A Matter of Freedom: Pursuing Holiness by Beholding Christ

Romans 7:13-25 is ground zero for clarifying the interface between the already (justification) and the not yet (glorification) which then marks the pathway to holiness (sanctification). As such, the passage is foundational to the two most prevalent theories of progressive sanctification since the Protestant Reformation: the reformed theory and the holiness theory.

Calvin, representing the reformed theory in his defense of the bondage of the will, postulates a “half freedom” approach to sanctification. This reformed approach is grounded in the notion that Romans 7 describes a mature Christian since it reveals the reality and struggles of no less a saint than the Apostle Paul himself, who is only partially free from the power of sin. This approach has been promoted not only by the reformers but by Puritan John Owen, whose treatise on the mortification of sin represents one of the most popular and comprehensive works on progressive sanctification. The holiness theory is grounded in the belief that Romans 7 describes an immature or carnal Christian in need of a second work of grace to achieve sanctification. Though far from monolithic, its advocates, including John Wesley and Lewis Sperry Chafer, tend to view Romans 8, which features the Holy Spirit, as the antidote to Romans 7, where the Spirit seems conspicuously absent.

This paper will demonstrate a via media between these two approaches grounded in a contextually rigorous exegesis of Romans 7 and corroborating passages, especially Galatians 5:16-25. The author will argue against the interpretation of Romans 7:13-25 as referring to a believer based on its immediate context, the near context of Romans 7, the literary structure of Romans 6:1-8:17, and the teaching of parallel passages. The author will also address the chief objection to this interpretation, the unbeliever’s supposed inability to delight in God’s Law, by examining covenant confirmation/renewal passages from the Old and New Testaments. This view of Romans 7 will not only crystallize the already of redemption regarding the believer’s freedom in Christ, but illuminate a better path based on II Corinthians 3:12-4:6 to the not yet of perfect holiness at Christ’s return – what the author deems the freedom approach to progressive sanctification.

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