Romans 7 Refers to a Man Under the Law, Not a Man Under Grace

Here are some thoughts on the identity of the “wretched man” of  Romans 7:14-ff. These verses refer to a man attempting to serve God under the law of Moses (Torah), not a man under grace and serving in the “way of the Spirit.” These are preliminary thoughts and I would appreciate any feedback that you may have for me.

  1. There is a salvation-historical element to Paul’s thought throughout chapters 5-8. He talks about mankind under Adam (5:12-ff), the Law of Moses (5:14 & 20), and Christ (5:15-ff). He talks about Christ’s history, how He died to sin, and will not have to die for it again, having now been resurrected and living to God (6:9-10). He says that we (the people of God) are no longer under the Law of Moses (Torah), but under grace (6:14). He says that we have died to the Torah, having been released to what once bound us, so that we now serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the letter (7:6). The passage deals with more than individual justification and sanctification, it also deals with the historical change that happened to all the people of God, a change from being under the Torah to being in Christ. In fact, it deals with all of humanity, from Adam onward.
  2. Paul has already established that Christians “died to the law through the body of Christ” and now serve God in the “new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6).  No Christian who “belongs to another” (to Christ, vs. 4) could possible belong to the Torah or be under the Torah, since he died with Christ to the Torah.
  3. In chapter 7:7-ff Paul answers the question “Is the law sin?” To do so, he talks about his own experience while under the Torah.  Clearly, as a Pharisee, Paul was exposed to the law and to the command “You shall not covet” (vs. 7) long before he found Christ. So “when the commandment came” to him (vs. 9) must refer to a time long before he was converted to Christ. Verses 7-13, then, must be describing a time when Paul was still following the “old way of the written code” and not the “new way of the Spirit.”
  4. When he switches to the present tense in verse 14, the subject has not changed, and it is clear that the present tense “I” who is speaking (most likely Paul) is still interacting with the law of Moses, still believing that he is subject to the Torah, and still ought to be following it to gain righteousness and life.
  5. The “I” who speaks in verse 14 is “sold under sin.” Certainly this could not be one who is “in Christ,” who died to sin though the death of Christ (6:2) and over whom sin has no dominion since he is not under Torah but under grace (6:14).
  6. The “I” who speaks in verse 14 is not spiritual (as the law is), but “of the flesh.” Surely this could not be a person “in Christ,” since those who are “in Christ” have the Spirit of God and are not “in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (8:9).  Christians are not “of the flesh.”
  7. The Spirit is not once mentioned during Paul’s description of his “wretched” condition in verses 14-ff. This is a person without the Spirit, unspiritual, of the flesh, enslaved to sin, under the law of Moses, and trying to keep that law.
  8. The solution to this “wretched man’s” problem is found in 8:1-4.  The solution is to be “in Christ Jesus.” For those “in Christ,” the law of the Spirit of life has set you (“me” in most manuscripts and several translations) free (again he qualifies this to be for those in Christ Jesus) from the law of sin and of death. When did this happen?  When Christ died and resurrected and sent His Spirit.  Again we see the salvation-historical element that runs throughout the passage.
  9. So, the solution to this wretched man’s problem is to be “in Christ Jesus.” Why? Because God sent His Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh to condemn sin in order that those who have the Spirit and walk according to the Spirit might live righteously, actually fulfilling the essence of the Torah’s requirements.  The solution to the wretched man’s problem is to believe in Christ and thus be “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” and no longer “in the flesh” and (as the solution continues to unfold in chapter 8) to walk accordingly and set his mind accordingly.”
  10. In this passage, Paul states: “So, now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” But, if “I” am not doing it, then who is?  If “I” am not doing it, then I cannot be responsible for it. This question of responsibility is equally relevant for a person “in Christ” and has the Spirit as it is to one who is “unspiritual,” “of the flesh,” and “sold under sin.”  If anything, a person in Christ having the Spirit ought to be held more responsible and ought to own his sin more completely, since he has much more knowledge and spiritual advantage. But, ultimately, Paul does not say that he doesn’t do it.  He say, “I do the very thing I hate.” He owns the fact that he is doing it.  It’s not as though some external entity has seized his body and made him do it. Nor is it that some internal entity that is not part of him has risen up and overcome him. Certainly the coveting was occurring in his mind (most likely the sin he struggles with is the coveting described earlier in the chapter). He confirms that he is doing it when he says, “Wretched man that ‘I’ am.” So, when Paul says, “it is no longer I who do it,” this “I” must refer to what he feels are his strongest inner desires.  And, indeed, Paul clarifies in verse 22 that the “I” that delights in the law of God is his “inner man,” the part of his mind that feels like the core self.  That seemingly-core, inner, righteousness-desiring part of him didn’t do it. Yet the coveting certainly was chosen by some part of his mind that enjoyed it at the time. Automatic, unthinking, largely subconscious urges to sin like this in spite of often-strong resolutions and desperate desires to be different are one of the heaviest and most painful consequences of sin.
  11. The wretchedness of Romans 7 is sometimes experienced by believers and unbelievers alike.  For believers, it is because they are not setting their minds on the things of the spirit and walking in the spirit.  For unbelievers, it is because they are unspiritual and sold into sin. Human experience clearly and powerfully testifies that those who are unspiritual, of the flesh, and sold under sin can strongly desire to do right and sometimes make extreme efforts to do so, yet not successfully. This was very powerfully my experience for a few months prior to coming to Christ.  This was also John Wesley’s and particularly George Whitfield’s experience prior to believing. (Whitfield fasted, prayed for, and sought holiness so much that one of his arms turned black.) Even Hindu priests and Muslims clerics sometimes desperately desire to achieve righteousness. A person can take delight in the wisdom of the law of God and passionately desire to be righteous and keep the law and still be an enemy of God. This was Paul’s own experience.  In spite of his tremendous zeal for God and the Torah, he was an enemy of God. Previously in Romans 2:14-15, Paul has already established that even pagan gentiles have the law of God written in their hearts and sometimes do “by nature” what the law requires. And they have “consciences” and “conflicting thoughts” accusing and excusing them. The existence of a conscious proves that even pagans without the law can sometimes not only perceive what is right, but, at least when the conscience is active, desire to do it. How much more so for a non-Christian Israelite who is zealous for the law of Israel.
  12. Paul’s switch to the first person does not mean that he is referring to his present life in Christ. The change to the first person is a rhetorical device to emphasize the angst of the man who is unspiritual, of the flesh, under the law, sold under sin, without the Spirit, and trying to keep the Torah.  Indeed, the present tense powerfully does this, making the passage significantly more dramatic than if it had been written in the past tense. It is highly unlikely, in fact almost unthinkable, that Paul is describing his experience at the time he wrote Romans.  By that point in his life, he knew he was not under the Torah, he was no longer  trying to gain righteousness through the Torah, he was no longer “unspiritual.” He knew that he was not “sold under sin” or “of the flesh.” He was a man “in the Spirit” and one “setting his mind on the things of the Spirit.” So, his use of the present tense is a rhetorical device, not an attempt to describe his condition and personal experience at the time he wrote Romans.


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