The Seventh Chapter of Romans
Is it Paul's autobiography?
The seventh chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans has presented many problem to earnest students of God's Word the main difficulty appears to lie in describing a pre-Christian, did Paul also refer to happenings which concerned himself and others (and even ourselves) after becoming followers of the Lord Jesus Christ? This article will examine what Paul has written, in the expectation of a divine blessing.
The Apostle first of all deals with the need of freedom from the law, and it may be asked why should he be so concerned about such freedom? The law is God's; it forbids sin and demands right doing. Paul sees no fault in the law itself for it is holy, just and good (v 12). The fault lies in the concept that by meticulous adherence to a code of law, merit in God's sight can be acquired.
In the chapter before us Paul tells us that he found the law inadequate as a means of securing a righteous standing before God. He had previously touched upon this when he wrote, "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (3: 20).
In the early part of our chapter, freedom from law is illustrated by reference to the principle ruling between a wife and her husband. Marriage is a lifelong relationship. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. Death breaks the marriage-bond. Paul's dictum is that as the death of the one party breaks that bond, so the believer's death with Christ breaks the bond which previously yoked him to the law and frees him to enter into union with Christ.
In verse 5 Paul writes: "While we lived on the level of our lower nature, the sinful passions evoked by the law worked in our bodies" (NEB) but "having died to that wherein we were holden, we are discharged from the law" (v.6 RV).
The following section covered by verses 7 to 13 may be entitled "the dawn of conscience". In his earliest days, Paul had no consciousness of sin nor would he have been acquainted with the demands of the law. The time in his life came, however, perhaps when he was thirteen years of age, when as "a son of the commandment" he assumed personal responsibility to keep the law comprised in the Ten Commandments, all but one of which were charged with prohibitions, "You shall not..." prohibitions tend to awake a desire to do the forbidden things. Paul cites an example, "I should never have come to know what covetousness was but for the commandment which says, You shall not covet". It stirred into life a sin that lay dormant. Consequently, the commandments given, that man might keep them and live brought about death, not life."
The Apostle did not think of his own experience as unique, for he saw it as representative of the experience of the human race as a whole. He would have Adam's transgression in mind as well as his own. He writes "I was once alive apart from the law" (v.9). In the same way, Adam was not conscious of any sinful inclination until his obedience was put to the test by the commandment: "You shall not eat". Paul's belief in, and understanding of, the narrative of the Fall were strengthened in the light of his own experience.
Nevertheless, the law in itself was holy, just and good. Why then was an evil state of affairs brought into being by the introduction of the law? The answer is that the villain in the piece is Sin. Sin seized the opportunity afforded it when the law showed what was right and what was wrong but without making available the power to do the right and avoid doing the wrong. Thus Paul appreciated how "exceeding sinful" sin was. (v.13).
The next section to which we turn our attention is covered by verses 14 to 25 and may be entitled 'The conflict within'. Paul uses the first person singular, no longer using the past tense but the present tense. This change should be very carefully noted. In verses 7 to 13, he told us that sin attacked him furtively and he fell, but in the section now before us, he puts up an agonizing resistance. He is now living on two planes at the same time, earnestly desiring to live on the higher but only too aware of the power of indwelling sin that persists in pulling him down to the lower.
Christians, like Paul, after being "apprehended of Christ Jesus", live in two worlds at the same time. Temporally, we are flesh and blood; "sons of Adam", like our fellows, to whom applies "in Adam all die". Spiritually, however, we have passed from death to life; translated from darkness to light; having shared in Christ's death, burial and resurrection to "walk in newness of life"; citizens of heaven; members of a new creation, no longer 'in Adam' but 'in Christ. Notwithstanding, Paul wrote in Gal. 5: 17: "the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh,…to prevent you from doing what you would". This coincides with his words: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom. 7: 19 RSV).
"The law of sin which is in my members" (v.23) and the struggle against it has surely been the experience of too many Christian believers for it to be stated confidently (as many do) that Paul cannot be writing autobiographically, portraying part of his own life. As we have seen, he is using the present tense. Was he a meek and gentle man naturally? Is it not most likely with his commanding and intense enthusiasm, he found it difficult to "crucify the flesh"; "to keep under his body"; to gain complete victory over a hasty utterance or judgment; to repel resentment at any invasion into the field of his apostolic ministry? All these factors must have given rise to his constant portrayal of the Christian course to be a race to be won, a battle to he fought.
Victory did come to Paul "through Jesus Christ our Lord", although he linked it with a confession of inability. Such inability remained so long as "I myself" ("I, in my own strength") maintain the conflict. So long as he does that he may serve the law of God with his mind but his body will continue to obey the law of sin. But must it always be defeat? Must this incubus always be on his back? Will deliverance never come? Yes, it will, thank God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Let us recapitulate by referring more particularly to expressions Paul uses in the section from verse 14 onwards: "I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine" (v.15 NEB). "It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells within me" (vv. 17, 20). "To will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not" (v.18 RV). 'The inward man' (v.22) is the 'new man' in Christ Jesus that is daily renewed in the Creator's image. "The law of sin" (v.23) is the evil principle of indwelling sin. "O wretched man that I am!" (v.24).
Believers are accounted righteous by God through faith. They are justified but their sanctification is only beginning and this is progressive. When we believed in Christ, we knew but very little of our fallen Adamic nature, and when we had the vision of the Saviour, we thought our carnal mind to be dead, but we discovered later, this was not actually so. Many, perhaps most, have experienced more inward trials after coming to Christ than when they were first awakened to their need of the Saviour. "Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" is the cry until we are made perfect in holiness, but we have the assurance that He who hath begun a good work in us will perform it until the day of Christ. "The body of this death" or "this body of death" (RSV) is that heritage of human nature subject to the law of sin and death, in which all the Sons of Adam are involved, and from which we cannot extricate ourselves by our own endeavour.
But the answer to "who shall deliver me?" is there — God alone through Jesus Christ our Lord! "Thanks be to God!" (RSV). Romans 8 describes more fully how this deliverance from indwelling sin may be appropriated. In chapter 7, however, after Paul's brief indication that the situation is not hopeless, he goes back to summarize his moral predicament already set forth in verses 14 to 24. 'So then with the mind I myself serve (am in servitude to) the law of God: but with the flesh the law of sin". Some have said that these sentences are misplaced, but their position as in the A.V. is the same as in the earliest manuscripts. "I myself" is emphatic; it means "I by myself" who knows defeat and frustration. But 'I', as a Spirit-filled Christian, am not left to "myself"; the law of the Spirit in Christ dwells within me and that power makes an almighty difference.
Chapter 8 of Romans begins by setting forth "Life in the Spirit". We have already quoted, Gal. 5:17, but immediately before these words Paul had written: "Walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh" (v.16). No mention has been made of the Holy Spirit in Romans 7 but chapter 8 describes the life of victory and hope through the Spirit. When we avail ourselves of the full resources of life and power that are ours 'in Christ Jesus', we are "more than conquerors"; "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (8: 1). "Condemnation" is not merely the opposite of "justification". The Greek word for "condemnation" here used means rather "punishment following sentence", and Paul appears to be saying that there is no reason why those who are in Christ Jesus should go on doing penal servitude, as though they had never loved us. The victory that overcomes is the victory of faith. Let us therefore be released from the prison of sin. We stumble and fail even although we walk in the Spirit, but we are not condemned for every failure. Who is He that condemns? Christ that died? The answer is 'no' and we go on our way with greater circumspection, rejoicing withal. In all these things we are more than conquerors (super-conquerors) but only through Him are we persuaded that nothing shall be able to separate us from God's love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The above interpretation is supported by the commentaries of Conneybeare & Howson and Barnes. The alternative viewpoint is supported by Agar Beet. Further contributions may appear in a future issue