Commentary on Romans 7:15-25a
Romans is regularly recognized to be Paul’s most seriously sustained theological reflection in the corpus of his letters. In turn, Romans 5-8 are recognized as four chapters devoted to Christian life as the experience of God’s grace, four chapters in which Paul examines the character and meaning of Christian life in the world.
The tone of these chapters is reflective, meditative. Yet, no portion of the epistle is more challenging to understand than these four chapters. Moreover, within chapters 5-8, no section is more difficult to appreciate than these verses of chapter 7.
Verse 15 of Romans 7 actually presupposes v. 14 (“For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin”) as is evident from the verse (v. 15) beginning with the word “for” (not included in the NRSV and several other translations); so that v. 15 reaches back to v. 14 and explains the statement there. In fact, it is unfortunate that both v. 13 and v. 14 are not included in the lectionary text, for v. 13 summarizes the argument that Paul made in vv. 7-12–an argument that sets up or leads into the reflection present in vv. 15-25. The fact is, discerning Paul’s logic and purposes in vv. 15-25 is challenging under any circumstances and the reader (preacher) needs every possible advantage to grasp Paul’s teaching. Thus, anyone preparing to preach on Rom 7:15-25a should be sure to read Rom 7:1-14 carefully in conjunction with the lectionary text.
Interpreters have long debated what Paul is trying to communicate in this segment of his letter, with its use of “I” language. Is Paul writing of his personal experiences as a Christian? Or, is he describing the dilemma he experienced before his call/conversion to the apostolic ministry of Jesus Christ? Or, as most scholars conclude today, is Paul assuming the posture of the “universal human” and writing of the difficulties and the situation in life that is faced by all humanity prior to one’s coming into a saving relationship to God in and through Jesus Christ the Lord? It may be that Paul speaks here more in the voice of “Adam” (see Romans 5) than in his own personal voice. If so, it is clearly best not to take Paul as delivering biographical information at this point in the letter.
It seems that vv. 15-20 present the universal experience of humanity in being dominated by sin so that one is made incapable of doing even that which one knows to be right. This universal situation of humanity, as presented here by Paul, is one of extreme hopelessness, for the power of sin seems to be more than that with which humanity can cope successfully.
In turn, vv. 21-25 express the frustration of humanity as sin lords it over humankind, despite humanity’s best intentions to do what is right before God. Then, these verses declare the hope of humanity that comes as a result of the work of God (in behalf of humankind) in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is this final experience of hope (in Christ) that allows humanity to look back on life and to see and admit the dire, hopeless circumstances that previously characterized the human experience.
Since Paul is really speaking of the universal experience of humanity in this text, perhaps in moving toward preaching it is best to work with general or common experiences rather than very particular or specific examples of both sin and grace. First, how have we failed, despite our best intentions? How have we experienced the frustration of knowing the right thing to do and, then, doing something else? Moreover, how do we understand such actions and failures?
Paul writes of sin. But in our culture, the concept of sin has all but disappeared. As one observer put it, sin, on the one hand, has been reduced to something like bad taste or a mistake–serving the wrong wine at a dinner or saying something embarrassing to oneself or to another. On the other hand, sin has been abstracted–so that pornography is a sin (as it should be regarded), but adultery is a bad choice.
Paul’s understanding of sin is far greater than any of these understandings. Paul writes of sin, not merely of a sin. Sin is more than the sum of human misdeeds. Sin for Paul is a force to be reckoned with, a force set against humanity and God alike. Sin takes advantage of the person and compels one to actions contrary to one’s best understandings and intentions. Sin opposes God, drives humanity to destruction; and only God can deal with this evil power in such a way as to liberate humanity from its force.
Second, how have we experienced God’s grace? How have we known the freedom that comes from God’s defeating the power of sin? And, how do we understand such experiences?
Paul writes of delivery and gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord for such delivery. Oddly, contemporary culture looks askance at delivery, arguing that it is contrary to self-reliance, self-actualization, and personal responsibility. A culture that does not take sin seriously has trouble recognizing the sheer necessity of delivery. But, perhaps like Paul, only those who have experienced real delivery can appreciate the true necessity of delivery from perils too great to be dealt with in purely human terms. A college student once challenged the school’s chaplain, saying, “Christianity is just a crutch”; to which the chaplain replied, “Who says you don’t limp?”
Sin, hopelessness, frustration, delivery, grace, and great gratitude are the major themes of this week’s lectionary text. One might elect to treat one, all, or a selected combination of these subjects in the course of a sermon. The challenge is to follow Paul’s lead and to speak in such a way that any and all of the congregation will understand herself, himself, and themselves to be addressed by the proclamation.