We are now on the threshold of a vexed portion of the book of Romans. Christians have long divided over whether Paul is describing his pre-Christian life or his post-conversion life. Is the description of anguish in Romans 7 characteristic of the Christian life? Or is it a decription of his experience prior to what happened on the Damascus road? If pre-conversion, then why the present tense? Why the delight in God’s law? And if post-conversion, then why does he describe himself as a slave to sin when in the previous chapter he already insisted that this is precisely what Christian are not—slaves to sin? Fortunately, these are not the only two options.
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good . . .” (Rom. 7:7-12).
Summary of the Text
When we get bad news, a very common reaction is to blame the messenger. But the messenger did not create the bad situation; he has only told you about it. The doctor did not create your cancer; he just informed you of it. The law did not create sin in us; rather the law informs us of the presence of that sin (3:20), and inflames that tendency to sin (5:20; 7: 5). But the law itself is not sin. This is the first misconception that Paul heads off (v. 7). God forbid that we say the problem is in the law. On the contrary, it was the law that informed me where the problem actually was. I would not have known what lust was had the law not revealed it by prohibiting it (v. 7). Sin is an opportunist, and used the commandment to create in me all manner of concupiscence (v. 8). Without the law, sin has nothing to push against, nothing to rebel against (v. 8). Once I was alive before the law came, but in the human soul it is as though sin is dehydrated—just add the water of the law (v. 9). When sin lives, man dies (v. 10). The commandment, the Torah, bound me to the old man, to Adam, and I bore children of death (v. 10). Sin, using the Torah, lied to me, and through that lie, slew me (v. 11). So don’t blame the law for any of this—the law is holy. The commandment is holy, just, and good (v. 12).
Everyman or All Men?
Now in the past when we have taught against individualism, this has not been done in order to reject the importance of individuals . Each one of us is fashioned in the image of God, and we go to Heaven or Hell by ones. There are no group rates. At the same time, when we are saved, one at a time, or we remain lost, one at a time, this is inseparable from an organic union with one of two Adams—the first Adam or Christ.
This means that Paul is not giving what we would call a “personal testimony.” This is not autobiographical, at least not in the first place. He is speaking of himself as a representative unconverted Israelite. He is telling Israel’s story, and he is explaining why Israel had such trouble under the Torah. At the same time, he is not telling Israel’s story in such a way as to exonerate himself. He was typical—zealous for God, but without knowledge (Rom 10:2). We are not addressing here the problem of generic unconverted men (although there are some related issues involved in that), but rather are dealing with the problem of Israel , a problem that is woven throughout this entire letter.
Israel was a valley of dry bones, and the prophet Ezekiel had declared that one day the bones would be brought to life again. God would make Israel to live again. This had begun to happen on the day of Pentecost, but to change the illustration, the first century was a time when the dead wood branches were going to be cut out, and the remnant of faithful Israel was going to welcome the believing Gentiles as they were grafted in alongside the believing Jews. Paul has here selected himself (during his unbelief) as a personification of unbelieving Israel, and this is a remarkable identification. Paul had been an insolent man, a blasphemer, and persecutor of the church, and he had done all this believing that God actually wanted this behavior from him.
So is this about unconverted Israel, or unconverted Paul? It is both, and has to be both, wrapped up together. For example, Paul says something about himself (v. 9) that was not applicable to Israel. He says he was personally alive before the commandment came, but when it came, sin revived and he died. But before the law came into human history, we in the human race were not alive—death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom. 5: 14). That is a detail that has to be individual. But the overall picture cannot be separated from the themes of his larger argument.
This does not mean that David, and Samuel, and Isaiah, and Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, and Mary, the Lord’s mother, were all “bearing fruit unto death.” These were faithful Jews, who lamented the condition of Israel generally, and who looked forward to the time when Israel as a whole would be renewed. They walked by faith, in line with their father Abraham, who is also our father. Saul of Tarsus was not one of their number.
Paul teaches both in Romans and Galatians that once the covenant was established, there were two lines in that covenant. He makes the point multiple ways. Once Abraham is called, the sons of Abraham gather to take pride of place. But wait . . . Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and only Isaac was the child of promise. Very well then, let us gather to take pride of place in Isaac. But Isaac had two sons also—twins even—and they were named Jacob and Esau. Do you really want to start boasting of your lineage from Jacob? Those who do so are only demonstrating that they don’t get it.
In Galatians the same point is made by using the figures of Sarah and Hagar. These two women are two covenants. Hagar corresponds to Sinai, and Sarah corresponds to the heavenly Zion, the free woman, the free Jerusalem. Now as evangelical Christians we want to heed this warning. We do not want to define ourselves right out of any need for it. Paul teaches us two things that we must remember. The first is that the new Israel will not end up as the old Israel did. The second is that this will be true because we heeded the warnings, not because we didn’t need to.