NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XVIII)
Frédéric Godet believes that we must take the notion of flesh here in a moral sense. That’s because it embraces, as it does in all cases, those occasions when the flesh works against God’s will. It reveals what is divine and what is devilish in every believer as a whole person. Paul felt that his basic nature was controlled by the flesh, from hunger to lust. The flesh, in self-complacency, is inclined to seek self-satisfaction in everything. One’s natural will is harnessed by this tendency. Incompatibility between his nature and that of the law forces action. Such action is more than doing the things a person likes to do. It demands absolute self-consecration to the Word and will of God.1 Believers all recognize that the Law is spiritual. It is given and inspired by Divine will. Yes, regenerated sinners are capable of communion with God, but they are also communicating with their basic nature which tends to be in direct opposition to divine instructions. Being so earthly and sensual, this part of their nature is in slavery. But they must remember that they were redeemed from the slave market of the devil and are now servants of the Lord God.2
Swiss theologian Karl Barth believes that Paul’s call for recognition of the Law as spiritual is the first requirement of a righteous person. They need to know where they are coming from and where they are going in their spiritual life. Paul knew that life is short and finds himself dealing with conviction at the same time. This introduced an intolerable tension between his carnal nature and spiritual nature. He finds himself engaged in a conflict from which there is no escape. Yet it is good for him because it is the battle for his very existence. A demand is made on him to do something to hasten his victory over the natural tendencies that are causing so much warfare. Not only is this right, but also necessary for survival. So the question is asked, “What am I going to do?” It’s at that moment the Spirit of God rises up in his life to take control. It’s like building a wall around his soul. It becomes a fortress that cannot be occupied by the enemy. So it is decision time. Go with the natural tendencies or stick with the Spirit’s will? He and he alone can decide. Whatever his decision, he must live with it. He cannot pass it off on someone else to decide.3
Douglas Moo speaks from an Evangelical point of view on this thought. To him, Paul is characterizing the two chief actors in the drama that he unfolds. They are his “spiritual nature” and “sinful nature.” The law of Moses is considered spiritual because it is of divine origin.4 But Paul complains, “I am unspiritual. I feel like a slave sold to sin.” By using the phrase, “unspiritual” Paul is speaking of his natural tendencies. He uses this same phrase when he identifies those he calls “carnal” Christians.5 So he is not identifying himself nor those he calls carnal as being unregenerate. In other words, he is speaking of the sinful tendencies that every believer must deal with. In his case, he admits that they got the best of him at times and made him feel like a slave to sin. In such cases, he’s no better off than those who have never escaped sin’s tyranny6.7
Jewish scholar David Stern addresses the need to recognize, as Paul did, that the Torah was inspired by the Holy Spirit. This identifies Paul as a Messianic Jew who retained a high view of the Torah. Among Jews, this was a requirement. It was an axiom to which all agree without further demonstration. Yet Paul confesses that he was still somewhat bound to the old nature, literally, “I am fleshly” or “carnal.”8 What made him feel that way? It was the Torah. But was the Torah at fault. No! What Stern is saying here is a fact, whether we’d like to admit it or not. We can be a spiritually-minded prayer warrior, a faithful church-goer, and a dedicated Bible reader on the inside, but we still must deal with the deprecated temple on the outside that houses our souls – called the flesh, with all of its faults, failures, and foibles.
Verse 15: I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do the good I want to do, and I end up doing the evil I hate.
The Apostle Paul continues his confession of an internal conflict between his conscience and the law. Doing what was right was an option along with doing what was wrong. The choice had to be made, either by something with an unsure nature – sin, or something with an eternal nature – the Law. Paul was aware of the Greek and Roman writings of his day, and we find one interesting statement by a contemporary Roman poet, Ovid, who wrote: “Discern this, how affection persuades, I see the right, and I approve it too; Condemn the wrong – and yet the wrong I pursue.”9 Also, the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who lived during Paul’s time, gives us these instructions: “He who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the wrath of his dislike is wretched.”10 This does not mean that Paul borrowed from Ovid or Epictetus, but it does prove that even the non-Jews were aware of this inner struggle.
Paul explained this later to his protégé young Timothy: “God’s truth stands firm like a great rock, and nothing can shake it. It is a foundation stone with these words written on it: ‘The Lord knows those who are really His,’11 and ‘A person who calls himself a Christian should not be doing things that are wrong’.12”13 So the same dynamics that existed under the Law, also exist under Grace. The main factor is that the Law could provide no forgiveness while God’s love and mercy do so through Christ.
While this did not eliminate the conflict Paul experienced, it did shed light on what needed to be done to conquer this rebellious force operating within his heart and mind. This same truth was seen while Solomon was king. At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon prayed a prayer of dedication. While doing so, he goes into a long narration that was meant to remind the children of Israel of their past actions and God’s responses. Then, while on his knees with his hands stretched out toward heaven, he concludes with this request of the LORD: “If they sin against you (and who doesn’t?) and you become angry with them and let their enemies lead them away as captives to some foreign land, whether far or near, and they come to their senses and turn to You and cry to You saying, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong’; if they honestly return to You and pray toward this land that You have given their fathers, and toward this city of Jerusalem that You have chosen, and toward this Temple that I have built for Your name, hear their prayers and pleadings from heaven where you live, and come to their assistance.”14
David also understood this problem, and prayed to the LORD: “How can I ever know what sins are lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults. And keep me from deliberate wrongs; help me to stop doing them. Only then can I be free of guilt and innocent of some great crime.”15 This may have also inspired the Apostle John to write: “If we confess our sins to Him, He can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.”16 The believers in Galatian no doubt were dealing with the same internal conflict: “We naturally love to do evil things that are just the opposite from the things that the Holy Spirit tells us to do, and the good things we want to do when the Spirit has His way with us are just the opposite of our natural desires. These two forces within us are constantly fighting each other to win control over us, and our wishes are never free from their pressures.”17
But Paul didn’t want to give up and he didn’t want others to give in. So he tells the Philippians: “I don’t mean to say I am perfect. I haven’t learned all I should even yet, but I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ saved me for and wants me to be.”18 So it is a case of us running away from something, but it is also a case of our running toward someone. The Psalmist saw it this way for those who sincerely want to do what is right even though they have sinful thoughts: “Light is sown for the godly and joy for the good.”19 That’s why King David pleaded with the LORD: “Help me to refuse the low and vulgar things; help me to abhor all crooked deals of every kind, to have no part in them.”20 His son Solomon expresses a similar thought: “If anyone respects and fears God, he will hate evil. For wisdom hates pride, arrogance, corruption, and deceit of every kind.”21
Early church teacher Origen recognizes that Paul intends to show that even the man who is unregenerate and sold under sin may try, by their natural instincts, to resist their evil tendencies. But since these tendencies rule, it’s difficult for them to submit easily to his moral authority. This often occurs when someone, for instance, decides not to react to provocation, but in the end, their anger gets the best of them, and they surrender, even if it goes against their will. In other words, they get angry even when they do not want to get angry. Someone whose spiritual nature has not yet been awakened most often will be defeated in such instances, even if they don’t like it. This happens because their will has no assistance from the Holy Spirit, so it is not strong or resilient enough to retain control. Sadly, this remains the case even when they reach the point of death in their struggle to do what is right.22
One anonymous early church writer wonders what Paul meant when he said, “I don’t understand why I act the way I do.” Could it be that he really doesn’t want to know? Or is it that he hurt someone but doesn’t want to be hurt himself? Or could it be that there are things he desires which he knows are wrong but does not want to cheat himself out of getting them? That seems to be what Paul is saying when he states: “I don’t do the good I want to do.” Is that another way of saying: what I love to do is attractive, but what I hate to do is more attractive. Even for the unbeliever, sometimes the sin they committed is detestable. But because they couldn’t resist they resort to either denying they did it or pretend that it is not that bad.23 This scholar touches on something that is still the culprit today among many who sin: People don’t want to recognize the cause of their wrongdoing, and, therefore, do not feel they should be held responsible for the sins they commit even though they know it’s wrong.
1 Frédéric Louis Godet, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 1 Corinthians 10:3-4
5 Ibid. 3:1-3
6 See Matthew 18:25
7 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD), Metamorphoses, Bk. vii.
10 The Enchiridion by Epictetus, ver. ii, (55 – 135 AD)
11 Numbers 16:5; Nahum 1:7
12 Numbers 16:26
13 2 Timothy 2:19
14 1 Kings 8:46-49
15 Psalm 19:12-13 – Living Bible
16 1 John 1:9
17 Galatians 5:17
18 Philippians 3:12
19 Psalm 97:11
20 Psalm 101:3
21 Proverbs 8:13
22 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
23 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, loc. cit.