Notes (NET Translation)
Since there is much debate over the identity of the “I” in this passage, let us begin by summarizing the main purposes of the passage. The first purpose is to vindicate the law from any suggestion that it is sinful or evil. The second purpose is to show how the law has come to be a negative force in the history of salvation.1
We may divide this section into two major parts, v. 13 being a “bridge” between the two. In 7:7-12 Paul uses a narrative to show how sin has used the law to bring death. Verses 14-25, on the other hand, use present tense verbs to describe the constant battle between the “mind,” which agrees with God’s law, and the “flesh,” or the “members,” which succumb to “the law of sin.” The result, then, is that the law of God, which aroused sin, is impotent to break the power of sin.2
7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”
Paul is going into an impersonation or speech-in-character. The rhetorical questions serve as a transition from Paul’s authorial voice. Ancient readers would expect to see a difference in characterization from the authorial voice going forward. In 7:7-25 the speaker talks very personally about coming under the Law, learning about desire and sin, and being unable to do what he wants to do because of enslavement to sin. The “I” of this passage has been identified with (1) Adam, (2) Israel, (3) Paul, (4) everyone, and (5) combinations of the above.
In favor of the Adamic reference is the fact that only Adam was truly alive (7:9) in the full theological sense before encountering and transgressing the commandment in the Garden of Eden. Paul holds that the entire human race, except Jesus Christ, enters the world dead and condemned in God’s sight (5:12-19). Adam died upon encountering the commandment that was intended to bring life (Rom 7:9-11; Gen 2:17; 3:3, 19). Paul mentions coveting (7:7) because Adam and Eve desired to eat from the forbidden tree (Gen 3:6). Sin is personified and said to have deceived the speaker, just as the serpent did to Adam (Rom 7:11; Gen 3:13; 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14). Apart from the law sin is truly dead (7:8) in the sense that it did not exist before the commandment was given to Adam.
But, given the context, the “law” is the Law of Moses. The commandment, “Do not covet”, is an abbreviation of the tenth commandment from the Law of Moses (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21). Paul distinguishes between the era of Adam and the era of the law (5:13-14).
In response, though, it is noted that Jewish tradition teaches that Adam possessed the Torah in the garden and was responsible for obeying it. For instance, Tg. Neof. 1 on Gen. 2:15 says that Adam in the garden was charged with observing the commandments in the law. Paul, it is claimed, reflects that tradition here. This particular argument is unconvincing, for a central part of Pauline theology is that the Mosaic law came into existence at a certain point in redemptive history (Rom. 5:13-14). This is the basis on which he refutes the theology of the Judaizers in Gal. 3:15-4:7. If he granted that Adam himself possessed the Torah, then his argument in Gal. 3-4 is shipwrecked. Paul’s own writings demonstrate that he did not follow Jewish tradition in the theory that Adam knew the Torah. For Paul the Torah given to Moses had clear temporal markers on each side. On the one hand it originated at Mount Sinai (cf. Rom. 5:20) when the Mosaic covenant was inaugurated, and on the other hand it came to an end when the promises made to Abraham were fulfilled through the coming of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15-4:7). To sum up, the view that Paul refers to Adam is attractive, but it should be rejected since Adam did not encounter the Mosaic law.3
For a similar reason, the “I” should not be identified with everyone because the Gentiles were not given the Law of Moses.
Those who see a reference to Israel believe it describes Israel’s reception of the law at Sinai, their transgression, and their subsequent death. We must remember that sin exists apart from the law (2:12; 5:13) but transgression, the deliberate violation of God’s commandments, does not (4:15). The giving of the law provoked transgression (Rom 4:15; 5:14, 20; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19-22).
The difficulty facing this position is in understanding how Israel was alive apart from the law (7:9). In this context, “life” seems to be more than physical life on earth. It seems to be the opposite of the eschatological death also mentioned in this context. As heirs of Adam, Israel entered the world dead and condemned (5:12-19).
The final option is that Paul is speaking of himself. Advocates of this position believe this makes the best sense of the very personal language in vv 14-25, especially v 24: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” If “I” refers to Paul in vv 14-25 then it is most likely that it refers to him in vv 7-13 too.
If we see this passage as autobiographical and confessional then we can see how “life” and “death” are not used in their full eschatological sense.
Thus when he says “I was living formerly apart from the law,” he reflects on his own consciousness before receiving the law. When the law intruded on his consciousness with the prohibition against coveting, he died (i.e., he experienced separation from God through his transgression).4
An objection to this view is that there was no time in Paul’s life when he was without the law (7:9) because Jewish children were instructed in the law from their earliest years (2 Tim 3:15; Josephus, Ag Ap 2.18 § 178; Philo, Gaius 16 § 115; 31 § 210).
But Paul in this text refers to the law’s impinging on his consciousness. 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.5
Another objection to this view is that Paul nowhere else describes a pre-Christian struggle with the law. Elsewhere, in fact, he stresses his zeal and obedience to the law (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-6). He says that “according to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless” (Phil 3:6).
The objection here is hardly compelling. When Paul claims to be blameless, he is not saying that he was sinless. Nor is it necessary to claim that before his conversion Paul was fully conscious of the presence of sin in his life, for in this text Paul as a believer looks back on his pre-Christian existence. I conclude, then, that the primary reference is to Paul himself in this passage. Paul relays his own experience because it is paradigmatic, showing the fate of all those under the law. We can also understand why so many scholars see a reference to Adam or Israel, for Paul’s experience recapitulates the history of Adam and Israel. All through human history the encounter with the law has produced death instead of life.6
This history “should serve to remind all of us that salvation can never be earned by doing the ‘law,’ but only by casting ourselves on the grace and mercy of God in Christ.”7
With that digression out of the way, we need to recall that the law has been associated with sin and death (3:20; 4:15; 5:20; 6:14; 7:5) and therefore the reader may ask whether the law itself is sin. Absolutely not, says Paul. The role of the law is to bring knowledge of sin.
But what kind of “knowing” is this? Perhaps the most obvious possibility is that Paul is talking about the law as defining sin: through the law, the revelation of the righteous standard of God, “I” come to know that certain acts are sinful, that, for example, my inner desire to “possess” is nothing but a “coveting” that is prohibited by God. This is no doubt true, but Paul implies earlier that such knowledge is available even to those who do not have the (Mosaic) law (1:32; 2:14-16). The context, in which Paul stresses that the law reveals sin to be “sin” and renders sin “utterly sinful” (v. 13), suggests a stronger nuance: that through the law “I” come to “understand” or “recognize” the real nature and power of sin. The law, by branding “sin” as transgression (cf. 4:15; 5:13-14) and bringing wrath and death (4:15; 7:8-11, 13), unmasks sin in its true colors. But we should probably go further, and conceive this “understanding” of sin not in a purely noetic way but in terms of actual experience: through the law, “I” have come to experience sin for what it really is. Through the law sin “worked in me” all kinds of sinful desires (v. 8), and through the law sin “came to life” and brought death (vv. 9-11). It is through this actual experience of sin, then, that “I” come to understand the real “sinfulness” of sin.8
8 But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead.
The commandment against coveting (7:7) focuses on the desires of the heart and was believed to be the root of all sin by many Jews (Philo, Spec Laws 4.15 §§ 84-94; Decal 28 §§ 142, 150; 32 § 173; Apoc Mos 19.3; Apoc Abr 24.9; Tg Neof 1 on Ex 20:17). Sin is personified as using this commandment to accomplish its purpose. People are drawn to forbidden fruits and desire autonomy from God’s commands. Sin is dead apart from the law in the sense that it is not active or powerful (which is not to say it is non-existent).
9 And I was once alive apart from the law, but with the coming of the commandment sin became alive 10 and I died. So I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death!
The law promised life to Israel if it was obeyed (Lev 18:5; Deut 27-28; Ezek 20:11) but, in fact, it brought death when she failed to obey it.
11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died.
Many scholars pounce on Paul’s use of the verb “deceive” here as the clearest objective indication that he is thinking of the experience of Adam in the Garden. They think that Paul is putting sin in the role of the serpent, which springs to life to use the commandment as a means of deceiving the first human pair and bringing upon them spiritual disaster. These interpreters may be right to see allusion to the paratypical “temptation” experience; but the reference is not at all clear. In keeping with Paul’s intention throughout this passage, the direct reference must certainly be to the law’s function within Israel. Probably Paul thinks of the way that the “promise of life” held out by the law “deceived” Israel into thinking that it could attain life through it. But the attempts of Israel to find life through the law brought only death–not because obeying the law itself is sinful, or worthy of death, but because the law could not be fulfilled.9
12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.
The law is holy, righteous, and good (Deut 4:8; Neh 9:13) because it was sin that used the law with evil intent. “The exceeding sinfulness of sin is revealed in that it will even use a good thing to produce an evil end–death. This was not the intended end or purpose of the Law.”10
13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
Sin is the ultimate cause of death but it uses the law as an instrument to bring about death. By using the holy, righteous, and good law sin reveals that it is “utterly sinful”. The violation of the law invokes the sanctions of the law — the judgment of God.
What Paul means, in light of Rom. 4:15, 5:13–14, and 5:20, is that the “good” commandment of God, by strictly defining sin, turns sin into conscious and willful rebellion against God. Sin is always bad; but it becomes worse–even more “sinful”–when it involves deliberate violation of God’s good will for his people. The law, by making sin even worse than before, reveals sin in its true colors.11
14 For we know that the law is spiritual — but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.
It is debated whether the experience depicted in vv 14-25 is that of a regenerate (Christian) or unregenerate (non-Christian) person. Decent arguments can be made for both positions.
The following reasons are given for thinking a regenerate person is referred to:
(1) The shift from past tense verbs in vv 7-13 (9 verbs) to present tense verbs in vv 14-25 (26 verbs) is most naturally explained by assuming Paul is describing his pre-Christian experience in vv 7-13 and his present Christian experience in vv 14-25.
But vv 14-25 can be understood as describing the state that resulted from the events narrated in vv 7-13. Past events are narrated in the past tense while the continuing status of those involved in the events are narrated in the present tense. Verses 14-25 explain how sin was able to use the law to bring death.
(2) Only the regenerate delight in and seek to obey God’s law (vv 15-20, 22, 25), while the unregenerate do not seek after God (3:11) and cannot submit to the law of God (8:5-8). In fact, the unregenerate are opposed to God and his will (Rom 1:28; Eph 4:17; Col 2:18; 1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:8; Tit 2:15).
But the non-Christian Jew, including Paul himself before his conversion, does seek to obey God’s law (9:31-32; 10:2; Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-6). What he cannot do is defeat sin with the law alone. That is the point of vv 14-25.
(3) In Paul’s letters, only Christians are said to possess an “inner being” (Rom 7:22; cf. 2 Cor 4:16; Eph 3:16).
But it’s not as if Paul explicitly denies non-Christians have an “inner being”. We can’t draw a conclusion from a mere two uses of the term. In Greek the term denotes the inner, or mental, or spiritual aspect of a person.12 We have no reason to think Paul believed non-Christians did not have this aspect.
(4) “The passage concludes, after Paul’s mention of the deliverance wrought by God in Christ, with a reiteration of the divided state of the egō (vv. 24–25). This shows that the division and struggle of the egō that Paul depicts in these verses is that of the person already saved by God in Christ.”13
But another take can be given on vv 24-25. “In personal identification with his own past, as he now views it, Paul decries his wretched, helpless state and cries for deliverance (v. 24). Here Paul can forbear no longer and interjects thanksgiving for the deliverance that has come (v. 25a). Finally, he returns to summarize the divided state of the Jew under the law, serving ‘two masters’–the nomos of God and yet also the nomos of sin (v. 25b).”14
The following reasons are given for thinking an unregenerate person is referred to:
(1) The “for” in v 14 explains how sin is responsible for death (v 13). Since v 13 refers to the unregenerate then it means vv 14-25 do too.
(2) The connection of “I” to “the flesh” (v 14, 18, 25) suggests that Paul is elaborating on the unregenerate condition from 7:5 of being “in the flesh”.
(3) The “I” is depicted as struggling on his own without the aid of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, the Holy Spirit is mentioned 19 times in chapter 8.
(4) The “I” is a slave to sin (vv 14, 23) and this contrasts to believers who are released from the power of sin (6:2, 6, 11, 18-22; 7:5-6; 8:2, 9).
Each of these expressions depicts an objective status, and it is difficult to see how they can all be applied to the same person in the same spiritual condition without doing violence to Paul’s language. In chaps. 6 and 8, respectively, Paul makes it clear that “being free from under sin” and “being free from the law of sin and death” are conditions that are true for every Christian. If one is a Christian, then these things are true; if one is not, then they are not true. This means that the situation depicted in vv. 14–25 cannot be that of the “normal” Christian, nor of an immature Christian. Nor can it describe the condition of any person living by the law because the Christian who is mistakenly living according to the law is yet a Christian and is therefore not “under sin” or a “prisoner of the law of sin.”15
Earlier in Romans (3:9), Paul summarizes his teaching about people outside of Christ by asserting that they are all “under sin.” Christ delivers the believer from this condition, but the egō here in Rom. 7 confesses that he is still in that condition.16
(5) While Paul admits that believers can continue to struggle with sin (Rom 6:12-23; 13:12-14; 1 Cor 3:1-3; Gal 5:17; 6:1), what is depicted here is defeat by sin.
But Paul’s beliefs about sin in the life of the believer are complex. The believer is not yet completely victorious over sin. One can interpret v 24 as describing when the Christian is delivered from the body of death at the resurrection. In 8:10 Paul says the body is dead because of sin while still noting that believers possess the Holy Spirit (8:8-9). Liberation from the sinful body is a future occurrence (8:11, 13, 23).
(6) The “I” struggles with obeying the Law of Moses but Christians are released from the dictates of the law (6:14; 7:4-6).
(7) There is a dramatic contrast between 7:14-25 and 8:1-17. “Now” there is no condemnation for those in Christ (8:1). It is hard to imagine that the regenerate condition is depicted in both passages. Since the regenerate condition is surely depicted in 8:1-17 we must take 7:14-25 to depict the unregenerate condition.
I follow Douglas Moo in understanding the passage to be referring to an unregenerate person. Moo elaborates:
Specifically, I think that Paul is looking back, from his Christian understanding, to the situation of himself, and other Jews like him, living under the law of Moses. Of course, Paul is not giving us a full picture of that situation; he is concentrating on the negatives because this is what he must do to prove how useless the law was to deliver Jews from their bondage to sin. We might say, then, that Rom. 7:14–25 describes from a personal viewpoint the stage in salvation history that Paul delineates objectively in Gal. 3:19–4:3.17
In v 14, Paul assumes that his readers know the law is spiritual (pneumatikos). The first person plural (“we”) draws the reader into the argument. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters things are spiritual because they are God-given and inspired (Rom 1:11; 15:27; 1 Cor 2:13, 15; 3:1; 9:11; 10:4; 12:1; 14:1, 37; 15:44, 46; Gal 6:1; Eph 1:3; 5:19; Col 3:16) so it is safe to say the law is spiritual because it is God given. The “I” is unspiritual because it is motivated by worldly desires (1 Cor 3:1-3). The cause of the human predicament is humanity’s slavery to sin, not the law.
15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want — instead, I do what I hate.
The words οὐ γινώσκω (ou ginōskō, I do not know [understand]) do not mean that the “I” is unconscious of or unaware of one’s actions. Nor does it signify doing what one disapproves of or hates. What it means is that one cannot fully comprehend the depth of sin in oneself. The second half of verse 15 supports this interpretation. The “I” does not do what it wishes; instead, it practices what it hates.18
16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good.
The “I” realizes that the law is good but he is not able to keep it.
By depicting Israel’s ongoing experience under the law in this way, Paul seems to speak in a way that is at odds with the account of his own preconversion experience under the law when he says that he was in respect to ‘righteousness based on the law, faultless’ (Phil 3:6). The apparent contradiction may be resolved as follows: In 7:15-16 Paul is speaking from a Christian perspective of the way he now sees Israel’s life under the law, whereas in Philippians 3:6 he is dealing with what we might call his Jewish credentials. He claims to have been a Jew whose pedigree and piety could not be called into question. It is very unlikely that he is claiming never to have fallen short of what the law demanded, or never to have suffered the qualms of conscience because he had done so.19
17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.
Attention has been drawn to possible similarities between what Paul says here and the Jewish idea of the two impulses, the ‘evil impulse’ and the ‘good impulse’. In Jewish thought a person’s observance of Torah enabled him/her to follow the good impulse and overcome the evil impulse. For Paul, however, deliverance came, not through observance of the law enabling the good impulse to triumph, but rather through what God has done in Christ. By laying the blame on ‘sin’ Paul is not denying human responsibility for sinful actions, but recognizing ‘sin’ as a power operating within humanity.20
18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.
Paul qualifies his statement that “nothing good lives in me” with “in my flesh”. Verse 23 says that the “law of sin” is in my members and v 25 contrasts “flesh” with “mind”. Given this context, “flesh” in this verse probably refers to the material body as opposed to the fallen nature of humanity. The material body is depicted as particularly susceptible to sin (but not as inherently evil).
His point is that the Jew under the law, and, by extension, other non-Christians, do have a genuine striving to do what is right, as defined by God (cf. also 2:14–15). But this striving after the right, because of the unbroken power of sin, can never so “take over” the mind and will that it can effectively and consistently direct the body to do what is good.21
19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!
20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.
Sin, not the law, is responsible for the human predicament. “Once again, Paul is scarcely saying human beings are exculpated from guilt. What he underscores is the power of sin in taking captive the ‘I.'”22
21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me.
In this verse “law” (nomos) probably means rule: “I find it to be a rule that when I want to to good, evil is present with me.”
22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.
The “inner being” is contrasted to the outer flesh (vv 18, 25) and members (v 23).
23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.
The “law of my mind” is parallel with the “law of God” (v 22). The “law of sin” is called a “different law” from the law of God. It refers to the tyranny that sin exerts in people’s lives. It is the law of sin, not the law of God, that is the root cause of the human predicament. The law of sin is said to have won victory over the law of the mind and taken the “I” captive.
Paul makes clear that this “reason” of people apart from Christ is perverted and darkened, preventing them from thinking correctly about God and the world. Here, however, Paul implies that the mind is an ally of God’s law; many therefore conclude that Paul must be describing a Christian, with a “renewed” mind able to respond favorably to God’s will. But this does not follow. Granted that the mind of people apart from Christ is tragically and fatally flawed, it does not follow that the mind cannot understand and respond to God at all. All that Paul is saying is that the “reason” or “will” of the non-Christian is capable of approving the demands of God in his law. Especially if, as we have argued, Paul is speaking of his own experience under the law as typical of others, this capability cannot be denied (cf. 1:32; 2:14–15).23
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
“To be ‘wretched’ is the opposite of being ‘blessed’. It means to be miserable, in mental or emotional turmoil.”24 The “body of death” describes a person sentenced to spiritual death.
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Verse 25a anticipates the deliverance that will be discussed in 8:1-13. The use of “our” instead of “I” may signal an interjection. Verse 25b summarizes vv 14-24.
Paul has here described those living in the shadow of Adam, knowing something of God’s will or Law but unable by willpower or by the guidance of that Law to free themselves from the bondage of sin and death. His largely Gentile audience would recognize this discussion about enthrallment as describing not just what the life of a Jew might be like apart from Christ but what the life of any creature of God, Gentile or Jewish, is like apart from the liberation in Christ. Paul has narrated a crisis in the life of such a person, not the person’s ordinary day-to-day experience. This person has reached the point of despair over human inability to please God and do his will and cries out for help. Paul will describe that help found in Christ in ch. 8.25
Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.
Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.
- Moo 1996, 423 ↩
- Moo 1996, 424 (emphasis added) ↩
- Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 7316-7325 ↩
- Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 7370-7372 ↩
- Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 7388-7390 ↩
- Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 7396-7401 ↩
- Moo 1996, 441 ↩
- Moo 1996, 433-434 ↩
- Moo 1996, 440 ↩
- Witherington III 2004, 192 ↩
- Moo 1996, 453 ↩
- Moo 1996, 462 ↩
- Moo 1996, 446–447 ↩
- Moo 1996, 451 ↩
- Moo 1996, 448 ↩
- Moo 1996, 454 ↩
- Moo 1996, 447–448 ↩
- Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 7539-7544 ↩
- Kruse 2012, 307 ↩
- Kruse 2012, 307-308 ↩
- Moo 1996, 459 ↩
- Schreiner 1998, Kindle Location 7576 ↩
- Moo 1996, 464–465 ↩
- Kruse 2012, 310 ↩
- Witherington III 2004, 204-205 ↩