What Is Romans 7 About? – Part 1

Posted: January 10, 2011 in bible, exegesis, theology

Romans 7 has historically been considered a very difficult passage for interpreters.  Paul’s confusing syntax, somewhat disjointed arguments, and assumed common-knowledge with his readers, all contribute toward making this chapter especially challenging for the modern interpreter.[1]

This uncertainty as to Paul’s meaning has given rise to vigorous debate on a number of issues, including: Paul’s intended audience; what he means by the word “law” (nomos); and the use of marriage to illustrate his point.  Foremost among these difficult issues is the question of who the “I” (egō) is in verses 7-25.  Many interpreters come to this passage in hopes of uncovering Paul’s understanding of sanctification (the process of becoming more Christ-like in how we live), seen especially in vv. 15-25.  However, I will argue that Paul’s point in chapter 7 is to explain the relationship of the Law to man and sin (1-6), and then to defend the Law’s goodness and holiness in light of that relationship (7-25).  As Doug Moo puts it, “anthropology [including a theology of sanctification]…is a subordinate issue.”[2] This must be kept in mind when attempting to understand and apply this passage.

However, understanding who the “I” is in this passage does have an impact on one’s understanding of what Paul is saying about the Law and sin.  In light of this fact, this series of posts will seek to answer the question about Paul’s use of “I” (egō), and then apply that answer specifically to an interpretation of vv. 7-10, with implications for the rest of the chapter.  Because of the complex nature of the passage, other textual questions will be addressed along the way as they become relevant to the topic at hand.

Rhetorical Role-Playing

However, Before looking at the nature of “I” (egō) in these verses, it is important to note that prior to Romans 7:7, Paul speaks of himself and his hearers using the first person plural (i.e. v.6, “we” and “us”).  But, in verse 7 he makes a shift to the first person singular (“I”). In the ancient world, this shift typically signaled the beginning of diaōnia – essentially rhetorical role-playing.[3] Presumably, Paul’s readers would have picked up on this and been able to follow his train of thought.

Who Is the “I”

Four main interpretations have been offered in regards to the identification of the “I” in this passage.[4] While all of these interpretations are distinct, many scholars now argue that a combination of two or more provides the best key for understanding Paul.

The Autobiographical View
The first way that some scholars take this passage is that it is primarily autobiographical in nature; that is, when Paul says “I” he is referring to himself and his own experiences.  This view is perhaps the most natural reading of the passage.  Many scholars who hold this view would be careful to note that, while Paul is describing his experience in relation to the Law and sin, this experience is not unique but is rather the experience of every person.[5] Thus, Paul can use this as an argument with ramifications for all people.  Those who hold to this view differ in regards to what life-experience Paul is actually referring to in vv. 7-12.

First, many commentators believe that Paul is describing his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish “coming of age” rite.[6] This was normally celebrated on a boy’s thirteenth birthday and officially ushered him into manhood and the responsibilities of studying and obeying the Torah.  Thus, when Paul writes of the time that “the commandment came” (v. 9), he is specifically referring to his own Bar Mitzvah.

A second understanding of the autobiographical interpretation of this passage is that Paul is describing his experience immediately before his conversion on the Damascus road.  Adherents to this view reason that before God opened Paul’s eyes to the truth of the Gospel, Paul viewed himself as being spiritually “alive.”  However, part of his conversion experience involved a realization that he could not possibly fulfill the demands of the Law, and thus sin came “alive” and the Law killed him (or his self-righteousness).[7] As Robert Mounce writes, “Paul probably referred to his preconversion days before he had grasped the full scope and power of the law’s demands…But now he understood from experience the power of sin to use the law for its own advantage.”[8]

The Adamic View
The second main interpretive lens through which scholars view Romans 7 is that Paul is speaking on behalf of Adam, describing his experience with law and sin in the Garden of Eden.  Adherents to this view argue that Adam is the only human who can properly be described as being truly “alive,” since all humans since him have been born under sin (Ephesians 2:1).[9] When Adam received the prohibition regarding the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil (the Law), sin subsequently came (in the form of the serpent), deceiving Adam with the very commandment given to protect him.  It should also be noted that some proponents of this view do not argue that this passage only describes Adam, but that it most certainly alludes to him.

The Salvation-Historical View
The third way that scholars understand this passage is that Paul is speaking on behalf of the nation of Israel, God’s covenant people as a whole.[10] Thus, Paul would in essence be saying that Israel saw itself as “alive” until the coming of the Law at Sinai, at which time sin became even more active, inciting rebellion through the Law, thereby creating transgression (as opposed to just merely sin).[11] This view is often called the salvation-historical view.

The Existential View
Finally, the fourth common understanding of “I” in this passage is that Paul is speaking existentially.  Therefore, the “I” is “nobody in particular and everybody in general.”[12] Paul is simply describing what it looks like for a person, any person, to be confronted with the commands of God in any and every context.

Those are the four main views relating to “I” (egō) in Romans 7.  While there are other positions, these are the most widely held.  In Part 2, I will examine Paul’s use of the word “law” (nomos), which I hope will lead to clarity in regard to which of the aforementioned views fits best with the context of the passage.

[1] Paul J. Achtemeier has written a very insightful article entitled “’Some Thins in Them Hard to Understand’: Reflections on an Approach to Paul,” Interpretation 38 no 3 Jl (1984) 254-267.  Achtemeier walks through Romans 2:14, 3:1-8, and chapter 7 as examples, highlighting some important hermeneutical principles that should be kept in mind when reading Paul.
[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 409.
[3] Daniel Napier, “Paul’s Analysis of Sin and Torah in Romans 7:7-25,” Restoration Quarterly 44 no 1 (2002) 17-18.
[4] I have taken these four views from Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans, but they are expressed, in lesser detail, in most of the other commentaries I studied.  See Moo, Romans, 424-426.  L. Ann Jervis takes the discussion in an entirely different way, arguing that Paul is speaking autobiographically but that he is referring, not simply to the Mosaic Law nor to any kind of revealed moral law, but rather to “the commandment inherent to life in Christ.”   She argues that both the law and Paul’s paraenesis incite transgression.  Later, she argues that when Paul uses the word nomos he is referring “both to Torah and to the obedience required by faith,” (“’The Commandment which is for Life’ (Romans 7.10): Sin’s Use of the Obedience of Faith,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 no 2 D [2004] 193-216).
[5] See F.F. Bruce’s commentary on Romans where he writes, “In so far as the ‘I’ is autobiographical, ‘here Paul’s auto-biography is the biography of Everyman,’” (Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000] 139).  See also Thomas Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 365.
[6] See Bruce, Romans, 139.
[7] It seems that for a person to hold this view, they must conclude that Paul is speaking sarcastically in Philippians 3:6 when he says that he was “blameless” under the Law.  However, this would seem to go against the general thrust of verses 4-6, where Paul seems to list actual qualities that he possessed (circumcised, Jewish, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, zealous), despite the fact that as a Christian he regarded them as nothing.
[8] Robert H. Mounce, Romans (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995) 164.
[9] Moo writes that “it is this consideration [in regards to Adam’s “life” and “death”] that is most damaging to the identification of egō as either Paul or the people of Israel.” However, he later notes that “the Adamic view suffers from what we think is an even more serious objection: the theologically incongruous attribution to Adam of responsibility for the Mosaic law,” (Romans, 429).
[10] N.T. Wright writes, “The main theme on the surface of Romans 7…is the Jewish Law, the Torah.  This conclusion is unwelcome to some, not least because it appears to make the passage irrelevant for those who have never lived ‘under’ the Torah.  But Paul is here telling the story of Israel under one particular guise; this is the story that climaxes with the story of Jesus (8:3-4), and the way in which it does so is vital for understanding the basis of Christianity,” (Wright, “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994] 549).
[11] Some commentators make the distinction between transgression and sin, arguing that transgression is worse because it is a willing violation of a known command.  Napier writes, “While it may appear hair-splitting, to be true to Paul’s though in Romans, one must recognize the distinction between transgression and sin…The distinction is important for Paul because sin and transgression play different roles in his underlying story,” (“Sin and Torah,” 20).  See also Schreiner, Romans, 361-362.
[12] Moo, Romans, 426.


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