Dr. Robert R. Seyda



In one of Chrysostom’s sermons on this text, he exclaims: “See how Paul clears the law of any blame!” In his own answer, he points out that it was sin all along that took advantage of the situation to do what was wrong. In fact, the law only made it more desirable to do evil because of the joy of going against authority. This is not what the law intended. It is the weakness of a person’s virtues and values that prevent them from going ahead with their plans even though they know it’s wrong. It’s like the law inflames a person’s desires, instead of putting them out. So why can’t the law be blamed for starting the fire? The law is not at fault, it was only trying to warn and keep the person away from giving into such desires. So what is to blame? It is the person’s own careless attitude and bad temperament. They take what was meant for good and use it for the exact opposite. To accuse the law would be like blaming a physician for his patient getting sick because they didn’t follow the instructions that came with the prescription. The law was given to us to help us get well, not to cause the inflammation of our desires. But instead of extinguishing those desires, it did just the opposite. Not because the law did it on purpose, but because sinful desires used it with the wrong intent.1

Martin Luther believes we must examine what Paul says about a person’s response to the law by looking at it as a believer, not a sinner. As a believer, we are to love the law. It helps keep us straight and on the right path. The law has no intention of arousing our sinful nature and then pushing us to do what is wrong. That’s because the dominating power of sin that used to control us is now dead to us. Luther uses lime compound to make his point. You don’t know there is any heat in the lime until you pour water on it. It is a calcium-containing inorganic material found in the ground, which carbonates, oxides, and hydroxides when combined with water. It’s not the water that creates the heat, it’s what’s in the lime. That’s the same way it is with man and his will when it comes into contact with the law. It’s the sin inside us that reacts in such a way that it bubbles up and gives off energy that then is used to commit the very things the law prohibits. So the results cannot be blamed on the law. And it is only through the love, grace, and mercy of God that the fire of sin can be extinguished.2

Reformist John Calvin contends that it appears as though Paul is saying that the knowledge of sin, without the law, is somehow hidden. To make the point, Paul applies this idea to his own case. If the interpreters had rendered this Greek passage in the imperfect tense it would be much more revealing3 You see, Paul not only admitted that these sinful tendencies were part of his carnal nature in the past, but they were in him to that day.4 In other words, an unbeliever does not discover that they have become a sinner when they begin to sin. They have been sinners all along, but it took the Law to reveal to them that what they were doing was in fact sin.

Robert Haldane is fascinated by the fact that while Paul uses the same Greek word epithymia in verses 7 and 8, the translators of the KJV used the English word, “lust” in verse 7, and “concupiscence” in verse 8. The reason for this question arises from the fact that epithymia indicates a natural inclination to sin, not just sin when we decide to do it. Thayer, in his Greek Lexicon, says that this means: having a “craving” or “longing” for something. And more specifically, a great desire for something that is forbidden. The Apostle James uses it the same way when speaking of temptation.5 Temptation usually comes when the opportunity is given to do something a person has always wanted to do but was afraid of the consequences. Paul made it clear in verse 7 that the law does not cause sin. It only points it out. In other words, sin is stripped of its disguise and seen for what it really is. Then in verse 8, Paul asserts that the law discovered something in him, which was this innate sinful nature he was carrying around with all its evil desires.

When happened then? Paul felt a sudden urge to resist them. But the natural corruption of his heart saw an opportunity to sin, so it struggled against Paul’s urge to resist. This only produces more conflict and disharmony within Paul’s soul, heart, and mind. That’s when Paul realized that the more something is prohibited or forbidden, the more his corrupt human nature wanted to have it. It could not be more clear. Instead of the law helping to subdue the urge to sin, its very prohibition of such acts only increased the desire to have it. While a person may be able to restrain themselves from committing the outward act, the inward desire to participate only grows as the evil inclinations of the mind get excited about the prospects. Does this make the law wicked? By no means. The wickedness is within the person’s sinful heart and mind.6

Charles Hodge does not see verse 8 as logically connected with verse 7. In other words, because Paul didn’t know that sin was within him until it was shown to him by the law, once it was revealed Paul realized that his greatest sin was greed. Was this Paul’s thorn in the flesh?7 That’s when the greed inside him began to suggest all kinds of things that Paul could lust after. Had the law not pointed out this tendency to lust, Paul would have never known it was there. So we can see why someone hearing this might ask, Is the law evil? Paul had his answer ready: No! Just the opposite! This should open our eyes to the sins hidden inside us. So how can we call a thing evil when it helps unmask the bad tendencies going on inside our hearts and minds? And once they are disturbed, these sinful tendencies are awakened and began to demand their desires be satisfied. But Paul cautions that we must understand, that when we refer to these passions as sin, they are to be understood as potential sin, not actual sin. While our indwelling sin, or corruption of nature, is the principal source for producing action and not the act itself, should this make us sad? No! God be thanked that He made it possible for us to detect such tendencies. And as believers, we need not fear them after we have been sanctified and the disposition to serve and obey the Spirit is much stronger than the desire to serve and obey the flesh.8

Albert Barnes also sees the law acting as a detector. In other words, just like a lie detector will reveal a lie when uttered so the Law will detect a sinful tendency the moment it raises its ugly head. But rather than causing this tendency to run away and hide, after being uncovered it begins to demand attention. And when not addressed immediately, it becomes exasperated, and the urge only grows bolder and stronger in its demands, no matter how depraved those demands may be. Now, for sinners, this only makes them more stubborn, obstinate, and desperate to get what they want. Any attempt to resist or set up authority over them only makes them take a rebellious stance in utter opposition. Anyone who has witnessed this type of behavior in a spoiled and obstinate child will understand. But we should not become overly alarmed. Just as a parent will not throw a disobedience child to the dogs, so God will not throw a rebellious and impious sinner into hell. It’s only if they keep following the road they are on they will get there on their own. Likewise, God will not drag a resistant, screaming sinner into heaven. One can only enter there after receiving an invitation that they must then decide to accept or reject.9

Henry Alford has some interesting thoughts about sin and law. To him, the inactivity of sin without the law waking it up must not be understood as meaning that somehow a sin was committed without the person knowing it. If a person has no conscience or basic knowledge of right and wrong, then yes, that might be the case. But that is not Paul’s argument. Dutch scholar and translator Erasmus (1466-1536) explains that the word “dead” in verse 8 should be taken as meaning “being unawares.” In other words, before the law was promulgated, people were ignorant that some of their passions were in fact sinful. So when a person without such knowledge feels the urge to do something, they must depend on their own conscience to tell them if it’s right or wrong. But when they come to the conclusion that since such acts are not forbidden, they can go ahead and do what they planned to do without condemnation. What Paul has put his finger on here is the fact that people are less enthusiastic about doing the things they are permitted to enjoy whenever they like. It’s only when an opportunity presents itself to do something that is off-limits and strictly forbidden that they get stirred up. As odd as it may sound, it’s the thrill of doing something wrong that excites them, not the wrong itself.10

As Charles Ellicott sees it, the law woke up tendencies Paul didn’t know he had. And one that stood out was his hidden greed. He then realized he was not only wanting things he could have but even those that really wasn’t his to have. Ellicott sees this in Paul’s use of the Greek word aphormē, which Thayer in his Greek Lexicon says implies a military metaphor. It describes a place from which a movement or attack is made, a base of operations. And even more, it suggest an advanced post occupied as the starting-point and rendezvous for further advances. Paul is telling us that sin was unable to incite an attack on man’s immoral tendencies without the co-operation of law. But when the law forbidding it was held up in front of him, that’s when it’s real motives jumped into action.11 While the KJV translates the Greek word aphormē as “occasion,” it is better understood today as “opportunity.”

What Karl Barth sees here is that, fundamentally, sin is the possibility that the union between a person and God may be broken if action is taken. This then opens the door to another possibility, and that is being then predestinated to blessedness or damnation. But this secret is known only to God. That does not mean that sin originated in God. But it does mean that only in God can we find the truth about what sin in our lives can or will do. And since believers are known as servants of God, as such, they are subject to the possibility of disobedience, and even rebellion. They can decide to separate themselves from Him. Some who do not want to follow Him openly, try to follow His shadow. But there is no divine glory in His shadow. In fact, His shadow prevents His glory from shining upon the one standing there. In other words, people take the opportunity of making the god they like, and in doing so attempt to make themselves gods. That way, they can decide and predetermine everything in their lives without consultation with God or His Word. It is the presentation of such an opportunity that provides the consequent capacity to make use of it. And that, my friend, is sin.12

1 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 12

2 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 311

3 The imperfect tense refers to actions in the past that continue to occur

4 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

5 James 1:14

6 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 285-286

7 2 Corinthians 12:7

8 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p.344

9 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

10 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 57

11 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

12 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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