Romans 7 for Everyone

Death by the Hands of the Law

Todd Brewer / 3.25.20

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:14-15 NRSV)

Who is the “I” of Romans 7? It’s a perennial question in Pauline scholarship. In the middle of his letter to the Romans, Paul shifts his argument to speak in the first person. It’s an abrupt departure from the previous chapters, both in rhetorical style and in theological substance, creating a quandary for Paul’s readers. Paul speaks of himself as being captive to sin and fundamentally unable to do the law, despite his best intentions. The law is not neutral, but its prohibitions incite the opposite of what is proscribed. The picture is bleak and raises serious questions about how it coheres with Paul’s other views, particularly his autobiography in Philippians 3 and his subsequent declaration that he will be rescued from this plight by Jesus. Is this “I” of Romans 7 really Paul, the Christian, or something else? The answer to this question significantly impacts how you view the Christian life. Is captivity to sin and the futility of the law a thing of the past for Christians, or is it par for the course? Are we getting better or not?

This isn’t a novel issue for students of Paul. The great St. Augustine somewhat famously changed his views on it. He previously thought that Paul was not speaking of himself, but of “a man who is subject to the law because he is not yet under grace” (Retractions, XXII, 2). After further study, and toward the end of his life, he came to believe that Paul was speaking of himself. Old age (and the Pelagian controversy!) disabused him of his more youthful, optimistic views.

Augustine’s change of mind is instructive for how Pauline scholarship has approached the issue.

Some believe Paul is narrating the pre-Christian struggle with the law, plagued by a gap between the desire to do good and the actual doing evil against the will. Citing the differences between Romans 7 and Paul’s “blamelessness” under the law in Philippians 3, it is said that the “I” who speaks isn’t Paul, but a rhetorical device used to underscore his point. Resolution of the persistent struggle between willing and doing is found through the gracious intervention of Christ, through whom one now readily fulfills the law. Life without Christ is grim, afflicted by a divided self and the evil prodding of the law. Life in Christ removes the affliction of sin and the counter-productive demands of the law. Along similar lines, N.T. Wright has suggested that the “I” is Israel, narrating its story in light of the liberation of Christ. This reading detaches Romans 7 from Romans 6 to emphasize the transformative nature of life in Christ, with its attendant promise of becoming a “new creation” through him, while dispensing with Romans 7’s negative attitude toward the “holy and righteous and good” law.

Others, like Luther and the later Augustine, believe that Paul is speaking personally of his present-day life in Christ. The struggle with the power of sin is not removed by becoming a Christian, but persists until death. If Paul is bleak in his description, it is because life is bleak, as old habits of sin give way to new, equally destructive patterns. The law always accuses and exacerbates the problem of sin. Original sin and the bound will don’t go away, but are everyday realities for the Christian. Numerous Christians have read Romans 7 and seen themselves in his description. It rings true to life experience. But the power of this reading of Romans 7 depends upon this kind of self-identification with Paul’s struggle, a kind of “it’s true of Paul, and perhaps it’s also true for you” that mutes the universality of his claims. Perhaps Paul was uniquely troubled in ways that most people aren’t.

The “I” of whom Paul speaks likely isn’t a straightforward autobiography, but a representative autobiography of life under the law, whether Christian or Jew. Through the law, our agency is co-opted by another power, so that we do the opposite of what we want (Romans 7:13). To be under the law is to be possessed by demonic forces. To be under the law is to be under the power of sin that uses the law for the purposes of evil. Though the law promises life to the ones who do it (7:10, Lev. 18:5), it only kills. This was the experience of Israel after the law was given, when an entire generation was destroyed in the wilderness, just as the prohibition against eating the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was the origin of “desire,” sin and death. The blending of these two events is paradigmatic for Paul and extends his discussion beyond the Torah to the many life-promising laws we live under. Paul ingeniously read in Israel’s history and scriptures that conditional commands produce transgression and resultant death. This is life under the law, and it is a living nightmare.

For Paul, the issue isn’t simply commands, but the framework of conditionality within which commands operate. Sometimes conditionality is explicit: job descriptions, community guidelines, “I love you if you love me,” and other “if…then” statements. But usually the conditionality of commands is implicit, perhaps even unknown to the law-giver. They come in the form of disapproval, praise, disappointment, anger, unsolicited advice, ghosting, criticism, and a multitude of love-killing judgments.  Likewise, the transgressions of laws we face are sometimes more subtle, the kind of thing the Old testament calls “murmuring”: delayed obedience, resentment, passive aggression, avoidance of others, doing only what is explicitly asked, or indirect self-justifications. Even Christians, though they are alive in the Spirit, remain dead in the body and therefore under the power of sin and its use of the law.

The “I” of Romans 7 is you, me, Paul, and everyone. Paul writes so bleakly of life under the law in Romans 7 because he’s experienced it and he sees it everywhere in Israel’s history. But he also does so because he knows there’s a better way: to no longer be under the law, but under grace. The law is the tool of the devil; grace is our liberation. Paul dreams of a world without conditionality, where transgressions are met with forgiveness and where prior love creates belovedness. In Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1) and undeserving grace reigns forever.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


One response to “Romans 7 for Everyone”

  1. Kyle D says:

    Enjoyed this Todd, thank you.

    I hope I’m not reading this wrong but it appears to me you are saying it may be wrong to only apply this to one subset of people. Instead, all continue to struggle under the law, and all are continually liberated by grace.

    If I’m hearing that correctly, I’ve found myself seeing that more and more true in my life, particularly as I contemplate how Jesus’ interactions with different types of people went.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *