The I of Romans 7: Resisting the Need for Opposition

Romans 7:7-20
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”a]” style=”font-size: 0.625em; line-height: normal; position: relative; vertical-align: text-top; top: auto; display: inline;”>[a] 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.b]” style=”font-size: 0.625em; line-height: normal; position: relative; vertical-align: text-top; top: auto; display: inline;”>[b] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

I’ve been relatively quiet for a while on my continued journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, mostly because I found that much of my study has been challenging and reforming old paradigms and belief systems as I go. Better to let it settle.

This is one learning that has been sticking with me however, relating to the above verse. It came from Jackson Wu’s wonderful book Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission. He tackles the confusing and much debated shift in chapter 7 from we to “I”, challenging common readings that attribute this passage to Pauls own confession and experience. To do so, Wu writes, is to lose site of the larger narrative concern Paul is painting and can lead us to hear Paul setting his Jewishness against his belief in Christ as well as feeding theologies such as the “total depravity” of the human race unnecessarily.

Wu sees the “I” as assuming the voice of Israel and maintaining the collective vision of Israel’s story. He writes,
“Why does Paul use “I” to refer indirectly to Israel? How does the extended monologue of Romans 7:7-25 relate to the “you” and “we” of Romans 7:4-6? Paul is mindful not to give wrong impressions about fellow Jews. By speaking in the first person, he lumps himself with Israel, needing Christ’s redemption like all who come from Adam.”

This in effect has three primary implications-

  1. Wu writes,
    “What gets lost amid the shuffle of proof texts supporting one view or another is the fact that “I” presents himself as sin’s victim, not merely a perpetrator of sin. He is deceived by sin. He has no ability to do the good he desires but is compelled to do what he hates.”
    To put it in other terms, Paul is not shaping some systematic doctrine regarding the depravity of the individual but rather articulating the story of Israel as a means of addressing the present Greek-Gentile-Jew divide within the Roman Churches in a world that shares their enslavement to the problem of capital letter Sin
  2. It shifts our focus from placing humanity as the primary opposition to God, common with Reformed circles, and places the focus on the problem facing humanity in its divided state- capital letter Sin, which is itself the very expression and agency of Evil that stands opposed to the goodness of God and God’s creation. Wu writes,
    “Paul in effect puts sin on trial. ²³ Having upheld the rightness of the law, he now vindicates the “I,” who represents Israel in exile due to sin. Sin enslaves them just as Pharaoh did their ancestors. The prophets foretold a new exodus that would bring God’s righteousness. As with Pharaoh, God uses a sacrifice to condemn sin (Romans 8:3). This reflects a purpose of the Passover lamb—to “execute judgments on all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12; Numbers 33:4). Once sin is put to shame, the Spirit of Glory leads God’s children not back to Canaan but into a renewed world (Romans 8:9-30; 4:13). In short, Paul looks forward to the ultimate hope of the “I.”
  3. It prevents us from equating flesh with the world as though this is the Evil we in the Spirit must oppose. In fact, a crucial part of Paul’s argument regarding the Law is that the Law reflects the inherent good that exists in a world enslaved to Evil. This is why God’s revealed nature/image comes by way of God’s action in the world and God’s call to the whole of humanity to recognize their true nature as image bearers for the sake of the world. This tendency within Reformed Theology to erase distinctions so as to reassert a theology of the total depravity of all humanity misses what Paul is doing in Romans in erasing boundaries for inclusion in the Kingdom of God. This is why the phrasing “all in Adam” runs into a wall with the phrasing “all in Christ”, and why some Christian Tradtions supply interpretative moves by interpreting the all differently. The problem is such a move undermines both the problem and the hopeful solution by applying one universally and one only partially. This collapses the necessary parallel, What Wu’s careful analysis does is reframe the “all” to describe two competing realities laying claim to the true identity of God, humanity and creation rather than allowing the I to turn humanity or the world into the necessary enemy of God. The Law is the expression of fundamental, rudimentary truths evident in the world that give definition to what is good and what is evil according to its potential to oppress and liberate. Adherence to the Law in a formative sense within the life of Israel is both to locate goodness in God and thus in God’s creation and to proclaim the hope that God’s faithfulness to this goodness in name and action brings to a world enslaved, a world that seems forever mired in oppressor-oppressed paradigms. For the I to locate this very tension within the story of Israel is to move towards Paul’s larger concern for healing the divide between Greek-Gentile-Jew in the Roman Church, a healing he locates within the hopeful expression of Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s own story and the means by which we can trust that God is in fact faithful and true to the covenant promise to be and act for the sake of the world.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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