Romans 7: Not a Christian Struggle (Part 3)

One of the central issues surrounding the Pauline doctrine of sanctification is the identity of the “I” that Paul uses in Romans 7. When Paul uses the first person singular pronoun who, exactly, is he referencing? This issue gets at the heart of spiritual formation because our understanding of this passage largely dictates what we expect the Christian battle with sin to entail. In Romans 7, Paul uses the first-person singular pronoun to depict a person in a state of inner turmoil—this person is depicted as simultaneously having a genuine love for God’s Law, and yet faced with the dilemma of being unable to fulfill it: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). In this post, I will be explaining the different interpretive options.

At this point, everyone agrees that Paul is not speaking purely autobiographically. He is speaking as a rhetorical representative of a group of people. He’s speaking in solidarity with a group of people to make a rhetorical point. The question is, “Which group of people is in view?” The major options are below:

1. “I” = Paul as a non-Christian (viewed from his present Christian perspective).

2. “I” = the experience of any person, Christian or non-Christian, who tries to live under law (i.e., tries to be good and holy by their own efforts).

3. “I” = Adam, or to mankind in Adam, with the Genesis narrative being in the background.

4. “I” = Paul in the years immediately following his conversion when he still tried to live under the Law before learning to live by the Spirit (= “the Victorious Christian Life” view).

5. “I” = a picture of Paul and any normal Christian who is “simultaneously justified, yet still a sinner” and is struggling with the normal tension in the Christian life (this is again the dominant view and has been since Augustine).

6. “I” = Israel in her initial encounter with the Law at Mt. Sinai and then throughout her history through the eyes of a pious, believing Israelite (“I” = Paul’s rhetorical figure of speech as a representative Israelite).

To interpret this passage correctly, you have to make sure you’re asking the right questions. Often we think in categories that are foreign, or at least secondary, to the categories in which the biblical authors thought and lived and breathed. In our age, the division between Jews and Gentiles is not prominent in our daily thought life and interactions. However, in Paul’s day, and in his dealings with the Roman church in particular, the prominent categories in his thoughts were Jew vs. Gentile, Old Covenant vs. New Covenant, Era of Law vs. Era of Grace. So, when we approach this text and ask whether Paul is speaking as a Christian or a non-Christian, we are actually asking a question that Paul was not intending to answer. Instead, a better question would be, “Is Paul speaking as a Jew or Gentile?” or, more precisely, “Is Paul speaking as an Old Covenant Jew under the Law, or a New Covenant believer indwelt by God’s Spirit?” I’ll wait until my next post to answer these questions and give my interpretation of Romans 7, but for now, I’ll make a few observations that I think are crucial to any accurate interpretation of Romans 7:

1. Paul is addressing a Jewish audience. We know this from his address in Romans 7:1 (brothers who know the Law) and the example of Romans 7:1-4 which is an example taken directly from the Mosaic Law.

2. Paul’s concern is with the Law, not anthropology. Two rhetorical questions are asked about the Law which frame his entire discussion (7:7, 7:13), showing that Paul’s concern is with the historical function of the Mosaic Law.

3. How you understand Romans 7:9-11 will largely dictate how you understand the passage as a whole. These verses are crux of interpreting this passage.

4. Romans 7:5-6 serves as a summary thesis statement for Romans 7:7-8:17. Romans 7:5 is the thesis for Romans 7:7-25, and Romans 7:6 is the thesis for Romans 8:1-17.

5. Romans 7 deals with a temporal contrast. This is seen in the thesis statement of Romans 7:5-6 and the continuation of thought in Romans 8:1.

6. “I” is a rhetorical device used to represent a group of people (as discussed above).

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