For most of my Christian life I have always thought that Paul was speaking about the life of a believer in Romans chapter seven. It resonated so well with my own struggle with sin that it seemed to be all the confirmation that I needed that Paul indeed was speaking about his own struggle with sin as an Apostle. Knowing that someone as great as Paul struggled in this way gave me great comfort as I fought my own struggle with sin, and knew I didn’t live up to the standards to which Christ had called me.
However, as the years went by I came into contact with those who thought Paul was talking about his pre-conversion life as a Pharisee. They showed me that there seemed to be a certain defeatism in Paul’s words. Paul describes himself as sold as a slave to sin which doesn’t seem to match what Paul says elsewhere about the position of a christian in relation to sin. Now I was confused. I didn’t know what to make of the passage. So I began to study it. I began to ponder and chew on it. While it still is complex I think I see it all a bit clearer now. I think I see how both sides missed the point of what Paul is saying to a degree.
From this point, I would like to give the strong points for each side, but then show why I think both of their arguments point to a different interpretation of Paul’s argument. Let’s start with reasons to think Paul is speaking about believers.
Case for the Believer
Before I go much further I should mention one piece of common ground between the two sides. They both believe that Paul is speaking autobiographically. That is they believe that Paul is speaking about his own personal experience. And without expanding our conversation to much, I’ll just say there are those who don’t. They think Paul is speaking as if he was Adam, or about Israel’s experience with the mosaic law. Still other who think Paul is speaking in a more universal sense. I’ll touch on the last one later.
So what does the argument that Paul is speaking about believers have to commend itself to us? Much. First, Paul primarily uses the present tense in the verbs themselves. Present tense in Greek generally has two aspects. First, the time of the action (i.e. past, present, future), and second type of action (i.e. Simple/one time vs. Progressive/on going action). The present tense generally is present, on going action. The are several different past tenses in koine greek. They also have the same aspects to them: time and type of action. One type of past tense can mean completed action, while another can mean on going action in the past. For instance, in the gospels there is a story about how Jesus healed people on the sabbath. The author uses a the imperfect tense to indicate it wasn’t a one off thing. The Pharisees were mad because he was continually healing on the sabbath. Those who hold to the position that Paul is speaking of a believer would point to this as being an option he could have used if he wanted to indicate past action that was on going action, but he didn’t. He used the present tense with its implied on going action.
Second, Paul uses the first person pronoun “I” several times, especially in verses 17 and 20 when he says it is “no longer I who do it, but sin that lives within me.” Because of the way that the Greek verbal system works this is unnecessary. If it is unnecessary it means that a writer is doing it as a point of emphasis. In fact it could be translated “no longer I myself who do it.” Not a huge difference but it seems to move us one step away from seeing this as anything but autobiographical. And when combined with the present tense leaves one feeling with some certainty that Paul is speaking about his present personal experience.
Lastly, is his closing statement in verses 21-25. He speaks of serving good with his mind, or inner man, but his flesh serves sin. Given what Paul writes elsewhere and what has come in the letter before one can hardly think Paul is referencing a non-Christian here. In addition he writes, “wretched man that I am who will save me from this body of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Here he gives a cry of desperation at his plight, and what we would all consider the cry of the heart of faith. Surely he must be speaking of himself as a believer here.
Now let’s move on to consider the other side of the coin that Paul might be speaking of his pre-conversion experience.
Case for the Unbeliever
First, let’s ask how they deal with present tense that Paul uses in this chapter. They would argue that he is using what is called the historical present. Meaning, that even though the action happened in the past he uses the present tense for added emphasis and to make it more vivid. We do something of this in English when we tell stories. When we want to make a fishing story more vivid we might say something like “There is a huge ripple in the water. I am casting right on top of it. Bam! He hits my bait harder than anything I have ever felt before. I am reeling him in and it is a fight!” This pulls us into the action, and as an audience it captivates us. So authors did the same in biblical times. The gospels make use of this from time to time as well.
While this argument is plausible it does have some problems, in my opinion. The most prominent being that there is no obvious signal that this is in the past. However, they would argue that there are subtle clues. Primarily they would argue verse 14 does not fit with what Paul has just described in earlier in chapter 7 and even earlier in chapter 6, when Paul states “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold under sin.” In the earlier passages the believer has died with Christ, and has been raised with him to walk in newness of life and therefore is no longer a slave to sin. Christ has died so that we might no longer belong to sin, but belong to him. These verses to do not seem to fit with what he has just described. It is not just verse 14, but also verse 25 where Paul says “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” This again seems to directly contradict 6:14 where Paul writes “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” To them it seems strange indeed for Paul to call his followers to “not let sin reign in your mortal bodies” and then tell them that its of no use because sin is always going to get the better of your flesh.
We must admit this is a powerful argument indeed. So powerful in fact that it has led many of those who hold to Paul speaking of his post conversion experience to put a bit of a qualifier on it. They would posit that Paul has spoken of a immature believer, or what some might call a carnal Christian. But in doing so I am afraid they have given up their two best arguments for it being his post conversion experience, namely it is no longer Paul’s present personal experience.
So which should we chose? I myself can not dismiss any of the arguments that are being made if I were forced to chose between pre or post conversion. So I choose neither, and I think the context holds a clue to what Paul is really arguing.
The insufficiency of the Law and of the Self for true sanctified living and the need for life in the Spirit
If we are to step back just a bit and survey what come before and after I think it becomes apparent that what Paul is arguing is that the Law in and of itself is not sufficient to bring us into a state of sanctified living, and that we live in our own strength we are doomed to fail.
At the conclusion of chapter 5 Paul has hit his high point on Justification by faith. He has talked about how while sin increased, grace increased all the more. He now has to turn his attention then to what some might have erroneously thought this teaching means. Namely, that they should sin that grace may abound to God’s glory. This question leads to the next several chapters of Paul of considering the question of how we should now live.
He tells them this isn’t the case, and speaks of their freedom from sin because of their union with Christ by faith in him. As he died to sin so they died to sin. He then admonishes them to not let sin reign in their bodies, and to consider themselves dead to sin and to no longer walk in it. This then leads him to consider the law. First, because he tells them that they are no longer under the law(v 14), meaning that this way of being justified before God is closed off to them as he has shown in the previous 5 chapters. Second because as he moves into chapter 7 he is considering how they have died to the old way of the law as using to be justified and we are now to “serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (7:6). Then what follows, I submit, is Paul describing why it is so important to move beyond the law and our own power as tools for sanctification, and why we must move into power of the Holy Spirit for sanctification.
In verses 7-12 Paul turns his attention specifically to the law. While he holds it unquestionably to be good because it made him aware of what sin was, he ultimate realizes that the law brought him death because it aroused his sinful nature. While it made him aware of sin it ultimately led to his death. Thus showing that the law was not sufficient for our sanctification.
His present tense then is what some would call a gnomic present. Meaning this present tense then is expressing more general truths, or truths universally applied. His use then of the emphatic “I” become about what Paul, as this universal man, is trying to do in his own strength. While I have no doubt what Paul is describing has been his personal experience, I don’t think he is speaking primarily autobiographical here. I think he is making a universal truth claim that all men will experience if they try to please God through their own rigorous efforts to fulfill the law. This then can apply to believer and non-believer alike. Simply knowing more law or what is right and wrong gives us no power to do it. In fact the more we try in our own strength the more we will fail.
This is what make what follows in Romans 8 all the more powerful. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. Because what the law was powerless to do, being weakened by the sinful flesh, God did by sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemn sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be met in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit…but if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit…For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Given these things I argue that Paul is not in fact talking about a believer or an unbeliever here. He is making a contrast of the futility to try to please God whether be through justification or sanctification by relying on our own fleshly efforts to adhere to the law. This undoubtedly would characterize both Christian and non-Christians alike in their attempts to live up to the law that God has written into all of our hearts. If we truly desire to please God, and to conform to the law we must press into newness of life, and life in the Spirit.
What does that look like? How does that differ from our own efforts? That will have to be another post entirely.