A Fresh Look at
Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.
The great majority of interpreters and Christians take Romans 7:14-25 as referring to the struggles of the Christian life. It is true that we experience struggles in the Christian life and this passage seems to correspond with these struggles. Also, because Paul speaks in the present tense, it seems that he must be speaking of his life as a Christian. Nevertheless, there is another possible interpretation, especially when we examine the context and the argument of the book carefully.
The majority of interpreters agree that the theme of Romans is righteousness by faith apart from the law (Rom. 1:17-18; 3:21-22) and that the first five chapters are the foundation of the doctrine in the epistle. Normally, chapters six to eight are considered as referring to sanctification in the Christian life. Then, chapters nine through eleven deal with the question of Israel and its position in God's new administration. But, the problem is, how do these two parts fit with the theme of the righteousness of God apart from the law? In particular, how does practical sanctification fit in the Apostle's theme?
To answer these questions, we must investigate the overall context, as well as the theological ramifications. With reference to the context, Paul uses a series of rhetorical questions that are very rarely considered by interpreters of this book. Other than in chapter three, all these questions occur in chapters six through eleven: 6:1-2, 15; 7:7, 13; 9:14; 11:1, 11. Each of these questions is answered by Paul with a denial and not simply a denial, but with the strongest available denial in the Greek language. It is absolutely necessary, if we want to know what Paul is saying, to ask the questions: in using these linguistic devices, what is the Apostle's purpose? Since Paul answers every time with a strong denial, it is obvious that they represent false conclusions or questions about righteousness by faith apart from the law. Each of these false conclusions and Paul's treatment of it can be seen to relate to the topic of righteousness by faith apart from the law.
Starting with this thesis, we can first set aside chapters nine through eleven. This section deals with the issue that if righteousness is by faith apart from the law: what happens with the Jews? The apostle answers that the Jews have rejected Christ because they want to be justified by the law (chaps. 9-10). The chosen people of God, nevertheless, have not been rejected by God and will be restored to their position before God (chap. 11).
But how do chapters six through eight correspond to the perspective of righteousness by faith apart from the law? There are four false conclusions or questions in this section. The false conclusion in 6:1 is this: since we are declared righteous by faith apart from the law, we can sin as we want without consequence—grace will abound. Paul shows us that this is not the case. Sin can not have dominion over us because we are not under the law but under grace (6:14). Then in v. 15, Paul denies the false conclusion that because we are under the law we can sin. His argument is that we have died to the law through the body of Christ (7:4) and consequently we can, and we should, produce the fruit of holiness (6:22; 7:4).
As an explanation, in 7:5, it is said that "when we were in the flesh, our sinful desires worked through the Law in the sphere of our body to bear fruit for death." This is in the past tense, referring to a person's life before salvation. This is a key verse and we will find that the idea will be amplified in verses 13-25.
After concluding that we have died to the law in v. 6 of chapter seven, in 7:7 and the following verses Paul deals with the false conclusion that the Law is sinful. He says that the Law was useful to teach him about sin. Therefore, the Law is good. But, since sin used the law to produce death, the false conclusion might arise that the law, which is good, itself became death to us. This is dealt with by Paul in verses 13-25. Sin produced death by means of what is good—the Law. In reality, according to v. 14, Paul says, "the fault is mine, not the Law's, because I am carnal, sold under sin." This description belongs to a person before he became a Christian, who does not have salvation (see below). Every statement in 14-25 supports the declaration in v.5 and amplifies it, so as to answer the false conclusion in v.13.
Why does the Apostle speak in the present tense? He uses the present tense in order to make his argument very dramatic. The conjunction (for in v.14) pointing back to v.13 and the previous verses (past time) proves that the tense really is for dramatic effect. Since the Greek conjunction in v. 14, gar, introduces a reason or an explanation, verses 14-25 are offering supporting evidence for Paul's statement in v. 13. Therefore, the change in tense can not be for a new subject, but must be dramatic.
The statements in 7:24-25 form a conclusion to the section 7:13-25 and a transition to chapter eight. Then, just as 7:14-25 develops 7:5, chapter eight develops 7:6, especially 8:2-4. Chapter eight begins with a shout of triumph that now we have this liberty from sin and death. Verse one says that now, after salvation, there is no condemnation. The first part of v. 3, "what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh," picks up where the argument of 7:13-25 left off. Verse nine of chapter eight proves that this section deals with the regenerate person. Chapter eight as a whole deals with the glorious realities in our lives now that we have been freed from the situation Paul laments in 7:24, now when we have been declared righteous by faith apart from the law. These truths are so great and wonderful that they deserve one grand conclusion in verses 31-39.
In conclusion, chapters 6-8, although chapter six mentions issues concerning sanctification, do not have the purpose of dealing with sanctification specifically. This section, just as does 9-11, deals with various objections and questions arising from the theme of righteousness by faith apart from the law. It does not answer the question, "How can we be sanctified?" but rather, "If we are under grace instead of law, can we sin as we please? and, "How does the law work to bring the Jews to Christ?" Specifically, 7:13-25 answers the question, "Has then what is good [the Law] come to be death for me?" It does this by means of declaring that the law is spiritual, but we are carnal and slaves to sin (v. 14) before we were saved. Also, this section describes the process in which sin uses the law to produce fruit for death (compare 7:5).
Having traced the overall context of chapters 6-8, we can consider some of the details of 7:13-25. Most importantly, in v. 14 we need to take into account the Greek conjunction, gar, represented by the English word, for. This is the key word. Almost no one takes into account that this conjunction continues the argument of the previous verses. Some Bible versions do not even translate it. This conjunction connects what Paul says in 14-25 with v. 13, and accordingly, with the preceding context. Therefore, the two sections must refer to the same situation and time frame: "when we were in the flesh" (7:5). Since the conjunction continues the argument of 7:13, and all agree that the preceding section refers to Paul before his conversion, 14-25 also should refer to Paul before his conversion. The logical force of this Greek conjunction, gar, is to introduce a reason or an explanation. For that reason, it is obvious that 7:14-25 offers evidence in support of the declaration of v. 13.
Another method of determining context is by noting repeated words, phrases, or concepts. Note the parallel phrases: v. 5, "to bear fruit to death," v. 13 "producing death in me," v. 24 "this body of death." The close relationship between these phrases argues for a logical connection. Two other close logical connections are: v. 12, "the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good," and v. 16, ""I agree with the law that it is good." This connection shows that 7:14-25 and 7:7-13 are dealing with related issues.
Many commentators ask, "How is it possible for an unbeliever to say, ""I delight in the law of God according to the inward man?"" (v. 22).
a. "Inward," eso in Greek, can refer to the mind or the understanding, the inward part of the functioning human being, as opposed to the outward, visible, body. It does not necessarily refer to the "new man" or "new creation." In v. 23 "my members" forms a contrast with "inward man." V. 25 repeats the contrast between the will and the flesh.
b. With regard to Paul "delighting" in the Law: in Rom. 10:2, the Apostle says about the Jews, "they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge." These Jews were not saved, but apparently they delighted in the Law. They were responding to the revelation that God had given.
I would ask another question: "How is it possible for a Christian to be, ""sold under sin"" (v. 14). The Greek prepositional phrase, "under sin," is the same as in 3:9b, "we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin." The word 'sold' implies slavery (see chart). We cannot be, as Christians, sold under sin as are unbelievers. This theological point by itself should eliminate the possibility that 7:14-25 refers to a regenerate person.
In addition to the above points, note in the following chart several contrasts between the person described in 7:13-25 and the person represented in chapters six and eight.
Comparison between 7:13-25 and chapter six/eight
Captive to the law of sin (7:23)
free from sin (6:18)
sin shall not have dominion over you (6:14)
free from the law of sin and death (8:2)
the evil that I do not want to do, that I do (7:19)
dead to sin/we shall not serve sin any longer (6)
Deals with incapacity (7:15)
Deals with struggle (6:12-14)
To conclude that the man in 7:14-25 is regenerate is next to impossible on exegetical grounds.
As faithful students of the Bible we must not fall into the temptation to jump to application before we have done careful interpretation. Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is that principle better illustrated than in this passage we have been considering. In 7:14-25, Paul expresses his incapacity to conquer sin while he was under the Law before his conversion. Many people have experienced the struggle to be freed from sin when they were unregenerate. This is the struggle described in 7:13-25, not the struggle to live the Christian life.
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