Was Paul A Very Carnal Christian?


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I believe the New Testament reveals the Apostle Paul mostly was filled and ruled by the Holy Spirit throughout his Christian life. But contrary to this, some churchgoers believe Romans 7:14-24 teaches Paul lived a very carnal sinful Christian life. They do this to justify their own or others’ easy believism “conversions”, their liberal attitudes to committing known sin and their lack of interest in turning from their sins. Easy believism false conversions are discussed in Chapter                 “Different gospels-easy believism”.

In Romans 7:14-24, Paul states: “For we that the law is spiritual, I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death.”


Other much better interpretations of Romans 7:14-24


Here are a number of other much better possible interpretations of Romans 7:14-24:


1.       Paul is referring to his life and/or the experience of any unsaved person prior to conversion to Christ, when trying to obey the Law by his own strength. It is argued the three “fors” used in verses 14 and 15 link Romans 7:14-24 to previous verses such as 5 and 13 which describe Paul's battle with sin without the Holy Spirit. Douglas Moo argues that Romans 7:14-24 can refer to Paul describing his experience as a Jew under the Mosaic Law prior to his conversion to Christ: “For 7:14-25 is not a response to the teaching of chapter 6; rather, it carries on the discussion of the Mosaic law from 7:1-6 and 7:7-12. Paul’s purpose is to vindicate the law; he wants to keep people from concluding on the basis of 7:1-6 that the law is a bad thing. Thus, he shows that sin, not the law, is at fault in the death that has come to those who are ‘bound in the law’ (cf. V.6). But those who struggle to do the law and are frustrated when they do not are Jews. They are the ones who are ‘under the law’ (see 2:12; 3:19). Paul cannot, then, be describing Christian experience in 7:14-25, for Christians no longer struggle to do the Mosaic law; they are not under it (6:14, 15; cf. 7:4, 6). To put the matter in a different way, Paul is certainly continuing to describe the two different regimes of salvation history. But he has consistently placed law in the old regime. Thus 7:14-25, which speaks about the struggle to obey the law, must be about the old regime. Romans 7:5-6 provides a kind of ‘heading’ for the argument that follows. In 7:7-25, Paul elaborates on the situation described in verse 5: ‘When we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.’ Chapter 8 then picks up on 7:6: ‘Now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.’” [1]

Romans 7:13 states: “Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.” When commenting on this verse, Moo says: “This verse summarizes what Paul has taught in 7:7-12, so that we can consider it the conclusion to the previous paragraph. He again notes that God’s law has been the occasion that enables us to see sin for what it really is: ‘that sin might be recognized as sin,’ that ‘sin might become utterly sinful.’ In other words the law becomes an instrument that sin uses to bring death. The form of the verse, however, similar to 7:7 with its question and emphatic response (‘By no means!’), suggests that it introduces what follows. This verse, therefore, is transitional, gathering up the argument so far and launching the new focus: the problem with ‘me.’” [2]

2.       Paul is referring only to his unintentional known sin. Paul is not saying he commits deliberate known sin every second or the majority of the time each day. His words in verses 15, 16, 18, 19, 20 and 21 about his will wanting to do good and not wanting to do evil, strongly suggest Paul is not saying in Romans 7:14-24 he is committing deliberate known sin every moment and or most of the time each day. The fact in verse 15, Paul says he hates sin and in verse 22 he says he delights in obeying God’s will also infers he is mainly talking about unintentional known sin in Romans 7:14-24. Sin survived in Paul's life. But to say it reigned in him every day seems to contradict much of the rest of the New Testament.

3.       Paul is not referring to what is his Christian manifested lifestyle every moment of every day after his conversion. Instead in Romans 7:14-24, he is revealing what he is in himself as a born-again believer at those times when he and not the Spirit of Christ is ruling himself. Whenever the Holy Spirit is not ruling him, Paul is totally fleshly and full of evil desires just like all other fallen humans and cannot stop regularly practicing sin and evil. In Romans 7:14-24, Paul recognizes the real state of his human nature when it is not properly submitted to the Holy Spirit and God’s grace in Christ. In these verses, he shows what his nature and behaviour is like when he relies on himself instead of on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit within him when trying to obey God’s commands. Paul is also expressing that he realised he was totally unable to meet the perfect standards of God’s commands by his own fleshly power. But later in Romans 7:25-8:16, Paul stresses his absolute need of Christ and His Holy Spirit. (What applies to Paul as a believer, obviously applies to all other believers as well.)

4.       A combination of views 1 and 3.


Keys to interpreting Romans 7:14-24


It is wrong to interpret passages of Scripture contrary to other verses on the same topic. Jesus showed us this in Matthew 4:5-7 when He revealed a disputable passage – Psalm 91:11-12 – should be interpreted in agreement with other verses on the same topic. Jesus used Deuteronomy 6:13 to demonstrate the Devil’s misinterpretation of Psalm 91:11-12. So in the following, I will cross-reference Romans 7:14-24 with other relevant verses on the same topic.

Also note when approaching Romans 7:14-24, we should not interpret it as revealing the expected manifested lifestyle of born-again Christians either all or most of the time each day in relation to deliberate known sin, just because the experiences of some other churchgoers may support this interpretation. Such a false approach involves interpreting Scripture to fit in with our experiences. This is the mistake many have fallen into in relation to Romans 7:14-24.


Reasons Romans 7:14-24 does not justify living a wicked life


There are a number of things which suggest Romans 7:14-24 does not describe Paul’s everyday manifested lifestyle as a believer either all or most of the time in relation to deliberate known sin:


Does not match other passages about Paul’s Christian manifested lifestyle

If this was Paul's manifested lifestyle as a Christian in relation to deliberate known sin all or most of the time, this would infer that he was mostly or every moment of every day involved in coveting others’ wives, coveting sex with unmarried young girls and prostitutes, coveting others’ possessions, much wine and other things, and was therefore continually committing adultery, fornication, theft, drunkenness and so on.

Note in context, Romans 7:14-24 relates to Romans 7:7-13. Romans 7:7-11 shows Paul experienced every kind of covetous desire while trying to obey the Law by his own self-efforts.[3] It can be strongly argued Romans 7:7-13 refers to Paul's experiences in terms of one or more of the four alternative interpretations of Romans 7:14-24 listed in the previous section. But note a supposed continual committing of adultery, fornication, theft, drunkenness and so on does not match the record of Paul's Holy Spirit-ruled behaviour in the Book of Acts. Nor does it match his Spirit-ruled living mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 2:10: “You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe” and 2 Corinthians 7:2: “…We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have defrauded no one” and 2 Corinthians 2:17: “For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.”

Note also Paul's words in Ephesians 5:3-7: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them.” If Paul was all or most of the time practicing the sorts of sins recorded in Ephesians 5:3-7, he was therefore saying he was not saved though Christ. The same applies to what Paul said in Galatians 5:19-21.

In addition, note in Titus 3:3, Paul says that in the past, he repeatedly used to serve various lusts and pleasures and lived in envy: “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another.” In the original Greek, the verb “were” above is in the imperfect tense. The imperfect tense here signifies repeated or continuous action in the past. Note the use of the word “once” or in Greek “pote” in relation to “were” in Titus 3:3 shows Paul was saying he was not now repeatedly every day serving various lusts and living in envy. In the original Greek, “pote” means “at some time or other of the past, once, formerly”. [4]

In Galatians 1:13, 1:23, Ephesians 2:2, 2:3, 2:13, 5:8, Colossians 1:21 and 3:7, “pote” relates to believers’ pre-conversion behaviour or situation. In Ephesians 2:13, Paul says: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been made near by the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:2-3 states: “In which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”

Observe the word “serving” in Titus 3:3 is the same basic Greek word used in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 in relation to serving two masters – God or riches and possessions. The same basic Greek word for “serving” is found in Romans 6:6 in reference to serving sin, in Romans 7:25 relative to serving God’s Law, in Romans 14:18, 16:18 and Colossians 3:24 in relation to serving Jesus Christ and in Romans 7:6 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9 in reference to serving God. Titus 3:3 used this word “serving” in relation to the fact that prior to conversion Paul served various lusts and pleasures.

Also, observe the word “lusts” in Titus 3:3, the word “covetousness” used in Romans 7:7 and the expression “evil desire” in Romans 7:8 are all forms of the same Greek word “epithumia”. In Romans 7:8, Paul said: “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire…” (N.A.S.B.) When in Romans 7:8 Paul said he experienced “coveting of every kind”, this must be interpreted in relation to his insistence in Acts 20:33 he did not covet: “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.” Acts 20:33 shows Romans 7:7-8 either refers to Paul's pre-conversion condition or to what as a regenerated believer Paul knew he was like in himself if he was without Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God’s grace.

In Titus 3:3, Paul says he used to live in envy in his pre-conversion state. In Romans 1:29, Paul uses a form of the same Greek word for “envy” used in Titus 3:3 when he teaches in the broader context of Romans 1:29-32 that anyone who continuously practices envy deserves death. He uses another form of the same Greek word in Galatians 5:21 when he warns those who continuously practice envy will not inherit God’s kingdom. Paul was not spiritually dead. So it is certain that as a born-again Christian, Paul was not continuously ruled by envy.

Can you honestly say the New Testament description given of Paul's manifested lifestyle after his conversion was one of deliberately committing known evil every second or most of the time every day?


It contradicts Romans 6:14-18 and 20-22

Also note in Romans 7:14, Paul says “I am…sold into bondage to sin” (N.A.S.B.) or, “I am …sold under sin” (N.K.J.V.). In the original Greek, the word “sold” here is a perfect participle. In Greek, the perfect tense refers to a completed action with continuing effects or to a state resulting from a previous action.

All humans are sold into bondage to sin at conception, this resulting in them being in a state of slavery to sin. The flesh of all believers on Earth is still in this state after conversion but their regenerated “I” is not. The flesh is the state or condition of human nature and its instincts and desires, not as they first came from God, but as they have been warped and made abnormal by original sin inherited from Adam and further weakened and perverted by acts of sin.

Also note the expression “I am…sold into bondage to sin” does not refer to Paul's and/or other believers’ post-conversion manifested lifestyle every or almost every moment of each day in relation to deliberate known sin. This is because this would contradict his own words about the post-conversion lives of believers in verses such as Romans 6:14-18 and 20-22. Romans 6:14 states: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, but you are not under law but under grace.” Romans 6:17-18 and 20-22 show believers were previously slaves to sin but are now slaves to God and righteousness. By this, Paul reveals normal everyday Christian living should not involve being in continual slavery to known sin every or almost every second of each day. Refer to Chapter          “Our Marvellous Redemption” for more details on these verses in Romans 6.

By God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s strength, believers can live in real though imperfect victory over sin. Verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:15, Galatians 5:16-24 and 1 John 5:4 speak of this real victory. 1 John 5:4 says: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.” James 3:2, however, shows our present victory in this earthly life over sin will be imperfect.


Paul wrote differently in Romans 8:2-4

Assuming in Romans 7:14-24 Paul is referring to himself, in verse 23 he says he is a captive to the law of sin in his flesh. But he wrote differently about himself in Romans 8:2 in relation to him being in Christ Jesus and having the Holy Spirit: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Here Paul states Christ’s Spirit had freed him from captivity to the law of sin. In Romans 8:2, Paul is not referring to some imagined state of permanent sinless perfection in this life but to:


·         the total break with the law of sin he had been given by grace in the sense of God redeeming or purchasing him from the demands of God’s holiness and justice and thereby freeing him from his previous masters – sin, lawlessness, death and eternal condemnation.

·         the potential for total victory over known and unknown sin through having received the Holy Spirit.

·         and the substantial actual break with the law of sin he has experienced in practical living since conversion.


The latter part of Romans 7:25 shows, however, Paul knew his flesh was ruled by the law of sin.

Paul compared his and our pre-conversion and post-conversion circumstances in Romans 8:3-4: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Verse 4 here relates to justification in the sense of Jesus’ death fulfilling all of the Law’s sacrificial aspects, thereby releasing us from the curse of the Law – death. Verse 4 also possibly relates to Christ's righteousness under the Law being credited to us.

But one view argues this verse also relates to how the Holy Spirit gives believers the ability to obey God’s two love commandments in present and future practical experience. In Greek, the verb “might be fulfilled” is in the passive voice. The passive voice of this verb means Another – in this case God – does this action of fulfilling the righteous requirement of the Law in us. It is probable Romans 8:4 refers to both justification and God’s work by His Holy Spirit in empowering believers to fulfil His commands.

Romans 7:23 can be more easily be interpreted in terms of the four alternative views I have listed previously than in relation to the view Paul's manifested lifestyle every or most moments of each day evidenced total captivity or slavery to known sin.


No mention of God’s grace, Christ or the Spirit

All Paul's comments in Romans 7:14-24 are “I” comments with no mention of God’s grace, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit’s help and power. In these verses, Paul uses the word “I” 24 times, “me” 7 times and “my” 4 times with not one mention of Christ, the Holy Spirit or God’s grace.

Such a lack of emphasis on God’s grace, the Holy Spirit’s help and Jesus Christ is not normal for Paul's writings about born-again Christians. For example, compare this to Paul's emphasis on God’s grace in 1` Corinthians 15:9-10: “For I am the least of all the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” and 2 Corinthians 1:12: “For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves in the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom but by the grace of God, and more abundantly toward you.”

In Romans Chapter 8, there are about sixteen references to the Holy Spirit. But as stated above, in Romans 7:14-24 there is no mention of the Holy Spirit Who enables us to overcome sin. Walking in the Holy Spirit and relying on His power are parts of the normal Christian life. It is only after the end of Romans 7:14-24, that victory over sin through Jesus Christ is mentioned. This key point in Romans 7:25 about victory over sin through Christ introduces us to the Holy Spirit-ruled Christian life spoken of in Romans Chapter 8.


Paul would be backslidden and a complete hypocrite

Let us assume the four other interpretations of Romans 7:14-24 I have listed previously are wrong and instead this passage refers to Paul's manifested lifestyle as a Christian in relation to deliberate known sin either every moment of every day or at least most of the time. If Romans 7:14-24 refers to Paul's manifested lifestyle in relation to deliberate known sin most of the time, this would mean that when Paul said in verse 14, “I am carnal”, he was saying he mostly lived a relatively very fleshly Christian life, was ruled by the Holy Spirit rarely and lived as a spiritual believer on few occasions. In the original Greek, the word “carnal” in Romans 7:14 is “sarkinos” which is derived from the word “sarx” meaning “flesh”.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1, Paul used a form of the Greek word “pneumatikos” to refer to believers manifesting a spiritual Christian lifestyle. In this verse, he told many of the Corinthian Christians that he could not refer to them as spiritual believers. Note these same believers had backslidden into regularly practicing sexual immorality, uncleanness, envy, fighting and so on (see 2 Corinthians 12:20-21). In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul says a number of times that these backslidden believers were carnal or “sarkikos”. He was saying they were no longer living the Holy Spirit-ruled life but were living a relatively flesh-ruled life at the time.

So if we take “carnal” in Romans 7:14 to refer to manifested daily lifestyle as a Christian like it is used to some degree in the context of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, then we can conclude Paul mostly lived a relatively very fleshly unspiritual “Christian” lifestyle similar to that lived by the backslidden group at the Church at Corinth. But such a conclusion is ridiculous when we consider Paul constantly and severely warned these backslidden relatively very carnal Christians at Corinth about the sort of lifestyle they were living (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:8-10, 6:12-18, 10:1-14, 11:17-34, 2 Corinthians 11:1-20, 12:20-21 and 13:5). If Paul was living a very carnal lifestyle like them, they would have regarded his warnings as those of a complete hypocrite.

Also, note Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” Paul here says he was following Christ’s example. If instead Paul was continually manifesting a relatively very fleshly unspiritual lifestyle like the backslidden Corinthians, he would have instead told them they were already living just like him.

In 2 Timothy 3:10, Paul said Timothy had carefully followed Paul's manner of living. If both Paul and Timothy were continually living as complete hypocrites, it is unlikely Acts 16:2 would say of Timothy: “He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium.”

If, in Romans 7:14-24 Paul is referring to his manifested lifestyle in relation to deliberate known sin every moment of every day, this would mean his words “I am carnal” should be taken in an absolute sense. This would mean he lived a totally carnal life as a Christian every moment of every day. Totally carnal means completely ruled by the flesh. In other words, he lived an evil wicked life every second after conversion and was never even once ruled by the Holy Spirit during this time.

There is a difference between being relatively very carnal and absolutely carnal. In Romans 7:14, Paul cannot be saying he was carnal in an absolute or total sense in his everyday behaviour as a believer. This is because if Paul lived an absolutely carnal or totally fleshly lifestyle as a Christian, his words in Romans 8:13 would suggest he will not inherit eternal life: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul spoke similarly to Romans 8:13: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” [5]

Final comments


To suggest that Romans 7:14-24 describes Paul's manifested lifestyle as a born-again Christian either every or most moments of each day is an horrific idea. This dreadful misunderstanding of these verses is used sinfully to supposedly justify the lives of many backslidden Christians or of so-called “converts” who were never really converted to Christ in the first place. Such a poor interpretation of this passage is an example of a Biblical text being interpreted out of context as a pretext for sin.



Bible Study Questions


1.              What are the four better interpretations of Romans 7:14-24?

2.              Explain why Romans 7:14-24 cannot be used to justify living a wicked life as a Christian. Give a thorough answer which includes comments on each of the sections related to this in this chapter.


[1] Douglas Moo, “N.I.V. Application Commentary – Romans”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, pages 240-241.

[2] Ibid, page 236.

[3] Romans 7:7-11 states: “…I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.”

[4] Bauer, page 695.

[5] Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:15-16: “ …Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” When Paul said this, he was not inferring that he was deliberately committing known sin as a Christian more frequently than the man who lived de-facto with his step-mother at the Church at Corinth, the drunken Corinthian believers (see 1 Corinthians 11:20-21), those Ephesian believers who had lost their first love for Jesus (see Revelation 2:1-5) and the spiritually lukewarm proud believers at Laodicea (see Revelation 3:14-18).

Instead, Paul was speaking about the terrible sins of his pre-Christian days, as his words in the previous verses in 1 Timothy 1:13-14 prove: “Although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man: but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant…” It is also possible that in 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Paul was expressing the depth of the revelation each believer needs of how wicked we are without God.

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