NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XIX)
Martin Luther calls Paul a very spiritual man because he was able to recognize what was good with respect to the Law. As such, the Apostle knew what he should approve and what he should disapprove of in his life. Yet, what frustrated Paul was although he was fully aware of the blessings that came with doing good and the punishment of doing bad, he found himself always having to choose instead of possessing a supernatural inclination to select only that which was right. This then reveals the struggle between his sinful nature and his spiritual nature. Unfortunately, the sinful nature seemed to win more than it should. And that was not by mistake but intentionally; it was willful choosing.1 This discloses a weakness in the Law. It can point out what is right and holy, but it cannot change a person’s mind for them. This is why our spiritual nature needs a boost from the Holy Spirit to empower our sanctification.
This was certainly the view of John Calvin. He noted the great discord between the Law of God and the nature of mankind that exists in a born again individual. This strife involves the fact that the sinful nature rushes into sin while ignoring the danger, and without any assurance of survival. That’s because without the aid of Divine grace it cannot govern itself when tempted. On the other hand, the spiritual nature is led to do what is right by the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, often the corrupt nature applies pressure and ends up pushing the good nature into doing what is contrary to its wishes.
But Calvin is of the opinion that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in a person before they are renewed by the Spirit of God. When left to their own nature, they are carried along by their lusts without any resistance. Even if the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and although they have no joy in what they are doing because it leaves a bitter taste in their mouth, they are torn between deciding if what they feel is because they either hate evil or love good. The Lord permits them to be tormented in this manner. His purpose is to show them what He really thinks of the way they live. At this point, He is allowing the law to motivate them to love righteousness and hate sin, but it is up to them to decide.2
Adam Clarke thinks we can discover why the Apostle Paul dwells so long on the struggle between the principles of knowing what to do but not doing it, and knowing what not to do but doing it anyhow. Clarke feels that Paul feared some Jewish reader would object to such self-condemnation. Since the law is holy and spiritual; and since they accept it as perfect and right; and they agree that it ought to be followed; and are proud of the way they esteem it so highly; and glory and feel secure in it because they are convinced of its truth and excellency, that by thinking of the law this way shouldn’t this be adequate enough to cover their sanctification? In other words, would it be possible to substitute knowing what’s right in exchange for having to do what’s right?3 Clarke tries to look at this in a positive light. Even if it all seems wrong, at least a believer can come to realize that his or her need for the principles and power that come from the fountain of life are more urgent than they thought. Here is the reverse of this. If a person still isn’t convinced of their need for help they won’t ask for it. This, in turn, can lead to the unfortunate person finding themselves struggling under a load they cannot carry with assistance. Maybe then, the light will go on, and they will call out to God for help. Many of the Psalms were composed under such circumstances.
Robert Haldane strongly advocates that every person, whether regenerate or unregenerate, must be sensitive to the truth, so they know when they are doing wrong. Since this is found to be true in every regenerate person, it must then be confined to the unregenerate person’s mind. Haldane is convinced that Paul is speaking as a regenerate Apostle. It is important to understand this so what he says can be applied, in particular, to the regenerate. Especially since he said that he did what he hated and knew it was wrong. Although an unregenerate person may disapprove of evil, they can never say they really hate sin. Haldane also mentions the saying of the Roman poet Ovid, which we noted before,4 but believes these propositions are not at all identical. Ovid confesses that he practices what he knows to be wrong, but his inconsistency arises from the love of the evil not the love of right. Paul, on the other hand, confesses that he does what is wrong but declares that instead of loving the evil he does, he hates it and is repulsed by his actions.5
Albert Barnes noticed this same love-right/hate-wrong pattern in believers during his day. He does not find it abnormal among Christians. But their perspective is different than that of the unbeliever. For the believer, they have a habitual, fixed inclination and desire to serve God. At the same time, they have a rigid abhorrence of sin. However, they are still conscious of their imperfections, and that they are error-prone to sin. This is what upsets them and makes them uneasy and unsure. They know that the strength of their natural passion may, in an unguarded moment, take over their will. The haunting sense of habits long gone may still annoy them. Before they became believers, their mind was filled with skepticism, and criticism, and disrespect. But even after being born again this former way of thinking lingered in their mind, and annoyed them for years. And no matter how long these bad habits may lie dormant inside them, they can spring to life with the rapidity of lightning. That’s the way it is with every vice. It is one of the leftover effects of habit. As Barnes sees it, “The very passage of an impure thought through the mind leaves pollution behind.” Not only that but where the roots of certain sins went deep, they had a withering, devastating effect on the soul long after conversion. This too may produce conflicts with which every Christian is only too familiar.6
Paul’s dilemma of doing wrong even when he wants to do good, is seen by Bible scholar Charles Hodge as part of conventional thinking rather than some philosophical pattern of thought. It represents the language of everyday life, which is part of the common consciousness of people. This no doubt comes from what is called “common sense” rather than “schooled sense.” Common sense is a belief or a conclusion held in common by a large group of people. Schooled sense indicates being taught, you are different, one of a kind, and need not buy into common sense. The language of the Apostle, in this passage, displays a fact of consciousness, with which every Christian is acquainted. How much of what Paul describes here as a conscious understanding of right and wrong, good and bad, and the conflict it causes exists in every person to a greater or lesser degree, depending on whether they are believers or unbelievers. Hodge thinks that this must be decided by conclusions drawn from the whole context of what Paul has said until now. He does favor the idea that Paul is speaking of the turmoil that many believers deal with since unbelievers seldom take time to deal with their conscious commotion.7
On the subject of the conflict between man’s will and God’s will, preacher Octavius Winslow is persuaded that most believers do not willingly sin, especially after having just put on the new man which God, through Christ Jesus, created to live in righteousness and true holiness.8 It is not possible for a believer to knowingly sin with the full consent and cooperation of their will. Their new spirit hates it, fights against it, and resists it. But this raises the question: is not all sin an act of the will? When it comes to a renewed person, it is going against their will. Winslow notes that the Apostle speaks of the believer’s will under two opposing influences. The one, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to – what I hate.”9 The other, “When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway.”10
Winslow also addresses the fact that some Bible scholars question whether Paul is speaking of himself as a regenerate man or an unregenerate man. But they cannot ignore that he refers to two antagonist principles dwelling in him – the one on the side of holiness, the other on the side of sin. Even Solomon recognized this when he wrote: “If anyone respects and fears God, he will hate evil. For wisdom hates pride, arrogance, corruption, and deceit of every kind.”11 Yet Paul admitted: “I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I am always doing the sinful things I don’t want to do.”
So the question is, does Paul see himself doing the opposite of what he wants to do as part of his own volition? Most would say, “Yes!” Every sin must be done voluntary, otherwise it would not be sin since sin is knowing disobeying the Word and will of God. So that raises another question: Is there the concurrence and consent of the renewed will in such an act of disobedience? The love and grace of God demands that we say, “No.” Only a regenerate person can say that they hate sin. So it is not their spiritual nature causing this discord, it is their sinful nature acting up at the wrong time.12
Charles Spurgeon calls this: “The believer’s riddle.” Anyone who would try to put this dilemma only in the lap of an unbeliever proves that person doesn’t know much about how believers feel. They hate sin! Granted, but why do they then keep falling into it? First of all, no believer would ever claim to be perfect. There was only one and His name was Jesus of Nazareth. Every Christian would live a perfect life if it were possible. But that still is no excuse or justification for sin. Even when it is being done a believer regards it as evil and abominable. That is the real war that is going on inside the believer’s heart and mind.13 In Spurgeon’s way of thinking, this constitutes a strange contradiction – a man who has enough grace to decide to do good, and yet fails to do so. He also sees it as the new nature’s struggle with the old nature’s habits. So for Spurgeon, Paul was talking about a born-again believer who finds that part of him is still imperfect.
For Frédéric Godet, this verse contains proof that serving sin is a form of slavery. Slaves only do what they are told and do not question why. They are not doing their own will but that of another. What Paul is saying then, is that some of the things he does are not the result of what he had planned to do all along. They are, in fact, the result of blind instinct, which drags him along without his consent. But once he realizes what had been done, he gets angry with himself and deplores such mindless and meaningless obedience to sin.14 To put this another way, it is like a person who hails a taxi at the airport and gives the driver the address of a place they know exactly how to get there. But even when they see the taxi driver going in a different direction they say nothing. It’s only when it takes them twice as long and twice as expensive to get there they want to kick themselves for not saying anything.
1 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 112
2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Ovid: Metamorphoses, Bk. VII:20-21
5 Robert Haldane; On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 294-295
6 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 357
8 Ephesians 4:24; cf. Colossians 3:10
9 Romans 7:15
10 Ibid. 7:19
11 Proverbs 8:13
12 The Works of Octavius Winslow, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.