“I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:14–15, 19).

Sometimes sin can feel like slavery. We can feel uncomfortable in our own skin. Shouldn’t we know better and do better? Should we throw up our arms and cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” like Paul in Romans 7:24?

Some people certainly do that. But is Paul really communicating that Christians are bound to struggle—that we should just acknowledge our weakness and move on? If Romans 7:14–25 reflects Paul’s fight and failure with sin, the rest of the letter doesn’t make much sense.

The Context

Romans is often assumed to be a great, systematic theological textbook written by the greatest theologian—Paul. However, while Romans is deep and theologically rich, Paul didn’t typically write for the sake of getting thoughts on paper. He wrote to address issues, in his time, to his struggling (and often fledgling) churches.

Paul dealt with one major issue that addressed the role of the Jewish law, the “Torah” (a Hebrew word for their contractual law with their God, meaning “guidance”). Jews directed their whole lives according to the Torah. When the Messiah came along, many Jewish Christians asked: What do we do when Gentiles (non-Jews) want to join our religion? Do they believe in Jesus and follow the guidelines of the Torah, or do they just accept Jesus?

Some Jewish Christians were insistent about this issue. They could hardly conceive of life apart from obeying the Torah. It was the best way of life. It was given by their loving God and it told them how to fight sin and live prosperously. Why would they not obey the Torah and its regulations?

Paul, though, said that Gentile Christians did not need to follow the Torah. The atoning freedom of Christ and the power of the Spirit were enough for their salvation. Paul was even willing to say that the Torah could become an obsession for Jews. In their attempt to get it all right, they got it all wrong: The Torah was never meant to conquer sin. Sin was simply too strong.

A New Persona

If Paul is not reflecting on his Christian journey and the struggle against sin in Romans 7:14–25, what is he doing? He may have been utilizing a literary technique from the Graeco-Roman world called “speech-in-character” (used, for example, by the Greek philosopher Epictetus). When giving a speech using this technique, one would take on another persona. Here, Paul would not be representing himself but would be acting as a Jew under the Torah without Christ. His point? A Jew should fully recognize that the Torah is not a successful weapon against sin in the end.

Paul may have believed the opposite of what many Christians assume: The “war within”—against sin—is not the “norm” for Christians who know the Lord Jesus Christ and are empowered by the Spirit. It is the “norm” for people without Christ, especially those that presume the Torah is the necessary solution to the problem of sin.

The Proof

You might say that it’s presumptuous to question what Paul says and argue that he is not talking about his own experience. But let’s listen to Paul. If you read Romans 6 and 8 (which surround the chapter in question), you will see Paul’s wider argument emerge:

“How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (6:2).

“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:6).