Commentary on Romans 7:15-25a
Our toddler granddaughter is learning how to talk and has a wonderful way of lengthening the word “no.”
Recently I caught her sitting in front of an electrical outlet. “Nooo,” she said to herself. “Nooo, … nooo”–and then she reached her hand toward the outlet. Grandpa was there to say another kind of “no”! She knew she shouldn’t touch the outlet, but she was ready to do it–and so are we with all the “outlets” that lead to broken relationships and ultimately to death.
Our granddaughter already knows the dynamics of Romans 7:15-25a: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (verse 15). We know what is right–we just do not do it. The gap between willing and doing is a universal phenomenon.
The key to the interpretation and proclamation of this passage is the identification of the “I.” Theories abound, and much exegetical ink has been spilled.
- The “I” equals Paul’s pre-Christian life, in which he was dissatisfied with God and with legalism; what we have in Romans 7 is essentially Paul’s pre-Christ diary. Paul himself, however, does not show that dissatisfaction; see Galatians 1:13-17 and Philippians 3:4-6.
- The “I” equals the Christian. But how does that fit with all of the passages that speak of the believer as free from sin? See, for example, Romans 6:2, 6, 7, 11, 17, 22; 7:6.
- The “I” equals Adam or humanity as determined by Adam (Romans 5:15-19).
- The “I” is the sinner, but the sinner (or perhaps Paul himself) viewed from the perspective of one who has been justified. The now justified person re-evaluates his/her pre-Christ life.
- But finally, perhaps the “I” is at least in part the present-day Christian. So Dunn wonders why Paul devoted so much space to our passage’s concern if the temptation to sin was firmly in the past (bullet two). The anguish of our text sounds fresh. Dunn’s solution is the interplay of the “already–but not yet.” In 7:4-6 he sees a strong statement of the “already,” but in 7:14-24 Paul details the gravity of the “not yet.”1 For now the believer is caught in-between.
The pericope is carefully constructed in a point to counter-point pattern. Often the juxtaposition occurs within one verse, as in 15b-c, 18c-d, 19a-b, or between two verses as in 16-17. There is a strong sense of an internal debate, but ultimately any balance between willing and doing is lost, and the text indicates the desperate situation of the person who can will the right things but is powerless to do them–that is, it indicates our desperate situation when left to ourselves.
The basic situation is outlined in verse 15: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Somewhat oddly, that results in the statement that because the “I” knows the gap between willing and doing, that shows “that the law is good.” The sense is that the law is not to blame for the “I’s” evil actions. Where, then, does the problem lie? Verse 17: “in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Wonderful! Then I must be off the hook–no responsibility for me.
When most Americans hear the word sin they think of individual acts of sinning. While Paul can use the word that way, his basic understanding of sin is that it is a power–sin with a capital “S.” Does that Sin absolve people of responsibility? Not at all, if we remember that in 5:12 Paul said that the individual has bought into the matrix of Sin by participating in it.
The situation is similar to addiction. At the beginning of the addiction, the person freely chooses to ingest the addicting substance, but soon that substance controls the individual, whose life becomes dominated by seeking the next drink or the next fix. Thus the person has both bought into the addiction at one level, while being overwhelmed by it at another. And so “it is the sin that dwells within me” that is in charge.
Verse 18a: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.” Flesh (sarks) is readily confused with the concept of body (soma). Paul’s normative use of body is positive. The body is a gift of God, and it is in the body that the believer is called to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:20). Flesh, on the other hand, is the short-hand term Paul uses when he wants to designate a body or life that is being misused, that is, a body that is controlled by Sin. The positive body in that case has become the negative flesh. It is important to realize that body and flesh do not usually in Paul mean the same thing. And that is why nothing good can dwell in the “I’s” flesh.
Verses 21-24 express the person’s conflict in different language. At one level the person is able to recognize and rejoice in the goodness of God’s law, but at another level the person sees a great war going on in his/her life. In that war “the law of sin that dwells in my members” takes the person captive. There is a war going on, and Sin is taking its prisoners! The result is hopelessness. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” the “I” cries out. And the answer? “God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The burdens people carry are great. The conflict within each person is stark and at times overwhelming. Romans 7 has its answer. And so does our Gospel, Matthew 11:28-30, where the same Jesus promises to carry our heavy burdens and give us rest. Jesus knows the gap in our lives, and he invites us to rely on him.
1 James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 472-81