The Apostle Paul’s writings in Romans lay the foundation for the doctrine of what we know as the Christian church today- particularly protestant denominations. Romans acknowledges the sinfulness of humanity, lays out the gift of salvation in a way that Christians can easily comprehend, and explains the Christian doctrine of rebirth. The letter lays out life pre-salvation and how Christians are to pursue Christ post “rebirth.” Paul organizes all of these complex ideas well, but there has been one passage that has been particularly puzzling to theologians throughout history, and it remains a subject of debate to date. I’ve read Romans chapter 7 verses 14-25 before, but I never considered any interpretations outside of what I had been taught growing up. Researching the subject further has broadened my view of theology, and it is important that we analyze works of literature to see all possible intended messages.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want,it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Romans ch 7 v 14-25
These verses are critical to the Christian’s self-image. Paul’s words carry weight in the Christian faith, so students of the Bible should be as sure as they can about not just what Paul says, but what he means in these twelve verses. In a historical study of ideologies, we see that not even the most learned of theologians can agree on what Paul means in Romans chapter 7.
Martin Luther believes that Paul is expressing an internal struggle between his reborn, Christian identity and his sinful flesh. He believes that Paul is writing about himself in the present tense, and that Paul struggles daily with sin. John Calvin shares a similar belief. He believes that Paul personifies his Christian inclinations as the mind, and his fleshly inclinations as his body. Calvin, like Luther, says that these two internal adversaries are never shed of each other once one decides to follow Christ.
Other theologians, such as the Englishmen Arthur Cayley Headlam and William Sanday, argue that Paul is reflecting on his past before Christ’s intervention in verses 14-24. Sanday and Headlam believe that Paul is saying that only through a rebirth via Christ’s salvation can he be without sin, which puts Sanday and Headlam at odds with Calvin and Luther who believe sin is not escapable.
Both ideas still exist today, and some, such as theologian Werner George Kumel, believe that Paul is not even talking about himself. Kumel believes that Paul is offering himself as a metaphor, representing the Christian people’s struggle with nonbelievers. Because it is essential that literary students of the Bible know, not only what Romans says, but what it means, this passage and all possible interpretations of the passage are worth further investigation.
Sanday and Headlum use the absence of the Character of Christ in verses 14-24 of chapter 7 as well as Chapter 6 of Romans as contextual evidence to suggest that Paul is not speaking of himself in the present tense in Romans chapter seven. Romans chapter 6 verses 3-11 implies that Christians can, in fact, live without sin.
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self[a] was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free[b] from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Paul implies in chapter 6 that when Christians are “born again”, original sin, or the sinful nature of man, dies. Additionally, chapter 6 verse 12 seems to directly contradict Luther and Calvin’s views.
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.
Sanday and Headlam would argue that Paul is portraying his inability to keep the Jewish law, which he would’ve had considerable knowledge of, without Christ. Headlam and Sanday do not, though, believe that Paul would be unable to shed sin altogether. Because of the intervention of Christ in verse 25 combined with his absence in the verses prior, Sanday and Headlam would argue that Paul is saying that Christ is the answer to living a sinless life.
So do Luther and Calvin believe that Paul disagrees with himself from one chapter to the next in Romans? The first two verses in Romans chapter 6 imply that sin is still sin- to Jews, Gentiles, nonbelievers, and even Christians. If sin remains consistent, and the sinful man is buried and a new man reborn, how then can Calvin and Luther believe that Paul struggles with sinful nature even after intervention from Christ? In the third and fourth verses of the seventh chapter of Romans, Paul says that the Jewish law is dead to Christians. Romans chapter 7 verses 9-11 say that it is the law that acknowledges sin. Calvin and Luther would argue that by the death of the law, not the absence of sin, chapter 6 is true; a new man is born when one is “reborn” and the old man dies. The old man is not without sin, though, he is instead without judgement from the law that acknowledges sin, and thus deemed sinless.
Another important factor that may add some insight to the idea of original sin in Romans as well, as why Paul may be so adamant about explaining the daily effect he says it has on his daily life, lies in some historical context surrounding Romans. Claudius, a former emperor of Rome, expelled all Jews from Rome sometime between 41 and 49 AD. Historical evidence suggests that the Jews were exiled because of disturbances and rebellions concerning the acceptance Christ’s identity as the messiah. The expulsion of the Jews allowed for the first entirely Gentile Christian churches to exist in Rome. The absence of Jewish influence in the early Christian churches of Rome provided for minimal knowledge of the Old Testament laws and customs. Nero allowed the Jews to return, which provided for a clash between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. Paul may have been writing Romans in response to the clashes of the mixed-multitude churches, which explains why he warns Gentile Christians against haughtiness toward Jews, and it also supports Luther and Calvin’s stance on Paul’s original sin. Paul very well could’ve been using himself as an example of original sin, which stems from the Jewish creation story of Adam and Eve.
Either stance on Romans chapter 7 could be argued for. Open discussion is absolutely essential in the interpretation of these passages, as well as several others in both the Old and New Testament. As bible students, we are expected to understand the contextual information as well as drawn conclusions from all angles concerning tricky verses and chapters. Thankfully, this is a topic that theologians have attempted to tackle throughout the ages, and open discussion on Romans chapter 7 remains alive and well today.