The famous passage in Romans 7:7-25 has been discussed countless times by commentators and theologians over the years, and it is not remotely possible even to begin surveying this scholarship—nor all the relevant aspects of interpretation—within one relatively short article. My purpose here is threefold:
- To offer my view on the essential context of the passage—namely, the force and significance of Paul’s use of the first person (“I”)
- To present an exegetical outline, in the hopes of illustrating, clearly and simply, how Paul understands the relationship between the Law and Sin in the context of the passage.
- To give a summary distillation on “Paul’s View of the Law”, in terms of this particular passage.
The “I” of Romans 7:7-25
Paul casts this section in the first person, using “I, my”, etc throughout. This has given rise to considerable debate among interpreters over the centuries, and especially in more recent times. Is the use of the first person autobiographical (describing Paul’s own experience), or is a rhetorical and literary device? Most critical commentators today assume the latter, and, in this, they are almost certainly correct; even so, the question would still remain—who precisely is Paul representing in this section? There are several possibilities:
- Human beings generally, prior to the coming of Christ
- Israelites/Jews specifically, prior to the coming of Christ (or prior to faith in Christ)
- Human beings (believers) prior to coming to faith in Christ
- Believers generally in their struggle with the flesh and sin
A comparison with Romans 5:12-21 suggests that Paul in 7:7-12 is drawing upon the condition of human beings up until the time the Law (Torah) was introduced. Both passages provide colorful interpretations of the situation described in the Genesis 3 narrative, with Sin as the main actor; note, for example, the way sin “deceives”—e)capata/w in v. 11, compared with a)pata/w in Gen 3:13 [LXX]. Paul personalizes the narrative, giving a dimension of psychological realism and drama to it. The introduction of the Law (Torah) in vv. 9ff might suggest that Israelites and Jews specifically are in focus; however, by verse 22 it becomes clear that a somewhat wider view of the Law is meant—one which embraces all human beings (Jews and Gentiles alike). I take Rom 7:7-25 as parallel with 5:12-21—in the earlier passage, Paul is describing the presence and work of Sin in the world (e)n ko/smw|, v. 13); while in 7:7ff, it is the presence and work of Sin in the flesh (e)n th=| sarki/, v. 18). This focus within the human being makes Paul’s personalizing approach (“in me” e)n e)moi/, “in my flesh” e)n th=| sarki/ mou) both appropriate and effective.
Rom 7:7-12 is cast in the past tense, 7:13-25 primarily in the present. This would seem to indicate that in vv. 13ff Paul is describing the current situation of human beings (“under the Law” and “under Sin”): (a) prior to the coming of Christ, and/or (b) prior to faith in Christ. However, there are several details in the text—especially in vv. 13-25—which could be taken as applying specifically to believers in Christ, i.e., of the struggle believers face with regard to the flesh and sin even after coming to faith. Here are the most notable:
- Verse 9—e)gw\ de\ e&zwn xwri\$ no/mou pote/ (“I was living apart from the Law then”). Elsewhere, Paul uses the expression “separate/apart from the Law” (xwri\$ no/mou) referring to faith and the work of God in Christ (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6, etc), so one might think that the Christian condition is meant here as well. However, almost certainly, Paul is simply indicating the human situation prior to the introduction of the Law, with no/mo$ used in the strict sense of the Old Testament/Jewish Torah. The verb za/w (“live, have life, be alive”) is meant in the ordinary, conventional sense of human life and existence, and not of “life in Christ” or “eternal life”.
- Verse 9—h( a(marti/a a)ne/zhsen (“sin came up to life”). The verb a)naza/w could be understood as “be alive, come to life again“; this might mean, in a Christian context, that sin died once (through Christ) and then came to life again (for believers). Probably, however, the force of the particle a)na here is simply “up”—i.e., that sin sprang up to life through the command of the Law.
- Verse 17—nuni\ de\ ou)ke/ti e)gw\ katerga/zomai au)to\ (“now [it is] no longer I working/accomplishing it…”). Within the context of vv. 13-25, this could certainly be taken in the sense that a person (i.e., a believer) does not truly will to commit sin, and that it is the sin dwelling/remaining in the flesh which can act against a person’s will.
- Verse 22—kata\ to\n e&sw a&nqrwpo/n (“…according to the inner man”). Elsewhere, Paul uses this language in relation to the inward (spiritual) renewal of believers (2 Cor 4:16), and the same expression “the inner man” is used in Eph 3:16. It is sometimes assumed that the expression refers to something only possessed by Christians, but this is far from certain. Paul also refers to a renewing of the mind (nou=$) in Rom 12:2 (cf. also Eph 4:23), an aspect of human nature presumably possessed by believers and nonbelievers alike. His idea of the “inner man” in the context of Rom 7:7-25 probably relates more to the human mind and conscience generally.
- Verse 25—Curiously, after Paul’s declaration of thanksgiving in v. 25a, introducing God’s work through Christ which rescues human beings from the “body of death” (v. 24), he restates the situation of the human condition, from the prior verses, in v. 25b. This could be taken to mean that the conflict so described applies specifically to believers, even after coming to faith in Christ.
Perhaps the strongest association of the conflict in Rom 7:7-25 with believers comes from the parallel in Gal 5:17, where Paul briefly describes a dynamic similar to that in Rom 7:13-25. Clearly, in Gal 5:16-25, Paul is addressing believers who are in the Spirit, and yet he speaks of a conflict with the flesh in terms very much like those in Rom 7. But it is just here that we find the greatest difference between the two passages—in Rom 7:7-25 the person struggles against the flesh, but also against the Law and Sin, whereas in Gal 5 only the flesh is involved. According to Paul’s teaching, believers in Christ are freed from bondage to the Law and sin; but he never claims a similar freedom from the flesh—Christians must continue to struggle against the flesh, dying to its influence every day, through identification with Christ’s own death, and through the guiding work and power of the Spirit.
An exegetical outline of Romans 7:7-25
In this section, Paul especially addresses the relationship between the Law and Sin. He does this first by way of an important rhetorical question in v. 7a: “What then shall we declare? (Is) the Law sin?“—to this, he gives a decisive answer, mh\ ge/noito, “may it not come to be (so) [i.e. by no means, God forbid]!” But, if the Law is not identical with sin, how are we to understand the close relationship between the Law and sin, such as he describes throughout Galatians and here in Romans, to the point of using “under the Law” and “under sin” as nearly synonymous expressions? This is what he attempts to explain and expound in vv. 7ff. I divide the passage into three sections, or scenes, each of which describes a distinctive situation involving human beings (represented by Paul in the first person) in relation to the Law:
- Rom 7:7-12—Scene 1: Introduction of the Law (Torah) over humankind
- V. 7a—Rhetorical Question: “Is the Law sin?” (may it not be!)
- Vv. 7b-8—Answer/Explanation (main proposition): the Law brings about knowledge/awareness of sin (cf. Rom 3:20)
- The command (v. 7b)—example from the Decalogue (Ex 20:17): “Do not set (your) heart upon…”
- Sin “uses” the command (v. 8) to work/produce instances of “setting the heart upon” illicit/prohibited things
- Vv. 8b-9—Expository transition:
- apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) sin is dead (nekra/), v. 8b
- apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) I was living (e&zwn), v. 9
- Vv. 9-11—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
- Sin (already present) comes up to life (in the human being) with the command (v. 9)
- The command leads to death, not life (v. 10)
- Sin acts (deceptively) through the command, to kill (v. 11)
- V. 12—Expository transition (statement regarding the Law):
- The command is holy, just and good…(how then, does it lead to sin and death?)
- Rom 7:13-20—Scene 2: Humankind under the Law (of God)
- V. 13a—Rhetorical Question: “Did the thing that is good come to be death for me?” (may it not be!)
- Vv. 13b—Answer/Explanation (secondary proposition): the Law makes sin to “shine forth”, i.e., become apparent/manifest
- Action: The Law works/produces death through the command
- Purpose: So that Sin would come to be (seen for what it is)—i.e. completely sinful
—Manifestation of the power of Sin: flesh is in bondage to it (v. 14)
- Vv. 14-20—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
Contrast/conflict: The Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly—Spirit vs. Flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25)
- I work (“under sin”):
—lacking true knowledge: “I do not know” (v. 15)
—the will is trapped between: the Law (good, v. 16) and sin in the flesh (evil, b. 17)
—the will is weakened by sinful flesh (v. 18)
—the person does the opposite of the will (v. 19)
- It is the power of sin working in me (v. 20)
- I work (“under sin”):
- Rom 7:21-25—Scene 3 (Illustration): Humanity subject to the Law (of God) and the Law (of Sin)
- V. 21—Statement of two contradictory laws (Rhetorical Illustration/Identification: “I find… in me”)
- V. 22—The Law of God: in the “inner man”
- V. 23—The Law of Sin: in the (outer) members (i.e., bodily parts, the “flesh”)
- V. 24—Rhetorical Question: “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
—and the Answer (implied), v. 25a: “…God through Jesus Christ our Lord”
- V. 25b—Concluding summary statement (of the two contradictory laws):
- me\n (on the one hand): “with the mind I am a slave to the Law of God”
- de\ (on the other hand): “with the flesh (I am a slave) to the Law of Sin”
Paul’s View of the Law in Romans 7:7-25
As the above outline should make clear, Romans 7:7-25 is a dense network of arguments and illustrations, images and symbols, drawing upon nearly everything that Paul has said thus far in Romans about the Law (and Sin). It is the power of his personalized (first person) presentation that makes his exposition so memorable. As the history of exegesis and interpretation amply shows, believers (i.e. those hearing and reading Romans) were likewise able to identify themselves with the “I” in the passage—which was doubtless Paul’s aim and intent in using such a literary device. But what do these verses say specifically regarding Paul’s view of the Law? To begin with, there are two fundamental beliefs or propositions which he expresses throughout the passage:
- The Law (Torah) itself is not sinful, nor to be identified with sin (v. 7)—rather, it is holy, just and good (v. 12), and is spiritual (v. 14), reflecting the will of God (the Law of God, in the wider sense).
- Though he does not state it specifically here until verse 14, by comparison with the rest of Romans (and Galatians), it is clear that, in his view, human beings were in slavery and bondage to Sin (“under sin”) even before the introduction of the Torah.
With these two ideas in mind, it is possible to summarize some key points related to the overall exposition in vv. 7-25:
- The main purpose of the Law is twofold: (1) to bring about knowledge and awareness of sin (v. 7, cf. also 3:20), and (2) to make sin itself appear in its true (sinful) nature (v. 13). These are two sides of the same coin—one emphasizes human perception and experience, the other emphasizes the power and presence of sin itself. How does this happen?
- Revelation of sin comes through the command (e)ntolh/) of God as expressed in the Torah—particularly, as Paul illustrates here (vv. 7-8), through the fundamental ethical-moral commands, which would tend to be shared by most non-Israelite/Jewish peoples as well. Until there is a specific injunction or prohibition which is to be obeyed or followed, sin is “dead”—that is, it possesses no conceptual or experiential reality for human beings. With the introduction of the command, sin literally “comes up to life” (v. 9).
- Sin holds power over human beings (their flesh), but it does not lead to death until the command is violated (cf. Gen 3:3, 11, 22). As in the Genesis narrative, death is to be understood in the normal sense of physical death, and not as some kind of “spiritual death”—it is the body that dies or is dead as a result of sin (Rom 8:10f).
- There are several aspects to Paul’s view of death that come as the result of sin: (1) as a future fate and judgment, (2) as a condition or judgment realized already in the present, and (3) as an active power (along with Sin) at work in the world (and the flesh).
- Sin enslaves human beings externally in the surrounding world (Rom 5:12ff), but also, more notably, internally in the “flesh”. The power of sin dwells and works in the flesh, specifically the body and its parts.
- The human will is conflicted and torn between the power of sin in the flesh and the mind or “conscience” which recognizes the command (the Law of God).
- The “Law of God” is a wider concept than the Torah, as it relates to the “inner man”, the human mind and/or conscience. As such, it applies even to Gentiles who do not have the Torah (cf. Rom 2:12-16, 26-28). In this regard, Paul refers principally to the fundamental ethical/moral aspects of the Law; he never attempts to make a similar connection with the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.
It is fair to assume that the people represented by Paul’s “I” in Rom 7:7-25 primarily represent believers prior to coming to faith in Christ. At any rate, they should be distinguished from the situation in Rom 1:21ff—there, human beings have fallen into idolatry and immorality, and God gives them over to even greater wickedness; here, by contrast, human beings are struggling with their conscience, wishing to live in an upright manner according to the Law of God, but unable to accomplish this because of the power of sin and the weakness of the flesh. One should consider the situation in Rom 7:7-25 as that of the “righteous” (Jew and Gentile alike), in the conventional/traditional religious and ethical sense, who wish to be faithful to the Law and to do good—but even they are enslaved by the power of sin. The Law reveals and makes manifest the reality of this bondage; the only hope of rescue from it comes through the work of God in Christ (v. 25).