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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 84–90 

Ministry Compass

The Law and I: Re-Reading Romans 7:7–25

V. George Shillington

In 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein created a stage musical called The King and I. It became a huge success and was made into a movie in 1956, starring Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr. The musical was based on the real life story of Anna Leonowens, a Welsh governess, hired by the King of Siam in the 1860s to bring some western culture to his royal family to enhance their lives. But the clash between East and West became abundantly evident as Anna and the King tried to blend elements of the two cultures into one Eastern family.

I tell that story because that clash sounds much like the clash in Paul’s story in Romans 7:7–25. There are two key actors in that drama as well, jostling back and forth for recognition and connection, just as there were two key actors in The King and I. So the title I would give to Paul’s dramatic story in Romans 7 is The Law and I.

No less than thirty times the first-person pronoun appears in this short, striking, unique text of Romans 7:7–25. The Greek word for the first-person singular pronoun is ego. It is now an English word as well since Freud’s investigation of the human self (ego). The ego is always asking questions about self-identity, whether self-consciously or not: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Freud’s claim, according to psychologist Richard Beck, is that one’s self-consciousness is one of befuddlement: an inability to answer questions of self-identity and purpose.

Freud’s solution to the dilemma of the human self was the introduction of a third party, the psychoanalyst. The psychoanalyst stands alongside the befuddled self to resolve the conflict. The third party asks questions that {85} the self would not likely ask of its own accord. The proposed result of this psychoanalysis is a healthy self, one that can look in the mirror and say, “There is nothing wrong with me. I’m OK.” That’s the goal, but the result is not always so positive.

Romans 7:7–25 reads like the ranting of a client in Freud’s office trying to work through the befuddlement of the human self, and failing to do so. The key to understanding the twisting and turning in the drama in this text comes just before the end, at verse 24: “What a miserable human self am I!”

What is absent from the Paul’s rant is worth noting. Paul does not state, “What a miserable person in Christ am I!” Or, “What a bewildered follower of Jesus am I!” Later Christians, especially following the Reformation of the sixteenth century, inserted this strange belief into Paul’s text out of their own modern, introspective experience. Nor would Paul have said, “What a wretched Jewish person am I!” Some interpreters have suggested that the Jewish Paul was frustrated with his efforts to keep the Law, and thus cries out in Romans 7 in despair as a Jewish person who turned to Christ, instead, to find the solution to his human plight. Neil Elliott’s advice for reading such texts is well taken: “We cannot content ourselves to read the surface of a text . . . but must read beneath and behind it, or better, through it to get at the fundamental contestation of power that is inscribed in it. We must read against the grain, listening for what remains unsaid . . . as much as what is said.” 1 True enough, but the terms of the text must be the guide to what remains unsaid.

It is time now to focus on what lies inside the text of Romans 7:7–25 in order to read through toward a better understanding. Many Christians have singled out this text as the model of normal Christian experience. After all, they say, if the great Apostle Paul had this tortured experience as a believer in Jesus Christ then it should be my personal experience also. I want to go on record in stating as plainly as I can: such a reading of this text—as a description of normal Christian experience—is to misread it, and to misunderstand Paul.

How then are we supposed to understand the conflict in the unfolding drama of Romans 7:7–25 that reaches the crescendo at verse 24, “What a miserable human being am I!”? I propose to answer three questions arising out of my reading of the text: (1) Who is the target audience that Paul has in mind as he writes? (2) How does Paul view the Law in this argument? (3) Who is the befuddled ego (“I”)?

1. It may seem like an idle question to ask: Who are the intended readers of this letter, and especially this part of Romans 7? But I think it is not out of place to ask it. A publisher will ask an author about the proposed {86} readers of the book because it makes a difference to the language and style of writing. I suggest that Paul asked himself about his intended readers and listeners before he put quill to papyrus. And then he let the readers know who they were. Others may be in the audience when this letter would be read. But they would know they were not the focus of the letter, because Paul identifies the ones he has in mind. In 1:6 he says he hopes “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for the sake of Christ”; in 1:13 he aims to “reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of gentiles”; at 11:13 he says plainly, “Now I am speaking to you gentiles. Inasmuch . . . as I am an apostle to the nations”; and at 11:18 he prompts his intended audience to “remember that it is not you non-Jewish people that support the Jewish root, but the Jewish root that supports you.” His readers and listeners are not Jewish. They are outside the covenant of Israel. Some Jewish people may be in the meeting place, or they may be meeting by themselves down the street. Either way, the Jewish contingent in Rome is not the implied audience of this dramatic expression of frustration in chapter 7.

Now here is why it is wise to keep this piece of information in mind as you read this text. The non-Jewish members of the new community of Christ were not privileged to have the Law of Moses. And it was a privilege (Rom 3:1–2). People of the nations other than Israel were not the elect people of God, but they were human beings subject to the grace of God and the salvation of God even though they did not have the Law of their Jewish neighbors. Nor should they try to obtain that Law and view it as a means of their salvation. God had saved the Jewish nation apart from the Law in the first place, and God will save the other nations apart from the Law in the last stage of human history. In short, do not set up the Law of Moses as a means of deliverance from the law of sin and death, regardless of what your Jewish neighbors are doing, or what they might tell you to do. We shall return to this point momentarily.

2. My second question from this text ties in with the first. How does Paul view the Law that God gave to Israel? The sixteenth-century Reformation tradition cast the Law of Moses in a negative light. And we have been led to believe ever since that Paul had given up on the Law that God gave to Israel. Paul tried to keep it, so it is said, but he failed in utter frustration. The Law is a burden. It produces a false righteousness. Trying to keep the Law leads to pride, so the Law of Moses in the Bible should be set aside altogether.

But here is the classic view that emerged out of the same Reformation ideology and theology: It is impossible to keep the Jewish Law of the Old Testament, so you should not try. Think about that for a moment: it is {87} impossible to keep God’s Law, the Law that God commanded his people to keep, the Law that is part the Jewish and Christian Bibles. It is not merely that the Law of God is difficult to obey; not that people fail to keep this or that commandment now and then, so that they have to repent and be reinstated into a right relationship with God. No. It is said that the Law is impossible to keep in whole or in part. What kind of God would give a Law for the benefit of the chosen people, knowing full well that they cannot possibly obey it? Where did we learn that way of thinking? Not from Judaism, and definitely not from Paul.

Some have suggested that the 613 commandments of the Jewish Torah (contained in the first five books of the Bible) are impossible to know and remember, much less obey. Imagine saying to a medical student training to become a heart surgeon that it is impossible to observe all the rules of medicine and heart surgery; impossible to know the name of every bone in the human body; impossible to know everything about the circulatory system. Imagine trusting a doctor who thinks it impossible to know the parts of the human anatomy and physiology, much less practice medicine? Paul does not say it is impossible to keep the Law. He knows better than to say such a thing.

But here is said to be the real clincher: Judaism practiced a works-righteousness religion, and Paul rejected his religion of Judaism and joined Christianity instead. Hence his negative view of the Law of Judaism. But there is absolutely nothing in Jewish literature to suggest that salvation comes to human beings by keeping the Law. The Jewish doctrine of salvation is that God elects a people by grace. God delivers the elect people from slavery, and gives them the gift of the Law to order their lives in the world. There is nothing whatsoever in Jewish literature to suggest that Jewish people earn their salvation. And there is nothing in Paul’s writings to suggest that he abandoned his Jewish faith when he encountered the Jewish Messiah in the person of Jesus.

Instead, here is Paul’s positive assessment of the Law of God given through Moses, and thence to the Jewish people: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31); “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Instead, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ ” (Rom 7:7); “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (Rom 7:12); “For we know that the law is spiritual.” (Rom 7:14). There are echoes of Psalm 19 in these lines from Paul: the law is spiritual, the law is good; the law is holy; the law is just; the law reveals transgressions of God’s good and perfect will. The Law of God is not the problem. {88}

We come now to the third question pushing itself forward from this text, begging for an answer.

3. Who is this befuddled ego (“I”) in relation to the Law—and sin?

I mentioned already the prominence of the first-person pronoun in this short text. It is understandable to think, therefore, that Paul is simply stating his own personal experience as he writes this letter. He simply wants his non-Jewish readers to know his personal struggle within himself, despite his faith-relationship to Jesus Christ. The first-person pronoun is just that: personal.

It is easy for us in our time to identify with Paul’s personal “I.” We are obsessed with introspection. Krister Stendhal wrote about “the introspective conscience of the West,” as he called it. 2 But our obsession with personal, private, modern, Western introspection should not be confused with Paul’s communal, ancient, Eastern way of thinking and writing. I submit that Paul’s personal pronoun is not a personal “I,” but a rhetorical “I.” It is not about Paul himself as a faithful follower of Christ, nor about himself as a Jewish person, but about every human self (ego) caught in the plight of sin and death, unable to escape the clutches of mortality that bind all human persons in the universe. Remember the implied audience: non-Jewish Christ-followers! The Law was not expected to provide salvation to the human family. Human achievement cannot save. Sin is a power from which the human self cannot struggle free by a simple exercise of the human will. The human Paul speaks for all of humankind when he says: What a miserable human being am I, caught in a hopeless struggle to be free?

Romans 7:7–25 is not the end of the story for Paul. He carries on with a counterargument, thus moving the readers out of the human plight into the solution. God graciously enters into the human predicament in the person of Jesus Christ. So the thanksgiving does not go to the Law, good and spiritual as it may be, nor to the human will. Thanksgiving is offered up to God, the only one able to deliver the human family from bondage. The drama changes when God takes the initiative to rescue frustrated humanity from its befuddlement under the power of sin (Rom 3:9; Gal 3:22).

How did we modern Christians come to the place where we think it is normal Christian experience to be slaves to sin? Always feeling guilty? Never able to do what is right? Sinning every day in thought, word, and deed? Who taught us to think that way about our relationship to the Christ of God? I am confident that it was not the intention of the Apostle Paul to teach his congregations to think that way.

It is not easy to find a final answer to these questions. We could lay the blame at Freud’s feet. But I’m not so sure the trend started with Freud in the nineteenth century. I find a strong trace of this frustrated Christian {89} self in Martin Luther, and more particularly in his interpreters. Protestants ever since Luther seem to have created a Christian vocabulary by which to justify their inability to follow a right path, and they appeal to this unique text in Paul’s letter in support of their modern introspective conscience. I suggest we continue reading beyond the arbitrary chapter division between Romans 7 and 8 (Paul did not include chapter divisions). Here is how Romans 8 moves his readers out of the rhetorical slough of despond into the glorious freedom of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1–4)

There are several laws intertwined in this great text. “Law” (nomos) can mean “principle,” “custom,” or a “body of commandments,” as in the Jewish Torah. There is (1) “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” (2) “the law of sin and death,” and (3) “the just requirement of the Law” consisting of the commandments in the Hebrew Bible (Torah). The first is the enabling “law” that comes into being through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ coupled with personal acceptance of Christ in life and thought. The second is a disabling “law” that is cancelled out by the first law. And the third Law is the particular Law of the Hebrew Bible that Jewish people, including Paul, honor as coming from the gracious will of God. Obedience to that Law is required by the covenant between God and Israel. Paul knows that, and then sums up all of the commandments of the Bible for his non-Jewish readers in one single commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). Is it impossible to love the neighbor? Not at all, states Paul. The purpose of the coming of the Christ of God in the person of Jesus was so that the just requirement of the Law can be, and should be, fulfilled among those who walk according to the Spirit of Jesus Christ. To think and speak and act otherwise would contravene the good news of the grace of God in the person and power and Spirit of Jesus Christ. {90}


  1. Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 11.
  2. Krister Stendhal, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (July 1963).
George Shillington is Professor Emeritus, Biblical and Theological Studies, at Canadian Mennonite University. He is the author of numerous books on the New Testament, his most recent being Jesus and Paul before Christianity (2011). Forthcoming is James and Paul: The Politics of Identity at the Turn of the Ages (Fortress).

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