In the Flesh: Then and Now

The interpretation of Romans 7:7-25 is notoriously difficult. Good scholars disagree on many aspects of the passage, but the central interpretative difficulty concerns the identity of the “I.” Is Paul referring to himself? Is Paul referring to himself pre- or post-conversion? Does the “I” refer to Adam? Is the “I” representative of Israel with Paul identifying himself with his kinsmen according to the flesh? Is he referring to a Christian who still has struggles with sin? Is he referring to a non-believer who is on the verge of conversion? The way one interprets the identity of the “I” determines a great deal about the theology of the passage and where it fits in the structure of chapters 5–8.

Walt Russell in his paper, Have We Wrongly Interpreted Romans 7? 1, concludes that “the identity of the persons represented in Romans 7:7-25 is that they are neither non-Christians nor Christians, but rather pious, believing Israelites.” If this is the case, then Paul himself, being a transitional figure between a faithful Israelite according to the flesh and a faithful follower of Jesus as Lord, is included in the “I” along with all of his faithful kinsmen according to the flesh. I believe that this is the best way to understand the identity of the “I.”

There are a couple of factors that contribute to this being the correct interpretation. First, the narrative substructure of Romans 6–8 makes this interpretation not only plausible but likely. The movement through these chapters echos the Exodus story. In Romans 6 God’s people pass through the Sea so that they are no longer under the dominion of sin. The old creation (of which Egypt was certainly the representation at the time of the Exodus) is defeated and destroyed. The people of God no longer serve the old slave-master. Romans 8 resonates with the wilderness journey in which the Spirit fire-cloud leads the children of God (cf. e.g., Romans 8:14) towards their hope.

Situated between these two chapters is a discussion about the Law and the struggle with sin. The opening words of chapter 7 are about marriage. This isn’t an arbitrary illustration. At Sinai YHWH took Israel to be his wife (Jeremiah 31:32; Ezekiel 16). From the time of the giving of the Law, however, Israel remained in a frustrated position. The glory promised to God’s people couldn’t be realized under Law because the Law couldn’t deal with the problem of sin due to the weakness or sickliness of the flesh (Romans 8:3).

This leads me to the second reason that this seems to me to be the most plausible interpretation: the presence of the flesh. A few times we hear the “I’s” condition of being “in the flesh.” “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14). Nothing good dwells in me, “that is in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). “… [W]ith my flesh I serve the Law of sin” (Romans 7:25). This characterization doesn’t fit with the state of the believer in Christ: “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit…” (Romans 8:9). Neither does the struggle with sin and love for the Law fit with someone who has the mind of the flesh and is, therefore, “enmity with God” (Romans 8:7). But it does fit the believing Israelite who is still in the flesh because Christ has not yet come to destroy the flesh and create a new spiritual man.

The contrast between life before Christ’s death and resurrection and after could not be more stark (and sometimes more confusing) than it is portrayed in Romans. Before Christ came, all of humanity was “in the flesh.” That is, all of humanity inherited the flesh of Adam. This “flesh” is not limited to the meat that covers our bones (although the rituals in Leviticus tell us that it includes that). This flesh is the corruptible and corrupted total person as sons of Adam. To be in the flesh is to live under the dominion of sin and death. Before Christ came, that was the condition of all mankind whether believer or unbeliever.

What we hear in Romans 7 is the struggle of the believer who is still in the flesh, who lives in a world of no resurrection. This is a people who can truly sing, “O how I love your Law, it is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97), but still not realize the life that God has promised. The problem is not individual conversion. The problem is the state of the world in Adam. Man sinned and fell short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That glory could not be achieved through the Law. Those who were under the Law were still “in the flesh” because flesh had not been destroyed. Adam’s death-life lived on even in believers. Romans 7:7-25 is the struggle and the cries of the old creation believer in Israel who longs to be free from this contagion of death but finds that there is no power to overcome it. They reside in a world ruled by sin and death, and their bodies are infected with this death so that they, the people of God, cannot attain the hope of the glory of God.

The work of Christ changes everything for this in-the-flesh believer. The Son came in “the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering” to condemn sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3). The Son destroyed the flesh. In destroying the flesh he defeated the dominion of sin and death so that there is a new way of existence: life in the Spirit.

The way Paul speaks about being “in the flesh” changes from chapter 7 to chapter 8. In chapter 8 the world is not divided between believers in the flesh and unbelievers in the flesh. Those categories don’t exist anymore. Jesus’ work created new categories: in the flesh and in the Spirit. These are the only two options.

Understanding this helps the reader understand Paul’s definitive language concerning the flesh in chapter 8. The flesh and its mind are death, enmity to God, do not submit to the Law of God, cannot submit to the Law of God, and cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8). This doesn’t sound like the in-the-flesh “I” of chapter 7 who hates sin (Romans 7:15), wants to do good (Romans 7:19), and delights in the Law of God (Romans 7:22). The reason it doesn’t sound like the “I” in chapter 7 is because it isn’t. The “I” has been delivered from the body of this death through Christ Jesus. His flesh died with Jesus’ flesh so that now he is in the Spirit. The “I” has been joined to Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:1-11). There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). There is no more condemnation in this present state in Christ because there is no more flesh to be condemned in Christ. In Christ we are of the Spirit.

Certainly analogies can be drawn between the struggles of the in-the-flesh believer of the old creation and the in-the-Spirit believer of the new creation. We can learn about sin and our struggles with it through examples of Scripture even before the work of Christ. There are several places in the New Testament where we learn that what happened before Christ is to be an example to us (cf. e.g., 1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews 3–4). However, things have changed drastically for us. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we have received a new power in our mortal bodies not only to put to death the deeds of the body, but a power that will continue on through death to the resurrection of our bodies.

We are in the Spirit and not in the flesh.

Bill Smith is Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

References   [ + ]

1. 1 Russell, Walt. Have We Wrongly Interpreted Romans 7? 1994, 11. My thanks to Dr. Jeff Jones for
providing me a photocopy of this article. I don’t have the full reference for the paper. It appears to be a paper
presented at the Evangelical Theological Society according to The Library at Southeastern