Question: "Is Romans 7:14-25 describing a believer or an unbeliever?"
Answer: Romans 7:14–25 is a passage that has caused some confusion among Bible students because of the strong language Paul uses to describe himself. How can the greatest of the apostles characterize himself, and by extension, all Christians, as “unspiritual,” a “slave to sin” and a “prisoner of the law of sin”? Aren’t these descriptions used in Romans 7:14–25 descriptions of unbelievers? How can Paul describe himself in these terms if he is truly saved? The key to understanding Romans 7:14–25 is Paul’s description of the two natures of a Christian. Prior to salvation, we have only one nature—the sin nature. But once we come to Christ, we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), but we still abide in the old flesh which has the remains of the sinful nature within it. These two natures war constantly with one another, continually pulling the believer in opposite directions.
The desires of the believer’s spiritual nature pull him in the direction of good while the flesh in which he lives pulls him in the other. He wants to do one thing but has something within him that does the opposite. So how do these evil desires differ from those of an unbeliever? Simply put, the believer hates the evil flesh in which he lives and desires to be freed from it, whereas unbelievers have no such desire. So strong is Paul’s desire to live godly and so frustrated is he that his flesh wars against his spirit that he finally cries out in desperation, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Of course, the answer is Jesus Christ our Lord (verse 25). One day believers will be completely freed from the body of death in which we live when we are glorified with Christ in heaven, but until that day we rely on the power of the Spirit who indwells us and gives us victory in the ongoing battle with sin.
In Romans 7:14–25, the apostle Paul puts into practical language the fact that he is a redeemed sinner who still has a carnal body, the flesh that wars against the indwelling Spirit. In another place the apostle says, “That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). The personal pronouns in these passages are not just an artifice but a statement of reality and the honest evaluation of a man who examines himself in the light of who he is and who our Lord Jesus is and comes to the conclusion that he is a wretched man in need of deliverance. This is not the deliverance from the penalty of sin—that was paid for on the cross—but deliverance from the power of sin.
As a faithful teacher, the apostle Paul in Romans 7:14–25 uses his own experiences and what he has learned through them to teach other believers how to use God’s provision and our position in Christ to overcome the struggle with our carnal nature. Praise God that we have such a wonderful thesis that not only truthfully exposes the struggle between the spiritual nature and the flesh in which it resides, but most importantly presents us with the tremendous hope and confidence in our salvation: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).