Submitted as Partial Requirement for the Degree of Master
June 30, 1990
At first glance it might appear that a discussion of the meaning of a particular chapter or section of Scripture is primarily a matter of examining the text in question, determining the flow of thought and then expounding upon what is found in the text. Once this is completed, it is then possible to state clearly and concisely what the passage in question "means." This hermeneutical approach finds its foundation in the conviction that "meaning" in a passage or text is a characteristic which inheres in the text and which may be discovered by a straightforward exegesis of the text.
And yet we are aware that the art of hermeneutics is much more than a matter of saying, "This is what is said, and this is what it means." The interpretation of any piece of literature goes beyond merely stating equivalent meanings for the words found in a passage, for the art of literary interpretation is the meeting of at least three subjects: the text itself, the interpreter and the interpreter's audience. The weight of this understanding of literary interpretation expresses itself in the need for the interpreter's audience to realize that a given commentary on a text is a revelation of the meeting of the text and the interpreter. To state it differently, one may say that an interpretive commentary is a commentary not only upon a text but also upon the commentator.
In my own studies of the writings of Paul, nowhere have I seen this tendency more firmly demonstrated than in commentaries upon and interpretations of Romans 7. This chapter, particularly verses 14-25, has played a great role in the history of the interpretation of the person of Paul. The apparent autobiographical nature of this passage has fired the minds of Christian scholars throughout the history of the church and has led to some rather strong claims as to the psychology of the apostle's thought. At the same time, these verses have been read with a great sense of comfort and relief by countless Christians who, in the midst of their struggle against the power of sin within them, see in Paul's words his own experience as a Christian in the world. My interest in this passage is not merely in the history of its interpretation or in its effect upon people who have taken it to heart. For several years after I came to faith in Christ I saw Romans 7:14-25 as my own experience as a Christian foretold almost two thousand years ago. The community in which my faith was nurtured made quite certain that I understood that I was "of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin," that "nothing good dwells within me," that I could not do "what is right" and that I was indeed a "wretched man." Needless to say, such a mindset made my prospects of living a "victorious" Christian life rather dim.
It was only once I became aware of the "wretched" mindset which fueled this view of Paul's meaning in Romans 7 that I began to question what I had been so firmly taught about myself as a Christian. Just as Paul described the law of God and the law within his members as being at war with one another, I was seeing statements in Romans 6 and 8 which appeared to be waging war with statements in chapter 7, making me a captive to the law of confusion which was dwelling within my own members and making my prospects of understanding Paul quite wretched indeed.
I am now convinced that the confusion which I have experienced in my understanding of Paul's meaning in Romans 7 is due in great part to the tendencies of many peoples' interpretations of the chapter to reflect not only the contents of the text but also the contents of the interpreters, so to speak. Underlying the interpretation of Paul's words which says that he must be describing his Christian experience is the deeply held belief of many Christians, especially (in my experience) those who consider themselves to be evangelical, that the Christian life is primarily an ongoing struggle against sin, that sin is the main factor in a Christian's life. Of course, evangelicals would immediately retort that Christ is the primary factor in the Christian life, not sin; however, the literature of a great number of respected evangelical authors reflects an unspoken attitude that, at the very heart, sin is the strongest force within human beings. Buzzwords such as "sin nature," "die to self," "let go and let God," "Spirit control" and others, terms which I soaked up in my early years as a Christian, reflect this mindset which quietly but firmly insists that the most basic impetus of the heart, even the Christian heart, is rebellion against God. Therefore, Romans 7 is seen as a classic case of the Christian "everyman" enmeshed in the never-ending (at least in this life) war against sin, a war in which the best that the beleaguered Christian can hope is "to serve the law of God with the mind, but with the flesh the law of sin." My belief is that such a mindset concerning Paul's meaning in Romans 7 does a grave injustice not only to the apostle but also to those who as Christians wish to live a positive, joyful life of faith. Because the writings of Paul have had and continue to have such an immense impact upon the church's beliefs about the practical living of the Christian life, an understanding of Paul's intention in Romans 7 which harmonizes with the rest of Paul's writings is a matter not only of intellectual interest but also of practical consequence. How we live is inseparable from how we view ourselves as Christians. For this reason, a proper understanding of Romans 7 can only aid us in determining how we should and must view ourselves, in order that our lives may bring glory to the God who gave his Son for us, the God who commissioned Paul to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.
The structure of my thesis consists of two primary parts and a conclusion. The first part will deal with the history of the interpretation of Romans 7 by significant figures throughout the church's history. Once we have seen how the interpretive tradition has influenced the church's view of this passage, I will conduct an examination of Romans 7 within the context of the rest of Romans and Paul's other writings. By this I will seek to demonstrate both what the apostle is saying and what he is not saying concerning Christian "being" and identity. At the completion of this examination, I will conclude with some reflections upon the implications of Paul's meaning in Romans 7 for the church.
PAUL'S MEANING IN ROMANS 7:14-25
|14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin. 15 For that which I am doing I do not know; for I am not practicing this thing which I wish, but I am doing this thing which I hate. 16 But if I am doing this thing which I do not wish, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now no longer am I doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for to will is at hand in me, but to work the good is not. 19 For I am not doing the good which I wish, but I am practicing this evil which I do not wish. 20 But if I am doing this thing which I do not wish, I am no longer doing it but sin which dwells in me. 21 I find then the law, in me who wishes to do good, that evil is at hand with me. 22 For I rejoice with the law of God according to the inner humanity, 23 but I see another law in my members at war with the law of my mind and imprisoning me to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 I am a wretched man; who will deliver me from the body of this death? 25 But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Consequently, then, I myself with the mind am serving the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
In the history of the church, the letters of the apostle Paul have touched almost every aspect of Christian theological reflection. His sentiments stand behind almost every important doctrine or declaration of belief held by the church today, particularly the Protestant sector of the church. Even so, Paul's influence did not require the Reformation to make itself known. As long ago as the early second century, the writer of the second epistle of Peter acknowledged the impact of Paul's writings upon Christian reflection, along with the danger of misunderstanding their intent. Regarding Paul's letters, "Peter" writes, "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (3:16b, NRSV). Unfortunately, the writer of this short letter did not bother to mention what those "hard to understand" things were, but more than one commentator have remarked (with varying degrees of facetiousness) that "Peter" must have had Romans 7 in mind.
Be that as it may, the history (especially the recent history) of the interpretation of this chapter indicates that there is anything but consensus in the scholarly world as to the meaning of this passage. Specifically, the issue comes down to three well-known options: Is Paul describing his Christian experience, his pre-Christian experience, or something else altogether?
My thesis is that Paul is describing something else altogether, a defense of which will occupy the second part of this work. But in order to set the stage so that we may appreciate the import of this position and the other options, an overview of the hermeneutical background of this passage is in order. Because the multitude of theologians who have struggled to make sense out of this passage throughout the history of the church is great, I will make use of a limited selection of commentators, some more well-known than others, whose works are representative of the various ways of interpreting this passage. To provide such a background, I will examine three different periods within the history of the church: immediate post-Reformation, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivalism, and the twentieth century. From this vantage point we will launch into a closer examination of the text itself.
(In the course
of this investigation I shall by no means attempt to rewrite everything
that the people to whose works I refer have written concerning Romans 7.
Rather, my primary interest is in establishing the dominant themes behind
the history of the passage's interpretation and augmenting those themes
with citations of interesting or clarifying statements by the commentators
in their own wrestlings with the passage. Through this method I will
establish a background against which my own exegesis of Romans 7 may stand.)
The hermeneutical framework through which the church viewed Romans 7 before the time of Luther was that of Augustine, who understood Paul's words to refer to the apostle's own struggle against sin as a Christian.1 Luther and Calvin both carried this perception forward in their theological formulations.
The Christian world owes its reawakening to the letters of Paul to Martin Luther. His understanding of Paul's meaning has formed the framework through which much of Paul's writings are still interpreted. Concerning 7:14, Luther writes:
|For it is characteristic of a spiritual and wise man to know that he is carnal and displeasing to himself, to hate himself and to approve the law of God because it is spiritual.2
|In other words, the mark of a person's spirituality and
wisdom is that person's awareness of just how unspiritual he or she is.
It is the law of God which is spiritual, not the person seeking to obey
Continuing on in this vein, Luther proceeds to exegete the remainder of the passage as Paul's own testimony of the power of sin within his life. Of particular interest is his dealing with verses 17-18, which read, "But now no longer am I doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for to will is at hand in me, but to work the good is not." Luther likens the Christian to a horseman who tries to make his horses go one way when they will not, and even in his struggling against the horses' waywardness is nevertheless the one responsible for making them go astray.3 This apparent contradiction of wanting to do good yet inexorably doing evil Luther sees as the tension of Spirit against flesh within the Christian, a tension which Luther explains in such a way as to make Christian living seem like a kind of spiritual schizophrenia:
|[B]ecause the same one complete man consists of flesh and spirit, therefore he attributes to the whole man both of these opposing qualities which come from the opposing parts of him. For in this way there comes about a communication of attributes, for one and the same man is spiritual and carnal, righteous and a sinner, good and evil.4
|The Christian is therefore both a good person who does
evil and an evil person who wants to do good. But even in the midst
of this wanting to do good, this desire is a longing which flows not from
the person of the Christian but rather from the Holy Spirit within that
deepest nature of a human being remains that of rebellion against God.
Luther sees Paul's cry of dereliction, "Who will deliver me from the body
of this death?" as being a rephrasing of Philippians 1:23 ("I desire to
depart and be with Christ"), indicating that the Christian's only hope
for freedom from sin is to be found in death.6
The only consolation that Luther can draw from this passage is that "it
is a comfort to hear that such a great apostle was involved in the same
sorrows and afflictions as we are when we try to be obedient to God.7
Calvin's view follows in the footsteps of Luther's. Calvin believes with Luther that Paul is describing the experience of a regenerate person and considers such a person's doing what he hates and not doing what he wishes to be "a very fit example, whereby thou mayest know how contrary the righteousness of the law is to our nature."8 At the same time, Calvin also holds the curious view that when Paul says, "It is no longer I who do (evil) but sin that dwells in me" (v. 17), he is denying that he is enmeshed in sin, but rather is claiming that it remains only in some small part of his soul.9 This view would imply that Paul is saying that he isn't all that evil, but that goes against what Calvin says earlier about the corrupt nature of all people, regenerate and otherwise. Like Luther, Calvin sees death as the only hope for overcoming the rule of sin.10
and Calvin's interpretations of Romans 7:14-25 continued in the tradition
of Augustine and have perpetuated this tradition into Protestant piety
and theology. The passage is taken as a description of Paul as a
Christian in his struggle against sin, and is therefore a description of
"the Christian experience" in the world. As we shall see, the passage
of time and the spread of Christianity across the Atlantic Ocean did little
to alter this view.
The Great Awakenings in America spanning the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the gospel message to the new frontier. The increasing number of new believers brought about fresh attempts to explain the details of that message, and explanations of what Paul was saying in Romans 7:14-25 proliferated. Men such as Wesley, Sutcliffe, Godet, Beet, Ellicott and Clarke contributed to satisfying the need for reliable interpretations of the Scriptures, and their words concerning Romans 7:14-25 show that they maintained themselves squarely within the tradition which they had received. Sutcliffe sees the power of indwelling sin as evidence of the tyranny of the "old man" who lives on despite having been crucified with Christ (Romans 6:3) and understands the conflict of these verses as reflecting the struggle between the two natures of the Christian, the regenerate and unregenerate natures.11 Godet complements this view by stating that when Paul says that he is doing what he hates, it is the result of "blind instinct," which has ensnared Paul and carries him along without his consent.12 Wesley views Paul's claim to delight in the law of God inwardly (v. 22) as a longing for the deliverance which is approaching, a view which suggests Wesley's own belief in Christian perfectionism.13
The impact of this proliferation of hermeneutical investigation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the publication of many massive commentaries on the Scriptures. Many of the largest tomes were themselves commentaries upon Romans, one of which was penned by Princeton professor Charles Hodge. Writing near the end of the nineteenth century, Hodge picked up and carried forward the traditional view of Romans 7:14-25 as being Paul's personal struggle. He identifies the passage as showing the effect of the law on "the believer," who, as one "sold under sin" is indeed a slave to sin. As such a slave, the believer finds that indeed "nothing good" dwells within and that while he or she may indeed long to serve God, sin nevertheless maintains its hold upon the person through the weakness of the flesh.14
Sanday and Headlam
The late nineteenth century also saw the publication of The International Critical Commentary, which appeared under the editorship of Samuel Driver, Alfred Plummer and Charles Briggs. The men who wrote the commentary on Romans, William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, depart from the traditional view by first of all reopening the question as to what Paul is describing in 7:14-25. Making note that Origen and other Greek Fathers did not hold Augustine's view, Sanday and Headlam hold that Paul is more accurately describing the experience of unregeneration as opposed to regeneration. One factor informing their position is the lack of any specifically Christian statement in the passage before verse 25, which is seen as the turning point of chapters seven and eight. As to whether or not Paul is describing himself in his pre-Christian days, however, Sanday and Headlam dodge the issue by saying that the passage "is not a literal photograph of any one stage in the Apostle's career, but it is a constructive picture drawn by him in bold lines from elements supplied to him by self-introspection."15 In other words, Paul isn't describing an experience of which he was aware at the time; he is reflecting upon what he considers to be a general experience which would have summed up his life before Christ even though he could not have seen it before he believed in Christ.
Aside from their ambiguity concerning what Paul is specifically describing about himself, Sanday and Headlam do break new ground by uncovering old ground. They dispense with the traditional view by saying that the description that we find in this passage is not that of a Christian but that of a non-Christian, thereby recalling the view of Origin. That the date of their work coincides with the development of "critical" Biblical studies in the late nineteenth century implies an additional willingness to step back a bit from whatever personal investment in the text they may have had to consider an alternative to the traditional view.
The Twentieth Century
The dawn of a new century carried with it a continued openness toward questioning commonly accepted views of Scripture, and the arena of Romans 7:14-25 was no stranger to this scholarly endeavor. What Sanday and Headlam, among others, had suggested began to be pursued more and more stridently. The traditional view of this passage no longer seemed as hermeneutically satisfying as it had in earlier times.
Werner Georg Kümmel broke completely away from the traditional view his Romer 7 und das Bild des Menschen im Neuen Testament. Against the view that Paul's use of "I" is personal (concerning himself) or typical (concerning all humanity in general), Kümmel argues that Paul's "I" is fictive in its function, that is, it is a dialogical move by which Paul assumes a role not his own.16 He appeals to other passages, such as Romans 3:7-8; 7:7a, 9; 1 Corinthians 6:12, 15; and 13:1-3, among others, as some of many instances in which Paul uses the first person pronoun in such a way that need not or does not reflect himself or his own actions.17 This appeal to linguistic, rather than experiential, evidence marks a major shift in the hermeneutical approach to Romans 7:14-25.
Karl Barth's 1933 landmark commentary on Romans paved the way for the development of the Neo-Orthodox theology movement. In the midst of his highly personal investigation into the meaning of Romans 7:14-25, however, he returns to the position of Luther (to which Barth owed much, considering both men's German background), holding that the term flesh refers to the whole of a person, Christian or not. Of the complete inability of the Christian to be free from sin, Barth cites Luther:
|Paul, good man that he was, longed to be without sin, but to it he was chained. I too, in common with many others, long to stand outside it, but this cannot be. We belch forth the vapours of sin; we fall into it, rise up again, buffet and torment ourselves night and day; but, since we are confined in this flesh, since we have to bear about with us everywhere this stinking sack, we cannot rid ourselves completely of it, or even knock it senseless. We make vigorous attempts to do so, but the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited in the grave.18
|Within this context, "Adam" refers both to the "old man"
and to the "flesh," which are taken to be identical and to describe the
heart of personhood in all people. A Christian, therefore, is a sinner
in whom the Holy Spirit dwells; the fundamental nature of the Christian
is still as it was before faith. One should note that Barth's personalized
approach to interpreting the passage stands in tension against that taken
The Picture Today
The last two decades have seen no end of publication of commentaries and interpretations of Romans 7:14-25. In spite of Barth's monumental influence in the decades following the publication of his commentary, the view most dominant among scholars today follows Kümmel in saying that Paul is not describing his Christian experience or his pre- Christian experience, but rather that he is describing the experience of "the unregenerate" as only an informed Christian can see it. This position is borne out in generally similar ways in works by D.M. Lloyd-Jones19, Ernst Käsemann20, Gerd Theissen21 and Paul Achtemeier22, all of whom reject the traditional view that Paul is describing himself. This does not mean that these four particular commentators stand as a monolithic front of understanding concerning this passage. Lloyd-Jones23 and Käsemann24 see this text as a description of the "pious" person who knows the spirituality of the law and wishes to do what is good but cannot, a description which can apply to the Christian who tries to live according to the law. Theissen holds to Kümmel's view that Paul is using "I" as a "fictive" term25, and Achtemeier holds that Paul is describing humanity in general, the collective "Adam" apart from Christ.26 However, one recent commentary by Leon Morris falls back to the old view that the person whom Paul is describing is himself as a Christian27, bringing us full circle back to the view that Luther and Calvin bequeathed to the Protestant world.
The Present Setting and a Summary of the Traditional View
In light of the recent (historically speaking) turn from the traditional view among many scholars, one may wonder why it is necessary to raise the issue of how we are to view this passage. I believe that the most pressing reason for continuing to examine the issue is that while scholars are saying one thing about how this passage is to be read, what may be called popular piety, especially among Christians who seek to apply the message of the Bible directly in their lives from day to day, is saying quite another thing about how it is to be read. Numerous pamphlets, talks, tapes and how-to-live-the-Christian-life manuals, in addition to serious commentaries such as Morris' above-mentioned work, explain to sincere believers that the reason why they still find themselves struggling with sin is because they are, as Paul says, "fleshly, sold under sin"; they are "imprisoned to the law of sin in their members"; they are experiencing first hand the meaning of the term "indwelling sin." As I mentioned in my introduction, well-meaning teachers and commentators have coined terms such as "sin nature," "dying to self," "let go and let God" and "Spirit control" in an effort to help sincere believers understand how to live a godly life in the light of Paul's words in Romans 7:14-25, which are taken to be Paul's own Christian testimony. If, as many scholars have suggested during the last century, Paul is indeed not discussing his Christian experience, then many sincere people are sincerely wrong about what to make of Romans 7:14-25 in their lives.
As a conclusion to this first part and as a starting point for the second, and in light of this brief historical survey of the interpretation of Romans 7, I believe that we may sum up the traditional understanding of verses 14-25 in the following manner.
Verse 14: "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin." When Paul says, "I am fleshly," he is contrasting the "spiritual" nature of the law and his own nature as a Christian, a "forgiven sinner." As such a forgiven sinner, Paul confirms that the lot of human existence is that of being "sold under sin," a condition true of Christian and non-Christian alike.
Verse 15: "For that which I am doing I do not know; for I am not practicing this thing which I wish, but I am doing this thing which I hate." This statement reflects the helplessness of the human will against sin and our complete lack of understanding as to how to do otherwise. Even though Paul knows what he wants to do, he ends up doing what he hates and doesn't understand why.
Verse 16: "But if I am doing this thing which I do not wish, I agree with the law that it is good." In performing the thing that he hates, Paul acknowledges both that it is the evil that he does not wish to do that he does indeed do and that the law, which forbids the evil which Paul hates, is good.
Verse 17: "But now no longer am I doing it, but sin which dwells in me." This statement may be considered to be one of the most dangerous sentences from the hand of Paul; it could be taken to imply that Paul is claiming not to be responsible for doing the evil which he hates. However, his continued use of "I" in the following verses to indicate the subject of the behavior in question shows that he considers himself to be quite responsible for what he does.
Verse 18: "For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for to will is at hand in me, but to work the good is not." The traditional means of interpreting this passage takes "in my flesh" to be a clarification of "in me," thereby indicating that Paul viewed his selfhood to be in terms of "the flesh," as he states in verse 14 ("I am fleshly"). The will to do the good is powerless to carry out the good in view of the absence of good within the person.
Verses 19-20: "For I am not doing the good which I wish, but I am practicing this evil which I do not wish. But if I am doing this thing which I do not wish, I am no longer doing it but sin which dwells in me." Here Paul restates what he has already pointed out in verses 15 and 17.
Verse 21: "I find then the law, in me who wishes to do good, that evil is at hand with me." The inclination to do evil, reminiscent of the rabbinic "evil impulse," is seen as a force and presence that is not just as strong as the desire to good but is more powerful; hence Paul's words in verse 19. Paul's use of nomon, "law," to describe this inclination indicates that for the Christian, there will never be a point in one's earthly life at which one may be truly free from sin.
Verses 22-23: "For I rejoice with the law of God according to the inner humanity, but I see another law in my members at war with the law of my mind and imprisoning me to the law of sin which is in my members." According to the traditional interpretation of this passage, this statement reflects the heart of Christian experience in the world: entrapment by the power of sin and torment at the inability to do anything about it, which explains why Christians go right on sinning just as they did before they came to faith in Christ. It is therefore proper to consider Christians to be "forgiven sinners."
Verses 24-25a: "I am a wretched man; who will deliver me from the body of this death? But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" If what Paul has said in the preceding verses is true of himself as a Christian, then he is quite wretched, living a life that can only be called a living death. Who will deliver him? Jesus Christ alone will do so. But since Paul is describing his Christian experience, he must be speaking of his eventual death and release from his body.
Verse 25b: "Consequently, then, I myself with the mind am serving the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin." Here is the quandary of Christian life: filled with the desire to serve God, the Christian finds himself or herself unable to do so. While one may take some comfort in serving God "with the mind," true release may not be found in this life, for the law of sin holds sway over human existence on earth.
This, I believe, is a fair summary of the traditional emphases which have been read out of and placed onto this passage since the time of Augustine. The guiding principal behind this view is the conviction that Paul is indeed describing his Christian experience and that his words are a model and an explanation of the general experience of all Christians.
However, I believe that such a view not only paints a rather bleak, morose picture of Christian life but also does not match the Paul we meet elsewhere in the New Testament. For some reason, the Paul who knew himself to be so "wretched" never seemed to be bothered by his awareness of his condition aside from these few verses. Rather, the Paul whom we meet in his letters is a man who, because of Christ, has a great deal of confidence in himself. While Paul is swift to condemn sinful conduct and opposition to his ministry, he never utters a word of condemnation against himself as a Christian. He considers himself to be a worthy model of imitation (1 Corinthians 11:1) and goes so far as to say that there is no condemnation at all for the Christian (Romans 8:1, 33-34). Yet the person whom Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25, with his agonized awareness of his own inability to do what is good, can be true to himself only by condemning himself as a "wretched man."
My contention is that the traditional view of this passage, that Paul is describing his Christian experience, is simply incorrect and that such an understanding does violence not only to the immediate context of the passage but also to the spiritually sensitive person who truly wishes to please God in her or his life. However, the proof of such a contention requires more than an appeal to the "feel" of the rest of Paul's letters or a psychologizing statement about the effects of a "wretched" mindset upon the experience of a sensitive person. We require a close comparison and contrast of this passage with other relevant words from the apostle, and it is to this that we now turn.
PART II: WHAT PAUL ISN'T AND IS SAYING IN ROMANS 7:14-25
It is always difficult to understand someone else's mail. It is even more difficult if that mail is written in a foreign language. And it is most difficult if that mail is nearly two thousand years old. However, those are the hurdles which must be cleared if we are to make sense of the writings of Paul.
I mention this point because it is all too easy within the Christian church, with the ready availability of English translations of the Bible and a plethora of supplementary works, for us to make a surface level examination of a text and then to conclude that we have "understood" it. Quite often, such an approach has resulted in an inaccurate view of a text attaching itself like glue to the text and spreading into the collective consciousness of the church, after which scholars must spend the following few centuries struggling to overcome the momentum of that simple misunderstanding.
Such is what has happened to Romans 7:14-25, and I am convinced that it all goes back to a misunderstanding of the one little word "I". The struggle against sin, which all of us face, is the greatest burden which any person can carry, and what appears to be a description from the hand of the great apostle Paul of his own struggle against sin has been and is for many people one of the greatest sources of comfort and relief in the midst of their own struggles, as Luther himself remarked with a sigh.
such a view of this passage is challenged both by the context of 7:14-25
and by other writings from Paul, both of which we must examine first before
we may say anything definite about what Paul is saying here.
Why the "I" of 7:14-25 isn't the Christian Paul
In verse 14 Paul defines "himself" as being sarkinoV ("fleshly"; "belonging to the realm of the flesh"28) as contrasted with the law, which is pneumatikoV ("pertaining to the Spirit"29). In 1 Corinthians 3:1 he refers to the Corinthians as being sarkinoi, which he equates with being nhpioiV en Cristw, "infants in Christ," thereby implying in his letter to the Corinthians that Christians who are what Paul calls "infants" may be called "fleshly." (His third use of sarkinaiV in 2 Corinthians 3:3 carries the more neutral sense of "human flesh" and actually is coordinated favorably with the work of the Spirit and does not concern us here.)
If it is possible to call immature Christians "fleshly," is it not possible that Paul may be describing himself as a Christian in Romans 7:14-25? This may appear to be a valid option until one considers Paul's contrasting use of pneumatikoV and sarkinoV in 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:1.
In his writing against those who promote "human wisdom," Paul insists that only those who are "spiritual" (pneumatikoi) may receive the gifts of the Spirit and understand the things of the Spirit. He goes on to say that spiritual people can "discern" all while at the same time cannot be discerned by those who are unspiritual. It is this quality of being spiritual that Paul describes as "having the mind of Christ," a quality that he claims for himself and all who are with him.
Paul contrasts the quality of being pneumatikoV with that of being sarkinoV, which he equates with being an "infant in Christ." In the light of his words in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, it is clear that Paul considered himself quite firmly to be pneumatikoV, "spiritual." Therefore, even if sarkinoV in Romans 7:14 could describe an immature Christian, Paul most definitely would not have used it to describe himself, since his use of "I" in the present tense to describe his (supposed) Christian experience would indicate his present experience as a mature Christian. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37 and Galatians 6:1, where Paul uses pneumatikoV in such ways as to indicate that he considers himself to be spiritual and therefore mature.)
Even if one wished to press the possibility that Paul, the spiritual Christian, might have been trying to "identify" with immature Christians at Rome by applying sarkinoV to himself, or if one were unwilling to interpret statements that Paul made in one letter in terms of statements that he made in a different letter written at a different time, one must remember that in Romans 7:14 Paul equates being "fleshly" with being "sold (into slavery) under sin." While Paul may appear to describe a Christian as being "fleshly" as in 1 Corinthians 3:1, his words in Romans 6:15-23 make it quite clear that if a Christian is anything, he or she is someone who has been set free from sin and is now enslaved to righteousness. Therefore, if Paul is indeed describing his Christian life in Romans 7:14, he is flatly contradicting his words of a few paragraphs before and hopelessly muddling what chance any fleshly or spiritual Christians at Rome may have had of understanding what he is talking about.
An additional argument against Romans 7:14-25 being the description of Paul's Christian life is that the "I" of the passage is a person who is trying to do what the law says to do in order to do what is good and right (7:16, 22). While Paul the Christian views the law as good and holy, he knows well that the law itself is powerless to make someone righteous or even to enable someone to do what is right because of the influence of sin upon the human heart (7:7-12). In other words, if Paul is describing himself as a Christian here, he is saying that he is trying to live the Christian life by relying on his efforts to carry out the law, which means not only that he has forgotten what he has just said in verses 7-13 but also makes a mockery of his letter to the Galatians and misses the entire point of living by faith anyway, for "if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing" (Galatians 2:21b).
our comparison of Paul's words in Romans and 1 Corinthians, there is nevertheless
an apparent difficulty with Paul's use of sarkinoV
in these two letters. If sarkinoV in Romans
7:14 is equated with being sold into slavery under sin, a condition which
for Paul characterizes non-Christian, not Christian, life, how can he use
to describe the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 3:1? I believe
that his use of wV,
in 3:1 provides a clue. In contrast to the way in which Paul would
wish to address the Corinthians, "as to spiritual people," he must address
them as he would address "fleshly people," as he would "infants in Christ."
That he is equating his uses of sarkinoiV and
en Cristw is indicated by the two-fold use of wV,
which places the terms in parallel construction. But it is misleading
simply to say that Paul equates these terms as if they mean the same thing.
I believe that it is more accurate to say that sarkinoiV
and nhpioiV en Cristw mean the same thing in
terms of what they aren't, i.e., to be either is to be unspiritual, which
is how Paul, the spiritual man, must address the Corinthians. To
be sarkinoV, not a Christian, is practically
the same as being an infant in Christ, for neither is pneumatikoV.
Paul is not saying that immature Christians are "fleshly"; he is saying
that they are not spiritual, that they are immature in matters of the faith,
which may be just as true for an "infant" Christian as it is for a non-Christian.
Therefore, Paul's parallel use of sarkinoiV
and nhpioiV en Cristw here does not mean that
his use of sarkinoV in Romans 7:14 is a description
of himself or of any Christian. Rather, his statement in Romans 7:14
must apply to a non-Christian, to one who is "sold into slavery under sin."
Why the "I" of 7:14-25 isn't the pre-Christian Paul
Since the previous discussion has established that Paul is not describing any Christian's life in Romans 7:14-25, we must conclude that he is describing a non- (or pre-) Christian life instead. Is it his own life before Christ called him to faith? There is nothing in the text which would argue against such an understanding; in fact, it seems to be right in line with the "autobiographical" nature of 7:7-13. However, this line of thought is challenged by another passage from Paul, Philippians 3:2-6.
In countering those who would place their confidence in their having been circumcised or, as Paul puts it, in their flesh, Paul boasts that he could argue even more convincingly for being confident in his own "flesh." He was circumcised on the eighth day, born an Israelite, from the tribe of Benjamin, a full-blooded Hebrew. To this heritage Paul added the law-abiding devotion that was his as a Pharisee, the zeal which he demonstrated as a persecutor of the church and, quite explicitly, the righteousness of a man who had kept the law blamelessly.
It is Paul's
claim in Philippians 3:6 to have been blameless regarding the righteousness
of the law before he came to faith in Christ which argues so strongly against
Romans 7:7-25 being a description of Paul's pre-Christian life. The
Philippians passage reflects none of the introspection and despair so apparently
evident in Romans 7; instead, we find a self-confidence which is remarkable,
perhaps even startling. Since I hold that Paul was a coherent thinker
and that he would not knowingly lie about his past, especially not concerning
the issue of righteousness under the law, I conclude that Paul did indeed
see himself as a man who had kept the law as a Pharisee and that his words
in Romans 7:14-25 cannot be a statement of his experience as a Jew before
he placed his trust in Jesus.
Who is the "I" of 7:14-25?
If, as we have concluded, Paul is not describing his Christian experience or his pre-Christian experience, then he must be describing a non-Christian experience. However, it cannot be simply any non-Christian whom he is describing; the "I" of 7:14-25 is too specifically defined for that to be so. Also, the non-Christian whom Paul describes seems to have a rather Christian understanding of the inability of the law to bring about obedience to that law. I believe that at this point Gerd Theissen's comments about Paul's use of the fictive "I," which I mentioned in part one, are helpful here. The non-Christian whom Paul describes is not any one person or grouping of people; rather, he is a figment of Paul's imagination. The "I" of whom Paul speaks is a non-Christian as seen through Paul's eyes, which explains why such a person would have such a Christian view of his non-Christian condition.
But still he
is not just any non-Christian. At this point I must disagree with
the suggestion put forward by Achtemeier, that Paul is envisioning humanity
as a corporate Adam.30
While I do agree that Paul would quite firmly depict all humanity apart
from Christ as being "fleshly, sold under sin," the imaginary non-Christian
whom Paul is viewing through Christian eyes is much too aware of the importance,
if not the true function, of the law to be simply any Gentile who lives
"apart from the law" (Romans 2:12). I believe rather that Paul is
musing about the condition of his fellow Jews, who lay claim to the law
without understanding what its real purpose is, who try to do the good
while all the time missing the point of justification by faith in Christ,
not by works of the law (cf. my citations of the thoughts of Lloyd-Jones
and Käsemann concerning this view in part one above). Of course,
the Jews themselves are not thinking this way any more than did Paul think
this way before he trusted Christ. His description in 7:14-25 is
not a psychological depiction of the agony the Jew feels while trying to
obey the law; if it were, the entire Jewish nation would have been rushing
to faith in Christ for relief from their struggle! Paul's description
is more pointedly the Christian awareness of the inability of humanity
apart from God to do what is good, which, in the final analysis, would
be to come to Christ on our own and by our own efforts. The purpose
of the law is to lead people to Christ for justification (cf. Galatians
3:23- 24), and the ultimate irony and tragedy of the power of sin is its
leading people to look to their own "lawfulness" for justification instead.
It is much like confusing a highway exit sign that says "RICHMOND NEXT
3 EXITS" with the city itself; the sign points to the destination, but
it is by no means itself the destination, and to pull to a stop and chain
oneself to the sign is in fact to miss the destination. And, Paul
would say, the ultimate tragedy is that the people who have chained themselves
to the sign (and who are thereby blocking the road for others) aren't even
aware that they have missed the whole point of the journey, which is the
main reason why he grieves so earnestly for his fellow Jews in 9:1 and
wishes that somehow he could take their place so that they might know the
justification which God had always intended for them.
Romans 7:14-25: A Non-traditional Interpretation
Now that we have considered the question of whose experience Paul is describing, we may look at the text from a rather different perspective than usual.
Verse 14: "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin." When Paul says, "I am fleshly," he is describing the non-Christian as he or she is seen by the Christian. The contrast between the spiritual and the fleshly is here just as certain as it is in Romans 8:5-11, where Paul insists that to be in the Spirit makes it impossible for one to be in the flesh also, and vice versa. The condition of being sold under sin refers not to observable misdeeds but rather to the most central truth about a person outside of Christ.
Verse 15: "For that which I am doing I do not know; for I am not practicing this thing which I wish, but I am doing this thing which I hate." Rather than being a confession of bewilderment over why one goes on committing "the same old sins" even as a Christian or a non-Christian's lament over his inability to keep the law, this statement reflects a truth which is hopelessly invisible to the person outside of Christ. It is not that "I" do not understand what "I" am doing; "I" don't even know what "I" am doing. In "my" striving to fulfill the law "I" am completely oblivious to the fact that "I" am failing to do what "I" in fact want to do, which is to fulfill the law by coming to faith in Christ. "I" end up doing what "I" hate without even realizing it. "I" am not misinformed; "I" am blind.
Verse 16: "But if I am doing this thing which I do not wish, I agree with the law that it is good." Since the person in Paul's mind wants to fulfill the law, even if in his own distorted way, his failure to do so is his unwitting testimony that the law is indeed good, since his failure is the performing of the very evil that he seeks to avoid.
Verse 17: "But now no longer am I doing it, but sin which dwells in me." Only a Christian could make a statement like this; no one of his or her own flesh could conclude that they are under the total mastery of sin, for the deception of sin is that it is possible to overcome sin by trying to keep the law.
Verse 18: "For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for to will is at hand in me, but to work the good is not." Paul is not here stating that there is a duality within the non-Christian about whom he is musing, for "flesh" is not merely one part of a person apart from Christ but rather is all that the person is. The will to please God is short-circuited by the presence of sin to such an extent that the person is completely unable to do what he wishes -- and he or she doesn't even know it.
Verses 19-20: "For I am not doing the good which I wish, but I am practicing this evil which I do not wish. But if I am doing this thing which I do not wish, I am no longer doing it but sin which dwells in me." Here Paul restates what he has already pointed out in verses 15 and 17, thereby forming an inclusio around verse eighteen, which is the heart of the human condition apart from Christ.
Verse 21: "I find then the law, in me who wishes to do good, that evil is at hand with me." "Wishes to do good" are no match for the law of evil and indeed only fuel that law, since the "wishing" is going on "in the flesh," in the whole person enslaved to sin.
Verses 22-23: "For I rejoice with the law of God according to the inner humanity, but I see another law in my members at war with the law of my mind and imprisoning me to the law of sin which is in my members." This statement must not be taken to indicate that there is a "spark of good" even within sinful humanity, for the rejoicing with God's law that is mentioned is a rejoicing that, as Paul says in 10:2, "is not according to knowledge." Rather, it is according to the law of sin which imprisons the would-be God-pleaser.
Verses 24-25a: "I am a wretched man; who will deliver me from the body of this death? But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Again, no non-Christian in his zeal for the law would say this. More likely, he would say with Paul the Pharisee that, according to the righteousness of the law, he was found blameless. The wretchedness of humanity apart from God is not apparent to that humanity; only the Spirit can enlighten one that Jesus Christ alone can liberate a person from the unsuspected prison of sin.
Verse 25b: "Consequently, then, I myself with the mind am serving the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin." The pathetic state of religious and non-religious humanity apart from Christ becomes obvious. The non-Christian truly believes that he or she is serving God, while in reality it is sin that is the master, wreaking its destruction through the person's flesh, which, for humanity apart from Christ, is all there is.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Now that I have completely rewritten the hermeneutical framework with which I was baptized into Romans 7:14-25, I wish to tie up some loose ends concerning the traditional view, its effect upon Christian living (specifically, my own), and how this alternative approach repairs some of the outgrowths of the traditional view.
Firstly, I am aware that in spite of all my words it is still possible for a Christian to "experience" much that appears to be very similar to what Paul says in 7:14-25. However, it is at this very point that we must be careful to interpret Scripture within its context, not from the perspective of our own experience. Whereas the traditional view sees continuing sin in believers as confirmation that this passage describes Christian experience, such an approach completely ignores statements in chapter 6 ("Our old self was crucified with Christ" (v. 3); "the one who has died is freed from sin" (v. 7); "you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (v. 18)) and chapter 8 ("The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (v. 2); "you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit" (v. 9); "we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh" (v. 12)), as well as missing the context of Paul's discussion of the functions and limitations of the law in the preceding verses. Indeed, I am convinced that one of the primary reasons why the traditional view became traditional is because Romans 7:14-25 has been so often read out of its context. The irony is that while chapters 6 and 8 do describe Christian experience, whereas 7:14-25 does not, it is 7:14-25 that has been handed down as the normative Christian experience, and chapters 6 and 8 have been relegated to the level of "positional" truth (i.e., something true in God's cosmic account book but definitely not true down here on earth). The tragedy is that the wonderfully liberating news of chapters 6 and 8 has been overshadowed by the bleak picture of helplessness that has come out of the misunderstanding of 7:14-25, and the church is definitely poorer for it.
Secondly, this poverty has led to the development of well-meant but misinformed attempts to overcome the morose picture of Christian struggle that we have inherited. More than one college speaker told me and my Christian friends that since sin was the essence of our being ("nothing good dwells in me"), the only way to overcome sin was to "die to self" so that sin would no longer have a foothold in our lives. Of course, how we were supposed to live as non-selves was never explained; we were simply told to let Jesus live "his victorious life" through our (truly!) self-less lives. This sounded good until we noticed that it was quite impossible to go from day to day without being "selves." Also, the news that the selves whom we were sure we were were sinful to the core did very little for instilling confidence in Christ within us; the more common experience was an extremely negative self-image.
Another twist to the "die to self" approach has been the more positive "let go and let God" emphasis, which is in line with the truth that we cannot please God apart from the grace of God in our lives. However, while "letting go" and "letting God" worked perfectly in the matter of a person's coming to faith in Christ, it soon became clear that in our trying to live by "letting go" and "letting God" do whatever he was supposed to do, he didn't seem to do much. Responsibilities and challenges tended to remain unmet until someone got tired of doing nothing and went out and did what we were told to let God do. In addition to this frustration, we found that the Scriptures seemed not to be saying, "Let go and let God," but rather, "Trust God and get going," which implied that we ourselves were to do the doing, which again flew in the face of the "die to self" mentality.
A rather more ominous outgrowth of this approach, which viewed Christian selfhood as being essentially sinful, was an emphasis upon what was called "Spirit control," which in its description sounded much like "possession" along the lines of the Synoptic Gospels' stories of demonic possession. Because we were sinful to the core, it was necessary for the Holy Spirit to "control" us, to take us over, to prevent us from doing what was in our heart. If we wanted to serve God in some way, that was seen as evidence that the Spirit was "controlling" us to serve God, for no Christian would want to or could desire to serve God on her or his own. The Holy Spirit's ministry in our lives was to oppose and to defeat our own desires. Needless to say, this idea did little to encourage our trust in the Spirit of God, much less our willingness to obey, which according to the concept of "control," would not have been us obeying anyway. What is most unfortunate about this relatively recent term is that it has crept quite glaringly into the New International Version of the Bible in Romans 8:8-9, where the Pauline terms "in the flesh" and "in the Spirit" have become "controlled by the flesh" and "controlled by the Spirit." While I agree that humanity apart from God is indeed "controlled by the flesh," the negative concept of "Spirit control," the overriding of the normal desires of a child of God, completely misses what Paul would have meant if he had used the term "controlled by the Spirit." I believe that Paul would mean that to be under the control of the Spirit is to be set free from the reign of sin so that one may freely serve God; however, the recent concept of "Spirit control" holds that because the Christian is still just as sinful as before, it is therefore necessary to "control" that sinfulness. There is no free serving of God in this view; Christians must be "controlled" to do that.
All of these
recent ideas may be traced to a fundamental mistake about what Paul is
talking about in Romans 7:14-25. If we, Christians, are fundamentally
sinful even after having "passed from death to life" (John 5:24), then
bring on the Spirit control while we die to these sinful selves that are
who we still are. If, however, we, Christians, have "died to sin"
(Romans 6:2), have been "freed from sin" (6:7) and are now "in (not 'controlled
by') the Spirit" (8:9), then the possibilities of living lives that glorify
God are as high and wide and broad and deep as the God who has called us.
As people who are "spiritual," not "fleshly," we need not fall helplessly
before the onslaught of sin (which was our life before Christ) but may
with full confidence place our trust in Christ, through whom we have been
freed from sin. Whereas before we had no choice but to go on doing
the evil that we hated and not the good that we wished, now there is a
choice. If we should go on living as if we did not know Christ, as
if we had not been freed from sin, then this does not mean that we are
expressing our deepest nature, because our deepest nature is now that of
Christ, not sin. Rather, we would be living as people who were "nearsighted
and blind, forgetful of the cleansing of past sins" (2 Peter 3:9).
And this observation brings us back to where we started, for the second
epistle of Peter warned us at the beginning that some things in Paul's
letters are difficult to understand! Nevertheless, one thing is certain:
because of Christ, we may, as people freed from sin, "not let sin exercise
dominion in our mortal bodies, to make us obey its passions" (Romans 6:12);
instead, we may "present ourselves to God as those who have been brought
from death to life, and our members to God as instruments of righteousness"
(6:13). This is both the hope of joyful service to God and the guarantee
1Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1985), p.120.
2Luther's Works, vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, edited by Hilton C. Oswald (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), p. 328-329.
3Luther's Works, p. 331.
4Luther's Works, p. 332.
5Luther's Works, p. 334.
6Luther's Works, p. 335.
7Luther's Works, p. 335.
8John Calvin, Commentary upon the Epistle to the Romans, edited by Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), p. 183.
9Calvin, p. 187.
10Calvin, p. 192.
11John Wesley, Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, and others, One Volume New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), notes on Romans 7:14.
12Wesley et al., notes on Romans 7:15.
13Wesley et al., notes on Romans 7:22.
14Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2d ed. (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1882), pp. 356-357.
15William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 3d ed., The International Critical Commentary, eds. Samuel R. Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1898), p. 186.
16Gerd Theissen, Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 191.
17Theissen, p. 191.
18Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 263.
19D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 7:1-8:4(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), pp. 189-200.
20Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 198-212.
21Theissen, pp. 192-195.
22Achtemeier, p. 122.
23Llyod-Jones, p. 199.
24Käsemann, p. 203.
25Theissen, pp. 192-195.
26Achtemeier, p. 122.
27Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 287-288.
28Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2d ed., revised by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 743.
29Bauer, p. 678.
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