In this section of Paul’s extended monologue, one question again will be the identity of “I.” As I said about Paul’s use of speech-in-character in verses 7–13, there is reason to think verse 14 brings a change in the identity of the “I.” One difference from the preceding verses is that the “I” now speaks in the present tense, which suggests ongoing experience. The subject matter also changes. It is now indwelling sin, leading most current Romans scholars to conclude that Paul is not speaking of his current Christian experience.
I have summarized in a chapter of my book the positions held by several noteworthy scholars, and I will not repeat that analysis here. The “I” could be Israel as a whole or a typical Jew who was rejecting Christ and relying on the law as the path to righteousness. Or Paul could be portraying fallen humanity in general—unbelievers of all stripes who live by their own set of rules and effort independently of God.
Paul could also be reflecting back on his pre-conversion experience of trying to obey the law. As Douglas Moo points out, Paul’s perspective as a Christian would have given him a clearer sense of his past struggle to obey the law as a Jew. In this sense, Paul could have intended the “I” to represent both his earlier internal conflict (as he now sees it with more clarity through his Christian lens) and the current struggle of a typical unbelieving Jew. Archibald Robertson quotes Denney: “It is the unregenerate man’s experience, surviving at least in memory into regenerate days, and read with regenerate eyes.”
Richard Longenecker offers the compelling thesis that Paul developed this soliloquy for oral delivery on his Gentile mission to dramatize “the tragic plight of people who attempt to live their lives apart from God and by means of their own resources and abilities.” Not only did the rhetorical technique work well with Gentiles in a culture rich with dramatic oratory, but also many pagans were spiritually sensitive to their own captivity to sin.
Longenecker says Paul had a strategic purpose for putting his dramatic monologue in writing for the Roman Christians. It concludes his argument in 6:1–7:13 about God’s grace, the Mosaic law, and people’s responses, and it prepares for chapter 8’s message about life in Christ, the Spirit’s enablement, and God’s love.As I said in the previous message on the identity of the “I,” speech-in-character enabled Paul to characterize the condition of multiple categories of people at once. We don’t need to precisely identify the “I” to appreciate Paul’s basic intention, as Moo points out:
Whatever uncertainty remains about the person or group Paul portrays, the passage gives the Christian no excuse for complacency about sin and no reason to despair about being free of sin’s power. Paul’s focal point is the weakness of law to deal with sin. He is not writing about the continuing power of sin in believers, because that power was broken at the cross.
Friend, if you have any doubt about the finality and permanence of Christ’s victory over sin in the believer, please reread chapter 6. Our freedom from sin’s power is why we should cling to our Victor as we make every effort to avoid sin.