Treatments of Romans 7:7-25 are commonly massive exercises in missing the point. Readers pose questions that the text isn’t intended to answer, in particular: “Is the ‘I’ regenerate or unregenerate?”
The passage isn’t about that. It’s about the law, and has two main aims: First, to vindicate Torah (vv. 7-13); and, second, to explain why Torah couldn’t deliver Israel and instead makes their situation worse (vv. 14-25).
The “I” might be Paul himself or Israel, perhaps with overtones of Adam. Fundamentally, though, the “I” is a righteous man living under Torah, suffering from his incapacity to do what the law demands. The “I” is a pre-Jesus believer.
The whole argument comes to a climax in the opening verses of chapter 8: What Torah could not do, God has done in His Son.
Paul’s opening question sets the theme of the discussion: “Is the Law sin?” (v. 7). Why would anyone think so? The question rises from Paul’s discussion of Adam, Christ, and Torah in chapter 5. Toward the end of the chapter, he claims “the Law came in that transgression might increase” (5:20). Now, he’s addressing the obvious objection: If Torah increases transgression, is it perhaps diabolical rather than divine?
Paul answers his own question with an emphatic me genoito, “May it never be!” (7:7). Torah isn’t sin, first, because it exposes sin: “I would not have come to know about sin except through the Law” (7:20).
More paradoxically, Paul defends the Law by saying that Torah brings sin to life (7:8). Energized by Torah, Sin kills the “I.” But that’s not, Paul says, a fault in the law. Torah is “holy and righteous and good” (7:12), intended for life (7:10). Sin commandeers the law and turns it into an instrument of death (7:12).
Sin overpowers the Law. But even Torah’s failure has a redemptive purpose. It exposes Sin to be “utterly sinful,” and thus becomes part of the indictment of Sin. If Sin can turn God’s good Torah against Israel, then Sin stands condemned, and its sentence is carried out in Jesus’ self-offering as a sin offering, by which “He condemned Sin in the flesh” (8:3).
The latter part of the chapter describes Torah’s effect from an existential angle. The failure of Torah is an aspect of a clash between Spirit and flesh. Torah is “spiritual,” but the “I” is flesh (7:14). When Spirit meets flesh, flesh dies.
In vindicating Torah, Paul also vindicates the “I.” Sin is a dominating power, and the “I” submits to it unwillingly (7:16). The “I” isn’t held responsible for not doing the good he wishes to do; rather, indwelling Sin does the evil the “I” hates (7:17).
Christians rightly talk about personal responsibility, but that needs to be qualified by what Paul says here. We do wrong under the power of compulsions, addictions, evil habits that we are powerless to break.
Life in the flesh is living death, in which the “I” is divided against himself. While he inwardly delights in the law (7:22), he cannot do what it requires (7:23). The clash of Spiritual Torah and fleshly Israel echoes as a clash between soul and body.
In order to keep Torah, he needs to be delivered from flesh into Spirit. He needs to have a new, resurrected body.
And this is just what Paul says Jesus gives. Because of Jesus, we’re set free to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh (8:4). Baptized into Jesus’ resurrection, our bodies are delivered from Death and Sin and presented to God as instruments of righteousness (6:16-18). And thus the justice of Torah is fulfilled in us (8:4).
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