What is Romans 7 About? – Part 4

Posted: January 21, 2011 in bible, exegesis, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The “I” of Romans 7

Now that we have examined the literary context, we can turn back to the two remaining possible views: the autobiographical view and the view that Paul is speaking on behalf of Israel as a whole.  In regards to the idea that Paul is referring to his own Bar Mitzvah, Napier notes that there is “no attestation of the bar mitzvah ceremony from this period; it seems to have originated at a later date.”[1] He also writes, “Historically, the description of the “I” as ‘once living apart from Torah’ (7:9) simply does not coincide with any first-century Jewish self-understanding.”  Paul would not have seen himself as not under the Law at some point during his life, for “there is little evidence that a Jewish child was ever considered to have so little responsibility for the law as to be said to be ‘without the law.’”[2]

However, those who hold the autobiographical view argue that it seems undeniable that Paul is speaking of himself, and not Israel, in vv. 14-25.  Given that fact, Moo is probably right when he asserts that “Paul uses egō to describe himself – and, by extension, other Jews – in solidarity with the experiences of his people.”[3] Thus, the correct view seems to be a combination of the autobiographical view and the understanding that Paul is speaking on behalf of Israel.

The Relationship Between the Law and Sin

Now that we have established who the “I” is referring to in the latter half of Romans 7, we can turn to an examination of verses 7-10 in particular.  Paul begins by asking the question that was undoubtedly on the tongues of all his listeners: “Is the Law sin?”  This is typical of Paul’s diatribe style in Romans.[4] In answer to the question, Paul rings a resounding “By no means!”  However, he quickly launches into a discussion describing the close union that the Law and sin share with one another (vv. 7-11).  This is Paul’s explanation for 5:20 and 7:5, where he says that the Law came to “increase the trespass” and that our sinful passions are “aroused by the Law.”  Here Paul declares that it is through the Law that he (Israel) knows sin.  Moo argues that Paul uses “know” (egnōn) here to mean more than simply an intellectual understanding of sin, but rather a full recognition of the “real nature and power of sin.”[5] Wright echoes him when he writes, “The law, in other words, was the channel not only for knowledge about sin but for knowledge of sin in the sense that, as a result of the process, ‘I’ knew, from the inside, what sin meant in practice.”[6] After making this general statement about the Law making sin known, Paul gives a specific example, namely the tenth commandment of the Decalogue.  He says that had the Law not said, “Do not covet,” he (again, representing Israel) would not have known what it was to covet.

Some interpreters have seen Paul’s choice of this commandment as indicative of his own personal struggle, perhaps in regards to sexual temptation.[7] However, there is no reason to read this much into his choice of example.  A much more likely understanding is that Paul chooses the tenth commandment as representative of the Decalogue as a whole.[8] This fits in well as further support for the view that Paul is speaking on behalf of Israel as a nation, referring back to the historical event of God’s giving of the Law through Moses at Sinai.  Thus, when Israel received the Mosaic Law, the net effect was that her desire for sin increased.  On this point, many commentators note that this is the common human experience in regard to any “law” or “rules” impressed upon them.  Humans have a tendency to feel a greater desire to do something after it has been prohibited.[9] Paul’s seems to be saying that this was the case with the nation of Israel, perhaps thinking of Israel’s construction and worship of the golden calf at Sinai (Exodus 32) almost immediately after God’s command not to create and worship idols (Exodus 20:4).

The Alliance Between the Law and Sin

In verse 8, Paul moves on to explain this alliance between the Law and sin.  He writes that sin “[seized] an opportunity” presented by the commandment.[10] In this instance, as he does numerous times throughout Romans, Paul speaks of sin as if it is an active power or force, working toward a specific goal.[11] We should also note Paul’s choice of words here, for it helps to illustrate the force of what he is saying.  The word “opportunity” is a translation of the Greek word aphormē, which was often used in reference to military bases established within an enemy’s territory.  It was from these outposts that the aggressors would launch their attack, deep into their enemy’s land.[12] John Stott writes, “So it is that sin establishes within us a base or foothold by means of the commandments which provoke us.”[13]

The second half of verse 8 and verse 9 form a chiastic pattern, outlined below:[14]

“Apart from the Law”                        “When the Commandment came”
“sin is dead” (v. 8c)                                    “sin sprang to life again” (v. 9b)
“I was alive” (v. 9a)                                    “I died” (v. 10a)

But How Was Israel “Alive” Before the Law?

It is at this point that those who view the “I” in this passage as referring primarily to Israel are faced with their most serious problem.  If nomos refers to the Mosaic Law in this passage, then Paul seems to be saying that before Israel received the Law at Sinai, she was, in some significant way, alive while sin was dead. Then when the Law came, sin came alive, while Israel died.  However, it is clear from the early chapters of Romans that Paul does not think that those who lived prior to the Law did not sin, and were thus “alive” in a truly spiritual sense.[15] Sin existed before the giving of the Mosaic Law at Sinai.  Therefore, Moo must be right when he says that Paul “does not mean that [sin] did not exist but that it was not as ‘active’ or ‘powerful’ before the law as after.”[16] However, it would be beneficial to note Wright’s comments on this verse as well.  Although denying that Paul is primarily referencing Adam in this passage (as those who hold the Adamic view argue), he is not opposed to allusions to Eden.  He writes,

What happened on Sinai recapitulated what had happened in Eden…What [Paul] has done here is so to tell the one story, that of Israel, that echoes of the other, that of Adam, are clearly heard…’I was once alive apart from the law’…refers within Paul’s controlling narrative to Israel in the pre-Mosaic state, corresponding to Adam in the garden before the fateful command had been issued…Sinai and Genesis 3 go hand in hand.[17]

Wright’s nuanced comments should be kept in mind when reading Romans 7.  This view also helps to explain the potential allusion to the Serpent in the garden in verse 11.[18]

Paul’s Summary

Verse 10 is Paul’s summary of all that he has just said: the commandment that was supposed to result in life actually produced death for Israel.  When the Law came, mere sin became transgression, a more serious offense since it was openly rebellious against God’s revealed will.[19] Paul may be responding to a common Jewish belief that the Law had some sort of “life-giving power,” which perhaps had its roots in passages like Leviticus 18:5 and Psalm 19:7-8.[20] While not denying the fact that, hypothetically, if one was to completely obey the Law they would receive eternal life, Paul understands that no one can actually do this; therefore, the Law only results in condemnation and death for all people.  Thus, as Ziesler comments, “ the Law has been ‘hijacked’ by sin, with the result that no one can fulfill the Law at all.”[21]

In my final post, I will briefly comment on how this interpretation of Romans 7 can be applied to daily life.  While I think there is value in studying simply for the sake of correctly understanding what the biblical writers were trying to say, we must never forget that they never separated truth from life.  Right doctrine (which assumes right exegesis) cannot be divorced from right living.

[1] Napier, “Sin and Torah,” 18.
[2] Moo, Romans, 430.
[3] Moo, Romans, 431.  Moo cites the Jewish Passover ritual, in which each Jew says that he or she was in slavery in Egypt and was subsequently freed by God through the Passover event.  The Jews had a strong sense of corporate solidarity.
[4] Schreiner, Romans, 358.
[5] Moo, Romans, 433.
[6] Wright, “Romans,” 562.
[7] See R.H. Gundry, “The Moral Frustration of Paul before his Conversion: Sexual Lust in Romans 7:7-25,” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1980) 228-245.  J.A. Ziesler argues against Gundry’s view, proposing other reasons as to why Paul chose the command not to covet as his example in this instance (“The Role of the Tenth Commandment in Romans 7,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament no 33 Je [1988] 41-56).
[8] Moo, Romans, 434.  Moo notes that some previous Jewish writers seemed to view the tenth commandment as representative of the Decalogue, believing that covetousness was the root of all other sins (see note 35).
[9] For example, Mounce writes, “The point is often made that only after a rule is put in place do people want to do whatever it forbids,” (Romans, 164).
[10] Some commentators note that Paul switches from using nomos (law) to entolēs (commandment),
[11] See Moo, Romans, 436; Fee, Romans, 141.
[12] Bruce puts it quite powerfully when he writes, “Sin is personified as a powerful enemy, who has established a base of operations (aphormē) within the citadel of Mansoul,” (Bruce, Romans, 141).  See also John Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove: Intervasity Press, 2001) 202-203; Mounce, Romans, 164, note 80; Moo, Romans, 435, note 39.
[13] Stott, Romans, 202-203.
[14] This is taken directly from Moo (Romans, 437).
[15] See 1:18-25; 5:12-14
[16] Moo, Romans, 437.  Moo cites James 2:26, Romans 4:15, 5:13-14, 20, and 7:5 in support of this idea.
[17] Wright, “Romans,” 563.
[18] In verse 11, Paul says that sin, through the commandment, “deceived” him.  This is in the same word family as the word used by the translators of the LXX in Genesis 3:13 in reference to the serpent.  Additionally, Paul uses this same word (exapataō) in reference to Eve being “deceived” by the serpent in 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:14.  Wright argues that Paul is “clearly talking about the serpent in the garden,” (“Romans,” 563-564).  However, Jervis argues against such a reading, listing several objections to the suggestion that Paul may be alluding to Adam in this section (“Sin’s Use of Obedience,” 195-196).
[19] Moo summarizes this view well when he writes, “Accordingly, ‘I died’ will describe that situation according to which the law, by turning ‘sin’ into ‘transgression,’ confirms, personalizes, and radicalizes the spiritual death in which all find themselves since Adam.  Israel, in this sense, ‘died’ when the law was given to it,” (Romans, 438).
[20] Moo, Romans, 438.  Moo cites a number of Jewish documents that claim this (notes 56 and 61).
[21] Ziesler, “Tenth Commandment,” 41.


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