I would like to add this aside concerning one of the biggest stumbling blocks to what I believe is the proper place of Romans 7:14-25 in the timeline of the life of Paul. As I stated in our first post on this topic, I think the apostle is describing his experience prior to conversion. I made a very brief summary argument for that position based primarily on the context of Romans 5 through 8 and what I believe to be the predominant message of the New Testament regarding our new moral resemblance to Christ. But the challenge of Paul’s use of the present tense is still unresolved.
The best I can offer is the following. Paul is writing with a strong sense of purpose and may be using the present tense to drive home his point. For example, if life as a kid was tough for me (for the record it was actually quite bucolic), I might tell you the following story. “When I was a kid, this is what my life was like…I get up at 4:00 AM. I drag myself out to the barn to milk the cows. I freeze my fingers to the bone. I come back to the house. I skip breakfast and try to get a few more minutes of sleep. Sooner than I would like, I climb on the school bus and sit out the one hour ride to school.”
I used all present tense verbs in that story to try and bring you into the action. I get up, I drag, I freeze, I skip, I try, I climb, and I sit. You well understand that I am not describing my current life, but putting my past experience in the present tense for emphasis. Could Paul be doing the same thing? No guarantees, but something similar is easy for me to visualize in Paul’s style of writing. The bottom line to me is still the fact that Romans 7:14-25 only makes sense with the rest of the New Testament teaching regarding the believer’s relationship with sin if it encapsulates Paul’s experience prior to conversion.
Finally, I would like to address the suggestion that Romans 7:14-25 has to be Paul’s present experience because the doctrine of the total depravity of man does not fit Paul’s stated desire in this passage to do the right thing prior to his conversion. Without going into the specifics of this doctrine, suffice it to say that the unsaved have, in various degrees, plenty of desire to do the right thing. There are many unbelievers who are unselfish in their marriages, contribute to worthwhile causes, and look out for the welfare of others. Our conscience, and the ramifications that come with it, is part of the common grace we share with all humanity by virtue of being created in God’s image.
In the particular case of the apostle Paul, there should be no surprise that prior to his conversion he desired to obey God’s law. He described himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil 3:5), a Pharisee in regard to the law (3:5), and zealous for God (Acts 22:3) prior to his conversion. His problem in Romans 7 was not a lack of desire, but a lack of power having not yet experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit that comes at our new birth. While these answers have been short and in summary form, I believe interpreting Romans 7:14-25 to reflect Paul’s pre-conversion experience is the best fit for the message and context of this passage.