Reflection on Rom 7:7-25 – Part 1

Reflection on Rom 7:7-25 – Part 1 May 23, 2014

Thesis 1: The “I” in Rom 7:7-25 is not a Christian and cannot be a Christian.

While many might take great comfort in a Christian reading of Rom 7:7-25, furnishing proof that even the Apostle Paul struggled with sin in his Christian life, providing hope and succour for the rest of us in our struggle against the flesh – and it’s a position supported by scholars no less than Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Dunn, and Cranfield – yet the basis for such a reading is really quite flimsy. Paul is not talking about Christians in this section since the statement “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14) conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declared that they have been freed from sin (Rom 6:6-7, 17-18, 22). The speaker struggles to obey the law (Rom 7:22, 25), whereas Christians are free from the law (Rom 6:14-15; 7:6). And if this is a Christian being spoken about, then goodness me, where is the Holy Spirit? Surely the transforming work of the Holy Spirit should get a word in somewhere here, but it doesn’t! We have to wait until Rom 8:1-17 to hear about the Holy Spirit, and there we are informed that the Spirit “has set youfree from the law of sin and death” (8:2), the requirements of the law are fulfilled by those who “walk … according to the Spirit” (8:4), “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the” (8:13), and “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves” (8:15). In other words, reading Rom 6:1-7:6 and Rom 8:1-17, which bracket Rom 7:7-25, shows that those who are in Christ Jesus and who share in the Spirit, have been saved from the horrible things spoken about in Rom 7:7-25. So the “I” of Rom 7:7-25 cannot be a Christian if Christ has delivered us from slavery to sin, if believers are under grace not law, and if the Holy Spirit enables believers to fulfil the just requirements of the law. Yes, there is an on-going struggle with the flesh for Christians (see Rom 8:1-13; 13:14; 1 Cor 3:1; Gal 5:13, 16-17, 19), however, that is not the point here: it is instead a redemptive-historical argument about the law’s goodness and its limitations in God’s plan.

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  • Alan Stanley

    Well said, couldn’t agree more.

  • abcaneday

    Have you been sneaking a peek at my notes? My argument exactly.

  • Derwin L. Gray

    I’ll be marinating on that.

    I think N.T. Wright has a similar take.

    When will your commentary be complete? I’m preaching through Romans in 2015. I’d love to use it as a resource.

    Peace out

  • Paul Aaron Himes

    I was led to exactly this position by Hae-Kyung Chang’s excellent article in Novum Testamentum volume 49.3 (“The Christian Life in a Dialectical Tension? Romans 7:7-25 Reconsidered”)

  • Jeff Pugh

    I’m not convinced. The bookends argument is no reason to think the character in the middle is not the one before and after the section. It is entirely appropriate that the Spirit is not mentioned until ch 8.

    The unified psyche of the Pharisee in ch 2 (or Phil. 3) that has to be confronted with track record is not the fragmented and distressed psyche of ch 7. and 7.25 definitely sounds like a Christian setting up the climax of chapter 8.1-10 and the ramifications that follow. And the theme of frustration, of not being able to do what one assents is certainly Pauline (Gal 6.16,17).

    Alternately if we follow the groves of the argument from ch 6 Paul for some pastoral reason due to the existential reality of the saint has to remind them to consider themselves dead to sin. And so he focuses upon the ontological reality of union with Christ in death and resurrection. He still has to deal with the existential reality of frustration or a divided mind. And it is entirely understandable that he testifies both to frustration and to a consciousness of a division between ego and flesh. Or to put it crassly Paul is not afraid to give full weight to the fact that ontologically in and of himself the hardware is exactly the same as the pre-conversion Paul but for this new division between the self and the fleshly orientation. He can stare this down fearlessly though in the light of his new union with Christ.

    The solution we note is not that Paul being ontologically united with Christ cannot be distressed by his sin any more. But in ch 8 union of self only comes as one Paul orientates his old hardware under the new software of the spirit. The Spirit does not make Paul a new hybrid super human. The flesh is dead. The only living thing in Paul is the Spirit (8.10). Paul only has new capacity inasmuch as he consciously orientates toward the impetus of the Spirit.

    So the problem with the argument put forward to me is that it confines the categories to two, either Paul is a saint in ch 7 or sounds like a pharisee. The premise ‘so it can’t be’ simply doesn’t follow logically. If we only allow that Paul sees himself as exactly comprising the same composition of dysfunction and perversity that characterised his obsessive zealousness pre-Christ is exactly the same identity as the one united to Christ. So, there seem to be three categories of the one Paul depending on the shifting framework.

    1. Paul ontologically considered ch. 6; An unambiguous simplicity.(notice he says nothing of the experience of the typical Christian here yet!)

    2. Paul existentially considered ch 7. and the complexity of incongruence between ontological reality and existential experience.

    3. Paul ontologically and existentially in fellowship pending alignment of mind and Spirit. ch.8 1-10.

    And this explains rhetorically why he delays the Spirit. Paul, the frustrated Paul can stare down his internal frustration as he never takes his focus from the victory of Christ (7.25). He does not want to attribute victory to the Spirit for two reasons.

    One is that it would be (my inference) that it is this same presence of the Holiness of God that brings awareness of his own shallowness of performance and yet his own love of God’s decree. It is difficult, even impossibly confusing for Paul to bring in the Spirit at ch 7. to say to his frustrated friends that the source of their frustration is the Spirit and the Spirit is also the solution.
    And secondly he does not want to shift the foundation of confidence of victory from the epochal event of the Cross, lest he open up the way to a fragile experiential enthusiasm.
    But it is when Paul brings in the new factor of the assurance of the Spirit he can boldly assert the overlapping impotence of his own ‘hardware’ (8.10) and at the same time the potency of the Spirit filled life. Paul qua Paul contributes nothing to the equation save his orientation, his mindset, his faith in the Christ cataclysm. This baptism into Christ’s death at one and the same time rents him psychologically (see 8.23,24) and unites him ontologically with the Glory of Christ, … despite all appearances to the contrary!

    If this is not typical Paul, the saint in full defiant flight in 7. 15ff, fearlessly going public about his weakness while equally fearlessly asserting that Christ’s Lordship is his own triumph, and if his readers knew nothing of disappointment in themselves, then the admonitions to the readers in ch 6 to consider themselves dead have no existential referent and are pastorally pointless. Likewise the assurances of glory unseen and yet to come of chapter 8 are rhetorically over-baked. But if these saints are liable to doubt ontological realities in the face of existential realities then Paul the pastor has got it just right! And any pastor worth his salt knows too many too well who’s sensitive consciences have led them away from fellowship with Christ as they doubt their bona fides in the light of only the Romans 6 half of the story.

    Sorry if this sounds too much like a preaching tradition, but in the confidence that faith brings, Paul can walk and chew gum (another mundane metaphor). The shift from ch 6 to 7 to 8 is not a shift in time or aeon from the victorious present, to the defeated past back the present, which would have been very difficult for his hearers to deduce exactly where he was breaking sequence and more importantly, why. But I suggest that these three chapters signify a shift in analytical framework, a shift to which the listener was alerted by the imperatives of ch. 6, and which any sin-aware-saint would have needed no explanation as to the referent in ch. 7 and continues without a cognitive herniation back into the imperatives, now pneumatologically reinforced in ch 8.

    We walk by faith not by sight, especially the sight of our own pathetic/indefatigable sanctification. We are complex, not the passage, which is simple. Christ is everything ‘from start to finish’.

  • JT

    I agree with this position. I do believe Christian continue experience a similar “struggle” b/t flesh and spirit even after Justification, however, I do not believe this passage refers to that. So, yes, I whole heartedly agree that the “I” in Romans 7 is neither Paul himself, nor is it a believer. I actually believe it’s a general reference to the nation of Israel (fleshly) seeking the righteousness of the law by way of works, or rather by way of keeping the law (see Romans 10).

  • Keith Plummer

    Dennis Johnson’s “The Function of Romans 7:13-25 in Paul’s Argument for the Law’s Impotence and the Spirit’s Power, and Its Bearing on the Identity of the Schizophrenic ‘I”” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church is among the most thorough and compelling treatments I’ve read on this passage, arriving at the same conclusion.

    I find it interesting and odd that for the most part, both sides of the current sanctification debate among the Reformed agree on the interpretation of Romans 7 as referring to the Christian. Given the fact that this is a picture not of moral struggle but impotence, the traditional (though, in my opinion, erroneous) interpretation would seem to support that side being charged with considering failure a virtue.

    I think one of the reasons people insist on reading Romans 7 as descriptive of the Christian life is the fear that not doing so is to deny our experience and argue for perfectionism of some sort. However, as you rightly point out, Michael, there are other texts that clearly describe the conflict within the believer’s heart. This just isn’t one of them. Thanks for this.

  • JIZ

    Thank you for this post. What, in general, are your thoughts on St. John Chrysostom’s approach to the passage (in homilies 12 and 13 of Homilies on Romans)?