Who Am I?

An Exegesis of Romans 7:7-13

The most hotly debated question when one comes to the seventh chapter of Romans is “Who is the ‘I’ to whom Paul refers?” Scholars have written reams of exegesis in an attempt to answer that very question, and how one chooses to answer this question has very great implications for how one interprets the “I”’s struggle with sin in vv. 14-25 of this chapter. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the major question Paul wants to answer in the passage in question (Rom. 7:7-13) is actually the question of whether the Law itself is sin. In this paper, I will argue for the autobiographical position—that the “I” in this passage is primarily Paul reflecting on his own experience—though I believe that he is looking at his own experience through the filter of “oldness of the letter,” of the experience of the flesh apart from the power of the Spirit.

 

Context

Romans 7:7-13 is situated in the midst of the second major section of Romans. In the first section, found in chapters 1—4, Paul has expounded the basic content of the Gospel, which the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). The Gospel is the revelation of “the righteousness of God … from faith unto faith” (1:17), in a world where “the wrath of God is being revealed…against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). In Romans 2—3, Paul lays low the pretensions and boasting of Gentiles and Jews, respectively, concluding that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10) since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). God’s solution to this was to reveal His righteousness “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (3:22). Jesus’ obedient death on the cross made it possible for God to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Thus, human beings can now be righteous in God’s eyes simply by placing their trust in Christ, since “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (3:28). In Romans 4, Paul cites Abraham as an example of just such a person justified by faith rather than by performing works of the Law.

The second section of Romans begins in chapter 5, with Paul elaborating on some of the benefits that this justification by faith brings (5:1-11) before contrasting the death that came through Adam to the life that has come through Jesus Christ as a free gift to all those who believe (5:12-21). In chapters 6 and 7, Paul takes time to correct some misconceptions that commonly arose from his preaching of the Gospel. Chapter 6 deals with the believer’s relationship to sin, countering the interpretation of the Gospel of grace as a license to sin, while chapter 7 deals with the believer’s relationship to the Law. Paul wants to show that we have been freed from the Law and to demonstrate how ineffective the Law was to bring true freedom from sin. In chapter 8, Paul goes on to conclude his second section by reiterating and developing his explanation of the new life that the Gospel of Christ brings, focusing particularly on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the answer to the dilemma posed by the flesh in chapters 6 and 7.

Thus, Romans 7 falls in between Paul’s affirmation in Romans 6:22 that we are no longer bound by sin but enslaved to God (thus we cannot treat grace as an excuse for license), and Paul’s exultation in 8:1-4 that the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the power to walk in the freedom that Christ purchased for us. In Romans 7:1-6, Paul unpacks precisely how Christ has set us free from slavery to the Law. In Romans 7:14-25, Paul expresses eloquently the dilemma of a person wrestling with the split reality of willing to do good but not being able to—precisely the dilemma of the person trying to serve in oldness of the letter rather than newness of the Spirit (7:6). Romans 7:7-13 falls into the gap between these two passages. It explains that the Law itself is not sin but exposes and multiplies sin. Since human nature is corrupt, the very act of prohibition amplifies the attractiveness of the thing prohibited and inspires defiance against the commandment.

 

Exegesis

Paul opens this pericope in 7:7 with two rhetorical questions: “What shall we say then?” and “Is the Law sin?” While later interpreters such as Marcion would have responded vigorously in the affirmative to the latter question, Paul is emphatic in his vindicating the Law from this charge: “May it never be!” Nevertheless, as Doug Moo writes, “Paul’s rejection of the equation between the law and sin does not mean that he is taking back what he has said earlier (e.g., 5:20; 7:5)—the law has become allied with sin.”1 Indeed, Paul believes that serving in the oldness of the letter is futile since the Law cannot give us the power we need to defeat sin. If we are going to conquer sin, we must live in the newness of the Spirit (7:6).

The primary meaning of “Law” in this passage must be the Mosaic Law (although I believe that Paul’s alternation between the Greek words for commandment and Law indicate that it is not only the Mosaic code in view here)—Moo writes that that “is clear both from Paul’s general usage and from the context.”2 Indeed, Paul quotes part of the Decalogue (“You shall not covet”) as an example of the Law that first made him aware of sin (the argument that Paul has in mind the Jewish tradition teaches that Adam received the Torah in the garden is unconvincing since in Rom. 5:13-14, Paul indicates that he sees the Torah as having been given at a specific point in history subsequent to Adam).

The part of verse 7 following the rhetorical questions and answer is a parallelism where the second statement clarifies the first by restating it more specifically—“I would not have come to know sin except through the Law / I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” Proponents of the view that Paul is impersonating Adam in this passage find support for their position in the naïveté of the sinner here—who else could possibly be said to have not known sin before the giving of the commandment? While it is true that “know” here could mean “to become aware of the possibility of sin,” Ben Witherington notes that the Greek verb egnon could also mean “to recognize.”3 So Paul could also mean that the prohibition of the Law enabled him to recognize an action that he was already used to committing for what it was—sin.

In verse 8, Paul writes that his encounter with the commandment provided fertile ground in him for sin. He portrays sin as an eager opportunist, “taking opportunity…to produce in me coveting of every kind…” Here, Paul continues the thought that he began in 7:5 that the Law “aroused sinful passions…in the members of our body to bear fruit unto death,” a principle expressed succinctly by Origen—“things which are forbidden are desired all the more.”4 Sin is the active agent causing those desires—the more the Law tells the sinner “No,” the more sin stirs up the desire in them to do the opposite of what the Law commands.

The statement that “apart from the law, sin is dead” should probably not be taken as meaning that sin does not exist or has no power apart from the Law since it matches up to what Paul says in 5:13 about sin not being counted before the Law came. The Law does not bring in sin, but recognition of sin. Thus, the Law turns sin into transgression (a willful violation of a known law), and increases human responsibility as a result.

Paul’s point here goes further than this, however—the agricultural metaphor (“to bear fruit”) that Paul uses in 7:5 and the verb “to produce” that he uses in 7:8 imply that sin actually increases in energy through contact with the commandment. There is something in human nature that reacts to a prohibition with insolence, and thus sin can potentially reap a greater harvest in the heart of those who know the Law than in the hearts of those who do not.

Verses 9-11 provide the strongest support for those who do not see this passage as autobiographical. Ben Witherington cites W.G. Kümmel as support for the view that ego refers not to Paul, but is rather a literary or rhetorical use of “I.”5 He takes it to be a rhetorical impersonation of Adam. In support of this position, he gives four primary arguments: 1) Paul’s reference to one specific commandment (entole) rather than the Law (nomos), 2) the statement that the ego was alive once apart from the Law, 3) the personification of sin in this text (which matches the Genesis 3 narrative of the Serpent disturbing the peace of the Garden), and 4) the fact that the “I” in this text did not know sin until the commandment came, which if taken literally is difficult to pair with any human being since Adam, since “death spread to all men through Adam” (5:12).

While Kümmel’s work on the rhetorical use of ego is sound, Moo notes that “this use…is not frequent in Paul and almost always occurs in conditional or hypothetical statements – a far cry from the sustained narrative and descriptive use in 7:7-25”6 and Schreiner points out that it is “logically fallacious” of Kümmel “to say that ‘I’ refers to every person in general and [exclude] Paul.” Thus, despite the fact that the “I” of Rom. 7:7-25 could conceivably refer to someone other than Paul according to the rhetorical rules of the day, it is equally possible that Paul is speaking in the first person about himself.

Witherington’s argument from the use of entole is weakened by the fact that Paul uses nomos (which obviously refers to the Mosaic Law in vv. 1-6 and in v.7) and entole (commandment) interchangeably throughout this passage. The argument from the statement that the “I” was “alive” and then “died” is stronger, since it is difficult to imagine someone other than Adam being able to describe themselves as “alive at one time apart from the Law.” However, Thomas Schreiner counters that we could take these statements “in a relative or experiential sense” (as referring to Paul “experiencing separation from God through his transgression”), and that this is more likely due to the fact that “the confessional nature of the text suggests that Paul refers to his own experience.”7 (Similarly, Schreiner argues that the confessional and personal nature of the text means the autobiographical view is more likely than Moo’s view, which sees as Paul as speaking in the voice of the nation of Israel.)

The personification of sin in vv. 9-11 need not be an allusion to the Serpent of Genesis 3, since Paul does not write that sin was introduced, but rather that “sin revived/sprang to life” (v. 9) when the Law came, and this is a continuation of what he has just said in v. 8 about sin “being dead” (or perhaps, “lying dormant”) until it was stirred to life by the Law. This is a picture of a sleeping giant being awakened by the introduction of the commandment. Finally, Witherington notes that the word often translated “know” in v. 7 (egnon) could mean “recognize,”9 and thus the statement that the ego did not “know sin” in v. 7 could fit with a view of the ego as Paul—Paul did not recognize sin in himself for what it was until the Law shone light upon it and gave it a name. Still, although I hold to the autobiographical view, I think it is likely that Paul may also have Adam in the back of his mind here, since he would know the words of 2 Baruch 54:19, which states that “Each one of us is his own Adam.”

Achtemeier raises another objection typical of recent scholarship: “The problem with such an understanding [that Paul writes in the historical present] is that there is no reference anywhere in Paul’s letters that he felt any sense of despair at an inability to fulfill the law when he was a Pharisee.”10 While Paul does write in a different context that his observance of the Law was “blameless” (Phil. 3:6), Jewett cites Lambrecht’s argument that “notwithstanding his outward radically religious stand and zeal for the law, [Paul’s] inner desires were not without sinful covetousness.” Lambrecht qualifies this by saying that “this insight was possibly only after his conversion [as] Paul re-reads the past through the prism of faith.”11 Furthermore, Schreiner notes that “blameless” does not mean “sinless” (since in the same verse, Paul mentions his former persecution of the church), “nor is it necessary to claim that before his conversion Paul was fully conscious of the presence of sin in his life, for in this text Paul as a believer looks back on his pre-Christian existence.”12

In verses 10-11, Paul tells of the end result of this awakened consciousness to sin—death. “Sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (7:11). Here we find another echo of the Genesis narrative, though the fact that Paul reveals elsewhere that he actually does not believe that Adam was deceived (1 Tim. 2:14) further weakens the view that Paul is impersonating Adam here. However, we do find in this verse another aspect of sin’s work in a human life. Previously, we have seen that sin can refer to “sinful passions aroused by the Law” (7:5), the power that produces covetous desires (7:8), or a dormant characteristic of human nature which comes alive upon contact with the Law (7:9), but now we see that it is also a deceptive influence in the human heart and mind. Several of the Church Fathers, including Diodore and Augustine, identified sin in this verse with Satan or demonic powers.13 This matches up well with what Paul says to the Ephesians: “you were dead in your trepassses and sins, in which you formerly walked…according to the…spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2). To Paul, sin is not just individual transgressions of God’s commandments, but an evil presence actively deceiving and killing human beings through the desires of the flesh (7:11) while the Law stands helplessly by (8:3).

Paul concludes his argument in verse 12, once again answering the question of whether the Law is sin but this time from the positive angle with another parallel construction: “The Law is holy / and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Jewett notes that the verse is an anacoluthon, meaning that with the Greek wording (hoste ho men nomos) Paul begins an “on the one hand…on the other” construction but leaves it half-unfinished.14 The other half of the verse could well be “on the other hand, we are unholy, unrighteous, and evil” or perhaps “on the other hand, sin is unholy, unrighteous, and evil.” Since sin is more powerful than the Law, sin dominates those who attempt to live in the “oldness of the letter” rather than “the newness of the Spirit,” the point Paul has been driving home since verse 6. In this passage, Paul shows the futility and weakness of the old way before turning to the hope, promise and victory of the new way of the Spirit in chapter 8.

Verse 13 is the previous five verses in microcosm. Once again, Paul raises the question of whether the Law is sin—albeit in a slightly different form: “Did that which is good (to agathon, lit. “the good”) become [a cause of] death for me?” Once again, he answers the question emphatically in the negative: “May it never be!” The autopsy is complete, and sin was the cause of death, writes Paul. The purpose for sin being allowed to take its course (there may be a divine passive implied here) is so that it might reveal its true colors. Contact with the commandment is a sort of acid test revealing sin as sin kath’ huperbolen (“beyond measure”)—a double-edged phrase which speaks both of the ability of the Law to aggravate sin into full flower as well as the ability of the Law to shine light on the nature of sin so that human beings can actually see it for what it actually is. Jewett takes a different angle, suggesting that Paul is speaking directly from experience here: “What Paul finds so outrageous as an expression of sin’s inherent nature is that it perverts the finest dimension of religion into a system of dominating others and demonstrating the superior virtue of one’s own group, whatever that might be. … In the light of Paul’s experience, the immeasurable capacity of sin and its inherent perversity were most clearly demonstrated in turning his passion to be more righteous than others into a campaign against the Messiah and his people, so that the commandment of God gave to sustain and protect life resulted instead in death.”15 The “oldness of the letter” in Paul’s personal experience culminated in complete blindness, with sin driving Paul to persecute the church of God.

Paul has reached the end of the first part of his description of the “oldness of the letter” (7:6). In vv. 14-25, he will further illustrate the futility of that way through a monologue that is among the most powerful pieces of writing in literary history. Beyond that, in chapter 8, he will reverse course and begin talking about the “newness of the Spirit” available to believers in Christ Jesus.

 

Conclusion

Many Christians have found it difficult to believe that the “I” to whom Paul refers could actually be Paul. Paul Achtemeier puts the objection bluntly: “If we assume Paul meant what he said in chapter 6, and what he went on to say in chapter 8, and if we assume he did not forget these points, or disregard them when he wrote chapter 7, then it is quite apparent that the description of Christian life in chapters 6 and 8 means that chapter 7 simply cannot be a description of that same life.”16 This also was the view of the majority of the early Church Fathers until Augustine set the interpretation of Romans 7 on a different road. The tension between the person who is “of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (7:14) and the description of the Christian believer as “freed from sin” (6:22), “set…free from the law of sin and death” (8:2) and under no obligation to serve the flesh (8:12) are so great as to be unresolvable.

Nonetheless, Paul does indicate elsewhere in his writings that conflict between flesh and Spirit is not absent from the Christian life (Gal. 5:17). Christians must consciously choose to reckon themselves dead to sin (Rom. 6:11), although Paul also makes it clear that victory is possible in the here and now (6:14). I believe that John Stott was onto something when he pointed out that “this man appears to know nothing, either in understanding or in experience, of the Holy Spirit. … If then we are looking for a description of the normal Christian life we will find it in Romans 8; Romans 7, with its concentration on the law and omission of the Spirit, cannot be held to describe Christian normality.”17 Nevertheless, it does describe a regenerate person since that person “delights in the law of God in the inner man” though a different law is at work in their body (7:22-23). Such a statement is fully consistent with Paul’s description of the Christian in 8:10 whose body is dead because of sin though their spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Thus, I conclude that in 7:7-13, Paul does describe his own experience through the filter of “oldness of the letter,” apart from factoring the Spirit into the equation. Once Paul switches to the wide-angle view in chapter 8, we see the normal Christian life, which involves “substantial, significant, and observable victory over sin,” though the flesh will be the chink in the believer’s armor until they are rescued from this body of death if they do not keep in step with the Spirit.

Works Cited

  1. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 432.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ben Witherington III with Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 189.
  4. Thomas C. Oden & Gerald Bray, eds., Romans (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), p. 183.
  5. Witherington, 180.
  6. Moo, p. 427.
  7. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 364.
  8. Schreiner, p. 364.
  9. Witherington, p. 189.

10.  Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 120.

11.  Robert Jewett, Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 443.

12.  Schreiner, p. 365.

13.  Oden & Bray, p. 183.

14.  Jewett, p. 453.

15.  Ibid., p. 460.

16.  Achtemeier, p. 121.

17.  John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 209.

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