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
WallDeca: Dry-Erase Thick Fine Line Markers
WHY DOES PAUL TALK IN THE PRESENT TENSE IN ROMANS 7?
The fifth question we need to answer is this: Why does Paul talk in the present tense in Romans 7?
So far, we have learned that Paul is talking to the Jews in chapter 7 and that he starts talking about the Jews in verse 4. But then Paul seems to switch to talking about himself in verse 7. This isn’t surprising, though, because we learned that Paul did this earlier in the book, in order to illustrate what life was like under the law of the Old Covenant (3:3–7). However, Paul not only switches from talking about the Jews to talking about himself (7:7), but he also switches from talking about himself in the past tense in verses 7–13 to talking about himself in the present tense in verses 14–25. The question we are faced with is this: Is Paul describing his own present struggle with sin?
The answer is: Not likely. And here’s why. First, we have already established that Paul is substituting himself for the Jews at this moment. He’s presenting himself as a hypothetical illustration of your average Jew under the law of the Old Covenant. Therefore, it seems unlikely that he would start talking about himself and his own personal situation now without any warning. Bear in mind, Paul never gives us any personal details about his life that we can clearly identify in Romans 7, which is a trademark of his throughout his other letters. If Paul talks about himself, he always gives us a time, location, or unique characteristic that clues us in that this is really Paul. There is nothing like that in Romans 7. It’s entirely generic. And it’s generic, in order to allow every Jew to relate to what he’s talking about.
Second, the Greek present tense doesn’t always mean the action is happening right now (This may feel a little over your head, if you haven’t studied biblical Greek before. But if you stay with me, I promise, I will make this as simple as possible). It’s true, sometimes present tense verbs in Greek can mean the action is happening right now. For example, Jesus says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” The words for “leave” and “give” in Greek are in the present tense, in this case, clearly indicating that both actions are happening right now. But sometimes, present tense verbs in Greek can mean the action is happening in the past. For example, earlier in John 4:5 it says about Jesus, “So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar.” The word “came” in Greek is in the present tense, but in this case, it is clearly indicating that the action was happening in the past. Our English translations have to translate it in our English past tense, or else it won’t make any sense to us (i.e., “Jesus is coming to a town of Samaria called Sychar” doesn’t really work in our language). That’s because Greek present tense does not always convey time, like we’re used to thinking of it. In this case, it is describing the quality of the action, more than the time of the action. It is putting yourself in the shoes of Jesus and forcing you to walk the road down to Sychar in Samaria, just like he did. It’s a more vivid and illustrative way to communicate what’s going on.
This is what’s happening in Romans 7. We already know that Paul wants to use himself as a memorable example of what life was like under the law. But in verse 14, he takes it to another level by couching the experience in the present tense. He wants his Jewish audience to wrestle with the emotions of struggling with sin under the law. They were trying to obey it, but having no success. And Paul wants them to feel the ongoing pain of that struggle. He urges them to remember the hopelessness and the despair of trying to follow the law and being completely unable. It’s powerful; it’s dramatic; it’s why Paul uses present tense language.
So, if present tense in Greek isn’t always the best way to gauge whether an action is happening in the present or the past, how can we be sure when the action is actually taking place? Romans 7 seems like a classic case where it could be happening in either the present or the past, and your guess is as good as mine as to which one it is. So, are there any other clues that can help us figure out the timing of Romans 7? There are! When the timing of the situation is in question, ancient Greek often uses adverbs to signal when an action or situation is taking place. It’s no different in English. There are past tense adverbs, like “then,” and there are present tense adverbs, like “now,” that tell us when an action is taking place. Now in Romans 7, we don’t have any past tense adverbs within verses 14–25 to tell us it is strictly in the past tense. But we do have a present tense adverb immediately following chapter 7 to signal a timing contrast between Romans 7 and Romans 8. It’s in that very familiar verse, Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine). After making you wade through the hopeless emotions of chapter 7, chapter 8 turns the page and tells us that the situation is different. Whereas once there was condemnation, there is now no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This adverb, “now,” tells us that we have moved from a past experience to a present one. It used to be this way according to Romans 7; now it is a brand new way according to Romans 8.
Therefore, Paul uses present tense language in Romans 7, not to express something happening right now, but to convey the agonizing struggle of a Jew under the law. It was nothing but utter defeat (7:18). But in Romans 8:1, we see a completely different experience. It is nothing but victory! What could cause such a radical shift in sanctification? Romans 8:2 tells us: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” The Holy Spirit is the difference between Romans 7 and Romans 8. But if that’s the case, that means we should not be able to find a trace of the Holy Spirit in Romans 7:7–25. Is the Holy Spirit active at all in Romans 7? And that’s the subject of the next question . . .