Commentary on Romans 7:15-25a
Romans 7 has played a crucial role in Christian anthropology.
Whether one derives from this passage the Lutheran simul, that we are and always will be both fundamentally saint and sinner, or some other variation that expresses ongoing human struggle with sin, the main thing most people take from this passage relates to human identity vis-à-vis sin.
In this regard, the present text, as the lectionary delineates it, can be quite misleading if left on its own. This is one of the times that the pastor or preacher needs to be careful to bring the larger context into view. Without this, it would be very easy to read, interpret, and preach this passage as saying something defining about human identity: that we are resigned to a life of struggle with no end, in spite of the exclamation, “But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This can often lead to the foregone conclusion that we are stuck in sin, which is actually okay because there is grace. The statement in verse 25b often wins the day (even though not in the lectionary delineation, it should be included): “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Before letting this verse have the final word on the passage, or simply fitting this passage into a more or less developed theological anthropology, there are a couple points that introduce more complexity and possibility for thought and discussion.
First, Paul has just objected to the “we’re consigned to sin, but that’s okay because there is grace” mentality in Romans 6. Romans 7 should probably not be interpreted in any way that results in Paul “rebuild(ing) what (he) destroyed” as he puts it in Galatians 2:18. It doesn’t compute for Paul to take up such space in this letter to argue that the baptized are transferred from the realm of Sin, and then turn around to say that we’re still stuck in it. Whatever say Romans 7 has on anthropology, what Paul says in Romans 6 must be given weight.
Second, there continues to be a good deal of debate over the identity of the “I” in this infamous section of Romans. This should bring about at least a little more thought as to what we think Paul is saying here if, as is the case for many, one’s interpretation, teaching, and preaching are shaped by one’s understanding of the “I.” Making things more complicated, one’s understanding of the “I” often issues from one’s ideas about anthropology, whether “Biblical” or not. It is worth considering that Paul might just be rewriting how his audience (and we) understands the “I” — in accord not with old human experience, but in Christ, as he does elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 2:19-20).
There are several options for how to understand the “I.” Many people interpret the “I” as Paul speaking of himself. Even then, however, there is debate whether Paul is referring to his current identity in Christ, or to his pre-Christian life. There are also important factors that suggest the “I” is a generic description of the identity and experience of the old humanity, or even representative of Israel.
It’s important to recognize that, more than only describing the “I” in relation to sin, this passage also says something about the law. In fact, one could make a case that Paul seems less to be trying to give a definite systematic theology about the human condition, as he is trying to say something about the inability of the law to remedy the problem of sin. Of course the human “I” (however understood) is involved in this equation, but the leading edge seems first to be the issue of the law. This is confirmed when one reads Romans 7, not as an isolated discourse on the human condition, but in context with Romans 6 and 8.
As soon as Paul completes the statement in Romans 7:25, he moves on to say in 8:1-3:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
Read in context, Romans 8:1-3 help us see what Paul is getting at in Romans 7 — the inability of the law and the articulation of a different simul — the simultaneous release from sinful humanity and fulfillment of the law’s good (!) requirement. If anything, then, Romans 7 is not a final destination, defining our ongoing condition to which we’re consigned for the duration of our human lives, but the human condition and struggle from which those in Christ have been set free.
In addition to Romans 8, in Romans 5 and 6, Paul had just made a strong case that those baptized in Christ have “died” to their Adamic humanity and been united with Christ (6:1-14). Those baptized “no longer live in Sin” and are no longer enslaved to sin and injustice (“unrighteousness”). There has been a real “transfer” of existence and identity, from one “Lord” to another, from one mode of existence to another, affected not by the law but by the Spirit of the living Christ.
Given the contextual surroundings, Romans 7:15-25 describes the human situation from which God has delivered humanity in and through Jesus Christ. This passage says less about the human struggle in Sin and more about human identity in Christ.
In Christ the “I” is no longer divided but united; no longer frustrated but fulfilled; no longer at odds with God’s will, but in conformity to it. God has done all this. All human systems (“law”) have been and will be incapable of achieving this. It is only the Spirit through Christ that delivers humanity. Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ!