Romans 7 is one of those difficult chapters that force you into such a struggle to understand that you easily forget where Paul has been going in his argument up to this point. The marriage illustration of the first six verses seems to put the Law in a bad light. And therefore, verse 7 opens again with a question: Is the Law itself then sin (or sinful)? Paul responds, “Absolutely not!” The rest of the chapter provides the explanation of why it is not.
For many people, the basic struggle of interpretation in Romans 7:7–25 is whether Paul is speaking of himself before he was saved or after. The “before” crowd points out that verses 7 through 13 talk about Paul learning of and trying to follow the Law. And that’s something that happened before Saul became Paul. Further, verse 14 distinctly says that Paul considers himself “sold as a slave to sin,” something Christians would never say, and Paul certainly would never say that after just having said, “But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you . . . [have] been liberated from sin” (6:17–18). But, the “after” crowd argues, take a look at verse 20. After talking about the struggle of his mind wanting to do what is right and good while his flesh still leads him to sin, he concludes, “I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me.” Surely that can be true only of the Christian. The final judgment will have God finding guilty those people who did wrong in the flesh. They could not possibly mount an excuse like Paul does here in verse 20 that they aren’t really guilty—it is just the sin in them. Paul must be speaking from the Christian perspective saying that he still struggles with sin, but he is no longer guilty of it because of his salvation through Christ.
And then, as if to overwhelm with proof passages, the “after” group goes on to point out contextual arrangement. Didn’t Paul move us from the Jewish condition to realization of salvation in Christ at the end of chapter 6? There we were told that we have been liberated from sin and have become enslaved to God with the glory of God’s gift of “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:22–23). If we follow Paul’s discussion path, why would we presume he returns to discuss the non-Christian state in chapter 7 after just reaching salvation in chapter 6? That would not make sense! . . . would it?
Well, it is true that the current swing in thought has more people voting for Paul as saved in this passage than Paul depicting himself prior to salvation. But I’m going to suggest that if you line yourself up on either side in this debate, you have already missed the point of the passage. Whichever side you choose, you will run into the obstacles brought up by the other side. We can never merely count the number of verses on our side versus the other side to prove whose interpretation is correct. You have to explain all verses in line with your proposed meaning. For example, when Paul says in verse 9 that he once was alive apart from the law, what does he mean? Some people suggest that the sin of coveting used to be singularly linked to the sin of sexual lust. So if Paul at one time was free from coveting (or sexual lust), it means that prior to his bar-mitzvah (at his coming of age) he had no lust (alive apart from the Law), but when he grew into sexual maturity he learned about lust and became enslaved to it. The explanation would seem to fit (although it still runs headlong into the problem, then, of verse 20). But the greater question would be, why in the world is Paul talking about that at this point in his overall argument? There seems to be no connection. And that prompts some people to, therefore, believe that about the whole of chapter 7—that it is a rambling aside not really following the flow of the rest of the book.
But the dismissive for chapter 7 is actually only because the usual approach to the chapter is backwards. Many wrongly start with interpreting it in its own little box and then back up to see how their contrived interpretation may fit in the greater whole. Rather, we should see where the greater whole is leading us in the interpretation of chapter 7’s interior.
Paul has been discussing the Law since way back in chapter 2—pounding hard on it since chapter 5. He has insisted that the Law has not been given to the Jews to show their secure relationship with God, but rather the Law appears to be showing them that they are sinners out of (rather than in) relationship with God. With that association between Law and sin, some people may then think the Law is sin. And that’s the very question put forward in verse 7. So Paul’s answer is going to be to show how the Law is not sin. For us to suddenly switch from that focus to a discussion of whether Paul is describing his own feelings before or after he got saved is utterly off the track of the discussion.
If discussing the Law (given to the Jews at Sinai as Israel is formed into a nation of priests for God), the “I” Paul uses in his discussion is probably not about himself at all. It is more likely that Paul is speaking for Israel. Understanding Paul using “I” in that rhetorical context, we keep the flow moving naturally and importantly right on from chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 7 is no rambling rabbit trail that Paul inadvertently ran down. It is an important link in fully understanding God’s redemption plan and the gospel (good news) of Christ.
Also, in verse 1, Paul had used “you” to speak of the Jews’ incorrect understanding of the Law. He therefore uses “I” in verse 7 to contrast the wrong view of the Law with the right view that he is about to explain.
Paul begins in verse 7 by saying he (or Israel) would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet (7:7). We can easily picture the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai receiving the Law as a nation of priests to the world to take forward ideas and concepts to clarify the truth, goodness, and beauty of God as opposed to all else which would be missing the mark in relationship—in other words, sin. But let’s look at bit closer. Yes, we can understand that because Paul chose for his example coveting, the last of the 10 Commandments. But if coveting is just an example Paul is using for the Law, we should be able to interchange coveting with any of the laws. However, when we do, sense doesn’t quite seem to hold as well. Instead of coveting, can you imagine Paul saying in verse 7b, “For example, I would not have known what it is to murder if the law had not said, Do not murder.” Do we think that when Moses descended the mountain and read from the tablets, “Thou shalt not murder,” that the people gasped and said, “Really? Murder is wrong?! I never would have guessed!” No, they probably didn’t gasp. They probably already knew that murder and stealing and lying were all wrong. So, again, what is Paul’s point in saying that he would not have known about the sin without the law’s expression? Surely Moses delivering the Law from God to the people did not suddenly expand knowledge of sin in those basic areas, particularly of the 10 Commandments.
Here is where we need to take a deep breath to go down to another level of understanding. We had discussed in the past few sessions the purpose for Israel and the purpose for the Law. The purpose for Israel, we said, was to reveal God’s vision, mission, and objectives—basically to reveal redemption for the world. In part, how Israel was to accomplish this revealing was through God’s interaction with them, mirroring God’s intended interaction with all the world. Okay, keep with me here. If Israel plays the part of the world, God giving them knowledge of his commands at Sinai when Israel as a nation was born should mirror (or reflect for us) God’s giving the world knowledge of his command back in the Garden. Or, said the other way, God giving his command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil back in the Garden is portrayed by God giving Israel the Law giving the knowledge of good and evil at Sinai. As Israel suddenly became aware of sin through the Law’s commands, Adam and Eve had become aware of sin through the command not to eat. As Adam and Eve ate (sinned), that “sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in [them sin] of every kind” (Romans 7:8). So, here’s the point I’m getting to—Paul, in his use of the pronoun “I” is speaking for both Israel and what Israel is supposed to represent—the world at large. In yet other words, in chapter 7, Paul is directly speaking of Israel in relation to the Law but also of the world in relation to all of God’s revealed law.