6 and 8. Compounding the dissonance people feel is the (appropriate) assessment that Paul’s own Christian life was a model worth emulating; we should aim to live cruciform and Spirit-empowered lives like Paul lived. But how does that work with the affirmation of Paul “struggling” with sin in Romans 7? I believe that Packer’s insight clears all of that difficulty away.

Here is my story. J. I. Packer was lecturing for three days at the college where I was an undergraduate studying theology and biblical languages. When it was announced that students could sign up for personal meetings with Dr. Packer, I think I was the only student in the college who signed up. When I sat down with this distinguished British theologian, he asked, “How can I help you, young man?”

I blurted out: “Romans 7! I don’t understand Romans 7! What’s going on in that passage?”

Packer then gently helped me uncover my own presuppositions about the passage and then offered to me a key insight that has helped me to this day. I offer this insight to you in turn since I believe that this resolves the most important reason people reject the autobiographical reading of Romans 7. How can the regenerate Paul—man of God that he is, and author of Romans 6 and 8—be experiencing such a struggle with sin as we see in Romans 7?

Packer gently leaned over the table, looked me in the eye, and said, “Young man, Paul wasn’t struggling with sin because he was such a sinner. Paul was struggling because he was such a saint. Sin makes you numb. People who sin over and over again become desensitized to sin. The reason Paul’s “struggle” was so intense was not because he was caught in a web of sin, or because he thought of himself as hopelessly doomed to giving into the temptations that he faced. Rather, it was because Paul lived a life so sensitive to the Holy Spirit and passionate about the glory of God that he intensely felt his sins whenever he became aware that he had committed a sin (since he was not, of course, sinlessly perfect).”[2]

In other words, you can see a black spider crawling up your shirt a lot better if you are wearing a white shirt than if you are wearing a black shirt. (Pause and think about that one for a moment if you didn’t get it right away.)

A few years ago, two of the five “vanity lights” in one of the bathrooms in my house burned out. Since those lights were specialty lights and I had no extra bulbs of that kind in storage, I pulled out all five lights and screwed in five normal 60 watt light bulbs. When I flipped the switch, 300 watts of white radiance shined into that sink! What was the first thing I noticed? You probably already guessed it; I noticed how dirty the sink was. It was on account of the light that I could see the dirt. (Then I had to go clean it!) Paul was one who lived in the light of the transforming power of the gospel. Because of the glorious light that was shining in his heart, he could clearly see any traces of dirt. And he so desired to live a life that pleased his Lord that he grieved whenever he became aware of anything that did not please the Lord.

But if you constantly give in to sin, you become desensitized to sin. My father-in-law loves to eat extremely hot peppers. He also has very little sense of taste—of anything—anymore. All of us in the family think that the reason he can’t taste anything anymore is because of all the hot peppers he’s eaten (and we give him a hard time about it). Whether our theory about his loss of taste has any true medical basis or not, it’s a really good analogy of what happens to someone who is caught in an ongoing cycle of defeat in relationship to sin. Someone sins over and over again and increasingly becomes numb to sin.

Paul wasn’t like that. He was a person who lived with an understanding that he had died with Christ and risen to a new life (Romans 6). He knew that he had been empowered by the Spirit of God to overcome sin (Romans 8). This caused him to be very sensitive to any sin that was brought to his consciousness by the Holy Spirit. I believe that this sin-sensitivity is the struggle of Romans 7.

If you could ask Paul, “What are some examples of the types of sins you were thinking about when you wrote about this “struggle”? and then he told you, you might find yourself a bit flummoxed by his answer. You might respond, “Does that even count as sin?” This is because Paul had a much lower tolerance for sin in his life than most of us do; and he had such sensitivity to the Holy Spirit that he quickly dealt with anything that might not please the Lord he loved so much.

Since the time of that conversation with Dr. Packer, I have realized that there is ambiguity in the way people use the expression “struggle with sin” in Christianese English. For some Christians, “to struggle” means to fall into a particular sin over and over again. In this sense, I cannot believe that the Paul we know from his letters and from the book of Acts struggled very much at all in this way. (There is very good reason to think that the pattern of Paul’s life was a model for the rest of us. If it isn’t, why do we go over and over to his letters to find wisdom for living out our faith?) In a whole different vein, when others talk about “struggling,” they mean that they are actively fighting against the temptation to sin so as not to sin in a particular area. In this sense, Paul “struggled” with sin more than most Christians do. This is because Paul was very sensitive to sin.

I have come to believe that the development of a keen sensitivity to sin is one of the things a Christian ought to cultivate. We are not only to understand what happened at salvation and live like it (Romans 6) and learn to walk Spirit-ually (Romans 8), we are also to stay sensitive to sin and keep aware of our propensity to sin (the second half of Romans 7). And it is this very insight that may help us resolve one of the most difficult interpretive passages in the New Testament, Romans 7:14-25. Paul’s struggle with sin was not the struggle of a defeated sinner; his was the struggle of a sin-sensitive saint.[3]



[1] Compare, for example, the commentaries of Cranfield, Moo, and Ridderbos on this topic.

[2] I don’t remember the precise words Packer spoke that day. But this is a summary of what I took away from the conversation after many years of filtering it through my own study of this passage.

[3] Packer “unpacks” his understanding of Romans 7 in his Appendix entitled “The ‘Wretched Man’ in Romans 7,” in J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1984), 263-270. I do think, however, that he explained his key insight better to me in person. Perhaps a clearer and more persuasive explanation and defense is found in Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 284-288). In a similar strain, Sam Storms summarizes Jonathan Edwards: “The truly humble soul is devastated by the smallest expression of depravity but nearly oblivious to great progress in goodness and obedience.” Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 111. That’s a good way to put it.