A Commentary by John Stott
Having vindicated the law in verses 7-13 as not responsible for sin or death, Paul now proceeds to show that nevertheless the law cannot be responsible for our holiness either. The law is good, but it is also weak. In itself it is holy, but it is impotent to make us holy. This important truth lies behind the whole final section of Romans 7. It depicts the hopeless struggle of people who are still ‘under the law’. They are right to look to the law for moral guidance, but wrong to look to it for saving power.
As we turn to this passage, what immediately catches our attention is that, although he retains the personal ‘I’, Paul changes the tenses of all the verbs. He has been using the past tense: ‘Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came…I died’ (9). This was his past, pre-conversion experience. But now suddenly his verbs are in the present tense: ‘What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’ (15). It sounds like his present, post-conversion experience. This would be the natural interpretation of the personal pronouns and the present tense. But is this really the Christian apostle who is describing his own continuing painful conflict between what he wants and what he does, between desire and performance? Or is he impersonating someone else?
Before studying the text, it is essential to probe the identity of this “I”.
a). Is this ‘I’ regenerate or unregenerate?
The earliest Greek interpreters from Origen onwards repudiated the view that Paul was referring to his own moral struggles. They could not accept that a regenerate and mature believer like Paul could describe himself as *sold as a slave to sin* (14), when he has just celebrated his transfer to another slavery which in reality is freedom (6:6, 17-18, 22). Could this Paul confess that he cannot do what he wants to do, while he does do what he hates (15)? Could it be Paul who cries out in great anguish and wretchedness for deliverance (24), apparently now forgetting the peace, joy, freedom and hope of the justified people of God which he has previously portrayed (5:1ff.)? So these commentators concluded that Paul was impersonating an unregenerate person, at least until 8:1ff., and was portraying the human being in Adam, not in Christ. Some contemporary scholars who hold this position back it up with a quotation from first-century Roman poet Ovid: ‘I see and approve better things, but I pursue the worse’.
The western church, however, followed Augustine, who first espoused the view of the Greek commentators but subsequently changed his mind, and then influenced the Protestant Reformers. Their view was that Paul is writing as a truly regenerate and even mature believer. Three characteristics of his self-portrait support this. The first concerns his opinion of himself. He calls himself *unspiritual* (14; RSV ‘carnal’) and declares that *nothing good lives* in him, that is, in his *sinful nature* (18). But unbelievers are self-righteous and self-confident; only believers think and speak of themselves in self-disgust and self-despair.
Secondly, there is Paul’s attitude to the law. He not only calls it *holy, righteous and good* (12), and *spiritual* (14), but also refers to it as *the good I want to do* (19). He states both that *in my inner being I delight in God’s law* (22) and that *I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law* (25). So here is a man who not only acknowledges the intrinsic goodness of the law, but who loves it, delights in it, longs for it, and considers himself enslaved to it. This is not the language of the unregenerate. For in the next chapter Paul declares that ‘the sinful mind [AV ‘the carnal mind’] is hostile to God’ and that ‘it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so’ (8:7). Paul, however, feels love for the law, not enmity; and is submissive to it, not rebellious.
Thirdly, consider Paul’s longing for final deliverance. The wretched man’s cry (24) expresses desire rather than despair. He yearns to be rescued ‘out of this body of death’, That is, out of this present state of sinfulness and mortality into a new and glorious resurrection body. Is not this an example of the inward ‘groaning’ of God’s people who are eagerly waiting for the redemption of their bodies (8:23)?
Such a person, deploring evil in his fallen nature, delighting himself in God’s law, and longing for the promised full and final salvation, seems to provide ample evidence of being regenerate and even mature.