(Rom. 7:8-13) Is Paul describing himself here, or something (or someone) else?

Commentators disagree over the fact that Paul is referring to himself during spiritual growth here. We have already argued that Romans 7:6 refers to sanctification—not justification (see comments on Rom. 7:6). After Paul came to Christ, he must have fallen back under his old ways of trying to go back under the Law. As a former Pharisee, this would have been a real challenge for Paul. When he fell back under the Law for his spiritual growth, this didn’t bring growth; it brought death.

Philippians 3:4-6 describes Paul’s view of himself as a Pharisee, but Romans 7:7-25 offers his view as a Christian. Now that he has met Christ, he realizes that he wasn’t blameless. If Paul was truly blameless, he wouldn’t have needed Christ (Gal. 2:20).

Later in chapter 8, commentators agree that Paul is referring to the Christian life, why not here? It seems to this author that they are offended at the thought that Paul could struggle with sin, or that Paul would say that falling under the Law brought death. But this seems to be the correct interpretation of Paul’s words. From here, we will give an assessment of other views:

Bar Mitzvah?

Some commentators believe that Paul is speaking in the first person about his preconversion to Christ. Paul writes, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” (Rom. 7:9). Under this view, Paul is describing his Bar Mitzvah, when as a Jewish boy he became “a son of the commandment” at the age of 13 (Mishnah Abot, 5.24).

Of course, the Bible does teach that little children aren’t going to face judgment, because they are under the age of accountability.[1] But it never states the age at which this occurs, because children develop at different speeds, making them accountable sooner or later. The concept of Bar Mitzvah is not a biblical concept—but an extrabiblical one. Therefore, it’s strange to affirm that Paul became officially under the law, when he had his Bar Mitzvah as a Jewish teen.

It’s extraordinarily odd that Paul would teach that there was ever a point where he was not under law. He writes that without Christ we “were dead… by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3), and “we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph. 2:5). If this extrabiblical ritual of a Jewish Bar Mitzvah was so important, why doesn’t Paul (or any other biblical author) name it here, or explain it anywhere else in Scripture?


Other commentators believe that Paul is speaking in the first person as Adam. For instance, Käsemann writes, “There is nothing in our verses which does not fit Adam, and everything only fits Adam.”[2] They interpret this section in this way, seeing many similarities between Adam and what Paul writes:

(Rom. 7:9) I was once alive apart from the Law;

This refers to Adam before the Fall.

but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died;

This refers to Adam eating the fruit after God commanded him not to (Gen. 2:16-17).

(Rom. 7:10) and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me;

God promises Adam and Eve eternal life if they followed his one commandment (Gen. 3:22).

(Rom. 7:11) for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

Adam was “deceived” by Satan in the Garden.

Yet the problem is that the “commandment” is specified in verse 7. It doesn’t refer to Genesis 2:16-17; it refers to the 10th commandment (“You shall not covet”). Moreover, Paul is speaking in the first person here. In order to understand him speaking for Adam in the first person, we need more than similarities with Adam’s story. We need something concrete on behalf of the author. Finally, Adam wasn’t deceived by sin; he was deceived by Satan.

There are similarities between Paul’s narrative and Adam’s story in the Garden. Paul could be making an allusion to Adam here for the purpose of showing that Adam was doing fine until the Law came in. The Law didn’t help Adam; it brought him death. Likewise, when we are “in Adam,” we follow in his footsteps (Rom. 5:12ff). But to say that Paul is not speaking about himself and only talking about Adam is unsound.

[1] Isaiah writes that there is an age before a child is able to “know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isa. 7:16). The children of Israel were not held responsible for the sins of their parents during the Wandering, because they had “no knowledge of good or evil” (Deut. 1:39). They inherited the land—the blessing of God—because they were ignorant to the sins of their parents. Therefore, God didn’t punish them for what they could not have known. David said he would go to be with his infant baby, who had died (2 Sam. 12:23). David believed in an afterlife, and he thought that he was going to be with God after death (Ps. 16:10-11), and the New Testament authors claim that he is in heaven, too (Rom. 4:6-8). This demonstrates that his infant must be in heaven, too. In addition, Jesus implies that little children will be in heaven (Mk. 10:14; Mt. 18:3; 19:14), explaining that there were those who were “blind” to sin (Jn. 9:41). God doesn’t judge babies for what they couldn’t have known.

[2] Cited in Dunn, James. Romans 1–8 (Vol. 38A). Dallas: Word, Incorporated. 1998. 381.