When I teach on Romans 7, I expect there may be pushback to my argument that Romans 7:14–25 refers to Paul’s—and thus to our—Christian experience. Good friends, like Tom Schreiner, think that when Paul says “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (esō anthrōpon)” (Rom. 7:22), or when he says “I, my very self (autos egō) serve the law of God with my mind” (Rom. 7:25), he is expressing his pre-Christian experience.
This is because Paul also says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14); “I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15); “I see in my members another law . . . making me captive to the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23); “wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24); and “with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25).
These statements of defeat do not sound like the person who says in Romans 8:2, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
A Matter of Exegesis
I know that when it comes to a positive description of what the Christian life should be, and what it normally is, that Tom and I do not differ significantly. In other words, our difference in exegesis on this passage does not signal a significant difference in what to call for, hope for, and expect from genuine Christians.
But biblical faithfulness and clarity is always good for us. So it might be helpful to make a few clarifying comments. For more extensive argumentation, I preached six messages on Romans 7:14–25 under the title “Who Is This Divided Man?” The ten reasons I gave for my position in those sermons are summed up here.
Here are some clarifications that might help make the case.
1. I’m not convinced Romans 7:5 and 7:7–25 both refer to Paul before he was converted.
Tom and numerous others see a strong argument for the pre-Christian view in the claim that Romans 7:7–25 unpacks Romans 7:5, while Romans 8:1–17 unpacks Romans 7:6.
Since Romans 7:5 refers to pre-Christian experience, they infer that 7:7–25 does as well. I don’t find this compelling. For one thing, they agree that 7:13–25 is answering the question of verse 13: “Did that which is good, then, [the law] bring death to me?”
I agree. That’s what 7:13–25 is doing. Paul’s answer is, No. It is sin, not law, that kills. But it begs the question to assume we know how Paul will argue for this in 7:13–25. How will he show the exceeding power and ugliness of sin, and the goodness of the law? I would make the case that he argues from his own Christian experience in dealing with sin to show how powerful and deadly sin is, and how good the law is.
Further, notice the similarity in thought and language between 7:6 and 7:25. In 7:6, there is the victory over bondage to the law followed by the great result: “So that we serve (douleuein) in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” Similarly, in 7:25, there is another victory: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” followed by another great result: “So then, I myself serve (douleuō) the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
Both of these verses (7:6, 25) express the effect or result (verse 6: hōste) “to serve” God in a new way. This “service” in verse 25, Paul makes explicit, is not the service of the law of sin with the flesh. Therefore, it is the service of God by the Spirit. Five verses later, Paul makes clear that the only alternative to living by the flesh is living by the Spirit.
Therefore, the argument of Romans 7:13–25 is not limited to unpacking pre-Christian experience of Romans 7:5. It is also unpacking the Christian experience of Romans 7:6. And it is supporting 7:5 by using Christian experience to spotlight the exceeding power of sin as our great enemy, not the law.