NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XIV)
Charles Hodge offers an idea on how sin’s modus operandi misled Paul, completely deceiving him, and caused all his expectations to end in disappointment. This happened because the Apostle was led to expect one thing while experiencing another. He anticipated a holy life, but found spiritual death; he awaited fulfillment, but was given only failure; he looked for holiness, but found increasing corruption. In other words, he imagined that the law would deliver all these desirable virtues so he could feel eternally secure. You can only imagine the heartbreak when he discovered that his devotion to the law had produced the exact opposite effect. Sin, therefore, was using the law to victimize, leaving him empty and disappointed instead of being holy and blessed. Sin follows a similar pattern. It also promises to deliver the joys and pleasures of sin. Everyone who has been delivered from sin knows how it always mocked expectations and imitated hope. Paul was not alone, such is the experience of every believer in the ordinary progress of their inward life. They often turn to the law for help in constructing a temple to worship their own righteousness and strength, only to find out that all the law does is aggravate their efforts by not meeting its promises because they never met their vows.1
Karl Barth has a philosophical way of looking at the role of the Law. As he sees it, the law has proven to be an occasion for sin to raise its ugly features and insist on making it something other-worldly. They try to clothe their time here on earth with the garment of eternity. This is an attempt to make themselves look holy through human achievement. Furthermore, this is what led to a form of worship where they are speaking to God instead of God speaking to them. Then they have the gall to call such worship a “religion.” In the process, worshipers find life here on earth questionable, and that puts their religion in doubt. So out of desperation, they lift their hands in prayer and then slump in weariness. They do this over and over to no avail. All of this describes living under the law in a futile attempt to become right with God on their own so as to justify their deserving eternal life as a reward.2
John Stott takes this a little further by outlining three devastating effects of the law in relation to sin. First, it exposes sin, then provokes sinful tendencies, and finally condemns the sin committed. That’s why Paul told the Corinthians that this defines the law as the power of sin, with its resulting sting known as death.3 However, this does not constitute thinking of the law as sinful, nor to assign to it the responsibility for sin. Instead, it is our sinful nature that responds to the law by sinning. When seen that way, then the law is exonerated, and sin receives the blame.4 How often do we find people who blame their misdeeds and mistakes on the rules? Like the person who gets a speeding ticket blames it on the cop who tracked them with radar. Or the person who is fined for not returning an overdue borrowed item. They blame it on the policies of the lender. Paul is saying, you cannot blame your sin on the Law, but you must realize and confess that it was your own sinful nature that rebelled against the Law which was designed to protect you from harm.
Verse 12: Now the law is holy, and what it commands is holy and right and good.
A recent translation of this verse from Hebrew by Jewish scholars reads as follows: “For what reason the law [is] holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good?”5 A better English rendition would be: “For what reason was the law made holy, and the commandments holy, just, and good?” It obviously sends us to the next verse that continues the thought by also asking; “If it was so good and holy, why does it cause failure?” Paul is not arguing against the law, but rather to show how by understanding its aim, its purpose can be better seen. The question is also asked so that Paul could show that it wasn’t the law that ruined him, but the sinful tendencies that came to live because of the law. Again, we must understand here the word “kill” is a figure of speech meaning, to bring to an end.
This was done by Paul in order to cushion any push-back from the Jewish members of the church in Rome in response to what they interpret as Paul assigning the Law of Moses to the trash-heap of outdated philosophies. He wants them to know that he still has great respect and reverence for the Law. After all, it did not come from Moses, it was given to Moses by God. In fact, God asked the children of Israel: “What nation, no matter how great, has laws as fair as these I am giving you today?”6 That’s why the announcement went out to everyone: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you except to listen carefully to all He says to you, and to obey for your own good the commandments I am giving you today, and to love Him, and to worship Him with all your hearts and souls?”7
From that time onward the Laws given to Moses were held in high esteem. The Psalmist exclaimed: “God’s laws are perfect. They protect us, make us wise, and give us joy and light. God’s laws are pure, eternal, and fair. They are more desirable than gold. They are sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb.”8 Even after the children of Judah returned from exile in Babylon and Persia, when Ezra the scribe prayed to God at one of their festivals, he said: “You came down upon Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them good laws and true commandments… and You commanded them, through Moses, Your servant, to obey them all.”9 In the Jewish teachings on mysteries and the Messiah it is said: “Therefore, it is necessary we should study the secret doctrine day and night and observe its teachings and doctrines.”10
That’s why Paul told young Timothy not to get involved with those who argue endlessly over what they think the Law is really saying: “They want to become famous as teachers of the laws of Moses when they haven’t the slightest idea what those laws really show us. Those laws are good when used as God intended.”11 This is good advice for all today who are confronted by those who argue incessantly over what they think Paul said in his letters.
Apparently, early church scholar Chrysostom got wind of some teachers who were confusing the law of Moses given on Mt. Horeb in Sinai with the law of nature delivered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Paradise. Chrysostom dismisses such a notion because Paul had no quarrel either one of them. What brought fear to the Jews was the possible abolition of the law. This would put an end to their religion and all of its rites, rituals, and ceremonies. No wonder they so stubbornly opposed the idea of the law being replaced by the doctrine of grace. Also, their argument holds even less water when it is proven that Paul never called the commandment given in paradise a law. So putting that aside, it would allow for a more focused examination of the logic behind Paul’s argument about how the law had failed and needed to be replaced.
So building on what he had already discussed with the believers in Rome concerning the need for having proper standards of behavior for Christians, Paul began this chapter by reminding them that they were very acquainted with what the law says about conduct, but did they take the time to notice that it only applies to a person while they are alive. And since their interest extends beyond this life to the world-to-come they needed something more eternal. If that is the case, then why continue under a standard of living that’s going to expire when they can live by the rules that will be theirs on into eternity? It would make no sense to continue living under a code of conduct that will soon be out-of-date. To do so would make them no better than those who occupy the animal world. So there is no reason to even consider it.12
John Calvin feels that more insight is needed to better understand Paul’s wording here about the law being holy. First, Calvin accepts the opinion that the words “law” and “commandments” are one and the same thing. But he bids us to notice a curious force in the words. Paul says that the law itself and, whatever it commands, is holy, and, therefore, should be regarded with the highest reverence. That’s because since it is holy and just, it cannot, therefore, be charged with doing anything wrong. To accept the law as good and pure is to free it from responsibility for doing any harm. Paul wanted to make sure that any charge of blame brought against the law would fail because that is contrary to its goodness, justice, and holiness.13
Robert Haldane is convinced that as believers we should not only abstain from all that God forbids but that we should not even desire what is forbidden. All that the law demands from anyone is what’s equitable and due to God, and nothing more. The same goes for the believer and their fellowman. A just law could demand no less. In so doing, the law proved not only to be fair but also beneficial. That’s because in and of itself it’s purpose is redeeming. That means that the law’s whole intent is to promote harmony and to establish in the highest degree the happiness of all who are under its authority. When we look closer, every commandment given to Moses was basically designed to promote happiness among humans. This is the glory of the law and shows that it proceeds from the Giver of every good and perfect gift – from Him who alone is good.14 But this must not be mistaken as the basis for our obedience to the law. Anyone who has attempted to place the foundation of morals on the principle of, “do what feels good for you,” only proves their shortsightedness. They fulfill what Paul said at the beginning: “Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools”15.16
Albert Barnes hopes that we have all come to the same conclusion: The law is not to be blamed. This is what happens under normal circumstances in everyday life. The real culprit is not the law, it is the corrupt nature of mankind. But keep this in mind, although the Law is good, it was never meant to purify the heart of fallen man. It has no such power. But it was designed to increase guilt, conflict, alarm, and despair. For what reason? To show what was hiding inside of men’s hearts and minds. This should then prompt them to seek help and resolution.
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 348
2 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 1 Corinthians 15:56
4 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Rose, Tov. The New Messianic Version of the Bible: The B’Rit Hadashah (New Testament) (Kindle Location 12229)
6 Deuteronomy 4:8
7 Ibid 10:12-13
8 Psalm 19:7-10
9 Nehemiah 9:13-14
10 Manhar, Nurho de. The Zohar: Bereshith to Lekh Lekha, folio 11a
11 1 Timothy 1:6-8
12 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 12
13 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 James 1:17
15 Romans 1:22
16 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 289