Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"I" Know Not What "I" Do: Romans 7:13-25 "I" for the Exegetical Guy (Part 2)

The question to be asked is this: is the "I" in Romans 7:13-25 regenerate or unregenerate? The previous post gave some seemingly solid arguments that Paul is not thinking of the "I" as a regenerate man, but instead is viewing the "I" as an unregenerate man. This post puts forth arguments that Paul is thinking of the "I" as a regenerate man.

Here's my rough off-the-cuff translation of Romans 7:13-25, cut-n-pasted from the previous thread:

[13] Therefore, did what was good [the law] become death for me? God forbid! Rather, sin, in order that it might be shown as sin, was working through what was good for me [i.e. the law] death, in order that, through the commandment, sin might be excessively sinful. [14] For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, having been sold to/under sin. [15] For I do not acknowledge what I bring about; for it is not the case that I do what I wish to do, but, instead, I do that which I hate. [16] But if I do what I do not wish to do, I agree with the law, namely, that the law is good. [17] Now [logical, not temporal] it is no longer I accomplishing the deed but it is sin within me [accomplishing the deed]. [18] For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for the desire to [do what is good] is present to me, but the [ability to] bring about what is good is not. [19] For I do not do what good thing I wish to do, but I instead do what bad thing I do not wish to do. [20] And if I do what I do not want to do, I am no longer [logical, not temporal] working it but it is the sin dwelling within me [that is working it]. [21] I accordingly find this principle with respect to my willing to do the good: [that whenever I will to do the good], evil is present with respect to me. [22] For I delight with respect to my inner man in the law of God, [23] but I see another law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and taking me captive to the law of sin which is in my members. [24] Wretched man, I! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Accordingly then I myself serve the law of God with my mind --- but in my flesh [I serve the] law of sin.

Arguments that "I" denotes a Christian in Romans 7:13-25

(1) The use of the first-person pronoun and the present tenses in this passage is "sustained too consistently and for too long and contrasts too strongly with the past tenses characteristic of Rom 7:7-13 to be at all plausibly explained as an example of the present used for the sake of vividness in describing past events which are vividly remembered." [Cranfield pp 344-5.] That is, the consistent usage of the present tenses and first person singular pronoun seems to mitigate against the possibility that Paul is being merely rhetorical here, not counting himself [in his current Christian state] as represented here in 7:14-25.

(2) The "I" of the passage in question has the following traits:

(a) The "I" wishes to do what is right [v15]

(b) The "I" acknowledges his struggle with the law but at the same time acknowledges that the law in and of itself is good [v16]

(c) The "I" hates the evil he does [v15]

(d) The "I," according to his "inner man," delights in God's law --- not a legalistic delight, it seems, but it delights in God's law properly viewed. [v22]

(e) The "I" seems to have a certain duality:
(i)the law of the "I"-mind in v23 is contrasted with that part of the "I" whose faculties are under assault by the "other/different law" mentioned in v23.
(ii) the "I" serves God by the "I"-mind, even though the "I" serves sin through the "I"-flesh.

It is difficult to see, given Paul's climax in Romans 3:10-18 [There is nobody righteous....there is nobody who seeks God...there is nobody who understands...etc], how an unregenerate man could satisfy (a)-(e) just given.

(3) Somewhat related to (2), Paul [and others] elsewhere talk about a real and genuine struggle with sin and the flesh elsewhere in the NT.


(a) Galatians 5:13-6:5. Here, especially in verse 5:17, Paul states to the Galatians that there is a real war going on between the flesh and the Spirit, and it is important to note that Paul is speaking to Christians here. The Galatians --- Christians that they are --- have their fleshly side in opposition to that part of each of their inner persons controlled by the Holy Spirit. Also note that the beginning of Galatians 6 allows for the real possibility of a Christian sinning, and sinning seriously.

(b) James 3:2. Here, St James, in the middle of a very moralizing epistle, points out that he stumbles in many ways.

(c) 1 John 1:8-9. St John says that those who deny that they sin deceive themselves, and this warning is directed at Christians as well.

The point of (a)-(c) is that the battle against sin is not over when a man is regenerated through the Holy Spirit --- on the contrary, it is only after being regenerated by the Holy Spirit and being justified by faith alone that a man may truly begin to wage war on the sin that usurps control over his life.

(4) If the "I" in Rom 7:13-25 is unregenerate, and decries his wretchedness, asking who will rescue him in 7:24, and if in 7:25a it is God through Jesus Christ who is the rescuer, verse 25b ["Therefore I myself with regard to my mind serve the law of God, but with regard to my flesh I serve the law of sin."] seems to indicate that after being rescued by God, the unregenerate "I" is in the same position as before the rescue. That is, verse 25b seems to, in Cranfield's words, be an embarrassment to those who would deny that the "I" is renegerate. "All attempts so far made to get over this difficulty have about them an air of desperation." [Cranfield p345.]

(5) There is the simple fact of experience: Christians identify with the "I" who wills to do what is right but does instead what the "I" hates. It is certainly true for me, and, though I've had a few people claim [rightfully or not] that they don't feel the passage applies to them, most people I know are keenly aware of the sinful nature that pervades their every thought and act. Schreiner calls this sort of argument an existential, not an exegetical argument. [Schreiner p384.]

Cranfield is particularly good to quote here; I agree completely with his assessment and find that in my stumble-filled walk it is all-too-true, leading me to cry out "Wretched man, I!" in prayer.

The difficulty in the way of accepting [the view that Paul is speaking of Christian experience here, and not just an immature Christian experience, but that of even the best and most mature Christians] this interpretation, which has been felt by very many from early days on, is of course that the acceptance of [this interpretation]has seemed to involve altogether too dark a view of the Christian life and, in particular, to be incompatible with what is said of the believer's liberation from sin in 6:6, 14, 17f, 22 and 8:2. And this objection [to the interpretation] has seemed to a great many interpreters completely conclusive. But there have also been those have accepted [this interpretatoin]. They include, among the Greeks, Methodius, the Latins, Ambrose, Ambrosiaster, and Augustine, in the Middle Ages, Aquinas, the sixteenth century Reformers [Luther and Calvin], and, among recent commentators, Barth, Nygren, Barrett, Murray. That it is these latter interpreters rather than the others who have rightly understood Paul's mind, we do not doubt; for it is only along the lines of [the interpretation that Christian experience is here described] that we can really do justice to the text....

With regard to the objection that it is incredible that Paul should speak of a Christian as "sold under sin," we ought to ask ourselves whether our inability to accept this expression as descriptive of a Christian is not perhaps the result of failure on our part to realize the full seriousness of the ethical demands of God's law (or of the gospel). Are we not all of us all too prone still to understand them legalistically, as did the young man who could say: 'Master, all these things have I observed from my youth' (Mk 10:20) ? And is it not true that the more the Christian is set free from legalistic ways of thinking about God's law and so sees more and more clearly the full splendour of the perfection towards which he is being summoned, the more conscious he becomes of his own continuing sinfulness, his stubborn all-pervasive egotism, and also of the fact that there is none among his Christian acquaintance --- even among those whose real sincerity shines most brightly --- of whom it would be untrue to say: 'but I can see his pride Peed through each part of him'? [Shakespeare, King Henry the Eighth, 1.1.68f]...

[Cranfield, pp 345-7]
[Resuming PP commentary]

What is my conclusion if I even have one? I find myself finding that the "I"=unregenerate has good support, but I also find that the "I"=regenerate has good support, with one important additional fact: it conforms to my uniform experience and the experience of most Christians I have known.

This isn't a case of the "I"=regenerate option having overwhelming strength when compared with the "I"=unregenerate option, but a case of the former option, in my own fallible opinion, having more going for it than the latter option. Not all commentators agree, obviously.

I confess that I have a somewhat personal stake in this question [though I would think others would as well], even though I've tried to be as even-handed in its presentation. And the personal stake is that the passage applies to me.

Somebody like myself who sins, knows he sins, and knows he often doesn't fight sin as he should, and even rationalizes or excuses such laxity, begins to feel his collar tighten when he reads the triumpahlistic material in Romans 6 and 8. For, on the one hand, I have faith in Christ, looking to "the God who justifies the ungodly," but at the same time, I run aground of the statements on sin in Chapter 6. I don't seem dead to sin. Sin still, at times, feels as if it has full reign over me. I don't feel free from sin, especially when my weaknesses are confronted with temptations, and there are many weaknesses. I often don't "feel" or experience the pneumatic agencies described in Romans 8. Quite often, I wonder if I am an even worse sinner than in my complacent atheist/agnostic days.

At this point, I begins to wonder if in fact I am a Christian after all, if I am in fact justified in God's eyes. Perhaps, say, I'm not really Christian after all, despite my affectations and outward appearance, and, in my sinful state, I have quite successfully deluded myself into mistaking "talking the game" with "playing the game." Since misery loves company, I then attempt to rationalize the situation by looking at other people who seem Christian and noticing that all of them have horrible flaws --- flaws that perhaps, not being the best judge of myself, I conveniently overlook when they manifest themselves within me.

In the end, my conscience is confronted with the inalterable fact that Paul in Romans 6 and 8 is describing the life of somebody justified by faith and not by works, but at the same time my own life, despite occasional bursts of effort and periodic attempts to grapple with the seriousness of sin and the stringency of God's demands, in no way conforms to Paul's description of the Christian in these chapters. At this point, I conclude that I'm not a Christian --- an eminently rational conclusion if Romans 6 and 8 are all we have to go by.

However, against such a conclusion is the simple fact of the matter that Romans 6 and 8 do not exist in isolation; they are part of a series of consequences that Paul deduces from justification by faith alone. Romans 6 cannot be fully apprehended by itself; it must be seen as one facet or description of the post-justification life, where Romans 5, 7, and 8 present other facets. Therefore, Romans 6 must be [re-]discussed as well after grappling with Romans 7 and Romans 8. This is not to say that Romans 6 is reinterpreted in light of Romans 7 and 8. But it is to say that Romans 6 does not present the complete picture of the Christian's life, only a part --- an idealized part.

Romans 7 has a pastoral function, provided my interpretation of the "I" is correct, for the conscience continually accuses one of sin in both thought and deed and intent. Yet --- if we're correct here --- Paul is speaking of a regenerate person who does what he hates and fails to do what is good; Paul is speaking of regenerate person who delights in God's law according to one facet of his being but still quite often loses the battle with the sinful nature. I do not think that Paul put 7:14-25 in for pastoral purposes, as it seems clear that Paul is trying to uphold the thesis in 7:14 that the law is not to blame for Paul's death. However, if our interpretation is correct, these verses are [unintentionally?] soothing balm for a troubled conscience, a conscience that comprehends with greater and greater clarity the absolute perfection demanded by God's standards, a conscience that is continually becoming more and more aware of the pervasive egotism that stains its essence.

If our interpretation is correct, then, Rom 6 and 7 present two facets of post-justification life that seem to coexist with tension: We are not slaves of sin any more, but we still sin greatly and often. The most natural way of alleviating the tension, and, most importantly, I believe the correct way of alleviating the tension between Rom 6 and 7, is to understand that it is only the man who is justified by faith alone who can begin his revolt against the tyrant sin that usurps his faculties. The man who is justified by faith alone may [and will] lose quite often to sin, but the battle can only be meaningfully joined because the man is justified, covered with the righteousness of Christ. And this view of Rom 6 and 7 seems well-borne-out by the very negative picture of unregenerate man given in 1:18-3:20. And we'll see in Chapter 8 of Romans that, having been justified by faith, we will, among other things, have a very powerful and divine co-belligerent to help us: none other than the Holy Spirit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though sad, because of the effects of our fallen nature your conclusion was beautiful. Simultaneously justified and sinners.

Thursday, September 15, 2005 2:51:00 AM  

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