NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XVI)
Reformist John Calvin takes a dramatic step in suggesting that “sin” must be regarded the same as, what was called, “bad behavior” before the law was announced. But as soon as the law was promulgated, then such bad behavior obtained its own identity as sin. So what was once seen as a misdemeanor is now designated as a crime against God, and, therefore, “sinful behavior.” That’s because it perverted the goodness of the law and changed it from being constructive to being destructive. This is what happens when something is changed by contamination. What may have contained elements in its own nature that were beneficial to the user, because of pollution it has become hurtful to them. This is why the law was so important. It was vital that the atrocity of sin to be openly revealed by the law. In many cases, it was considered excessive even by worldly standards. That’s why, once this truth was known, there are absolutely no excuses left. They are all invalid.1
Although Calvin makes his explanation seem somewhat complicated, put it in layman’s terms it implies that sinful tendencies lay dormant in mankind’s nature and what they caused them to say or do was understood based on their own perception of right and wrong. But when the Law was given, those same tendencies had the opportunity to turn toward what was right and obey the law. But to the contrary, they turned away in rebellion and transformed something meant for life into a weapon for death. In a way, we can see how this relates to cancer. Normal cell reproduction becomes unrestricted and begins to multiply into tumors which put pressure on nearby tissues and can lead to death. So is the cancer of our sinful tendencies.
As far as Bible scholar Adam Clarke is concerned, people cannot have a full understanding of what sin is except through God’s law. That’s because the law serves a dual purpose. It not only helps us see the detestable and destructive nature of sin, but also serves as rules for living. There is little possibility that mankind could have discovered, on their own, the true stigma of sin in order to produce a sense and need for repentance. Also, without that awareness, it would have been impossible to see the necessity of Christ’s death as Savior. When no challenges are made to one’s conscience by the light of the Holy Spirit, there is little chance a person can see themselves as slaves under sin’s control. This would then keep them from recognizing God’s law and the commandments as holy, just, and good.2
With that understanding, Clarke applied this reality to his day and age. And he saw that there was no true repentance taking place where the moral law was not preached and enforced. Ministers who preach the Gospel only to sinners, at best do what the God lamented to the prophet Jeremiah: “They offer only superficial treatment for the wounds of the daughter of my people.”3 In other words, they don’t confront the believers directly. Yes, the law can be a beautiful instrument in the hands of a faithful minister, to alarm and awaken unregenerate sinners. But they must also show that everyone who sins is breaking the law, and consequently fall under its curse. So unless they flee to the refuge hope holds out through the Gospel, they are doomed. This gives us, even more, reason to accept the fact that Jesus Christ is the End of the Law for justification to them that believe.4
For Albert Barnes, the sense of what Paul says here is that by the giving of the commandments and their application to the mind sin was completely exposed. That’s because it was riled up, inflamed, aggravated, and showed to be excessively malignant and deadly. So here is the bottom line: that the disposition of the Law is to awaken wicked tendencies out of their slumber into active existence so as to reveal their true nature. That’s what needs to be done, and is all that the Law is asked to accomplish. It is not then requested to sanctify the soul. That is beyond its power. So here we see the design of the Apostle Paul. Namely, that sin be seen for what it really is.
This is the only way a person can become acquainted with their true character. A person should never deceive themselves into thinking this is not necessary. It is part of God‘s plan to diagnose and expose the secret tendencies of the heart. Without this revelation, they would have no reason to look for a remedy. Just as a person who does not know they have cancer or diabetes asks a doctor for a prescription or treatment. Why should they worry about living if they don’t know there is a disease inside that could kill them? So it is with sin. No wonder God often allows people to plunge into sin to show who they really are. This is to alarm them that without help they will suffer the consequences of their own sinful deeds.5
In Charles Hodge’s mind, there is nothing more inconsistent with true faith than self-complacency. The truth is, the more sanctified we become, the clearer will be our views of the benefit of God’s law. Consequently, the clearer we can see with the light of the law the deeper we can look into the darkness where sin is hiding. Not only that, but our humility must grow as well. No matter what our experience as believers may be, if it does not correspond with Biblical expectations and results, we cannot really call ourselves Christians. So unless we have experienced what Paul experienced, we do not share Paul’s beliefs and convictions. That also means, we cannot expect to get the same reward.6 Hodge also sees some doctrinal implications in what Paul writes. One of them is that the law of God is a transcript of His own nature – holy, just, and good. The clearer our view who God is, what God is, and what God can do, the deeper will be our sense of our own unworthiness. Sin is exceedingly wicked. Its depravity is often manifested when it comes into contact with holiness. That arouses its harsh opposition and criticism. So it is with the holiness of the law. Instead of what is forbidden causing it to shrink back in contrition, it makes it all the more hostile and insistent. That should no doubt alarm us and make us take notice of what we are doing. But worse than that is the fact that sin is very deadly. It can take away all the meaning of life and why God created us. And such a state of mind cannot continue without bringing misery and despair.7
In one of his sermons, Charles Spurgeon pointed out that the law and sin are something like medicine which many physicians prescribe for their patients. After diagnosing a potentially fatal disease in the patient’s body, the doctor wants them to take this medicine to combat this terrible disease. Its evidence may be seen on the skin. It may also cause severe pain. And sometimes a person does not know it is there at all. It can be a silent killer. Left untreated, it would have brought death. But by being treated it only has the potential of causing death. So the whole purpose of the treatment is to cure the disease and put it into remission or eradicate it totally from the body.8 So Spurgeon is letting us know that as soon as the truth in the Law enters a person’s heart, their rebellious nature kicks against the restraints of the law, and such revolt is called sin. In other words, it is the reaction of mankind’s imperfect nature coming into contact with God’s perfect Law.
John Stott offered an illustration that exemplifies a man being caught red-handed breaking the law. He is arrested, brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. He cannot blame the law for his imprisonment. True, it is the law which convicted and sentenced him. But he has no one to blame but himself and his own criminal behavior. In similar fashion, Paul exonerates the law. The villain here is evil tendency. And because of its perversity, when the law provoked it by saying, “No,” it rebelled and became belligerent. Those people who say that the problem is with the law, are quite wrong. The law is not the problem, its a person’s evil tendencies that enjoy sinning. This contention and conflict between evil tendencies and holy law show two things. First, the strength of the law to hunt down and expose these evil tendencies hiding inside hearts and minds. Secondly, the weakness of the law seen in its inability to offer forgiveness and salvation. This is true not only because the law has no such authority unless it is kept to perfection. But we cannot keep it because of indwelling evil tendencies.9
Douglas Moo feels that what Paul is doing here is summarizing what he taught in Romans 7:7–12. The main point being that because of the law it enables us to see sin for what it really is. The purpose is to identify the desires of our evil tendencies as sin, and to convince us that sin is fatal. In other words, the law is misused as an instrument that brings about sin instead of holiness. Holiness comes as a benefit of being in a living relationship with Christ, but sin fractures that relationship and eternal separation from Christ can be the result. This verse also reveals another factor. It helps people refocus on the law, evil tendencies, and sin. Instead of seeing the law as the problem, they can now see that the problem begins with them.10
Verse 14: We know that the law is spiritual, but I am not. I’m mere flesh and blood. Sin rules me as if I were its slave.
Clearly, Paul is drawing on his own experience in order to explain the hopelessness of seeking salvation by good works. For as anyone who has gone on a diet in order to lose weight will tell you, that your figure looks so much different in a picture or a video than it does in a mirror. In the mirror, you see what you want to see, but in a picture the facts and reality are more than your self-perception can dismiss. Paul is confessing to the same paradox in the way he viewed his spiritual status. He thought he had mastered the effort of developing a spiritual nature, when in fact he was carnal to the bone. Furthermore, he discovered that instead of having control over his sinful tendencies, they had full control over him, even to the point of making him a slave to their power.
Paul had reached the point where he discerned the difference between what the law said about works and what it said about wants. To put it another way, deeds cannot always be a mirror image of decisions. A person may be involved in helping a fellow farmer harvest his crop, but volunteered with the intent of stealing part of the harvest. This is the real issue that the law deals with. That’s why we read: “You are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources.”11 It doesn’t say with you hands or your feet, but with your heart and mind. That’s why, after the prophet Nathan told David that God knew all about his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, he made this confession: “I was born a sinner, yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. You deserve honesty from the heart; yes, utter sincerity and truthfulness.”12
1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Jeremiah 6:14
5 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp 350-351
7 Ibid. p. 350
8 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Deuteronomy 6:5 – Complete Jewish Bible
12 Psalm 51:5-6