Romans 7:13-25

Jun 20, 2009


This section relates to Paul’s last argument where he outlined the function of the Law as an agent of the knowledge of sin.  For an unsaved Jew, who is thus under the Law, knowledge of what it means to sin inevitably results in condemnation and death under the same Law.  As Paul says in 2Cor 3, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  He calls the regime of Law, “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” and a “ministry of condemnation.”  This section guards against anyone inferring that the Law is therefore the cause of spiritual death.  Generally, in this section Paul says that the culprit is not the Law.  Instead, indwelling sin is the root cause of the problem. 

As I mentioned in the last blog entry, I endorse an autobiographical interpretation of Romans 7.  I have no problems seeing this section as Paul depicting his own situation before Christ, as a man without the Spirit of God (but looking back at that time from the standpoint of Christian hindsight).  He was a strident Jew, who was under the Law, and a Pharisee, who believed in the resurrection.  Of course this depiction would be something a good portion of his Jewish Christian audience would be able to identify with since he was speaking to those who knew the Law (Romans 7:1).  This interpretation is held by R.H. Gundry, for example.  Similarly, others, like H. Ridderbos and D. Moo, hold that the situation depicted here is not that of a Christian (but not  specifically an autobiographical interpretation).  All three would fall into what we will call the “unregenerate” interpretation.  It is rather dismaying that the opposing “regenerate” viewpoint (the view that the person depicted in Romans 7 is struggling with some sort of Christian experience) still seems to be held by a majority of evangelical Christians.  Especially dismaying are those who believe this scenario portrays the constant normative struggle of the Christian.  I find it distressing that many Christians seem to identify with the particular struggle as depicted in Romans 7.  That Christians struggle and war against the flesh is not up for argument.  That Christians can be held completely captive in such a losing battle to sin (as is the case in Romans 7) is unacceptable. In Pauline theology, it would be a precarious and, more probably, an impossible situation.  This person in Romans 7 seems to be a slave to sin and without the Spirit.  It would be more Pauline to conclude (sadly) that such a one “does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9).  This captivity to sin and lack of submission to the righteous requirements of the Law is not in keeping with the rest of Paul’s teaching in Romans, either before or after chapter 7.  Even the seemingly reasonable “regenerate” interpretation which sees Law keeping Jewish Christians as Paul’s target audience falls short.  Even in that case, the presence of the Spirit indwelling Jewish Christians still precludes the idea of the individual being a total slave to sin.  The Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus is a real law.  It is a governing regime of faith that has saving power (now).  It cannot be undone in this life or in the next, by the Law of sin.  Objections to the “unregenerate” viewpoint may abound, but all of them can be answered more than satisfactorily.  The student should go elsewhere to find and consider all the options.  I just want to make the reader aware of my “take” on this passage.  Neither view should be considered heretical (albeit, I have seen the accepted “Regenerate” viewpoint of Romans 7 seemingly used as a excuse for what amounts to a sinful life style). The “unregenerate” view is certainly not heresy (far from it) and it is a shame that it is barely tolerated by the few who are even aware of its existence. 

The outline above should be sufficient to reward further study of the structure. I have tried to differentiate the words in the English translation where Paul also varied his vocabulary.  This is especially noticeable with his references to “accomplish,” “practice,” and “do” in vs 15-20 (the inner B.B’ terms, immediately following his thesis in vs 15 that sets the stage for his explanation).

From his perspective as an unsaved Pharisee (yet with Christian hindsight), Paul’s concluding summary relates his servitude to two competing “laws.”  The first is the Law of God (referring to the Law of Moses).  According to Romans 7:1, the law “Lords it over” a person as long as he lives.  This dominion, like that of a Lord and master, is confirmed by considering it’s parallel in 7:6 where we now are said to “serve as slaves” in a new way of the Spirit.  So the term “law” can be viewed, similarly, as a governance or dominion.  As I mentioned in the blog entry for Romans 3:27 this is Paul’s alternative  meaning of the word “law” and it is used when contrasted with the Mosaic Law.  In this case, the alternative to God’s Law is the dominion of sin.   That is the dominion that holds sway over the person in chapter 7.  Note that the structure of the concluding summary A’ helps to determine the end of this pericope.  Paul began the conclusion with reference to two laws - one explicitly, the other implied by reference to him wanting to do the good.  (This “good” was itself a reference to the Law and parallel to the “commandment” reference in the corresponding beginning term of this pericope vs. 13).  So the dual law reference in vs. 21 is repeated in vs. 25 to conclude this section.  The intervening exclamation of vs. 25a is the counter balanced answer to his “wretched man” question of vs 24.  Some people think that only Christians could have a desire for deliverance from the physical body.  However, it would be perfectly expected for an unsaved Pharisee to look forward to the resurrection deliverance from sin and death.  From hindsight, Paul parenthetically inserts the answer to this old question, but he does so within the balanced structure of the 2’ term.