The sinner's plight in Romans 7
Few passages in Paul’s writings have received more attention or generated a wider divergence of interpretations than Romans 7:7–25.1 The passage speaks of a profound struggle, a conflict that lies deep within the human condition, and contains some of the most pathetic exclamations in all of Paul’s letters. What is the nature of the conflict? Where does this conflict occur? Should we interpret it autobiographically or theologically? And when does this conflict take place? Is it a pre-conversion or post-conversion struggle? Does salvation resolve it or precipitate it? Interpreters have taken many paths into this thicket of problems. Let’s start with the central theme of the passage, namely, Paul’s concern with the law.
Romans 7:7–25 in context
In Romans 1–8 Paul lays out the plan of salvation. In 1:17–3:20 he claims that divine condemnation rests upon all human beings—on Gentiles, who sin without knowing the law, and on Jews, who sin in spite of knowing the law. In 3:21–31 the apostle presents his central thesis that God offers salvation as a gift, quite apart from human works, in particular, works of law. In chapter 4 Paul provides scriptural support for this thesis, and in chapters 5 through 8 he answers some important questions that his thesis raises. He discusses death and life in chapter 5; sin and sanctity in 6:1–7:6.
This sets the stage for Paul’s central concern in Romans 7:7–25. From everything said so far, he makes it clear that sin and the law are closely related. This raises serious questions. Is there something sinful about the law? Are sin and law practical equivalents? Paul raises this question, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?” And this conclusion he immediately rejects. “By no means!”2 As this exclamation indicates, the purpose of what follows clarifies the relationship between sin and the law. 3 Paul wants to prevent anyone from concluding from his remarks in 7:1–6 that “the law is sin.”4
The relation between sin and the law
Between the essential nature of the law and its actual function in human life, a sharp disjunction exists. As the formal expression of God’s will, the law is holy, just, and good (v. 12); in itself, it promises life (v. 10). As it functions in concrete human life, however, the law leads to death (v. 10), and the reason for this discrepancy is sin. As the expression of God’s will, the law’s functions are to prohibit and condemn sin,5 and when the law enters the domain of human affairs, where sin reigns, sin seizes these functions of the law and uses them to secure and complete its domination of human beings. By using the divine commandment to obtain victory over human beings, sin renders the law, which itself is holy and good, an instrument of death.6 Sin is much more than the moral failure of an individual; it is an active and enslaving power.7
In Romans 7 Paul weaves together the themes of law, sin, and death, interpreting each in relation to the other two. Though inherently good, the law results in death by virtue of its appropriation by sin (v. 10). This does not mean that the law brings death; sin brings death through the law. Since sin and death each derive their power over humanity from the other, their relationship is one of “reciprocal complicity.” Death gets its grasp on humanity through sin; conversely, sin reigns by death, which is its normal end.8
Death, like sin, depends on the law for its existence. The law connects with death by virtue of its introduction into the realm of sarx, the Greek word for “flesh,” which suffers from a number of misleading English translations.9 Essentially, sarx is the natural sphere of human activity, the sphere where humans understand themselves in terms of the visible and demonstrable. The problem is that sin now dominates the sphere of normal human activity, and as a result becomes the domain of death. Thus, the law, which ought to lead to life, becomes the servant or instrument of death.
Whose conflict? The psychological answer
All this sets the stage for the most controversial part of the passage, the portrayal of a person who finds a horrifying gulf between intention and achievement. This conflictutterly bewilders—“I do not understand my own actions” (v. 15) and deeply distresses—“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24). But where does this conflict take place? Who is being described, and by whom, or from what standpoint? The prevalent answers to this question fall into two major categories: the autobiographical-psychological and the salvation-historical.10
Those who take the first approach regard Romans 7:7–25 as “a direct psychological analysis of the experience of salvation from sin.”11 More specifically, they construe the passage as a description of Paul’s own inner struggle, grounded in painful introspection.12 They take at face value Paul’s use of the first person singular pronoun, and they believe that the pathetic cry of dismay—“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24)—could only be uttered by one who had experienced this struggle himself.13
Those who agree that Paul depicts his own experience in these verses disagree, however, as to whether this struggle took place before or after the apostle’s conversion, and the divergent answers to this question have a long history. The Greek fathers generally referred the experience to the unregenerate person, while the Latin fathers and the Reformers referred it to the experience of the regenerate.14 More recent interpreters tend to locate the struggle depicted here in Paul’s pre-conversion experience. For C. H. Dodd, this passage describes Paul’s inner state when he set out for Damascus, portraying “the momentous beginning of his Christian career.”15
According to the autobiographicalpsychological interpretation, verses 7–13 describe stages in Paul’s growing consciousness of sin, and verses 9–11 illuminate this awakening with an allegorical interpretation of Adam’s fall.16 There were thus two stages in Paul’s pre-conversion experience: a period of relatively happy ignorance, followed by a sharp conflict between the law and his sinful passions waking to activity. The first stage represents a happy childhood, before any awareness of sin.17 With the dawn of moral consciousness, however, the growing boy found desires in himself that stood in direct conflict with the law of God. He was plunged into moral perplexity by the radical discrepancy between his aspirations to keep the law and his inability to do so (v. 15).18 The idea that this struggle with temptation is an internal, subjective one finds support in the fact that the one commandment mentioned here (v. 7) is the only one in the Decalogue that could be fulfilled only by an internal attitude of mind.19
W. D. Davies believes that Romans 7:7–25 reflects the rabbinic doctrine of the two impulses,20 according to which every person experiences a conflict between an evil impulse and a good impulse. Just as Paul divides his life into a period of relative innocence when sin lay dormant and a period when the commandment came and sin sprang to life, the rabbis discussed the different stages of human development. The evil impulse enters at birth and reigns alone for thirteen years during which an individual was not morally responsible. At the age of 13 the good impulse enters and thereafter the struggle between the two does not cease. For Davies, Romans 7 gives us Paul’s account of his struggle with the evil impulse.21
According to the autobiographical interpretation, verses 21–25 depict a tragic division within Paul’s personality, specifically a split between his willing and doing, which drives him to the depths of despair.22 What presumably accounts for the intensity of this internal struggle is Paul’s extraordinary commitment to the pharisaic ethic of legalism, which drove him to seek aspirations he could never achieve, namely, faultless obedience to the law. When he failed to attain this objective, he began to doubt the validity of his endeavor and questioned the law as a source of righteousness. Thus, Paul’s disenchantment with legalism as a Pharisee served as direct preparation for his encounter with the gospel, which provided a “new and better solution” to his pre-conversion problem and filled the “vacant place” created by the failure of his attempts to keep the law.23
On the autobiographical-psychological interpretation, Paul’s pre-conversion and post-conversion experiences are united by a common disillusionment with legalism. The gospel provided a solution to his pharisaic problem. Paul’s pre-conversion failure to achieve righteousness by keeping the law psychologically prepared him for the gospel. The law was thus valid as a “salutary and necessary discipline” and the gospel “supplemented” the work of the law.24
But not all who interpret Romans 7 psychologically refer it to the Christian’s pre-conversion experience. Many see it as a description of Paul’s experience after he accepted Christ, and a paradigm of the struggle that all Christians encounter as they strive to live Christlike lives and discover that they are far from perfect. Those on the Christian path need saving grace as much as they ever did, and they realize this more and more as time goes by. In this vein, G. C. Berkouwer insists that the subject of Romans 7 describes “not the natural man as seen by the believer, but the believing child of God as by the grace of God he has learned to see himself.”25
James Dunn takes a similar position. The existential anguish of 7:14–24, he argues, “sounds like an experience Paul knew only too well.” Furthermore, the conclusion of the section, which directly follows the exclamation of victory—“So then I myself with my mind serve the law of God, and with my flesh the law of sin”—would be entirely confusing if it described a past state. And finally, the notion that the divided I continues in and through the process of salvation fits nicely with the “already-not yet” tension characteristic of Paul’s eschatological schema.26
Attractive as it seems in our introspective age, the psychological interpretation of Romans 7 raises serious questions, whether we apply it either to Paul’s pre- or post-conversion experience. For one thing, it is at odds with the overall argument of Romans, where Paul shows no interest in personal experiences and confessions, nor in the moral evolution of the individual soul.27 Instead of our developing moral consciousness, Paul’s explicit concern is the course of salvation and the situation of human beings with respect to it.
A greater problem lies in the fact that the autobiographical view contradicts Paul’s own evaluation of his pre-conversion experience. According to Philippians 3:6, Paul, the Pharisee, regarded himself as “blameless” with respect to righteousness under the law. By his own estimation, Paul’s attempts to keep the law were completely successful, and he derived nothing but pride and satisfaction from them. In this sense, Paul’s legalism was a success, not a failure.
Furthermore, the notion that Paul as a Pharisee experienced the law as a stimulus to sin stands at odds with the rabbinic view, according to which the study of the Torah is precisely what stems the influence of sin.28 And finally, no evidence exists that Paul ever regarded his conversion as a psychological turning point. Instead, his interest in it lies purely in the theological insight which it brought.29
Whose conflict? The theological answer
Those whose approach to Romans 7 is theological, rather than the psychological, view this passage in the context of salvation-history. They note that Romans frequently refers to three great stages of history: before the giving of the law, between the giving of the law and the Christ event, and after the Christ event. And they construe Romans 7:7–25 as an analysis of humanity during the second of these periods, that is, in the age of the law.30
In this view, the use of I in this passage cannot be necessarily considered an autobiographical reference. Paul elsewhere makes use of I when it is clear that he did not primarily refer to himself (1 Cor. 13; Rom. 13).31 Similarly, the I of Romans 7 refers not to any one person in particular but to humanity in general.
The salvation-historical interpretation takes the “commandment” of verse 9 as a reference to the Decalogue, and it draws important parallels between Romans 7 and 5.32 Both chapters are concerned with a “history that shapes human nature.” Romans 7, however, narrows down the sum total of humankind—the “all men” included in the Adam-Christ correlation of Romans 5—to the experiences of a single I. Thus understood, the two passages, Romans 5:12–21 and Romans 7:7–25, are mutually corrective. The latter prevents Adam-Christ from being misunderstood as mere speculation, and the former prevents Romans 7 from being misunderstood as a mere analysis of the inner life.33 In this view, the statement, “I once was alive apart from the law” (v. 9) refers to the situation of humanity in general before Moses’ time (Rom. 5:12–14), when sin was dead (v. 8). But once the law, i.e. through Moses, entered human history (Rom. 5:20), by its nature holy and good (v. 12), what in itself promised life actually resulted in death (v. 10).34
Rudolf Bultmann adds an important note to the salvation-historical interpretation of Romans 7.35 As he sees it, Romans 7:7–25 not only gives us a “picture of the objective situation of man-under-the-law” 36 but describes this situation “as it appears to the eye of one who has been freed from the law by Christ.”37 In other words, it is a post-conversion analysis of a pre-conversion situation.
According to Bultmann, subjective interpretations of Romans 7 miss the whole point of the passage. Paul’s overriding concern is to show the situation of sinful humanity as utterly desperate. One of the things that makes it so desperate is the fact that human beings under the law are pathetically ignorant of their predicament. Sin has so blighted their perspective that they think they can gain righteousness by keeping the law. Not only are their efforts doomed to fail, not only can no one attain righteousness by works of law, but the very intention to do so is a sin. As Bultmann interprets Paul, legalism, the attempt to gain righteousness by keeping the law, is not merely a good idea that turns out to be impractical, but a mistake in principle. In fact, its very premise is sinful.
On this reading, the ou gin sk of verse 15—“I don’t know”—reflects the sinner’s failure to comprehend his own situation. What the sinner “doesn’t know” is that their very attempt to achieve righteousness through the law is sinful. And since this insight appears only to the eyes of Christian faith, it cannot refer to an inner division Paul experienced while attempting futilely to serve the law as a Pharisee.38
For Paul, then, the most pathetic victim of sin would not be a person suffering the results of obvious transgressions—nor the struggling would-be saint, who repeatedly tries and fails to live up to the law’s ideals. Instead, it is the good person, the moral person, who believes that their legalistic goodness, the goodness achieved by efforts to keep the law, actually improves his or her standing before God. That person is the most pathetic of sinners. That is the wretched person of whom Paul speaks.
After all, the insight that our performance always falls short of our aspiration is available to any reflective person, as Ovid’s frequently cited observation attests—“I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.” And the Jews were well aware that transgressing the commandments of the Torah was sinful. These insights are hardly peculiar to Christian faith.
Instead, the “shock value” of this passage lies in the fact that it contradicts all the conventional wisdom of Paul’s day and ours. It is not an insight available to human beings generally, and—this is Paul’s point here—it is specifically obscured to human beings under the law. Paul’s radical contention says that human beings are sinful, not only in their violations of the law, but precisely in their attempts to keep it. Thus Bultmann writes, “The way of the law is wrong, not because in consequence of transgressions it does not lead to the goal, but because its direction is wrong, for it is the way that is supposed to lead to ‘one’s own righteousness’ (Rom. 10:3). It is not merely evil deeds already committed that make a man reprehensible in God’s sight, but man’s intention of becoming righteous before God by keeping the law.”39
Once we see this passage as a description of “sin” from the perspective of “salvation,” everything falls into place.
Since a person under the law does not see their true situation, “the willing” described in verses 15–20 cannot refer to conscious acts of volition. It is not a subjective, or conscious, movement of the will, but, in Bultmann’s words, “the trans-subjective propensity of human existence as such.”40 And since the “bringing about” of verse 15 is transsubjective, it refers not to the empirical deed of transgression, but to the result of the doing. For those who exist under the law, every deed, bad or good by conventional standards, has the same outcome: it leads to death.41
The split in humanity described in verses 21–25 is also trans-subjective and not a split between higher and lower elements in our constitution or between inner and outer dimensions of our existence. This split does not presuppose a naturalistic dualism whereby our ineffective doing becomes attributed to an inferior element, such as the “flesh,” while our willing is attributed to a higher element, such as the “mind” or “the inner man.”42 Instead, it refers to the fact that everything we intend or will to lead to life leads only to death. Everything undertaken by human beings under the law—whether relatively good or bad—is from the beginning directed against itself. Instead of leading to life, it leads only to death.43
The salvation-historical interpretation as modified by Bultmann has several advantages over the autobiographicalpsychological approach. First, it takes seriously Paul’s evaluation of his own pre-conversion experience. Philippians 3:6 gives us Paul’s pre-conversion account of his life as a Pharisee, and from this perspective, everything was fine. His attempts to keep the law were entirely successful. Romans 7 gives us Paul’s view of the same experience from the standpoint of Christian faith. And from this perspective his previous self-assessment was a dreadful illusion.44 He thought he was gaining life, when in reality he was headed for death.
The salvation-historical perspective thus provides a consistently and profoundly negative evaluation of legalism. For subjectivist interpretations, legalism is merely a practical impossibility, and it may even have positive pedagogical value. It can prepare people for the gospel by showing them how hard it is to keep the law. For the salvation-historical interpretation, however, legalism is neither positive nor neutral, but entirely negative. Unalterably opposed to salvation as God’s gift to us in Christ, it is therefore essentially, and incorrigibly, sinful. Interpreted as an emphatic critique of legalism, Romans 7 fits perfectly within Paul’s theological position as a whole.
Bultmann’s interpretation has generated considerable opposition over the years. For Hermann Ridderbos, Bultmann’s existentialism distorts his exegesis. The sin-producing effect of the law in Romans 7 refers, not to the attempt to establish one’s own righteousness before God, but to the sinful desire and the acts of transgression.45 A more thorough critique arises from advocates of the “New Perspective on Paul.”46 For these scholars, “Paul’s critique of legalism” has been drastically overstated. “Luther and his Bultmannian successors were . . . wrong in attributing to Paul an understanding of sin’s essence as keeping the law ‘too well.’ ” Proponents of the “hard Lutheran understanding” fail to ask how any Jew, even Paul, “could ever have found keeping the Torah something worthy of blame.” In fact, some New Perspective scholars maintain that Paul was opposed, not to keeping the law in general, but to attaching inflated importance to certain Jewish “identity markers,” such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance.47
The New Perspective has stimulated interest in the whole question of Paul’s Jewishness and, consequently, the relation between Christianity and its Jewish origins.48 Does it provide a radical reinterpretation of Romans 7? Not unless we lose sight of the essential concern of the passage. The purpose of Romans 7:7–25 is to distinguish the law from sin and to clarify their relationship. The true antithesis, as Brendan Byrne notes, is not between gospel and law but between grace and sin.49 The law is good by nature, but sin uses the law and ultimately it kills us.50
So, what is the sinner’s plight in Romans 7? Is there a conclusive argument for one interpretation or another among the considerable diversity we have observed? Perhaps not. But a frustration from an exegetical standpoint may be encouraging from a personal one. Like the truth of all great literature, the meaning of Paul’s letters can never be wholly plumbed or perfectly fixed. So, however unclear we are as to the sinner’s plight in Romans 7—whether we place it before or after conversion, whether we see it as a subjective or trans-subjective conflict— this very uncertainty enables each of us to see our own struggle with sin in the mirror it provides. Most important, there is one thing we can be certain of, and that is the solution to the problem. As Paul makes crystal clear, Jesus Christ is our only hope.
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1 According to James D. G. Dunn, “The function of Rom. 7:7–25 is one of the most disputed issues in NT studies.” The Theology of the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 472.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptural quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
3 W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), 179.
4 Rudolf Bultmann, “Romans 7 and the Anthropology of Paul,” in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), 153.
5 W. Gutbrod, “Nomos,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965–74), 4:1073, 1074. (Hereafter, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament will be TDNT.) These are simply the negative side of the law’s positive function as the expression of God’s will.
6 Walter Grundmann, “Hamartano,” in TDNT, 1:311.
7 Günther Bornkamm, Paul, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 125. And by virtue of its connection to sin, death, too, is a power that makes its victims prisoners and sets the seal on their lost state.
8 Pierre Benoit, “La Loi et la Croix D’Apres Saint Paul,” Revue Biblique, 47 (1938): 489, 490.
9 As “lower nature,” for example, in the New International Version.
10 Ethelbert Stauffer, “Eg ,” in TDNT, 2:358.
11 C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1959), 123.
12 Sanday and Headlam, 186.
13 Dodd, 125.
14 Sanday and Headlam, 184,185.
15 Dodd, 125.
16 Dodd, 123, 124
17 Dodd, 128; Sanday and Headlam, 186.
18 This is a universal human dilemma. Both Aristotle and Ovid describe the experience noted in Dodd, (130, 131).
19 Dodd, 127, 128
20 W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1955), 27.
21 Ibid., 23, 24.
22 Dodd, 131.
23 Sanday and Headlam, 187.
24 Sanday and Headlam, 188, 189.
25 G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, Studies in Dogmatics, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952), 63.
26 Dunn, 476, 475.
27 Stauffer, “Eg ,” in TDNT, 2:359.
28 Davies, 22.
29 Bultmann, “Paul,” in Existence and Faith, 114.
30 Stauffer, “Eg ,” in TDNT, 2:359.
31 Ibid., 358.
32 Gottlob Schrenk, “Entol ,” in TDNT, 2:550, 551. Besides Schrenk, others making this connection include Bornkamm, 125; Bultmann, “Romans 7,” 157; and Stauffer, “Eg ,” in TDNT, 2:358,359.
33 Bornkamm, 125,127.
34 Stauffer, “Eg ,” in TDNT, 2:358, 359.
35 Bultmann refers to “the purpose of the law in the ‘history of salvation,’ ” and he regards Romans 7:7–25 in unity with Romans 5:12–21. “Romans 7,” in Existence and Faith, 157.
36 Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), 1:266
37 Bultmann, “Romans 7,” in Existence and Faith, 147.
38 Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 2:267.
39 Ibid., 2:266, 267.
40 Bultmann, “Romans 7,” in Existence and Faith, 150.
41 Ibid., 155.
42 Ibid., 151.
43 Ibid., 155, 156.
44 Ibid., 361, 362.
45 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 145, 146.
46 This expression appears in the title of an article by James D. G. Dunn fi rst published in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 65 (1983): 95–122.
47 Brendan Byrne, “Interpreting Romans: The New Perspective and Beyond,” Interpretation, 58 (July 2004): 248, 249.
48 Is Paul’s “Jewishness,” in particular his claim to be a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a basis for affirming or rejecting the Jewish origins of Christianity? Andrew S. Jacobs addresses this important question in “A Jews’ Jew: Paul and the Early Christian Problem of Jewish Origins,” Journal of Religion, 86 (April 2006): 258–286.
49 Byrne, 249.
50 As Beverly Roberts Gaventa puts it, “the most disturbing element in the resumé of Sin is the claim made in ch. 7 that ‘sin is capable of exerting power even over the law.’ ” “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition,” in Interpretation, 58 (July 2004); 234.