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WHO IS THIS WRETCHED MAN ?
An Interpretation of Romans 7:14-25
Dr Alex Tang
Correctly understanding the Scripture is a difficult and frustrating task. It is difficult to the lay person who seeks to understand the will of God from his/her daily bible reading. It is difficult to the theologian and exegetes as evidenced by the continuing controversies over many texts covering the role of women in the church, baptism of the Spirit and exercising of the spiritual gifts.
The difficulty arises from the fact that the Scripture was written a long time ago and we are trying to understand it through the filters of our twentieth century eyes. We need to understand the horizon of the Scriptural text is different from the horizon of our present day cultural worldview. Carson correctly notes that distanciation is an important factor needed to correctly interprete Scriptural texts with these two horizons in view. Gordon Fee emphasises ‘ the correct meaning of a passage must be something the author intended and the readers could have understood’.
I. The Historical-cultural background of Romans 7: 14-25
The Paul Program (Acts 15:36 - 21:16 ) narrates the missionary thrust of Paul to Asia Minor, Macedonia, Achaia, Asia then finally to Rome. Rome is the capital of the Roman Empire. With its strategic location, the gospel could easily be disseminated to the rest of the empire.
It was in preparation for this next step in his missionary program that Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans. It was sent from Corinth or Cenchrea ( about six miles away ) because of references to Phoebe of Cenchrea ( Rom 16:1) and to Gaius, Paul’s host (16:23), who was probably a Corinthian (1Cor1:14). If Romans 16 is an integral part of the epistle, it was carried to Rome by Phoebe who was going in that direction.
Paul has friends in Rome. He had tried to visit them but has been hindered on each occasion ( Rom 15:22, 1:13). The church in Rome could not have been a big one and consist mainly of Gentiles ( Rom 1:13) and later accounts in Acts indicates the lack of knowledge of Christian truth among the Jews there ( Acts 28:21).
The origin of the church in Rome is unknown. In Jerusalem at the day of Pentecost, there were ‘visitors from Rome (both Jews and convert to Judaism)’(Acts 2:10-11). These may have returned to Rome with the message of Christ. Aquila and Priscilla had came from Rome and has returned there (Rom 16:3). Paul has several reasons for being interested in the church in Rome. He is interest in seeing Rome as he was a Roman citizen. He saw the need of the church for more instruction, to forestall any Judaizing activity and to raise support for his missionary trip to Spain ( Rom 15:24).
Tenney believes Romans was written as
‘substitute for immediate personal contact and as preparation for making
the Roman church a missionary center comparable to Antioch, Ephesus,
Philippi, and other cities where Paul had labored. Romans, therefore unlike
Corinthians, is not devoted so much to the corrections of errors as to the teaching
of truth. Although it does not comprise all the fields of Christian thought- eschatology
is notably missing in its content-it does give a fuller and more systematic view of
the heart of Christianity than any other of Paul’s epistles, with the possible exception
of Ephesians. Most of the Pauline epistles are controversial or corrective in nature;
Romans is chiefly didactic.”
II. The Central Theme of the Epistle of Romans
The central theme of Romans is the revelation of the righteousness of God to man and its application to his spiritual needs. It is mainly directed at the Gentiles and highlights the salvation offered to all men by God through Jesus Christ.
A brief outline is as follows:
I. Introduction ( 1:1-15)
II. Theme : Righteousness from God (1:16-17)
III. The Unrighteousness of All Mankind ( 1:18-3:20)
A. Gentiles ( 1:18-23)
B. Jews ( 2:1-3:8)
C. Summary : All People (3:9-20)
IV. Righteousness Imputed : Justification (3:21-5:21)
A. Through Christ (3:21-26)
B. Received by Faith (3:27-4:25)
C. The Fruits of Righteousness (5:1-11)
D. Summary: Man’s Unrighteousness Contrasted with God’s Gift of Righteousness (5:12-21)
V. Righteousness Imparted : Sanctification (chs.6-8)
A. Freedom from Sin’s Tyranny (ch.6)
B. Freedom from the Law’s Condemnation (ch.7)
C. Life in the Power of the Holy Spirit (ch.8)
VI. God’s Righteousness Vindicated : The Problem of the Rejection of Israel (chs.9-11)
A. The Justice of the Rejection (9:1-29)
B. The Cause of the Rejection (9:30-10:21)
C. Facts That Lessen the Difficulty (ch.11)
VII. Righteousness Practiced (12:1-15:13)
A. In the Body- the Church (12:1-15:13)
B. In the World (ch.13)
C. Among Weak and Strong Christians ( 14:1-15:13)
IX. Commendation and Greetings (ch.16)
It will be within this context and central theme of Romans that we shall consider Romans 7: 14-25.
III. The Argument of Romans 7: 14-25
Romans 7:14-25 must be approach in the context of Mosaic law. Paul’s focus is still on the Mosaic law and hence the identity and spiritual condition of the person that Paul is writing about must be understood in this context. The law is ‘God’s law’ (v.22), ‘spiritual’ (v.14a)and is ‘good’ (v.16b). Yet “I” was ‘unspiritual’ (v.14b), ‘what “I” hate “I” do’ (v.15b) and ‘it is the sin living in me that does it’ (v.20). The law cannot save people from spiritual bondage. The bondage may be that of the unregenerate person - who cannot be saved through the law- or that of the regenerate person - who cannot be sanctified and ultimately delivered from the influence of sin through the law.
Most of the early church fathers thought that these verses described an unregenerate person. This was Augustine’s early view but he changed his mind after his battle with Pelagius. He decided that the person as described is a regenerated person or a Christian. This view was also held by almost all the Reformers including Martin Luther. Luther declared a Christian is “at the same time a justified person and a sinner”.( simul iustus et peccator).
At the end of the seventeenth century, a group of theologians, called “pietists” began to hold a different view. They think that ascribing the passage to Christians allow a complacent Christian behaviour. A.H.Francke and J. Bengel interpreted the passage to refer to a person that is “halfway” to the Christian experience- under conviction but not yet ‘reborn’. Wesley concluded that the person in the passage is an unregenerate person. The nineteenth century saw a bewildering range of viewpoints while the twentieth century was dominated by a 1929 monograph by W.G.Kümmel.
Kümmel wrote that egö in Rom.7 is a rhetorical figure of speech and Paul is not relating his own experience and vv.14-25 describe an unregenerate person. This interpretation has for years being the ‘orthodox’ view in scholarship. The New Bible Commentary Revised offers a more modern view. Verses 15-19 was explained as :
Paul continues in a classical picture of divided consciouness to sketch
his inner conflict between what psychologists term the organized and
disorganized self. The real self in an ideal, in Paul’s case Christ, or the
good and holy law. Sin, personified in the graphic and emotional portrait,
is the disorganized self and definitely not Paul as he longs to be.
Matthew Henry summarises the controversy as follows:
Verses 14 -25 is a description of the conflict between grace and
corruption in the heart and it is applicable in two ways:
1. To the struggles that are in a convinced soul, but yet
unregenerate, in the person of whom it is supposed
by some that Paul speaks.
2. To the struggles that are in a renewed sanctified soul,
but yet in a state of imperfection, as other apprehend.
Moo summarises the important reasons for thinking the experience depicted in vv.14-25 is that of a unregenerate person as follows:
1. The strong connection of egö with the “flesh” (vv.14,18 and 25) suggest
that Paul is elaborating on the unregenerate condition mentioned in 7:5:
“in the flesh.”
2. Egö throughout this passage struggles “on his/her own” (cf “I myself” in v.25)
without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
3. Egö is “under the power of sin” (v.14b), a state from which every believer
is released (6:2,6,11,18-22).
4. As the unsuccessful struggle of vv.15-20 shows, egö is a “prisoner of the
law of sin”(v.23). Yet Rom 8:2 proclaims that believers have been set free from
this same “law of sin(and death).”
5. While Paul makes clear that believers will continue to struggle with sin
( c.f.,e.g.,6:12-13;13:12-14;Gal.5:17), what is depicted in 7:14-25 is not just
a struggle with sin but a defeat by sin. This is a more negative view of the Christian
life than can be accommodated within Paul’s theology.
6. The egö in these verses struggles with the need to obey Mosaic law; yet Paul
has already proclaimed the release of the believer from the dictates
of the law (6:14;7:4-6).
To agree with these arguments means that vv.14-25 describe the struggle of a person ‘to do good’ without Christ. It is doomed to failure because God alone has the power to break the power of sin. Deliverance comes with the regenerating power of God in Christ that transform believers to a life of the ‘Spirit of life”(v.8:2).
Moo has also thoughtfully provided the counter arguments that vv.14-25 refers to that of a regenerate man :
1. Egö must refer to Paul himself, and the shift from the past tenses
of vv.7-13 to the present tenses of vv. 14-25 can be explained only
if Paul is describing in these latter verses his present experience as a Christian.
2. Only the regenerate truly “delight in God’s law” (v.22), seek to obey it
(vv.15-20), and “serve” it (v.25); the unregenerate do not “seek after God”(3;11)
and cannot “submit to the law of God” ( 8:7).
3. Whereas the “mind” of people outside of Christ is universally presented
by Paul as opposed to God and his will (c.f. Rom 1:28;Eph 4:17;Col.2:18;
1Tim.3:8;2Tim 3:8;Tit2:15), the “mind” of the egö in this text is a positive
medium, by which egö “serves the law of God” (vv.22,25).
4. Egö must be a Christian because only a Christian possesses the “inner person” (d esw anqrwpoV ), cf. Paul’s only other two uses of the phrase in
2 Cor4:16; Eph 3:16.
5. The passage concludes, after Paul’s mention of the deliverance wrought by God
in Christ, with a reiteration of the divided state of the ego (vv.24-25). This shows
that the division and struggle of the egö that Paul depicts in these verses is that
of the person already saved by God in Christ.
What these arguments imply is that in a “normal” Christian experience, the daily struggle with sin will continues until death or when Christ comes again. Deliverance will come when God intervenes to transform the body to the glorious body of Christ (Phil 3:20-21).
Douglas Moo has given both sides of the controversy based on his expert word-exegesis,grammatical and logical hermeneutic study of Rom. 7:14-25. But we are no closer to the conclusion. We now have to look at another principle of hermeneutics. This principle of hermeneutics is ‘to interpret Scripture according to its immediate context’. In the outline of Romans mentioned earlier, in chapters 6-8, Paul was writing about sanctification ( righteousness imparted ). Chapter 6 deals with being freed from sin’s tyranny. Paul then wrote of freedom from the law’s condemnation (chapter 7) before concluding in chapter 8 about life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification implied a regenerate person. In the earlier chapters, Paul has dealt with justification through Christ. Hence Rom 7: 14-25 refers to a regenerate man. Paul detailed in these verses ‘his post-conversion perception of what had previously occurred, or more likely, is a description of the struggle he continued to experience as a Christian between his old and new natures.’
VI. Applications in Romans 7: 14-25
Good exegesis of the Scripture has the effect of uplifting the believer. In our understanding of Rom.7:14-25, we are encouraged that being a Christian does not mean we are perfect. Our own experience as a Christian bears out the fact that Christian life is a constant struggle between our old and new natures.
Even Calvin notes,
“I do not so strictly demand evangelical perfection that I would not
acknowledge as a Christian one who has not attained yet attain it.
For thus all would be excluded from the church, since no one is found
who is not far removed from it, while many have advanced a little toward it
whom it would nevertheless be unjust to cast away.”
We can take heart in our struggles in our Christian walk is normal.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases Rom 7: 24-25 as:
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope.
Is there no one who can do anything for me ? Isn’t that the real question ?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.
He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want
to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence
of sin to do something different.
Jesus Christ offers the answer to our struggles in the Christian walk.
There are many changes in the field of hermeneutics. With increasing changes in hermeneutic methodology, greater grammatical sophistication, advances in computer technology, advances in archaeological research and linguistic studies, new interpretations are appearing frequently. The movement of the new hermeneutics with the hermeneutic spiral leads to better understanding of the text. But as Carson points out, there has been and will be many exegetical fallacies. We need to approach the new hermeneutics, as Gordon Fee suggests, with common sense. And humility.
In spite of the new hermeneutics, there will be different interpretations of Rom.7:14-25. This will only be resolved when we meet Paul face to face and ask him who that wretched man in Rom.7 is. Then true hermeneutics is said to have taken place.
1. D.A.Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996,1998)
2. Gordon Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody,
Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
3. Merrill C.Tenney, New Testament Survey ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans,
4. F.F.Bruce, Paul:Apostle of The Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans,
5. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan:
6. D.Guthrie and J.A.Motyer ed, The New Bible Commentary Revised ( England:
Leicester, 1953, 1970)
7. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary ( Singapore: SU Publisher,
8. Eddy Ho, Hermeneutics ( Klang,Malaysia :Malaysia Bible Seminari )
9. William Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical
Interpretation ( Dallas:Word Publishing, 1993)
10. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion vol:1 ( Philadelphia : The Westminster
11. Eugene Peterson, The Message ( Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993)
 D.A.Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996,1998) p. 127
 Gordon Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991) p. 7
 Merrill C.Tenney, New Testament Survey ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1904,1961) p. 277-311
 NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan : Zondervan, 1985) p. 1703
 F.F.Bruce, Paul:Apostle of The Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Michigan:Eerdmans, 1977,1996) p. 382 Bruce gave a short discussion of the origin of the church in Rome and the possible role of Peter and Mark.
 NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan : Zondervan, 1985) p. 1704-1705
 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 443
 Ibid p. 443
 Francke identified the individual as one who is baptised but not reborn. Bengel as one in transition from the state of law to the state of grace. Quoted in Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 444
 Quoted in Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 444 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament ( London: Epworth, 1950 ) p. 543-544
 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 444
 D.Guthrie and J.A.Motyer ed, The New Bible Commentary Revised ( England: Leicester, 1953, 1970) p. 1029
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary ( Singapore: SU Publisher, 1960,1961) p. 1769
 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 445
 Douglas Moo concluded from his exegesis that vv.14-25 refers to the unregenerate man. Decisive for him are two sets of contrast. The first is between the description of ego as “sold” under sin (v.14) and Paul’s assertion that believer-every believer- has been “set free from sin”(6:18,22). The second contrast is that between the state of ego, “imprisoned by the law [or power] of sin” (v.23), and the believer, who has been “set free from the law of sin and death”(8:2). He stated that each of these expression depicts an objective status and cannot occur in the same person. Hence his conclusion that the passage refers to the unregenerate man. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to The Romans NICNT (Grand Rapids. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996) p.448
 Ibid. p. 446
 Eddy Ho, Hermeneutics ( Klang, Malaysia :Malaysia Bible Seminari ) p. 37. Principle 7.
 William Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation ( Dallas:Word Publishing, 1993) p. 364
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion vol:1 ( Philadelphia : The Westminster Press ) p.688
 Eugene Peterson, The Message ( Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993) p. 316
 D.A.Carson, Exegetical Fallacies ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996)
 Gordon Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991). Gordon Fee emphasised how important common sense is in hermeneutics. The first chapter is entitled “Hermeneutics and Common Sense: An Exploratory Essay on the Hermeneutics of the Epistles”.
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