Romans 7 Once More

J. W. MacGorman  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 19 - Fall 1976

If you were writing a commentary on Romans, what passage would you expect to give you the most trouble?

Would it be Romans 5:12-21? This is the passage where the Vulgate’s mistranslation of the last clause in verse 12 has had such dire consequences. Jerome rendered eph ho pantes hemarton (“because all men sinned”) wrongly as in quo omnes peccaverunt (“in whom all sinned”), with Adam as the understood antecedent of “whom.” Augustine expanded this error into a doctrine of original sin, which affirmed universal guilt because of our presence in Adam’s loins when he sinned. In the seventh century Johann Cocceius compounded the problem with his elaboration of the so-called federal theory of original sin. Both formulations have foisted alien encumbrances upon the Christian community, from which it has never been fully released. They guarantee a difficult task for the interpreter.

Or would it be Romans 9:1-11:36? This is the passage where Paul wrestled with the problem of Israel’s rejection. How could this rejection be harmonized with God’s promises throughout the Old Testament to Israel as his elected people? Paul expounded the issues of divine sovereignty and human responsibility boldly in these chapters, but he never managed to reconcile them. They were presented as correlative, rather than as contradictory, truths. Again, the interpreter is taxed to do justice to Paul’s profound concepts.

Yet my nomination for the most difficult passage in this letter to interpret is Romans 7:1-25. Of this material Anders Nygren says: “It presents us with one of the greatest problems in the New Testament. It was already recognized in the first century; and since that time it has never come to rest.”[1]Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1949), p. 284.

The reasons for this estimate will become obvious as the study unfolds. Our plan is: (1) to focus attention upon the data that constitute the problem; (2) to survey the most important interpretations that have been proposed; and (3) to venture an evaluation of them.


Pertinent Data

Before indicating the wide range of interpretations of Romans 7 that have been advanced, let’s note certain features of the passage that make it difficult to understand. At least four merit attention.

The extensive use of personal pronouns.—To give prominence to this feature, take a pencil and encircle every occurrence of “I,” “me,” and “my” in verses 7-25. If you use the Revised Standard Version of these nineteen verses, you will find thirty-one occurrences of “I,” eleven of “me,” and seven of “my.” In the Greek text the eight emphatic uses of the personal pronoun ego (“I”) further enhance this aspect. This concentration is striking.

Now when a writer uses the pronouns of the first person singular, he is usually drawing attention to himself. He is the one acting, or his condition is being described. Of course, there are times when a man may use such pronouns representatively. Then the “I” is typical rather than personal. But these occurrences must be regarded as exceptional.

The change of tenses from past to present.—In verses 7-13 Paul used past tenses to describe the relation of the law to sin. Coupled with his use of the pronouns of the first person singular, 1t makes the passage read like personal testimony. For example, Paul said in verses 9-10, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me.” Past tenses regularly describe action that has taken place or a former state of being.

But in verses 14-25 there is a dramatic change from the past to the present tense. For example, verse 15 reads: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate.” Again, verses 18-19 read: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Here Paul continued to use the first person, but he shifted his verb tenses from past to present. What sounded like past testimony m verses 7-13 seems to be present experience in verses 14-25. For present tenses regularly describe action or state of being contemporary with the writer. Of course, sometimes the historical present is used to describe the past in a particularly vivid way, but this, too, is exceptional.

The intensity of the language. -Even a cursory reading of verses 14-25 reveals a passage of unusually strong feeling. Indeed, there are expressions so intense that they seem difficult to reconcile with what Paul wrote elsewhere about Christian deliverance.

For example, in his vigorous defense of the law against the charge that it had been an instrument of death to him, Paul affirmed: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin” (v. 14). The word translated “carnal” is sarkinos.[2]Some manuscripts have sarkikos (“belonging to the flesh” or “fleshly”) here; however, sarkinos has stronger attestation. It is unwise to deny to sarkinos the negative ethical connotation often present in sarkikos, as some interpreters do, e.g., Nygren, p. 299. For in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 Paul used the latter term in verse 3 to describe those whom he desginated by the former term in verse 1. It means “made of flesh” or “fleshy” (contrasted with lithinos, “made of stone” or “stony”, in 2 Corinthians 3:3). As a predicate adjective applied to Paul, it stands in sharp contrast to pneumatikos (“spiritual”), which modifies law. As the latter adjective indicates divine origin and character, so the former describes that which is hostile to God and seeks independence from him. Thus Paul’s carnality stands over against the laws spirituality, as the explanation for sin’s success in bringing death to him (v. 13).

The meaning of sarkinos is elaborated upon in the clause that follows (“sold under sin”). The word translated “sold” (pepramenos) is a perfect, passive participle, emphasizing the abiding aspects of the transaction. The same verb was used in Matthew 18:25 to describe a debtor being sold into slavery, but this is its only occurrence in Paul’s letters. Here sin is personified as a cruel slave master, who has bought and paid for Paul (NEB: “I am unspiritual, the purchased slave of sin”).

This was why Paul was unable to obey the law of God, in which he delighted inwardly (v. 22). As sin’s slave, bought and paid for, he had to do the bidding of his cruel master. He was compelled to do the very thing he hated (v. 15).

Nor did Paul offer a neutral battleground in this struggle between the law of God and the law of sin in his life. Instead he was deeply biased in favor of God’s law. He aspired to fulfill it, but the dreadful alien law waged a relentless warfare against the law of God in Paul and eventually took him captive (v. 23). The use of military terms in this description enhances the fierceness of the struggle and the totality of the defeat. It was as sin’s prisoner that he cried out for deliverance: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24).

How does one reconcile Paul’s statement in 7: 14, “I am in carnal, sold under sin,” with his description of the Christian in 8:9, “But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you?”

How can one reconcile the utter impotence and abject servitude of 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” with Paul’s declaration of Christian deliverance in 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace!”

The enigma of verse 25b.—To the poignant question raised in his cry of despair in verse 24, Paul provided his own triumphant answer in verse 25a: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” What a magnificent climax! It sets the stage for the great affirmations of deliverance, hope, and assurance in Romans 8.

How then shall we account for the dismal stalemate portrayed in verse 25b: “So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin”? From the pinnacle of victory, it seems that Paul descended to a plain of continuous and indecisive warfare. At least, it sounds more like a truce than a triumph, with well-defined territorial claims staked out and guarded by rival patrols.

Moffatt’s solution to the impasse was to move verse 25b to the end of verse 23. This placed it before Paul’s agonized cry for rescue. The conjecture is interesting, and it relieves the problem of the anticlimax. However, there is no manuscript evidence to support this transposition of the text.


Proposed Interpretations

As may well be imagined, such phenomena have occasioned a wide variety of interpretations. Four major points of view will be presented in this survey. They tend to pivot around the question as to whether the passage is autobiographical or typical. And if autobiographical, does it de­scribe Paul’s former experiences as a man under law or his present striving as a Christian? Or does it transcend the “then” and “now” categories?

Autobiographical: pre-Christian. -This point of view regards the passage as an autobiographical description of Paul’s life before his conversation. This does not rule out the possibility of typical features in the account. And, of course, the portrayal was given from the perspective of Paul’s subsequent experience as a Christian. For this reason it does not purport to describe how Paul saw himself at the time he was a zealous Pharisee.

This view has many able advocates, e.g., the Greek fathers generally, John Wesley, J; Weiss, A. E. Garvie, Sanday-Headlam, James Moffatt, James Stewart, Vincent Taylor, and C. H. Dodd. Though differing in certain important details, they hold to the same general approach to the passage. A study of C. H. Dodd will serve to disclose its essential features.

He characterizes Romans 7 as a “psychological analysis of the experience of salvation from sin.”[3]C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, The Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932), p. 104. It provides the background for Paul’s meditation upon the new life controlled by the indwelling Spirit in Romans 8.

Dodd’s research led him to conclude that Paul rarely, if ever, said “I” unless he was speaking of himself. He writes: “Certainly, when he is describing religious experience, his “I” passages bear the unmistakable note of autobiography.”[4]Ibid., p. 107. Galatians 2:19-21 and Philippians 3:7-14 are offered as supporting texts.

The intensity of emotion expressed in the passage likewise attests to a real life experience. It led Dodd to describe these verses as “an authentic transcript of Paul’s own experience during the period which culminated in his vision on the road to Damascus.”[5]Ibid., p. 108.

The change from the past tense to the present in verses 14-25 does not indicate that Paul moved on to a disclosure of his present life as a Christian. Dodd explains: “As Paul, in his vivid description, recalls his condition in the past, he is over­ come with the poignant emotions of his despair: . . . With equal vividness he feels over again the emotions of his deliverance: ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.'”[6]Ibid., p. 116.

Regarding the anticlimax in verse 25b, Dodd follows the lead of Moffatt in surmising a displacement of the text. Thus he, too, places verse 25b at the end of verse 23, postulating a primitive corruption of the text that has affected all surviving manuscripts.

Autobiographical: Christian. -This point of view also regards Romans 7 as autobiographical, with varying emphases given to its typical features and eschatological framework. It agrees that verses 7-13 portray Paul’s pre-conversion experience as a man under law, seeking to achieve right standing with God by its observance. However, it differs markedly from the preceding interpretation in its insistence that verses 14-25 describe Paul’s experience as a Christian.

Again, an impressive roster of scholars, ancient and modern, can be summoned in support of this view, e.g., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, C. K. Barrett, F. F. Bruce, John Murray, and Anders Nygren. While differing in details, they find the same basic thrust in the passage. Anders Nygren is a particularly able spokesman for this position.

He regards Romans 5-8 as a unit dealing with the significance of the Christian life. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), might well have been its caption. Here Paul explained the meaning of living in Christ in terms of freedom: from wrath (chapter 5), from sin ( chapter 6), from the law (chapter 7), and from death (chapter 8) . Since the entire passage features the Christian life, it is unwise to interpret chapter 7 in any other context.

Nygren finds autobiographical significance in Paul’s use of “I”, but not in any narrow or restricted way. For instance, it was not intended as a subjective confession. Rather “the use of the personal form is due to the fact that Paul here comes to an issue which, in the most proper sense, is the problem of his own life.”[7]Nygren, p. 279.

He scores the view that verses 14-25 provide a description of the divided state of a man’s soul under the law, whether seen through the eyes of faith or otherwise. Besides to attribute such a discordance to Paul does not fit the picture he has given elsewhere, notably Philippians 3:6, of his former life as a Pharisee. The obvious meaning of the present tenses is that Paul was characterizing the struggles of his life as a Christian.

Likewise he rejects the idea that this passage presents the purely subjective side of the Christian’s condition rather than the one that actually obtains. That is, some have claimed that Paul was speaking here of the Christian “standing on his own legs,” as though he had not received the Spirit. In response Nygren writes: “Paul does speak here of the Christian, but not in an abstract way. He describes the actual situation of the Christian as it is in the midst of the present aeon.”[8]Ibid., p. 295.

The Christian lives as one caught in the tension of the two aeons, old and new. This accounts for the intensity of language in the passage. No remembrance of a past discordance could have wrung so ‘fresh an outcry from Paul’s lips. Rather his ejaculation in verse 24 bespoke a conflict that was both immediate and sore. The man “in Christ” remains. a man “in the flesh,” living amidst the stresses of the old aeon and the new.

And yet Nygren insists that there was nothing of doubt or despair in Paul’s cry. Duress, yes; but desperation, no! In support of this claim he points to Paul’s thanksgiving that follows immediately in verse 25a.

Verse 25b poses no problem for Nygren, as it does for those who maintain that verses 14-24 describe Paul’s former struggles as a man under law. It merely rephrases what he had said in verse 20.

Autobiographical: non-Christian and Christian.—There is an interpretation of Romans 7 that seeks to resolve the problem by lifting its sense above strictly temporal categories. It finds neither of the preceding views completely to its liking, but would prefer the first to the second if forced to choose. However, it seeks to move beyond the impasse by focusing attention on condition rather than on time. That is, the pas­ sage describes what is true of any morally earnest person, whether the Christian prior to conversion or another. It depicts also what may happen to a Christian if he turns from faith in Christ in any subsequent effort to achieve a righteousness on his own.

This is the position advanced by C. Leslie Mitton in a series of three articles on the subject.[9]C. Leslie Mitton, “Romans – 7. Reconsidered,” The Expository Times 65 (December 1953): 78-81; (January 1954): 99-103; and (February 1954): 132-35. Others holding a similiar view are Dale Moody, “Romans,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), 10:209; and A. M. Hunter, The Epistle to the Romans, Torch Bible Commentaries (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1955), p. 74. Both Moody and Hunter misspell Mitton’s name. Of Paul’s use of the first person singular he writes: “This is no mere literary device. Clearly the Apostle speaks of that which is very real to him in his own experience. He is transcribing a section of his own spiritual autobiography.”[Mitton, p. 78.[/ref] However, it is not his experience as a man in Christ that Paul described in the passage. Rather he portrayed the striving after righteousness that characterized his pre-conversion experience. The present tenses are used, because this same struggle remains potentially present for the Christian who relapses.

Mitton resolves the difficulty of verse 25b by insisting that autos ego (“I of myself”) carries the sense of “on my own.” It describes the life in which one seeks to attain or maintain a right standing before God on his own, i.e., by his own efforts. This is the antithesis of living as a “man in Christ.” Thus verse 25b constitutes a summary of verses 14-24, that Paul inserted between the cry of Christian triumph in verse 25a and its splendid exposition in Romans 8.

Not autobiographical: man under law.—There are interpreters who insist that Romans 7 contains no autobiography. Neither does it describe Christian experience. For example, Rudolph Bultmann states that “Romans 7: 14-24 is not a confession of Paul describing his erstwhile inner division under the Law, but is that picture of the objective situation of man­ under-the-law which became visible to him only after he had attained the viewpoint of faith.”[10]Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), 1:266. See also Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden )New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1960), pp. 147-57, for paper on “Romans 7 and the Anthropology of Paul.” The cry of verse 24 is the cry that Paul the Christian put into the mouth of the Jew thereby exposing the Jew’s situation to him.

Similarly Gunther Bornkamm claims that “the I in Romans 7 represents man without Christ, subject to the Law, sin, and death, in an extremity which of course can be measured only in the light of the gospel.”[11]Gunther Bornkamm, Paul, trans. O. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971), p. 125.

Arguing a close relationship with Romans 5 Bornkamm writes: “The sum total of mankind as represented in Romans 5 by Adam clearly narrows down in Romans 7 to man as ‘I’.”[12]Ibid., p. 129. In principle one must not speak of man and his concerns in an abstract way, in collective and general terms, but only as an individual.

Encounter with the law, summarized in the Tenth Commandment (“You shall not covet”), is necessary to help a man understand his own personal existence. What he discovers is the hopeless perversion of his being. The desperate opposition between the “fleshly” man and the “spiritual” law tears him apart. Within himself will and its accomplishment are in sharpest conflict (v. 15). Bornkamm concludes: “Man’s dis- cord is part of his human nature. He himself is the contradiction. This is the ‘I’ of the cry ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24).”[13]Ibid., p. 127.

Yet Bornkamm maintains the value of this passage for the Christian’s self-understanding. He writes: “Evidently one cannot leave behind the experiences of Romans 7 as a vanquished and surpassed level of development. Rather the past and lostness of the unredeemed remains in a very definite sense present even for the Christian, as one forgiven and conquered.”[14]Gunther Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience, trans. Paul L. Hammer (New York, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969), p. 101.

He suggests the probability that verse 25b is an exegetical gloss that summarizes verses 14-25.[15]Ibid., p. 99.



It is interesting to compare these four interpretations of Romans 7 in terms of the four features specified in the first section of this paper.

Regarding the use of the personal pronouns. -The range of views is from autobiography, psychologically conceived (Dodd), to typical representation without autobiographical features (Bornkamm). Yet three out of four regard it as auto­ biography, with varying degrees of typical significance (Dodd, Nygren, and Mitton).

Regarding the change in tenses. -The range of interpretations is from a testimony of a past experience in Judaism (Dodd) to a disclosure of present duress as a Christian (Nygren). Another proposes a past experience under law that remains potentially present in case of a Christian relapse (Mitton). Still another regards the striving as typical of all men outside of Christ, who are subject to the law, sin, and death (Bornkamm). Thus three out of four do not interpret the passage as a description of life “in Christ” (Dodd, Mitton, and Bomkamm).

Regarding the intensity of the language. -The range of responses is from dismay to affirmation. No one who interprets the passage autobiographically is completely at ease at this point. For some the portrayal of utter impotence and abject despair in verses 14-24 simply cannot be reconciled with Christian deliverance. One relegates it to Paul’s past (Dodd), and another allows it only a potential status in Paul’s present (Mitton). Even Nygren seems uncomfortable and finds it necessary to deny doubt and despair to Paul’s outcry in verse 24. His only argument is a brief reference to the immediacy of Paul’s thanksgiving in the following verse. Only those who regard the passage typically or non-autobiographically have no problem here (Bornkamm). They affirm the aptness of its portrayal.

Regarding the enigma of verse 25b.—The range of opinions varies from conjectures about the textual tradition to avowals of “no problem.” Actually this feature is intolerable only for those who regard the passage as an account of Paul’s prior struggle under the law. To them verse 25b sounds like the muting of the triumphant exclamation of thanksgiving for Christian deliverance voiced in the immediate context. Thus in the name of logic the probability of a displacement in the text is conjectured, though not supported by any manuscript evidence (Dodd). Bornkamm also makes a judgment regarding the text but from a logic of a different kind. Since verse 25b adds nothing to what has already been said in the preceding verses, he thinks it a probable exegetical gloss.

Neither Nygren nor Mitton feel any necessity to conjecture a displacement or interpolation in the text. Both claim that verse 25b merely summarizes the struggle that Paul described in verses 14-24. Nygren, however, locates the conflict in Paul’s present life as a Christian caught in the tensions of the new aeon and the old. Whereas Mitton locates it in Paul’s past life under the law, with only subjunctive possibilities for his present life as a Christian.

My own conclusions regarding Romans 7 are necessarily tentative, because of the indecisive or conflicting nature of the evidence. Yet my bias, exegetical and otherwise, is as follows: (1) The passage has autobiographical, as well as typical, features. (2) In chapter 7 Paul was discussing the relation of the Christian to the law (vv. 1-6 ) and the relation of the law to sin ( vv. 7-25), as the background for his exposition of the new life of the Spirit in chapter 8. Romans 7:5 introduces 7:7-25, and Romans 7:6 introduces 8:1-39. The “while we were” of 7:5 suggests the time before Paul and his readers had become Christians, even as the “but now” of 7:6 suggests their present circumstances as Christians. Thus Romans 7 is a description of life under law, and Romans 8, life under grace. How could Paul discuss either without an indebtedness, both conscious and unconscious, to his own experience? (3) Prior to his conversion Paul was a devout Pharisee (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13-14). For this reason T. W. Manson goes too far when he says: “We may call it autobiography if we like, but here Paul’s autobiography is the biography of Everyman.”[16]T. W. Manson, “Romans,” Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, ed. Matthew Black (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1963), p. 945. It certainly isn’t the biography of the pagan debauchee described in Romans 1:18-32. Rather it has more in common with Romans 2:1-3:8, where Paul indicted the impenitence of tradition-conscious Jews. (4) It is remarkable that so many scholars will not allow Paul the discordance as a Pharisee that they so readily attribute to him as a Christian. In this regard an interpretive load is placed upon Philippians 3:6 that exceeds what it is capable of bearing. Some seem to re-write the apostolic benediction: “Grace to you and Angst from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” I have never understood why anxiety is so much more an attribute of authentic existence than peace. (5) The present tenses in verses 14-25, the intensity of its language, and verse 25b remain problems. To see how formidable they are, one has only to re-write the passage with a continued use of the past tenses beyond verses 7-13 and either a transposition of verse 25b to the end of verse 23 or its deletion from the text. It is this balancing of contrary evidences of nearly equal value that assures that we will always have varying opinions about the meaning of Romans 7.

And yet if “I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:15) describes Paul’s life as a Christian, it is interesting to observe what he was doing at the time he was writing the passage. He was preparing to place his life in jeopardy by accompanying the delegates from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem with the relief-offering. He was even then seeking to enlist the support of the Roman church for his proposed evangelization of Spain. And he was dictating the most profound exposition of the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that has ever been written.

I have never known a “carnal, bought and paid for slave of sin” to perform so admirably!


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