16 Sept 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
As Paul develops his thesis, we are immediately struck by the prominence of the personal pronoun. Both this paragraph (7-13) and the subsequent one (14-25) are full of the first person singular, ‘I’ and ‘me’. Indeed, the debate about Romans 7 is reduced in essence to an enquiry into the identity of this ‘I’.
Our first and natural reaction (confining ourselves now to verses 7-13) is that this is a page from Paul’s pre-conversion autobiography. What he writes seems too realistic and vivid to be either a purely rhetorical device or the impersonation of somebody else. At the same time, his references are not so personal as to apply to him exclusively. They are general enough to include others. Consequently, from the early Greek Church Fathers onwards, many commentators have interpreted Paul’s experiences as being not only autobiographical but also typical, representative either of human beings in general or of the Jewish people in particular. The options are, then, that “I” in this paragraph is Paul or Adam or Israel. And the key question is how the four events of verse 9 apply to each: (a) *Once I was alive apart from law*; (b)…*the commandment came*, (c) *sin sprang to life* (d) *and I died*.
If Paul is describing stages of his own experience, then two reconstructions are possible. The first is that he is alluding to his boyhood. In childhood innocence he was *alive apart from law*; the commandment came’ at his bar mitzvah when aged thirteen, in which he became a ‘son of the commandment’ and assumed responsibility for his own behaviour; then with his ‘dawn of conscience’ *sin sprang to life*; and adolescent rebellion caused his separation from God. That is, he ‘died’. It is a plausible scenario, except that a Jewish boy, circumcised on the eighth day and brought up as ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil.3:5), could hardly be described as being ‘apart from law’. On the contrary, it would have been inculcated into him almost from birth. Perhaps therefore we should understand ‘alive apart from law’ as meaning that he had not yet come consciously under the law’s condemnation.
The second possible reconstruction is that Paul is referring to his pre-conversion life as a Pharisee. In this case he was ‘alive’ in his own estimation, and untroubled by the law, since in regard to legalistic righteousness he was ‘blameless’ (Phil.3:6; cf. Rom. 2:17ff.). ‘He is speaking’, writes John Murray, ‘of the unperturbed, self-complacent, self-righteous life which he once lived before the turbulent emotions and convictions of sin…overtook him.’ In order to describe what happened then, he set his pre-law and post-law situations in dramatic contrast. Apart from law sin was dead and he was alive, but when the commandment came, ‘there was a complete reversal’, for sin sprang to life and he died (8b, 9a). It was the tenth commandment which opened his eyes to his inner sinfulness, and so brought him to conviction of sin and spiritual death. The main difficulties with this suggestion are that ‘alive apart from law’ is not the most obvious description of self-righteousness, and that we have no independent evidence of a spiritual crisis in Paul before his Damascus road encounter with the risen Lord.
So is Paul’s “I” in reality Adam? Although many ancient commentators have understood Paul’s experience as typical of human beings, it is modern scholars who have drawn out the parallels between verses 7-11 and Genesis 2-3, and so between Paul and Adam. Ernst Kasemann goes so far as to state that ‘the event depicted (sc. in verses 9-11) can refer strictly only to Adam’, that ‘there is nothing in the passage which does not fit Adam‘ and that ‘everything fits Adam alone’. James Dunn makes a more moderate evaluation, although he sees the reference to Adam in verse 9 as ‘all but inescapable’, especially in this sense: ‘before the commandment came, life; after the commandment, sin and death’. And John Ziesler identifies the same pattern in Romans 7:7-13 and Genesis 2-3, namely ‘innocence, command, transgression, death.
Tomorrow: Romans 7:1-25. The identity of ‘I’ (continued).