NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XXIV)
Scottish theologian Robert Haldane is convinced that Paul’s words should not be taken as evidence that he was not attempting to overcome his bad tendencies. It’s just that no matter how hard he tried he always came up short. Paul had the will to obey God, but he just couldn’t develop a consistent way of doing so. Somehow, it was beyond his capability. He needed help. How disappointed he was that he couldn’t rectify his inconsistent behavior. So that’s why he ends up saying he knew he wanted to do the right thing but there was a missing component, and it ended causing him to do the wrong thing. As a result, Haldane is convinced that far from this being the dilemma of an unregenerate person, it is a challenge to every regenerate person that they learn to be sensitive and sensible to the reality that this is meant to help them mature.1
Charles Hodge sees a clear distinction between a sinner making an excuse, and a repentant believer offering a confession. For instance, when an unrepentant person says they are sorry for their sins, they may be expressing remorse, but not repentance. Just saying sorry is not enough. The word sorry can have a variety of meanings. It all depends on the person’s intent in saying it. For instance, when a sinful person agrees they are doing something wrong but still approves of participating in it. Paul’s respect for the law did not allow him to have that attitude. Hodge hypothesizes that this has become part of an experimental religion he’s seen. There are those who feel bad about sin but enjoy sinning. Every true Christian must have an unrelenting intent to get rid of any desire to sin and work on it with the Holy Spirit’s help until it is totally removed from consideration.2
At this point, preacher Octavius Winslow talks about the conflict between that which is born of the flesh and that which is born of the Spirit. First of all, the regenerate soul is spiritual, holy, directed from above, of a Divine nature. Therefore, it cannot sin because it is created by God. That is the great evidence of regeneration. So believers should not underestimate the tenderness of their renewed conscience. They must judge how astute they are at recognizing words of condemnation and not make them tools for self-accusation. Do not become hard on oneself and say bitter things about one’s soul. Do not take that which is called grace and extract from it reason for self-condemnation. It is God who justifies, not we ourselves.3
No one can assert that the possibility of sin no longer exists in the heart of the believer. Paul himself speaks of this in Romans 7:20. Everything that God has said in His Word and all that we read about in the stories of the saints confirms the doctrine that sinful tendencies remained in them. We can then conclude that the Lord has acted wisely by allowing these inclinations to be part of a believer’s experience to the last step of life’s journey. However, He graciously provided His Word as a storehouse of promises, consolations, cautions, rebukes, and admonitions, all referring to the indwelling sin of a believer. That’s why there is a covenant of grace – with all its sanctifying, strengthening, invigorating, and animating provisions – designed to handle this very condition. So don’t look at it as a curse but as a cause to trust God for assistance and sufficient stamina to reach the destiny He has for your life.4
Charles Spurgeon touches on what he feels is an oft-misunderstood circumstance the believer must deal with. The more a believer yearns for holiness, and the more sanctified they become, the more they realize there is still higher ground. Day after day they endeavor to elevate their commitment to go all the way, but still a great distance to go. So they end up crying out with the Apostle Paul, “The good I want to do fails, but the bad I try to stay away from succeeds.” This is not a case of failure, it is a case of struggling to swim against the current of wrong doing. It was not meant to be easy but to help the believer develop patience, strength, courage, and resolve. The real “I,” the “Spiritual Ego,” still presses forward, like a ship ramming up against wind and tide, and striving to reach the harbor for safety. But it will not happen overnight. There are many storms yet ahead. But with Jesus as our Pilot, we are guaranteed that even with little smooth sailing, we will still make a safe landing.5
Spurgeon admits that there will be struggles, and challenges, and necessary changes within the hearts of the men and women in whom the grace of God is working mightily! Some will give up and began to drift with the current. But those who are committed will fight for control with the help of the Holy Spirit. They never think of compromising. They know the forces against them will one day yield, and they will find true peace for their souls. Spurgeon gave his personal testimony: “Speaking for myself, I can say that, often, when I am most earnest in prayer, stray thoughts will come into my mind to draw me off from the holy work of supplication; and when I am most intently aiming at humility, then the shadow of pride falls upon me.” We can all agree with Spurgeon, this happens to all believers who are earnestly seeking to grow and develop in Christ in order to be what God wants them to be. And in that sense we all share the experience of the Apostle Paul.6
Verses 22-23: In my mind I am happy with God’s law. But I see another law working in my body. That law makes war against the law that my mind accepts. That other law working in my body is the law of sin, and that law makes me its prisoner.
Paul openly admits that he is comfortable with what God’s law has to say. Yet, even though he uses the Greek word for law (“nomos”), it is better if we understand it in this context to mean: “principle.” This allows Paul to introduce of another principle that resists the action of the first. We see this illustrated when a tractor pulls a plow. The principle of forward-motion, due to the power of the tractor’s engine and traction of its wheels, is immediately inhibited by the principle of resistance of the plow’s digging into the soil. That’s why Paul says, every time he feels a positive urge to do something good, there is a negative pull resisting it.
Paul gives the Galatians a fuller explanation of this battle within: “We naturally love to do bad things that are just the opposite from the right things the Holy Spirit tells us to do, and the supernatural things we want to do when the Spirit has His way with us are just the opposite of our natural desires. These two forces within us are constantly fighting each other to win control over us, and our wishes are never free from their pressures.”7 And the writer of Hebrews tells his readers that this resistance against sin can end up causing believers to sweat great drops of blood.8 Also, the Apostle James says that this is caused by a whole army of evil desires at war within us.9 Then the Apostle Peter tells his listeners: “I beg you to keep away from the evil pleasures of this world; they are not for you, for they fight against your very souls.”10
The Jews had extensive writings on this subject, something I’m sure the Apostle Paul was familiar with. For instance, in their commentary on Genesis, we find this statement: “Why was death decreed against the righteous? Because as long as the righteous live they must fight against their evil desires.”11 And Rabbi Nathan, while exploring the sayings of the Jewish fathers, speaks of this “evil impulse.” He illustrates it by saying that when a person sets out to do something good for God, they find that after awhile their arms and legs get tired. The “evil impulse” that lives within is king over the whole body, while the “good impulse” is a prisoner of the soul.12 So for the Jewish members of the church in Rome, Paul was in familiar territory when talking about this internal conflict between right and wrong.
Early church scholar Diodore also sees Paul describing the common lot of humans. Any ordinary person can see in their mind what needs to be done but just cannot seem to make it happen. But the person who believes in Christ can achieve what they set out to do with the help of the Holy Spirit. That’s why such people are called “spiritual.”13 Also, Pelagius hears Paul saying that his “inner-self” is the rational and intelligent soul which agrees with the law of God. That’s because the law provides instructions on how to live rationally and not to be led about by irrational passions like an animal. However, the “outer-self” is the body. It depends on human instinct to instruct it on what to eat and drink and enjoy sensual pleasures. Such human wisdom and logic war against spiritual reason, and if they gain the upper hand will subject everything to its own authority. This allows us to reach a place of understanding where when we do what we do not want to do, we know who is in control.14
Early church scholars had much to say about the two laws that Paul mentioned being at war within the believer. Ambrosiaster believes that Paul sees one of the laws ruling his bodily members, which he calls “the outer-self.” This law is hostile to any interference from the new spiritual nature. It wars with the mind, trying to lead the believer into being captive to fleshly desires and passions. It also tries to prevent the believer from seeking help. The other law, called “the inner-self,” is the law of the mind. This law is constantly opposed by two things. First, the ever-present desires of the flesh and old leftover habits needing to be pacified. Second, by its own negligence. It would rather give in than constantly be in turmoil over what is right or wrong. It isn’t long before the inner becomes captive to the outer and divine rescue is needed.15
Then Augustine taught that everyone must cope with fleshly habits and how they war against the restrictions being put on them by their own understanding of morality. And since they have not yet fully yielded to grace, they have no assistance from a higher power. As Augustine sees it, if fleshly habits were merely a case of urges and not domination, there would be no condemnation. Condemnation comes only when a person freely surrenders control to all those immoral urges. But if such urges exist and a person does not surrender their will to them, that will keep them from becoming prisoners to their own urges. This means then, that this person has yielded to the full power of grace. Paul is speaking of this grace when he cries out for deliverance, pleading for divine help. His desire is for love to accomplish by grace what fear could not achieve through the law16.17
1 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 297
2 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 361-362
3 Romans 8:33
4 The Works of Octavius Winslow: op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Galatians 5:17 – Living Bible
8 Hebrews 12:4
9 James 4:1
10 1 Peter 2:11
11 Midrash Rabbah, translated by Rabbi H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, The Soncino Press, London, 1939, Vol. I, Ch. 9:5, p.67
12 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Translated by Judah Goldin, Yale University Press, 1955, Ch. 16, p. 83
13 Diodore: On Romans, loc. cit.
14 Pelagius: On Romans, loc cit.
15 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.
16 See 2 Timothy 1:7
17 Augustine: On Romans 45-46