I will rely heavily on Doug Moo’s commentary for this passage. He divides verses 7-25 into two sections, with verse 13 described as a bridge between them. Let’s read the entire passage and then open it to see if we can grasp what God spoke through the apostle.
Romans 7:7-12 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Moo describes verses 7-12 as “a narrative to show how sin has used the law to bring death.” This should be no surprise to Paul’s readers, or us, as he has been beating this drum for a while. I think some folks are hard-headed and reluctant to face truth. Moo says verses 14-25 moves to present tense verbs to show the battle between the mind and the flesh, which succumbs to the law of sin. We are told, again, that the law can arouse sin but it cannot defeat it.
Perhaps the biggest debate regarding this passage is aimed at answering the question, Who is Paul describing? There are 4 directions of interpretation held by people:
1. The autobiographical view. Paul uses the Greek word egō which is interpreted as “I” all through this passage. Therefore, he must have been describing his own personal spiritual journey and, to a degree, each of ours. This position runs into a problem in explaining verses 7-12: How does this awakening to the sin provocation of the law in this Pharisee’s life? Was it when he was a young man being brought to know the Torah better, realizing he was responsible for his sin and no longer “alive?” Or does this relate to his time shortly before being converted by Christ, having thought he was keeping the law but awakened by the Spirit to the depths of his sin? And then the last part of this passage (verses 14-25) we are told this is Paul’s struggle with law shortly after his conversion, as he works out the conflict between the Jewish religion and Christianity.
2. The Adamic view sees this passage as directly describing Adam before and after sin. This view was held by many early Christians, leaning on Paul’s identification of being in Adam or in Christ.
3. The Israel view see egō in this passage (especially verses 8-10) to be a representation of Israel, as Paul continues to build on his identification with his kinsmen of the flesh. Chrysostom was an early advocate of this view, showing the nation of Israel to “relatively speaking, spiritually ‘alive’ before the giving of the Law at Sinai. But when that law was given, it gave sin opportunity to create transgressions and so deepen and radicalize our spiritual lostness.” Most hold this view think Paul is describing the on-going situation of Jews who were then under the Mosaic Covenant. This is also called the “salvation-historical” view, fitting into the overall redemptive historical motif of the larger Bible story.
4. The existential view insists that egō cannot relate to any one person or group of people; it must mean everybody in general. Paul is using figurative language to describe the confrontation between a hypothetical person and demand of God.
Moo finds elements of all views in this passage but believes that the first and third accord best with the text – Paul is describing his own or other Jews’ experience with the Law of Moses and how that law brought death rather than life. Paul certainly is discussing the Mosaic Law here, as he has been for much of this letter. This makes it rather difficult to put Gentiles into this passage, as the first view would do – seeing it as every Christian’s conversion story in addition to Paul’s. Aside from those who joined with national Israel early in her history, Gentiles were not and are not under the Mosaic Law. And Jews beyond the first century are not under it either, as the Old Covenant, of which the Mosaic Covenant was part, has worn out and been abolished as a covenant with the coming of the New. This means view 2 is wrong because nothing in the Bible supports the common idea that Adam was given the Decalogue.