The “I” in Romans 7:14-25
“No part of Romans, . . . has been the object of so much scrutiny and the source of so much confusion as what Paul writes in [Romans] 7:14-25” (Richard Longenecker, NIGTC, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 652). With these words, Richard N. Longenecker in his new (and much anticipated) commentary on Romans dives into this difficult passage of Scripture. Since Longenecker’s commentary is “hot off the press,” I will examine his approach to these verses and use it, as well as contributions from others, as my basis for discussing Romans 7:14-25.
Two Approaches to Romans 7:14-25
Longenecker notes that there are two approaches to Romans 7:14-25. The first, which he labels, Traditional Understandings, proposes that the “I” is autobiographical, thus Paul is referring to himself. Some believe that Paul is speaking about his life under the law before he came to Christ, while others contend that Paul is speaking of the struggle experienced by the Christian whose dual nature consisting of The Spirit and the flesh battle against each other. Longenecker identifies a number of scholars subscribing to each group. The group arguing for Paul’s personal experience under the law includes “Origen and most of the Greek Fathers,” John Wesley, and more modern scholars such as C.H. Dodd and Doug Moo. Those who argue for Paul speaking about his own struggles as a Christian include “Augustine and the Latin Fathers,” as well as the Reformers Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin, and modern scholars such as Cranfield, Dunn, Murray, Morris, and Barrett. What struck me about this list, and the reason I mention it here, is that the earliest interpreters understood Paul to be talking about his life under the law, not his struggle as a Christian. Longenecker does say, “most of the Greek Fathers,” took the view that Paul was speaking of his struggle under the law. The word “most” leaves some doubt, but does this mean that the view that Paul was talking about his struggle as a Christian, only originated with Augustine? Although one’s position on this subject must ultimately be decided by the text, the fact that earlier interpreter’s apparently did not understand Paul’s remarks in Romans 7 as referring to the Christian should at least provide a caution to later interpreters who take this view.
Although Longenecker favors the autobiographical use of “I” in Romans 7:7-13, he does not follow the “traditional understandings” noted above when it comes to Romans 7:14-25. Thus he explains a second way to view Paul’s use of “I” in Romans 7:14-25 known as a “Stilform of Speech and Writing” (italics original, p. 653). This can also be referred to as “Speech in Character” (see Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans, pp. 16-21). In this case, the “I” is not autobiographical, but is a device that allows the hearer or reader to experience/identify with someone’s situation (according to Stowers, the person can be real or imaginary, p. 17). In such cases, the writer is seeking to communicate “a general truth” (Longenecker, p. 655). Longenecker points out that this device was a common way of communicating in Paul’s day. He references Jewish sources (including Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls), as well as Greco-Roman sources (including Euripides, Ovid, and Quintilian) to illustrate this frequent usage of “I”. Most convincing, is the fact that Paul uses “I” this way in other letters, and it is clear in these contexts that his reference is not autobiographical. One example, found in Romans itself, is 3:7: “If the truth of God is enhanced unto his glory by my falsehood, why am I also still condemned?” It is clear in the context that Paul is not referring to himself, but to a hypothetical individual who is raising this objection. Other passages include 1 Corinthians 6:15; 13:1-3; and Galatians 2:18. Therefore, regarding Romans 7:14-25, Longenecker argues convincingly (in my opinion) that Paul’s usage of “I” is not autobiographical, but rather a literary device common in the ancient world used to express a general truth.
The Identity of the “I” in Romans 7:14-25
Whether one believes that Paul is using “I” autobiographically, or as “Speech in Character,” we are still left with the question of identifying who he means. Is Paul describing the Christian, the Jew under the law, or all people in this passage? Doug Moo’s comments are appropriate here: “Debate over Romans 7 is so lively precisely because each view has some points in the text in its favor. There is no slam dunk in the interpretive game here. So the best interpretation will be the one that produces the best overall fit with all the evidence” (Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans, p. 109).
One of the most popular identifications of the person in Romans 7:14-25 is that he/she is a Christian. Note in my opening paragraph above how many theologians over the centuries have advocated this view. This view is frequently subscribed to by many Christians who quote it as evidence that they still struggle with the flesh. Although it is true that Christians must “reckon themselves as dead” (Rom. 6:11), I do not think that Paul is referencing the inner struggle of a Christian. In fact, in my opinion, whoever the person is that Paul is describing, the one thing that is for certain is that it is not a Christian. I am in agreement with Moo when he observes that the description of the person in Romans 7:14 “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin,” is “an impossible state for any believer.” Furthermore, Moo notes that being “ ‘a prisoner of the law of sin’ (7:23), . . . contradicts the situation of all Christians, who have been ‘set . . . free from the law of sin and death’ (8:2)” (Moo, p. 109). There are, in fact, a number of contrasts between the Christian and the person described in Romans 7:14-25. The chart below notes the contrasts that Paul makes in chapters 6-8. One side of the chart shows the characteristics of the person Paul calls “I,” while the other side shows characteristics of the believer.
Another excellent chart along these same lines can be found in Craig Keener’s commentary on Romans. Keener states, “. . . the contrasts with the larger context are simply too great to fit the Christian life as he describes it, even had Paul thought himself an unusually weak Christian” (Craig S. Keener, NCCS, Romans, p. 92). Quoting Moo again, he states, “. . . I admit that verses 15-20, taken on their own, could describe the struggle with sin that even the best Christians continue to have. But what we must recognize is that the struggle depicted in these verses issue in defeat: imprisonment by the law of sin. This is not the outcome of the Christian’s struggle with sin” (p. 111).
Returning to Longenecker’s view, he too does not see the individual in Romans 7:14-25 as a Christian, especially in lieu of what Paul says in Romans 8. For Longenecker this person is a picture of “. . . all people who attempt to live their lives by their own natural abilities and acquired resources, apart from God” (p. 673). Longenecker’s references to Greco-Roman writings that refer to the problem of self-mastery makes a strong case for his argument that Paul’s “Speech in Character” fits “all people.” Some, like Moo, however, argue that the person Paul is referring to is “an unregenerate Jew under the law” (p. 110). I am yet undecided whether the person Paul describes is Jewish or refers to all. The context of the law in Romans 7 causes me to lean toward Moo’s interpretation of the unregenerate Jew, but I am also inclined toward Longenecker’s view because the overall context (going back to Romans 5:12-21) has to do with all who are in Adam. Furthermore, as Longenecker points out, the struggle to want to do right but to do the wrong is a universal human struggle, it is not simply the problem of the Jew under the law. And so the jury remains out on this point as far as I am concerned. I would welcome any insights from those who read this article. Please feel free to leave your comments below.
Conclusion: Who the “I” is Not
In my teaching of Romans over the years, I have found chapters 5-8 to be particularly important when it comes to believers understanding what Christ has accomplished for them and who they are in Christ. The section begins with Paul saying, “Therefore, having been justified by faith. . .” (5:1) and he continues by detailing the benefits of the Christian’s justification. In my experience, this is a message that Christians in the 21st century need. We need to know that we’ve been transferred from the realm of Adam where sin and death reign, to the realm of Christ where grace, righteousness and life reign (5:12-21). We need to hear that grace is more powerful than sin, but also that people under grace are an obedient people. We need to know that Christ has won a decisive victory over sin and in our identification with him in baptism, we too have died and been raised to walk in newness of life (6:1-6). We who are redeemed and yet feel so powerless against sin, need to know that sin has lost its power over us (6:17). We especially need the good news that there is a solution to the human dilemma of wanting to do what’s right, but instead doing what’s wrong. Paul declares that Jesus has delivered us from this body of death and that he has set us free from the law of sin and death (7:25; 8:2). I still have a number of questions about Romans 7:14-25, but one thing I am convinced of is that it is a mistake for a Christian to identify with the person Paul describes there. I am not the “I” of Romans 7:14-25. In Christ, we have all been justified, therefore our lives are not one of torment like the individual Paul describes. Instead “we have peace with God,” (5:1) and an absolute assurance that “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (8:37).
For other thoughtful articles on Romans 7, see mydigitalseminary.com at this link.