NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson XXV)
Reformer Martin Luther sees active principles struggling for supremacy inside mankind. One will lead to eternal life, the other will lead to a dead-end. Luther is speaking in a spiritual sense. The Apostle Paul sees himself as a warrior fighting for the one and against the other. He knows that he will not be defeated by his sinful tendencies as long as his soul does not surrender to them, something his sinful flesh has already done. That’s why Paul takes the side of the spiritual man who strives to obey the Law while resisting his sinful passions.1
Calvin agrees that there is a division in each believer’s soul resulting from the contest between Spirit and Flesh. In this conflict, morality – which represents the free-will Law of God – inspires them to righteousness. Meanwhile, immorality – which represents the oppressive law of Satan – instigates evil acts. In other words, the Spirit inspires obedience of divine law; the Flesh draws them away from obeying divine law. The Spirit asks for cooperation, the Flesh demands participation. And because of this constant push and pull, a person is torn between cooperative and contrary desires and becomes a divided being. The unregenerate person is in bondage and serves as a slave to evil tendencies. But a regenerate person walks hand-in-hand with the Spirit, who guides them by God’s will. That’s because the Spirit must be declared sovereign in order to win. Every believer should be on the Spirit’s side. But Paul had to admit he was unable to do so every time because he was still captive to the flesh. And for that reason, he was still tempted and driven by sinful tendencies.2
Adam Clarke adds the warning that although the believer has a desire for greater purity, it comes with the price of strict obedience to the revelation from God in the Old Testament which contains excellent and useful maxims. But this can never be achieved without the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus in the New Testament. It starts with every true believer admiring the moral law. They should earnestly desire to be in conformity to it. But they won’t be satisfied until they become more and more like Jesus through sanctification. They hate it when they fall short and feel as though they have betrayed the One who loved them and whom they admire, the Son of God. To make it even worse, they see that their evil tendencies are still alive and active in their hearts, minds, and bodies. It’s as if you can hear such frustration in the Apostle Paul’s voice after he finds himself still fighting a war that should have already been won.3
Clarke illustrates this war between the believer’s heart and mind as a city under siege by hostile forces. The city represents the believer’s soul. They are under constant assault from without. The enemy has one goal, and that is to continue the siege until it takes full control. So there are repeated, incessant attacks. Always harassing, battering, and storming the city’s gates. All these assaults begin to reduce the inhabitant to extreme misery. Never has a picture more impressively been drawn and more effectually furnished to show the sad sight of a believer’s soul being sacked, and then shamefully and painfully led into oppressive captivity.4
As a result, the one in captivity now yearns to be set free again. They blame themselves for being so careless and not being on guard at the gate of their souls against these enemies. Those who were born as captive slaves of sin cannot be in as bad a state of mind than this once free believer who is now back in sin’s clutches. Sin and corruption have finally triumphed. The believer’s conscience and reasoning now lay chained. They are ready to be sold as slaves.5 We can hear their screams for liberation which Paul will articulate in the next verse.
Robert Haldane is not as graphic as Clarke, but he too believes that one main characteristic of the regenerate person is that they delight in the law of the Lord. That is the same thing David told his son Solomon.6 The unregenerate man, however, hates the law because its demands go against his desires. He is hostile to anything God says and never wants to be subject to the law of God. That’s why he takes no delight in it. In Paul’s mind, the regenerate person represents the believer’s inner-man, while the unregenerate person represents the believer’s outer-man. Paul sees the inner-man as spiritual in nature and inspired by the wisdom of God’s Word, while the outer-man is physical in nature and depends for guidance upon human logic and instinct. And in spite of being saddled with these evil tendencies of the past, the believer is still conscious of God’s law and delights in being obedient to God’s will. This depiction of a believer’s inner warfare should come as no surprise to any Christian. Is it not part of every believer’s testimony? How can anyone strive in their sanctification to be all God wants them to be without having moments when holiness comes into conflict with worldliness? If you call yourself a Christian but have never experienced this battle, most likely you are not a true child of God.7
Albert Barnes also takes up Paul’s theme of his spiritual nature being a warrior fighting on the side of the law to preserve life, while his sinful nature is part of the lawless mob trying to hijack his destiny and lead him from life to death. He too joins Clarke in illustrating the believer who falls prey to their sinful tendencies as a prisoner of war captured in the battle of the spirit against the flesh. After all, is it not said that to the victor belong the spoils?8 Barnes feels that Paul represents himself as being in spiritual warfare. He shares that from time to time he was overcome and made an unwilling participant to the sinful tendencies of his heart. This may be strong language to some believers who tend to downplay any such inclinations. That’s because it can be painful. It speaks of the disastrous conflicts in the hearts and minds of those who wish to be all that God wants them to be. Why couldn’t God have arranged that all of these negative things be washed away in the new birth and baptism? As we have noted before, it was designed by God to help the believer develop the necessary strength, resolve, and courage to go all the way to the end and taste victory.9
Charles Hodge not only admits that the principle of evil is active, but that it can be overwhelming. Its intent is to take the soul captive. We see this in verse 14, where Paul calls himself as a slave being sold into sin. As such, he is not a willing servant, but a miserable, helpless victim. This should not be understood as sin always getting the upper hand. Rather, sin has power the soul does not have to free itself. Sin is always dressed for battle and remains an enemy in spite of all that a believer can do. For Paul, the soul is the center of a person’s personality. Understanding the law helps us open communion with the spiritual world. At the same time, the flesh is the center of a person’s existence. So the law is the battlefield between the soul and flesh. But reality sets in during this time of conflict, and the soul finds that it cannot free itself from the dominion or power of the flesh. That’s why redemption is needed. The conflict is, from first to last, a natural one. The flesh cannot contend on the spiritual level. And the combatants can be identified as person’s sinful tendencies and spiritual tendencies.10
Charles Spurgeon explores the issue of freedom in what Paul speaks of here as combat. For him, a believer who has committed themselves to following Christ because their sins are forgiven, want more than anything to be completely free from sin’s influence. They want to lead an unblemished life without sin. And by having this desire in their soul, they will never be satisfied until that desire is fulfilled. This shows that their spiritual nature delights in the law of God. But, much to their consternation, there is another force at work within them. As far as Spurgeon is concerned, this should open every believer’s eyes to the reality that there are, within our human nature, factors that could end up sending the best saint to hell if sovereign grace does not stand in its way. That means, there is a little of hell’s tormenting flame within the heart of every child of God, and only the great and merciful God of heaven can provide the answer to putting out this fire.
Spurgeon contributes this warring between his own heart and mind to the light God sent into his soul through the Gospel. He likens his spiritual nature and sinful nature to Cain and Abel, the Egyptians and Israelites in a battle for the soul. One following the will of man and the other the will of God. He goes so far as to say that if there be a little David in your heart, there will be a big Saul too. This battle will go on as long as believers are in this world. The sinful nature will never ask for a truce or make a peace treaty between itself and the spiritual nature. The sinful nature lies in ambush, preparing to strike at any opportune moment. But freedom from such a deadly foe cannot be achieved without help.
Spurgeon also thinks that the sinful nature brings people into captivity in other respects. While the battle rages between the sinful tendencies still leftover from the previous life are fighting against the new spiritual tendencies imputed into the believer’s heart by the Holy Spirit at their new birth, the fog of doubt can cover the battlefield and cause havoc with the believer’s mind. As a result, they may begin to ask themselves, “Am I really a child of God?” If their answer is “Yes,” then they follow this by saying: “If that’s true, why am I this way?” Other questions begin to ensue. Why can’t I pray and believe like I want to? If I am truly a child of God, why do I feel listless when it comes to my devotion to God and His Word; I shouldn’t shuffle into the House of God, slouch down in my seat, go through the motions of praise and worship and have no enjoyment in doing so? Why do I get upset at those around me who seem to feast on the occasion and sing for joy from their hearts?
That’s why Spurgeon has a miserable person like this crying out in agony, “Oh, what a captivity the soul is brought into when it allows inbred sin to cast any doubts upon its safety in Christ.” The feeling of captivity can come whenever we sense that sinful thoughts or ideas begin to flood our mind. It can really be disturbing if we consider sinning even for a moment. As a result, we may then notice that we don’t feel like serving the Lord, our prayers become cold and routine, we have little joy in the company of other believers and even less in the godless society around us. Even the singing of Gospel hymns and the preaching of the Word of God become boring. This should make us have empathy with the Apostle Paul when he cries out, “Who can deliver me from this dead body I’m dragging around.”11 Fear not, the answer in the next verse will be the solution for everyone.12
1 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 114
2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 134
4 Clarke: Ibid., p. 135
5 Clarke: Ibid. p. 136
6 Psalm 1:2
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 298
8 “To the victor belong the spoils. In a war or other contest, the winner gets the booty.” This proverb originated in the United States and was first used in 1831 by Senator William Learned Marcy (1786-1857) of New York during a Congressional debate. “The victor gets the spoils” and “To the victor go the spoils” are variations of the proverb. Senator Marcy may have been inspired by the story of Abraham in Genesis 14:11-12. See also Hebrews 7:1-4
9 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 366
11 Romans 7:24
12 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.