Romansby David Cook
There are three options for understanding who is described as the “I” in these verses, and of the state he is in.
Option 1: Is Paul speaking of himself as a believer? If so, he is describing normal Christian experience.
Option 2: Is Paul speaking of himself as an “unspiritual” believer? If so, it would introduce an unbiblical third category of person. In addition to the non-Christian and the Christian, there would now be the “semi-Christian”.
Option 3: Is Paul describing his experience with the law as a God-fearing Israelite? In this case, the experience he describes—best summarised in verse 19 as “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing”—is the typical experience of every Israelite who seeks to keep God’s law as the way to righteousness.
As to these options, look at Romans 9:30–33 and 10:3 to see that the Israelites sought to establish their own righteousness through law-keeping. Paul explains in today’s verses and elsewhere that this is an impossible quest. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (v. 24) is the typical cry of the one under law who cannot keep it. Paul sees himself bound to his body of death, a reference to the King Mezentius of Roman mythology who tied living criminals to the decomposing corpses of their victims. The law is good (7:12), but it is powerless to change us or enable us to keep it.
The cry of triumph in verse 25 follows closely on the cry of anguish in verse 24. Chapter 8 fully describes the deliverance we have in Christ, climaxing with our glorification (8:18).
According to the first option, verse 19 is an accurate description of the believer’s experience with good and evil. But if this is typical of us, how can the exhortation of 6:19—not to offer our bodies in slavery to wickedness but rather to righteousness—be meaningful, since the normal experience is one of frequent defeat? Also, how can 7:19 and 8:9–11 both be accurate pictures of the believer when they seem to say contrary things about the one person? Surely they cannot both be an accurate description of a Christian. The first option does not seem to fit the context of Paul’s argument as well as the third one does.
Our performance will not be perfect this side of glory, but the desperate defeat and wretchedness described in these verses is evidence of the law’s impotence to save and of the great need of unsaved Israel to come to Christ where there is no condemnation (8:1).
Think about the dilemma of the God-fearer who has God’s law and who desires to be obedient, and yet does not know Christ. Thank God for the deliverance we have through Christ from the condemnation we deserve.