In Romans 5-6, Paul wrote that justification provides believers with righteousness, life, and grace, triumphing over sin and death. But what about the Mosaic law, which Paul referred to in Rom 5:12-14? In the midst of the unit of Romans 5-8, Romans 7 provides a historical perspective on the relationship between God’s good law and the sinfulness of human flesh. Paul wrote that Israel’s failure was not because God’s law was deficient to instruct God’s people. Rather, the law aroused Israel’s sinfulness and rendered them incapable of meeting God’s standard. Paul’s analysis of the relationship between human sinfulness and God’s holy law in Romans 7 contributes to Paul’s argument throughout Romans. Paul wrote Romans 7 to halt any who would embrace the law for righteousness, and not Christ. Paul thus hoped to dissuade the Jews in his audience from relying on the law. He hoped that, along with Gentiles, the Jews would receive God’s righteousness in Christ so that together Jews and Gentiles in Rome would “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with a united mind and voice” (Rom 15:6).
In Romans 7, Paul argued that the law of Moses had to be understood within the narrative of the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus.
(1) In Rom 7:1-6, Paul employed the metaphor of marriage to portray believers as belonging to Christ the way that Israel belonged to God. Repeatedly, the prophets used marriage as a figure to describe the Lord’s relationship with Israel. When the Lord brought His people out of Egypt, He acted as a husband toward His people (Jer 31:32; Hos 2:15). But Israel committed spiritual adultery against the Lord (e.g., Isa 50:1; Jer 2:32; 3:6-10, 20; Ezek 16:32-34; Hos 1:2; 2:2). Though the Lord divorced Israel because of her idolatry, He promised to act as a redeeming husband (Isa 54:5-8; 62:4-5; Hos 3:1-3). In Rom 7:1-3, Paul noted that death cancels marital obligations. Paul wrote that through union with Christ in His death and resurrection, believers have died to the law so that they would belong to Christ. As Christ’s bride, believers have been liberated from the law so that they might bear fruit in the new way of service that has been established in the coming of the Spirit (Rom 7:5-6; 8:12-16; Gal 5:15-26).
(2) In Rom 7:7, Paul wrote that the commandment against covetousness exemplifies how the law incites sin in all who attempt to obey it. According to Paul, the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet” (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21), produced every manner of coveting (Rom 7:8; Gal 3:19-26). To be human is to covet, Paul proposed, and thus the law condemns Jews and Gentiles alike. In Rom 5:12-14, Paul wrote that sin was in the world before the law and that sin produced death. The law showed why sin produced death: because humans are sinful from the inside out.
(3) In Rom 7:10, Paul wrote that the law was intended to give life, echoing Moses’ statement in Lev 18:5. In Leviticus 18, Moses wrote that when Israel entered the land, they were to live distinctly unto the Lord. They were to leave behind the habits they observed in Egypt and were to avoid the lifestyles of the Canaanites inhabiting the land they would possess. Moses promised that Israel would live in the land if they obeyed (Lev 18:5). In accord with Moses, Paul esteemed God’s instruction to give life but both Moses and Paul knew of the sinfulness of humanity. Paul’s mindset in Romans 7 reflected the prophecy Moses uttered in Deut 30:1-10. There Moses predicted that Israel would fail to obey the law and be sent into exile. Not until the day when the Lord circumcised the hearts of His people, Moses said, would Israel fulfill God’s requirements (Deut 30:6). The law was given to expose sin and provide a register of why God was righteous to condemn humans to death. The law, Paul concluded in Rom 7:12, was not the problem.
(4) In Rom 7:13-25, Paul’s description of the wretchedness of those sold under sin’s power reflected the psalmists’ and prophets’ portrayal of those under God’s wrath. Paul used the first-person personal pronoun, “I,” to describe one who seems so different than what he previously described in Romans 5-6. Paul’s autobiographical language in Rom 7:13-25 reflected the prophets’ use of the first-person singular to designate a corporate body with whom they felt the highest kindred spirit. The prophet Micah employed this literary technique when describing Israel’s future vindication (Mic 7:8-10). Corporate solidarity played no small part in the life of national Israel, as Paul expressed in Rom 9:1-5. Israel time and again confessed that they wanted to do the good of the law but failed to overcome their idolatrous ways. Paul said that before his conversion he was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man” (1 Tim 1:13). Israel, and Paul looking back at life before his conversion, could confess, “What a wretched man I am!” (Rom 7:24). They wished to serve the law of God with their mind, but their rebellious behavior revealed that they in fact lived in slavery to sin. In Romans 5-6, Paul repeatedly noted that believers enjoy a state of grace and righteousness. Their state could not differ more from the state of those trying to be right with God through the works of the law, those in Paul’s view in Rom 7:13-25. When Paul described the sinful state of humanity in Rom 3:16, he cited Isa 59:7, “Ruin and wretchedness are in their paths.” Isaiah noted that Israel’s behavior had separated them from God, their lifestyle gave no evidence of His redeeming love or the power of His word. In Isa 47:11, the prophet declared that disaster would come upon Babylon, placing them in a state of destruction that they would not be able to avert. The psalmist likewise portrayed Babylon in a state beyond hope, destined for destruction (Ps 137:8). Jeremiah announced the destruction and ruin of Jerusalem, placing the city in a state of hopelessness (Jer 4:13, 20).