The meaning of Romans 7 is one about which Christian expositors have differed greatly. We may be familiar with some of the interpretations. Is Paul describing his pre-conversion experience, of what happened to him during the time he was being drawn to Christ? Or is he describing his ongoing Christian experience? Or maybe, he is not describing his own experience but is using the personal pronoun in a generic manner?
We have seen in previous readings that Paul is explaining the relationship between a Christian and God’s law. Basically he has argued that Christians before they were converted were unable to keep it and were unable to be helped by it because all it did was condemn and imprison them. He also argues that the Holy Spirit, once they have believed in Jesus, enables them to keep the law in a measure – that is the difference he states in verse 6 when he contrasts the way of the Spirit with the law as an external code.
One possible deduction from Paul’s previous explanations is that someone could deduce that the law by itself is bad, especially since it can stimulate a person to think of sin and perhaps practise it. So Paul has to deal with that issue and he uses his own personal experience of the tenth commandment to show how that possible deduction is wrong.
There was a time in Paul’s life when the tenth commandment – ‘You shall not covet…’ – showed him that he was a sinner. What period of his life is he speaking about? It looks to me as if he is describing the time just before his conversion, maybe even after he was blinded on the road to Damascus. Perhaps he was examining himself by the Ten Commandments and had worked his way down the list until he reached the tenth. And when he came to the tenth, he discovered there was nothing good in him, because coveting covered everything that he thought and did (or as he puts it in verse 8 – ‘all kinds of covetousness’). He realised that he was sinful.
But Paul does not regard that experience as a sign that the law is bad. Instead, discovering how bad he was only showed him how good the law in general is and how good each specific commandment is. The fact that it showed him his sinfulness did not make the law sinful. Instead it enabled Paul to discover what he was like without God’s grace at work in his life. So it was good for Paul that the law convicted him of his sin and prepared him for trusting in Jesus.