What does Romans chapter 7 mean?In Romans 7, Paul tackles the relationship between the law—the commandments given by God—and human sinfulness. He begins by making it clear that those who are in Christ have been released from any obligation to the law of Moses. This is for the same reason that we have been released from our slavery to sin: We died, and death breaks those obligations. Those who come to faith in Christ are so closely associated with His physical death and resurrection that we experience a kind of spiritual death and are resurrected into a new spiritual life. This is how we are freed from our responsibility to the law.
Paul uses the illustration of the law of marriage. A woman whose husband has died is no longer obligated to remain faithful to him. She is free to marry another man. In a similar way, our death with Christ freed us from our obligation to the law and allows us to serve God in what Paul calls the new way of the Spirit (Romans 7:1–6).
Some apparently thought Paul's teaching about freedom from the law meant that he believed the law itself to be sinful. He insists that he does not. Instead, it was the law that revealed his own sinfulness to him. He learned that he was covetous after being told by the law not to covet. Worse, as a sinful human being, merely knowing that covetousness was a sin made him want to covet! Our rebellious natures often choose to break rules just for the sake of breaking rules. The law promised Paul life if he could keep the commandments, but he discovered he could not do it. In that sense, the law doomed him to death. Still, though, Paul describes the law as holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:7–12).
Paul then describes his devastating experience of wanting to do what is good and finding himself doing what is sinful instead. Bible scholars disagree about whether the picture Paul paints of this experience is describing himself before he was a Christian, when he was trying to follow the law, or whether it was a current experience of trying to do good in his own power as a Christian. Based on the Greek tenses used, Paul seems to be describing the ongoing struggle of a believer against sin, rather than something he "got over" when he was saved (Romans 7:13–23).
The difference between the two positions is significant, but both present biblical truths supported elsewhere in Scripture. Certainly, Paul's whole book stands on the idea that non-Christians are unable to keep the law. That's why the law cannot make us righteous before God. It is also true that Christians who have been freed from the power of sin often still find the powerful influence of sin terribly difficult to overcome. Becoming a Christian gives a person the power to overcome sin (1 Corinthians 10:13; Romans 6:17), but it does not make one sinless (1 John 1:9–10).
After describing the disconnect between his best intentions to do good and his real-world sinful actions, Paul cries out in frustration that he is a wretched man and asks who will deliver him. He responds by thanking God through Jesus Christ our Lord, implying that he has and/or will find that deliverance only through faith in Christ (Romans 7:24–25).