Romans 7: For what I want to do I do not do

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. - Romans 7:14-20

I was talking to a friend yesterday on how we reached certain logical conclusions after reading the Scripture. Then we concluded that bad hermeneutics generally lead people to the wrong conclusions about what the Scripture means. I have previously pointed out Philippians 4:13 and today, I would like to point out the misinterpretation of Romans 7:14-20.

In most realities, preachers and teachers of the Word of God will use this passage to talk about one thing: how we Christians struggle against sins. In eschatological terms, we continue to struggle against sins namely because we are in an 'already but not yet' phase of history - that God's kingdom is already here but not yet fully materialised. But can we really take Romans 7:14-20 to teach the point about our Christian struggles to sin?

Without going too much into biblical exposition, let's just examine a few pointers regarding this passage. For a more detailed analysis, I would recommend the commentary of Romans written by Douglas Moo, which provided most of the materials that I am going to present.

Firstly, as every good bible student should do, we need to consider the immediate context and the overall argument of Romans. Consider Romans 5 - verse 9-11 talks about the certainty of our hope in the future glory. Romans 6 talks about a life that is free from the obedience of sin and is bounded to obedience to righteousness. The beginning of Romans 7 moved from freedom from sin to the bondage of law. Hence, the passage that we are examining follows the discussions that preceded our passage. The focus can thus be said to be placed on life under or bonded by the law. But Paul made it clearly that we are not bonded by the law. And the life described in Romans 7:14-20 seems to contradict the victory that is being described in Romans 5 and Romans 8. So, based on the immediate literary context, we can guess that Paul may not even be talking about Christian experience in the first place.

We can also look at two sets of contrasts in the whole overall scheme of things as argued by Douglas Moo. The first is between the description of the εγω as “sold under sin” in verse 14b and Paul’s assertion that the believer—every believer—has been “set free from sin” in Romans 6. The second contrast is that between the state of the εγω, “imprisoned by the law [or power] of sin” in Romans 7:23, and the believer, who has been “set free from the law of sin and death” in Romans 8. Each of these expressions depicts an objective status, and it is difficult to see how they can all be applied to the same person in the same spiritual condition without doing violence to Paul’s language. In Romans 6 and 8, respectively, Paul makes it clear that “being free from under sin” and “being free from the law of sin and death” are conditions that are true for every Christian. If one is a Christian, then these things are true; if one is not, then they are not true. This means that the situation depicted in our passage cannot be that of the “normal” Christian, nor of an immature Christian. Nor can it describe the condition of any person living by the law because the Christian who is mistakenly living according to the law is yet a Christian and is therefore not “under sin” or a “prisoner of the law of sin.”

Secondly, one will also need to take note that when Paul talks about the law, the only people bounded by the law, specifically the Mosaic Laws, is the Jews. This is inferred when Paul made references to the commandments, which point back to the Torah, and not any generic laws that the Romans were used to. Before I get lynched by Christians, let me just say this: the Mosaic Law was given to the Jews, not the rest of people. Also,  we have to look at Paul, and his use of the greek word for 'I' (εγω). Who is he referring to? Himself? Perhaps one can argue that Paul, in this passage, saw himself in solidarity with his Jewish people and put himself in the shoes of those who received the Law at Sinai. That is the reason why we do not directly apply the Leviticus or Numbers into our daily practices. Hence, any application to this passage should probably also take account of its Jewish reference.

So where do we go from here? In short, Paul was describing on the experience that he and his Jewish compatriots went through when they were still under the bondage of the Law before they came to know Christ which sets them free. The power of sin was so great that the law was not only unable to help and deliver them but it increased their condemnations and accentuated their sins. So Paul is not really talking about a Christian situation but a Jewish situation per se. It should not be used to talk about the experiences that we Christians go through, though we need to realise that it being Scripture, it has important applications for us in our lives - just that it does not mean, as Christians, we do not do what we want to do.


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