NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XXII)
Reformist John Calvin says we should not be misled by Paul’s statement that there was no good thing to be found in him. He was talking about that part of his old nature left over after becoming a new creation in Christ Jesus. The Apostle was quick to modify his statement by admitting that this was not to his liking because he did not want to slight the grace of God by which he had been redeemed and regenerated. As such, Paul confirms the fact that believers are divided into two parts – the relics of the flesh, and the reforms of grace. This is the progress of sanctification. Step after step, day after day, the believer is taking more and more control of the flesh. But what seems to be so elusive is, something influencing the flesh to sin that can’t be cornered and eliminated. Yes, a person may be born-again, but they must accept the fact they are still human. With God’s Spirit living inside and influencing the believer you would think they had the advantage. But for some, while they gave the Spirit free range to impact their soul, heart, and mind, they retain control of the flesh. That’s why Paul calls on everyone to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice to God which is the best thing they can do1 to please the One who redeemed them and set them free from sin’s bondage.2
For Adam Clarke, when Paul says he really wants to do what’s right it shows that his will is on the side of God and truth. He really desires to accept and respond in obedience to what God says. He knows there is an uncomfortable conflict going on between his mind and his soul. It’s almost as though some evil force has moved in and is trying to take over. Paul made it plain that his spirit sincerely wanted to stay in God’s will, but those faculties connected to his flesh were being hostile to his spirit. The question is, was Paul mistakenly crediting his will when in truth it was his passions? His will wants to do what’s right, but his passions lusting after what’s wrong. While his will can discern and approve what is right, it lacks the added ability to perform the task agreed upon. It is like a weak muscle. The brain tells it to move, but it cannot obey the command.
So it was with Paul’s will. His spirit told it to chose right, but it could not let go of wrong. In particular, his will had no power over his sensual appetites. This is where the principle of rebellion was dwelling. He realized it would take more than his will to do the job, he needed the power of Divine grace. But in his case, still being an unregenerate Pharisee, he had not received such a gift from God. For Clark, this was a real learning experience for Paul. He realized that his sinful nature contained no resource or principle by which it could redirect itself to the light of truth; no rationale by which it could go in search of purity on its own. So it tended to run away and hide in the darkness of sin where it found comfort in old habits. He also realized that it was a waste of time to moderate or compromise with this fallen principle. Sin is sin, and sin is in rebellion against God. There is no signing of a peace treaty, it must be conquered and removed from heart’s throne.3
Albert Barnes believes that here Paul confirms the doctrine of original sin. By so doing, Paul also highlights the belief of the doctrine of total depravity. Who can argue with Paul on this? He‘s talking about himself. It proves that he knew about evil lurking in his heart. And if this was true of him, it is true of all others. Paul provides us with a good way to examine our dilemma with this problem. Are we willing to admit that we also possess such sinful tendencies? And are we ready to acknowledge that we started out life with a sinner’s heart and it didn’t get better, only worse? Having such a rebellious tendency inside affects our behavioral pattern, especially before conversion. That’s when the desires of the flesh reign and riot without control. So does this stop immediately upon conversion? A few things did, but it was our old habits that hung on waiting to be pampered. But there was one good paradigm shift, and that was we now have help from the Holy Spirit. We must not allow these tendencies to go unchecked. This is why God included the experience of sanctification along with the new birth.4
On this subject of our sinful nature in conflict with our spiritual nature, preacher Octavius Winslow sees a comparison between a king who was deposed from his throne and driven into exile. Even though he no longer sits on the throne, he still bears the dignity of royalty. In this case, it was grace, driven from power in a believer’s life after being severely tried, sharply assailed, and momentarily defeated. But grace never throws off its robes of divine character, nor does it relinquish its sovereignty. It is always ready to rule again. This was what happened in the case of the Apostle Paul. He says that he and grace are on the same side. So there is another power that has briefly taken control. So whatever sin may come out of this, he knows the source behind it. And once the enemy is identified, the battle to take back control can begin.5 Winslow also sees this in a larger context as the church. And so the church is saying, “I sleep, but my heart is awake.”6 Even when drowsy and fainthearted, the church can still not forget that she is still her Beloved’s, and her Beloved is hers.7 Winslow recalls a letter written by a Scottish minister who declared the glorious nature and blessed triumph of the “Life of God in the soul of man!”8 God is not dead, neither is His Spirit dead, so why should those in whom His Spirit lives be dead?9
Frédéric Godet agrees that Paul had no doubt about his commitment to doing good by the will of God. God’s will is always present, well within reach. When Paul says that he wanted to do good. The Greek verb thelō (“would” or “want”) he uses in verses 15-16, means to have in mind, to intend. In other words, it is a simple desire rather than a fixed or deliberate action. To say it another way, Paul means well, but it doesn’t turn out well. It’s another failure of good intentions. Here Godet shines the light on the real frustration of the believer’s conflict with his will and his wants. In other words, he was looking for some resource within to correct his errors and redirect his steps back onto the right path. But he could find nothing, and that was frustrating. What believer doesn’t know about this dilemma?10
Karl Barth believes that a religious person must be ready to explain what they mean by being successful as a believer. Is it something that was accomplished by them or through them? If they did it by virtue of their own will that’s one thing, but if they were able to see it done beyond the competence of their will then there is something else involved. So what Paul is saying here is that he looked to accomplish what was good using his will but couldn’t find either the motivation or preservation. That’s because the chief characteristic of goodness is that it persistently demands discernment between it and evil. It is the action one takes that determines such knowledge. In a way, Paul was saying I thought I was doing good but it always turned out to be bad. And this was contrary to Paul’s intentions. So the question arises once again: Who then am I? Am I one of those who wants to but never gets around to accomplishing what I really want to do? Do I care enough to try again? And when I make up my mind I’m going through with it this time, does it dawn on me that it still won’t happened because the will to do it just isn’t strong enough? No wonder Paul cried out to God for help.11
As John Stott sees it, this is the inner conflict of a regenerate person who knows, loves, chooses, and longs to obey God’s law, but finds that by themselves they cannot get it done. Paul’s body, soul, and spirit were intent on obeying God’s law, especially his mind and will. So when he trespassed the law he was immediately aware that it went against his reason, his desire, and his consent. But the law is helpless. Only the power of the indwelling Spirit can make the necessary changes. So when looking back, Paul asks who was to blame for not doing the good he wanted to do? Who can he point to for making him do what he didn’t want to do? He certainly couldn’t blame it on the law. He left no doubt that for him the law was holy and perfect. Besides, by being so eager to do good and avoid evil, he is endorsing and approving of the law.
So since the law was not to blame who was? Paul now openly admits that he, he himself, was the responsible party. But there was another factor. When he did do wrong, it wasn’t voluntarily. On the contrary, He knew it was wrong to start with. And by knowing it was wrong, his will would not consent to it. So his will must be a prisoner, a prisoner to the sarx,12 to sin living in his flesh. So this creates a dual personality. There is the false, the fallen, the counterfeit “I.” And then there is the real “I.” So the real “I” is the one that loves and wants the good, and hates the evil, for that is its primary orientation. Therefore, the “I” which does the opposite, the thing the real “I” hates and does not want to do, that is the false “I.” It is a usurper, namely, “a sinful person,”13 better known as the sarx.14 In other words, the law is neither responsible for our sinning, nor capable of saving us from sinning. It has been fatally weakened by the sarx. The only one who can come to the rescue is the Holy Spirit.15
Douglas Moos feels that there are two very different interpretations of this verse we must examine. Each one agrees with one of the major views of the identity of the “I.” There are those who think the “I” Paul is talking about is his regenerate “I.” Paul, the Christian, has a certain part of himself – a sinful nature – that disposes him to sin. The second view is that Paul, the Jew under the law, was still in the “flesh.” Everything he did was dictated by the flesh. It was a condition caused by his sinful passions being inflamed by the restrictions of the law. Although Moo tends to back the second interpretation. It is what I call Paul the Pharisee. One thing is for sure, Paul never saw this condition until he was converted.16
Jewish scholar David Stern talks about the “new me” trying to deal with the “old me” when it comes to sin. So the text could read, “It is not ‘the real me’ doing it, it’s the ‘old me.”” What Paul was also saying is that if I am serious about my transgression, I cannot blame the devil or the sin housed inside me or my old nature; I must take the responsibility myself: I did it. Paul’s purpose in drawing the distinction between “the real me” and “the false me,” is that he was not looking to excuse the “real me.” or pin all the blame on the “false me.” He was really pointing out that the two cannot live in harmony. One will override the other in every case. But with sin on the side of the “false me,” he is now standing with the Holy Spirit on the side of the “real me,” and has every intention of keeping the “real me” from sinning.17
1 Romans 12:1
2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 131
4 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Romans 7:17, 19-20
6 Song of Solomon 5:2
7 Ibid. 6:3
8 Henry Scougal (1650-1678): The Life of God in the Soul of Man; or the Nature and Excellency of the Christian Religion, Printed by M. Downing, London, 1735, pp. 1-22
9 The Works of Octavius Winslow: op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Sarx is the Greek word used for both man’s physical nature and sensuous nature.
13 Romans 7:17, 20
14 Ibid. 7:18
15 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.