In Part 1, I covered Paul’s purpose in writing Romans, who his audience was, the historical context, and the textual context of Romans 7. In this final part, I will directly answer the question, “Who is the man of Romans 7?” I will also show you why learning the lesson of the man of Romans 7 is immensely important for Christians today.
So, Who Is the Man?
I think it is significant that in Romans 7:1, Paul identifies his audience: “Or don’t you know, brothers (for I speak to men who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man for as long as he lives?” Although some commentators would disagree with me, I don’t think Paul would say this if he were not specifying that he was here, and in the context that follows, particularly addressing the Jewish Christians in Rome. He wants to teach them an important lesson.
By using the law of marriage as an example, Paul, in verses 1-6, teaches that a law binds us only as long as we live. His goal here is to teach these Jewish Christians who have been hanging onto the law that by the dead body of Christ, we have become dead to the law, and we are now married to the living, resurrected Christ. Going back to the law for any reason is infidelity to our marriage to our Husband and Savior. Critical to what he is still about to teach is what he says in verse 5: “For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law, worked in our members to bring out fruit to death.”
Preempting the objection he knows the Jews would have, he denies that he is teaching that the law is sin (verse 7). The law isn’t sin. The law defines sin. But the law causes sin: “But sin, finding occasion through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of coveting” (verse 7a). This is something the Jewish Christians had missed, just as many Christian moralists do today. They don’t realize that by preaching the law, they are preaching the very thing that causes sin.
Paul Introduces the First Person Singular
“For I wouldn’t have known coveting, unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (verse 7b). Many commentators seem to miss this and only question who “I” is beginning in verse 9. This is a mistake. Addressing it here helps us answer the question.
Where does, “You shall not covet” come from? Of course, it comes from the Ten Commandments. And why was the Mosaic Law, epitomized by the Ten Commandments, given? As Paul just said, the law defines sin. And, as the Weymouth Translation of Galatians 3:19 makes clear, “Why then was the Law given? It was imposed later on for the sake of defining sin, until the seed should come to whom God had made the promise; and its details were laid down by a mediator with the help of angels.”
If God had to give the Law to Israel to define sin, what was Israel’s position before the giving of Law? They didn’t know sin. Sure, they may have had a vague idea, but without the clear definitions of the commandments, they wouldn’t have had a clear idea of sin. As Paul said, without the commandment, they wouldn’t have known what coveting was.
Who Is “I”?
So, who is “I”? “I” is “I” a Jew. “I” is “I” as representative of the nation of Israel. “I” is “I” who am one of you Jews (remember that Paul is addressing those who know the law) who have this national history of being ignorant of sin before the giving of the commandments.
So, here is the answer to the question posed in the title: The man in Romans 7 is the nation of Israel—the Jews—as embodied in the first person singular of Paul. We will see that this perfectly fits what follows.
Let’s continue with this takeaway: “For apart from the law, sin is dead” (verse 8b). This is a hard lesson for many people. If you want to have sin, turn to the law. If you want to not have sin, turn away from the law. It’s counterintuitive, but so is walking on water. It takes faith.
As we continue, keep in mind that apart from the law, sin is dead; and with the law, sin is alive. Paul does not change his topic.
Notice how perfectly this topic, along with Paul’s presenting himself as typical of the nation of Israel, fits what he says beginning in verse 9:
I was alive apart from the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. The commandment, which was for life, this I found to be for death; for sin, finding occasion through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.
Just substitute “Israel” or “the Jews” for “I” and “me” in the above, and it fits the history of Israel and what we know about the law flawlessly. The word “revived” (anazaō) is a problem with every other explanation of these verses that I have come across. It refers to coming alive again, but the other explanations never account for the coming again. But I believe that Paul meant it to look back to Eden. Sin came alive in Eden with the giving of the command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and it came alive again with the giving of the Law at Sinai.
The Law Isn’t Sin, But It Produces Sin in My Flesh
In verses 12 and 13, Paul again stresses that the law itself isn’t sin. Instead, sin produces death in me (Israel) through that which is good (the law) so that sin becomes exceedingly sinful. That is, the commandment makes sin unmistakably clear.
Why, if the law is good and spiritual, does this happen? Because “I am fleshly, sold under sin” (verse 14). Paul is specifically speaking of Israel, but, of course, this applies to all humanity. We are sinners because our flesh cannot obey the law.
So, Israel, depending on the law to do what it cannot do because of humanity’s sinful flesh, continues:
For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good.
Certainly, the Jews were known for loving the law. But are we seeing a spiritual progression here? The Jews that Paul is representing as “I” here love the law, but they now see that the law doesn’t help them do what they desire and doesn’t stop them doing what they don’t desire. In other words, it doesn’t bring the sinful flesh under control. But do carnally minded, unregenerate Jews see this? I don’t think so.
Pre-Sinai, unregenerate Jews merely became post-Sinai unregenerate Jews under the law. When Paul wrote to the Jewish Christians in Rome, he was speaking to post-Sinai Jews whom (he hoped) had become post-Sinai regenerate Jews (Christians). I think that, just as Paul’s “I” went from pre-Sinai Jews to post-Sinai Jews, “I” is now going from Jews under the law to Jews experiencing regeneration.
The Unconverted Jew Delights in God’s Law
Let’s read on:
So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present. For I delight in God’s law after the inward man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.
Passages such as this are why there are so many debates over whether the man of Romans 7 is someone before regeneration or after. How does someone prior to regeneration recognize that no good dwells in his flesh, that sin dwells within him, and that he is in captivity to the law of sin? On the other hand, why would a regenerated person still feel this conflict, this pulling and warring in the flesh?
And then there is the controversy that centers on whether it is the converted or unconverted person who delights in God’s law. Some say that only the converted person can truly delight in God’s law. And yet, shouldn’t the converted person be delighting in God’s grace rather than His law? But what unconverted person would delight in God’s law? The Jew!
The Jew Coming to Conversion
I do not see these verses making sense except in that they are seen as reflecting the mind of a Jew coming to conversion. He wants to keep the law, but sees that he can’t. He loves the law, but sees that it’s killing him. The unregenerate Jew is self-righteous, but this Jew admits that “while I desire to do good, evil is present.” Surely, only a regenerate person can utter the agonal cry of verse 24:
What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?
And then comes the Gospel:
I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!
He sees that the victory over death comes only through Jesus Christ. And yet, he ends on another note:
So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law.
Does it not seem odd that, immediately after acknowledging the victory through Jesus Christ, the man of Romans 7 goes right back to wrestling over serving the law and serving sin? It is mighty odd unless we understand exactly whom Paul is addressing and why.
Who the Man of Romans 7 Cannot Be
The man of Romans 7 cannot refer to unbelieving Gentiles because they would never have thought anything about God’s law, and they would not have acknowledged the victory of Jesus Christ. So, unbelieving Gentiles are eliminated.
Believing Gentiles would have acknowledged the victory of Jesus Christ, but would never have had such internal turmoil over the law. So, believing Gentiles are eliminated.
But, you say, I am a Gentile, and I know the law and acknowledge that it is holy, just, and good. And, I know that it condemns me. Yes, but this is true of you only because you are a modern Gentile living in a society where the Old and New Testaments are published abundantly, and misguided people commonly try to apply the Ten Commandments to Christians. This would not have been anything close to the case in Paul’s time. Gentiles at that time would have known little to nothing about the religion of the Jews, and they wouldn’t have cared. This is an example of why ignoring the historical context in which Paul wrote Romans leads us astray when we try to understand it.
Unbelieving Jews would say they loved the law, but would not have acknowledged that the law incites the sin dwelling within them. They, too, must be eliminated.
In Paul’s day, only the believing Jew would have said he loves the law and also expressed in many different ways that the law brings to life sin that kills him, while also declaring that Jesus Christ delivers him from his body of death. And, in that day, only the believing Jew could, after declaring Jesus’ victory in delivering him from his body of death, end by saying, “So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law.”
And, that’s exactly Paul’s point. The Jewish Christians hadn’t yet learned that, if they are delivered by Jesus Christ, they are dead to the law and to sin and no longer walking according to the flesh. They had to stop agonizing over that stuff to which they were no longer alive. And so, in the very next verses, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:1-2). Notice Romans 8:5-7:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace; because the mind of the flesh is hostile towards God; for it is not subject to God’s law, neither indeed can it be.
Stop Agonizing Over the Law!
Paul is essentially saying, Stop agonizing over these things by getting your mind off of fleshly things (off of the law) and onto the Spirit. That is the only way to have life and peace.
So, the man of Romans 7 is the Jewish believer who is still agonizing over the law. Paul introduces him by reviewing his history. The Jews were once alive without the law, but when the commandment came at Sinai, they died. When they were regenerated, they began to realize that the law they loved was what was killing them by defining, and even inciting, sin that leads to death. And then they heard the Gospel and believed that Jesus Christ had delivered them out of their body of death. But they weren’t letting Him fully deliver them because they were holding onto the law and the fleshly way of thinking it incites.
Lamentably, this same mindset has now become commonplace among many Christians.
The Modern Application of Romans 7
Reformed Theology teaches that the New Covenant is only a new administration of the Old Covenant. Thus, they believe that Christians are still under the law. Reformed Theology, and its influence on other theologies, has created many Christians who think like first-century Jewish believers, agonizing over their struggle between the law and their flesh. They never experience the full benefits in this life of Christ’s atoning sacrifice because they don’t understand Paul’s teaching in Romans and Galatians.
I find it sad that so many Christians think that when Paul says in Romans 6:7, “Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts,” that he means that they must struggle to keep the law. They don’t see that Paul clarifies what he means when he says, “For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). It’s when we turn to the law that sin can reign over us. When we turn away from the law and toward Christ, sin has no power whatever.
To say that I’m walking by the Spirit and to say that I’m regulating my life by the law are two, contradictory things. So many people get this wrong. The law never comes without condemnation. It is the ministration of death (2 Corinthians 3:7). It says, Do this or die. Jesus freed me from the law, so why would I ever turn back to it? Martin Luther said, “To turn one’s eyes away from Jesus means to turn them to the Law” (Commentary on Galatians, Chapter 2, verses 4-5). It’s also true that the only way to turn our eyes to Jesus is to turn them from the law.
It’s commonplace for preachers to not understand that we cannot walk by both the law and the Spirit. I recently came across a YouTube by a very famous radio preacher in which he continually treated walking by the law and walking by the Spirit as the same thing. In one sentence, he very mistakenly said that we have a right to question the Christianity of those who say they are not living their lives in duty and obligation to the law, and in the next two sentences, he correctly said that our sanctification is the work of God going on internally by the Holy Spirit. This is a confusing hash of right and wrong teaching.
Unlike these preachers, Paul clearly separated living by the Spirit and living by the law. He taught on the one hand that “law is not made for a righteous man” (1 Timothy 1:9), and that “the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). On the other hand, he said, “walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). It is not by our obligation to the law that we avoid sin. We avoid sin by our freedom from the law and our walking by the Spirit. Those who teach the law are openly demonstrating their lack of faith.
It’s time we stopped behaving like spiritually immature first-century Roman Jewish believers. Paul’s Romans 7 lesson to them is that the commandment brought sin and death, and the law can never keep us from sin. Only fully trusting in Jesus Christ will deliver us out of the body of this death. Turning to the law, trusting the law, and preaching the law are turning from Jesus Christ. These are faithless acts of holding onto the flesh instead of trusting in the Spirit.
Do you see why I said earlier that I can’t answer the question of whether the man of Romans 7 is Paul before or after his conversion, or Christians in general before or after their conversion? These are the wrong questions. The man is Paul representing the Jewish Christians. He speaks of their national history, alive before the giving of the Commandments and dead through sin after the Commandments. And he speaks of their thoughts as they were regenerated and became aware of their sins, their deliverance upon hearing the Gospel, and their foolish holding onto the law. Let’s make sure we’re not following that same bad example.
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