A special thanks to Jay Street for all the hard study that led to this video!
This video was adapted from his 6-part podcast series on Romans 7:7 - 8:4.
Check out this series on Bible Crux as well as all his other good content!
If you would like to study this issue from a more technical point of view, you can read Jay Street's article for the Master's Seminary Journal.
A special thanks to Sam Yang for making the intro music!
Check out his YouTube channel, Jungi Geetah!
"Getting Ready" by Sam Yang
"Happy & Inspirational Acoustic" by BestBackgroundMusic
"Dramatic Acoustic Inspirations" by BestBackgroundMusic
WallDeca: Dry-Erase Thick Fine Line Markers
WHO IS PAUL TALKING ABOUT IN ROMANS 7?
The fourth question we need to answer is this: Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7?
We just established that Paul is talking to the Jews starting in verse 1 and that he never addresses anyone else throughout the remainder of the chapter. However, Paul does start talking about himself, presumably to the Jews, beginning in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” In verse 7, Paul looks like he’s using his own life as an example to talk with the Jews about something (which we haven’t fully defined yet in this article), and he continues using this example of himself to the end of the chapter. The case seems closed. Paul is talking about Paul. So, you may be asking yourself, “I don’t get it. Why are we asking the question, ‘Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7?’”
We’re asking the question, because I just threw at you another possible explanation in the last sentence. Did you catch it? I talked about you using first-person terminology. I put words in your mouth when I said, “I don’t get it. Why are we asking the question . . . ?” It’s easier to catch this in English, because we use quotation marks, like I did above. But in ancient Greek, the language the book of Romans was written in, there are no such things as quotation marks. You have to use other clues in the text to determine if a sentence represents someone else’s speech. This makes it difficult at times for translators to put quotation marks around certain sentences. Sometimes the clues are not so obvious. As a result, there’s a chance Paul could be speaking on behalf of someone else in Romans 7, using first-person language, just like I did.
So, how would we go about finding out whether Paul is talking about someone else? We need to see if there are any other times in Paul’s letters where he clearly does this, especially in the book of Romans. Then, we need to compare those examples with Romans 7 to see if there are any features between the two texts that match. And what we find is that Paul has already set a precedent for this in Romans 3:7. In Romans 3, Paul is talking about the Jews under the law before the time of Christ, and he says the following in verses 3–4 (Pay attention to the “some,” “their,” and “every one”):
What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar.
But then in verses 5–6, Paul now subtly groups himself in with the Jews (Pay attention to the “we,” “our,” and “us”):
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? . . . By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
And then, in verse 7, Paul makes a full transition to himself (Pay attention the “I” and “my”):
But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?
So, there is a three-fold progression here:
Paul talks about the Jews (vv. 3–4).
Paul talks about the Jews and himself (vv. 5–6).
Paul talks about himself (v. 7).
But through it all, the audience Paul is talking about has never changed. He’s still talking about the Jews. He can’t be talking about himself directly in Romans 3:7, because he says, “Why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” That can’t be referring to Paul, because at the moment Paul writes this, he is a Christian and by his own admission later in Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). So, what is Paul doing then? He’s talking on behalf of the Jews, using himself as a generic illustration of your average Jew under the Old Covenant. Since Paul is himself a Jew, he sees the Jews and himself as interchangeable and he sometimes uses himself as a substitute for them. Another example of this in Romans can be found in 10:18–19.
But why would Paul do this? Why not just keep addressing the Jews in the third-person, like he was doing in verses 3–4? One reason is that a first-person description allows a reader to step into the shoes of the writer. It’s a more evocative and relatable way to teach someone. In this case, Paul brings to mind memories and emotions for many of his Jewish-Christian audience about what life was like before the time of Christ, and he does this by using himself as a vivid illustration. In other words, Paul is saying in powerful terms, “This was you. Don’t forget it.”
Could this be what is going on in Romans 7? Let’s find out. In Romans 7:1, we discovered that Paul is talking to the Jews. But in Romans 7:4, Paul now also starts talking about the Jews (Pay attention to the all “you’s”):
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead . . .
Then, from the end of verse 4 through the beginning of verse 7, Paul subtly groups himself in with the Jews (Pay attention to all the “we’s” and “our’s”):
. . . in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!
And finally, in verse 7, Paul makes a full transition to himself, which he does not deviate from until the beginning of chapter 8 (Pay attention to all the “I’s”):
Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”
Once again, there is a three-fold progression here:
Paul talks about the Jews (v. 4a).
Paul talks about the Jews and himself (vv. 4b–7a).
Paul talks about himself (vv. 7b ff).
This is the same pattern that we found in chapter 3, which clearly demonstrated Paul substituting himself for the Jews. Just like in Romans 3, Paul in Romans 7 is role-playing for them in a very tangible, relatable way what life was like for the Jews under the law of the Old Covenant. There’s no question that this is what Paul is doing in Romans 7:7–12. However, we need to ask the question: Is this what Paul continues doing in the more controversial passage of Romans 7:13–25? I ask, because that is the text where Paul switches from a clear past tense description to a clear present tense description, causing many to believe that Paul has moved from describing a past non-Christian experience to a present Christian experience. So now, we need to answer the question, “Why does Paul talk in the present tense in Romans 7?” And that’s the subject of the next question . . .