Romans 7 is as difficult to grasp as Romans 6 is easy to understand. It would have been fine with me if Paul had gone straight from chapter 6 to chapter 8. But of course had he done that the first four verses of chapter 8 wouldn’t mean nearly as much as they do. It’s only out of the despair of chapter 7 that the deliverance of chapter 8 can be fully appreciated. And, in the overall context of Romans, chapter 7 is quite necessary. Paul has to both defend the Torah as well as show how it became a covenant of death for Israel. Until he’s done that, he hasn’t fully derailed Israel’s pursuit of Torah righteousness which was blinding them to the gospel.
Maybe it’s best to think of the chapter as a long parenthesis. In chapter 6 Paul shows how coming to Christ is synonymous with dying to sin. In chapter 7 he shows how coming to Christ involves dying to the Torah. The connection is that to die to sin you must die to Torah because the covenant was “weakened by the flesh” (8:3) and became a “law of sin and death” (v. 2). As Paul has shown in chapters 2-3, Israel under Torah was no different than the nations without Torah. Under the Torah, sin captured and corrupted the nation’s heart and choked out its life. The way to life is “through Christ Jesus” and “the law of the Spirit who gives life”(8:2).
Still Paul will insist that it’s not the Torah’s fault. It’s not sinful (v. 7) nor is it death (v. 13), but it is used by sin to bring death. The Torah is in fact spiritual (v. 14), but sin has left the nation unspiritual. Israel’s situation under the Torah was simple: it had become a covenant of death. Anyone wishing to relate to God through the Torah (the national covenant) shared in the condemnation attached to it in the same way that anyone choosing to be in Jerusalem in AD 70 would experience the destruction God was bringing upon the city through the Romans. As with the temple there, the Torah had served its purpose and was fulfilled by Christ (10:4).
The dilemma expressed in v. 14-24 is easily the most well-known and quoted part of this chapter but it shouldn’t be taken as Paul speaking personally. In regard to righteousness by the law he believed himself to be blameless (Philippians 3:6) and elsewhere declared that he had lived “in all good conscience” (Acts 23:1). That doesn’t line up with the conflicted person speaking here. For that reason, it’s better to understand Paul to be speaking for the Jewish nation. Their experience under law was not good. The monarchy is all the example we need of this. Sin led to the initial king (even though the monarchy was in God’s plan), then to the divided kingdom, and finally to the exiles. When the true King finally arrived in Jesus, they crucified Him. The law that was to give life to the nation instead brought condemnation and death.
With this, Paul has both upheld the law and shown it to be a ministry of death for Israel (2 Corinthians 3:7ff). The way to freedom and life is not through Israel and the Torah but through Christ (Romans 8:1ff).