Who is the “I” of Romans 7:7-25? Part 5 of 5

I think that the “I” in Romans 7 is Paul, identifying with unbelieving Jews under God’s law.  Paul is recalling the true state of every Israelite under God’s law.  Though Paul is a Christian Jew, he writes in words that are true for non-Christian Jews: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom 7:18b).  Here are some reasons why I think this interpretation best fits Romans 7:

(1) The context is Paul’s response to a Jewish objection, so it is appropriate that he has unbelieving Jews in mind.  His comment in Romans 7:5 (“the sinful passions aroused by the law”) would have caused a double-take from the first-century Jew.  The law, provoking evil passions?  It seemed unthinkable!  So Paul’s explanation in Romans 7:7-25 has to demonstrate that–for unbelieving Jews–the Law of Moses aroused evil passions. 

(2) Paul quotes from the Law of Moses, which non-Christian Jews received at Mount Sinai.  He cites the tenth commandment in Romans 7:7b: “Do not covet.”  His comments, then, recall the occurrence at Mount Sinai. 

(3) The statements about “the commandment” recall God giving the Law of Moses at Mount Sinai.  In Romans 7:12, Paul equates “the commandment” with “the law.”  He says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”  So when Paul says “commandment” in Romans 7, that is another way of saying the “law” of Moses.  Thus, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” can be understood to mean, “The Law of Moses that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”  This was the true experience of every Israelite. 

(4) The statements about delighting in God’s law–but being unable to fulfill it–were true of unbelieving Jews.  “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom 7:18b).  This refers to every Jews’ desire to obey the Law of Moses, but failing to do it nonetheless.  “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law” (Rom 7:22) recalls Psalm 1 and Psalm 119, where the faithful Israelite delighted in God’s law–but, even the most faithful Israel could not keep it perfectly.  For, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom 7:21). 

(5) A pious unbelieving Jew was a slave to God’s law in his mind.  “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Rom 7:25b).  This verse expresses the genuine struggle for every non-Christian Jew.  While their minds wanted to obey the Law of Moses (given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai), they remained slaves of sin and death, and thus they could not fulfill God’s law.  “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19). 

In summary, the “I” of Romans 7:7-25 is Paul writing about his pre-Christian status as a Jew, identifying with every Israelite who lived under the Law of Moses.  Paul is not writing as a Christian who is struggling with sin and is constantly defeated by it.  The believer is not enslaved to sin any longer, but the unbelieving Jew is a slave to sin.  Paul’s words in Romans 7:7-25 recall the situation of slavery that was true for every Israelite–but not for the Christian, who has been freed in Christ Jesus.

Advertisements

Who is the “I” of Romans 7:7-25? Part 4 of 5

As previously argued, the “I” of Romans 7 cannot be Paul telling the story as Adam in the Garden, and the “I” cannot be Paul speaking about his post-conversion struggle with sin.  This brings us to the third view that has been common in church history: Paul recalling his non-Christian relationship with sin. 

(3) Paul recalling his pre-Christian relationship with sin.  Paul uses several phrases in Romans 7:7-25 that recall the life of an unbeliever, not a believer.  For example, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (7:14b).  Now an unbeliever is sold as a slave to sin.  Also, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom 7:18).  The inability to fulfill God’s law is true for unbelievers.  And, “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:23).  Unbelievers are prisoners of God’s law.  “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”  Unbelievers are slaves to the law of sin. 

With just a brief survey of those verses, the identification of the “I” with pre-Christian Paul seems to make good sense.  But people have raised objections to identifying the “I” with pre-Christian Paul.  For example, how can pre-Christian Paul say “I have the desire to do what is good” (7:18b), and how can pre-Christian Paul say, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law” (7:22)?  Finally, how can pre-Christian Paul claim that, “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law” (7:25b)?  After all, don’t only Christians desire what is good, delight in God’s law, and live as mind-slaves to God’s law? 

While the objections raised against the “pre-Christian Paul and his relationship with sin” interpretation are good ones, they are not terminal objections.  I still think this third proposal is on the right track.  In other words, while I think some adjustments need to be made to this interpretation, it is not totally wrong–it is just not totally sufficient.  The final post will present the most likely interpretation for the “I” of Romans 7.

Who is the “I” of Romans 7:7-25? Part 3 of 5

Throughout church history, the “I” of Romans 7 has been variously identified.  This post moves onto the second option: from (1) Adam in the Garden of Eden telling the entrance of sin into the world; to (2) Paul as a Christian struggling with his sin. 

(2) Paul as a Christian struggling with his sin.  As the first post indicated, this interpretation is the traditional way to view Romans 7:7-25.  But for the reasons given in the first post, it is good to question the traditional understanding of the “I” in Romans 7. 

Before reviewing the weaknesses of the traditional position, you must know why people believe Paul is speaking of himself as a Christian struggling with sin.  First, Paul is writing Romans as a Christian, so the use of “I” in a letter naturally causes one to understand Paul to be speaking from a Christian perspective.  Second, the admission that “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (7:21) seems to echo the struggle of many Christians.  After all, Christians want to do good, though temptation is always there.  Third, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law” seems to refer to Christians, because only believers–not unbelievers–can delight in God’s law.  Unbelievers couldn’t care less about God’s law!  Fourth, “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law” seems to apply only to people who are saved, since unbelievers have a “depraved mind” (Rom 1:28). 

But, as with the first proposal in the previous post, the weakness of this second interpretation overcome its strengths.  For example, Paul says he is “sold as a slave to sin” (7:14).  Now, if he is speaking as a Christian, he is contradicting what he said in the previous chapter: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom 6:18).  Christians are not slaves to sin; they are slaves to God (6:22). 

Also, Paul says, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom 7:18b).  This defeatist admission is not true of Christians, for believers can now carry out God’s will. 

Perhaps the fatal blow to the “Paul-as-a-Christian-struggling-with-his-sin” interpretation is Romans 7:25b: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”  Paul ensures that this is not true of believers: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2).  So believers cannot be slaves to, imprisoned by, ruled by, or captive to sin.  Believers have been released, freed, transferred, given victory, been made slaves of righteousness, and are no longer controlled by the flesh (Rom 8:9). 

So if Paul is not speaking as Adam in the Garden, and he is not speaking as a Christian struggling with his sin, then to whom does the “I” in Romans 7 refer?

Who is the “I” of Romans 7:7-25? Part 2 of 5

Throughout church history, there have been three basic proposals to identifying the “I” of Romans 7:7-25.  (1) The “I” is Adam.  This post will consider whether that proposal holds any water. 

(1) The “I” is Adam.  You might be surprised to find that “Adam” was ever proposed at all.  After all, Adam’s name appears nowhere in Romans 7.  But people have noticed several phrases that seem to point to a Garden-of-Eden-like experience.  Read 7:7b: “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.'”  This verse perhaps recalls God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–which, of course, is the one Adam and Eve ate from. 

And read 7:9: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”  If Adam is indeed the “I” of Romans 7, this is the verse that most supports that interpretation.  If “alive” means “spiritually alive,” then there was only one person in the world who was spiritually alive before the Law of Moses…and that person was Adam.  After the Fall of Man in Genesis 3, everyone is spiritually dead.  [But does “alive” have to mean “spiritually alive”?] 

Finally, notice 7:11: “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”  This seems to retell a bit of the Eden account, doesn’t it?  “Sin” (or the “Serpent,” to be more specific) “deceived” (which makes you think of the Serpent deceiving in the Garden), and sin “put me to death” (which makes you think of the Fall itself).  With just a little explanation, then, it is possible to see why “I” could be identified with “Adam.” 

“But isn’t it clear,” you might object, “that the I refers to Paul, since he is the one writing?  What would make anyone think that anyone other than Paul himself is the intended referent?”  Part of the explanation depends on noting the rhetorical letter-writing skill in the first-century.  It was common practice to “put on a character,” so to speak, especially a character renowned in biblical history.  It is a fact, too, that Jews relived the Passover account in the first-person, even if they didn’t experience it themselves, all in the effort to identify with their people.  They would say things like: “I was held in Egyptian slavery.  God delivered me through his servant Moses.”  In other words, speaking in the first-person could be a way of creating solidarity with others by taking on a character. 

In writing Romans 7, then, some people propose that Paul puts on the character of Adam in the Garden of Eden to tell the story of sin’s entrance into the world.  So the objection “But the I must refer to Paul himself since he is the one writing” isn’t exactly true. 

But just because Paul might be putting on a character, that doesn’t mean the character is limited to Adam in the Garden.  For, while the “Adam” interpretation has the above strengths, there are weaknesses as well.  And I think the weaknesses overcome its strengths. 

First of all, God did not tell Adam “Do not covet” (which Paul quotes in Rom 7:7).  The command is not found in the Garden scene at all, but instead occurs in Exodus as the tenth commandment (Ex 20:17).  Since Paul knew the Garden of Eden story, he could have quoted what God told Adam in the Garden (“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” Gen 2:17), but he did not.  Instead, Paul quoted the Mosaic Law, which he believed (as did the Israelites) came at Mount Sinai (Rom 5:12-14). 

Second, the serpent deceived Eve, not Adam.  Then Eve gave some fruit to her husband and he ate it.  Thus, Romans 7:8 better fits Eve than her husband. 

Third, Adam is not mentioned at all in Romans 7. 

For these reasons, identifying the “I” as Adam is improbable.  Though elements of Romans 7 seem to fit the Garden of Eden story, the fact that Paul quotes the Law of Moses (Ex 20:17) strikes a fatal blow to the “Adam” interpretation, because Paul’s case in Romans 5 rested on the fact that Adam did not have the Law of Moses (Rom 5:12-14; see also Gal 3:17).

Who is the “I” of Romans 7:7-25? Part 1 of 5

Paul portrays a severe struggle with following the Law of Moses in Romans 7.  He says that God’s law arouses the sinful passions (7:5).  When God says, “Do not do such-and-such,” that prohibition provokes rebellion in the human heart to engage in the forbidden behavior.  Forbidden fruits are the sweetest, as the cliche goes. 

But there are indications in Romans 7 that the “I” probably does not refer to Paul-the-Christian struggling with his sin.  Now, I know that is the traditional interpretation (“Paul is portraying how he wants to follow God’s will as a Christian, but sin still tempts him and enslaves him–hence the ongoing battle that believers have with sin”). 

Now, I won’t deny that believers battle against sin.  They do, and they must.  BUT, look at 7:14: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”  Are believers sold as slaves to sin?  Romans 6:18: “You [believers here] have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”  ALSO, look at 7:18b: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”  It would have been one thing if Paul had said “I do not carry it out,” because that is sometimes true of believers…but to say “I cannot carry it out” is a different story.  Don’t believers have the capacity to obey God now?  In fact, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Rom 8:8)–and only unbelievers are controlled by the sinful nature.  FINALLY, look at 7:25b: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”  But see what Paul says only two verses later: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). 

We have a problem here, folks.  Paul has identified the “I” of Romans 7 as enslaved to sin (7:14), unable to carry out God’s will (7:18b), and a slave to the law of sin (7:25b).  But Romans 6 teaches that believers are freed from sin and cannot live in slavery to it (Rom 6:2, 6-7, 14, 17-18, 22).  Believers are “free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2).  Also, the “righteous requirements of the law” are “fully met in us” (believers) because of our union with Christ (Rom 8:4).  Believers, then, are able to obey God and please God and carry out his will. 

Hopefully you see the problem, then, with saying the “I” of Romans 7:7-25 is the believer-struggling-with-his-sin.  Perhaps, when Paul uses “I,” he is not referring to the typical Christian there at all.  In fact, the evidence in Romans 6 argues against identifying the “I” with the believer.  So…if the “I” of Romans 7 is not the Christian, who could it be?

World-Proof Your Kids, by Tim Sisemore

This two-hundred page book is the most concise and practical guide to training up children in the instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4) that I have seen in years.  Published in 2007, this book is a must-get for Christian parents. 

The subtitle is “Raising Children Unstained By the World.”  Sisemore is concerned about the growing rate of worldly children raised by professing Christian parents.  It seems that Christian parents in America face a multitude of obstacles to biblical parenting.  So Sisemore comes to the rescue with…the BIBLE!  Who would have thought, right?  Sisemore’s book is laden with Scripture, particularly the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. 

Here is a quote to whet your appetite: “The most troubling sign in our prodigals is a lack of conflict in their souls, when they simply don’t care that they are sinning.  One wonders if such young people are in the Kingdom of God, and our prayers should follow that implication” (p. 31). 

Also: “The self-focused type of love underlies the new tradition of ‘church-hopping.’  It is rare for children to grow in one community and know only one church family for their years of minority…Most often, families move from church to church in an effort to satisfy their selfish tastes…Taste, not Scripture, dictates the style and content of worship.  If the style isn’t right, the family moves to another church with one they like better” (p. 63).  Ouch! 

Another: “The most common excuse for letting unkind acts be is that ‘boys will be boys,’ as though simply the maleness makes these actions morally acceptable…We are being trained to view meanness as a way to get a good laugh, seeing it as only natural and thus not in need of change or challenge” (p. 110).  Ouch again. 

One more: “Our children are raised on ever-more clever and persuasive advertisements aimed mercilessly at their fallen desires and impulses.  When parents conspire to reward the resultant desires in our children, we actively work against the foundations of self-control, the ability to give up the immediate in service to greater goals” (p. 174). 

Parents, get this book.  Buy one for another parent you know.  Do a small-group study of this book in your church.  After you read it, take a breather, put on some coffee…and then start reading it again.  May the Lord raise up children who bear the fruit of the Spirit because He used this book to awaken parents to godly instruction and discipline.