Faculty View | Romans 7 & Identity in Christ
by Dr. Jeff Dryden, Professor of Biblical Studies
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15
Have you ever felt like that? In Romans 7:14-25, Paul brings a very in-depth discussion of the Law down into the world of practical moral experience—the painful experience of moral failure. Let’s be clear, Paul is not just talking about moral struggle, but his profound failures as a Christian. What he describes is an inner world torn asunder. He desires one thing and does another. And he hates what he does. This is what leads Paul to cry out, “Wretched man that I am. Who can deliver me from this body of death?”
Paul’s theology often deals in the tensions of what New Testament theologians call the “already” and the “not yet.” There is one sense in which salvation is “already” present, but there is also a sense in which it is still “not yet,” awaiting its fulfillment and full disclosure in the second advent of Jesus. In Romans 6-8, Paul is oscillating back and forth between these two poles. In Romans 7, the tension reaches its peak in a passage that dwells on the “not yet” of salvation. In the midst of the despair that he expresses in these verses, Paul has hidden one of his most profound statements of the “already” of salvation.
In verses 17 and 20, Paul says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” What on earth does that mean? At first glance this looks like a cop-out, like Paul is saying that he can’t be blamed or held responsible for what he does. In reality, Paul is trying to get at something deeper here.
The real key to this passage is to recognize that there are two “I”s in Paul’s description of his discordant internal world. One “I” wants to do what is right. The other “I” does what is wrong. What Paul is trying to get at in verse 20 is a question about identity. The first “I” who wants to do right, and who Paul will refer to as his “inner being” or “inner self,” we can label Paul’s “true I” or “true self.” What Paul is really saying is that when he fails to do what he truly wants to do, the volition for that action doesn’t come from him but from “Sin.” Here “Sin” is what Paul elsewhere refers to as the “old man” or “old nature.” In the end, Paul says, ultimately it is not me who does this thing, it arises from sin and not from me. At the same time, Paul says “I” do it. This is the second “I,” which we can call Paul’s “experiential I,” within which both the true I and Sin both dwell.
Paul’s point is that the internal battle that accompanies his moral failure is actually the evidence of something that is only true because of a new birth that Jesus has brought about. In union with Christ, the true I is the present manifestation of my true self that will live eternally with Jesus and is alive now. Sin is mortal, and therefore does not define me in the core of my being. Paul recognizes that the power of Sin is to define us, especially in the context of our moral failures. But Paul says that the most fundamental reality of who I am is my true self, living in communion with Christ. From this picture, Paul draws the dramatic conclusion in 8:1 that, “There is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For Paul this is true now, not in spite of the reality of Romans 7, but because of it. That is why Paul can say, “Thanks be to God,” in verse 24, in the middle of talking about his wretched mess. Because Jesus is already present and at work.