Who is Romans 7 about?
Stephen Altrogge has had an interesting series of posts in the past week over at The Blazing Center. I’m guessing the impetus for these posts came out of the discussion that ensued in the comments of his post “Don’t Mess With ‘Come Thou Fount’!” from a couple of weeks ago.
Anyway, over three blog entries he argues that contrary to the generally accepted understanding of Romans 7:7-25, it is not actually about Christians, but is about those who have not been saved (Romans 7 Is NOT About Christians!, Romans 7 Is Not About Christians (Part Deux), & So What’s Really Up With Romans 7?) & is specifically about “the experience of a pious Jew, possibly Paul himself before conversion, who is seeking to obey the law, yet finds himself unable to obey apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit.”
Here (as I understand it) is Stephen’s argument on why Romans 7 does not describe the life of a Christian in a nutshell:
- There is no mention of the Holy Spirit.
- The content of Romans 6 & Romans 8 negates chapter 7 describing the Christian experience
- We allow the bias of our own experience to bleed into our interpretation of the passage
- We have been heavily influenced (whether we realize it or not) by the Puritans’ understanding of this passage
On point #1, I’m not sure why there being no mention of the Holy Spirit would necessarily negate a particular passage from being about Christians; however, I think the argument could be made stronger by pointing out that the passage makes no mention of either the Spirit or Christ (until verse 25 where he is thanking God that through Christ he has been delivered from the law). I think it would be rather hard to describe anything about the Christian life without some mention of one or the other (though, you should feel free to direct me to passages which may do just that).
In regards to point #2, he argues that since, in chapter 6, Paul says that “sin will have no dominion over you” because you are no longer “under the law” (Romans 6:14) & since, in chapter 8, we are told that we are free from the law of sin (Romans 8:2-3), then this passage in chapter 7 cannot be in reference to a Christian’s life. The argument goes that since, in verse 25, Paul says that he serves the law of sin with his flesh & in verse 23, he says that he is “captive to the law of sin”, if this passage were about Christians, it would contradict chapter 6 & chapter 8.
I think that up to a point #3 is probably true. How often have I thought about verses 15 & 18-19 applying directly to me because of how my own life is going? I have taken comfort in thinking that if the Apostle Paul struggled in this way, it must be normal that I struggle in the same way with sin.
#4 seems like it may be a valid argument as well, but I’m not directly familiar enough with the Puritan writers to really comment on this point.
So, I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think that having no mention of the Spirit would automatically make this passage about non-Christians so I’ll focus on other reasons why it seems to me that this passage is about Christians.
The present tense. Paul writes this passage in the present tense which would seem to mean he’s talking about what the Christian life is like currently for him. Now, I know the Greek has a lot of subtleties that don’t come through very well in English, & I’ve seen some things recently that indicate that the present tense was sometimes used to make the reader more acutely aware of what the author was feeling, but it seems as though the most straightforward reading would be best unless there is something that would indicate it should be read another way.
The phrases “the desire to do what is right” & “delight in the law[…]in my inner being”. These 2 phrases are the clincher in my mind. If this passage was about an unsaved person, I don’t think these phrases could be included–especially that 2nd one. There is no delight or desire in one’s inner being to do what is right except by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 2:1, Romans 3:10-12, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 8:7-8).
I’m not ready to throw out Mr. Altrogge’s thoughts on this section of Scripture; I think he may have been able to make his argument a little stronger with a few more supporting passages, but until I can study this in greater detail myself, I will keep an open mind on his theory.
(Note that I’ve written this post over a few days time & I’m quite exhausted at the moment so if my arguments don’t flow very well or don’t make sense, please forgive me & please let me know)