NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XI)
British Bible scholar John Stott also takes note that the Greek word aphormē (“opportunity”) was used in connection with military operations. It signified the starting-point or base of operations for an expedition, a springboard for further advance. This is what sin does. It establishes a base of operation within us and then uses the law to start a skirmish between our sinful nature and our spiritual nature and provoke us into action. Believers have come to experience such provocations almost every day. As mentioned before, since the days of Adam and Eve, people have found forbidden fruit very enticing. This phenomenon is called, by some, “contra-suggestibility.” It is the tendency to do something, or say something, that is contrary to what they’re being told to say, or do. For example, a traffic sign may read: REDUCE SPEED NOW. But instead of slowing down, this type of person ignores the sign and continues on at the same speed. Their first reaction is, “Why should I?” Then, “I’ll do what I want to do because I can keep this vehicle under control at any speed. Who are they to tell ME what to do?” So it is when the law says do not tell a lie. Sin inflames the tendency of self-will, and the person decides, “I’ll say what I want to say whether anyone likes it, or believes it!”1
Messianic Jewish writer, David Stern, lets us know that when a Jew heard what Paul had to say about sin, it would come very close to the rabbinic notion of, “yetzer ra,” – evil inclination. But unlike what some Rabbis would do, Paul pictures sin here, and through verse 25, as unconquerable by man in his own righteous strength. It is “sinful beyond measure.”2 That means, it is beyond the control of anyone; it cannot be held in check without help. The point Stern makes is that Rabbis would say this evil inclination can be overcome with prayer, study, and righteous acts.
Shakespearean director, computer programmer, teacher, and writer Marcus Geduld wrote a paper titled: “Do bad people exist? Or are they just good people making mistakes?” In his paper, he outlines situations that allow the reader to make that determination. It clearly permits us to see that what the Jews called the evil inclination, or as Paul puts it, sinful intentions, already existed inside. All it takes is the opportunity for it to reveal itself. Geduld based his findings on 35 years of study in Psychology, Economics, History, Biology, and Neuroscience. Here is what he found:
People who have a mixture of selfless and selfish drives, who sometimes give into the latter. Example: a husband who loves his wife but who gives into an impulse (or a series of impulses) and cheats on her.
People who are distracted (tired, busy, sick, mired in a personal trauma) and don’t have the mental capacity (at least at the moment) to consider anyone besides themselves. And so they wind up doing cruel and or thoughtless things to others.
People who are under pressure (external or from some internal drive or desire) and who, in order to relieve that pressure, act in a way that hurts someone else. For example, a wealthy person who feels pressure to maintain his lifestyle (maybe believing he’ll no longer attract his mate if he doesn’t) might abuse less-fortunate people in an attempt to hold onto his fortunes.
People who, as children, learned that the only way they could get attention was by acting out – by getting negative attention. For example, a woman might continually humiliate her boyfriend, because she wants to have a relationship with him, and she never learned how to have one based on love and respect.
People who have low impulse control. When they get angry or upset, they can’t stop themselves from behaving in cruel ways. They don’t have the same internal brakes the rest of us have. (Though most people’s breaks will fail if they’re under enough stress.)
People who have been bullied and are left with an intense need for revenge – or for a way to assert the status that was robbed from them by the bully. Some of them may (without necessarily being conscious of it) use proxies (innocent bystanders) to stand in for the bullies.
People with terrible social skills. They may not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but they simply don’t know how to behave in ways that show respect for others.
People with a disorder like psychopathy (or narcissism) which leaves them unable to feel empathy – or with their empathetic abilities severely blunted. To them, other people are toys, tools, or obstacles – not fellow humans.
People in an extreme situations in which their survival is threatened, such as those caught up in wars or extreme poverty. They may behave cruelly because it’s their only means of protecting themselves. (People who grew up in abusive or stressful environments may not be able to turn off their aggression once the threat has passed.)
People who have bought into (or been indoctrinated) into a system (a religion, a social group, a political ideology, etc.) that is partly based on cruelty. Generally, they have been convinced by the system that the cruelty is a means to some greater good.
People who are “cruel only to be kind,” such as a group of friends holding an intervention for another friend who is a drug addict. Often, people disagree about whether a certain action is cruel or kind. Regardless of who is right, the “kindness” may seem cruel to the person it’s inflicted on.
12. People who are members of a tribe, team, political party, or any other sort of group with a strong sense of inner-loyalty may wind up being cruel to outsiders (and insiders who betray the trust of the group), as a way of showing group solidarity.
As we can see, Geduld witnessed among ordinary, everyday people what Paul has been saying. These tendencies were already present inside each individual, regenerate or unregenerate. So as soon these inclinations encounter a situation where it doesn’t get its way, it springs into action to protect its selfish desires.
Verses 9-10: Before I knew the law, I was alive. But when I heard the law’s command, sin began to live, and I died spiritually. The command was meant to bring life, but for me it brought death.
Here Paul is speaking of a different birth than the new birth Jesus introduced to Nicodemus. In this case, it was the birth of his conscience. We see this illustrated in the story of the prodigal son who took his inheritance and spent it all on immoral living. Then we are told: “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired men have food enough and to spare, and here I am, dying of hunger!‘”3 Once he returned home, his father had this to say: “He was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!”4
The Psalmist went through a similar experience: “Problems far too big for me to solve are piled higher than my head. Meanwhile, my sins, too many to count, have all caught up with me, and I am ashamed to look up. My heart quails within me. Please, Lord, rescue me! Quick! Come and help me!”5 That’s why the Apostle Paul wanted the Galatians to know the consequences once mankind’s conscience was awakened to the truth of sin: “The Scriptures point out very clearly, ‘Cursed is everyone who at any time breaks a single one of these laws that are written in God’s Book of the Law’.”6 That why he goes on to clarify: “Consequently, it is clear that no one can ever win God’s favor by trying to keep the Jewish laws because God has said that the only way we can be right in his sight is by faith.”7 Paul also told them about his awakening: “It was through reading the Scripture that I came to realize that I could never find God’s favor by trying—and failing—to obey the laws. I came to realize that acceptance with God comes by believing in Christ.”8
Again, Paul was an accomplished student of Jewish law. He knew what the Scriptures quoted God as saying: “You must obey only my laws, and you must carry them out in detail, for I am the Lord your God. Only if you obey them, will you live. I am the LORD.”9 And, even as late as the prophet Ezekiel, God repeated this warning.10 Then, when Jesus came and was asked by an expert on Jewish law what must a person do to live forever in heaven, our Lord asked him: “What does Moses’ law say about it?” The expert knew for he said: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And you must love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself.” To this, Jesus replied: “Right! Only if you can do this will you live!”11
The problem, however, was this proved impossible to live up. It required a form of perfection that was unachievable in order to attain everlasting life. That’s what made trying to comply with the law so frustrating. It would have been one thing if after the law pointed out an error, it would have offered help and ultimate forgiveness, but it was not empowered to do so. In my mind, the law is analogous to the weather vane on top of the farmer’s barn. It can tell you which way the wind is blowing, but it can do nothing about it. Or like a thermometer, it can let you know the temperature, but it cannot change it. We could go on with a barometer or altimeter, etc.
In his sermon on this text, Chrysostom explains that while this looks like condemnation by the law, if you look closer you’ll see that it is actually praise for the law. The law did not bring into existence any tendency to sin that did not already exist. Instead, it points out what had previously escaped notice. This is why Paul praises the law. Before it arrived, people were sinning and didn’t realize it. If the law did nothing else for people, at least it made them aware that what they had been doing was a sin. This is not something a person can dismiss if they truly want to be delivered from wicked living. The fact that they may not yet be free is not the law’s fault. It does not have such power. It was given to show the need for being set free by pointing out how bad sin really is. Therefore, any blame for not being free does not go to the law, but wholly against their unwillingness to change. And by refusing to repent, it shows just how bad their situation is.12 This reminds me of a commercial I see on television quite often where a man dressed as a security guard in a bank is asked to “do something” when bank robbers stormed in. He replies: “I’m not a security guard, I’m only a security monitor.” It’s the same thing with the law given to Moses. When asked, “Can you save me from sin?” it answers, “No, I can’t save you from sin, I’m only a Sin Monitor.”
1 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 See verse 13
3 Luke 15:17
4 Ibid. 15:32
5 Psalm 40:12-13
6 Galatians 3:10
7 Ibid. 3:11
8 Ibid. 2:19
9 Leviticus 18:5
10 Ezekiel 20:11
11 Luke 10:27-28
12 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 12, loc. cit.