Is Paul autobiographical in Romans 7?

Who is being talked about in Romans 7? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

So I caused some debate in my Sunday School class yesterday when Romans 7 was brought up and I started hinting that it’s not autobiographical. Now the problem I see with this is too many people go to their experience, see that they struggle in a way that sounds like Romans 7, and then say “Paul must be talking about that!” Our experience is very real, but it doesn’t mean that the Western way of thinking is what Paul has in mind.

For a start, let’s look at the passage in Romans 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.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 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!

Well there you go! Paul speaks in the first person. Obviously, he must be talking about himself.

Except, what about Philippians 3?

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. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 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— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 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; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”

Here, Paul does talk about how he kept the law. He says he was faultless. Now I was told yesterday that this is just how Paul appeared to others, but there’s no indication that he is talking about that here. Paul is just stating the facts in his mind, just as all the above about his heritage are facts. Furthermore, this makes no sense later on of the passage when he says “All that righteousness, I count as dung.” The Greek word for dung is skubalon which could be an expletive. Paul never says “I considered myself righteous with regards to the law, but I knew I wasn’t.” That would weaken his testimony. His testimony is, “As good as I was before God, that is all worthless before Christ.” Go the other way and you could have him saying “If I could have kept the law, I wouldn’t need Christ.”

But that still leaves us with a question? Who is being talked about in Romans 7?

Go back to Romans 5. Who do you see as the main person being spoken of? It’s Adam. What if we brought him into Romans 7. Does this make sense?

After all, my opening question yesterday was “When was Paul apart from the law?” He never was. In Galatians 4, we are told Jesus was born under the law. So that means the Jewish Jesus was born under the law, but somehow Paul missed it? Paul would have never said in his days before Christ that he was alive apart from the law.

But what about Adam? Suppose we see that when he got the commandment about the fruit in the garden, that that which was meant to bring him life, did become an instrument of death as he broke it? Not only that, some of the Jewish rabbis at the time thought that the sin that was committed in the garden was coveting. Adam and Eve wanted the fruit so they could have what God has.

If we go that route, things make sense. My main concern also is too often we are identifying with Romans 7. This is even after we have come to Christ. Once you come to Christ, your true identity is in Romans 8 and all the wonderful promises in that.

What do we have to do to reach this? Just stop starting with our own experience. Paul is not talking about himself in this passage even if this could have been a struggle for him at times. If you accept Philippians 3, you need to find a way to reinterpret Romans 7 for this way. If you go the route I have presented, you have no difficulty at all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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