NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XVII)
Jesus made it very clear what evil tendencies were. On one occasion, He told His followers that a man’s desire to commit adultery with another man’s wife has already been done in his heart.1 That’s why the writer of Hebrews informed his readers: “The Word of God is alive! It is at work and is sharper than any double-edged sword – it cuts right through to where soul meets spirit and joints meet marrow, and it is quick to judge the inner reflections and attitudes of the heart.”2
Even before the Law was given, God confronted mankind over matters of conscience dealing with right and wrong. After He challenged Adam and Eve to tell Him why they were hiding instead of meeting Him out in the open, they confessed that for the first time they both realized they were naked. Adam blamed it on Eve, Eve blamed it on the serpent. Then, after Cain murdered his brother Abel, God confronted Him. His lame excuse was he didn’t know he had any responsibility for his brother’s welfare. The list can go on and on. Even the patriarch Job confessed that after getting to know God, all his righteousness evaporated and he said: “I had heard about You with my ears, but now that my eyes have seen You; I detest who I am and repent in dust and ashes.”3
The great prophet Isaiah also had a moment where, after witnessing the awesome six-winged Seraphs singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD Almighty,” before God’s throne, he reflected on himself and it was enough to make him cry out: “My doom is sealed, for I am a foul-mouthed sinner, a member of a sinful, foul-mouthed race; and I have looked upon the King, the Lord of heaven’s armies.”4 Later on, Isaiah confessed: “Since the world began no one has seen or heard of such a God as ours, who works for those who wait for Him. You welcome those who cheerfully do good, who follow godly ways. But we are not godly; we are constant sinners and have been all our lives.”5 In Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, this is what we call “conviction.” But the sense of sin’s awful presence does not come from the law, but from God’s grace and mercy calling us to repent and ask forgiveness. No doubt that’s how Peter felt, and it caused him to fall to his knees before Jesus and plead: “Get away from me, Sir, because I am a sinner!”6
Chrysostom is quick to agree that Paul clears the law of all blame. He holds it in high honor. And by calling it spiritual, he praises it as a proponent of virtue and a prosecutor of vice. This is the whole meaning of being spiritual – directing people away from sin toward holiness. This is what the law did by admonishing, reprimanding, and chastising those who practiced sin, while, at the same time, recommending every godly virtue available. So the question may be: How then was sin produced if the teacher is so admirable? It wasn’t due to any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the teacher, but from the lackadaisical and unenergetic attitude of the pupils.7 Were I able to have conversed with the great Chrysostom I may have asked him, instead of blaming their sin on laziness would he approve of calling it their inherited sinful nature from Adam.
After reading this verse, early church scholar Constantius is convinced that Paul has made an important admission. He does not claim any exemption as a holy Apostle but admits that even he is subject to things that are all too common among mere humans. By saying that the law had a spiritual message that he had not previously discerned, he identifies himself as one who only looked at the legal content. By doing so, Paul condemns himself for sinning by the weakness of his will to do otherwise. He was not forced into it by the law.8 And Bishop Cyril of Alexandria recognized that the dictates of the Spirit are one thing, but the desires of the flesh are another. They end up fighting against each other and can never, ever reach an agreement. So if mankind possesses a carnal mind, and the law communicates on a spiritual level, then it is easy to see why they don’t communicate effectively. So can the law ever learn to tolerate those who cannot break free from sin’s power? This is where wisdom is called for. If a person is convinced that they live in sin’s captivity, they will realize they are nothing more than a slave. That’s when the law is given an opportunity to awaken the desire to be set free.9
Paul has been trying to point out that before the law came mankind was “amoral.” In other words, they didn’t know the significant difference between right and wrong and really didn’t care whether or not what they did was ethical or virtuous. But after the Law arrived, mankind proved to be “immoral.” Now that they were aware of what God said was right and wrong, they did what was wrong anyway. To bring this into practical living. For instance, you attend a seminar, and on a display table there are items such as pens, pads, etc., and the sign reads: Free! If you take three or four of each without knowing that the provider meant that attendees should take only one of each, then your act was amoral because you didn’t know. But if the sign says “Free! – only take one of each,” but you go ahead and take three or four anyway, then your act is immoral because you now knew the rule.
For Martin Luther, Paul provides ample proof that he is a spiritually wise man. He knows that he is capable of immorality, and is displeased that he must confess such failings. But he still praises the Law of God because he recognizes it as being effective. But for Luther, someone who is aware of such sinful tendencies but nevertheless prides themselves as being spiritual, they are immoral fools.10
John Calvin sees Paul begin to compare what the law says with what man does. His object is to help everyone more clearly understand from where the sting of death proceeds. He does this by using an unregenerate person as an example. They live in darkness and ignorance about their sin, but when a person is born again, those same tendencies are still around. While the spirit inside would gladly obey God’s rules, it must struggle to do so. But keep in mind that Paul is only drawing a comparison here. We could say that he wanted everyone see what they used to be, what they are now, and what they should be in the future when it comes to being right with God. Since believers must continue to deal with the discord between their spirit and their flesh, can’t they arrange to agree? The emphatic answer is, No! They were not meant to fellowship with each other. That would be like asking why darkness and light can’t get along? Why do they insist on it being one or the other? Here we can see darkness as a symbol of evil and light as a symbol of holiness; one is of the devil and the other of God. They were never meant to get along with each other.11
In Robert Haldane’s analysis, Paul is describing himself as a dual personality and points to two distinct natures operating within him. This is not just Paul, it is a universal truth respecting all believers. When grace came, sin was moved from its position of dominance but was not entirely evicted from the heart and mind. There was, then, in the Apostle Paul, as in every Christian, what can be called the field of operation for two competing armies.12 As a result of this warfare, and these opposing principles still fighting within, no Christian is ever exempt from the collateral damage that occurs to their sense of being sanctified and committed to God’s will and ways. Every believer who is aware of this plague in their heart must also be fully convinced of its potential for good or possible harm.13
Albert Barnes agrees that the remainder of this chapter has been the subject of a lot of controversy among Bible scholars. The real question is whether Paul is describing his state before or after conversion. I have read arguments on both sides. There are no outright, uncomplicated answers either way. But Barnes feels that after giving attention to all that was available to him on the subject, he came to the conclusion that Paul is describing the state of a person under the influence of the Gospel, as the operations of the mind subsequent to conversion.14 Barnes is pointing out that some scholars believe Paul is talking as a Jew, others think he is using himself as an example for all mankind, others think he meant his condition, and, therefore, all people’s condition before he and they met Christ. Paul’s intentions will be made clearer as we continue with this chapter.
Charles Hodge believes that Paul is wanting to explain why a believer may still be subject to a power which, by themselves, they cannot overcome. It results in a constant struggle. All because they want to be free. But no matter what they try sin always seems to assert its authority from time to time. Every believer must be keenly aware of this conflict and resist ever becoming enslaved again. Although they endeavor to submit to God and His will, there is a tendency within their fleshly members that causes them to be subject to the law of sin. So in their distress, they begin to distrust of God. This can result in hardening of the heart for things that are holy, and an increase in their attraction to the unholy things of this world because of self-pride. This is the time to wake up to the indwelling evil tendencies and their potential for sin. The real struggle should not be just to keep from overcoming its influence but to be free from it ever taking control. With this comes a realization – they cannot emancipate themselves on their own. That’s when they need to appeal to a power greater than themselves. That is why God gave the Holy Spirit, just for this very reason.15
For preacher Charles Spurgeon, the law of the Lord must be seen as something far more critical than it seems to be. It cannot be taken as a mere set of does and don’ts. Its implications are far more serious because it affects the secret thoughts and purposes of people’s hearts and minds. Their imaginations are also subject to domination. The Psalmist declared: “Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing in Your eyes, O Lord, my Rock and the One Who paid my ransom.”16 Paul’s admission that because he is mere flesh and blood, that is the source of all the mischief, not some irksome law. The Law serves a good purpose, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the immoral-minded person that’s the problem because in spite of knowing what is right they continue doing what’s wrong.17
1 Matthew 5:28
2 Hebrews 4:12
3 Job 42:5-6
4 Isaiah 6:5
5 Ibid. 64:4-5
6 Luke 5:8
7 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 13
8 [Pseudo-]Constantius: on Romans, loc. cit.
9 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, loc. cit.
10 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 112
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 See Song of Solomon 6:13
13 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 294
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 355-356
16 Psalm 19:14
17 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.