Is Romans 7 about Paul’s struggle with sin? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about Romans 7 and briefly stated that it’s not autobiographical. To some readers, this was a bit of a surprise. They had always read it as Paul describing his struggle with sin and I have heard more than enough sermons describing it that way. Is it really the case that Paul is not describing himself?
First off, this isn’t a minority view. This is a common view found in scholarship. It was also the view of Origen just a couple of centuries or so after the writing of Romans. What has really got it going more is that we’ve come to realize that in the West, we are very introspective and we often read our culture into the Bible. The people in the Bible were not really introspective and they did not live in our culture.
So let’s start by looking at the passage itself.
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment,deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Seems straight forward enough. In fact, one reason we go to it is that so many of us can relate. Many of us know about not doing something that we really know we should and doing something that we know we shouldn’t. It seems common so it’s not a shock that we read this passage and think that Paul is speaking about us and that he went through the same thing.
But let’s go somewhere else. How about Philippians 3. How does Paul describe himself there?
Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
We often have this view of Jews wrestling under the Law like it was the Islamic system and just hoping that they were good enough to merit the favor of God. They weren’t. In fact, the larger question for them was not their faithfulness to the covenant, but God’s. After all, they had done what they were to do, and yet here they were in their land which is being dominated by these wicked Gentiles from Rome. It’s too easy to take a Reformation scenario and project it back onto Judaism.
Paul has no wrestling going on in Philippians 3. We don’t see any death when the law comes. In fact, how can we even speak of Paul having life apart from the Law? That would not make sense to a Jew. Your whole life was the Law.
In fact, there’s a great danger that if we identify so much with Romans 7, we will fail to identify with Romans 8, and Romans 8 is all about how we live by the Spirit instead of by the Law. If we are living by the Law, we are not living by the Spirit. If we are not living by the Spirit, then the great promises of Romans 8 won’t apply to us and we can miss out on the victory over sin.
I don’t want to scare anyone though into thinking that I am calling into question your salvation. Not at all. I am calling into question though your identification. Do you identify with Romans 7 or Romans 8, and Romans 8 indicates at the end that we still struggle, but who can bring a charge against us?
So what is going on in Romans 7 if it’s not autobiographical?
There are many ideas, but I think Paul is speaking as Adam who he has mentioned in Romans 5. Ben Witherington in What’s In The Word? points out that for the rabbis, coveting was also the sin in the garden. This would mean that Adam had life, and then came the law and through that he fell into sin and died. Now the question for Paul’s audience is if they identify with Adam or with Christ.
It’s also your question today.