NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XXI)
American scholar Charles Hodge sees another factor involved here. Paul never concluded that his acting contrary to the law was in any way influenced by thinking it was bad for him. No, he disapproved of what he was doing because he knew it was forbidden by the law. Therefore, his respect for the law made him feel even worse about himself. So he wasn’t going around blaming his circumstances on the law because it was too strict or severe. He agreed with the principles of the law, and it was those principles that helped him see his faults and failures. For a Christian, it’s like the Bible. We believe in the Bible and what it says. In fact, we go around telling others how true and infallible it is. But when we do something that goes against what the Bible says, we shouldn’t condemn the Bible for making things hard on us. We should condemn ourselves for not being hard enough on our uncontrolled behavior.
From this Hodge concludes that if we really and truly approve and love what God’s Word says, and we want to conform to its teachings, then we should be just as unwilling to obey our sinful tendencies and become slaves to sin once again. But at the same time to recognize that the depth and power of original sin still has influence in our conduct. This brings up another reality. If these sinful tendencies still remain in us to exert its power despite all our efforts to grow in sanctification, it should become clear that we must look for deliverance to some power outside of ourselves. We must subject ourselves to a force that is stronger than our sinful tendencies and submit to its control over our hearts and minds. And that power is the Holy Spirit.1
Charles Spurgeon preached that when Paul said, “I’m not the one really doing this,” he was referring to his true “I” or “Ego,” the “born-again Ego.” For if the born-again believer stands strongly against sin, their body, mind, and spirit that is now under the control of their new nature will not want to sin. That inclination only comes from habits ingrained in the old nature within them and it will never change. It’s like a person who is earnestly seeking to do God’s will until some stray thought or idea enters their mind and begins to lead them astray. They want to love God with all their heart, but some other attraction gets their attention and they follow it instead. They want to be holy as God is holy, but find themselves falling short of their goal.2 So it wasn’t that Paul was upset at having to do good, he was upset because his old nature kept interfering with his desire to more like Christ.
It is clear that the Apostle Paul and Charles Spurgeon were ahead of neurologist Sigmund Freud in identifying the three parts of the human physic apparatus that are influenced by these inclinations or tendencies. They are the body’s needs, emotional desires, and the intellectual instincts. Freud identified these as the Id, Ego, and Super-ego. For instance, the Id may express its need for food; the Ego may choose what food to give it, but the Super-ego can override the Ego by selecting sugar-free because it is healthier. In like manner, the Id signals that it is tired and needs rest, the Ego may decide to give it coffee to wake up its energy, but the Super-ego then cancels that by choosing to stop and take a nap. You can use the same formula to analyze how we respond to our evil tendencies or holy tendencies which can lead to sin or sanctification.
Frédéric Godet sees Paul consciously wanting to be true to the Law, and, therefore, he stands with the Law against his corrupt nature. He is more than willing to adhere to the regimen of the Law to do good and remain holy. But each time he tries to follow through with such an assertion and desire, his corrupt nature gets in the way. Could this lead Paul to compromise and somehow make his miserable state of still being under control of sinful tendencies easier to deal with? Might that make his actions less offensive to God by finding fault in someone or something else that caused him to do these bad things? No! It was humiliating enough to admit that he was not the master of his own life. He had been attacked by some tyrant who barged in and forced him to act in opposition to what he knew was right and what he really wanted to do! Oh, the misery! No wonder he wanted to be delivered from his spiritual dead body. This is like looking sin in the eye and realizing it’s you.3
One Jewish writer notes that Paul distinguishes between “self” and “sin,” as forces that dwell in his flesh. He then personifies “self” to be what the Jews call the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), something recognized by Rabbis of his day. When seen that way, sin is not merely “an act,” it is a mindset promoted by something within. After a person is born-again, the “self” inside has a new master. Their slave mentality to sin is replaced by a new allegiance to Yeshua who has taken over their lives. So it would seem odd that the old ghost of their past life should still be haunting the new temple where the Spirit of God dwells.4
Verse 18: Yes, I know that nothing good lives in me—I mean nothing good lives in the part of me that is not spiritual. I want to do what is good, but I don’t do it.
Paul now shares the frustration that comes with this internal conflict between his sinful nature and spiritual nature. In spite of knowing what is right by way of the law sealed in his conscience, and being fully aware of the consequences of not obeying the guidelines given him, he still must fight and wrestle with the urge and tendency to do what was wrong. According to the record, this was the very thing that precipitated the flood that wiped out everyone except Noah and his family.5 Yet, even those who descended from Noah still expressed frustration with this evil tendency. Job asked God: “How can you demand purity in one born impure?”6 So his friend Eliphaz responded: “What man in all the earth can be as pure and righteous as you claim to be? Why God doesn’t even trust the angels!”7 That’s why faith in God’s willingness to forgive is crucial to the survival of our spiritual nature.
Ambrosiaster hears Paul saying that something bad was living inside him. It wasn’t that Paul was condemning his flesh as being bad, but some sinful tendency that was using his flesh to sin. So that raises the question, how can something dwelling inside a believer that has no interest in doing wrong, allow a spirit of perversion to enter and persuade him to do wrong? We know that since the body of the first man was corrupted by sin, this inclination to keep doing wrong became innate. And though one’s heart and mind are changed with the washing of the blood of the Lamb, somehow this sinful tendency still remains in the body. And when that tendency grows restless and wants to be satisfied it puts pressure on the emotions and mind to comply. As a result, this sinful tendency continues to take advantage of the flesh. This is where the devil once ruled his kingdom. So the flesh is the main culprit that becomes a tool of sinful tendencies. Its only goal is to deceive the new creation that now lives in the flesh with evil temptations. This is what brings a person into direct conflict with the law – God’s Word. So the person is then pressured to give in to one or the other.8
This is what tormented Paul so much. While he could certainly agree that what the law commanded was good, and he got joy out of wanting to do what the law said was right. But in spite of all that, the desire and commitment to carry out his holy desires were lacking. This was caused by his being oppressed by a competing tendency to do wrong. It should have been easy enough to side with the goodness in his heart, but he found himself making contrary decisions. So he had to admit, it wasn’t him in control of this other power, but this other power was in control of him. All that he used to satisfy those sinful tendencies became habits, while all that he wanted to do was keep himself pure in the eyes of God, it became a daily struggle. No wonder then, that his old habit of sinning just made it so much easier to go with the flow and not fight back. And that, more than anything else, is what upset Paul and made him angry at himself. Anyone who has tried to quit a bad habit knows exactly what Paul is talking about.
To this, we add the thoughts of another early church scholar who sees Paul admitting that he knew all along what was the right thing to do but just couldn’t bring himself to resist the force driving him to do wrong. It is one thing when you are unable to do some good thing another person wants you to do, but when you can’t get yourself to do the good you want to do it is even more intimidating. And one of the things that makes it even more discouraging is that while help is being offered, you are too proud to accept it. This, more than anything, is the reason for many downfalls experienced by a believer. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all standing by to help, so why aren’t we reaching out to them constantly for assistance?9
In other words, the tendency to do wrong comes from within, but the motivation to do what is right must come from without. Anyone who has raised children will recognize this factor. You do not need to teach your children to do wrong, it is part of their nature. But you must deliver to them the truth about doing what is right. So in Paul’s mind, all sinners come with the inclination to do wrong just like children. So if they are going to turn away from that urge, it must be done by infusing a power they yet do not have, and that is the power of God’s Word.
Martin Luther finds it a good thing that Paul confesses that he still had sinful tendencies in his being that needed to be addressed even though he was a committed believer in Christ. Yet, he was clearly dedicated to overcoming those inclinations in order to advance in sanctification. Herein we can see a model of how to evaluate whether or not we really do want to grow in the freedom we have in Christ or are more interested in finding a compromise so we can stay where we are morally and spiritually content. Luther says this cannot be said of people who are carnal-minded because the Spirit of God does not guide and control their spiritual nature. So Paul is only talking to believers here.10
1 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 358-359
2 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Genesis 6:5
6 Job 14:4
7 Ibid. 15:14
8 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.
9 Prosper of Aquitaine: Grace and Free Will 4.2
10 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 113