Does Romans 7 describe the experience of the believer? This is a very popular reading of the passage and also what Grant Osborne argues for in Perspectives of Our Struggle with Sin.
Here is a summary of his view:
Who is the “I”?
The “I” in Romans 7:7-25 is indeed Paul, and it describes his own experiences; though he is also “speaking of himself as the paradigm for all humanity” (p19).
What does Rom 7:9 mean?
How can Paul be describing himself in Rom 7:9, since he was under the law from childhood (Phil 3:5)? For this reason, Osborne doubts it describes a point in Paul’s youth, but rather, he is speaking in broad terms. When it comes to Paul himself, he “was aware of his sin from the time he was aware of the law” (p19-20).
As to being “alive apart from the law” and “died”, Osborne concludes that “Paul is saying that before he was aware of the law he ‘thought he was alive’ while after the law he ‘knew he was dead’. So ‘life’ here does not refer to mortal life but more to relationship with God” (p18).
How is the shift of aorist (7:7-13) to present tense (7:14-25) significant?
The shift is temporal; that is, from one period of time to another. For Osborne, in Romans 7:7-13 “Paul is using himself to describe his preconversion state as a Jew under the law and thereby to illuminate the position of all humanity in their relationship to God” (p20). Romans 7:14-25, however, is Paul’s present and “describes those who try to live as believers by the power of the flesh or self”.
Romans 7:14-25 describes the Christian experience, but not ideal Christian experience. Romans 8 goes on to describe “those who live by the Spirit” (p30), a different experience again.
What role does Rom 7:25 play in the argument?
Rom 7:25 verse describes the Christian despairing under “the overwhelming victory of sin” (p41) in their life. The climatic cry of faith in Christ reveals that “spiritual defeat will continue until Christ is made Lord of our lives” (p44). Dependence upon Christ is the answer to the feeling of defeat.
How should the Christian apply this passage?
For Osborne, Rom 7:14-25 is directly applicable to the Christian, particularly one who relies on their flesh to battle sin. “Paul is encapsulating the raging battle within the believer but picturing it in strong negative terms to depict the weak or ‘carnal’ Christian under the control of sin. The victory can only take place when the person surrenders to the Spirit” (p41).
Responses from Chester and Seifrid
Stephen Chester agrees that Paul can describe believers as unspiritual (1 Cor 3:1) but that “nothing in 1 Corinthians is equivalent to the absence of the Spirit in Rom 7:14-25” (p51), so this passage doesn’t describe believers. Also, “there is nowhere in Paul where the Spirit is as passive in the life of the believer as Osborne’s view of 7:14-25 would seem to require” (p51). Chester concludes that Osborne “fails to see just how closely everything else in 7:7-25 fits [the Jew]” (p54).
Mark Seifrid poses a more fundamental problem: Osborne has the believer struggling to keep God’s law, but “the theological grammar of Romans 7:1-6” require us to conclude that “to be joined to Christ is to be separated from the law” (p55). Therefore, the believer, being freed from the Law, can’t have this struggle by definition.
As Seifrid pointed out, Romans 7:14-25 does not describe general “obedience”; the “I” is trying to obey the Law: the Torah, the Old Covenant legislation, etc. Rom 7:1-6 explain that the Christian is freed from being under the Law, so why would a Christian then battle to keep it?
Osborne admits that Paul was always under the Law, but thinks Rom 7:9 has Paul “thinking” he was alive before being aware of the Law. I’m not sure that this makes the best sense of the verse. It seems that the “I” describes existence before and after receiving the Torah. I’m not convinced that we should take “alive” and “died” as subjective feelings, as Osborne does. Could it not be read as death actually occurring after the giving of the Law?
Lastly, I believe I spot an inconsistency in the argument. For Osborne, Paul is describing his past in 7:7-13, and in 7:14-25 “his present experience” (p25). However, Osborne elsewhere says that 7:14-25 “describes those who try to live as believers by the power of the flesh or self” (p30). Does this mean Paul was a carnal Christian who relied on the flesh? Or, if Paul is speaking representatively of immature Christians, that would undermine Osborne’s argument that the present tense “I/me” in v14-25 describes Paul’s present experience. It can’t go both ways.
Stay tuned for the next post, arguing that Paul was referring to his own past.
Many thanks to B&H for providing a copy of this book in exchange for review. Their generosity has not affected my opinions.