This is a complex passage, but even on the surface any reader can sense that Paul is depicting a struggle here – the struggle between willing and doing, between the good we want to do and the bad we actually do. That’s not so controversial. What makes the passage controversial for scholars and commentators is the question of what kind of person Paul is depicting here. There are three basic interpretive answers to this question:
- Paul is describing his own experience as a normal, mature Christian believer; it’s the “already/not yet” experience of believing in Christ. Hence he is describing our lives as believers. In other words, he’s describing a regenerate life. But, careful interpreters ask, how can a regenerate person who has been set free from sin (see Romans 6:18, 22) describe himself as still a slave to sin (7:14, 23-25)?
- Paul is describing his own experience before he became a Christian, his experience as an unregenerate person. Hence he is describing life before one believes in Christ. But, careful interpreters ask, how an an unregenerate person, hostile to God, declare that he delights in God’s law (7:22)?
- Paul is describing a mix or combination of the two.
There are good faithful interpreters who line up on all three views. And each of them can cite not only good Scriptural warrant for their interpretation, but also a long list of historical church leaders who side with them. It’s an important interpretation to make, because who you think Paul is describing determines whether this passage applies to you the believer, or to you before you believed, or to others who do not (yet) believe.
So how am I going to approach this in my sermon on Sunday? I don’t want to drown my listeners with details. So I want to bring out what every interpreter of this passage would agree on, and that is that the Law cannot save us. It cannot make us good. In my view there is a real application in our lives, as I think we’re depending more and more on laws, regulations, policies and procedures to make us better people. According to Romans 7, it can’t happen.
Keep my in your prayers this week, as I try to find a way to bring this truth home to us.