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Romans 7, Who Am ‘I’?

Another article on this topic that you can read is written by my friend Lindsay and can be found here

Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7.7-25? Is it the present believer or the pre-Christian believer? For all of my life I thought it was the state of the Christian until I took a class on Romans at CCBCY with Randy McCracken, where I was introduced to a few differing opinions.

Why do many think that Paul is talking about the Christian state of living? “This [opinion] is driven first by our own [first-person] experience (we often do what we know not to be right) and then confirmed by the use of the present tense in Romans 7:14–25, which would seem to indicate that Paul must be talking about his current condition” (620).

Though the believer, according to Romans 6.1-7.6, is “living beyond the reach of sin,” our struggle now shows us that there is a conflict. Part of our groaning in this present life “is due to the lingering power of sin over the believer” (620).


(Yeah, I guess something like that is the idea)

The Problem

Romans 6.22 says, But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

Yet Paul, if he is speaking of himself in Romans 7.14, would be saying that he is still sold under sin.

  1. “[What] then exactly what did Paul mean when he said that Christian believers were “set free from sin” (Rom 6:22) and that we have “died to sin” and no longer to “live in it” (Rom 6:2)?
  2. What did Paul mean when he said “sin will have no dominion over you” (Rom 6:14) if the believer is still at the mercy of sin (Rom 7:17–18)?
  3. How can Paul at one point affirm that only the “doers of the law” will be justified (Rom 2:13) but later be content with the mere desire to do good?
  4. How can we “present our bodies to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom 6:13) and “yield our members to righteousness unto sanctification” (Rom 6:19) if “I can will what is right but I cannot do it” (Rom 7:18)?”

This isn’t simply Paul modifying what he said in Romans 6.1–7.6. This is “a complete recantation of the newness of the life Christ has provided” (620).

A Possible Solution

It may be that Paul is using the “I” in Rom 7.7-25 as a “rhetorical device known as prosopopoiia, where the speaker presents a vivid characterization of some figure or position through first-person speech” (620). So Romans 7.7-25 would be “an expression of life apart from Christ and, in particular, life under the law apart from Christ” (620).

Romans 7.7

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.”

DeSilva states,

The key to this speech is found in Romans 7:7: Paul is wrestling with the question of the function of the law… and speaks from a particular vantage point in salvation history—the position of humanity convicted by the law but powerless to keep the law. This, then, provides a more vivid depiction of the plight from which Christ frees the human being through the gift of the Spirit (Rom 6:1–7:6; 8:1–17). The verdict of ‘no condemnation’ is in effect because the ‘law of the Spirit of life’ has in fact set the believer free from the ‘law of sin and death’.

The past tense of Romans 8:2 shows Romans 7:23 (and thus Rom 7:7–25 as a whole) to be describing a past state as well…. God is to be thanked precisely because the gift of the Holy Spirit has made it possible to live beyond the dominion of the passions of the flesh, reversing the state of Romans 1:18–32. Now God’s righteousness can take hold of the believer, and God’s standards of righteousness take shape within the believer (620).

So Then What is the Law?

Paul’s opinion of the law seems to be much different than that of other Jewish authors.

  • The Book of Sirach 17.11 says, Beside this he gave them knowledge, and the law of life for an heritage, and in 45.5 declares, He let him hear his voice and led him into the dark cloud, where, face to face, he gave him the commandments, the Law that gives life and knowledge, so that Moses might teach the covenant regulations to the Israelites.
  • Baruch 3.9 states, Hear the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear, and learn wisdom!

    • However in Romans 7.10, Paul says of the law that “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me,” which is putting the opinion of the Law in stark contrast with that of there other writers. Paul understands the Law as “the occasion for sin to increase its stranglehold on humanity” (626).
  • In fact, the author of 4 Maccabees says in 2.6, In fact, since the law has told us not to covet, I could prove to you all the more that reason is able to control desires. Just so it is with the emotions that hinder one from justice. So if the Law commands it, humans are able to perform it.

    • Paul, on the other hand, quotes the same commandment (“You shall not covet”) and provides a negative perspective: 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 (Rom 7b-8).
  • The author of 4 Ezra is the most similar to Paul’s view, yet he doesn’t solve the dilemma the individual faces when confronted with the Law. DeSilva gives us the text on page 626:

You bent down the heavens and shook the earth…to give the law to the descendants of Jacob, and your commandment to the posterity of Israel. Yet you did not take away their evil heart from them, so that your law might produce fruit in them. For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the hearts of the people along with the evil root; but what was good departed, and the evil remained. (4 Ezra 3:12–27; 7:92).

The Hope We Have In Christ


Why does Paul have such a negative view on the Law, when most of the previous Jewish authors (including David, Ps 19; 119) had nothing but good to say about God’s Law? DeSilva gives his answer:

Paul’s view of the role of the Law is profoundly influenced by his experience of the risen Jesus and the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit. In view of the glorious liberation from the power of sin that came with the Spirit and its ongoing leading and empowerment, Paul comes to a new view about the limited role of the Law. This ‘limit’ is also established by God’s endowing both Jews and Gentiles with the Spirit, whereas the Law largely served to keep Jews apart from Gentiles rather than extending God’s righteousness to them as well.

While the Law reveals God’s just requirements, it falls to the Spirit to empower human beings to live out those requirements. Only the Spirit is sufficient to overcome the power of sin, against which the human being only had his or her own moral resources prior to the gift of the Spirit…. (627).

Schreiner, in his book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law,

[In] Psalm 119:159, ‘Give me life according to your steadfast love.’ Life comes from God’s steadfast love, that is, from his grace and mercy. Human beings do not merit or gain life by observing the law. Psalm 119:88 is even clearer, ‘In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.’ Life comes only from the grace of God, and the consequence of such life is the keeping of God’s testimonies and precepts. The psalmist does not teach that life is gained by obedience. Life finds its origin in God’s gracious work. Surely this sentiment is very Pauline (85-86).


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Mary, Martha, and the Good Portion

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her (Lk 10.38-42).

Why does Martha always get the heat in sermons? What did she do that was so wrong? All she was doing was serving, and she simply wanted some help. Luke helps his readers by giving us two key words: Martha was “distracted with much serving.”

DeSilva gives us some timely words on this passage, ones that all believers need to hear.

The story of Mary and Martha speaks in a timely way to an increasingly phrenetic and frantic society (Lk 10:38–42). Jesus points Martha—and all of us who are so very much like Martha—to the core necessity of life. If we possess this one thing, it gives life to all that we do; if we lack it, we cannot compensate for that lack no matter how much we do. The one needful thing is to sit at Jesus’ feet, spend time in his presence undistracted and listen for his word. This is a hard word for many people, myself included, to accept. It is a hard word to believe in an active society where doing and visibly achieving are emphasized so strongly. But if anything must suffer this day, Luke says that it cannot be our spending time with God. We have books to read, committee meetings to attend and leaves to rake, but first and above all, we have to sit at Jesus’ feet, wait on the Lord and seek God’s face (346–347).

Psalm 27.4 says, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.“

Jesus’ challenge to Martha and to all who resemble her more than her sister is to reverse [the] mindset [that waiting on the Lord when there is work to be done is procrastination] and to let the way we spend our time help us to be guided in all things by God’s Spirit, not driven in all things by the demands of our studies, our congregations or our own ambitions (347).

Reordering Our Lives Around Christ

It can be, no, it is difficult ordering our lives to revolve around God and his word. It is difficult to read his word and spend time with God. I can easily get caught up in what I need to do, whether it be reading a book to review, learning Norwegian, or, most importantly, spending time with my wife. All of these things are good and I have to (and like to) spending my time doing these things (not that learning a language is always fun), but when time feels tight I must remember that God has ordered this world that I live in and interact with. There is time for him and his word. I can spend time with him. We can make time for him and his life-giving word.

I can easily relate to Martha. I am the Martha of the story. “But Martha was distracted with much serving.” And the Lord answered Martha Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.

“[S]pending time in God’s presence, sitting at the feet of Jesus… is the place where lives are reordered, hearts healed, balance attained and stability found. Our hearts will never find rest until they rest in God, and rest means spending time resting in God’s presence” (347).


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Approval in Matthew

Approval. We all want it, whether by one or many. My school consisted roughly of 300 people. And this is my school, not my high school. My school went from Kindergarten up to 12th grade. Junior and Senior high were combined and made up approximately 150 people. The popularity polls really start to make their rounds when students hit 7th grade and they enter into the world of both Junior and Senior High. Every one is bigger and older and stronger than you. They can drive too. It’s a scary place. Yet when I look back, for many students popularity was a high honor in high school. Yet out of 7,000,000,000 people on earth, some felt proud to be among the Top Ten in a high school made up of 150 students.

Of course most schools have more than 300 students. According to one website, Chicago International Charter School borders on 8,900 students, which is roughly 1,000 more students than my alma mater, Nicholls State University. The point remains, being #1 out of 8,000 high school students, out of 320,000,000 in the USA, out of 7,300,000,000 on earth… just isn’t impressive.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew helps to make firm the Christians’ commitment to Jesus “in the face of pressure and rejection from the synagogue” (284). DeSilva shows what Matthew does, that he

“demonstrates Jesus’ credibility and honor as a teacher and the Pharisees’ dishonor and unreliability as teachers of God’s way. Matthew included a striking number of confrontation stories between Jesus and other Jewish teachers (e.g., Mt 9:1–8, 10–13, 14–17; 11:2–6; 12:1–8, 9–14, 24–42; 15:1–20, 21–28; 16:1–4; 19:3–9; 21:15–17, 23–27, 28–32, 33–46; 22:15–22, 23–33, 34–40, 41–46). These confrontations have been rightly analyzed as competitions for honor and, as a result of that honor, the right to speak as authoritative interpreters of God’s Law” (284).

The Finisher

Here how the challenges work. There are three parties:

  1. The Challenger (usually the Pharisees)
  2. The Challenged (usually Jesus)
  3. The Audience

The Challenger (the Pharisees) poses a question to Jesus, the Challenged. If the Challenged doesn’t come up with an answer to win the debate, he loses honor and the Challenger gains honor. “Jesus repeatedly emerges as the victor in these exchanges in the eyes of the public. Without exception he is able to demonstrate that his actions and his teachings are truly in accord with God’s Law, while his opponents distort and miss God’s intentions“ (284).

Test Case: Matt 12.9-14

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And [the Pharisees] asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Mark’s account says, And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart…” (Mk 3.4-5a).

Jesus gave the Pharisees his response, and “they were silent.” There was nothing they could say. If they said they wanted to save life, then Jesus would heal the man and, in their eyes, break the Sabbath. They would be approving the actions of a lawless man, a Torah-breaker. If they said they wanted to kill, then of course nobody is going to follow them and instead, they will all follow Jesus. Here we see that Jesus “is able to demonstrate that his actions and his teachings are truly in accord with God’s Law” (284).

How Does This Help Matthew’s Readers?

What this brings to the readers of Matthew is knowing that when they are persecuted by the Pharisees and scribes for following Jesus, they are being persecuted by those who really don’t know God’s Law. These Christians should look “exclusively to Jesus as the teacher of the divinely approved way of fulfilling Torah [Mt 17:5]…. Following the opinion of the dishonorable is to risk becoming dishonorable” (285). Even in persecution the Christians can rejoice that they follow the One who is true and teaches the way of God truthfully (or “in accordance with the truth”, Mt 22.16). Even more so, according to Matt 25, Jesus is the eschatological Judge over all of the universe, and  when the Day of the Lord comes he will separate the sheep from the goats, his people from those who are not his people. DeSilva says,

Matthew 11:20–24 and 12:41–42 suggest that those who reject Jesus’ message will fare far worse than the worst of [pagan] cities” (285). And “[if] the majority, who are entering the broad and easy road to destruction, despise the Christians as dishonorable fools, the Christians will be able to neutralize the force of such pressure to conform by contemplating the ultimate end of the outsiders—destruction. The way of life promoted within the church, even if held as dishonorable by the majority of people, is nevertheless the road to life and eternal honor before the court of God and the Son. (285).

But if Matthew wants to preserve the Christian body of believers, why does he speak about church discipline in Mt 18?

As those who do the will of God, they are the family of the Son of God, hence part of God’s family (Mt 12:48–50) and partners in the honor of the head of that family. Within that family there is a mandate for applying social pressure ‘positively’ on group members who are straying from commitment to the group and its distinctive values (Mt 18:10–14). Within the group all the faithful must be honored and affirmed as they walk in line with the group’s values (Mt 18:10) and on no other basis…. The church is in a position to enforce the wayward member’s conformity with the ethical ideals of Jesus. After all, what member would willingly endure excommunication from the church as long as he or she believed it truly has the authority to bind and loose, and remains the place where the presence of God as mediated by Jesus can be known? If the narrow road is the way to the eternal inheritance of God’s kingdom, the church is the gateway to that inheritance. Attachment to the community and vital engagement of its values is therefore a strong assurance also of God’s approval of an individual’s life and worth, a strong counterbalance to society’s claims to the contrary (286).


While it’s good to have the approval of others (your spouse is a good example) and it’s important to have the approval of others (it’s always good when your boss [and your spouse] actually likes you), ultimately Christians are to seek the approval of Christ. Christians will never be the most popular people on earth. If the world hated Jesus, they will hate his followers as well (Jn 15.18). They will always have something against us because we have been chosen out of this world (Jn 15.19). Let us remember this when we read Matthew, the Gospels, and the whole Bible, that Jesus is the one who has and bestows true honor. He is the only one we are to follow (Mk 8.34).


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Money in the Gospel of Luke

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Money. Some pastors love preaching about it. Some brag about buying “not one jet, but two!” with cash. Others, because of the first group, hate preaching about it. They don’t want to be associated with the money-mongers. It’s unfortunate because Jesus set the example for preaching about money (and while the TV evangelistis would probably tell you the same thing, they would never tell you all that Jesus said about money).

Luke 3.14

Soldiers also asked [John the Baptist], “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Luke 16.13-15

“‘No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’”


Other examples could be given, especially that of the other side (16.1-9). And perhaps I’ll write on this too one day soon, but for now I’ll focus on the task at hand. If wealth could have ever been an idol, more so than in ancient Rome, it’s today. We have the “American dream.” Work hard enough and you can get anything. You can work your way up to the top. There are magnitudes of amounts of ways now to make money (whether they work or not is a different story).

Commercials abound and try work their magic to give you the sense that your life will be worse if you don’t have this toy, computer, and this house, or if you’re not listening to this music or watching these movies, or if you don’t have this beach body, or if you can’t do these awesome tricks or tell these incredible jokes, or especially if you’re not taking this medicine taken from this long-extinct but recently discovered skunk (with 3 easy payments of $39.99!). (Speaking of commercials, Norway barely has them! They’re usually at the end of the TV program, and they’re not very long either).

About this lifestyle DeSilva says,

Because of the idolization of the abundance of wealth, however, even people in the Western world who live at a level far above the well-to-do in third-world countries consider themselves and are looked upon by others as ‘poor’. Within a culture that claims ‘more for me’ it is difficult even to hear Luke’s word ‘share with all’ (345).

Zacchaeus, You Come Down

I like the Zacchaeus story in Lk 19.1-10. In 19.8 Zacchaeus says to Jesus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” The odds are that for many of us, we wish someone would say this to Jesus too, and that we would be the receivers. Somewhere down the line someone has stolen money from us, and we hope we get it back. Who cares that Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” (19.10) and that salvation has come to Zacc’s house (19.9)? What about my money?

Before an individual can respond to the Gospel like Zacchaeus, he or she must unlearn the definitions of enough and sufficient that our society offers (if it understands these words at all) and learn a definition that is truly in keeping with human need rather than human wants and expectations. This is a difficult task when the entire advertising industry lives by training us to “need” more. We must learn that to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must use our possessions as much for our neighbor’s good as for our own (345).

Why did salvation come to Zacchaeus just because he gave money away? Because unlike the rich ruler (18.18-30), Zacchaeus not only promised to give money back (19.8), but he even began to follow Jesus (19.6).

Long Division

Throughout his Gospel Luke shows us how divisive money can be:

  • The hoarding of wealth cut off the rich man from Lazarus because the rich man valued money more than the life of his neighbor [16.19-31].
  • Covetousness over an inheritance pitted one sibling against another (Lk 12:13–15)—they valued money more than kinship.
  • For years Zacchaeus was cut off from his fellow Jews on account of his valuing of money over solidarity with his people [19.1-10] (345).

The Solution

What is Luke’s solution? The money comes from, and belongs to, the Lord.

A Christian’s wealth belongs to the Lord, to be used as the Lord directs for the good of all rather than the good of the “owner”. This attitude enabled the quality of fellowship found in the early church, the realization of God’s desires for human community (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). Ultimately the true good of the one can only be achieved in concert with the good of all (345).


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Enemies in Philippi

Philippians is a letter that overflows with joy and thanksgiving. Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift which was brought by Epaphroditus. He was sick but now has recovered and is returning to Philippi. Paul is content in any situation, even in prison, and he is thrilled that people are hearing about and accepting Christ.

I’m reading David deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament. While most introductions go book by book, giving the bare facts of date, authorship, and what the book is about, deSilva strives to show the cultural and social settings in the lives of the apostles and their readers. When we look at a text from the Bible we often (more often than we like) think, “Why does he say that?” That same question applies here. In a letter so full of joy, “Why, then, did Paul speak about those who ‘preach Christ out of envy’ (Phil 1:15–18), the Judaizing missionaries whom he calls ‘dogs’ (Phil 3:2), and those Christians who live as ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’ (Phil 3:18–19)?” (656).

If you don’t remember those verses I’ll give you a refresher.

1. Those who preach Christ out of envy; 1.15-18

“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

2. The Judaizing dogs; 3.2-3

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh….“

3. The Christians who live as enemies of the cross; 3.18-19

“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

Friendship and Enmity

DeSilva says that that fact that this is a letter of friendship actually helps us to figure out Paul’s motives.

In the ancient mind friendship is directly related to enmity. ‘Constant attentiveness to friends automatically meant constant watchfulness of enemies’. Since their friendship is based on mutual commitment to shared values and ideals, the bond of friendship—not just between Paul and the church but among the Philippian Christians who have begun to experience internal conflict—can be strengthened by the awareness of others who do not share these values, who are in fact committed to contradictory values. History has repeatedly shown that a group’s internal cohesion and cooperation can be enhanced by drawing attention to the ‘real’ enemies outside the group (656–657).

By having Paul refer to the “dogs” and “evil workers” (3.2) and the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3.18), Paul is reminding the Philippian Christians “of those who are truly unlike them, thus reminding them of their essential unity and commonality” (657). Paul presents these three groups as contrasts against a “true Christian mindset” (657). While the “dogs” are “evil workers” who “mutilate the flesh,” Paul places him and the Philippian Christians on the same team by saying that they together are “the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (3.3). And then Paul presents the virtuous behavior of a mature Christian in 3.7-16.

Rather than living in strife, rivalry, and selfishness as the rival preachers do (1.15a, 17), the Philippian church is to be of the same mind, have the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (2.1). They are to look out for the interests of others (2.4) just as Christ did when he became a servant who obeyed God and died on the cross (2.5-8). He did this in the midst of an adulterous and sinful generation (Mk 8.38), just like crooked and twisted generation the Philippian believers live in (2.15). The situation in Philippi, then, does not involve rival Christian teachers; rather, Paul makes frequent and brief references to “enemies” in order to build up unity and cooperation within the group (657).


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Christ’s Roles in Galatians

In Peter Oakes’ new commentary on Galatians in the Paidiea series, he says that even though Galatians isn’t “primarily a narrative text, there is a christological narrative [underlying] the argument [of Galatians which] makes itself evident at various points” (88).

The Seed of Abraham

  • As ‘the seed’ of Abraham, Christ received the promise made to Abraham (3:15-16, 19). Christ was sent to ‘redeem those under law,’ with the intended result of enabling ‘adoption’ (4:5).


  • Galatians repeatedly states that Christ experienced death, crucifixion (2:19, 21; 3:1, 13; 6:12, 14, 17). This death is described as a motivated action by Christ: he ‘gave himself’ ‘for our sins’ (1:4), ‘for me’ [2:20].
  • In 1:4, this has a purpose, ‘to rescue us from the present evil age.’
  • We can link that with 5:1, Christ ‘set us free,’ and 3:13, in which redemption from the law’s curse involves him becoming ‘a curse.’

The Cross

  • The cross also acts as a locus for identification with Christ (2:19-20) and a changed relationship to the world (6:14).

God’s Actions

  • Christ experienced resurrection by God (1:1).
  • Christ ‘lives’ in Paul and, by implication, in other Christians (2:20).
  • God sends ‘the Spirit of his Son’ into Christians’ hearts (4:6).


  • Conversely, Christians are ‘baptized into Christ’ and ‘put on Christ’ (3:27).
  • They are ‘in Christ Jesus’ (3:28) and share Christ’s identity as ‘seed of Abraham’ (3:29) and as ‘sons of God’ (3:26; 4:6).

All bullet points are quoted from page 89.


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Should Galatians be Gender-Inclusive?

I’m reading Peter Oakes’ new commentary on Galatians in the Paidiea series right now. In a sidebar titled Translating Adelphoi, he points out that, in keeping with the culture of today while not forgetting the culture of yesterday, translators have a tough time with the term adelphoi (“brothers”) in Galatians 1.2.

The Texts

In Gal 1.2, the NRSV says, “and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia….

Gal 1.11, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;”

Gal 2.4, “But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us—”

Gal 5.13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

Gal 6.1, “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.”

Gal 6.18, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen”


  1. Translators know that when Paul uses the term adelphoi (I’ll simply refer to “brothers”) he is referring to all Christians, male and female.
    1. Translators agreed that it was an inclusive term, “encompassing women as well as men” (39).
  2. With the 1900s came feminist scholars who argued that these masculine “inclusive” terms “encoded and reinforced patriarchal assumptions” (39).
  3. At the same time, the English language started to move away from using these masculine terms as inclusive: “many women perceived themselves as excluded from such categories” (39, again).
  4. As a result many translators translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” (this is so in Oakes’ commentary too)

So What is the Problem?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to argue that gender-inclusive language in the Bible is “the devil,” but Oakes does bring up an interesting point.

“The word adelphoi is actually one of the masculine ‘inclusive’ terms in question. Rendering it as ‘brothers and sisters’ could, to an extent, mask a real patriarchy tendency in ancient Greek culture or in the Bible. Moreover, adelphoi may carry connotations of the activities of particular kinds of male groups, such as clubs or elite philosophical gatherings” (39). Here’s a turn of events: “It may also be that it was actually quite radical for Paul to use this term to designate the members of a gender-mixed and socially mixed group. He may effectively have been ascribing heightened status to some members who would not normally have moved in [social] circles where they would have been addressed as adelphoi….” (39).

What Oakes is saying here is that while in the twentieth century some women felt like they weren’t being treated equally and were being overlooked, in Paul’s day anyone who wasn’t a man was overlooked. By addressing the group as “brothers,” Paul is not simply addressing the few men in the home churches even though their families are also listening to the letter being read. He is giving everyone a higher social status. In 6.2 he tells them to bear one another’s burdens, which would include the head of the home bearing the burdens of the servant and the slave. Yes he would still have slaves (if this is questionable to you, read here), but he was to treat them with love and bear their burdens just as Christ bore his sins.

Heirs According to Promise

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3.28–29). Here Oakes says,

“There may… be a radical edge to [Paul’s] use of the masculine term, ‘sons,’ because, in the first-century house-church context, it could be significant that Paul describes the Christian identity of women and slaves among its expected hearers, in terms of the imagery of free male heirs. One further factor is that being sons of God was also an attribute of Israel (e.g., Hosea 11:1). Describing gentiles as having this identity undercuts Paul’s opponents by asserting that gentile Christians already have the closest possible link to God, without needing circumcision” (129-30).

I don’t really have an answer on if Galatians should or shouldn’t be gender-inclusive. The ESV says “brothers” for Gal 1.2, while the NIV says “brothers and sisters.” I’m not knowledgeable on all the ins-and-outs of translation and culture, but we  do live in a culture which knows little about how to read the Bible despite the fact that the Bible is always the #1 Bestseller. Having an English translation doesn’t mean we’ll understand every nuance of the ancient author’s thoughts, but it does mean we can understand God’s overall plan of salvation. Though we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need teachers. We need authors. We need to “bear one another’s burdens.”


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