As a follow-up to my previous post on Romans 7, following are seven reasons I think that an autobiographical reading of Romans 7:14-25 is the most straightforward reading of the passage. When I wrote the previous post, I did not intend to offer a full account of the passage. Nor do I here. But for those who want to know a bit of why I hold that Romans 7:14-25 is Paul’s own struggle with sin as a mature believer, that is, as representative of Christians who are sensitive to any sinful shortcomings in their own lives (please see my former post) I will here offer seven reasons that have helped persuade me that Paul is writing about himself in this passage. I am reticent to put my thoughts down in writing because I know that people I respect (including some at The Good Book Blog) will view and weigh these arguments differently than I, but it seems, as Paul writes elsewhere, “you [readers] drove me to it.”
Seven Reasons for the Autobiographical Reading of Romans 7:14-25
1. Romans 7:22 reads: “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in my inner man.” How could this be a description of anything other than a believer? Both other times that Paul uses the expression “inner man”—2 Corinthians 4:16 and Ephesians 3:16—he is clearly talking about a believer.
2 Corinthians 4:16: Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.
Ephesians 3:16: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.
It is likely, then, that the “I” who reflects on his “inner man” is a regenerate (“born again”) believer. Furthermore, whoever this is “agrees that the law is good” (v. 16), “wants to do good” (vv. 18, 19, 21), and in his mind is a slave to God’s law (v. 25).
2. Paul’s outburst: “Wretched man that I am!” (v. 24) is awfully “theatrical”—as Leon Morris puts it—if it doesn’t apply to Paul. Pay attention to how emotional the passage is in general. An overall emotional tone works well with the autobiographical approach, but not well with any of the other approaches. All the other approaches suggest that Paul is using a subtle literary move to point up some abstract idea even while he couches it in emotional and personal language. If that doesn’t sound unusual to you, it should.
3. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 25) is clearly the cry of a believer. If any of the other positions is correct, then this is an intrusion, particularly since the very next line (“So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin”) belongs with the paragraphs that come before the interjection. If any of the other interpretive grids of this passage is correct, it should at least be admitted that at this moment Paul’s own (autobiographical!) voice interrupts what is going on. It is easier and hermeneutically more satisfying to take this “interjection” together with the rest of the passage as functioning autobiographically.
4. There is a marked change of tenses from the section that comes just before (mostly consisting of aorist and imperfect tenses) to the section under discussion (which steadily uses the present tense throughout). This may suggest that Paul has just concluded a pre-conversion discussion in vv. 7-13 and is moving on to a post-conversion discussion in vv. 14-25.
5. There is a thematic and literary connection between the personal struggle of Romans 7:14-25 and the struggle of all creation in Romans 8:18-25. Note especially in this regard that Paul writes that the creation is “subject” and “in slavery” (8:20-21). This language helps to literarily link the two passages. Paul makes it clear in 8:23 that it is not the creation alone: “But we ourselves…groan…waiting for the redemption of our bodies (which connects with 7:14 “I am of flesh”). Notice also that the future redemption of 8:23 is a further answer to the cry of 7:24b: “Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
6. Galatians 5:17 is about regenerate believers and is almost a summary of Romans 7:14-25. (“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”) So there is certainly nothing un-Pauline about interpreting this section autobiographically. Paul already has interpreted his experience in such language elsewhere.
7. Finally, an autobiographical reading of this passage is the only interpretation where the “I” can be interpreted literally. This is a key argument for this position (and against all others). A straightforward reading of the “I” is also the reason most normal people (that is, those who are not NT scholars!) read this as though Paul were talking about himself. It would be a very unusual literary move to employ an extended and emphatic first personal pronoun to mean “people who are unregenerate,” or “a pious old covenant Jew,” or “those who live in the new age rather than in the old.” Note that Paul has not used the first person singular pronoun in this letter except in the unusual “I am using a human argument” of 3:5 and 6:19. Here the repeated and the emphatic Ego is used throughout. There must be compelling reasons to overturn this most basic observation of Paul’s use of “I” throughout this passage.