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.

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

  1. Pingback: Who is the “I” of Romans 7:7-25? « SWBTS Bloggers

  2. Thanks for the careful analysis…i believe this is a very plausible view (…though 7:14-25 seem to fit very well with an overall NT theology [particularly Paul, James, & Peter’s] of flesh/spirit tension…we also see it played out in the Davidic Psalms). It would be interesting to see this fit with the whole context of Romans – particularly the purpose of his writing and how Paul weaves in and out of speaking more specifically to the believing Jew.

    One question: What commentators deal with this view carefully and which ones advocate it?

  3. Q,

    Commentators that believe Paul is expressing the sinners’ confrontation with the Law of Moses (in identification with Israel) include: Douglas Moo, N. T. Wright, and John Stott. Most helpful was Moo’s NICNT commentary on Romans. Also, Tom Schreiner (BECNT commentary) emphasizes the autobiographical nature of Paul’s words here (describing the sinners’ confrontation with the law), but Schreiner does not emphasize the solidarity with Israel. Hope that helps. Thanks for your note.

  4. This is a rather good survey of the issues at stake. I also appreciate your dealings with the text and that you have explained things a bit more than Schreiner. Thanks for the proposal, I concur.

    John Piper preached about 7 sermons on this passage and argues Paul represents the believer struggling with sin. Listening to them may even help you to hear new objections in order to strengthen your argument more.

    Thanks for your time in putting this together.

    Bret

  5. Bret,

    I intend to take some time and listen to Piper’s arguments regarding the “I” in Romans 7. I enjoy Piper’s preaching so much, I hate to think that I disagree with him on such an important chapter! Nevertheless, I look forward to learning how he came to his conclusions. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It was a joy to study Romans 7 and then blog about it.

    Mitch

  6. Thanks very much for your carefully presented and easy to follow discussion. I almost completely concur except for one minor difference. I believe that Paul is using a literary device and the I does not refer to any actual person. It is used to highlight the implications of what it would be like if you totally lived by law. It is Paul’s final word in his 3 chapters on the nature of law and its consequence in showing us sin without any power to deliver us from sin. It is a miserable stae to be in – only Christ can deliver us. His final words in chapter 7 re-iterate why he wrote these verses. He has covered just about every argument that Roman Christians temped to revert to their Jewish law to live by might level at Him. Now Romans 8 shows the right way to live.

    Once again many thanks for your work. There is so much written about Romans 7 that fails to understand the thrust of Paul’s argument in the whole of Romans or simply ignores what is actually written.

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