A friend of mine, Robert Murphy, and I will be discussing whether or not the subject of Romans 7 is a Christian in the next several blog posts. I will be arguing that the “I” is humanity under the law, while Robert will be arguing that it is Paul’s Christian experience. Following the presentation of our two views we will respond to each other’s articles. His post can be found here.
Why is this important?
I can only speak for myself on this point. This issue is important because I don’t want Christians to think that sin can overpower them any longer. Someone struggling with sin, who understands Paul to be speaking about his own experience, might give in to their sin saying “It’s just part of my nature.” Or someone struggling with sin might say “If someone as spiritual as Paul couldn’t overcome his sin who am I to think I can overcome mine.” I don’t want anyone to go down that path.
The context is critical. We have to look at Paul’s larger argument, not simply chapter 7 verses 7 through 25.
Particularly important is to remember that the chapter divisions aren’t inspired by God. Paul’s argument in chapter 7 doesn’t conclude in chapter 7; it runs through at least verse 11 of chapter 8.
The “I” refers to the same person or people throughout.
Leading up to chapter 7 of Romans Paul has shown that the all people, Jew and Gentile alike, sin and therefore are subject to God’s judgment. God has made a way for all men and women to become right before him by the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus. The benefits of what Jesus has done are not gained by keeping rules but by trusting in Jesus. Paul then goes back to the beginning showing how death and sin came to reign through Adam’s disobedience. Jesus came as a man to free men from the power of sin and death and to make us right with God. During baptism believers are joined with Christ in his death. We then come to a crucial section for the purposes of this article.
Romans 6:6-7, 14 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Now we who “were once slaves to sin” and who have “been set free from sin” are slaves to righteousness, to good deeds that leads to sanctification and eternal life.
This brings us to Romans 7. Paul says Christians have been released from the law by dying with Christ and therefore no long live according to their sinful passions which were aroused by the law. The natural question to ask then is if the law was the problem. Paul says that it was actually sin working through the good commandment that did the damage. The law, in fact, functions to expose sin and make it exceedingly sinful. The law is spiritual but “I” am fleshly, sold under sin. “I” don’t have the ability to do what it right since nothing good dwells in “my” flesh, even though “I” want to do right. This shows that it is really the sin dwelling in “me” that is causing all the trouble. “I” delight in the law but another law works in “my” members to make “me” captive to the law of sin. Who will free “me” from this body of death? Jesus will. So I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. Therefore, there is no condemnation for those in Christ since Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death. God has done what the law couldn’t do by sending his son as a sin offering; he condemned sin in the flesh so that those who walk by the Spirit can fulfill the law.
Who is Paul Referring To
Having done a quick overview of Paul’s argument let’s try to identify who the “I” is. Of course, it seems silly to even ask this question. It’s Paul. Who else would it be? Before jumping to conclusions let’s review what is said about the “I”:
1. Knew true life apart from the law before the commandment came (v. 9).
2. Died spiritually having been deceived by sin once the commandment came (vv. 9-11).
3. Is “of the flesh” (v. 14).
4. Is “sold under sin” (v. 14).
5. Doesn’t do what he wants but the thing he hates (v. 15).
6. Nothing good dwells in his flesh and so he doesn’t have the ability to carry out good (vv. 18-19).
7. Since he doesn’t do what he wants it isn’t him but sin doing the wrong (v. 20).
8. Delights in the law in his inner being (v. 22).
9. Sees another law at work in his members making him a slave to the law of sin (v. 23).
10. Cries out for deliverance from this body of death (v. 24).
Now let’s look at the data and see who Paul is talking about. Is it true that Paul was spiritually alive for a time before the coming of the law? Clearly not. He was born spiritually dead under the law as he has already told us. So right off the bat we know that this cannot be Paul. Could such a statement be made of any Christian ever? Again no, Paul has already said it can’t be. To me Paul leading off his argument this way just screams “rhetorical device!” Who could this be? The only humans who were spiritually alive before the coming of the law were Adam and Eve. But the commandment not to covet wasn’t given to Adam and Eve but to Israel at Sinai. Therefore it seems to me that Paul is talking about Adamic humanity under the law with particular emphasis on Israel. Paul is giving us a quick overview of the place of law, sin, and the flesh in humanities story up to Christ’s deliverance mentioned before and after this section.
More Reasons This Passage Cannot be Referring to Christians or Paul
1. In the first part of chapter 7 Paul has just said that believers have died to the law so that they are not ruled by sin. This is the same law that causes the “I” in 7:7-25 to be bound to sin.
2. “I” is “sold under sin” but Christians are “freed from sin” and “no longer under its dominion” since they aren’t under law but grace.
3. Paul wasn’t aware of any sin in his life (1 Cor. 4:4), repeatedly says he doesn’t live according to the flesh, and feels able to serve as an example to others. Therefore, saying he is helpless to do good because of the sin dwelling in him seems unlikely.
4. Someone might say that Paul is simply referring to the flesh and not to his whole person. I would find it incredible that Paul could picture the Christian life separated from the Spirit’s work.
Some Objections to “I” as Fallen Humanity Under the Law
1. When Paul says “I” he has to be referring to himself – That is to claim that there are no rhetorical devices in the Bible which everyone will admit there are. That would also be claiming that Paul is an eternal, or at least very old, since “I” has experienced the gamut of human experience.
2. A Non-Christian cannot delight in the law or cry out for deliverance from his or her sin – In Romans 10:2 Paul says that the Jews have a zeal for God. The Jews of Paul’s day prayed Psalm 119 and meant it. Concerning the cry for deliverance, I will respond by quoting the tax collector in Luke 18:13 “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
3. What about v. 25 where Paul thanks God for deliverance? – I see a shift happening after v. 24. The deliverance from the predicament of vv. 7-24 has now come. But, and this is crucial, Christians still have flesh, meaning sin can still deceive us even though we aren’t under its dominion. If believers live according to the flesh they will live the life described in Romans 7. Christians, though, have received the Spirit and therefore are able to do good.
For a fuller explanation of the view that Romans 7 refers to Adamic humanity under the law see Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul from which I got many of the thoughts in this post.