Why Paul Wrote in the Present Tense in Romans 7

by Alton Danks


In Romans 7 Paul appears to be saying that he was unable to cease from sin. He isn't, but again we have to look at it in the context in which it was written.


In Romans 3:20 Paul states:

In God's sight (according to God's measure of righteousness) no one alive will be considered righteous on the ground of legalistic observance of the commandments of The Law, because through The Law is the knowledge of sin.

Having made this point Paul has to explain it. This is what he is doing in Romans 7. In verse 7 he repeats his point that the function of The Law is to make known what sin is. In verses 14 through 23 he gives his personal testimony of how The Law worked in his life to expose sin working within his being and how The Law does not provide the means to be made free from sin and made righteous.

But, in making his case in verses 14 through 23, Paul uses present tense verbs. This is what makes it appear that he was saying that he was unable to cease from sin.

What are we to make of Paul's use of the present tense verbs in verses 14 through 23?

What happens if we understand his use of the present tense to refer to his present state of being?

It would still demonstrate how The Law worked in his life to expose sin working within his being, but it would also make a case against the Good News Paul was proclaiming as the means God used to free people from sin and make them righteous. If Paul, trusting in the faithfulness and work of Jesus Christ to free him from sin and make him righteous was still under the dominion of sin within him, then he had no case to make with regards to the Good News.

Such an understanding would also be contrary to what Paul wrote in Romans 5, 6, 8, and much of the rest of the New Testament.

Some have suggested a means of reconciling Romans 7 with the rest of what Paul wrote by suggesting that Romans 7 describes Paul's actual condition with respect to sin and the rest of what he wrote describes his "positional" condition. The effort to reconcile what he wrote is commendable, but "positionally" free from sin, but actually sold under sin is not free indeed and fails to fully reconcile.

So why did Paul use present tense verbs in verses 14 through 23?

Present tense verbs are usually used to describe one's present actions or state of being, but not always. The use of present tense in legal cases is advanced as a more effective way to persuade a judge or jury.

This means of jury persuasion was established in Rome by Cicero and is still taught in law schools today. Cicero was a famed Roman attorney and orator who lived in Rome from 106 BC to 43 BC and was the proconsul of Tarsus (Paul's hometown) from 51 to 50 BC. He established Six Maxims of Persuasion (which are still taught in law schools today), the fourth of which is:

Draw the audience into the story. Tell the story in the present tense as if the jury was watching the events unfold in front of them, rather than hearing a narrative of something that happened in the past.

Paul was attempting to persuade the congregation at Rome that righteousness does not come by The Law. Giving his personal testimony of The Law and sin in the present tense is completely consistent with his effort to persuade the congregation to trust.Paul was using the best practices of persuasion of his day, and ours, to demonstrate that righteousness does not come by The Law.

There is additional evidence that links Paul's writing in Romans 7 and Cicero.

O wretched man that I am! (Romans 7:24)

O wretched man, wretched not just because of what you are, but also because you do not know how wretched you are! (Cicero)