(Rom. 7:14-25) Is Paul describing his own personal struggle with sin?

CLAIM: Many interpreters do not believe Paul is referring to his own personal struggle with sin here. Dunn writes, “Most interpreters now also agree that it would be a mistake to treat the passage autobiographically and to look for matching stages in Paul’s own experience.”[1] Other interpreters believe that Paul is referring to his own personal struggle with sin. Which is a better interpretation?

RESPONSE: Paul is surely describing his own personal struggle with sin. Consider a number of reasons:

Grammatically, it refers to Paul. Paul speaks in the first person (“I”) and the present tense. If we are following grammatical-historical hermeneutics, we need to respect the rules of grammar and take these at face value—unless some strong reason would incline us not to.

Contextually, it refers to a believer struggling with sin AFTER coming to Christ. The context of Romans 5-8 is about believers growing with Christ. Later in chapter 8, everyone agrees that Paul is describing believers. But chapter 8 continues to describe the struggle believers have with following Christ or their old sin nature.

Theologically, it CANNOT refer to a non-Christian. How could a non-believer delight in God’s law (v.22)? Later Paul writes, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom. 8:7). Moreover, only Christians have the “inner man” (v.22; cf. 2 Cor. 4:16; Eph. 3:16).

Theologically, it CAN refer to a Christian. Paul’s struggle with sin fits other passages. Elsewhere, Paul writes, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17). Paul writes, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v.25). Note the present tense. This is referring to sanctification, because Paul is currently being delivered and saved by Christ.

Objections

(7:14) “[Paul was] sold into bondage to sin.” Those who deny Paul was writing about himself here argue that this doesn’t fit with Paul’s description of a believer when “sin shall not be master over you” (Rom. 6:14). Yet believers are torn between Christ and sin. In verse 25, we read, “On the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

(7:18) “I know that nothing good dwells in me.” This does not fit with the description of a Christian, who has the Holy Spirit living in him (Eph. 1:13-14). However, we need to finish the verse. The complete verse says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (v.18). This fits with the Christian experience. While the Holy Spirit dwells in us, so does sin and the flesh. Both are true, and Paul makes this caveat clear.

Conclusion

It seems that the natural reading of this text makes the most sense of the grammar, the context, and other theological considerations from elsewhere in the NT. In fact, it’s shocking that interpreters would be confused on what is autobiographically describing here. We agree with Osborne who writes, “Very few Christians have read this section without thinking of their own struggle against sin.”[2] We agree. It doesn’t shock us that Paul would explain the plight of trying to follow the law from self-effort. It only shocks us that an interpreter would be self-righteous enough to think they have never struggled with sin at this level.

[1] Dunn, James. Romans 1–8 (Vol. 38A). Dallas: Word, Incorporated. 1998. 382.

[2] Osborne, Grant R. Romans. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004. 182.