Thoughts on Romans 7 – who is desperate?

Let me deal with on one of the most misinterpreted passage.

In order to understand the chapter we need to keep in mind Paul’s conclusion in Ch. 6:

Rom 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

You see it is not Paul’s idea that the follower of Jesus is the slave of sin, but the slave of righteousness. Surely, according to Ezekiel,

Ezek 36:27 “And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Thus the direct result of having the Spirit of God is a drive to obey, this is how one becomes the slave of righteousness. So what is Paul talking about in Ch. 7?

Rom 7:9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; 10 the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me.

We noted earlier that Gentiles were never under the law, so who is Paul talking about? When was it that death marked the giving of the law? Is he talking about Gentile converts to the Jesus faith? Do they come under the law? Doesn’t Paul argues that they were not required to convert (be circumcised)? Did the law promise life to these Gentiles at conversion?

Now let us read further:

Rom 7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.

Wow! So the actor is a slave of sin, not a slave of righteousness, therefore, Paul cannot talk about those who has the Spirit and thus were the slaves of righteousness. Who does he talk about then?

In order to understand the passage we need to familiarise ourselves with the term “corporate identity”. It means one personifies a group of people, while speaking in the first person singular. Paul personifies the Jewish people who, when the law was given at Sinai thousands of them were slaughtered because they worshipped the golden calf. The law brought death, not life, and the history of the nation shows what a deep sin problem they had. They were sold under sin from which slavery only the new covenant (the giving of the Spirit through Jesus) could liberate them. (We are not talking about the individual Israelites here, surely, there were many righteous people, but the people as a whole).

So then,

Rom 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 (Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!) So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

We shall notice that Paul refers to the religious Jew who seeks to be justified by his own strength (“I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin”). Even though he recognises that the law is good, he doesn’t have the means to live according to it. The cry, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” is parenthetical, pointing to the solution in the next chapter:

Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.

You see, this is the first mention of the Spirit that delivers those in the new covenant from the power of sin.

Though many Christians go through struggles similar to what is described in these passages, applying them to Christians does injustice to the text. It is about the struggle of the Jewish people under the law and their deliverance in the new covenant.


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