From Romans 4-7
Romans has a number of passages in it that have a variety of interpretations. Romans 7.7-25 is one of those passages that has generated a large amount of controversy and debate among Christians. This passage is one where we see an interpreters explanatory function and mindset play itself out.
This post is part of my bible in a year series.
Passage and Comments
We need to interpret scripture with scripture. So this post will step us through the whole chapter. When we get to verse 7 we will build an understanding of what the speaker says about himself without first assuming it is Paul. Once we have finished we can then make some observations and compare it to some other things Paul has said outside the passage.
7 Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Rom 7.1-6)
P1) Purpose. The immediate context recognizes that Paul and those who ‘know the law’ (Rom 7.1) have been released from captivity and service to it. These people are probably Jews and God fearers (Gentiles interested in Judaism). What Paul has to say here specifically applies to these two groups of people.
The law he is referring to is the Mosaic law, the Law of Moses. Which is why from here onwards I put it in brackets  in the text to help us keep it in mind.
Those who know the law of Moses have been freed from the law and are expected to bear fruit for God and serve in the new way of the Spirit. The release from captivity calls into question whether the law of Moses they used to be captive to and serve is sinful. Paul uses this passage to defend the law of Moses from the charge of sin.
The main issue that has caused controversy with Romans 7.7-25 has to do with the identity of the person speaking. The person who refers to himself as ‘I’ (Rom 7.7,9,15-25). Because some assume Paul is referring to himself, this leads them to conclude he is describing the normal experience of every Christian believer.
Ben Witherington has summarised a large number of ways scholars understand who the ‘I’ is;
the “I” is strictly autobiographical (Paul speaking about his past)
the “I” represents Paul’s view of a typical Jewish individual
the “I” represents the experience of Jews as a whole (in Israel)
the “I” represents humanity as a whole (in Adam)
the “I” is a way of speaking in general, without having a particular group of persons in mind
the “I” is autobiographical and refers to Paul’s current Christian experience
the “I” is autobiographical and refers to Paul’s pre-Christian experience as he views it now
the “I” represents the experience of the non-Christian Jew as seen by himself
the “I” presents how Christians view Jews (in Israel)
the “I” is autobiographical and refers to Paul’s pre-Christian experience as he viewed it then
the “I” reflects the so-called “carnal” Christian
the “I” reflects the experience of Christians in general
the “I” reflects a person under conviction of sin and at the point of conversion (7:14–ch. 8 provide a narrative of a conversion) (Witherington, B., III, & Hyatt, D. (2004). Paul’s letter to the Romans: a socio-rhetorical commentary (pp. 187–188). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
Complicated huh? Normally we are right to assume when Paul uses the first person singular (‘I’) he is referring to himself. He does so often enough. But there are exceptions and as we will see interpreting the text this way contradicts what he says in other places including what Paul says before and immediately after this passage.
7 What then shall we say? That the law [of Moses] is sin? By no means!
Yet if it had not been for the law [of Moses], I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law [of Moses] had not said, “You shall not covet.”
8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law [of Moses], sin lies dead.
9 I was once alive apart from the law [of Moses], but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
12 So the law [of Moses] is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Rom 7.7-12)
According to the wider purpose of the passage. The law of Moses is vindicated, it is Sin which holds dominion over him and controls his actions. The law is not at fault, rather it has highlighted the problem of Sins control (v7).
People familiar with Epictetus’ Discourses will recognise this passage has a few prominent markers which distinguish it as a form of rhetoric called diatribe. This rhetorical style of teaching was used a few hundred years before and after Christ in the Roman Empire.
The key diatribe markers used in both Epictetus’ Discourses and Romans are (p16, Song, C., Reading Romans as a Diatribe)
- Vivid dialogues with fictitious interlocutors
- Emergence of an imaginary second-person singular
- Characteristic rejection phrases (me genoito – ‘by no means!’)
- Characteristic apostrophic vocatives
The most prominent key marker in Rom 7.7-25 is the speakers rejection phrase ‘me genoito’ commonly rendered ‘by no means!’.
Q: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?”
A: “By no means! … ” (Rom 7.7)
Q: “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me?”
A: “By no means! …” (Rom 7.13)
Paul also uses the rejection phrase in Romans 3. Remember in this passage Paul is speaking to an imaginary Jew (‘IJ’, Rom 2.17).
IJ: “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?”
Paul: “By no means! … “ (Rom 3.3-4)
IJ: “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
Paul: “By no means! For then how could God judge the world?”
Another key marker specific to Rom 7.7-25 is the use of the apostrophic vocative ‘wretched man’ (talas).
Speaker: “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom 7.24)
Epictetus employs various vocatives to address fictitious dialogue partners. These vocatives have unique features. They are not used factually but rhetorically. Only limited terms refer to the imaginary interlocutor (p16, Song, C.).
Paul: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.” (Rom 2.1)
IJ: “But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” (Rom 3.5-7)
P2) Rhetoric. These key markers highlight our passage in question is an Epictetus style diatribe. Therefore we should be open to various ways in which pronominal expressions can be used within this style of writing (e.g. ‘I’). This includes Paul speaking in the voice of another (speech in character).
Some examples of Paul doing this in other contexts are;
10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says,
“I follow Paul,” or
“I follow Apollos,” or
“I follow Cephas,” or
“I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1.10-13)
Paul is using ‘I’ statements but he is speaking from the perspective of another. If we now jump to Romans, in Rom 2.17 Paul has made it clear he is speaking to an imaginary Jew. If we move a little further he engages in a diatribe with this Jew where he voices statements from the perspective of this imaginary Jew.
IJ: “But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” (Rom 3.7)
Many of the early church fathers were familiar with various forms of rhetoric and diatribe. They could identify when they were being used by commonly used key markers. Origen, a early church father who wrote the first commentary on Romans advocated this view saying;
“We should conclude from these things that it is the custom of Holy Scripture to imperceptibly change the personae and the subject matter and the reasons that it seems to discuss and the designations. Rather, it uses by all means the same designations at times for some subjects, at other times for others. For example, in the present passage the Apostle says, “For we know that the law is spiritual.” Up to this point, what he said, “we know that the law is spiritual,” is pronounced with apostolic authority. …
Yet when he says, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin,” as if a teacher of the Church, he has now taken upon himself the persona of the weak. On this account he has also said elsewhere, “I became weak to the weak to win the weak.” Here as well, then, to whoever is weak, i.e., to those who are in the flesh and sold into slavery under sin, Paul becomes fleshly and sold into slavery under sin and he says the same things that are customary for them to say under the pretense of an excuse or accusation. He is therefore talking about himself as if speaking under the persona of these others” (p37, Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Books 6-10, Trans. T.P. Scheck, Catholic University of America Press)
Later interpreters like Augustine, Luther and Calvin were unfamiliar with forms of rhetoric and diatribe centuries later. Unfortunately they simply missed what Paul was doing and misinterpreted what he intended to communicate in this passage. The controversy and debate surrounding this passage still continues in part because of this ignorance.
Remember what the speaker is responding to and why. The speaker is responding to a question regarding the law, which assumes the immediate context of believers moving on from serving by the written code (law) to serving in the new way of the spirit.
Note also the speaker is looking back to his past. The speaker says he was once alive (v9). This leads some commentators (incl. Witherington) to conclude the speaker is Adam. Adam was once alive spiritually. All people since Adam are born spiritually dead.
The speaker says he was once alive apart from the ‘law’ (v9). Compare the expression ‘apart from the law’ with Rom 2.12; 3.20,21,28; and Gal 3.23. The speaker is ‘under the law’ (cf. Rom 6.15). Jews are under the law and are adherents of the law (Rom 4.14). The immediate context and the references to the law suggest the speaker is a Jew.
When the law and the commandment came ‘sin’ came alive (v9). ‘Sin’ is personified in this passage. It it some sort of force, dominion or power that bends the speaker to its will. When ‘sin’ came alive the speaker died (v9). The speaker is a dead man speaking.
The speaker now begins defending the Mosaic law against various possible charges.
13 Did that which is good [the law of Moses], then, bring death to me?
By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
14 For we know that the law [of Moses] is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. (Rom 7.13-14)
Still looking back to his past. The speaker still remains dead (v13). He never says he has come alive again.
The speaker is of the flesh (v14). In Paul’s writings the ‘flesh’ normally signifies what is decaying and evil. There is an exception, Jesus came in the likeness of ‘sinful flesh’ (Rom 8.3), but I don’t think this is in view here. The speaker is ‘sold under sin’ (v14). The expression employs a slave market analogy. The speaker has an owner who has bought him and now commands him. It is not God or Jesus or anyone else, it is ‘Sin’. ‘Sin’ owns him, ‘Sin’ commands him to do its will (note the contrast of masters ‘Sin’ and ‘God/Righteousness’ in Rom 6.13,17-18,22).
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law [of Moses], that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom 7.15-20)
The speaker keeps vividly referring to himself. Another key diatribe marker.
Now he considers his present situation. Nothing good dwells within him (v18). This is temple language. God dwells among his people. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Holy Spirit dwells inside his people. In contrast to these analogies, the speaker says nothing good dwells within him.
The speaker has no ability to do what is right (v18). The speaker keeps on doing evil (v19). These last two points are similar to Rom 8.7-8 and 1 Jn 3.6 which describe people in the flesh, under the power of sin and the devil. 1 John 3.6 says for example, ‘No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.’ The speaker keeps on doing evil, he cannot do good.
The speaker grieves over;
- his unfulfilled desire to do what he wants, and
- the sin dwelling in his flesh which makes him do what he does not want.
The speaker blames sin which dwells in him for his actions and not his own will and desire (v17,20).
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Rom 7.21-25)
Still considering his current situation the speaker is using the noun ‘members’. Paul quite often uses this noun as part of his corporate language to describe a single body with many parts (Rom 11.1; 12.4-5; 1 Cor 6.15; 12.12-27; Eph 2.19; 3.6; 4.25; 5.30; 1 Tim 5.8). In these contexts the body refers to the church. In this situation it could be a whole nation. Earlier I said the speaker is someone under the Jewish law. Combining this corporate aspect with being under the law I suggest the speaker represents the nation Israel.
The speaker thinks of himself captive to the law of sin (v23). The speaker thinks of himself as dead (v24). The speaker is in internal conflict between his mind (his will and desire) and flesh (the power of sin) (v25).
Verse 24 could present a stumbling block to thinking the ‘I’ is a rhetorical device used by Paul. Ben Witherington helpfully explains a rhetorical move well known by the early church fathers.
“By an especially adept rhetorical move, before concluding the argument of chs. 6–7, Paul will introduce an interjection from himself answering the cry of the lost “I” and praising Christ as the deliverer from the bondage to sin. V. 25a introduces the argument to follow in ch. 8 about life in Christ, in which Paul will speak in the authorial voice, and then the previous argument is concluded in v. 25b. In Instit. Or. 9.4.129–30 Quintilian explains the use of this overlap technique when moving from one argument or “proof” to the next. He says that this sort of ABAB structure is effective when one must speak with force, energy, and pugnacity (that is, with pathos).” (p195-196, Witherington)
This is the ‘ABAB’ structure he is referring to.
A: The speaker ‘I’: 24 Wretched man (diatribe key marker) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
B: Paul: (25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!)
A: The speaker ‘I’: So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
B: Paul: 8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [Why?] 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
“When one is recounting history or narrative this ‘does not so much demand full rounded rhythms as a certain continuity of motion and connexion of style.… We may compare its motion to that of men, who link hands to steady their steps, and lend each other their mutual support’ (9.4.129). So then, there is the passing of the baton. Failure to recognize this rhetorical way of introducing the next argument before concluding the previous one has helped lead to the incorrect conclusion that Paul is speaking about Christians in 7:14–25, a mistake various early Greek Fathers who knew rhetoric did not make.” (p195-196, Witherington).
For example, Origen, whom I have already quoted. Witherington has explained there is an early precedent for interpreting rhetorical texts like this. If there are early examples then its possible Paul is using the same technique in Romans 7.
In Rom 7.24 and from the situation he is in the speaker (Israel) asks if he has any hope (A). Paul interjects, he cannot contain his praise and steps out of the speech in character he has adopted. In verse 25 Paul gives thanks for the reality he has already experienced (B). Then he jumps back in character to summarise the situation unsaved Israel is in (A). Completing the handover he goes on to explain to the Romans why they can give thanks for what God has done for them (Rom 8.1f) (B). They have been set free from the captivity described in Rom 7.7-25. There is ‘therefore no condemnation’ (Rom 8.1) for those who have been freed from captivity to sin (Rom 8.2).
P3) Controversy. Some interpreters argue that Paul is referring to his Christian experience (See Morris and Dunn). They assume Paul is here speaking of his own Christian experience (C3 Christian). Therefore it is right for them to impose this thinking on all believers to think of themselves the same way. There are problems with this view if we have a broader look at Paul’s writings.
Contradictions and Tensions
1) The ‘I’ cannot be Paul because it conflicts with his self descriptions before and after conversion.
The passage cannot refer to Paul before he believed in Christ. A New Testament scholar named Stendahl wrote an article (The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West) where he rightly pointed out there is no evidence that Paul was tormented by the gravity of his own sin and anguished over his inability to find a gracious God (e.g. Acts 23.1). Paul didn’t think of himself this way. Before he believed, Paul knew atonement was available through the sacrificial system at the temple and Phil 3.6 says at this time Paul considered himself ‘blameless’ according to the law, not guilt stricken (Bird, M. p142, A Bird’s-eye View of Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message. See also Reflections on Rom 7:7-25 – Part 2 and surprisingly Westerholm, p140, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics).
2) The ‘I’ cannot refer to believers because it conflicts with Paul’s statements regarding believers
Remember, this passage is one where we can see an interpreters explanatory function play itself out often ignoring passages such as Rom 2.27; 6.17-18; 1 Cor 6.9-11; Gal 5.6; Phil 2.12 and Tit 3.8. (See also Lk 1.6; 1 Jn 3.6-7) to maintain their view.
Now that we’ve finished I’ve created a table so we can compare what the ‘I’ says of himself and what Paul says of believers.
|The speaker is under the law
I was once alive apart from the law (Rom 7.9)
|Believers have been released from the law
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Rom 6.15)
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Rom 7.6)
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5.18)
|The speaker is dead
Sin came alive and I died (Rom 7.9)
|Believers are spiritually alive
10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:10–11)
|The speaker is of the flesh
I am of the flesh, sold under sin (Rom 7.14)
|Believers are of the Spirit
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you (Rom 8.9)
|The speaker is captive to the law of sin
I am of the flesh, sold under sin (Rom 7.14)
|Believers have been freed from the law of sin
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. (Rom 6.6-7)
|Nothing good dwells in the speaker
For I know that nothing good dwells in me (Rom 7.18)
|Believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the gospel
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you (Rom 8.9)
|The speaker is unable to do good
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Rom 7.18)
|Believers are able to do good
17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6.17-18)
Hopefully you can see from the table, what the speaker says contradicts Paul’s statements to believers concerning;
- Being set free from captivity to sin by Christ’s death and resurrection,
- Being indwelt by the Holy Spirit,
- Pastoral instructions they should live by in light of 1-2 and their new abilities.
Many interpreters recognise the tensions and contradictions created in scripture by assuming the ‘I’ relates to normal Christian experience. Like myself they have adopted positions in light of this assuming the ‘I’ in some way is a C1 Sinner (see below) and not Paul, a C3 Believer.
These include Hae-Kyung Chang, The Christian Life in a Dialectical Tension? Romans 7:7-25 Reconsidered. He has an exegetical argument against Dunn’s ‘dialectical’ (A method of argument or exposition that systematically weighs contradictory facts or ideas with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions) interpretation showing its problems.
Some interpreters argue that Paul is speaking from his own perspective before he was regenerated. That is, before he was a Christian (Douglas Moo, p441-451, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament; and Thomas Schrenier, p359-366, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament).
Stephen Westerholm acknowledges Paul is using rhetoric. He argues the speaker represents sinful humanity in general and not believers in-Christ (Westerholm, p135-145, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics).
Others argue Paul is speaking from the vantage point of Adam. Ben Witherington (p184, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary).
Michael Bird (p142, A Bird’s-eye View of Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message) and NT Wright (p563, The New Interpreter’s Bible : Acts – First Corinthians (Volume 10)) both argue Paul alludes to Israel in some fashion. I can see where they are coming from and it makes greater sense of the wider context (Rom 7.1-6; 8.2-4).
Words for believers
What can we learn from this now? My three main points relate to;
P1) Purpose – The immediate context recognizes that Paul and those who ‘know the law’ (Rom 7.1) have been released from captivity and service to the Jewish law. Now they are expected to bear fruit for God and serve in the new way of the Spirit. The release from captivity calls into question whether the law of Moses they used to be captive to and serve is sinful. Paul uses this passage to defend the law of Moses from the charge of sin.
P2) Rhetoric – The key markers in the text highlight our passage in question is an Epictetus style diatribe. Therefore we should be open to various ways in which pronominal expressions can be used within this style of writing. This includes Paul speaking in the voice of another (speech in character).
P3) Controversy – Some interpreters argue that Paul is referring to his Christian experience. They assume Paul here speaks of his own Christian experience and he wants all believers to think of themselves the same way. There are problems with this view if we have a broader look at Paul’s writings.
I don’t think it helpful to impose the assumption Paul is talking about normal christian experience on believers today. However, what we can learn from it is to sympathize with people who may yearn for the good but have yet to be freed from captivity to sin. We should be sharing the gospel with them!
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