Two completely opposite interpretations occur within Seventh-day Adventism, today, concerning the seventh chapter of Romans. The difference is a question about what Paul meant when he said: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” Romans 7:15.
Was that Paul’s actual spiritual experience at the time, when he, as a converted Christian, wrote to the Romans? Or was he illustrating a lesson using an earlier experience in his life, when he had realized the Law’s demands, but was not yet converted and therefore had not received insight into God’s plan of salvation from sin?
Without hesitation we recognize much from the illustration in our own struggle in the Christian life, but is it exactly the same for everyone? Also, what did Paul mean when, later on, he said that we should not feel any obligation or indebtedness to the flesh?
“We are debtors, not to the flesh,” but that we, with the Spirit’s power, shall “mortify the deeds of the body.” Romans 8:12, 13. Naturally, we can fall and then Jesus raises us up again, but that is not what Paul is dealing with here. The question is not so much concerned with Paul’s conversion as it is with whether we believe that God is powerful enough to be able to give us “power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12), and strength to subdue our sinful nature. Did God ask too much of Cain when He said to him that he should “rule over” (Genesis 4:7) his nature? Was it impossible for the woman taken in adultery to, in God’s strength, “go, and sin no more”? (John 8:11.) Also, was Peter able to do the humanly impossible —to walk on the water?
The question is fundamental and serious. If Paul, that giant of God’s servants, were converted in Romans 7:15–25, and yet could not do other than sin, none—not even God—can demand that we stop sinning. It would indirectly be an excuse for us to continue to live in sin, because then it would be impossible to overcome sin and keep the law of God. But that statement is, in fact, Satan’s basic lie since the rebellion in heaven. (See The Desire of Ages, 309.)
This interpretation shall, with the help of parallel texts, attempt to clarify whether Paul described himself as being converted or not, in Romans 7:14–23.
Different Methods of Interpretation
When God teaches us about important truths, which He does not want us to misunderstand, He repeats the message using different illustrations. The book of Ezekiel, chapters 4, 5, 12, 15, 17, 23 and 24, are striking examples of how He does this. In these chapters, God speaks to the Jews through the prophet, and warns them that because of their backsliding from the faith, and the spread of corruption among both the rulers and people, they will be carried away into captivity to Babylon. At that time, as during all of the history of the Israelites, there were only a few among the people, and even fewer among the leaders, who took any notice of God’s warnings through His prophets.
When it has to do with Righteousness by Faith, and victory over the temptation to transgress the law of God after being born again, God uses the same method of repetition as we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans. However, in spite of the fact that He uses four parables which are unambiguous, some interpret His statements differently, and, as a result, they limit their interpretation to a few texts in the fourth repetition.
To interpret a subject with a limited number of texts, however, is to invite an incorrect interpretation. When others interpret God’s Word in that way, we criticize them. Nevertheless, Romans 7:7–25 is often interpreted with this same “limited-number-of-texts” interpretation procedure within Seventh-day Adventism today. The moral declension in the world and the ecumenical spirit among professed Christians, influence Adventists to an ever-increasing degree, through the introduction of Romish lines of thought into our theology. Aurelius Augustine’s (354–430 A.D.) doctrine of inherited sin has greatly influenced how many Adventists believe, and it is a deciding factor in understanding Romans, chapter 7.
Peter counsels us about how some will use Paul’s writings, in 2 Peter 3:15, 16: “Even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction.” Therefore, each of us should be careful not to draw hasty conclusions about what Paul means. In addition to this, some texts are poorly translated, or even incorrectly translated, depending upon whether the translator had a Romish, or Biblically based viewpoint. However, we must also understand Paul’s letter correctly; and it is true that those who really want to understand will understand, if they will ignore their own and others’ prejudices and interpretations and listen directly to the Holy Spirit’s instruction in the Bible. (James1:5.) God’s Word is given through the Holy Spirit and it never contradicts itself.
What was the consequence of Paul’s conversion? Those who claim that he was converted in Romans 7:14–23, believe, in practice, that Paul, who through God’s grace should “[be obedient] to the faith among all nations” (Romans 1:5), could not avoid sinning himself—or, in other words, that nothing had actually happened in his life after he, in Romans 7:25, exclaimed that he had obtained the solution to his sin problem through Jesus Christ.
Is the Holy Spirit’s power which accompanied the preaching of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 5) only a promise for the future, and not in reality something which leads us to liberty and victory over sin in our everyday life here and now? Many today say that it applies to the future when they expect that the “latter rain,” by a miracle, shall so change them that they stop sinning. They also say that now (before the latter rain), no one can escape the transgression of God’s law, and they often refer to Paul’s experience, in the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, to support their view.
It is obvious that differences of understanding are caused by differences in definitions of what conversion involves. Is one already converted when only one’s will and aim is to do good, or is one first converted when one has received the power to effect a complete change, and go in the opposite direction?
Roman Catholic theology teaches that it is enough to will to do good. This means that God has instituted a law that one cannot live up to. It is acceptable for Catholics to sin. Their ideals, in the first place, are guiding principles that are neither necessary nor possible to live up to. There is only a continual pardon but no victory over sin. But is that the Gospel of the Bible? Is the aim and the will enough? Doesn’t it need something more than that?
Examples of Conversions
Perhaps the experience of Pentecost, in Acts 2:36–38, can shed some light on the question of conversion. Peter had just preached the Pentecost message of the new covenant and that the Jews had slain their own King, the only true Mediator between God and them. He stressed the fact that God’s sacrificial Lamb was given and that the service of reconciliation in the holy apartment of the heavenly sanctuary had begun.
When the Jews, who had gathered, heard that, “they were pricked in their heart.” They felt that they needed more than their symbolic service in the earthly temple, and they had a will to alter the state of things. But were they converted by the will alone to change? No. Instead, they asked: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter saw that they were now ready and answered: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 2:38.
In the same way, Paul was “pricked in [his] heart” when he realized the demands of the law. (See Acts 26:14, 22:10, The Acts of the Apostles, 112–122.) He says: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” Romans 7:9. Paul understood that it required more than outer religious formalism. He wanted to follow the demands of the law, but he was powerless to do so. He was “sold as a slave to sin” and was “[captive] to the law of sin.” Romans 7:23. Paul had no alternative! Does that really describe, as some declare, a person’s life after having been changed and set free (Luke 4:18; 33–36) by the grace of God? Is it not so, instead, as Paul describes it here in Romans 7:14–23, an account of how he deals with the demands of the law—without grace?
Paul had the desire, but, realizing the hopeless situation with his carnal nature, exclaimed in despair: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” The Swedish Bible (1917 edition) has it thus: “Who shall save me from this body of sin?” At this point, he was also ready to receive the power of conversion, finding the answer as did the Jews on the day of Pentecost: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 7:25.
That joyous message was the solution to his problem, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth . . .” Romans 1:16. The Gospel is not only about forgiveness; it also concerns the Holy Spirit’s power in us to win the victory over the world, Satan and ourselves. By ourselves, we have no power to oppose our nature and our intelligent fiend, Satan. However, God grants us the power through: “Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.” Jude 24.
That power is not a miracle that belongs to the future. It is the same power which Jesus requested of His Father to overcome evil. It is the same power which Enoch (who walked with God) and Elijah (who was taken up to heaven) both received. When Paul found the solution to his problem, he received an alternative to his earlier life. He could choose one or the other. He summarized the two alternatives at the end of the seventh and beginning the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans.
“So then with the mind [spirit] I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death . . . That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Romans 7:25, 8:1, 2, 4.
Four Parallel Confirmations
Does the information, up to this point, support what Paul wrote earlier in his letter? A deciding factor is to know why he wrote the letter and to whom he wrote it. It can be established that he wrote partly to highly educated Christians of heathen origin as well as to Jewish Christians who were on intimate terms with “the law” but without grace, and who therefore tried to earn their salvation through “works” alone. Paul wrote: “thou art called a Jew, and restest [v.i. to be left, to remain; to stay; to continue—Webster’s dictionary] in the law . . . Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” Romans 2:17, 21. (Read verses 17–29.)
The Swedish Bible (1917 edition) renders it thus: “You call yourselves Jews and trust in the law . . . You who want to teach others don’t learn yourselves!” These Jews kept the outward letter of the law, but their hearts did not keep the spirit of the law. Their Christianity was motivated by a fear of punishment, or of desire for an expected reward. The driving force behind their type of Christianity was not love to God for His sacrifice or for that which was right.
The structure of the letter shows that Paul wrote to people who were familiar with the way that the Old Testament conveyed a particular truth; namely that of repetition. Since Paul wrote to people with a knowledge of the Old Testament’s method of description, he has repeated what he says in Romans 7:7; 8:4, about serving either the “flesh” or the “spirit,” not less than three times earlier, from Romans chapter five. The first description he gives is that of the theology of baptism. In the second, he illustrates the principle through the story of the slave who was freed to serve another master. The third is a picture of a woman who, through the law, is bound to her husband until he dies, but after his death she is free to give herself to another man.
- The Symbol of Baptism
Paul begins with the theology of baptism, since baptism is the symbol for the death of Jesus, His burial and resurrection—the fundamental principles of everything else in God’s plan of salvation. As an introduction to his teaching, he talks about Adam who, through his transgression, brought sin and death into the world, but explains that, in Romans 5:18, “the second Adam,” Jesus Christ, had come and solved the problem of sin and death by His righteous life and His substitutionary death. By that means, none were automatically judged to die for eternity. The “second Adam” now offers redemption and power to overcome. Therefore, “as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 5:21.
The Swedish Bible (1917 edition) renders it thus: “As sin had exercised its domination in and through death, so should now also grace through righteousness exercise its domination to everlasting life and that through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
After this, Paul poses a question to the Romans: “Shall we continue in sin? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” Romans 6:1–3. Paul explains here for the Romans that those who have been baptized have died, been buried and have been resurrected and therefore “should walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4.
The old man of flesh is buried “that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.” Romans 6:6, 7.
The grammatical form, used in the above quotations, is continuous. That means that something begins at a point of time and continues to go on now. By way of explanation, one could say: It began to rain yesterday and has continued to rain ever since. (Another text with the continuous form is John 3:16 where it says: “that whosoever believeth [and continues to believe] shall be saved.”)
In the same way, shall the old man be dead, and remain dead. The new, spiritual man shall live and continue to live. Paul exhorts them: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” Romans 6:12–14.
Accordingly, Paul says that a new power has been established which shall have Lordly dominion and press down the former.
- The Obliging Servant
Yet again Paul asks: “What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace?” Romans 6:15.
This time, Paul illustrates his salvation from sin by using the example of a servant who becomes released from his servitude, and who, of his own free will and with all his heart, chooses, instead, to obey his deliverer. The servant’s relationship to his master was well known in Roman society which was full of servants or slaves taken from the people of those lands which the Romans had conquered. But Israel also had a slave system of its own with a system of regulations governing it. If an Israelite found himself in a debt situation where he could not manage to repay, he could be forced to sell himself as a servant to another Israelite so that he did not need to starve. However, he became free and was released from his debt in the seventh, or “free,” year. A real slave, however, was bound to his master and remained his slave for life, unless a rich or powerful person released him.
The servant, who had been released, Paul spiritually applied to the Christian whom Jesus had redeemed. He exclaimed: “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you . . . for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.” Romans 6:17–19.
Paul says that the Christian is free to serve the good instead of, as earlier, his own fallen nature, when he had no other alternative than to be a slave to the world and Satan.
Next month we will study out the last two illustrations that Paul uses.*
*Charles Axelson passed away in July of 1998.
Charles Axelson has been a faithful Seventh-day Adventist in Sweden for many years. Over 20 years ago Charles was involved in an automobile accident that left him a quadraplegic. Using a stick in his cheek, he was active as a writer and an artist. He had the respect and love of his associates and he is missed by each one. He was looking forward to this article being published in Land Marks magazine. We look forward to seeing Charles again—seeing him jump for joy that he can walk again. Then we will all spend eternity together forever.