Some notes from Packer’s Appendix in Keeping in Step with the Spirit, on the identity of the ‘I’ in Romans 7.14-25. Packer picks up the hotly contested debate as, facing the premise that the law is evil (see 5.20; 7.5), Paul raises the question, his third one in quick succession (see 6.1, 15), and defiantly answers it: ‘by no means!’ Packer summarises Paul’s argument as follows:
1. The effect of the law is to give men knowledge of sin as a dynamic reality within themselves, of rebellion against God, and of disobedience to his commands (7.7, 13).
2. The method by which the law gives this knowledge is by declaring God’s prohibitions and commands, which goad men into rebellion and make men more aware of specific transgression into which sin has led them (7.8, 19, 23)
3. The law gives no ability to anyone to perform the good which it prescribes, nor can it deliver from the power of sin (7.9-11, 22-24).
It seems there are two sections, each starting with a summary statement of the thesis which is then explained in the following verses:
- 7.7-13 – Past tense, and naturally autobiographical. Thesis: ‘I had not known sin, except through the law‘ (7.7).
- 7.14-25 – Present tense, which would suggest Paul’s current experience, but seems a depressing read. Thesis: ‘I am of the flesh, sold under sin‘ (7.14).
But who, given Paul in Romans 8 declaring ‘the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death’ (8.2), is the wretched man? Is he Paul, or an ideal, and if he is Paul, is it Paul the Christian or Paul the unconverted Jew?
Is the ‘wretched man’ Paul?
Paul’s switch to the singular (7.14) from the plural (7.5-7), the emphatic ‘I’ of (7.14, 17, 24, 25), and the spontaneous cry of ‘Wretched man that I am!’ all point towards this being an experience that is personal to him.
Paul of the past?
Some hold that Paul of v14-25 is the same unconverted Paul as in v7-13, with it being simply a comment on the events of 7-13. The argument goes that the tense is present to create vividness, as Paul looks back (e.g. Bultmann). The logic follows that the wretchedness is thus the failure of Paul’s religious self-effort, after seeking righteousness by works and not finding it. The answer is the gospel of grace of 8.1-4, and thus the praise of v25 is proclaming past or present deliverance.
Paul of the present?
a) In the present tense as it is a present state: A remarkable change from aorist to present tense in 7.14. Unnatural in the middle of a sentence dealing with a single unit of experience and an experience supposedly in the past. If there is no recognised linguistic idiom to explain it, then surely Paul’s readers would have understood a shift in timeframe. Would Paul wantonly obscure his own meaning to allow misunderstanding?
b) Praise makes little sense for a step backward: The praise of 25a appears somewhat peculiar if it is followed by 25b, and comes as a major anticlimex. That is, if one assumes 25a is celebrating the past/present deliverance. Yet to still have to face 25b is surely a step-backward for this view of 14-25.
c) An optimistic, thus contradictory, view of unregenerate man: How can an unregenerate man approve of the law (7.16), delight in it (7.22), be willing to fulfill it (7.15, 18-21), and serve it (7.22), if elsewhere the heart and mind of unregenerate Adam is blind, corrupt, lawless and at enmity with God? Compare this especially with 8.5. Surely this is not a man in Adam, but a man in Christ.
d) Making sense of his current state: The cry of 24 – ‘who will deliver me from this body of death?‘ – is the cry for deliverance from mortal bodies, for a time when ‘the mortal puts on immortality’ (1 Cor 15.54), a consumnation backed by 8.23. And so the praise of 25a must be for future deliverance, and so 25b ceases to be problem as that is the present reality still, the conclusion of the current state of affairs. He serves the law of God with his mind in wanting and willing to keep it perfectly, yet with the flesh serves the law of sin, seen in never being able to keep the law.