What I Do With The “I” image

What I Do With The “I”

Last week I published the results of the “i-Poll”. The question I had asked was, who do you think Paul is talking about in the “I” of Romans 7?

The results came back as:

A. Paul now: 38%
B. Paul pre-Christ: 12%
C. Someone else: 14%
Some combination of A & B: 10%
Some combination of B & C: 19%
Some combination of A, B & C: 7%

I said that I’d post my own thoughts on the text, so here goes.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have any new light to shed on the matter. I grew up in a Martin Lloyd-Jones shaped context where the “I” was taken as describing someone other than a Christian trying to live righteously under the law. Later, as my theological influences broadened (and as I gained greater experience of Christians struggling with sin) I veered towards a more conventional, Reformed approach, that sees the “I” as describing current Christian experience. Now I find myself in the strange position of thinking that Ben Witherington and NT Wright probably offer the best perspective.

The long tradition of seeing this passage as Paul describing himself, now, tallies with experience. It is not, after all, unusual for Christians to wrestle with sin issues. Certainly, I’ve counselled plenty of Christians who “do the very thing I hate”. When we come to this passage it seems to be describing that experience. I also think this interpretation appeals to a certain strand of ‘melancholy’ Reformed theology – while recognising that ‘triumphalistic’ charismatics are more likely to be predisposed to another interpretation. However, there does seem to me to be something off-centre when rather than the New Testaments normal description of Christians as saints, the melancholic amongst us are much happier describing Christians as sinners.

In the flow of the letter it seems inconceivable that Paul can be describing himself, now, in Romans 7. It just doesn’t make sense with everything he has already said about Christians – who have been described as, not ‘in sin,’ not ‘in the flesh,’ not ‘under the law.’ Romans 6 is all about how the old Adam-man has died: We are ‘dead to sin and alive to God’ (6:11); we were slaves to sin but are but are now slaves to righteousness (6:17-18). Christians are those who have ‘died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another’ (7:4), and, ‘are not in the flesh but in the Spirit’ (8:9).

Everything Paul says in Romans underscores Christian freedom from sin. There has been a life and death transformation!

If that is the case – what is Paul saying here? If it’s not Paul now, who is it?!

It’s not difficult to imagine Paul using a preachers “I” here. This is something I find myself doing at times when preaching: saying ‘me’ or ‘I’ when I’m not actually describing myself but wanting to emphasise and personalise a point. But I think there’s probably more going on here than simply Paul making an illustration. Nor do I think reading it as, “anyone, Christian or not, trying to live by law” is a sufficient interpretation – that seems rather too locked in by Reformation categories.

Romans 6 describes how Christians die and live with Christ. Chapter 5 describes where death came from in the first place: Adam. So to me it makes most sense to read the “I” as Paul describing Adam – and by extension, Adam’s descendants. 7:8-9 make most sense when seen as Adam: ‘commandment’ is singular, so can’t refer to the Law of Moses; Adam ‘died’ when he sinned (Gen 2:17). Moreover (as Witherington describes), sin is personified in this passage, similarly to the serpent in Genesis. Reading Romans 7 within the context of the whole letter it looks to me as if Paul is identifying how right from the beginning law represented a problem, that was exploited by sin. If we are Adam-like, we are in trouble.

Reading the passage this way also makes sense when we consider Israel, who had the law, and kept compounding Adam’s sin. Sin is so sneaky that even Torah is used to sins end. Sin needs to be dealt with – and law isn’t up to the task.

The gospel is that sin has been dealt with! By the cross and the Spirit. Christ is the new Adam who sets humanity on a new path and it is this that is the experience of the Christian!

If this interpretation is correct (and either way, I don’t think it is an issue to divide over) we are still left with the pastoral issue of the Christian who feels that Romans 7 is describing them. What are we to counsel them?

The message of Romans is clear: You have been set free! This is both a tender message and a wakeup call. It is a wakeup call inasmuch that the Christian can never say, “I couldn’t help it.” Those who are slaves of righteousness are always provided with a route out of sins embrace. It is also tender when we speak the message of ‘no condemnation’ (8:1) and the reality of the Spirit’s presence who ministers the love of the Father to us (5:5).

Romans 7 answers a question posed by Romans 5 and 6 about sin and the law. It emphasises Adam’s helplessness in the face of sin. But – thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! – in Christ we walk a different path from Adam…which leads to the wonders of Romans 8!

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