Who is “I” in Romans 7?

Question: Evaluate the various suggestions concerning the “I” in Romans 7:7-13 and Romans 7:14-25 and argue for your preferred solution.

Romans 7:7-13

1)      “I” Refers to Adam View

a)      There are quite a few phrases in this passages that favor the view that Adam’s sin is Paul’s subject.

i)        v. 8 “Apart from the law sin is dead” fits Adam since there was no possibility for him to sin until the commandment came.  Since Moses, all Israelites have been under the law, and all those not in Israel are under “the requirements of the law [that] are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15).  Everyone between Adam and Moses still sinned, even though “sin is not taken into account when there is no law” (Romans 5:13).

ii)      v. 9 “Once I was alive” fits Adam better than anyone else, since he was under no sentence of death before his sin, whereas all of Adam’s posterity have been born “dead” spiritually.

iii)    v. 9 “Apart from law” certainly fits Adam since he lived long before the Law of Moses.

iv)    v. 9 “I died” fits Adam since the penalty of his sin was explicitly death.

v)      v. 10 “The very commandment that was intended to bring life” fits Adam since the tree of life was in proximity to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and obedience from Adam would have resulted in eternal life.

vi)    v. 11 “Deceived me” fits Adam and Eve since Eve specifically defended herself with the charge that the serpent deceived her.

b)      But, the context controls the meaning of a passage and this context rules out the possibility that this refers specifically to Adam.

i)        The continual use of “I” through the passage gives no hint of referring to Adam.

ii)      The specific command is “Do not covet” (v. 7) which is taken from the Ten Commandments.  “Do not eat” is the command in the Garden.

iii)    Furthermore, the law in Romans 7 is best taken to refer to the Law of Moses, which Adam did not have. Paul’s arguments in Romans 5:13-14 and in Galatians 3:15-4:7 rely explicitly on the truth that the Law did not exist until the time of Moses. (This admittedly opposes some Jewish tradition that claims the Law was already in existence in Adam’s day.)

iv)    Therefore, Romans 7:7-13 does not explicitly refer to Adam.  However, this does leave open the possibility like that espoused by Thiessen who believes “that Adam serves as the model for Paul’s experience here; hence Paul is the subject but Adam is the paradigm” (Schreiner, Romans, 360 n.3 referring to Theissen, Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology, 204-206).

2)      “I” Refers to Israel View

a)      Some scholars understand Romans 7:7-13 to refer to Israel, her reception of the Law at Sinai, subsequent disobedience, and resultant punishment.  This view is much more difficult to reconcile with the text, but there are a couple points to commend it.

i)        In v. 7 the command “do not covet” can refer to the beginning of the giving of the law to Israel. As the last of the Ten Commandments given orally from God to the people, this did indeed fit the set of commands that Israel disobeyed even while Moses was on Sinai getting the rest of the commands from God (Exodus 32).

ii)      The sin of the Golden Calf resulted in 3000 physical “deaths” by sword and a great plague from God.

b)      However, there are arguments in opposition to this view.

i)        It does not fit the “I” of this context, which somehow makes this passage refer to Paul.

ii)      It limits the meaning of “life” and “death” to physical and not spiritual life and death. Yet, the passage in its greater Romans context is best taken to be referring to more than just physical death.

c)      Therefore, Romans 7:7-13 does not specifically refer to Israel.

3)      “I” Refers to Paul – my Preferred View

a)      The most natural understanding of the passage is that “I” refers to Paul himself.

i)        Paul is the author, and he uses the first-person “I”.

ii)      The “I” continues through the end of the chapter where Paul laments, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” So Paul refers to the “I” as a “man” with a physical “body.”

b)      There are various objections that have been made to this view, which can, I believe, be answered satisfactorily.

i)        This view does not consistently use “life” and “death” with their full theological meanings. But, since this passage is a personal confession and autobiographically reflects Paul’s own experience, it is quite reasonable that “life” and “death” would be used in a more subjective way.

ii)      Kummel has claimed that this passage is rhetorical and not autobiographical at all, that the “I” refers to every person excluding Paul. While there is no problem claiming that this passage can refer to every person in some way, it becomes nonsense to say that Paul is not included in that “every person.” No, this primarily describes Paul and by extension it can be applied to the rest of us.

iii)    Some claim that since Paul grew up in a Jewish home, he would have been instructed in the law from infancy, and therefore could not claim that there was a time he was “alive apart from law” (Romans 7:9). McClain explains it this way: “When was Paul ever ‘alive without the law’? It was when he was a child. Brought up at his mother’s knee, he was taught to trust Jehovah; but there came a time in his life, at the age of twelve, when he was made a ‘son of the law.’ Then the whole body of the law was imposed upon him in a regular ceremony as a rule of life…. Sin was there all the time. He was born in sin, but it lay dormant until this moment. ‘Sin revived and I died.’ He passed under the doom and curse of the law, and he died spiritually. When we bring our children up, we have a right to teach them that the atonement saves them until they come to the age of accountability, when death comes by sin and they must have the new birth” (Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace, 154-155). Schreiner’s answer is more general and, I think, better: “One can receive moral instruction when young, and yet the meaning and import of such moral norms may not strike home. In this text Paul reflects on the time when the prohibition against coveting impinged on his consciousness, and it is unlikely that this occurred in his childhood days” (Romans, 365).

Romans 7:14-25

1)      “I” denotes Paul before his salvation view

a)      There is no mention of faith.

b)      There is no mention of the Holy Spirit.

c)      The cry in verse 24 calls out for deliverance (salvation?).

d)     It seems to fit only an unbeliever to be “sold as a slave to sin” (v. 14).

e)      The use of the present tense can be explained as presenting ‘vividness.’ And recent studies have shown that the present tense does not necessarily refer to present time.

f)       The utter defeat of Romans 7 in contrast to the utter victory of Romans 8 suggests that the difference is between the unbeliever and the believer.

2)       “I” denotes Paul as a believer view

a)      The shift from past tense in v. 13 to the present tense in v. 14 suggests that 14-25 refer to Paul’s present experience.

b)      The passage concludes with a present description of slavery to sin in the flesh, rather than concluding with the triumphant “thanks to God.”

c)      The “I” wants to obey God’s law and has great joy and delight in God’s law. This would not be true of an unbeliever.

d)     Most believers agree with experiencing the trauma of Romans 7 at some time in their Christian lives.

e)      Romans 7 fits in context with Romans 6 and 8 which have as their subject the Christian believer’s sanctification.

f)       Galatians 5:16-18 describes a similar conflict and definitely refers to believers in the struggle, thus suggesting that Romans 7 also refers to a believer’s struggle under the law. Stanley Toussaint does an excellent job contrasting these two passages and clarifying the meaning of each. He states: “It is clear from both passages that a Christian cannot live a life pleasing to God under law. In Romans 7 defeat is the result and in Galatians 5 the works of the flesh are produced. Legalism only bears frustration, sham, and failure” (“The Contrast between the Spiritual Conflict in Romans 7 and Galatians 5,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 123:492, p. 313)

3)      “I” denotes Paul without regard to his status as saved or unsaved – My preferred view

a)      I agree with Schreiner’s summary of this view: “the passage does not intend to adjudicate between Christian and pre-Christian experience. It centers on the inherent inability of the law to transform” (Romans, 379).

b)      Mark Seifrid seems to come to a very similar conclusion as Schreiner, but presents it in a much more complicated way. Seifrid calls this “A New Solution: The Confessing Egw of Early Judaism” (“The Subject of Rom 7:14-25,” Novum Testamentum 34, 320).

c)      So Paul is describing his experience as a Christian, but he does not emphasize that point because his interest is to show that putting oneself under the law results in the same defeatist struggle after one is saved as it results in for the unbeliever. The emphasis is on the utter hopelessness of trying to gain victory over sin through the system of the law.

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