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Who is the man in Romans 7?

Today’s lesson deals with one of the most controversial passages in Paul’s epistle: the identity of the man in Romans 7 struggling ineffectively against the power sin in his life. Since Paul uses the pronoun “I” is Paul describing his own personal experience? And if he is, is he describing his experience before or after his conversion? Before we can tackle this theological conundrum, it is important that we first examine the argument that Paul develops in the first half of the chapter. While this might seem like a distraction from the real issue, it will actually help in answering the question about the identity of the man Paul describes later in the chapter.

Having already explained how Christ has broken the power of sin (6:1-23), Paul turns his attention in Romans 7 to how Christ has released humanity from the condemnation of God’s law. Paul’s focus on the law is demonstrated by his use of the word “law” or “commandment” in each of the first fourteen verses in chapter seven, and a total of thirty-three times from 7:1 to 8:4.

To explain how Christ has released humans from the law’s condemnation, Paul makes use of a marriage metaphor. According to the laws of marriage and divorce in the Old Testament, a woman is bound to her husband for as long as he lives. The only legal way she could marry someone else would be if her husband had died. Paul’s concern is not marital law. His real concern is how sinners can be freed from the law’s condemnation and joined to Christ. To explain this aspect of salvation Paul likens the law of God to the husband in the marriage. Since the law will not pass away (Matt. 5:17), the only way humans can be freed from its condemnation is through death. By dying with Christ believers are released from the law’s jurisdiction, and can legally be joined to Christ. And just as a wife bears children for her husband, so union with Christ results in a life of fruitful service to God (7:4).

1. The purpose of any law is to define what sin is and to condemn it whenever it occurs. Although this aspect of the law is important, it does not bode well for anyone who has broken the law. It is not the nature or duty of the law to let anyone off the hook. Since we are sinners, why is being “under Jesus” better than being “under the law”? Consider the following verses: Heb 4:15; 2:18; Rom 8:1.

2. How does being free from the law’s condemnation enable us to “bear fruit for God” (7:4)? To follow Paul’s marriage metaphor, you might contrast the different way love is manifested in a “good” marriage compared to a “bad” marriage.

3. What does it mean in practical every day life to serve God “in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6)? Give an example to illustrate this point.

Realizing again that his comments about the law might be misunderstood, Paul clearly states that the problem is not the law, but humans. In fact, the role of the law is actually a positive one. It points out human sinfulness. Many Jews, however, believed that by studying God’s law sin could be overcome. Paul disagrees. As important as moral truth is, by itself it is incapable of overcoming sin. All the law can tell humans is where they don’t measure up (7:7-12); it cannot make them into what they should be (7:13-24). So while the law is “holy and just and good” (7:12), it brings death to sinners (7:11).

4. List all the positive qualities of the law described in Romans 7:7-13?

5. In contrast to its positive qualities, what limitations does the law have in Rom. 7:7-13?

6. Why do you think Paul specifically mentions the tenth commandment against coveting as the one commandment that pointed out his sinfulness rather and than a different commandment? It might be helpful to consider how the sin of coveting is different from the other types of behavior forbidden in the Ten Commandments—particularly for someone like Paul (Phil. 3:3-6).

Converted or unconverted? So who is the person struggling against sin in Romans 7:14-25?

It must be the unconverted Paul! How could the converted Paul say he was “sold as a slave to sin” (7:14)? That would contradict everything Paul just said about the freedom from sin in Romans 6. Could the converted Paul really say he was powerless to do what he wanted? And finally, how could Paul cry out in anguish, “O wretched man that I am” when he has talked earlier about the blessing of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God? So goes this argument.

It must be the converted Paul! An unconverted person, so goes this argument, would never acknowledge that fact that “nothing good dwells within my flesh” (7:18), call the law holy, righteous, and good, claim to delight in God’s law (7:22), and bemoan their condition and long for deliverance (7:23-24). The internal conflict experienced in Romans 7 is only possible in the experience of a person in whom the Holy Spirit is active!

While both of these arguments certainly have their strengths, I’m personally convinced the most likely answer is that Paul has neither individual in mind. In light of the almost complete absence of the “Spirit” in Romans 7, and its frequent mention in chapter 8 to describe the Christian life, Paul is most likely referring to the struggle that every human faces—whether converted or not—who tries to live a moral life without the presence of God’s enabling Spirit.

7. In spite of the conflict in Romans 7:13-24, on what basis can Paul be thankful (7:24-25)?

8. In what ways have you discovered God ability to deliver or rescue you from “this body of death”?

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