Romans chapter 7 is a treasured section of a treasured letter. The depiction of Paul in turmoil, struggling to honor God’s Law stands as a comforting testament to the plight that every believer faces. Or does it? What if this is not the correct interpretation? In teaching through Romans, I get the twisted joy of ruining this passage for my students! Not really; in fact, that’s exactly what I try to avoid doing to them. However, it’s unavoidable that they would be unsettled a little when a beloved text is challenged. What is really going on here? In the next few posts, we will use B&H’s Perspectives of Our Struggle with Sin as our guide to interpretations of this knotty chapter. In this post, I will introduce the options and the scholars that argue for them.
When it comes to Romans 7:7-25, the editor Terry Wilder points out two fundamental questions that one must ask:
- Who is the “I” in this passage? While this may seem obvious, on deeper reflection it is not so clear. Is Paul referring to himself autobiographically? Or is he speaking rhetorically to describe Israel and/or Adam’s experiences? Or something else?
- If Paul describing the experience of a believer or an unbeliever, or both? For example, if Paul is speaking of himself, is he describing his pre-Christ life? Or his “current” life? Or both?
A multiplicity of views and sub-views have surfaced from the potential answers to these two questions. Indeed, Wilder considers Romans 7 “probably the most difficult [text] in Romans to interpret” (p1)! That said, he does a fine job of summarizing the opinions, which I have adapted below:
- The Regenerate experience sees language in Rom 7:15, 21, 22 describing a believer’s battle against sin. This view has a few variations:
- The mature Christian. The regular Christian experience until glorification.
- The immature Christian. The immature Romans 7 experience may be overcome, upon which one moves to the mature Romans 8 experience.
- The nomistic (legalistic) Christian. The believer always has two options open to them and may switch between the two at any moment: the Romans 7 experience of living by one’s own power, or the Romans 8 experience of living by the power of the Spirit.
- The Unregenerate experience sees language in Romans 7:14, 18, 19-20 as impossible to square with what Scripture says of believers. Again, there are a few variations:
- Paul’s autobiography. Paul’s own past, seen retrospectively through the eyes of Paul the believer.
- Mankind under the law. The “I” represents unbelieving humanity under the law.
- A representative Jew. Paul speaks of his own experience to reveal the Law’s inability to change humans.
- The Universal experience sees Romans 7 describing every human, whether believer or unbeliever, under the law. There are at least two nuances:
- Every human. The text is not concerned with past, present, believer, unbeliever, etc. The focus is merely on one not “in Christ”, whether unbeliever or backslider.
- The human confronted with the law. Simply what happens to a person when placed under the law, believer or unbeliever.
A little overwhelming, isn’t it? Thankfully, there are three broad views and we will only look at a few.
Grant R. Osborne defends view 1.III; the Christian trying to obey God by their flesh.
Stephen J. Chester defends view 2.III; Paul is reflecting on his own past as a representative Jew.
Mark A. Seifrid defends view 3.II; one placed under the Law.
As to me, I used to read this passage as the Christian experience. However, after teaching through Romans a few times I am unconvinced. That said, every view seems to me to have a chink in the armor, so it will be interesting to see how these pan out.
Many thanks to B&H for providing a copy of this book in exchange for review. Their generosity has not affected my opinions.