Friday, October 28, 2011

An Interpretation of Sin Coming Alive in Romans 7:9

Romans 7 has often been interpreted by Protestants as if it is talking about our inability as Christians to keep God’s law. I have argued elsewhere (see “The Significance of the Law in Romans 7”) that this is a wrong interpretation for three main reasons:

(1) the law that is being talked about in Rom 7 is the law of Moses, not the law of God in general;

(2) in Paul’s thinking, God’s people in the new covenant age are no longer under the law, but have been set free from the law (Rom 7:4, 6; see also 6:14);

(3) Paul’s concern in Rom 7 is to argue that the historical function of the law of Moses was to bring about the death of carnal Israel (Rom 7:14) as a way of compounding the death of humanity in Adam (Rom 7:8-11, 13; 5:20) in a manner consistent with the Old Testament prophets’ view of the primary historical function of the Mosaic covenant in salvation history.

The idea that the law in Rom 7 is specifically the law of Moses is confirmed by a small but intriguing detail in Rom 7:9. This verse is translated in the NIV as follows: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” The ESV has the following: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”

There are a couple of interpretive issues to be resolved in relation to this verse. Firstly, what does it mean that Paul was once alive apart from the law? Secondly, what does Paul mean when he says that the commandment came? And thirdly, what does he mean when he says that sin came alive?

Resolving these interpretive issues centers on our understanding of the small and intriguing detail which is the Greek word ἀνέζησεν. This word is a third person, aorist active indicative form of the verb ἀναζάω. The verb ἀναζάω basically means to return to life or to live again. Used in connection with sin, it implies that sin was once alive and then died, before coming to life again when the commandment came.

Sin was alive, then dead, then alive again. How is this pattern to be explained? The common psychological interpretation of Rom 7 as being Paul struggling with sin as a Christian does not fit neatly with this pattern. Perhaps the best that we can say (following this interpretation) is that Paul was dead in sin as a non-Christian, then liberated from sin at his conversion, but then his struggle with God’s law led to sin coming to life again in the sense that its power to control him reasserted itself. But this explanation is rather strained.

The explanation that makes better sense of ἀνέζησεν understands the sin alive, dead, alive pattern as fitting in with the flow of salvation history as summarized by Paul previously in Rom 5:12–21, especially vv. 12–14. In Rom 5:12–14 Paul speaks about how sin came into the world through the sin of Adam, and how death reigned over humanity from the time of Adam until the time of Moses even though that was a time during which sin was not reckoned. During this period of time, “sin was in the world; but sin was not reckoned, because the law was not present” (Rom 5:13). In other words, the time from Adam’s sin to the giving of the law at Sinai was a time during which sin was effectively dead. Sin was around; but because the law of Moses had not yet been promulgated, there was no explicit legal structure that regulated God’s standards of morality in a formal way.

Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:12–14 helps us understand, therefore, how it is that sin could come alive again for carnal Israel. Sin, which had formally speaking lain dormant from the time of the expulsion of Adam until Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai, came alive with the giving of the law of Moses. The old covenant mediated by Moses set up a legal structure through which the sin of God’s people would result in death in a formal and legally-binding way as a result of covenant rebellion.

We can now explain the three interpretive issues identified above. Paul, as a representative of carnal Israel, was once alive apart from the law in the sense that Israel experienced life prior to the coming of the commandment, which equates to the giving of the law at Sinai. Prior to the giving of the law at Sinai, Israel’s relationship with God was loosely regulated through the Abrahamic covenant and ad-hoc laws. There was no strict promulgation and regulation of covenant stipulations. There was no formally regulated sense of the possibility of the covenant curse of death coming down upon God’s people. But with the giving of the law at Sinai, this changed. A strict accounting of covenant response in relation to covenant law would now begin, and the prospects of success were not great from the beginning (as the incident of the sin of the golden calf serves to highlight). The giving of the law at Sinai opened up the possibility—or the reality in God’s plan in salvation history—of Israel sinning “according to likeness of the trespass of Adam” (as per Rom 5:14), i.e., of Israel rebelling against God’s formally promulgated law in like manner to Adam.

The point of Rom 7:9 is to help Paul’s Jewish opponents and Christian audience understand that the giving of the Mosaic covenant served in God’s purposes in salvation history to intensify the problem of human sin. Far from liberating Israel from sin and death, the law (in God’s plan) actually made things worse! The primary historical function of the Mosaic covenant was to render Israel guilty before God (Rom 3:19), and to bring the curse of covenant death down against the nation (Rom 7:10), in order to intensify the trespass of humanity in Adam, as a backdrop for the salvation of Jew and Gentile through the super-abounding grace of God in the new covenant of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:20).

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful exegesis on one of the most debated chapters in the scriptures!!! It would be great to see your view on the rest of chapter 7!
S.W.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for your comment! I’ll see what I can do, but I’ve also done this on Rom 7 as a whole: “The Significance of the Law in Romans 7”.

Craig Craig said...

I was thrilled to read your exegesis on this verse. Could it be that this verse shows another parallel between Israel and the New Testament Church? When a believer is born again of the Spirit he comes alive in Christ. He remains alive so long as his faith remains in the finished work of Jesus. As soon as he allows his faith to shift back to his own efforts or to another means of living for God besides His grace as administered by the Holy Spirit, because of the finished work of Jesus, he sins. If this lifestyle continues, his sinning will cause the sin nature to revive and he will know death once again.

The commandment could come as soon as the born again believer entered a trial that caused him to not trust in God's Grace and to once again rely upon himself or anything else in order to do what he knew was a commandment; thus committing adultery in God's sight. Sin.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks Craig!

I think that your suggestion makes sense theologically, but I don't think that that is the issue that Paul was seeking to address in Rom 7. His intention in Rom 7 is to spell out the impotency of the old covenant in contrast to the new covenant in Christ in Rom 8.

David Spain said...


Where Paul concludes 'and I died', is he still speaking of himself as "representative of carnal Israel", or is he saying that, faced with the commandment and integrating with it, his personal separate ego died?

Steven Coxhead said...

Yes, Paul has in view the death of the members of old covenant Israel when he says and I died. He is describing the situation of old covenant Israel in Rom 7, contrasting it with the situation of God's people under the new covenant in Christ in Rom 8.