NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XI)
Verse 7: Why is this true? Because anyone whose mental attitude is controlled by their sinful-self is against God. They refuse to obey God’s law. And really they are not able to obey it.
Paul is not finished with his instructions to the Roman believers on how to cope with the competing forces within their hearts and minds. As Jews, they should see a comparison to the warning God gave the children of Israel through Moses: “You are to have no other gods before me. You are not to make for yourselves a carved image or any kind of representation of anything in heaven above, on the earth beneath or in the water below the shoreline. You are not to bow down to them or serve them; for I, Adonai your God, am a jealous God.”1 In the believer’s case, those things that the flesh used to worship must be torn down and let the Shekinah of God take their place.
Paul wrote the Ephesians there was something the Lord wanted to tell them: “Don’t continue living like those who don’t believe. Their thoughts are worth nothing. They have no understanding, and they know nothing because they refuse to listen. So they cannot have the life that God gives. They have lost their feeling of shame and use their lives to do what is morally wrong. More and more they want to do all kinds of evil. But that way of life is nothing like what you learned when you came to know Christ.”2
And Paul put the Colossians on notice that God was not interested in lowering the standards that were set for those who desired to serve Him and fulfill His will and destiny for their lives. At one time, all believers were living their lives without God being the center of everything. So Paul tells them: “Now He has made you His friends again. He did this by the death Christ suffered while He was in His body. He did it so that he could present you to Himself as people who are holy, blameless, and without anything that would make you guilty before Him.”3 There is nothing more insulting to God’s love and grace than when His children step over the bleeding body of His Son in order to follow the evil and immoral tendencies of their sinful nature.
Paul instructed young Timothy that in the last days many who call themselves Christians will love what they want for themselves more than what God wants for them. Money and success will be their top priorities. As a result, they will become proud and boast about their prosperity. They will turn against spiritual authority, desiring to do what pleases them. Paul said: “They will go on pretending to be devoted to God, but they will refuse to let that ‘devotion’ change the way they live. Stay away from these people!”4
To illustrate this from everyday life. All magnets have both a north and a south pole which causes them to either repel or attract one another depending on how the two poles are lined up. If the north pole of one magnet meets the south pole of another, the two will be attracted, but if either both north poles or south poles meet, the magnets will repel one another. The same goes for the sinful nature and spiritual nature of mankind. That is why if the sinful pole is positive and the spiritual pole turns negative they will attract each other, and the stronger one will dominate the weaker. The Holy Spirit is the only source that provides the positive force for the spiritual pole in the believer’s life to keep it the strongest.
Early church scholar Gregory states that as long as our sinful nature is alive and well, it is not possible to find the pleasing and perfect will of God working efficiently in our lives as believers.5 And early church writer Pelagius says that the flesh is not intrinsically hostile to God, as the Manichaeans say,6 its the carnal mind. For everything which is not cooperative, is hostile. That’s why some of those who want to clear themselves of guilt may sometimes try to go beyond the limit of the old law on their own. In other words, they try to out holy the holy Law. But Paul says this type of carnal thinking can never bring itself to be subordinate to God’s will in order to return from following the desires of the flesh and start pursuing the yearnings of their spiritual nature.7
Augustine points out that Paul explains why he uses the term “hostile” so that no one might think that some human force exists that operates as an opposing principle which God did not create and which fights against Him. An enemy of God is simply someone who refuses to submit to His law and who does so because they adhere to the mind of the flesh. This means that they only seek what the world can give them because they don’t want to go against the world order. For Augustine, the normal definition of wisdom means to strive for what is good and avoid what is bad. That’s why the Apostle Paul rightly describes the imagination of the flesh as longing for what this world offers.
But a person cannot hold on to such worldly possessions forever, sooner or later they will lose them, and when they leave this world, everything they have will be left behind. That’s because their sinful imagination cannot bring itself to submit to God’s will. The only way that can happen is if it is transformed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s wisdom does not place its hope in worldly things, nor is it intimidated by worldly ways.
Then Augustine shares an interesting perspective by stating that man’s soul is neutral, it is neither on the side of good or bad. The soul’s destiny is determined by the agent in control. If the imagination of the flesh is in charge, then the lower sinful tendencies will run loose without discipline. But if the wisdom of the Spirit is in control, then the yearnings for higher spiritual things will be sought after. Augustine likens the soul to water. When it gets cold the water freezes, but when it’s hot, the ice will melt.8 Could it be that this is why on the Day of Pentecost when the Apostles and believers were filled with the Holy Spirit, there were flames seen hovering each of them to set their souls on fire?
John Calvin believes that the will of God is guided by the rule of righteousness. It follows then that whatever is unfair and wrong is contrary to God’s will. Furthermore, such an unjust and unfair attitude eventually leads to destruction and futility. Even though God is not offended, they seek in vain any path to heaven and eternal life. That’s because His punishment for such thinking has already been made known. It says that the soul that sins will die.9 Calvin wants us to observe this truth: The will of man is in all things opposed to the will of God. This is as true as the fact that what is crooked differs from what is straight, in the same way, man’s ways are different from God’s ways.10 For a believer, when Calvin speaks of the will of man, he is speaking of that part of a believer’s mentality that is influenced by his sinful nature. The part that is ruled by the Holy Spirit will fight such tendencies because they put man’s ego first and what God desires second.
Adam Clarke follows a similar thought pattern when he states that when the mind is carnal, it relishes what is sinful and worldly. Thus, it operates in opposition to the pure and holy law of God. Therefore, it is hostile to God, making it irreconcilable and filled with unforgiving hatred.11 Clarke points out that the carnal mind is disobedient and adheres to the principle of rebellion. Therefore, it will not become subject to God’s will because it is essential for man’s sinful nature to show itself as strong by being rebellious. So, when it ceases to rebel, it ceases to sin. However, Clarke believes that such cessation of rebellion is not enough to please God.
What they don’t know is that God’s design, as outlined in the Gospels, is not to weaken, incapacitate, or tie up sinful tendencies so as to restrict their actions to certain arbitrary perimeters. Rather, it is intended to destroy them and make them lifeless. Since those evil inclinations abuse the Law so that sinning occurs, they must be destroyed, or else they will continue to rebel against God. The Gospel does not recommend that we take our sinful tendencies to therapy so they will be less offensive in nature, nor seek remedies that will help them mend. Jesus did not die on the cross to domesticate our evil inclinations or shed His blood as a way of reducing the pain they cause. Sin is sin and always will be sin. Hostility against God is hostility and will continue to be as long as it has the power to do so. And such hostility will encourage rebellion against all that is righteous and holy. It would be like taking a lion directly out of the jungle for a pet and not expect it to do anything but lay down and purr.12
Robert Haldane offers a rather lengthy commentary on this verse that is not possible to include here, but his emphasis is on how our sinful nature cannot be converted to a saintly nature without a miracle. Based on this, Haldane reasons that according to what the Scriptures say, natural man is incapable of always choosing what is good, even though he should. That’s because only God knows what is good and reveals it to us in His Word. As such, mankind is rightly called “ungodly,” a “sinner,” an “enemy of God,” and “without spiritual strength.”13 Such people are seen as walking in harmony with the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience;”14 as being under “the power of Satan,”15 and “taken captive by him at his will.”16 They are the devil’s lawful captives because they sold their souls to him voluntarily. As such, they cannot be freed but by means of the Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, which the Lord employs when granting to those whom He favors the blessing of regeneration. Thereby, God “distributes His gifts, and divides them among His children as He pleases.”17 It is God “who has delivered us,” says the Apostle, “from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son.”18 “Who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”19 “So if the Son sets you free, you will truly be free.20”21
1 Exodus 20:3-5
2 Ephesians 4:17-20
3 Colossians 1:22
4 2 Timothy 3:5
5 Gregory of Nyssa: On Perfection
6 The Babylonian prophet Mani founded the religion known as Manichaeanism in the 3rd century AD. Scholars believe that Manichaeanism was a form of Gnosticism, a system of belief based on the importance of grasping religious mysteries with the mind.
7 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Augustine: On Romans 49
9 Ezekiel 18:20
10 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Romans 5:6, 10
14 Ephesians 2:2
15 1 John 5:19
16 2 Timothy 2:26
17 1 Corinthians 12:11
18 Colossians 1:13
19 Philippians 2:13
20 John 8:36
21 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 335