What Is Romans 7 About? – Part 3

Posted: January 11, 2011 in bible, exegesis, theology

See Part 1 and Part 2.

The Literary Context

We also must examine the literary context of Romans 7 if we want to understand what Paul is saying in this passage.  All throughout Romans, Paul has made negative comments in regard to the Law, which undoubtedly would have struck his listeners (even if they weren’t all Jewish) as somewhat incredible.  Paul makes the amazing statement in 5:20 that the Law (identified as the Mosaic Law in Part 2) “came in to increase the trespass.”  An assertion of this magnitude would certainly have demanded an explanation.  Thus, this verse forms the basic claim that Paul must subsequently explain in the following chapters.  In 6:14, Paul brings the issue into focus when he writes that his readers are “not under law but under grace.”  Then in 7:1-6, he uses the analogy of the marriage covenant to explain the relationship between the Law and those under it, and the means by which they can be freed from it, namely through death.  The Law is viewed as a captor (v. 6), resulting in people bearing “fruit for death” (v. 5).  However, through dying with Christ, those under the Law are set free, and are thus able to bear “fruit for God.”  Again, the Law is tied closely with the flesh, sinful passions, and death (v. 5).

However, while Paul is certainly trying to distance believers from the rule of the Law, emphasizing its negative effect on those under it, Paul also wants to defend the Law against charges that it is itself sinful.[1] As N.T. Wright writes, “the whole section is, at one level, a vindication of Torah against the imputation that it was identified with sin, or that it was responsible for death.”[2] And this is precisely what Paul does in Romans 7, and specifically in 7:7-10, answering the natural question that was sure to follow in light of his harsh comments: “Well then, is the Law sin?”[3]

Finally, the important parallels between chapter 7 and chapter 6 must be noted.  In chapter 6, Paul has “sin” in his cross hairs, saying that believers have “died” to it (v. 2) and have consequently been “freed” from it (v. 14, 18).  Paul then echoes these words in chapter 7 in regard to the Law, saying that believers have “died” to the Law (v. 4), and have thus been “released” from it (v. 6).  Additionally, freedom from sin (ch. 6) and freedom from the Law (ch. 7) result in slavery to another, namely righteousness (6:19-22) and God (7:4, 6).  Moo helpfully notes that chapters 6 and 7 are “parallel arguments about the believer’s relationship to two of the key powers of the old regime: sin and the Mosaic Law.”[4]

In Part 4, all that has been discussed thus far will be applied toward an interpretation of the “I” in Romans 7, along with the implications of that answer on our understanding of verses 7-10 in particular.

Endnotes:
[1] In regard to Paul’s somewhat confusing statements about the Law, Femi Adeyemi argues that rather than “prioritizing Paul’s positive texts on the Law and using them to reinterpret his negative phrases, and vise versa, one must read and interpret Paul’s sentences contextually.”  He goes on to write, “In this way it will become clear that rather than supporting a reinstitution of the Mosaic Law within the New Covenant church, Paul used the positive statements only to support his point about the termination of the Mosaic Law for the New Covenant participants,” (“Paul’s ‘Positive’ Statements about the Mosaic Law,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164 no 653 Ja-Mr [2007] 49-58).
[2] Wright, “Romans,” 549.
[3] Moo writes, “[Romans 7] provides the extensive treatment and explanation of the negative effects of the Mosaic law that Paul has briefly mentioned several times in the letter,” (Romans, 409).
[4] Douglas Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 218.

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