Romans 7 is a particularly intense passage, where Paul describes an agonizing struggle against sin and his gratefulness to God for victory in Christ. As he exults near the end of the chapter, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25 ESV). As the ESV Study Bible notes, there are two categories of interpretations of Romans 7: 1) Paul taking on the voice of an unbeliever (or, in some interpretations, unbelieving Israel as a whole) struggling with sin before his conversion or 2) Paul describing his struggle against sin as a believer.
Peter Leithart, who believes that Paul was speaking as Israel, posted a remarkable paper on this passage from one of his students, Leta Sundet. She argues that Paul is indeed speaking for Israel as it was at the time of Christ. Israel had gone from infantile ignorance about sin in the time of the patriarchs, to childlike repetition of sin under the judges, to maturity in both the practice and awareness of sin in the time of the prophets (God calls Israel a prostitute in this time period), and finally to the height of sin in rejecting Christ. This last act finally drives many Jews to repentance at Pentecost.
Sundet ends with this conclusion, which bridges the two interpretations in a way that I found very helpful:
It is only, I think, when we can see ourselves sin, when we can get out of ourselves and watch ourselves rebel against God, watch our lives play out in these sick patterns, watch in horror as once again we devolve into idolatry, that we have seen our sin for what it is. I think, paradoxically, that it is only when we can gasp, “But this isn’t me! This isn’t what I want!” that we have actually owned our sin, and owned it in such a way that we are ready to drive it out. Thus Paul’s wretched cry in chapter 7 is the triumph of the Law, what the Law was always meant to drive her to say. It is Israel’s saving cry.
In 7:25 when Paul calls his body a body of death, he is echoing 4:19: Abraham’s body was as good as dead. Paul is equating himself with Abraham: he is a dead body too. Like Abraham, his only hope is a God who raises the dead, a God for whom death is not a failure, but in fact the substance of all hope, the place where things finally start to get exciting.
I can anticipate an objection to this, because it was my objection: it always comforted me to think that Paul was describing the typical post-conversion life. Romans 7 describes how I feel now; it captures me and my daily struggles like nothing else. But now it sounds like we’re supposed to have moved past this, that we should be footloose and fancy-free in the Spirit of life.
By no means! Paul is shouting the death cry of Israel in the face of her sin, but also the death cry that each individual Christian needs to shout for each individual sin. We repeat Israel’s history in microcosm with every besetting sin we deal with. The sin lies dormant and potential in us; it has to be awakened, aroused, incited, let out to play. It has to be displayed in all its glory, it has to escalate until it gets its teeth into the Son of God. Only then do we see it, see ourselves doing it, gaze at it in horror, slack-jawed beneath the cross and whisper, “O wretched man that I am.” It is only then, only when we have killed Jesus with that specific sin, when we have died with Jesus to that specific sin, that God can begin to untie the knots that bind us to it. It is then that the Spirit can get to work.