Category Archives: The Book of Romans

The “I” in Romans 7:14-25

The “I” in Romans 7:14-25

One of the most challenging question in Romans is, "Who is the 'I' in Romans 7?"
One of the most challenging question in Romans is, “Who is the ‘I’ in Romans 7?”

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

Richard N. Longenecker's commentary on Romans is available at Amazon USA / UK
Richard N. Longenecker’s commentary on Romans is available at Amazon USA / UK

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.

In A Rereading of Romans, Stanley Stowers argues convincingly that Paul used the common literary device known as "Speech in Character," in Romans 7.
In A Rereading of Romans, Stanley Stowers argues convincingly that Paul uses the common literary device known as “Speech in Character,” in Romans 7.

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

In this introductory book on Romans Doug Moo makes some good points about why Paul is not describing the Christian in Romans 7:14-25.
In this introductory book on Romans Doug Moo makes some good points about why Paul is not describing the Christian 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.

Lecture 12, 13 & 14 Romans 6&7.001
Going from left to right, note the contrast between the “I” and believers.

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

conquerorsIn 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 at this link.

The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks

The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks

Why did Paul write the Church in Rome? This article helps to answer that by looking at the beginning and makeup of the Church in Rome.
Why did Paul write the Church in Rome? This article helps to answer that by looking at the beginning and makeup of the Church in Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of the use of ethnic terms. In fact, no letter in the New Testament uses as many ethnic terms, or duplicates the frequency with which Paul uses such terms as Romans. A tabulation of the following words illustrates my point. The word “gentiles/nations” occurs 29 times in Romans; “circumsion/uncircumcision” occurs 15 times; “Jew” is found 11 times as is “Israel”; “Greek” is used 6 times; while “Israelites” occurs 2 times and “barbarians” once. This comes to a total of 75 ethnic references in Romans. Although Paul uses various ethnic designations, all of the words can be boiled down into two distinct groups of people: Jews and Greeks (or gentiles). This would be similar to an author today using ethnic designations such as “Afro-American,” “black,” “Caucasian,” and “white.” Although 4 different words are being used, only two groups of people are being described. Paul’s frequent usage of these ethnic terms suggests something about the population that made up  the church in Rome in the first century, as well as potential reasons why he was writing to them. The following article seeks to fulfil a promise made last year in a post entitled, “Jews and Greeks in the New Testament.” I recommend reading that article first (or rereading it if it has been awhile) as it provides some necessary background for what I will be discussing here.

The Beginnings of the Church in Rome

peter-preachingAll scholars agree that the beginnings of the Church in Rome are shrouded in obscurity. However, it is noted that “visitors from Rome” were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on that  first Pentecost Sunday that the church began (Acts 2:10). It is usually thought that the gospel may have first reached Jewish synagogues in Rome through some of these witnesses. Even if this was not the case, Jews in Rome were closely in touch with what was happening in Jerusalem, and there were frequent goings and comings between these two important cities in the Roman empire. So it is reasonable to assume that the gospel message reached Jewish ears in Rome not long after that first Pentecost in one way or another, and that some responded by becoming believers in Jesus. This reconstruction suggests that the original makeup of the Church in Rome would have been mostly Jewish in the beginning, with perhaps some proselytes or God-fearers (Gentile attenders of the synagogue) also coming to faith.

We know from Roman records that in 41 A.D. the emperor Claudius restricted the public meeting of the Jews in Rome. The reason seems to relate to trouble within the synagogues in Rome. While the cause of this trouble is not specified, an educated guess would be that it involved disputes over Jesus as the Messiah. We know from the Book of Acts (e.g., Acts 17:1-9; 18:4-8, 12-17) that this was a major cause of, not only disruption in the synagogues, but civil disruption as well. Further evidence may be provided by Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 A.D. The Roman writer Suetonius states that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they kept rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” Although the correct form for Christ in Greek would be “Christos,” many scholars think that Suetonius simply got the name wrong. This statement, as well as the evidence from Acts, suggests that the synagogues in Rome were experiencing the same kind of conflict going on in synagogues throughout the empire regarding the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. Indeed, we might ask, what else could cause such violent conflict in Jewish synagogues of this era?

The Church in Rome and the Gentile Majority

This interesting tombstone from Rome shows 2 Jewish menorahs, but the inscription is in Greek. Paul's letter to the Romans makes it clear that the Church in Rome consited of Jews and Greeks.
This interesting tombstone from Rome shows a Greek inscription flanked by 2 Jewish menorahs, as well as other Jewish symbols. Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear that the Church in Rome consisted of Jews and Greeks.

With the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D., the Church in Rome would have mostly consisted of gentiles (Many scholars believe only Jewish leaders were actually expelled from Rome. If this was the case, some Jewish believers would have remained in the Church.). After the death of Claudius in 54 A.D., many Jews returned to Rome. Aquila and Priscilla are examples of this. Although they left Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews (Acts 18:1-2), they had returned to Rome by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). However, by the time some of these Jewish believers returned, circumstances would have changed. The Church in Rome would now have consisted of gentile leadership and a gentile majority. That the Church in Rome consisted of a majority of gentiles when Paul wrote his epistle, seems clear from a number of references in the letter (e.g., Rom. 1:5-6, 13). As Thomas Schreiner states, “When he [Paul] reflects on the composition of the Roman church, he apparently conceives of it mainly as Gentile. This is confirmed by Rom. 11:13, which specifically addresses the Gentiles, and by 15:15–16, where Paul justifies his boldness in the letter since he has a particular calling as a ‘minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’” (Schreiner, T. R. (1998). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 14). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books). This historical shift from a church which consisted mainly of Jewish believers and leadership to one that consisted mainly of Gentile believers and leadership, was bound to create some problems when Jewish believers began returning to Rome. Ben Witherington III sizes up the problem this way: “They [the Jews] have been marginalized by the expulsion, and Paul is addressing a largely Christian Gentile audience in Rome which has drawn some erroneous conclusions about Jews and Jewish Christians” (Witherington III, Ben. (2004). Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (p. 12). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Historical and Cultural Context and Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome

The Church in Rome shifted from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority
The Church in Rome shifted from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority

Being aware of the historical context described above, as well as the cultural context (i.e., problems between Jews and Greeks, see my previous article cited above), opens a new window of understanding into Paul’s Letter to the Romans. First, the 75 ethnic references in the letter (Jew and Greek, etc.) suggest that ethnic relationships in the Church in Rome are a major concern of Paul’s. Second, a number of the doctrines that Paul writes about in the letter begin to make sense against this background of ethnic tension. For example, Jews and Greeks are all sinners (Rom. 3:9), both Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way–by faith (Rom. 3:28-30), and Abraham is the father of those who are uncircumcised as well as those who are circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12). Furthermore, as one understands the historical switch from Jewish majority to Gentile majority in the Church in Rome, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 9-11, as well as Romans 14-15 make a lot of sense. For example, Paul argues that God is not finished with Israel (Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 25-26), and that the Gentiles need to recognize their debt to Israel and not be arrogant (Rom. 11:17-23). Paul’s discussion about not being divisive over food and the observation of certain days also highlights some of the struggles between Gentile and Jewish believers (Rom. 14:1-15:6). This understanding of the historical/cultural situation in the Roman Church helps us to better appreciate how significant Paul’s statement in Romans 10:12 is when he says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (ESV).

The Church in Rome was Not a Church As We Think of Church

An excellent article in on Roman housings shows an artistic rendering of what ancient tenement houses or insulae would have looked like.
An excellent article in on Roman housing shows an artistic rendering of what ancient tenement houses or insulae would have looked like.

To further appreciate the situation Paul is addressing, one other historical/cultural insight is important. When we talk about the “Church in Rome,” we are not referring to a single congregation which meets in a large public building somewhere in the city. Nor are we speaking about a “megachurch” in the sense that some might think of today. Rather, we are speaking of a number of groups of people meeting throughout the City of Rome, either in houses or apartment (tenement) complexes. Paul’s greetings in Romans 16 are instructive regarding this point. Paul notes that some Christians meet with Priscilla and Aquila “in their house” (Rom. 16:5). Besides this group Paul mentions several other groups meeting in Rome (Rom. 16:10, 11, 14, 15). Along with these groups, Paul mentions a number of individuals but does not cite what group they may be meeting with. Rome was a city of one million people in the first century and Christianity was not a legal religion, therefore, Christians could not meet in a public building. The groups that Paul mentions suggests that the Church in Rome was scattered throughout the city and meeting in houses or apartments. This small-group setting would mean that any tension between believers would be very noticeable and potentially volatile. This makes Paul’s words in Romans 14:1 and 15:7 about “welcoming” one another very significant. People who feel unwelcome in a small-group setting will not stay around for long. Conversely, those who are making them feel unwelcome may not even invite them in! The result would be a horrible fractioning of the body of Christ in Rome, something that the fledgling church certainly did not need.

How History and Culture Help Us Understand the Letter to the Romans

The unity of Jews and Gentiles was a primary concern of Paul's, not only in Romans, but also in other espistles written by the apostle.
The unity of Jews and Gentiles was a primary concern of Paul’s, not only in Romans, but also in other espistles written by the apostle.

Although Paul’s letter to the Romans probably had several purposes (one being his desire to receive their assistance on a trip to Spain–Rom. 15:24), the historical and cultural background we have traced in these two articles relating to “Jews and Greeks,” demonstrates that the unity of the Church in Rome was a significant concern of Paul’s. As Craig Keener points out, “Given this situation, what the Roman Christians needed was what we would call racial reconciliation and crosscultural sensitivity” (Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ro). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). This is a message that is easily overlooked without the proper background knowledge. Yet it is arguably one of the most important teachings in the Letter to the Romans. There are many good resources available today for understanding the background to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I have noted a few of them in this post. Hopefully, these posts (about Jews and Greeks) will help to encourage those interested in the study of the Bible about the significance of knowing the historical and cultural background in which the Bible was written.

The Difference Between Legalism and Obedience (Romans 5-8)

The Difference Between Legalism and Obedience (Romans 5-8)

Did you know that Christians are called to be slaves of obedience? Many today resist this notion. It sounds too legalistic or works oriented. In fact, at first glance, it doesn’t sound appealing at all. Slavery suggests domination and control. We in the western world desire to promote freedom and don’t want to be enslaved to anyone or anything. Even Christians will quickly point to Paul’s admonition: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1–ESV). We will also point out, and rightly so, that Christians are “saved by grace through faith…not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The Bible’s affirmation that we are saved by grace through faith, is an important teaching that sets Christianity apart from other world religions which often emphasize earning God’s favor through good works. However, this important distinction, along with a fear of sounding “legalistic” has caused some to shy away from the important biblical teaching on obedience. This article examines the difference between legalism and obedience.

Slaves of Obedience

The same apostle (Paul) who told the Galatians to stand firm in their freedom and not submit to a yoke of slavery, also tells the Romans that those who have come to Christ have become slaves of obedience and righteousness (Rom. 6:16, 18). In fact, the context in which Paul uses these phrases concerns his discussion that Christians are under grace, not under the law (Rom. 6:14-15). However, Paul maintains that the grace that we as Christians are under was achieved by one Man’s (Jesus’) righteous act (Rom. 5:18). Paul describes this act as an act of obedience that will make many righteous (Rom. 5:19). This obedient act that brings righteousness to many is the death of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 6:3-10). But Jesus did not stay dead; he was resurrected by the Father (Rom. 6:5, 9, 10). The example left by Jesus is therefore one of obedience through death which brings righteousness and life (Rom. 5:21).

Paul connects these same key words (obedience, death, righteousness, and life) with what happens to people who give their lives to Christ. First, we die with Christ and our old man is crucified (Rom. 6:3-6). Therefore, we are to reckon ourselves as dead (Rom. 6:11). Sin no longer has control over a dead person (Rom. 6:14). By this death, we are not only set free from sin, we are also imitating the obedience of Jesus who obediently went to the cross (Phil. 2:8). By grace we are transferred from the reign of sin to the reign of obedience leading to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). This is not to infer that our obedience makes us righteous; rather, it is the obedience of Jesus (his death) that makes us righteous (Rom. 5:18). But our decision to die with Christ is a form of obedience which produces the fruit of righteousness (Rom. 6:22). Thus, our lives become a mirror image of our Savior and of the gospel message! It would be a supreme contradiction if those who were delivered from sin continued to let sin reign (Rom. 6:1-2), and those who gave their lives to the Obedient One, refused to be obedient! Therefore, obedience is a natural outcome of grace and this is also why Paul speaks of “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26–ESV). This grace is enhanced through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to live obediently so “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4–NKJV).

Legalism and Obedience Contrasted

On the other hand, Paul contrasts the obedient life of righteousness produced by grace with the life of sin under the law. This is because the law arouses sinful passions which lead to death (7:5). Although the law itself is good (7:12), sin takes advantage of the law through the weakness of our flesh and produces disobedience (7:8-15). This often comes in the form of hypocrisy by judging others while we practice the same things (Rom. 2:1-5; 21-24). This is why Paul can state that those under the law are lawless (6:19)! Legalism1This is the difference between legalism and true obedience. Legalism is proud and self-righteous (10:3), and results in robbing God of His glory (1:21). Obedience demonstrates humility through dying to self and surrendering control to God, which gives Him the glory. Simply put: legalism is the result of a hard heart, while obedience is the result of a humble heart.
In conclusion, the word “reign” is used frequently by Paul in Romans 5:12-6:23. Paul indicates that we will be ruled by something (much as Bob Dylan said years ago, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). We will either be ruled by sin, or by obedience and righteousness––there are no other options. The problem is that we are not stronger than our desires. If we try to maintain our autonomy, we will become the pawn of sin. But if, on the other hand, we surrender our lives and die with Christ, we will find true freedom through a life of obedience. In the end, what we are ruled by determines our eternal outcome (5:21; 6:23), and that is the difference between legalism and obedience.
In our next article, I will look more closely at the meaning of grace.