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The Figure of Speech Suppositional Identification in Romans 7:15-25

-- Jeff, Sunday 02-03-2013, 11:42 am CST

Introduction: Why there has to be a Figure of Speech

The conundrum described in the seventh chapter of Romans makes the following some of the most difficult verses in the Church Epistles:
Romans 7:15-25
For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.

Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.

Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.

For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:

But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

That the Apostle Paul employs figure of speech in the above verses - by referring to himself in the first person - is self-evident. Unless, that is, the Paul is talking about himself alone.

The figure used could be called either "Association" or "Suppositional Identification." Association, in that the speaker is associating himself with those to whom, in literal terms, he is actually referring to. Suppositional Identification, in that the listener, knowing that the speaker cannot be referring to himself alone, supposes that he is actually referring to another, or to others of a class or group to which the speaker may or may not literally belong to.1

Questions and Answers in Romans 6 and 7

To see that Paul has to be referring to a group that he no longer belongs to, let's zoom out and look at these verses in their overall context in Romans. Beginning in Romans 5:
Romans 5:18-20
Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

Moreover the law [talking about the Law of Moses] entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:

That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.

These four verses sum up and conclude the teaching of chapters one through five, which show how God justified the believer in Christ.

But as so often happens when dealing with human reason, "There seems to be a question." And in the case of the first five chapters of Romans, there are several questions. So in chapters 6-7 Paul (or God by way of the Apostle Paul) employs the figure of speech Dianoea, also called "Questions and Answers,"2 to respond to the questions that are raised by the teaching of chapters 1-5.

As we will see, when chapters 6-7 conclude with their Question and Answers, the Word of God will have nailed down exactly how "sin hath reigned unto death." Then, beginning with Romans 8, the Word of God begins to nail down exactly how "grace reigns through righteousness."

The First Question and Answer

According to grammar there are three persons, first person (I, we), second person (you), and third person (he, she, they). In this paper we are looking at who is it that we are "to suppose," in literal terms, that the Suppositional Identification in Romans 7:15-25 is referring.

Since it is by way of that figure that Paul is referring to himself in those verses in the first person singular, let's take note of all of the changes in grammatical person in over the course of the Questions and Answers in Romans chapters six and seven. And let's note where they are literal and where they are figurative.

Romans 6:1-10
What shall we [first person plural] say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?

God forbid [me ginoito, better translated "Let it not be so!"]. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

For he [third person singular] that is dead is freed from sin.

Now if we [first person plural] be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:

Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.

In both the question of verse 1 and the answer in verses 2-13, the "we's" and the "our's" - the first person plurals - are literal. And the "we" who are "dead to sin," according to Romans chapters 1-5, are the "we" who believe in Christ. In verse 7 the switch to "he" -- third person singular -- is by a suppositional which immediately switches back to literal in verse 8.

Then under this same answer, the text shifts to the second person for purposes of instruction (note the imperative mood verbs):

Romans 6:11-14
Likewise reckon [imperative mood] ye [second person plural] also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let not [imperative mood] sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.

Neither yield [imperative mood] ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield [imperative mood] yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.

For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

Again, the "ye's" and the "you's" are literal. And refer to the "you" who believe in Christ, who chapters 1-5 have shown to be "not under the law, but under grace."

The Second Question and Answer

In the second question, within the Questions and Answers figure of speech of chapters 6-7, the person changes back briefly to the first person plural, "we":
Verse 15
What then? shall we [first person plural] sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid ["Let it not be so!"].
But in the second answer, the person immediately changes back to the second person:
Verses 16-23
Know ye not, that to whom ye [second person plural] yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.

Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.

I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.

What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Both the "we's" in verse 15 and the "ye's" in verses to the end of the chapter, still refer to the believers in Christ.

Then, still under this second answer, to illustrate how the Law of Moses applies in practical terms, the text shifts from the second person to the third:

Romans 7:1-3
Know ye [second person plural] not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man [anthropos, "a human being"] as long as he [third person singular] liveth?

For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she [third person singular] is loosed from the law of [or better, "from"] her husband.

So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.

Then the text shifts back to the second person, still referring to the believers in Christ literally:
Verse 4a
Wherefore ["because of this"], my brethren, ye [second person plural] also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead...
"The woman" and "her husband" and the other "man" in verses 2 and 3, spoken of in the third person, are not literal people. Rather they stand for (by the figure of speech Antimetathesis or "Suppositional Inclusion"3) all who both "know the law," and by dint of being Judeans, are "under the law" (unlike believers in Christ, see 6:14 above).

The "ye" in verse 4, again, is speaking literally to the believers in Christ. And then the text shifts back to the first person plural:

Verses 4b-6
...that we [first person plural] should bring forth fruit unto God.

For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.

But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

And again, the "we" is referring to believers in Christ literally.

The Third Question and Answer

In the third question, the text continues using the first person plural in literal terms. But in the answer it immediately, and for the first time, switches to the first person singular. And the text remains in the first person singular to the end of chapter seven.
Romans 7:7
What shall we [first person plural] say then? is the law sin? God forbid ["Let it not be so!"]. Nay, I [first person singular] had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
This is where the figure of speech Suppositional Identification begins with Paul in the first person. Taking up another analogy that shows the effect of the Law in practical terms, like the analogy in the Suppositional Inclusion of verses 2-3 did. But with Paul standing in, for purposes of illustration, instead of the woman.
Verses 8-12
But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me [not Paul literally, but Paul standing in for a natural man who knows the Law] all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.

For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.

For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.

Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

The Fourth Question and Answer

Verses 13-14
Was then that which is good made death unto me [first person singular]? God forbid ["Let it not be so!"]. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I [first person singular] am carnal, sold under sin.

Wait a minute! Hold the phone!

Was the Apostle Paul carnal at the time that he penned the book of Romans? Literally? Still just body and soul? Still sold under sin? Or had he "obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine" which was delivered unto him? And had he thereby been "made free from sin" like every other believer in Christ? Whom he served "in newness of spirit" which he had received "and not in the oldness of the letter"?

The latter, obviously.

Which means that Paul is using the first person singular of himself, not as the believer in Christ that he literally was. He is using it by the figure of speech Suppositional Identification. Whereby he associates himself figuratively with body-soul men. And specifically, Paul is associating himself with the Judeans who knew the Law but had not yet received "the spirit of life in Christ Jesus."4

Which not only means that what the Apostle Paul says of himself in verses 15-25 does not apply to him, it does not apply to any other believer in Christ either. The verses apply to natural men who know the Law of Moses.

Verses 15-25a
For that which I [a natural man who knows the Law] do I [as a natural man who knows the Law] allow not: for what I [a natural man who knows the Law] would [thelo "desire"], that do I not [as a natural man who knows the Law]; but what I [a natural man who knows the Law] hate, that do I [as a natural man who knows the Law].

If then I [a natural man who knows the Law] do that which I would ["desire"] not [as a natural man who knows the Law], I [a natural man who knows the Law] consent unto the law that it is good.

Now then it is no more I [a natural man who knows the Law] that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me [as a natural man who knows the Law].

For I [a natural man] know [by the Law] that in me (that is, in my flesh) [as a natural man who knows the Law], dwelleth no good thing: for to will ["to desire"] is present with me [as a natural man who knows the Law]; but how to perform that which is good I [a natural man who knows the Law] find not.

For the good that I [a natural man who knows the Law] would ["desire"] I [as a natural man who knows the Law] do not: but the evil which I [a natural man who knows the Law] would ["desire"] not, that I [as a natural man who knows the Law] do.

Now if I [a natural man who knows the Law] do that I [as a natural man who knows the Law] would ["desire"] not, it is no more I [a natural man who knows the Law] that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me [as a natural man who knows the Law].

I [a natural man who knows the Law] find then a law, that, when I [as a natural man who knows the Law] would ["desire to"] do good, evil is present with me [as a natural man who knows the Law].

For I [a natural man who knows the Law] delight in the law of God after the inward man [the man of the mind that knows the Law]:

But I [a natural man who knows the Law] see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind [as a natural man who knows the Law], and bringing me [as a natural man who knows the Law] into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members [as a natural man who knows the Law].

O wretched man that I [a natural man who knows the Law] am! who shall deliver me [as a natural man who knows the Law] from the body of this death?

I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord [!]...

Of all the uses of the first person singular in verses 15-25, the first sentence in verse 25 is the only one that refers to the Apostle Paul literally.

This sentence is put by the figure of speech Cataploce or "Parenthetic Exclamation." And it is used in this instance by a writer who can associate himself so closely with Judeans who know the Law, but lack the spirit of God, because he was one for so many years himself (check Philippians 3:1-12).

Because Paul - the real, literal Paul - also knows the solution to the conundrum of these verses - what God has accomplished through Jesus Christ our Lord as taught in Romans 1-5 - he cannot, as he pens these verses, remain hidden behind a figure of speech. On sheer emotion alone, he has to step out and exclaim his thanksgiving as a believer in Christ.

Verse 25b
...So then with the mind I myself [a natural man who knows the Law] serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
And so concludes the truths of the Questions and Answers of Romans 6-7. Which have detailed exactly how "sin hath reigned unto death" as declared by Romans 5:20.

To begin to see how "grace reigns through righteousness," as declared by that same verse, we must turn to Romans chapter eight.

What Has Made Us Free

Romans 8:1-4
There is therefore [because of the truth of the teaching of chapters 1-5 and of the answers to the questions in chapters 6-7] now no condemnation to [could be translated, "not one judicial sentence against"] them which are in Christ Jesus.5)

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus [a new law] hath made me free ["hath made me free" should be simply, "freed me"] from the law of sin and death [of Romans 7:21].

For what the law [the Law of Moses] could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:

That the righteousness of the law [the Law of Moses] might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

There are three usages of the word "law" in these verses. The third usage of the word "law," in verses 3-4, is the Law of Moses. A law that could not accomplish righteousness because "it was weak through the flesh."

The second usage, in verse 2, is not the Law of Moses. It is "the law of sin and death." Which is detailed by the Suppositional Identification in Romans 7:15-25, and which is specified in the twenty-first verse of that chapter:

Romans 7:21
I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
This is not a law under which believers in Christ labor. Not unless we wrongly divide Romans 7:15-25 and try to apply to ourselves that which, when the Word of truth is rightly divided, does not apply to us.

In Romans 8:1-4, it is the first usage of "law" in this section that specifies exactly what has freed us as believers in Christ. Namely, "the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus." The working out of which is the subject of the Church Epistles - in their doctrine, reproof, and correction - in every place where they address the believers in Christ.6

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1. See E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1984 printing), cf. "Association," page 900. Also page 28 of our "Outline of Figures" in our in-progress work, A Guide to Figures of Speech Used in Scripture, for where we are categorizing this figure. Available at: http://www.biblicalresearchjournal.org/brj-pages_pdf/002gtf_2007-04_guide_to_figures_03.pdf

2. See Dianoea in Figures of Speech page 959, and "Outline of Figures" page 27.

3. See Antimetathesis in Figures of Speech page 898, and "Outline of Figures," page 28.

4. Quoted from Romans 8:2.

5. The rest of the verse, as it appears in the King James Version, is not in the original text. Cf. George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (1958 edition), Romans 8:1, footnote u, page 417.

6. It is of note that of all seven Church Epistles of Romans through Thessalonians, only Romans has sections that are addressed to the Judeans or the Gentiles. The rest, although they may deal with issues regarding the Judeans and Gentiles, are addressed exclusively to the believers in Christ.

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