The Problem with Romans 7
In Romans 7:14-25, Paul describes himself (or someone called ‘I’) as a person who loves God’s Law, but is a slave to sin. This poses a problem, because if Paul is referring to his Christian self, then how can he call himself a slave to sin while also affirming elsewhere that he has been set free? If Paul is using the ‘I’ as a rhetorical device to mean himself as a pre-Christian Jew, then how can he say that he ‘delights in the Law in the inner man’ (7:22), but in the next chapter insist that the true mind of the unconverted person is enmity towards God (8:6-7)? This passage has long been a subject of debate, because equally strong cases can be made for each of these views of Paul’s ‘I’. Can we continue to teach from this passage the it is the Christian who struggles with sin? Or should we see it exclusively as a reiteration of Paul’s often-made point that Judaism falls short without God’s grace?
I have been tutoring Greek translation through Romans, and so this subject has necessarily come up. It has unsettled me a little over the years, because if Paul meant us to understand him as speaking from either the Christian or Jewish perspective, then he really was radically unclear, and surprisingly bad at avoiding terminology that he has employed for the opposite purpose even in adjacent chapters. As someone who believes in the inspiration of scripture, this is a less-than-ideal consequence of the argument.
One of my students last year suggested that Paul might intend both groups (or perhaps neither), but his explanation of how that might work didn’t leave a strong impression on me. And more typically of me, I forgot what he said and didn’t keep a copy of the paper in which he mentioned it. But this year, a solution along those lines clicked into place for me, and on the same day, I picked up an article by Mark Seifrid on the subject only to discover that he says much the same thing.
OK, get on with it now. Dang.
So if Paul isn’t talking about a converted person or and unconverted one, who is the ‘I’ that is meant? It seems to me that Paul is talking more generally of a person of unspecified spiritual status, considering what mankind is like without the help of the Spirit – or in Seifrid’s language, ‘the individual is described from the limited perspective of his or her intrinsic soteriological resources.’ In other words, people per se may have the desire to do good and to follow the Law (whether Torah or a more general moral code), but we lack the ability. It is the human condition to be unable to bring our whole being into line with our good intentions. As such the Law condemns us.
Seifrid bolsters the argument by pointing to certain confessions of sin that date to shortly before Paul’s day, which use a similar style and format to Paul’s. You have, for example, a psalmist confessing in prayer his unworthiness to open his mouth before God. This serves to draw attention to God’s grace in nevertheless allowing him to pray. In Paul’s case, he draws attention to his own intrinsic sinfulness in Ch7 in order to highlight God’s grace in removing his condemnation.
Chapter 8 gives extrinsic solutions to our intrinsic problems. Christ has taken any condemnation owing to us, and the Spirit will raise our mortal, sin-riddled bodies at the Resurrection. Notably, until then, there’s no expectation that the intrinsic sin problem has been definitively dealt with. So, given the solutions of Ch8, Ch7 can apply equally to the experience of the unconverted Jew and to the Christian believer, because both experience the trouble of sin-in-the-flesh that overcomes the will. The only differences between the two readers is that the Christian has Christ’s removal of condemnation, the Spirit’s reordering of his will, and the promise of an ultimate solution at the last.
So, this passage can continue to be employed from the pulpit as evidence of conflict within the Christian life – the struggle with sin – and yet it can also be used to draw attention to the crisis experienced by the man trying to do what God commands without God’s grace. Considered intrinsically, that is the same person anyway. Paul is using himself as a model of self-judgment so that we all have our attention drawn to the need for God’s assistance if we’re ever to be found pleasing to him.