NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XII)
Early church preacher Chrysostom also sees no reason to blame the law when death, both physically and spiritually, come as a result of sin. The fault does not lie with the law, but with those who disregard the law. The law is trying to point them to the Way that leads to the Truth in order to find the Life God wants them to enjoy. In other words, if a person ignores the sign that says, “BRIDGE OUT,” if they die at the bottom of a ravine or river their survivors cannot blame it on the sign. The culpability lies squarely on the shoulders of the one who drove past the sign in defiance. Early church scholar Constantius sees Paul using the word death to define a form of punishment sin keeps hidden. It does so by offering temporary pleasures to satisfy the earthly nature as though they were good and long-lasting. By doing so, sin persuades the transgression of a law that promises eternal life to those who obey it.1
Pelagius also believes that Paul is saying that while he was knowingly doing what was wrong on the outside, he was dying on the inside. The very commandments which were meant to point him in the direction of eternal life, were, in fact, leading him down the road to eternal punishment. All because he chose not to obey them. And Bishop Theodoret makes an interesting observation about Adam and Eve and how sin deceived them. As soon as God let them know that they were not supposed to eat the fruit of the tree that would open their eyes to what was good and what was evil, it was then, and only then, that the devil showed up and lied to Eve.2 The fruit was too tempting, too alluring for her to resist. What does this tell us? It tells us that the tendency to sin was already inside the heart and mind of Adam and Eve before its presence was ever discovered. Had these tendencies not been there, then there would have been no need for God to have given them free will3.4
Martin Luther makes an interesting point about those who seek to be declared as righteous before God because of all the good works they do. They are so blinded by their pride they cannot see or understand what the law of God really says. If they would just take a look, they would see that what they are doing is just the opposite. And because of that, they are unaware that it is sinful. We must understand that for something to be declared sinful, it must go against God’s Word and His Will. And because they are so blinded by their own actions, they are not open to instruction. Were they to receive instruction about the law, they would come to realize that what they were doing to look good in the eyes of God was actually making them look bad. In other words, the sin that was lying dormant in their lives came alive. Was it wrong for the law to do that? No! By awakening them to the sin that lies within, they can seek forgiveness and be cleansed of such unrighteousness. That would then redirect them from the road that was leading to everlasting punishment to the way that leads to everlasting life.
So how does that happen? It is done by the Holy Spirit who is sent by God to open their eyes to the fact that it’s not works that saves, it’s faith. Faith in the work of Christ, not in the work of their own hands. Should a person be happy with what they already know about the sinful tendencies within them? No! If they know only about a few, then they will only confess and ask forgiveness for a few. By not knowing about these tendencies, then the probabilities for sinning increase. So it’s best to deal with our evil inclinations before they are inflamed by the law. We should all repeat the words of the Psalmist who said: “When I confessed my sins to You; when I stopped hiding my guilt, and I finally said, ‘I will confess my wrongs to Adonai;’ then You, You, O Lord, will be the one who forgives my sin and takes my guilt away.”5‘”6
John Calvin sees two things happening here. The law shows us the way we should be living to honor God and His Word, but our corrupt nature keeps us from doing what we ought to do. That’s why we must learn to distinguish between the character of the law and the law of our character; between its quality and our quality. There is no hiding it, sometimes the law causes us to suffer wounds that bring pain and resentment. But unfortunately, the law has no healing remedy. So if the wound is not taken care of, it can lead to the infection of our soul and then giving up. But it is not the law that keeps us from seeking help. In fact, it encourages us to do so. It is our sinful nature that does not want to acknowledge that it was our fault the wounds were inflicted by fighting against the law.7
Adam Clarke agrees with other scholars that Paul represents sin here as an armed and flagrant adversary. The reason for this is clear. When failing to heed the law, it threatens us with death. The violator must be punished. That’s exactly what Paul meant when he said that the wages of sin is death.8 What happened in the Garden of Eden helps illustrate this point. He sees Paul as saying that he finally realized that by violating the Law it would lead to death. He also discovered, that it only presents the duty to obey and lays down the penalty for disobedience. However, it yields no strength to resist sin or subdue evil tendencies.9
Robert Haldane wonders, what did Paul mean that he was alive but the law put him to death? Obviously, Paul was alive and doing well and proud of his accomplishments before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Even so, he was already struggling with keeping the law in a perfect way. But after speaking to Jesus, and then with Ananias, his eyes were opened. That’s when it hit him. All that he had done up until then to be righteous before God was a failure. All of his legal appeals for attaining eternal life were turned down. Paul was not ignorant of the law. He just didn’t know that it was the law that evoked the evil tendencies within him. He knew the letter of the law but was totally blind to the spirit of the law. He knew what the law said, but he didn’t really know what it meant. In other words, he had no true discernment of his innate corruption. It was only when he understood that the true significance of the law rested in its ability to speak to the inner tendencies of the heart, not to the logic of the mind.
Paul had studied the law with great intensity. He understood it word for word. But he didn’t really appreciate the full extent and power to which it was designed to speak to one’s conscience. Even Paul admitted what all people know, to a certain extent, when they do wrong but are totally blind to exactly what kind of person they are. Thank God Paul took the time to give us an account from his own experience both in his unconverted and renewed state. That’s why it so important to appreciate that he took the time to point out what unconverted minds do not perceive – that the evil inclination within is the root of sin. We see this in the 7th and 8th verses where ‘lust’ or ‘concupiscence’ are used. Lust is – having strong desires; concupiscence is – to have been longing for those strong desires. Such enlightenment can only come when the Holy Spirit brings conviction to a sinner’s heart.10
Albert Barnes notes that while the Law was given as a path to life, in the end, it opened a highway to death. After all, didn’t God tell Moses: “I am Adonai your God. You are to observe my laws and rulings; if a person does them, he will have life through them.”11 So in every sense, the Law is good and holy. But such life could only be acquired if the Law is kept perfectly. But with sin embedded in mankind’s nature, this was impossible. The real problem is that the Law caused a short-circuit in man’s built-in inclinations. So, instead of producing life and peace one expects as a holy testament to God’s standards, it produces only misery and evildoing. We can see this in everyday life. Parents may lay down laws for their children which are intended to promote happiness and success. If followed, they bring harmony and cooperation within the family circle. But what happens where there is one obstinate, self-willed, and stubborn child? Their only interest being to get what they want, even if it not best for the whole family. This only brings bickering and nasty attitudes to the dinner table. In the same way, the law was ordained for the good and success of the human family. When obeyed, it promotes healthiness and welfare. But we all know what happened among the children of Israel in the wilderness. And sadly, it has affected the family of God in a similar manner.12
Charles Hodge sees all of this as Paul’s way of directing his readers toward an answer regarding this dilemma of the law giving mixed signals. Even though the law was designed to be followed in order to secure life, it ended up becoming the cause of death. We must remember that life and death are used here by Paul as figurative terms. Life includes the ideas of happiness and holiness; being given something to live for and a reason to live. The law was designed to make people happy and holy. But when Paul speaks of death, it includes the ideas of misery and sin. When all is said and done, the sinner ends up losing everything. Even for Paul, the law became, through no fault of its own, the means of rendering the Apostle miserable and resentful. So it is as obvious as the nose on one’s face that expecting the law to save was an ill-conceived idea. All that the law does is condemn the unrenewed heart and awaken its opposition to being changed. Truth is, even the law could not change the nature of fallen man. The law brought the knowledge of sin, (Romans 3:20); here it produces a reaction that leads to sin (see verse 5); because it awakens all manner of physical attraction, (verse 8); it wakes up sin from its sleep (verse 9); it then seduces the individual to commit sin (verse 11). No wonder it cannot save! That’s why those who only see religion as a legal code are miserable and deluded!13
Verse 11: Sin found a way to fool me by using the command to make me die.
Paul raises a very pertinent point in his discourse on the awakening of the conscience. Is it possible that something good, like the law, could prove to be what caused him to give up? No! Indeed not, exclaims the Apostle! Rather it was sin that used something which was intrinsically good, as a weapon to bring about the death of his hope for salvation by works. Today we hear questions about tobacco and alcohol use; about dancing, motion pictures, TV, fashions, etc., being discussed as to their inherent insignificance in a Christian’s lifestyle. But many fail to see that just as the holy Law was used, so can these things be used to awaken our conscience to the fact that we have a weak spiritual life.
When it comes to the prohibition of participating in these worldly activities, we try to find Biblical justification for them. After all, David danced before the Lord. Alcohol was often used as a disinfectant; motion pictures can be used to display the life of Christ; TV can send the Gospel to places that missionaries would not be allowed to enter. But they also have their bad side. Listen, two people who went into the same bank to get money. Both walked out with a handful of cash. One made a legitimate withdrawal from their account, while the other committed robbery. This is the same way sin corrupts things meant for good by evil intentions.
1 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, loc. cit.
2 See Genesis 3:1-5
3 Ibid. 3:6-19
4 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, loc. cit.
5 Psalm 32:5
6 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 111-112
7 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Romans 6:23
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 122
10 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 286-287
11 Leviticus 18:4-5 – Complete Jewish Bible
12 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 347