It would appear to be universally agreed that Romans 7, like Romans 11, is difficult to interpret, and there is still at the time of revising this article (2010) disagreement as to its meaning. I want to suggest that the main difficulty with the chapter arises from false presuppositions which derive from an erroneous Augustinian conceptual framework or worldview. My own conviction is that the real context is provided by covenant theology as reflected in the individual who recapitulates and epitomizes the race as depicted in chapters 1-3 (on which further below and note 10). My contention is that if exegetes seek to expound the chapter on the basis of Augustinian assumptions like original sin, which it is falsely claimed is taught in Romans 5:12-21, there is little wonder that this chapter poses potentially insoluble problems. (1* See my Thoughts on Romans 5:12-14, Thoughts on Sin in Romans, Some Arguments Against Original Sin, J.I.Packer on Original Sin, Does Romans Teach Original Sin?, Imitation, etc) Without denying the impact of Adam’s sin which he clearly teaches in Romans 5 (pace Pelagius), Paul nonetheless clearly implies its imitation or repetition in Romans 7:7-12. If this is so, to assume the imputation of Adam’s sin as opposed to its imitation is in effect to charge the apostle with self-contradiction. For it is here in Romans 7 that the re-iterated warnings of the biblical writers not to imitate the sins of the fathers reflect their permanent relevance (Ps. 78:8; 2 Chr. 30:7; Ezek. 20:18, cf. 2:3; Zech. 1:4; Acts 7:51-53).
It seems to be more widely agreed nowadays than it used to be that the law is central to this controversial passage. While it is generally agreed that one of the most pervasive contrasts in the entire Bible is that between flesh and spirit (Spirit), here in Romans 7 the contrast, even antipathy, that exists between flesh and law is the focus of attention. Why should this be so?
A clue to the answer might be that in 7:14 (cf. v.12) the law is said to be spiritual. But that does not take us far since, judging by what is said in chapter 8, there is a basic contrast between law and Spirit. However, recognition that Paul is deliberately pointing up two different categories, implying two different covenant dispensations in which the basic functions of the law and of the Spirit in relation to the flesh are different, is important. For though the law being spiritual (7:14) is inimical to the evil works of the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:7; Heb. 9:10), it lacks power (cf. Gen. 3:6; Num. 15:39). In contrast, the opposition of the Spirit to the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:17) comes with power (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:2,13). Thus, while under the old covenant the clash between the flesh and the law results in inevitable defeat and death (Gal. 3:10-12; 5:19-21, cf. Rom. 6:23a), under the new covenant the mutual opposition between flesh and Spirit/spirit (Gal. 5:17) leads to victory and life (Gal. 5:16,18,22-24 ESV; Rom. 6:23b). Simply expressed, while the law exercises a ministry of death in those who are held captive by it (Rom. 7:6a, 23-25, cf. 2 Cor. 3:6b,7,14f.; Gal. 3:23), the Spirit exercises a ministry of life in those who have faith in Christ (Rom. 7:6b, 25a, cf. 8:4,10f.,13f.; 2 Cor. 3:6c,17f.). Or again we might say even more concisely that while mind over matter spells failure (Rom. 7:24), Spirit over matter spells success (Rom. 7:6,25a, cf. 2 Cor. 3:6; John 6:63). The difference is that between two covenants.
Sin Defined as Transgression of the Law
Already in 2:12 and 3:19f. Paul has virtually defined sin as transgression of the law (cf. James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17). In 4:15 he has made a categorical statement that where there is no law there is no sin. In 5:13 he repeats this assertion but with a slightly different nuance. In chapter 7, however, he first (v.1, cf. v.7) points out that the law operates only during a person’s (conscious) lifetime (cf. Mt. 5:18), then proceeds to illustrate this in a manner the point of which commentators in general seem to miss. In referring to the wife whose husband dies, Paul is saying yet again that where there is no law there is no sin (cf. v.6). So long as the husband is alive, the law is in force. But once the husband dies, it dies too (v.8), and, since it no longer applies, the wife is free to remarry without being stigmatized as an adulteress. (2* Cf. Fee who maintains that Paul’s point is that by identification with Christ in his death, believers, as the wife whose husband has died, are no longer bound by the law, p.503 n.84.) In verse 4 Paul draws the logical conclusion from this: since believers (the wife) are now married to a different husband, that is, Christ (and hence to the Spirit as opposed to the law/mind), they are enabled to bear fruit for God. (To paint the picture more graphically, we might say that when we are married to and fertilized by the law we bring forth sin and death, 7:5; when we are married to and fertilized by the Spirit we produce obedience, 8:4, which leads to life, 8:6.)
In verse 5, Paul implicitly maintains his assertion that there is no sin apart from (the) law which constitutes certain passions sinful (cf. Gen. 3:6). While we are in the flesh (Rom. 7:5), that is, unregenerate, we are all Jew and Gentile alike under (the) law which inexorably renders all our otherwise morally neutral passions (3* Cranfield, p.337, Fung, p.274) which involve its transgression, sinful (Rom. 3:9,19f.). (4* The idea that the law ‘arouses’, RSV, NRSV, NIV, ESV, our sinful passions not only adds to Scripture since it is not in the Greek, but also completely misses Paul’s point and does violence to his thought. Even Calvin disallowed this Augustinian idea in comment on 5:21, p. 214. How could Paul possibly make such a suggestion when he depicts so graphically, first, the unrestrained passions of the heathen who were without the Mosaic law in 1:18ff., and, second, the goodness of the law, Rom. 7:12? The passions are only sinful when they transgress law as the Genesis account of Adam and Eve makes clear, 3:6. When they received the commandment our first parents were still free to indulge their passions and eat freely of all the other trees in the garden, 2:17, cf. 3:2, cf. Dt. 30:15,19,20. So it must be firmly asserted yet again that where there is no law there is no transgression, cf. Gal. 5:23.) The truth is, as Paul says later in verse 23a, the flesh is a law to itself, that is, it follows its own inclinations, impulses or ‘motions’ (KJV) regardless of the law like fleshly animals which are ruled by the flesh but, not knowing the law, are amoral. So, bearing in mind verses 1-3 we may conclude that while there was no law against Abigail, whose husband was dead, giving way to her passion for David (cf. Gal. 5:23), there certainly was one against Bathsheba whose husband was alive (cf. 1 Cor. 15:56). In other words, when the flesh and its passions clash with law, which is incapable of acting as an adequate restraint (cf. Calvin, p.248), the inevitable result is sin (cf. 7:14, 23b) and death (7:24f.). Under the law, man as flesh and unregenerate, that is, without the Spirit, faces inevitable defeat as God always intended (Rom. 3:19f.; 11:32; 1 Cor. 1:29; 2 Cor. 3; Gal. 2:16; 3:11,22, etc.). (At this point the reader might contemplate the difference between the preceptive and decretive will of God.)
All this is supported by verse 6 where Paul again implies that where there is no law, sin does not exist. Consequently, since we believers in Christ have died to the law and are no longer in bondage to the old written code (2 Cor. 3:6), we are free to serve in the new life of the Spirit.
Is the Law Sinful?
In verse 7 Paul anticipates that some of his readers, if not all, will have drawn the conclusion from what he has said that the fly in the ointment is the law. (I have heard it seriously argued in the political field that it is possible to abolish crime by abolishing the law! Whoever made such a claim had obviously never read the book of Judges.) Paul rejects this idea out of hand insisting that when the good law (v.12) dawns on our consciousness, we then become aware of the existence of sin, of covetousness in particular. Apart from Adam and Eve (cf. Gen. 3:6), he doubtless has in mind the state of the heathen, which he had portrayed earlier (Rom. 1:18ff.). So he goes on in verse 8 to indicate that sin, which does not exist where there is no law (commandment), seizes the opportunity that its proclamation and recognition affords (Rom. 7:7) and strikes its victim like a snake with a venomous and fatal bite (cf. Gen. 4:7).
Apart from Law Sin is Dead
So yet again Paul makes his point crystal clear by emphasizing that where there is no law sin lies dead (cf. the dead husband of verses 1-3). Now if this is true, we are forced to infer ineluctably that babies, like the rest of animate creation which lacks both law and the understanding (mind) by which the law is apprehended (Rom. 3:19f.; Ps. 32:9 and note Job 35:11; Ps. 94:12; Luke 12:24), cannot be sinful, since sinfulness is determined by (mental recognition of) law (cf. 2:12; 3:19f.; 7:7,22). Then, as if to put his point beyond doubt, the apostle indicates that there was once a time when he himself, like Adam and Eve before him prior to Genesis 2:17, was not under law (commandment) and hence not sinful but in fact ‘alive’ (7:9, cf. Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11). And it was only when the (parental) commandment (cf. Prov. 1:8; 4:1-9; 6:20) made its impact on his developing young mind that sin, seizing its chance, came to life, and Paul, like all his predecessors (cf. Rom. 3:23; 5:12) bar One, earned its wages in death. (5* The “Christian” or rather Augustinian idea that babies are sinful is totally alien to the Bible where it is plainly taught that we sin from our youth, Gen. 8:21; Jer. 3:24f., not from infancy, Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11, etc. See again my articles on original sin including D.M.Lloyd-Jones and J. Murray on the Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Imputation, Straightforward Arguments Against the Imputation of Adam’s Sin to his Posterity at www.kenstothard.com /.) He adds for good measure that it was the commandment which promised life (cf. Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) that had the opposite effect of dealing out death. In verse 11, in words reminiscent of Genesis 3:13 (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14) when Eve was duped into eating the forbidden fruit, he underlines the nature of his death by deception which stemmed from his childlike transgression of the commandment. So he concludes that despite the indispensable role of law in his death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:56), the law/commandment as such is nonetheless holy, righteous and good (v.12).
In verse 13 Paul apparently feels compelled to raise again the question he raised in verse 7 regarding the goodness of the law. Was it tainted after all? He rejects the suggestion out of hand: it was sin, not the good and holy law that worked death in him. Why was this?
The reason was so that sin might be shown to be what it is and displayed in its true character by means of the commandment, that is, as transgression of known law. Since Paul here relates the commandment to an increase in the seriousness of sin (cf. 5:20), we must assume that there was a transition in his mind leading him from Eve’s sin, which involved an element of ignorance and deception (cf. the heathen in Rom. 1:18ff.; Eph. 4:22), to that of Adam whose sin was open-eyed and explicit (1 Tim. 2:14) like that of the Jews who had the law of Moses (cf. Gal. 3:19).
The War Between the Law and the Flesh
In verse 14 Paul brings before us the radical antipathy that exists between the spiritual law and physical flesh referred to above. The result of their collision is inevitable: the flesh or natural man being weak and susceptible to temptation like Eve and/or even rebellious like Adam is unable to keep the law (cf. Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16), and once he has transgressed it, he is constituted a sinner (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14; Rom. 7:5). The apostle thus discovers his lack of self-understanding for he does the very thing he hates. So even he, the sinner, who acts in a manner contrary to his best intentions, acknowledges that the law in which he delights is good (cf. v.22). To say that, however, suggests that there is a sense in which he himself is not to blame for his law-breaking behaviour but that indwelling sin is the problem (v.17, cf. Jer. 13:23; John 8:34; Rom. 6:16, etc.). Yet, on the other hand, he realizes that there is nothing good in his natural fleshly self (cf. John 6:63) since, though he can will what is right, he cannot do it (v.18). (It might usefully be noted here that prior to his reception of the Spirit at his baptism even Jesus did no positive good. What he did do in contrast with the rest of us was keep the written law and thereby win his Father’s approval at his baptism, Mt. 3:13-17, in accordance with the original promise made to Adam, Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.)
In verse 19 Paul is forced to recognize the fact that while he cannot do the good he would like to, he falls prey to the evil he would prefer to avoid. So again, in verse 20 he sees that since he does what he does not want, it must be sin that has got a hold over him. This is precisely what Jesus had intimated in his teaching (John 8:34, cf. Jer. 13:23). Verse 21 is virtually a repetition of verse 17. In verse 22 Paul says what the Psalmist had said before him (119:14,16, etc.), that is, that he delights in God’s good law on the intellectual level, but that there is another law in his fleshly members (cf. 6:13,19; 7:5) at war with the law of his mind (vv.23,25) bringing him into bondage to sin. (At this point the reader might well reflect on the difference between deliberate and unintentional sin alluded to in both Testaments.)
The Natural Passions of the Flesh
The truth is that the natural appetites and passions of our fleshly bodies (e.g. hunger, thirst, sex, sweating, defecation, urination, etc., some of which on occasion we refer to euphemistically as calls of nature) operate spontaneously and autonomously and are not prompted by our minds (6* I have good personal reason for believing in the autonomy of the flesh. On 3 November 2004 in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide I donated one of my kidneys to my brother. Though removed entirely out of any control my mind might conceivably have exercised over it, it functioned with immediate beneficial effects in the body of its new host and continues to do so at the time of writing (2010) years later. Of course, the problem with Augustinians who believe in original sin is that they cannot conceive of the unregenerate mind delighting in the law of God despite the fact that the Psalmist (e.g. 119) lived under the old covenant, and that until Christ came to fulfil the law in the flesh, Rom. 8:3, regeneration, which was conditioned on keeping the commandment/law, Gen.2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc., could not and did not exist except as a promise, Dt. 30:6; Jer. 31:33, etc. Jesus himself must, like the Psalmist, have delighted in God’s law (cf. John 4:34; 6:38) before he received the Spirit at his baptism or he would not have kept it. In light of this, it must be remembered that though they were justified by faith, not one of the heroes of Hebrews 11 was born again since all were sinners. Pace those who argue that faith is the fruit of regeneration! See further my articles on The Order of Salvation, Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology) But since the law regulates some of its operations (sex, for example, cf. vv.1-3), we, in contrast with animals, are called on to control them (cf. Gal. 5:16). In this situation Paul has to admit he is a wretched failure (cf. v.7). As a consequence, his body of flesh which is a body of sin (Rom. 6:6) is doomed to death (Gen. 2:17, cf. 8:10,13; Gal. 6:8), and he urgently needs someone to deliver him. That someone is Jesus Christ who uniquely conquered in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). Paul ends chapter 7 by repeating what he has already said earlier: even though he acknowledges the goodness of God’s law, he nonetheless realizes that he continues in sin and can do no other. Thank God, however, that the defeat of chapter 7 is followed by the expression of gratitude in verse 7:25a and the triumph of chapter 8 (cf. 7:6).
So our conclusion must be that if what has been presented above is anything like correct, Paul is deftly describing not only his own but the natural or pre-regenerate life under the law of mankind in general, for the law belongs, as the flesh or body of sin and death belongs, to this age and to this world (Mt. 5:18; Luke 20:34-36; Rom. 7:1,7; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8:13, etc.). The next world or age to come whose goodness and powers Christians have tasted (Heb. 6:5) is the spiritual world of the pre-incarnate Christ to which he has returned in glory (John 14:2f.; 17:5,24).
Yet more can be said. All this can be further highlighted by the “stark contrasts” (Fee, p. 505) of fruit borne for God in ‘marriage’ to Christ (7:4, cf. Gal. 5:22f.) and fruit for death produced by the passions of the flesh which are constituted sinful under the law (7:5, cf. Gal. 5:19-21). Since sin does not exist apart from law, once we as Christians are freed by ‘death’ in Christ (cf. 6:3f.,14,18; 8:2) from its jurisdiction, we are then at liberty to serve under a new master (or husband), that is, Christ who leads us by the Spirit. On the assumption that verses 7-25 are basically an elaboration of verses 1-6, the same conclusions apply in both cases.
It should be noted that Paul talks almost exclusively about law and flesh in Romans 7. His only reference to the Spirit, the hallmark of regeneration, is in verse 6. This serves to sharpen the contrast between chapters 7 and 8, for in the latter there are twenty-one such references (Cranfield, p.371). The conclusion must therefore be drawn that the Augustinian interpretation of Romans 7, which maintains that Paul has the Christian in view in verses 14-24, must be ruled out of court (pace Packer, p.81). So we must ask why in fact it has not been so ruled.
The reason is of course that it has been almost universally held since the time of Augustine that Romans 5:12-21 teaches original sin (cf. Art. 9 of the C of E). However, as I have argued extensively elsewhere this nefarious Augustinian dogma is impossible to justify on both exegetical and theological grounds. (7* See especially my articles J.I.Packer on Original Sin, Imitation, etc.) If I am wrong, then Paul is clearly contradicting himself as 7:9-10 makes crystal clear. In any case, all the reader needs to do at this point is to recognize that Romans 4:15 alone, not to mention 7:8, renders original sin untenable since babies do not know the law. So far as the specific notion of the imputation of Adam’s sin is concerned, Romans 4:1-8 make it plain that wages, and hence death, 5:12; 6:23, which are due only to work actually done, are excluded. See again my articles on imputation referred to above. So once imputation is rejected, we have no alternative but to recognize that the language of Romans 5:12 is not only compatible with the Pelagian interpretation which indicates actual sin, cf. Murray, p.182, it makes it indisputable. Babies are necessarily exonerated because they can neither work nor believe. If they die, something else is afoot. What that is Paul makes plain in Romans 8:18-25, on which see my Romans 8:18-25)
(NOTE on the flesh under the Spirit: It must always be remembered of course that even the Christian is constantly warned in the NT not to indulge his flesh, e.g. Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:11, etc. Even Jesus was tempted after his baptism by the Spirit, Mt. 4:1-11. This points unerringly to the fact that so long as we are flesh, we are unavoidably subject to fleshly temptation as James 1:14f. indicates. Under (the) law, we experience regular defeat as the entire OT makes clear. There, while justification by faith is prominent, Heb. 11:1-38, eternal life and its ultimate perfection which characterizes the NT, cf. John 3:16, is conspicuously absent, Heb. 11:39-40. However, as Christians led by the Spirit we can enjoy a measure of, Gal. 5:22-24, if not total, 1 John 1:8, success. Sinless perfection is a chimera.)
Other Effects of Augustinianism
It must be stressed that the adoption of Augustinian presuppositions vitiates our understanding of Romans 7 in other ways. First, original sin deflects commentators from an adequate appreciation of verse 11, which is reminiscent of Eve both in thought and language. Despite their recognition of this, Bruce (p.142) and Moo (p.230), for example, set it aside because their minds are dominated by the erroneous assumption that we fell “in Adam” – a clear case of adding to Scripture if ever there was one. Second, Augustinianism prevents recognition of the fact that all human beings (with one exception) imitate (or better repeat or recapitulate) many of the actions and experiences of their forebears (8* The biblical evidence for the imitation/repetition of sin is massive and pervasive, e.g. 2 Kings 17:2,8,11,14-23,33f.,40f., Ps. 106:6; Dan. 9:11; Rom. 3:9,12,23. etc. See further my Imitation.) against explicit Scriptural command (e.g. Ps. 78:8; Zech. 1:4; Mal. 3:7, cf. Acts 7:51-53, etc.). In fact, Romans 7 provides an excellent illustration of the principle of recapitulation in general. Furthermore, Paul’s stress on the role of law completely undercuts the notion that we fall “in Adam”, unless this is taken to mean “in the flesh” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22). Imitation is of course anathema to Augustinians who suffer from pathological anti-Pelagianism (9* See Art. 1X of the C of E, Murray, CW 2, p.50, etc.), but one does not have to become a Pelagian or to deny the grace of God to adopt recapitulation. Third, Augustinian presuppositions forestall recognition of the fact that Romans 7:7-8:17, like 1:18-3:31, is covenantal in structure and is hence comparable with Galatians 3:1-4:7. Paul is in fact saying that he himself, like all men apart from Jesus, was (a) once a deceived child of nature like Eve (Rom. 7:7-11; Eph. 2:3; Tit. 3:3, cf. Rom. 1:18ff.), then (b) a sinner under the law like Adam (7:13ff.) and finally (c) a Spirit-led believer in Christ (7:25a; 8:1ff.) on his way to the perfection (Phil. 3:12-14) which was impossible under the law (Heb. 7:11,19). So he was successively a (heathen) slave, a (Jewish) servant and a (Christian) son like Jesus himself (Mt. 2:15; Gal. 4:4f.). In saying this I am by no means implying that Jesus was the subject of adoption. While he was truly the virgin-born Son of God, his ‘natural’ sonship nonetheless required its confirmation by his law-keeping and consequent acknowledgement by God (Mt. 3:13-17). Expressed more theologically, Jesus underlined his ontology by his actions and proved his pedigree unmistakably (cf. Acts 10:38). The covenantal markers in his life were, however, clearly etched (cf. Gal. 4:1-7). (10* See further my articles on Covenant Theology, Covenant Theology in Brief, Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?)
I conclude then that having described the covenant life of the race, first, under Noah (Gentile) and, second, under Moses (Jew) in chapters 1:18-3:20, Paul’s concern in Romans 7 is to describe covenant life as it is recapitulated by the individual, first as a Gentile (Eve) and then as a Jew (Adam) under the law (vv.1,7) prior to regeneration (second Adam). To do this he uses himself as the model or paradigm who epitomized or recapitulated the history of the race (Rom. 1:18-3:20) like Jesus (Gal. 4:1-7). (11* In other words, the Bible like science plainly implies that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. If it does not, Jesus could not have been the second Adam and the atonement would have been impossible, cf. 1 John 2:2. See further my I Believe in Recapitulation, Recapitulation in Outline) This inference receives yet further support from passages like Galatians 5:16-24 where natural “life” (Rom. 7:1) under the law involves sinful works of the flesh that lead to inevitable death (7:5; Gal. 5:19-21), while regenerate life under the Spirit bears fruit against which there is no law (7:4; Gal. 5:16,18,22-24).
Finally, it remains to add that since recapitulation implies the denial of original sin, it is one of the great ironies of the history of biblical interpretation that its false assumption has perverted our understanding not only of Romans 7 but also of much else in the NT. Or, to put the issue more positively and concisely, my contention is that Romans 7 correctly understood underlines the truth of recapitulation on the one hand and gives the lie to belief in original sin on the other.
Additional Note on The Flesh
What has been argued above raises the question of the meaning of the word ‘flesh’. Because of its Augustinian bias, the NIV is notorious for translating the word ‘sarx’ as ‘sinful nature’ and relegating ‘flesh’ to the margin. This I believe is a profound mistake reflecting manifest misunderstanding of Paul’s argument. Basically the flesh is our natural or physical nature that stems from the ground (Gen. 2:7) over which man as made in the image of God in contrast with the animals is meant to exercise dominion in preparation for glory (Gen. 1:26,28; Ps. 8; 21:5; John 3:1-8; Rom. 2:7,10; Heb. 2:9f. Pace those who believe in the original glory, perfection and righteousness of Adam!). The war between flesh and Spirit arises primarily not from sin but from nature as Genesis 1 ought to make clear. When the weakness of our created nature is confronted by inflexible moral law it inevitably capitulates (cf. Rom.7:18; 8:8). Since the flesh is a law to itself (Rom. 7:23,25, cf. Gal. 5:16f.), which when unrestrained (cf. Gal. 5:17) like uninhabited land that is desolate (e.g. Isa. 6:11, etc.) acts in accordance with that law (cf. animals), it is meant to be subject to the control (under the dominion, Gen. 1:26,28) of the spirit (Spirit) as a horse (flesh) is to its rider (Jas. 3:2ff.). So even Jesus, in contrast with his Father (James 1:13) had to resist fleshly temptation (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15, etc.) and avoid pleasing himself (John 6:38; Rom. 15:3, etc.). (12* See again my J.I.Packer on Original Sin) Admittedly, once, like Adam and Eve, we cave in to sin, we are permanently tarnished by a sinful nature (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 3:7), and this becomes an exacerbating factor in our own war as Jesus pointed out (John 8:34, cf. Jer. 13:23; Hos. 5:4). For all that, we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us (Rom. 8:37).
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C.E.B.Cranfield, ICC Romans, Edinburgh, 1975.
G.D.Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, Peabody, 1994.
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