NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson IX)
In one of his sermons, British preacher Charles Spurgeon made it known that there are some people who hope to overcome their bad tendencies through habit breaking and making resolutions. They think that as long as they do all the things the church tells them to do, it will somehow cause a halo to form over their heads and by some miracle that will make them holy. There’s no doubt that in itself the law is holy because the One who gave it is holy. But just by reading it does not make the reader holy. So what effect should the law have on the mind? For those who still have an unrenewed mind, instead of discouraging sin, it encourages it. There is something in the sinner’s mind that immediately wants to rebel against the law the moment it’s read, or it is heard. If you don’t believe that, just tell one of your children not to do something they want to do. There will be little time before they throw themselves on the floor in a fit of anger. That’s because there are some things a person would never think of doing until they are told they can’t do it. By the same token, if they are told they must do it, they resist because they don’t want to obey. If that isn’t enough, the more people are prohibited from doing, or are forced into doing, the greater their despicable nature will urge them to go against the law.1
John Stott’s impression of what Paul is claiming requires a reiteration of what has been said all along: The law was meant to reveal sin, not salvation. Paul already explained, “through the law, we become conscious of sin.”2 Now he writes: “Indeed, I would not have known what sin was except through the law.” This no doubt implies that he came to recognize the seriousness of sin because the law unmasked and exposed it for what it really is – rebellion against God. This is what brought Paul under conviction. In his case, it was the tenth commandment prohibiting envy.3 In other words, when God gave humans a free will, He also included an alarm system in mankind’s conscience to alert them that they had done something wrong. But it wasn’t until the Law was given that his wrong-doing was finally explained. And once this was revealed, then man knew that what he had done was a sin against God’s instructions.
Douglas Moo sees an important factor between Christians and Mosaic law. We must not make the mistake of taking Paul’s claim that believers are “released from the law.” In fact, we cannot apply this liberation to any particular function of the law. What has happened is that the believer has been set free from the commanding authority of the Mosaic law. If any part of the Law is broken, it no longer has the power to condemn us to die as sinners. But it also means, that no part of the Old Testament law should be taken as an immediate requirement for Christian living. We know, that when a person leaves one country and settles in a new one, they are no longer under the legal jurisdiction of the country they left. So it is with Christians. They have left the dominion of an old covenant and are now living under a new covenant.4 So now, by being obedient to the teachings of Christ, they fulfill every Old Testament law that is relevant to salvation and Christian living.5
Jewish writer David Stern translates the first part of this verse this way: “Therefore, what are we to say? That the Torah is sinful.” The reason Stern brings this up is because in Romans 2:18, 3:20, 5:13, 20 Paul indicated that some think the Torah makes people sin. He doesn’t want anyone jumping to the conclusion that it’s the Torah itself that is sinful. That’s why the Apostle reacts to any such assumption with a strong, negative reply – Heaven forbid!6 Then we must analyze how a holy, just, and good Torah can stir up such sinful desires. The answer is simple. It’s not the Torah’s fault, it’s our own. For instance, the tenth commandment, concerning adultery,7 can be transgressed mentally before it is violated physically. The same is true with envy. Long before anything is stolen, the penchant to sin was already in one’s heart. This should help everyone understand that the Torah cannot be taken as a set of behavior rules that must be followed to the letter before any accusation of having sinned is made. The fact that these things were written was to combat what was already in the human mind.8
That’s why another Jewish writer thinks everyone should admit that sin existed before the Torah was ever written. However, the Torah gave sin a power it didn’t have before.9 This means, understanding what sin is was all the Torah had to explain to become the agent to take that knowledge and get the sinner excited about fulfilling all their sinful passions. The Torah itself is not a part of those passions. People were sinning before the Torah was ever composed.10 But without the Torah’s explanation of what sin really is, people don’t fully recognize how it offends God and the danger of punishment it brings.11 That’s why Paul uses himself as an example in this chapter of someone in whom Yeshua lives, therefore, they can walk (follow the Torah) according to the spirit, not legalistically. By doing that, they are then free to live without obeying this sin.12
Verse 8: And sin took the opportunity to use that command and make me want all kinds of things that weren’t mine. So sin came to me because of the command. But without the law, sin has no power.
But Paul is not finished with this subject of showing the relationship between the Law and sin. Paul is about to testify about this phenomena from his own experience. We know that Paul spent time with the Apostle James, and perhaps they exchanged thoughts on this because James tells his readers: “No one being tempted should say, ‘I am being tempted by God.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, and God Himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is being tempted whenever he is being dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire. Then, having conceived, the desire gives birth to sin; and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.”13
Some Bible scholars suggest that the last part of what Paul says here in this verse should read: For without a law sin is dead. In other words, where there is no law, there is no transgression. But sin is the transgression of the law. In other words, the very essence of sin consists in the violation of some positive or negative law. In effect, that’s what Jesus said: “They would not be guilty if I had not come and spoken to them. But now they have no excuse for their sin. “14 Paul echoes this same truth: “For sin – the sting that causes death – will all be gone; and the law, which reveals our sins, will no longer be our judge.”15
When early church scholar Origen read what Paul said here, he wondered: Why is it, that when someone is told that something is forbidden, they want to do it even more? That’s what happens when people read what the commandments prohibit. Even though they are holy, just, and good, laws, nevertheless, when they say, “Don’t,” people think they are being kept from having or doing something pleasant and enjoyable. Paul says that is the very core of what the law does that it was never meant to do. It was not given to provoke, inflame, or drive people to sin. That’s why we cannot blame the law when that happens. It’s the sinful tendencies and inclinations that exist inside people’s hearts and minds that are to blame. And as Paul said, if it is not somehow taken care of by a higher power, it will be the death of him.16 Early church Bishop Theodore wholeheartedly concurs with Paul. In fact, anyone with an open mind will nod in agreement, that without the law around to define sin, it would be of little value. And why is this? Because no deed in itself can be considered sin unless it can be pointed out that it is wrong. Then, once a person knows it’s wrong and yet goes ahead and does it, that is this the dirty little secret of sin.17
Let’s put this in layman’s terms: When the Pennsylvania Turnpike was first built in 1940, there was no speed limit. So speeding on this new four-lane highway was not illegal. But as soon as the speed limit signs were posted it became a violation of the law and punishable by a fine. Yes, before speeding laws were enacted, speeding could result in injury and death. But that was due to foolishness and recklessness. But once the signs were up, it became a violation of the law. So it was before God gave the law to validate what was already part of mankind’s conscience. Before the law, such immoral acts were due to foolishness and carelessness, but after the law was given, it became sin.
Saint Augustine tells a story about himself that illustrates this tendency that Paul addresses here. When he was a young man, all he wanted to do was involve himself in immoral activities. He had a number of mistresses. He apparently grew thin with so much senseless activity, and later he would tell God: I must have looked totally depraved in Your eyes. Yet when he looked in the mirror, all he saw was a handsome young gigolo.18 This led him into committing robbery. Not because he was hungry or too poor to support himself, but out of contempt for all the do-gooders in the community and an out-of-control desire to do what was wrong in their eyes. He confessed to stealing something he already had plenty of and of much better quality. He had no intention of stealing it to bring him any enjoyment, but just for the thrill of stealing and not getting caught.
Augustine tells about a pear tree that was close to his parent’s vineyard. Although it hung heavy with fruit, there was nothing about its color or taste that tempted him to take some without permission. But late one night, after he and his cohorts finished playing their games out in the street, he and his band of rebels did what they were in the habit of doing, going out looking for trouble. So they all decided to go over to this beautiful pear tree and shake it until all the fruit lay on the ground. They then picked them up and carried off a huge load of pears. They had no interest in eating the pears themselves, but they wanted to feed them to the pigs. This was their way of degrading their value. He said they got a kick out of doing this just because they knew it was against the law.19 So by telling this story, Augustine illustrates what Paul had been saying all along: It isn’t the law that makes you sin, it’s the evil inside you as soon as you find out it’s the wrong thing to do. No wonder Paul cried out for help in 7:24.
1 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Romans 3:20
3 James Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 See Matthew 5:17
6 See Romans 3:4
7 Exodus 20:14
8 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 See 1 Corinthians 15:56
10 Romans 2:12, 5:13, 15:12-14
11 Ibid. 3:20
12 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 James 1:13-15 – Complete Jewish Bible
14 John 15:22
15 1 Corinthians 15:56 – Living Bible
16 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
17 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, loc. cit.
18 Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion, Bk. 2, Ch. 1, p. 29
19 Ibid., Ch. 4, p. 32