Earlier this semester, my good friend Ken Berding and I were discussing the different views on Romans 7:14-25 and decided that we would each write a blog post summarizing our reasons for holding opposing views on the passage. Last week, Ken gave a great defense of the view that Romans 7:14-25 is autobiographical and is thus about the Christian struggle with sin. I found Ken’s reasons 3, 6 and 7 very strong (Ken also gave a fine experiential discussion of that struggle in an earlier post). As Ken pointed out, there are many smart people on both sides of this issue, so this is not a “slam-dunk” interpretational problem.
Throughout Christian history, there have been several opinions about what Paul meant in this passage. The two main options are 1) Paul is referring to his own experience as a Christian, and therefore the general Christian experience; or 2) Paul is referring to the experience of a pre-Christian Jew trying to obey the Law.
Here are some of the reasons that I am in favor of option 2:
- This passage is an answer to the question “Did that which was good [the Law], then, become death to me?” (Rom 7:13) Paul is not primarily interested here in discussing anyone's struggle with sin. He is explaining how the Old Testament Law – good in itself – was used by sin to bring death to pre-Christians.
- Paul knows that Christians struggle with sin; after all, many of his letters are written to help churches deal with sin. But he discusses the Christian struggle with sin in the next chapter (Rom 8:10-14). His conclusions about the struggle there do not seem to me to be consistent if chapter 7 is also about the Christian struggle with sin.
- Paul’s only positive description of the “me” in this passage is elsewhere applied to Jews, not Christians. “I agree with the Law, that the Law is good” (7:16) and “I delight in the law of God in my inner man” (7:22). But this is more in line with Paul’s description of Jews: “If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the Law” (Rom 2:17). In Romans, Christians have “died to the Law” (7:4) and thus “delight in the Law” is not most naturally applied to Christians.
- Paul’s negative descriptions of the “me” in the passage are elsewhere applied to pre-Christians, not Christians.
- “I am fleshly, sold into bondage to sin” (7:14). Compare to “we were in the flesh” (7:5); “we were freed from sin” (6:18); “we were slaves to sin” (6:20); and “you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (8:9).
- “But I see another law… making me a prisoner of the law of sin” (7:23). Compare to “but now, freed from sin and enslaved to God” (6:22); and “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (8:2).
If Paul says that Christian are no longer in the flesh and are no longer slaves or prisoners of sin, then it seems to make the most sense to say that he is talking about pre-Christian experience here in Rom 7:14-25.
- It is true that the use of first-person present verbs in the passage (“I am” “I practice” “I want” “I hate” “I do”) sounds like Paul is talking about his present experience. But Paul sometimes uses “I” in a rhetorical sense to describe generic experience rather than his own experience (1 Cor 10:30; 13:2-3, 11). In at least one other place, Paul uses a first-person present verb to describe his opponents’ experience (Gal 2:18).
- Some church fathers interpreted this passage as a description of a pre-Christian. Augustine agreed with this interpretation in his early teaching, but then he changed his mind and decided that Paul was talking about Christian experience. (Augustine’s change was possibly influenced by Origen, Ambrosiaster, and his own fight with the Pelagians.) Of course, we shouldn’t believe an interpretation just because the church fathers held it, but it helps to know that the pre-Christian interpretation of Rom 7:14-25 is not some recent fad in interpretation.
- Finally, I think that Paul’s approach to the Christian struggle elsewhere does not support the interpretation that Rom 7:14-25 refers to the Christian struggle. Paul's normal approach to the Christian struggle is this: because of our union with Christ, we are saints; we have transferred from death to life, from sin to righteousness, from Adam to Christ, from Law to grace, from Law to Spirit. The way to deal with ongoing sin is to recognize that sin is inconsistent with our new identity in Christ, and to act in accordance with that new identity. We are dead to sin, so we should act dead to sin. If option 1 is correct, Paul is presenting the Christian struggle in a way that he does not present it anywhere else in his letters: he is saying that we are still slaves to sin, we are still trying to keep the Law, and we are still under the law of sin and death. This is almost the opposite of what Paul says in the next chapter: we are not in the flesh; we are in the Spirit; we are under no obligation to the flesh; and we can put the deeds of the body to death by the power of the Spirit.
The picture: The Apostle Paul (dictating the book of Romans to his scribe, Tertius), in the Zurich Bible, 1536. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.