Romans 7: Pre-Christian, Post-Christian, or Both? Part 1


By Todd Baker

Romans chapter 7 is probably one of the most debated chapters in the Bible. The debate centers around two simple questions. Is the experience described in chapter 7 an experience Paul had before his conversion to Christ, or after? In these series of articles this writer will hopefully, by the grace of God, provide sound and basic reasons for the particular interpretation adopted with appropriate citations from other commentaries and Bible scholars representative of each main view. The particular focus of our study is on Romans 7:7-25 and whether it is indicative of Paul’s past life under the Law of Moses, or applies to his present experience. Douglas Moo in his commentary on Romans believes the main focus should be on the Mosaic Law instead of the autobiographical “I” so prevalent throughout the passage (Moo, vol. 1, pg. 433). While it is true the Mosaic Law is a prominent theme in the seventh chapter of Romans, it cannot be forcibly separated from the subject of its rule and administration --that being “I.” Both the Law of Moses and the person, such as Paul who was under it, are interrelated together in Romans 7 and should be taken together instead of apart. The word “I” (ego in Greek) occurs 27 times and the ‘law” (nomos in Greek) 13 times in Romans 7. The preponderance of both favors taking them both, with particular attention to the recurrent “I,” together as a key to help determine the meaning of the passage. Romans 7 opens with the truth that believers have been delivered from the ruling domain of the Law and the obligation to keep it as a means of gaining righteousness with God, which could not be kept bringing death to the disobedient; but our death to the Law, which occurred through Christ’s saving death for us, has discharged and freed us from the Law’s tyranny so that we can walk with God in the power of His Spirit (Rom. 7:1-6). This is a present reality for Christians and brings us to the threshold of verses 7-25. There are five basic interpretations of Romans 7:7-25 that have historically been given with accompanying variations under each interpretive heading. In the issues to come we will look  at each and demonstrate why one out of the five is the most likely meaning of the passage under consideration.

            The first of the five interpretations says Paul is speaking of the condition of a Jew, like himself, under the Law of Moses in a pre-converted state. Bible Commentator, Douglas Moo, favors this meaning and broadens it to encompass the nation of Israel and their moral failings under the Law. He believes that Paul uses “I” to describe himself and, by extension, other Jews in solidarity with his people.” (Moo, Romans, 1:456). The repetitive use of “I” in Romans 7 then is not Israel alone but is Paul in solidarity with Israel under the old epoch of the Law. This meaning seems inferred and at best vaguely implicit in light of the clear repeated use of “I”. Paul does not need to deal with Israel’s sin problem so covertly indirect when in other chapters of the same Roman Epistle he quite obviously gives the inspired account of their past and present problem (Rom. 2; 9-10) and their future salvation that will eventually come to them when they finally receive the returning Messiah (Rom. 11). Forty seven times the first person singular “I” occurs in Romans 7 and thus makes it all the more sure and certain that a person and not a nation is meant. Therefore the first meaning appears to be read into the context where there is no explicit identification of Israel with the “I” experience of Paul.  The second interpretation of Romans 7:7-25 basically says the passage is strictly autobiographical of Paul’s pre-conversion state or perhaps is a description of his post-conversion struggles as a Christian. Advocates of this meaning (like Theodor Zahn and James Denney) believe Paul to be recounting his own experiences while futilely trying to keep the Law of Moses and failing miserably in the process until his problem was resolved when he came to faith in Christ on the Damascus road. This view is somewhat problematic when we recall Paul’s own estimate of himself while a Pharisee. He gave scrupulous attention to the Law (Acts 21:22; 25:8; Phil. 3:4-6) and was “blameless” with regard to its ritualistic observances.

    However, there is no contradiction in Romans 7 since it is describing his inward condition under the Law, instead of what appeared outwardly good in Acts and Philippians. It is from an enlightened and regenerated view in Romans 7, viewed through the perspective of Jesus Christ, that Paul sees himself dead to the Law through Christ having once been sentenced to death by it. He makes plain in verses 1-6 what is generally true of those who were under the Law but who are freed from it through Christ. Paul then moves on to give a specific example of these things from his own life before and after He came to Christ in verses 7-25. Thus what is true of him is universally true of fallen humanity and those redeemed by Christ. The frequency of the past tense in 7:7-13 precludes us from lumping 7:7-25 together as an all past or all present experience. Paul’s individual dilemma particularizes what is also generally true of us as well. Therefore, taking the lead from 7:1-6, it is not wrong to inductively conclude that while Romans 7 is autobiographical, it also describes both non-Christian and Christian alike in relation to the Law. Bible commentator, Anders Nygren’s, observation is quite applicable here: “It is not Paul’s intention to present the following explanation as a subjective confession, true only for him, without validity as to others in general. On the contrary, the singular form and the general compass are immediately included in each other. But we shall not be in error if we assume that 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. It is the question of the Christian’s relation to the law, the question as to the law in the context of the old and new aeons” (Nygren, Commentary on Romans, pp. 278-79).  In part two we will further explore the other main interpretations proposed for the intriguing chapter of Romans 7.


You can reach Todd at:

Brit Hadashah Ministries
P.O. Box  796127
Dallas, Texas 75379-6127

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