Apr 17

The Christian Under the Law (Romans 7:7-25)

Romans chapter 7 has long been a battleground of interpretational opinion. Since as early as Augustine, debate has raged over the interpretation of this passage in at least two areas. First, who does the “I” represent in these verses? Most scholars agree that Paul is speaking autobiographically, at least in some sense of the term. If this is true, what period of Paul’s life is indicated by the experience which he relates here? Furthermore, if Paul’s experience is in any sense typical, whose experience is it intended to exemplify? The second area of debate has to do with the significance and meaning of this passage within the larger flow of the book. What does it intend to tell us about “the Gospel of the Righteousness of God,” which is the theme of the book (1:16-17)? While there are some broad generalizations about the meaning of the text that are more or less acceptable to all, different interpreters still provide very different explanations of exactly what these verses intend to teach us about the gospel, the law, the Christian, and the sin nature. While it would be foolish to expect to put to rest all of these questions to everyone’s satisfaction, I believe that answers are possible and that we can find them by allowing the author himself to speak. Paul, who has projected himself and his own experience so forcefully into this passage, has a critical message about the Law and the Christian which he intends to communicate.

There are four common interpretations concerning who is represented by the “I” in this passage. Two of these interpretations view Paul as speaking of his experience prior to his conversion and two interpretations view Paul as speaking of his experience as a Christian after his conversion. These four views may be summarized as follows: (1) Some see Paul’s experience to be representative of any person (Jew or Gentile) who has come under the knowledge and influence of the law of God but has not yet experienced the new birth. This person has come under conviction of sin through the law and attempts to obey the law, but is incapable of doing so. (2) Others interprets this passage more narrowly as explaining Paul’s experience as a Jew before conversion. This sees it as primarily applying to the Jew apart from Christ who struggles with his desire to obey the Law of Moses and his inability to do so. (3) Another way of viewing this passage intrerprets it as referring to Paul’s present experience as a mature, spiritual Christian man who wrestles daily with the reality of sin in his life. This interpretation sees the text describing the “normal” condition of the mature Christian who deeply feels the conflict between his renewed nature and indwelling sin, and who will always experience this conflict until he departs his earthly life. (4) Finally, what I believe to be the correct view of this passage is to see it as Paul’s experience after conversion, in which he as a Jew, accustomed to ordering his life by the Mosaic Law, came to grips with the role of the Law in Christian living. In this view, Paul’s negative experience provides a paradigm for any believer who attempts to live the Christian life on the basis of law instead of grace. Thus this represents an abnormal and irregular condition of Christian living which believers should avoid; Paul’s example is a negative example in this case. From his present position of spiritual maturity he describes this past experience for our benefit.

In deciding whether Paul’s experience is describing the condition of a believer or of a non-Christian, advocates on both sides of the argument can appeal to an impressive amount of evidence from within the text itself to support their opposite conclusions. Those who interpret this as the experience of an unregenerate person can point to statements that seem to eliminate the possibility of it being a true Christian. For example, in v. 23 Paul describes himself as being overcome and captivated by sin (cp. v. 14). Since earlier, in chapter 6, Paul affirms that the believer is no longer a slave to sin (6:14), this would seem to forbid us from identifying the individual here as a regenerated man. On the other hand, those who interpret this as the experience of a Christian can also produce verses that seem impossible to harmonize with the condition of an unbeliever. For instance, in v. 22 Paul delights in the law of God inwardly. Even the Jews, according to Paul in chapter 3, do not have such an attitude toward the true, inner meaning of the law, nor can any unconverted person (3:10ff, cp. 2:23). This would seem to forbid us from identifying the speaker as an unbeliever. Since Paul appears to make conflicting statements here (a characteristic of his experience in this chapter), we will need to consider other factors to determine the correct interpretation.

I believe that there are three lines of reasoning which will lead us to the proper understanding of this passage. First, we can look at the content and general theme of the passage, which is clearly the Christian’s relation to the Law. Second, we can look to parallel statements about the law and the Christian made by Paul in the book of Galatians to see what light they shed on this passage. Third, we can observe the local context surrounding Romans 7:7-25 and determine what direction it points.

It hardly seems necessary to prove that the major topic of chapter 7 is “the Law”; the word itself occurs 23 times in 25 verses. It also seems clear from the first 6 verses that its narrower purpose is to describe the Christian’s relation to the law. He is “dead to the law” (v. 4) and “delivered from the law” (v. 6). Verses 7-25 do not introduce a change in topic, but answer questions which illuminate the believer’s relation to the law, his relation to sin (first set forth in chapter 6), and the law’s relation to sin. So another key word in this chapter is sin (which occurs 16 times). In these verses “sin” does not refer to acts of sin, but to the sin nature as a controlling power within man. Additionally, the first person personal pronoun “I” or “me” occurs 35 times in this passage. This self can delight in the law and desire to obey it, but finds itself powerless to do so. This emphasis on the self provides a stark contrast to the person of the Holy Spirit who is highly conspicuous by his total absence from these verses and who afterward figures so prominently in chapter 8. These emphases in the text (law, sin, and self) are preliminary indicators that Paul is primarily discussing the Christian here, not the unbeliever. But it should be obvious that this is not the manner of Christian life that Paul wants or expects believers to experience.

The Book of Galatians provides further evidence that Romans 7:7-25 is describing the condition of a Christian under the Law. The Christian churches and Gentile believers in Galatia had been persuaded by false teachers to keep the Law of Moses as essential to their salvation and sanctification. Paul wrote this epistle to declare the believer’s true relation to the law under the gospel of Grace. Chapter 5 contains the summary and application of his whole argument. Note that he is addressing genuine believers (vv. 7-11), though believers who have improperly placed themselves under obligation to the law. He exhorts them to claim their liberty from the law because it is incompatible with their calling by grace (vv. 1-6), incapable of producing the fruit of sanctification (vv. 19-26), and, if persisted in, will destroy them (v. 2-4). The heart of his argument (13-18) is that only life in the Spirit can give the Christian victory over indwelling sin. The conflict and frustration seen in Romans 7 has a clear parallel in v. 17, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Here are the three elements of Romans 7: the flesh (our sinful nature), the frustrated self, and the Holy Spirit who alone is capable of giving victory. It is His absence in Romans 7 that explains the frustrated condition of the self it describes. Thus the condition of the Galatian believers under law answers to the condition of the “I” in Romans 7.

The three first and most important rules of interpretation are context, context, context. Although we here are considering context last in our argument, it is, in fact, the most important determiner of meaning. The context in which Romans 7:7-25 is contained points conclusively to the interpretation that it is describing the condition of a Christian who attempts to serve the law.

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 are closely related in form, theme, and content and inseperably linked together by the flow of Paul’s logical argument. In chapter 6 Paul declares an objective fact: the believer is “dead to sin” due to his union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (v. 3ff). He argues that the believer’s relationship with sin has been radically severed so that the believer is no longer a slave to sin (v. 7). Furthermore, this objective fact demands that the believer respond subjectively with faith (“reckon,” v. 11) and obedience (“let not sin . . . reign,” v. 12). This responsibility implicitly acknowledges the possibility that the believer might, in fact, subjectively allow sin to reign in his life, even though he has been objectively liberated from it.

In chapter 7 Paul declares a second objective fact: Christians are also dead to the law (v. 4) through union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Verse 6 then declares God’s desired response to this fact, “that we should serve in newness of spirit, not in the oldness of the letter.” The “spirit” here is definite: it is the Holy Spirit; the “letter” is the letter of the law. Hence we can observe two radically different manners of life which are possible: one is characterized by dependence upon the Spirit of God; the other is based upon obedience to the law. These two opposing manners of life—life in the Spirit and life under Law—provide the outline of Paul’s following argument in reverse order: (a) Life in newness of the Spirit, 8:1-17; (b) life in oldness of the letter, 7:7-25. Thus 7:7-25 portrays the believer attempting to live the Christian life by obeying the law in dependence on self and shows that it results in enslavement to the power of indwelling sin, unresolved internal conflict, frustration, and despair.

Finally, chapter 8 offers the happy counterpart to this dismal picture by showing that the Holy Spirit is the missing ingredient who provides the believer with the means of gaining a decisive victory over indwelling sin. It is the Spirit who liberates us from the power of sin (v. 2); it is the Spirit who accomplishes for us “what the law could not do” (v. 3); and it is the Spirit who enables us to produce the “righteousness of the law” in our lives (v. 4). This, then, is the “normal” Christian life. Since every believer has the Spirit of God resident in his life (9), he must choose to live in the Spirit rather than by the law.

We may conclude then with some final observations concerning Romans 7:7-25. (1) It is impossible for the law to help the Christian become more holy or righteous. In fact, living by the law will only lead to failure, bondage, and despair. (2) It is not the law of God that is bad, but our sinful nature that is completely and incurably evil and which is incapable of submission to the law of God. (3) Believers must choose between living by Law or living by the Spirit; they are mutually exclusive manners of life. (4) Self, even the regenerated self, is incapable of overcoming the power of sin in its own strength. Only the Holy Spirit can overcome our sin nature and give us victory. (5) Chapter 7 must not be isolated from chapter 8. The frustration and failure described in chapter 7 provides a negative contrast which anticipates (7:24-25) the triumphal condition described in chapter 8 in which the believer properly orients his life to live “after the Spirit” (8:5, 12-13) and in which he is “led by the Spirit” (8:14). This is the Christian life as God intends for us to live it. Our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection sets us free from the controlling powers of sin and the law so that we may consciously submit ourselves to the new power of the indwelling Spirit of God.

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