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An Exegetical Study of Romans 7:13-25
by Andrew Packer
The pericope examined in this paper is one of the most controversial parts of Romans. As
Nygren so aptly put it, “It presents us with one of the greatest problems in the New Testament. It
was already recognized in the first Christian century; and since that time it has never come to
rest. Through the centuries the battle has been waged as to what this particular passage means.”
The main issue that surrounds this pericope is this: Who is the “I” that Paul is referring to
throughout the pericope? There are a variety of views on this subject, but in many ways the
options can be narrowed down to two - is Paul speaking as a Christian or as a non-Christian?
Thus this paper will seek to answer that question and two questions that flow out of it: What does
it mean for this pericope? And what does this mean for the Christian in his daily life?
Important Textual Issues
Who the “I” is in this section of Romans chapter 7 can be established by looking at two
textual issues: 1) Paul’s use of the pronoun .va. 2) Paul’s use of the present tense.
The first textual issue of importance in this pericope regards the pronoun . va.
used only 12 times outside of chapter 7 in Romans.
Four of these are part of Old Testament
In 16:22 Tertius uses the pronoun to greet the Christians in Rome himself. In all
Anders Nygren, Commnetary on Romans,( Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1949), 284.
For an in depth study of this issue and the pericope as a whole see Michael Paul Middendorf, The "I" In the Storm:
A Study of Romans 7, (Saint Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 1997). This work, along with Nygren’s, have shaped
the content of this paper.
Though this paper will focus on whether Paul is speaking concerning his Christian or pre-Christian life, it is still
important to establish that Paul is in fact speaking of himself in this section. For discussion of the other ways “I”
can be understood see Middendorf, chapters 1,3,4 and also Cranfield, 344ff.
10:19; 11:3; 12:19; 14:11.
five of these instances the pronoun is used to refer to the person speaking or writing. In 11:19
and 3:7 Paul uses the pronoun rhetorically and the context of each one makes it clear that this is
The other five times that Paul uses .va he is making a clear personal reference to
Outside of Romans Paul uses .va 84 times and of those 84 Paul uses it to refer to
himself 77 times.
The contexts of the other seven make it clear that Paul is not the subject.
evidence weights heavily in favor of understanding .va, in chapter 7, as a personal reference to
Paul. There is nothing in 7:13-25 or even in all of Paul’s epistles that would allow an interpreter
to make .va refer to anyone but Paul.
Starting in verse 14 Paul begins to use the present tense and uses it for the rest of the
Some commentators see Paul switching to the present for emphasis and argue that the
present should be understood as a sort of historical present. Generally those who argue this also
argue that Paul is speaking of his time as a Jew that is as a non-Christian.
The other main view
is to take the present tense as a typical present tense and that Paul is describing his current
situation as a Christian. As Daniel Wallace points out, the use of the first person pronoun along
with the present tense mitigates against this being the use of the historical present.
does the syntax itself not allow for the present tense to be taken as a historical present, there is
also no indication anywhere in the context that Paul is using the historical present. The
See Middendorf, 150 for a more detailed argument of taking these rhetorically.
9:3; 11:1; 11:13; 15:14; 16:3-4. See Middendorf, 151.
I Cor. 1:12; 3:4; 2 Cor. 6:17.
This will be a very brief overview and only cover two of the more prominent views.
See for example Douglas J. Moo, NICNT: The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1996), 447-448. However, Thomas R. Schreiner, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New
Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 390ff, actually argues Paul is applying this to both non-
Christians and Christians .
Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 531. Also see Cranfied, 344ff. The
historical present only occurs in the third person (singular and plural) in the NT (Wallace 528).
development of Paul’s argument in chapter 7 is also a strike against the historical present view.
There are no grounds anywhere in the text that would support the historical present view in any
Both Paul’s use of the first person pronoun and his use of the present tense make it
explicitly clear that Paul is talking about his present situation as a Christian. Having established
this, it is still necessary to add one more clarification. As Middendorf says, “But the “I” is never
depicted as two “I”s in verses 15-25; nor do we have a schizoid, dual, or split personality in this
section…Paul does not divide or separate the “I” form ‘the flesh.’”
To be sure there is a
duality in the Christian life, “But he does not think of a divided will or a discord in the soul. He
has in mind the tension which exists, in the Christian life, between will and action, between
intention and performance.”
That is, the Christian is “in Christ”, but at the same time lives out
their life “in the flesh”. The Christian daily lives in the struggle of the tension between the
already, and the not yet.
The immediate context, as well as the whole flow of the book of Romans to this point, is
extremely important in understanding Paul’s argument in 7:13-25.
Paul’s theme for the whole
epistle is “the one who is righteous by faith will live.”
In 1:18-3:20 Paul then develops a
detailed argument to show that no one is righteous and all are under the wrath of God. Of
particular importance to his argument in chapter 7 is Paul’s discussion of the role of the Law for
See Commentary below to see how this plays out in Paul’s argument.
This will be explained more fully in the commentary section.
See Middendorf, chapter 2. It seems that too often this broader context gets lost in the discussion of this
Romans 1:16-17. See Charles Gieschen, “Outline of Romans”, (April 2007).
those without the Law at the end of chapter 1 and its role for those who are under the Law in
In 3:20 Paul makes the crucial point: ete·t .: .cvai ie+eu eu etsata)nc.·at :aca
cac: .ia:tei au·eu, eta vac ie+eu .:tviact: a+ac·ta:. No one is justified by the Law and the
Law brings the knowledge or recognition of sin. It should also be pointed out that throughout
chapters 1-3 Paul’s picture of the unbeliever’s relationship to the Law never includes the
unbeliever delighting in God’s Law, a desire to do God’s Law, etc. Paul knows of no such
situation where those things would even be possibilities.
All of these points will be important
in Paul’s discussion of the Law in chapter 7.
In 3:21 - 31, Paul shows that God is righteous in that Christ, the righteousness of God,
has been made the tìac·nctei for the sins of the world. This is received by faith alone, apart
from the Law.
Then in chapter 4 Paul gives the example of Abraham who was reckoned
righteous by faith alone even before he had received circumcision and before the Law was given
to Moses on Sinai.
Romans chapters 5 - 8 is often considered to be the next major section of Romans.
Nygren says that the subject in this section is “the meaning of the Christian life”.
To be in
Christ means to be free from “Wrath, Sin, the Law, and Death.”
Romans 7:13-25 is in the third
section which discusses the Christian’s freedom from the Law and what this looks like. In
Romans 7:1-6 Paul shows how believers are dead to the law through Christ.
Then in verses 7-
12 he explains how the Law provokes and increases sin. After this is where the pericope under
See 1:20, 28; 2:12, 20, 23, 25, 27. See Middendorf, 53.
Even just a cursory reading through Romans 1-3 make that point emphatically, over and over again.
See 3:22, 28, 30.
See Middendorf, 54ff. for other possibilities on dividing this section.
The following explanation of the flow of Romans 7 is following Nygren, 268ff.
discussion begins, and here Paul lays out the Law’s inability to produce good in believers
because they live out their lives in the flesh. The opening verses of chapter 8 then serve as a
conclusion to this section. The flow of the overall context is no small point for it gives the proper
setting in which Paul’s argument occurred. To ignore this context or to rip the verses from this
context as some kind of independent subsection, completely misses the thrust of Paul’s
So then, Romans 6 had boldly proclaimed that the Christian is no longer a slave to sin
and set out the implications for this in the day to day life of the believer. The first part of Romans
7 set out the believer’s freedom from the Law and how the Law functioned in their life before
they were a believer. This latter part of Romans 7 makes it clear that though one is free from
both sin and the Law the believer must live out this life in the sinful flesh, and therefore the Law
still cannot produce good in the believer.
In verse 13 Paul concludes the argument from 7:1-12. Te ava)ei is a reference to the
It was not the Law, which is good, that was the reason for it working death in him.
Paul makes an emphatic denial that it is the Law’s fault by using the expression +n v.iet·e.
was because Paul was a sinner that when the Law came it worked death. For the Law showed
sin to be sin and provoked it so that it became u:.c!eìni a+ac·aìe:. When the Law meets sin it
becomes a “destroying power”.
The Law came showing sin for what it was and demonstrated
Paul’s need for the Gospel, and that the Gospel had accomplished what the Law could not.
7:12, 18, 19
Cf. 3:4, 6, 31; 6:2, 15, 7:7
Nygren, 298. Cf. 8:3.
8:1-2. See Middendorf 86-87.
In verse 14 Paul transitions to the next phase of his discussion. This can be seen by his
switch to the present tense.
Paul makes a striking contrast - the Law is :i.u+a·tse:, but he is
cacstie:. In 1:11 and 15:27 Paul uses the word “spiritual” to clearly refer to gifts and blessings
coming from the Holy Spirit. So the Law is Spirit-filled, but Paul himself is “fleshly”. This is
not referring to Paul just being a man of flesh and blood, but is getting to the root of the problem
as noted in verse 13 - Paul still lives in the flesh that is his fallen, sinful nature.
This is made
even more explicit by the phrase :.:ca+.ie: u:e ·ni a+ac·tai. Paul is sold under sin like a
slave is sold to a master. The use of the perfect form of :t:cacsa further highlights that this
was a past condition that is still having present ramifications. Right away the tension that exists
throughout Romans 6-8 is set before the reader. Paul, who in Romans 6 declared the believer free
from sin, now says the believer is a slave under sin. Though the Christian is spiritual (8:9) he
still must live out this life in the sinful flesh. So that now there is this daily battle between the
Spirit and the flesh.
The non-Christian does not experience this tension. Only the Christian has
this struggle, for the non-Christian is not waging war against the sinful flesh. This point is vital
to understanding the rest of this pericope.
In verse 15 the description of how this tension plays out in the lives of believers day to
day begins. The verb vtiacsa is best understood in this context along the lines of approve or
That is Paul as a Christian fights and battles, yet still sins and as a Christian cannot
See discussion above under Important Textual Issues.
5:12, 18. Cf. Middendorf, 89.
Gal. 5:17. See Nygren’s excellent discussion of this issue on pages 296ff.
Though most English translations translate this as “understand” Cranfield (358ff.) and Middendorf (91ff.) both
show that “understand” does not fit the context since Paul explains throughout the passage why he is not doing
what he wills - sin.
approve or condone these sinful actions.
The various words used for “do” here and throughout
this pericope are related to the “doing” or “performance” of the Law.
Verse 16 and 17 develop this further. Paul as a Christian is by this very struggle with the
flesh showing that he knows that the Law truly is saìe: - the highest good. Paul’s use of
cu+|n+t here in verse 16 again shows that this is Paul as a Christian. It is nearly impossible to
imagine Paul saying that an unbeliever could agree with the Law that it is good, especially after
his description of the unbeliever in chapters 1-3. In verse 17 it is once again shown why his
agreement with the Law does not end up in perfect conformity to the Law. The issue, as
throughout this passage, is that Paul still has sin that is indwelling within him.
Verse 18 is in essence a restatement of what has just been said. Paul does not let up even
for a second but continues to drive this point home. Paul has the will to do the good, but because
he lives in the flesh there is a constant disagreement between what he as Christian wills to do,
and what often takes place. Verse 18 provides further evidence that Paul is speaking as a
Christian. If he was speaking as an unbeliever he would not need to qualify what is meant by
“no good dwelling in me” but he makes sure he clarifies by adding “this is, my flesh.” This
“flesh” though is not where his identity is to be found. It is the ).ìa, his willing, his desire, is to
do the good that defines him, not the flesh. As one redeemed by Christ, and freed from the
dominion of sin he desires to do the good and fights and battles the flesh, but still must
acknowledge that he is indeed living in that flesh.
This would NOT be an issue if Paul were speaking as an unbeliever.
Cf. Middendorf, 92.
Nothing in this section indicates Paul saying that always and only does evil. In the context of chapters 6-8 it is
clear that Paul is laying out the struggle/tension that exists as the believer sees themselves falling short of the Law
again and again.
See Middendorf , 98 and Nygren, 300.
Verses 19 - 20 continue to demonstrate these points. Verse 20 is not Paul’s attempt to
justify his sin, but is furthering illustrating the tension and battle that exists. This is further
illustrated in verses 21- 23. Paul in these verses gives another sobering view of the reality of the
situation he finds himself in. In verse 22 Paul announces that he in fact delights, joyfully agrees
(cuinee+at) with the Law of God. This is by far the clearest and most explicit verse showing
that Paul is speaking as a Christian. There is nothing in any of Paul’s letter that would allow this
statement to be said of an unbeliever.
This coupled with the phrase sa·a ·ei .ca ai)ca:ei,
which is used only of Christians in 2 Corinthians 4:16 and Ephesians 3:16, are undeniably used
in relation to the Christian only.
So then verse 23 adds the sobering reality that though the
Christian does delight in God’s Law, because he still lives this life in the sinful flesh he cannot
escape the constant struggle and even failures of falling short of God’s Law.
It is because of this tension that Paul repeatedly points out that he cries out in verse 24
that he is a Taìat:ace:. Paul, as all Christians, find themselves to be miserable as they live out
life in this “body of death”. That is Paul is frustrated by this tension that exists in this earthly life
and desires to be free from that tension. This is why cu c.·at is in the future tense. He is looking
forward to the second coming of Christ that will bring him deliverance from the struggles of the
Paul awaits the full redemption of his body, the day it will be completely free from the
struggles with sin that accompany this earthly life.
Verse 25 concludes the pericope, Paul looks forward to that day of Christ’s return and
cannot hold back a cry of praise to His Savior. He then adds the sobering conclusion that even
Romans 1-3 alone should be enough evidence for this point.
Whether this is referring to the Christian’s regenerated spirit (Middendorf, Lenski) or Christ himself (Gieschen)
still needs to be further investigated by this author. Either option is only true of the Christian, so either way the
One thinks also of Philippians 1:21-22.
with that day in mind he still must acknowledge that he lives in the time before that day. He is
already in Christ, but not yet fully freed from the sinful flesh, even though he is free from the
dominion of that sin.
It must be noted here that Romans 8:1ff. are the true conclusion of this section. Paul goes
on to show that though Christians fail to live out the Law perfectly, that there is no condemnation
because they are in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, the Gospel has done for the believer what the
Law could not and still cannot do. But this does not give the believer a free pass to wallow in the
mire of sin, for God has given them His Spirit to fight and battle against the deeds of the flesh.
Why this is important for the Christian and what this means for their daily life has in
many ways already been covered. However there are still several points that need to be fleshed
out. First, other interpretations miss Paul’s point here that the Law “can never, under any
circumstances, be a way of salvation, not even for the Christian.”
This point is as important for
today as it was in Paul’s time. With covenantal nomism gaining popularity throughout various
parts of the Church, it cannot be reiterated to strongly that Christ is the Christian’s righteousness
at the beginning, middle, and end of the Christian’s life. The Christian still lives this life in the
flesh, and so the Law cannot ever be done perfectly by the Christian and can never in any way be
relied on for their righteousness before God. Second, and flowing out of this first point, when
the freedom from the tyranny of sin in chapter 6 is divorced from the struggle with sin that still
remains for the Christian many dangerous errors can creep in. Two dangers in particular stick
out. On the one hand, the Christian may fall prey to some kind of self-righteous pride believing
In many ways a return to Romans 6, except now it is in light of the reality of the present struggle of the believer.
that they no longer have that sinful flesh to deal with, underestimating the seriousness of the
battle with the flesh that still remains. On the other hand, they may fall prey to despair as they
struggle day to day with their flesh but have no context within which to understand why they are
struggling or if it is even normal for a Christian to have this struggle. A whole paper could be
written about the great harm caused by these two dangers that have resulted from a denial of the
Christian’s struggle with the sinful nature that still remains. Third, taking Romans 7 in the
context of chapters 5 through 8 not only shows the struggles and battles with the sinful nature,
but at the same time keeping it in context avoids the other danger of falling into an
antinomianism that sees no use for the Law in the life of the believer. Paul again and again
makes it clear that the Law is holy and good and right and it is the sinful nature that is the
problem not the Law. Keeping Romans 7 in its overall context also helps keep in check the
sinful nature that would use Romans7 as an excuse to sin and not battle against the flesh -
thereby denying the reality presented in Romans 6 and 8.
Romans 7:13-25 is a vital component in helping the Christian understand what it means
to live life in the tension of the already and the not yet. It gives the Christian a clear picture and
understanding of the struggles that exist as they live out their day to day lives in the flesh. A
proper understanding of this pericope gives the Christian comfort and hope as it helps to put
these struggles in the proper context. The importance of the proper understanding of this passage
cannot be overestimated for the life of the baptized.
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