Dr. John Hartmann

Proclaiming the Whole Counsel of God

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Romans 7 – Paul’s Defense of the Law

May 16th, 2010 · No Comments

Peter long ago commented that there are many things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand. Romans 7 may indeed be included in this category.

In this invigorating study, Dr. Hartmann first lays out three prevailing views of Romans 7:7-25:

1) The view that this text describes the believer’s ongoing struggle with indwelling sin, which is the predominating view among modern evangelicals. One wonders how this might be called simply a “struggle”, since what is described here seems to issue in a constant cycle of defeat.

2) The view that this text describes the effect that the Law has upon an unregenerate man. This is the view generally offered by the great preacher and expositor Martyn-Lloyd Jones in his sermons on Romans. In favor of this view is the observation that the man who in Romans 7:14 confesses that he is sold into slavery to sin (a perfect tense in Greek, denoting an abiding state of affairs) is not easily identified with those in Romans 6:1-14 who have died with Christ to the power of sin, and who in having died, are freed from sin (6:7, again a perfect tense in Greek, denoting an abiding state of affairs). It is difficult to see how one can be in both abiding state of affairs at the same time.

This view comes in different shapes and sizes. Some think it describes the Law’s effect on an unregenerate man, while others think of it as autobiographical, i.e. Paul’s description of his pre-Christian existence under the Law. The latter view breaks down in the light of Paul’s own testimony that he had been “blameless” with respect to the righteousness found in the Law (Philippians 3:6).

3) The “eschatological tension” view. James Dunn, in his commentary on Romans, offers what might be considered a more nuanced version of view #1. Dunn argues that Romans 6 and Romans 7 both describe different aspects of the believer’s present experience in “the period between the times”. Building on the notion of “the already and the not yet” that is found in NT eschatology, Dunn sees in Romans 7 the reality of “eschatological tension” experienced by the believer. This for Dunn means that the believer can be at the same time free from sin in Romans 6 (the already) and in bondage and conflict with sin in Romans 7 (the not yet).

If forced to choose between the three views, Dr. Hartmann would side with view # 2, but thinks that all three suffer from the same fundamental flaw of coming to the text with the wrong question, each being governed by the controlling question of determining whether Paul in Romans 7 is describing a Christian or non-Christian. Our teacher suggests that this was not foremost on Paul’s mind as he wrote, and thus involves asking a question that Paul is not even trying to answer.

Paul’s issue was that of clarifying his view of the Law and offering a defense of the Law’s goodness that would respond to the disparaging accusations brought against him in this regard by his Jewish and Jewish-Christian detractors. It also allowed Paul to address misunderstandings and/or mis-representations of his teaching that had perhaps circulated among some Gentile Christians. Our teacher suggests that this is a good model for understanding how Paul brings his fixed theological core to expression in relation to contingencies that arose in his churches and his mission as a whole. Dr. Hartmann suggests that Paul’s method is one of “confrontational theology”, which allows Paul to clarify (on his own terms) his teaching for his hearers and readers.

Dr. Hartmann follows with a brief survey of Romans 7: 1-6 and 7:7-12, demonstrating that Paul was intending to offer a defense of the Law, particularly in light of prior statements he has made about the Law in 5:20 and 6:14.

Our study closes with a brief look at Romans 8:1-4, with an argument made that the Law is now fulfilled in the Christian through walking in the Spirit. Matthew 22:36-40 shows what this fulfillment of the Law is all about in Jesus’ teaching on the two great commandments of the Law.

Time would not allow for a more thorough treatment of the exegesis of Romans 7:13-25. More to come….

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