NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XXIII)
Verses 19-21: I don’t do the good that I want to do. Instead, I do the evil that I don’t want to do. So if I do what I don’t want to do, then I am not really the one doing it. It is sin living in me that does it. So I have learned this lesson: When I want to do good, evil is always present.
When a sinner, especially one with a very active and vile lifestyle, is converted there are many comments and exclamations citing, “My, how they have changed” or “They are so different now.” The change is most certainly contributed to the presence of a new spirit alive in them. But the effects of the new indwelling force would not be one tenth as conspicuous if it were not for the sudden absence of the old spirit’s influence. This combination is what makes the change from sinner to saint so glorious. That’s why others who suddenly become holy and claim a new relationship with Jesus Christ but do not exhibit any changes in their old ways, can be called a “Sino,” (Saint in name only). They’ve merely put on a religious mask. In such cases, the old has not passed away, and all things have not become new, they’ve only had a token make-over. It also makes it harder for God to use them as tools and instruments for His glory because they need to be clean and sanctified so as not to cause infections in those still trying to heal from the ravages of sin.
The Psalmist also struggled with these same tendencies, that’s why he prayed to God: “Guide my footsteps by your word; don’t let any kind of sin rule me.”1 The word “rule” used here refers to the power and authority of a slave-master over his subjects. Jesus identified this problem when He spoke to the Jews about such freedom from sin: “Yes, indeed! I tell you that everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. Now a slave does not remain with a family forever, but a son does remain with it forever. So if the Son frees you, you will really be free!”2 Since no person can free themselves from the bondage of sin, they must recognize their need for a Savior. So when Jesus said He can set us free, He does not mean free from the presence of sin, but free from the power of sin. In other words, He gave us the ability to say “No!” to our sinful tendencies.
There is an interesting Tractate in the Talmud that talks about the Scripture that reads, “They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.3 According to the Rabbi who explained this, he says that the hidden message here is the slaying of the Evil Inclination, and wonders why such a slaying should not be an occasion for mourning?4 Here we see that these sinful tendencies were known by the Jews as “Evil Inclinations.” Then Rabbi Assi gives his understanding: “The Evil Inclination is at first like the thread of a spider, but ultimately becomes like a rope, as it is said, Woe unto them that draws iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a rope.5”6 This is another way of saying that a person can become addicted to these Evil Imaginations. This could be what the Psalmist admitted.7
With Paul being in such a quandary of wanting to do good, but doing wrong, early church scholar Ambrose asks: “Do you think anyone who knows about sin can avoid it?”8 And then Pelagius issues his challenge to think of someone who used profanity so much for such a long time that now they do it even when they don’t want to.9 And as far as Constantius is concerned, Paul is simply trying to play the role of someone who was in the habit of sinning and is still bound to the vices of the flesh.10 The reason for these questions and challenges is to point out that when a person knows what they are about to do is wrong, yet cannot keep from doing it, they must admit that sinning has become an addiction.
What makes all of this so hard to fathom is that each occasion involves an act of the will. Ambrosiaster wonders if it’s because the sinner is being compelled to sin by a power outside himself. He doesn’t think so. Whose fault was it, to begin with, the sin or the sinner? Sin may be hanging around, but it can do nothing unless a person voluntarily lets it take over their decision-making process. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, sin comes to tempt and persuade. And once that is accomplished it takes full control.11 As mentioned before, what started as a choice, has become an uncontrollable craving. That’s why outside help is so urgently needed. You may have seen a person who just committed a terrible act, with their face covering their hands sobbing: “Why did I do that? I can’t believe I did such a horrible thing! I couldn’t help myself!” Pelagius reasons, what started out as an act of the will ends up becoming a habit. When that happens, what was originally done consciously is now done subconsciously.12
Preacher Chrysostom used some spiritual psychology to analyze Paul’s reasoning here. As he sees it, Paul clears both the body and soul from responsibility for sin. He puts the blame on the action taken. In his mind, if the soul does not want to sin it should be cleared of guilt. In fact, if it refuses to perform the act itself, that guards the body against being indicted as well. Everything can be blamed on the evil tendency and the choice that was made. For Chrysostom, what drives the soul and body to make a decision is on a different level than that of the evil tendency. That’s why their choices are not the same. What the soul and body choose are the things of God. What the evil tendency chooses can go in any direction if allowed to wander. Of course, our free will is a gift from God, so it tends to aim toward Him. But the will of the evil tendency depends on what it can influence the mind to do.13 This reasoning of Chrysostom’s is not easy to follow, but it does appear that he is saying that if the spiritual nature inside is unwilling to cooperate, then the sinful nature gets all the blame. However, even Chrysostom must admit that the spiritual nature will still be forced to go along a hostage.
The Patriarch of Alexandria’s conclusion is that if sin dwells in our flesh and corrupts it, while the law may offer help and give advice, it does not set one free from sin’s grasp. Yet, even after being bound in weakness to sin, it is not sufficient to claim innocence from sinning because at least we knew to do better. What we really need is to make up our minds to live right and do what the law demands.14 The problem, of course, is that the law cannot forgive until all payments due are paid, and in our sinful state that became impossible. Only God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ has the power to stop the vicious circle and put us on the strait15 and narrow way to holiness.16
For Martin Luther, saying a person’s first impulse is to follow the rules and do what is good and pleasing to God, cannot be said by an unregenerate individual. The sinner has no tendencies to first seek what is right in the eyes of the Law.17 They are always attracted to that which is wrong according to the Law. John Calvin’s assessment is that no matter how much a believer is influenced to do what is right, they are still conscious of their own weaknesses. Yet, that does not excuse them from any culpability when that which is done turns out to be wrong. Even the best of works that a person tries to do are susceptible to having imperfections and prone to failure. So what use is it to try and do the best one can? We must acknowledge that only God can pardon mistakes made.18
Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke feels that this argument that a person’s free will is their worst enemy must be reexamined. For him it is not the will that causes people to go astray, it is the corrupt passions which oppose and oppress the will. Clarke says he is truly astonished by the errors of interpretation that build what he calls, “systems of divinity” to handle this dilemma. How can anyone call our free will – God’s only friend in the human soul – God’s worst enemy? What dismays Clarke even more, they do this with the seventh chapter of Romans staring them in the face!19 Clarke may be referring to those who claim that being chosen by God has nothing to do with free will, it is all part of predestination.
As Clarke sees it, the case is clear. The human soul is so completely fallen that it has no power to help itself up without power from above. Nevertheless, it still has the capability to detect the good from the bad. Furthermore, it perceives the excellence of the good and prefers it over the corruption of bad because of its superior benefits. However, beyond that, it cannot go. Still, there are times when the soul is tempted to do wrong and inexplicably consents to sin. If it did not have a free will, it would not be able to make such a choice. Here is something to keep in mind: Although it can do no good unless it receives grace from God, yet it cannot be forced to commit sin. In Clarke’s mind, even Satan himself cannot do this. In fact, before the devil can get anyone to sin, he must first get their consent. No doubt this is why God, in His endless mercy, gave mankind the ability to respond to an offer of salvation. If it were not for free will, the soul would endlessly wander under the influence of sin. And this brings up another point. Without free will, mankind would be incapable of choosing vice over virtue. In other words, if a person can choose to do wrong, they can choose to do right. However, the point Paul is making is that without the help of God’s grace, the choice of good over evil is impossible.20
Clarke makes note of Greek philosopher, historian, soldier and mercenary Xenophon of Athens’ biography of King Cyrus. We read where Persian nobleman Araspes must account for some misconduct by a relative involving a captive woman named Panthea whom Cyrus entrusted to his care. Araspes’ alibi is very revealing. He tells Cyrus if I have only one soul I would not be able to pant after vice or pant after virtue. That’s why I am convinced, along with all others, that I possess two souls. How else could I explain wishing for or abhorring the same thing? So based on the fact that I possess two souls, I am certain that when the good soul rules, it will lead me to do noble and virtuous things. But if the bad soul predominates, I undoubtedly would end up doing what was evil. So Araspes felt confident enough to tell Cyrus that his good soul had been able to control his bad soul, and it was all due to Cyrus’ influence.21 So, if the ancients came to the conclusion that the power of good to overcome evil lies within mankind’s ability, it’s no wonder some modern thinkers buy into the same trivial thought process in spite of having Romans, Chapter 7 before their very eyes. In other words, Clarke was speaking out against those who contend that mankind is capable of saving himself with good morals and deeds.22
1 Psalm 119:133
2 John 8:34-36
3 Zechariah 12:10
4 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Maskhet Sukkah, folio 52a
5 Isaiah 5:18
7 Psalm 19:12
8 Ambrose: Paradise 12.60
9 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
10[Pseudo-]Constantius: on Romans, loc. cit.
11 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.
12 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
13 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 13
14 Cyril of Alexandria: on Romans, loc. cit.
15 The two spellings strait and straight are often considered synonymous; however, they come from different Middle English words and have different meanings. Strait means “narrow” or “tight,” whereas straight means “not crooked.” See Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24; Philippians 1:23
16 Matthew 7:14. King James Version uses “strait” to mean narrow passage.
17 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p 113
18 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p 131
20 Ibid., p. 132
21 Xenophon, Vol. II, The Cyropaedia, Translated by Maurice Ashly Cooper, Printed by A. J. Valpy, London, 1830, Bk VI, Ch. I, pp. 223-224
22 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 133