When Paul talks about the struggle to do what the Law requires in Romans 7, is he reflecting his own experience as a Jew? Alternatively, Paul may be speaking of his post-conversion struggle with sin. It is even possible that Paul speaking hypothetically, not using his own experience as a guide at all.
Cranfield (Romans 1:344) lists 7 possible interpretations of the “I” in chapter 7:14-25:
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own present Christian experience.
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own past Christian experience.
- That it is autobiographical, Paul is describing his own pre-conversion experience in the light of his current Christian faith.
- That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen by himself.
- That it presents the experience of a non-Christian Jew, as seen through Christian eyes.
- That it presents the experience of a Christian who is living at the level of the Christian life which can be left behind, who is trying to fight the battle on his own strength.
- That it presents the experience of a Christians generally, including the very best and mature.
Cranfield sets aside the second possibility as impossible in the light of Philippians 3:6b and Gal 1:14. The fourth possibility is rejected because it is contrary to the view of the Jewish “self-complacency” described in chapter 2. The use of the present tense tends to argue against the second and third option. The present tense to too sustained throughout the section for this to be an historical present for vividness. The order of the sentences argues against 2-6. If verse 24 is the cry of an unsaved man, then all of the preceding material ought to be before salvation as well.
There are problems with thinking that the “Wretched Man” is Paul’s pre-Christian experience based recent studies of Judaism by E. P. Sanders and others. This “New Perspective on Paul” argues that Judaism was not a “works for salvation” religion and that “rabbi Saul” would not obsessed about his lack of perfection in following the Law. I suppose it is possible that Paul was a particularly obsessive follower of the Law, but it is also popular scholarship reads Luther’s own struggle into the passage.
The problem, for Cranfield, in accepting either the first or seventh option is that they present a dark view of the Christian life, and one that seems to be incompatible with the concept of the believer’s liberation from sin as presented in 6:6, 14, 17, 22, and 8:2. But it is important to understand that the very fact that there is a struggle indicates that the Spirit of God is present in the writer’s life, for without the Spirit he will never realize that he is in sin and struggle to remove himself from that state. He notes that it is “relatively unimportant” that we choose between the first or seventh option since they are virtually the same thing. If it is autobiographical then Paul, as a very mature Christian struggled with sin. Is that possible? While we might think a mature Christian has risen above the wretched struggle, that is simply not the case.
What is the significance of this passage to the believer? We can learn from this passage, it is clear that if Paul himself struggled with sin, then we should realize that we too will struggle with sin. In fact, I think there is more danger in “not struggling” than being contented in your walk with God. The sin of Complacency is far more dangerous than we might think!