Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has always stood at the head among the epistles in the New Testament canon, and rightly so. Since Acts ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome, it is fitting and logical to have the Epistle sections of the New Testament begin with the apostle’s letter to the Roman church, written before he visited the Christians. However, without question his teachings in Romans7:7-25 has been the subject of numerous discussions and writings among theologians. It has been described as perhaps the most fought over part of Paul’s epistle. Who is the “I” to whom Paul is referring too in this passage? Is Paul, speaking of the “I” describing his former life as an unsaved person? Is he referring to his experience as a Christian and his ongoing struggle with sin after being saved; or is he writing about the hopelessness of an impenitent and unregenerate person? The use of the first person singular in this passage has been problematic for theologians throughout history. Whole movements have arisen to promote one of those views or the other. In order for one to explore the biblical context of Paul’s message in these passages of Scripture and the implication for modern believers, these questions or critical issues deserve attention because they impact the historical, contextual, philosophical and theological nature of the text. Though there are many scholarly interpretations of who is the “I” that Paul described in Romans 7, upon a careful reading of the text this paper argued that by his use of the first singular pronoun in Romans 7:7-25, Paul was referring to himself.
A Quick Overview of Romans 7
The importance of “I” in Romans 7 for Pauline theology cannot be over exaggerated. It has created passionate controversy throughout church history. Many biblical interpreters from all walks of life have disagreed as to whether the “I” described is a Christian or a non-Christian, of the regenerate or unregenerate man. These debates, of course, inevitably causes another possible question on whether Paul’s first person singular refers to himself or whether that is imply a literary device he uses to identify more personally with his readers. The identity of the “I” presents one of the greatest problems in the New Testament. Ernst Käseman concisely summarizes this issue by saying, “The identification of the ‘I’ in Romans 7 and a correct appraisal of the spiritual status of the ‘I’ in verses 14-25 are not inconsequential questions over which one might simply express resignation.” John A.T. Robinson concurred when he stated, “More in, I suppose, has been spilled over this passage of Romans than any other.” In light of the disagreement among scholars of Scripture, it is obviously important for Bible reader to determine which sort of person Paul is referring to in this passage before any interpretation of the passage is attempted for clearly as Douglas J. Moo highlighted “The identification of the person whose struggle Paul depicts in this text does have an impact on several theological and practical issues.” There are five different theories for which the “I” of Romans 7 have been interpreted and understood, but this paper argues that only one explicitly stands for the truth of the text. The five theories that have been identifying with the “I” of Romans 7, not in any particular order, are as follows: the Adamic view, The Israel view, an unbeliever or unregenerate view, a believer or regenerate view, and the autobiography view of the life of Paul. Before arguing for the view that characterizes the best fit of the truth of the identity of the “I” in Paul’s text in Romans 7, an examination of the strength and weaknesses of the other view is necessary.
The “I” as a Representative to Adam
One of the view that has been interpreted by the “I” in Romans 7:7-11 is the Adamic view. The “I” is understood by some to be Adam, the father of the human race. It has been argued by Ernst Käsemann that the “I” in Romans 7, solely represent Adam for he was the one who was truly alive in the Garden of Eden before he rebelled against the commandment of God and Romans 7:9 proved it by saying, “I was once alive apart from the law.” He further stressed that the “Work of the Law as a spur to sin can be demonstrate only by Adam, and that there is nothing in the passage which does not fit Adam, and everything fits Adam alone.” J. Christiaan Beker opposes Käsemann view point by saying that these verses in Romans 7 display “Paul’s midrashic use of Genesis 3.” Upon a close examination of these two passages, Genesis 3:13 and Romans 7:11, one can clearly see some similarity between the two passages. For example, the deception of Genesis 3:13 and Romans 7:11 are similar and the Commandment of Genesis 2:17 is similar to Romans 7:7-8. In fact John Espy in his writing concludes that when this section of Romans 7 is compared with the narrative of Genesis 2-3, “It fits like a glove.” Do to such similarity of those two passages and Paul emphasized of Adam in Romans 5:12, Günther Bornkamm determines that, “The Adam of Rom. 5:12 speaks in the ‘I’ of Rom. 7:7.”
There are some true to the comparison for Paul stressed in Romans 5:12-19 that humanity came into contact with sin as a direct result of Adam sin. With the exception of Jesus Christ, everyone that is born on this earth is a sinner because of Adam’s transgression against God’s Command in the Garden of Eden. However, there are some issues with this view and in compared the passages of Genesis 2-3 to that of Romans 7 is unconvincing. First, Paul in Romans 7 quotes from the Tenth Commandment by saying, “For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘you shall not covet.'” The Law was not existed in Genesis and therefore it is difficult to imply that Romans 7 can be read like a “glove” to the passages of Genesis. Romans 7:7 indicate that the Law stirs up sin and that without the Law sin was dead. Since the Commandment was not existed in the account of Genesis 2-3, it is unconvincing that one can compare the two passages and concludes that Paul is referring to Adam within the passage of Romans 7. Thomas Schreiner had rightly noted that “This particular Adamic argument is unconvincing, for the central part of Pauline theology is that the Mosaic Law came into existence at a certain point in redemptive history (Rom. 5:13-14). This is the basis on which he refutes the theology of the Judaizers in Gal. 3:15-4:7. If he granted that Adam himself possessed the Torah, then his argument in Gal. 3-4 is shipwrecked . . . the view that Paul refers to Adam is attractive, but is should be rejected since Adam did not encounter the Mosaic Law. Since Paul referred to the Commandment, the Decalogue, which was given to Moses after the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, the argument then that Romans 7 is a reference to Adam is unsustainable.
The “I” as a Representative to Israel
One of the most proponents that Romans 7 is a representative of Israel was Douglas Moo. In his writing he emphasized that the “I” in Romans 7:7-11 represents the “Redemptive-historical experience of Israel with the law.” He argued that the first person singular in verse 7-11 represents Israel as a collective body and that Paul is a member of Israel; therefore, Paul can identify himself, in a corporate sense, with the experiences of his own people. Moo further stressed that Romans 7:8-10 illustrate that “Nation of Israel, relatively speaking, spiritually alive before the giving of the law at Sinai. But when that law was given, it gave sin its opportunity to create transgression and so to deepen and radicalize one spiritual lostness.” There are also some significant issues with this view. First, Paul’s text in Romans 7, there was nothing in the text that gives one the slightest hint that the first person singular could be applied to something else other than the fact that it must than it must be understood in its literal sense. In addition, it is nowhere found in the text that Paul was implying the “I” in a corporate sense. Similarly, if the interpretation those who are proponents of the Israel view are correct and that sin was dead when the law was given in Mount Sinai; then that view would in essence dispute what Paul had said about Adam and Moses in Romans 5:12-14. Though Moo and others who propose this view had good intention, the view that Romans 7 is a representative of Israel is unpersuasive.
The “I” as an Unbeliever
Those who take this to be the experience of a unbeliever point out that he describes the person as being “of flesh, sold into bondage” (verse 14), as having nothing good dwelling in him (verse 18), and as a “wretched man” trapped in a “body of death” (verse 24). In fact, it is argued by many, in contrast, that Paul in Romans 6 contended that believers are not “carnal, sold under sin” as verse 14 indicated of a person who is a believer but rather believer are described as having died to sin (verse 2), as having his old self crucified and no longer being enslaved to sin (verse 6), “being free from under sin” (verses 17, 18, 22), as considering himself “dead to sin” (verse 11). In chapter 7:6 Paul described a believer as one who is no longer in bondage to the law but to a newness of life of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Paul in Romans 8:2 reasoned that believers are “free from the law of sin and death” which is a statement that is true in the life of every believer. The fact that a person is consumed in this life of carnality and sold under sin affirms this could hardly be said of a believer. Hae-Kyung Chang in his article “The Christian Life in a Dialectical Tension? Romans 7:7-25 Reconsidered,” stated, “The Situation of the ‘I’ depicted in Rom. 7:14-25 cannot be that or a ‘normal’ Christians, nor of an immature Christian. Nor can it describe the condition of any Christian living by the law because the Christian who is mistakenly living according to the law is yet a Christian and is therefore not ‘under sin’ or a ‘prisoner’ of the law of sin.”
Paul Achtemeier in his book, Romans: Interpretation A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, concurred Chang by stating, “If one assume Paul meant what he said in chapter 6, and what he went on to say in chapter 8, and if one assume he did not forget those points, or disregard them when he wrote chapter 7, then it is quite apparent that the description of Christian life in chapter 6 and 8 means that chapter 7 simply cannot be a description of that same life.” It is important to note here that that Paul clearly emphasized throughout Romans 6 and Galatians 5 that believers will continue to struggle with sin for as long as their lives in this body (i.e., Rom. 6:12-13; 13:12-14; Gal. 5:17); however, what Romans 7:14-25 is described is a person that is not in a fight with sin or the law but someone that is totally overtaken by sin. John Goodrich described it this way, “It is difficult to overstate the rhetorical and theological importance of the phrase ‘sold under sin’ in Rom. 7:14. Building on the already pejorative carnality, the phrase serves to intensify the desperation of the speaker by showing his plight to be not only internal, but positional. For sin, as a power, is here shown to render powerless while remains under sins dominion. The fact that this “I” is struggle to do that which is good, carnal, and a slave sold over to sin is the chief reason Paul is not talking about the “I” as a believer in this passage. From this perspective, a reasonable argument could be made in respect to language that this description is not found in any place in the Bible regarding a believer.
The “I” as a Believer
Those who contend that the “I” in Romans 7 is referring to a believer point out that the verbs which described this person’s desires toward righteousness, the willingness to obey God’s law and hates doing that which is evil (verses 15, 19, 21). Furthermore, Paul describe this person as one who is humble before God and “To desire good is present with me” (verse 18); “the good that I desire” (verse 19); and “I delight in the law of God” (verse 22). It is evident based on this verses that only believer hate evil and that the unregenerate not only hates God’s truth and righteousness that he cannot in good conscience acclaimed that he is a “Wretched man” (verse 24) for sin has blinded his mind where he cannot fully observed his sinful nature. His conscience may be able to distinguish and understand right and wrong, but his ethics cannot impel him to do right and reject wrong because his will is contrary to the “Commandment which is holy, just, and good” (Rom. 12:7, emphasis added). William Newell in his book, Romans, argues that, “This man of Romans seven is crying for deliverance, not from sin’s guilt and penalty, but from its power. Not for forgiveness of sins, but help against indwelling sin. This man is exercised, not about the Day of Judgment, but about a condition of bondage to that which he hates, no one but a quickened soul ever knows about a ‘body of death!” Another important points that must be made also regarding the “I” been a believer is that this person according to Romans 7 is humble before God, realizing nothing good dwells in him (verse 18), he observes sin as in him, but not all there is in him (verses 17, 20-22), and more importantly this “I” thank God through Jesus Christ his Lord, and serve Him with the mind (verse 25). Paul had already established that none of those things mentioned above characterize the attitude of an unbeliever and thus these verses 7-25, undoubtedly describing a believer. This paper argue that based upon the contextual reading of the text combined with what Paul had to say in Romans 6 and 8, the “I” in in this passage is a believer and not an unbeliever. Furthermore, since an unbeliever scarcely speak of himself of being “delight in the law of God” (Rom. 7:22), it stands to reason this person is a believer. Some, of course, have disagreed or object with the concept that that “I” in Romans 7 depicted a believer. Their objections is based on the absence of the Holy Spirit in that passage which is a striking contrast to chapter 8, where the spirit is mentioned over dozen times in the first seventeen verses. However, William Sanford Lasor responds to this objection by saying, “Hints of The Holy Spirit are not entirely wanting . . . at the same time, however, comparison with Rom. 8:1 or with Gal. 5:16-18 would suggest that here the Spirit, even though not absent, is not fully active.”
In this much arguable issue of the “I” in Romans 7, it is also important to determine whether Paul’s first person singular is refers to himself, as an unregenerate or as regenerate person. J.I. Packer in his article “The ‘Wretched Man’ in Romans 7,” indicates that “The most natural way to understand the first person singular is in an individual, personal, and autobiographical sense. The ‘I’ is Paul himself.” This is also recognized by C. E.B. Cranfield who described this view as “Strictly autobiographical.” The use of the first person singular which appears forty-six times in Rom. 7:7-25 clearly demonstrates that Paul is speaking of himself. Not only Paul is the subject of this passage, but based on the evidence of the text a reasonable explanation can attest that he is also the mature and spiritual person that is portrayed in the text. John MacArthur had this so say about Paul being the actual believer that is described in this passage, “Only a Christian at the height of spiritual maturity would either experience or be concerned about such deep struggles of heart, mind, and conscience. The more clearly and completely he saw God’s holiness and goodness, the more Paul recognized and grieved over his own sinfulness.” This is a self-portrait of a man who is conscious of the presence and the power of indwelling sin in his life. What he desires to do is to obey the law of God; he accentuate throughout the chapter that he delight in the Law of God, and he acknowledge that the “law is holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). However, for all of Paul’s desire to obey and do the law of God, he is constrained by the power of sin within him to disobey it. The struggle against the law of sin which is in his members has been a real experience to the point where he expresses it by saying, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:19, 20). Clearly what Paul is saying here demonstrate the life of a person who is not under the law for had this person been under the law he would not have expresses such a deep concern for the sin that dwells in him. In addition, it is important to emphasize also that within this passage of Paul there is a tension which exists, in the believer’s life, between the will and action. It appears that from the reading of the text Paul understands that in Christ a believer is free from sin; however, as long as he lives in the flesh, sin will continue to be a struggle. The will to do that which is right is always present in the life of a believer but the fact that a believer also live on this earthly flesh, the propensity to sin remains.
The “I” Represent Paul Prior Conversion
Many biblical scholars have emphasized that “I” in Romans 7:14-25 as autobiographical of Paul’s experience before his conversion.James Stewart in his book stressed that Romans 7 portrait, “The experience of a life still requiring to be born again. Some have described verses 14-25 as Paul’s pre-conversion experience as seen by him now, and only, in light of his Christian faith. Johan Christiaan Beker stated that “In Romans 7, Paul views in retrospect the objective condition of his former Jewish life.” Those who are in favor of this interpretation do so from recognition of the difficulties of passages such as Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3: 5-6 pose for applying Romans 7:14-25 to Paul’s experience prior to his conversion. Gerd Theissen argues that Romans 7:7-24 is a “Retrospective on an unredeemed state” but he then contends from a psychological perspective that what is portrayed in these verses (i.e. Rom. 7:7-24) is a “Progressive process of developing consciousness of a formerly unconscious conflict with the law. What had been unconscious in verses 7-11, is replaced step by step with conscious insight in verses 14-24.”
There are several common objections to the interpretation of Romans 7:7-25 as Paul’s prior conversions. However, the two passages mentioned above will serve as the two reasons why this interpretation had some flaws. Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:5-6 are not at all consistent with the kind of struggles Paul experience prior to his conversions. This paper argue that Galatians 1:13-14 highlighted that Paul conducts before his conversion had great distinguished him in Judaism in two ways: first, he painstakingly kept the law and traditions, certain more so than the Jewish Christians in Galatia (Gal. 6:13) and secondly, because Paul persecuted the church of God in order to destroy it (Phil. 3:6), doing so under the authority of Jewish religious leaders (Acts 8:3; 9:1, 2). Philippians 3:5-6 stressed that Paul’s parents obeyed God’s law and had Paul circumcised on the appropriate day after his birth; that he was a model Jew and was educated completely as a Jew, a Pharisee who rigorously and meticulously lived to know, interpret, guard, obey, followed and defended the letter of the Jewish law.
Furthermore, Paul insisted that before his conversion he outwardly conformed to the righteousness which is in the Law. This paper is in agreement with those who believes that Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:5-6 clearly contradict or opposes to the teaching that Romans 7:7-25 implies Paul’s pre-conversion. In regard to Theissen’s psychological interpretation of Romans 7, C.K. Barrett refutes this analysis by saying, “Any psychological interpretation must reckon with the objection that in Romans 7 Paul is engaged in a theological discussion regarding the Law which is not the least interested in psychology . . . one cannot revert to speculations about Paul’s psyche which lie behind the text. This is illegitimate and have no warrant in the text.” Another objection that challenges the interpretation of those who believe that the “I” described Paul’s pre-conversion experience is the fact that Paul switches to verb forms in the present tense in verse 14 and consistently uses that forms through the rest of the chapter. This change of tense is extremely significant for it has rightly been maintained many scholars including J.I. Packer that “The only way for Paul’s readers to interpret the present tenses of verse 14 is as having a present reference, since there is no recognized linguistic idiom which will account for the change of tense.” As a result of these inconsistencies, the evidence for Paul’s pre-conversion belief is lacking.
The “I” Represent Paul’s Ongoing Experience
As a result of Paul switching from the past tenses in verse 7-13 in Romans 7 to the present tenses from 14-25, the most consistent interpretation of the text is that the “I” representing Paul after his conversion. Those who are in favor of such view argue for this perspective in two ways. First, since there are no compelling reasons which force one to abandon this interpretation, the emphatic “I” as Middendorf explain must refer to “Paul himself as he is now. . . if this is not understood not understood as Paul’s actual, present experience, the cry of verse 24 ‘Wretched man that I am! Is theatrical and inappropriate.” In addition, this paper argued that the fact that the first person singular, which appears forty-six times in Romans 7:7-25, the argument that the “I” in this passage desires to obey God’s law and hates doing what is evil, a statement that those who are unbeliever would scarcely made, that this person is humble before God, realizing that nothing good dwells in his humanness (verse 18), and give thanks to Jesus Christ as his Lord and serves him with his mind (verses 25) proved to be clear that this passage is referring to none other than Paul after his conversion.
Furthermore, the fact that this person yearn to be freed and deliver from the power of sin, a statement that those who are spiritually dead would not at all make, are all indications that the “I” is Paul who is struggling and battling with sin in their lives. Martin Luther put it this way regarding Romans 7:14-25, “The whole passage shows very clearly a strong hatred against the flesh and a sincere love for the Law of and all that is good. No carnal man ever does this. He rather hates the Law and follows his flesh and evil lusts. The spiritual man fights against his flesh and deplores that he cannot do what he desired to do.” Similarly in support of this interpretation, John Espy pointed out that certain expressions in these verses could only be used by Paul to refer to himself as a Christian. He further articulated that in chapter 6 verses 17, 18, and 20 Paul describes all people before conversion as “slaves to sin” and declares further in Romans 8:7 that, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” However, Paul writes that “I” will the good (verses 15, 16, 19, 20), delight in the Law of God (22), and serve it with my mind (25). In support of the passage being Paul, Espy concludes that such things are “not possible for the man not under grace.” Thus, Paul cannot be referring to his own pre-conversion experience or to any other non-Christian; the “I” must be describing himself as a regenerate man, whose experience is normal. Finally, in comparison to Romans 7:14-25, Paul made a similar argument in Galatians 5:17 about the Christian struggle by saying, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you will.” Thus this paper argue that in light of those two passages such intense struggle against sin can only occur in the lives of an individual who has been redeemed and in whom the Holy Spirit continue to work in order to transform that individual. Paul, once again by continuing to use the first person singular is that individual who was struggling with this issue.
Of course there are those who argued that the problem with such interpretation is that there is nowhere in Scripture that indicates Paul had experience such a struggle in his life. In fact, they argue, Jewish children were instructed in the law form their early years and thus it is impossible that Paul could say that he lived previously without the law. In fact, those who objects to the “I” as Paul struggle after his conversion pointed out that Paul speak of his adult before his conversion as one who study the law, who lived according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6 and 26:5). In addition, Paul refers to himself as one who was, “Advancing in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, being extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). The question is then when did Paul ever shown any signs of struggle in the past or even in his present life, the opposition argued? One of the solutions to this argument is that while Paul was “advancing in Judaism beyond contemporaries among his people (Gal. 1:14), he was not attaining a righteous standing before God. Rather he was trying to “please men” (Gal. 1:10). The fact that he persecuted the Church of Jesus Christ, though, he did it ignorantly in unbelief prove that his zeal for following the law was misguided and in essence Paul realized that in reality he was a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent person” (1 Tim. 1:13). Though for some Paul might not demonstrate any of struggle with sin outwardly, Schreiner indicates that “Paul in this text refers to the law’s impinging on his consciousness. One can receive moral instruction when young, and yet the meaning and import of such moral norms may not strike home. In this text Paul reflects on the time when the prohibition against sins impinged on his consciousness, and it is unlikely that this occurred in his childhood days.” That is, Paul discovered that even when the law was fully operational in his life, it did no good so far as doing God’s will was concerned. To some the Scripture might not have illustrated outwardly the struggle Paul was going through, but inwardly Paul acknowledges some struggle did exist for the law cannot fulfilled the will of God. Furthermore, as Lenski observes there is no need to attempt a precise determination of a single occasion when this interaction between the law and sin occurred or to restrict the events depicted in Romans 7:7-25 in that manner, for such time fixing is unwarranted. The fact that the first person singular is used indicated an “authentic transcript of Paul’s own experience during the period which culminated in his vision on the road to Damascus.
This paper argues that the “I” in Romans 7:7-25 represent Paul’s life after his conversion. In this passage of Scripture Paul identifies with the struggle of common men. Clearly on the one hand, only a regenerate person truly “eager to do what is right” (Rom. 7:18) “delights in God’s law” (verse 22), seek to obey it (verses 15-20) and willingly “serve it” (verse 25). The unregenerate on the other hand, “do not seek after God” (Rom. 3:11) and cannot “submit to the law of God” (Rom. 8:7). The fact that the first person singular had continue to occur in the passage indicates that the identity of the “I” is none other than the apostle Paul. One a surface it appears that an argument could make for the “I” to represent the Adamic view, the Israel view, or even the existential view. However, in light of the first person singular, the historicity of the life of Paul as a child, and the literary reading of the text, this paper argued and support the evidence that the “I” is an autobiographical description of the life of Paul post-conversion. Without question to provide an exegesis of this passage of Scripture is difficult as the evidence shows among many scholars. However, for this passage the evidence seems to support that of the life of Paul who is a regenerate person struggle with the concept of the law and seriousness of sin.
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