The Dilemma of understanding Romans 7:14-25
I am delighted to note, that in a recent commentary on Romans published by Apollos in the Pillar series, Collin G Kruze has stated that his understanding of Romans 7 is that it represents Israel’s historic encounter with the law, and her ongoing experience of life under the law.
In other words, he does not regard it as Paul’s personal testimony as a Christian. Kruze is thorough in his presentation of various alternative understandings of the passage, but comes to rest with this particular interpretation, which I find very helpful. It has often saddened me to find Christian believers, who want to embrace the power of the gospel, finding themselves confused and somewhat undone, by reading the latter part of Romans 7as Paul’s personal testimony.
I was myself helped many years ago by reading Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this passage, in which he argues that Paul does not simply say that he sometimes has an off day, but makes far stronger statements than that, which make it clear that he cannot be referring to his own personal testimony.
He says that nothing good dwells within him; he says that the willing is present but the doing is not. He says that he does evil; “I practice the very evil that I don’t want”. He goes on to say that “the principle of evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good”. The point that Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones made is that his statements are too strong to be personal Christian testimony, and they cut across so many explicit statements of freedom, that Paul makes elsewhere, such as in Romans 6 and indeed Romans 8.
Elsewhere Paul speaks of enjoying freedom and claims that he is not conscious of anything against himself (1 Corinthians 4:4).
Throughout the letter to the Galatians, Paul expresses the glorious liberty that freedom from the law provides, and exhorts the Galatians to stand firm in the freedom which God has provided.
Some have argued, that Paul testifies in 1 Timothy 1: 15, that he is the chief of sinners. I have heard some insist that because his statement uses the present tense “I am” and not “I was”, this proves that he regarded himself as a great sinner. Surely this cannot be how we should understand him. Why would we follow or imitate one who claims to be a great sinner? Why would the same man claim to have a clear conscience before God? Elsewhere Paul makes bold claims of not being mastered by anything. Surely his reference here is to his past background since in the very same context he says; “for this reason I found mercy”, having spoken of his former life in verse 13, as a “blasphemer and a persecutor and violent aggressor who was shown mercy”.
I am pleased to notice that in Michael J Gormans’ excellent book Cruciformity, he says, “Most interpreters today understand Romans 7 as Paul’s Christian reflection on the pre-Christian predicament, and especially the pre- Christian Jewish struggle to do the law while under the power of sin.”
I hope that Christians generally, will embrace this interpretation and step out of the shadows caused by the alternative interpretation, which leaves many tied up in knots and with low expectation of joyful freedom.