Romans 7:13–25 is one of the most disputed and controversial passages in the Bible. Augustine changed his mind about its meaning, so we have precedent for swinging back and forth in our own interpretation. I recognize that I can hardly give the last word on a text that has been argued over for thousands of years.
Indeed, some of us have had a Romans 7 kind of experience with Romans 7.
We can’t decide what the verses are really about, and conclude, “Wretched interpreter that I am. Who will set me free from this interpretive quandary?”
Though in a short article I can’t discuss all the issues that arise in these verses, I’ll defend why I believe Paul is discussing his pre-Christian experience. It’s also important to see that Paul describes his pre-Christian life retrospectively. In other words, as Paul looks back as a Christian on his life before Christ, he recognizes he wasn’t a believer.
Four Reasons for a Pre-Christian Experience
1. The structure of the passage.
When we look at Romans 7 as a whole, we find a clear structure. This is outlined in verses 5–6:
For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions operated through the law in every part of us and bore fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.
Verse 5 depicts pre-Christian experience, describing a time “when we were in the flesh,” and explains that the flesh produced “death.” Verse 6 refers to Christians in four terms: “But now,” “released,” “died” (to our old life), and “Spirit.” Virtually all commentators agree that verse 5 refers to unbelievers and verse 6 to believers. But here is the key point: Romans 7:7–25 unpacks verse 5, and Romans 8:1–17 unpacks verse 6. In verses 7–25 we see how sin via the law brings death to those in the flesh, and in Romans 8:1–17 we see how the Spirit grants life to those who belong to Jesus Christ. Romans 7:5–6 forecasts what Paul is about to say in remarkably clear terms.
2. The Holy Spirit.
If we shake the kaleidoscope, we can look at the passage from another complementary perspective. The Holy Spirit is never mentioned in Romans 7:7–25. But Paul refers to the Spirit 15 times in Romans 8:1–17, suggesting that the person described in Romans 7:7–25 is one who doesn’t have the Spirit in his life.
The essence of what it means to be a Christian is to be indwelt with the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). We see in both Romans 7:14 and 7:18 that the one described is of the “flesh,” one who is still in the old Adam, one who is unregenerate.