(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 present 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] Douglas Moo writes that “most Pauline scholars think that Paul describes his life as a Jew under the law.”[2] He continues, “We adopt the… view, that Paul is describing his life as a Jew under the law, before he came to Christ.”[3] 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 present struggle with sin. Consider a number of reasons:

Grammatically, it refers to Paul. Paul speaks in the first person (“I”) and in 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. (We will consider such possible reasons below)

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. Virtually all commentators agree that chapters 6 and 8 refer to believers in their struggle with sin.[4] Why then would be believe that chapter 7 is referring to a zealous non-Christian Jewish person in the old covenant?

Theologically, this passage refers to a Christian’s present struggle with sin. Consider several of the key passages:

(1) How could a non-believer “joyfully concur with the law of God” (v.22)? Moo argues that Jews could be “zealous for God” (Rom. 10:2).[5] He also cites the example of Martin Luther, who struggled with the demands of the law but continually failed. We find this argument to be somewhat compelling.

On the other hand, Paul later writes that 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). Can this really describe a person who is “joyfully concurring with the law of God”?

Furthermore, Romans 1-3 give an exhaustive treatment of Paul’s view of total depravity, which would of course include zealous religious Jewish people. Can we really believe that these people could be considered to “joyfully concur with the law of God”?

(2) Only Christians have an “inner man” (7:22). Moo admits that the use of this expression (“inner man”) is only used of Christians by Paul (2 Cor. 4:16; Eph. 3:16).[6] To avoid this conclusion, Moo appeals to secular Greek usage of “inner man” to show that the term can be used of “man… according to his Godward, immortal side.”[7] However, this is a key fallacy of hermeneutics: trumping the biblical usage of a word with extrabiblical usages. The Bible is its best interpreter. We shouldn’t leap to extrabiblical usage, if the biblical usage is clear and present.

(3) A non-Christian would not give thanks to Jesus Christ (v.25). If Romans 7 is about a non-believer, then why are they acknowledging Jesus Christ? Moo argues that this is consistent with his view that the non-believer comes to faith in Christ at the end of the chapter.

(4) Paul didn’t have this struggle with sin as a non-believer (Phil. 3:6). Elsewhere, Paul writes of his pre-conversion experience: “As to the righteousness which is in the Law, [I was] found blameless” (Phil. 3:6). Moo counters this by arguing that Philippians 3 refers to Paul’s official status, while Romans 7 was his personal experience.[8] However, this stretches our credulity. After all, Paul is recounting his personal experience in Philippians 3. In reality, his “official status” was that he was a sinner—deeply in need of God’s grace!

Arguments in favor of the view that this is a NON-CHRISTIAN

Moo offers two central arguments for his view that Romans 7:14-25 refers to a pre-converted Jewish man, struggling with the law:

ARGUMENT #1: Paul’s description in Romans 7 contradicts his description of believers in chapters 6 and 8.  Moo writes, “Paul’s description of the person in 7:13-25 is contradictory to his description of the Christian in chapters 6 and 8.”[9]

 

“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (Rom. 7:14)

having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18, 22; cf. 6:2, 6, 14).

 “I know that nothing good dwells in me” (Rom. 7:18)

“you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9)
“making me a prisoner of the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23)

“the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2)

 

When looked at closely, however, each of these passages has a reasonable interpretation on the view that this is referring to Paul’s present struggle with sin:

“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (Rom. 7:14). We would reply that Paul is describing a Christian’s condition in Romans 7:14, but a Christian’s position in Romans 6:18. The former is our spiritual experience, while the latter is our objective identity “in Christ.” 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.” Non-believers do not have this separation of service—only a believer would.

“I know that nothing good dwells in me” (7:18). We would reply that 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. Moo takes this qualification (“that is, in my flesh”) as a definition (i.e. “he is still ‘in the flesh’”).[10] However, this is not the language being used. “In the flesh” refers to position, while “in my flesh” refers to condition.

“Making me a prisoner of the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23). Again, this refers to our condition, rather than our position “in Christ.” It is in the present tense, while Romans 8:2 (“Jesus has set you free from the law of sin”) is in the past tense completed.

ARGUMENT #2: Paul’s description ends in defeat—not victory. Moo concedes that Galatians 5:17 refers to an ongoing struggle with sin: “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.” Yet, he argues that Romans 7:23 ends with defeat—not victory.[11]

Two responses can be made to this argument: First, Romans 7 does not end in defeat; rather, it ends with Paul turning to Christ and giving thanks him (7:25). Second, Galatians 5:17 doesn’t end in victory! Instead, it ends with Paul writing that “you may not do the things that you please.”

Conclusion

It seems that the natural reading of this text makes the most sense of the grammar, context, and theology of Romans, as well as the rest of 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.”[12] 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 unable to identify with the struggle Paul describes here.

This interpretation could really point to how presuppositions can affect our ability to exegete a text. Moo originally held that Romans 7 referred to Paul’s present struggle with sin. However, he writes, “One term I was teaching through a series of texts about the law. As I worked through text after text, I developed a perspective on the law different from what I had previously held. When I came to Romans 7 with this perspective, the text looked different than it had before. Within this new framework, I suddenly saw how the text made better sense as a description of Paul’s pre-Christian experience. I experienced what we commonly call today… a ‘paradigm shift.’”[13] While Moo is clear to point out that we all have biases, it’s notable that he so clearly reflects his presuppositions regarding the law as a reason for why he interprets Romans 7 in this way.

[1] Of course, Dunn is just summarizing the consensus of scholars. He himself believes that this section is autobiographical. Dunn, James. Romans 1–8 (Vol. 38A). Dallas: Word, Incorporated. 1998. 382.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 235.

[3] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 235.

[4] For instance, Moo agrees that the context of Romans 6 refers to the struggle of a believer in sin, but he contends that Romans 7 is about the new covenant shift from the old covenant. Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 240-241.

[5] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 244.

[6] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 237.

[7] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 238.

[8] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 245.

[9] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 235.

[10] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 236.

[11] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 241-242.

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

[13] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 239.