Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Swiss theologian Karl Barth raises this issue: How can I ever do God’s will for my life if I cannot do my own will to obey His Word? A good question because no believer will ever be able to reach perfection. And that is the real factor. As new creatures in Christ Jesus, we must accept that there will be things we do well in our obedience to Christ and our calling, but there are other things where we must admit are shortcomings and even failures. But like an umbrella over it all is God’s love, grace, and mercy that offers forgiveness and cleansing so we can get up again and keep going, guided by what we have learned from our mistakes.1

Verses 16-17: And if I don’t want to do what I do, that means I agree that the law is good. But I am not really the one doing the evil. It is sin living in me that causes me to do it.

Now Paul returns to the crux of his argument about the relationship between himself, the law, and sin. The law is doing a good job of pointing out right and wrong. Paul must weigh the potential of which one to do. But in the end, the determination of whether he does what is righteousness or sin is up to him. The young Psalmist, who wrote the longest Psalm, came to this conclusion: “Whatever it may concern, every law of God is right. That’s why I hate the opposite way.2 So in Paul’s mind, whenever he feels tempted to do the opposite of what the Law says is right, it’s because his sinful nature is taking control while his spiritual nature is trying to hold onto the steering wheel.

Augustine suggests that we take what Paul says here as representing someone under the law prior to grace. He agrees that Paul has defended the law against all charges. However, he sees a danger in that some make think Paul is denying the use of free will. How can Paul say he’s not the one doing what’s wrong? How can he blame it on sin living in him? For Augustine, this condition can only exist in the heart and mind of an unregenerate person. It is a case of sin overpowering this individual who is trying their best to live right. However, they are attempting to do so in their own strength. And since they don’t have God’s liberating grace, their efforts will fail. As far as Augustine is concerned, it is only by their free will a person is able to believe in the Deliverer and to receive grace. Once deliverance comes, then the same Deliverer will help them overcome such tendencies, so they will not sin and cease to be under the condemnation of the law. Instead, they will fulfill the law by the love of God which they could not have done through fear3.4 In all fairness to Augustine, it is my opinion that he does not see Paul as an unregenerate Gentile, but as an unregenerate Jew who has not yet seen the light of getting right with God by grace instead of by the law. We can say, Paul was speaking of himself when he was a self-righteous Pharisee.

Another early church scholar, Origen, takes what Augustine says and turns it around. As far as he is concerned the kind of person Paul is talking about here is one in whom Christ dwells. They are no strangers to righteous living. Rather, they are someone who has started on the path of wanting to do what is right but has not yet been able to perfect it in every circumstance. This kind of weakness exists mostly in those who are new in Christ. The urges and temptation of past habits and tendencies are still fresh in their memory. For example, someone was used to lying in order to get their way might hesitate to do so when it appears it would help them achieve something very difficult to get done otherwise. At first, they resist so they might build a reputation for being an honest individual, but since they practiced this habit so often and for so long, a lie just seems to jump out of their mouths like it had done so many times before.5 Wouldn’t this tendency make you angry? I’m sure it would just as it did the Apostle Paul.

Martin Luther sees Paul agreeing that the Law serves a very good purpose. It desires what is good, and so does the Apostle. Therefore, since both agree that it’s the right thing to do, why then does his sinful nature rebel against the Law? Wouldn’t it make sense then, that everyone would be better off without the Law? In other words, why have the Law when all it does is tempt a person to sin? Not only that but when the individual does agree and does what the Law says, it finds no satisfaction in doing good. According to Luther, in Paul’s mind, he is driven to do what’s right out of fear.6 If given a choice, any sinner would rather stay in sin as long as there was no punishment. But this is wishful thinking. The Law was given to reveal man’s sinful nature so that he could realize more fully his hopeless, lost condition, and would, therefore, seek salvation. Not from the Law, but from the penalty the Law imposes for disobedience.

John Calvin sees the same thing only in a different light. He hears Paul saying that when a person’s heart agrees with the law and is delighted with its instructions on how to live right, they certainly aren’t happy in transgressing it. There is just too much good in what the law teaches that anyone should find fault with it. Rather, let it help them live a clean, upright life with a pure heart. So no one should think that Paul wants to excuse himself for all his faults and failures. This is what hypocrites do. Rather, it shows how disappointed Paul is that he was not doing better. This then allows us to accept that Paul is speaking here of those who have already been born again. He is not suggesting that people who make mistakes, even those they could have avoided, are totally corrupt. They have been freed from the bondage of sin, and that’s what makes their case so regrettable. With everything good being on their side, why don’t they see it as an advantage over the unregenerate sinner who has no help at all? Paul understood that in his heart he was striving and aspiring after the righteousness of God. This clearly proves that he had the law of God engraved in his heart. But at least he had one major credit to his favor: he knew he had done wrong and admitted it.7

Later, Adam Clarke didn’t shy away from concluding that Paul was speaking about people in this world who certainly have what constitutes reason and conscience, but their sin-corrupted and sensual inclinations that drive them to do the opposite of what they should do. This happens when evil tendencies gain control over their reasoning, turning off the light of understanding and corrupting their ability to judge and assess the situation properly. But even worse, while the law rightly condemns them for their actions, it offers no cure. Based on that reasoning, Clarke identifies this principle as being in an unregenerate heart. It is so strong that it overrides all reasoning. It is a principle which is not the essence of the soul but clearly expresses itself as such. It becomes an uncontrollable tyrant. Says Clarke: “This is an inbred and indwelling sin – the seed of the serpent; by which the whole soul is darkened, confused, perverted, and delirious to rebel against God.”8

Robert Haldane agrees that most unregenerate people know what is unacceptable behavior in their society, but that’s not enough for them to go against their natural inclinations. Such dispositions are tendencies that all point in one direction – sin. But when a regenerate person does what they hate, their mind agrees with the law that it is wrong. So it is obvious that Paul gives the real reason why he was continuing to do all the things he shouldn’t do and not doing the things he should do, is because of sin. So he was talking about more than reason or conscience. It was another force within him. It was not part of the nature of the new man, but of the old man. It was not inspired by his new spiritual nature, but his old sinful nature. What disturbed Paul more than anything was that this ungodly agent of wrong was not a passer-by, not something that is here momentarily and then gone, it was living in him. He knew that as long as his soul lived in this body made from the dust of the earth, he was susceptible to these attacks. That’s why Paul could rightly say, this is not who I am now, this is what I used to be. But to his credit, by being regenerated Paul was able to distinguish good from evil. That allowed him to love what was good and hate what was evil. But he took responsibility whenever evil won out over good. While in his old life he had nothing but his natural inclinations and unenlightened conscience to guide him, but as a born-again child of God, he now had the authority of the Holy Spirit to help him combat these immoral afflictions. Haldane believes that any real Christian will empathize with Paul’s painful experience because they know he’s not hiding the truth.9

Albert Barnes believes that Christians can use what Paul states here as a test of their sanctification. The fact that they are still struggling against sinful desires means that want to be free from them. The anxiety, grief, and heartache that they cause them is enough to submit more and more to God’s holiness. One of the first tests is this: although they are doing wrong they don’t love it. That means they are closer to God than to the devil. Another test is that the more often and the longer they struggle against this sinful tendencies, the more they gain ground on being delivered from its dominion over their lives.

Paul is not talking here about his battle with the Law and the consequences of sin, but of the tension between his corrupt nature and renewed nature warring within his soul; between lawless sin and the Christian principles to remain holy. Paul is not happy that he is still dealing with these tendencies and passions leftover from his previous life. The fact is his heart, and conscience did not enjoy being misled. In fact, he was livid each time it happened. One way to understand Paul’s struggle with sinful habits that brought so much bad spiritual health to his life is to think back to diets you have been on. When you first started you were totally committed and counted every calorie and read every label for sugar and fat content. You were proud of the weight you lost. But each time you let yourself snack on what you knew was bad for you, you may have enjoyed eating it at that moment, but later on, the guilt of giving in was enough to make you cry. In the same way, every believer can say that they don’t set out to invite evil into their lives, they want to grow more and more in the Lord and His Word. They hate sin for sure. Yet, if they are not careful and constantly on guard, those sinful tendencies lurking in the shadows of their mind can ambush them at any moment.10

Bible scholar Charles Simeon has an interesting way of expressing what he sees here. No believer should be running toward temptation, but they sure can run into temptation. This is what happens when they leave the way of righteousness and holiness and find themselves on an old path or an unexplored one. It’s the difference between knowing where you’re going or not sure where you are going. Whenever we get off a known highway onto an unfamiliar road we seek directions. Unfortunately, the directions we seek often come from our sinful nature instead of our spiritual nature. That’s when we not only get confused but may even get lost. So stick to what you know is right and do not flirt with those things of which you are unsure.11

1 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

2 Ibid. 119:128

3 See 2 Timothy 1:7

4 Augustine: On Romans 44

5 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.

6 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 112-113

7 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 130

9 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 295=296

10 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

11 Charles Simeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp.153-154

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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