NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XIX)
Verses 12-13: So, my brothers and sisters, we must not be ruled by our sinful nature. We must not live the way our sinful nature wants us to. If you use your lives to do what your sinful nature wants, you will die spiritually. But if you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will live a saved life.
David of the OT knew what it was for God to protect and free him from the many traps set for him by King Saul, and those who conspired against his becoming king. On one occasion he wondered out loud, “What can I offer my Lord for what He’s done for me?”1 He goes on to say: “I will worship you and offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Here in the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem, before all the people, I will pay everything I vowed to the Lord. Praise the Lord.”2 In David’s mind, this was the least he could do in response to God’s grace, goodness, and generosity.
That’s why Paul points to the believer’s need for the Holy Spirit in staying away from those things that our sinful nature desires because they lead only to ruin and remorse. He clearly pointed this out to the Galatians.3 He also tells them: “Don’t be misled; remember that you can’t ignore God and get away with it: a man will always reap just the kind of crop he sows!”4 Therefore, keeping ourselves pure and sanctified takes more than a passive attitude. That would be like sweeping dirt under the rug then claiming that the house is clean.
Paul tells the Corinthians that it requires training, much like an athlete getting ready for the Olympics.5 And the pain of such rigorous exercise can be as life-threatening as it is life-saving.6 We might compare it to the need for amputation on the battlefield in order to prevent gangrene and certain death.7 Paul told Titus: “The free gift of eternal salvation is now being offered to everyone; and along with this gift comes the realization that God wants us to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures and to live good, God-fearing lives day after day.”8 When we completely submit to God’s will, it will keep us from grieving His Spirit.9 Does it mean giving up certain things we’ve grown fond of? Yes! But what we get in return is so much better, and the loss will quickly be forgotten.
For the Jewish members of the Roman congregation, this idea of submission to a higher will in order to walk the right path was not new. In their own writings, we read: “Who is a victorious man? He who subdues his evil passions… What shall a man do to live? They replied: Let him mortify himself.”10 In the gloss, scholars liken such mortification to denying oneself to the point of physical death by work and study of God’s Word. But Paul wants them to see this same principal from a different perspective, and that is to deny one’s sinful nature its lusts and desires until it dies for lack of nutrition. There was a time not too long ago when those identified as holiness people were easy to spot because of how wisely and happily they lived without the things of this world in order to lay up treasure for themselves in the world-to-come. But today, they are few and far between and are hard to spot.
Early church scholar Origen said that God did not make us in His image in order for us to be tied up under the control of sinful flesh. Rather, that our soul is free to serve its Creator. This would help us take control of our sinful flesh so that God can use it for His service. Origen then goes on to explain that putting to death the deeds of the body would help us understand this: Love is a fruit of the spirit,11 but hate is a disease of the flesh. Therefore, hate, like cancer, is overcome only by the serum of love. Likewise, joy is a fruit of the Spirit,12 but remorse is the world’s hangover. It brings an end to our joy and happiness because it is a terrible moral headache caused by our sinful flesh. However, it can be cured if we drink in the joy of the Spirit. Peace is a fruit of the Spirit,13 but dissension or discord are attacks on our soul by sin in our flesh. However, it is for sure that discord can only be driven out by peace. In the same way, patience is a fruit of the Spirit, but impatience is an allergy of the flesh. That’s why kindness calms impatience. Also, gentleness, like a blanket, can snuff out fury; restraint (self-control) with unrestraint (out of control), and so on.14
Then Origen continues to point out that by “death” and “life,” Paul does not mean physical death and life, but sin’s death and eternal life. Those who are mature in the Spirit and who have put to death the works of the flesh will attain this blessing. But we must also realize that this mortification of the deeds of the flesh is brought about through patience – not suddenly, but step by step. At first, we see these wild sinful weeds begin to wilt in those who have been converted. Then, as they progress in their faith and become more dedicated, the weeds of the flesh not only wilt, they start to die out. Origen has no doubt that when we reach spiritual maturity, we will no longer find traces of any sinful thoughts, words or deeds. At that point, we may be close to completely eradicating the deeds of the flesh because we have let go of that which brings death and grabbed onto that which gives us eternal life.15
Martin Luther has an interesting way of looking at the dynamics here. He sees Paul saying that through the Spirit, that is, the love for God in the inner man created by the Spirit, the deeds of the body are not a person’s evil works, it’s their sinful tendencies.16 This leaves open the idea that the new spiritual being inside the old natural body must deal with that body’s natural, and sometimes, unnatural desires to please itself. So with the Spirit’s help, he or she can actually treat those desires like cancer and use the power of the Spirit to kill such desires. Therefore, the more such lusts are destroyed, with the Spirit’s help, the more holy the body becomes ready for use by the Spirit for things that glorify God.
Fellow reformer John Calvin takes this a little further by saying that once we renounce all allegiance to fleshly desires, we should never consent to them again. Also, once the Spirit begins reigning in us, it is treason to go against His bidding. This is certainly in line with what Paul said to the Ephesians about not grieving the Spirit,17 and to the Galatians that they live and walk in the Spirit.18 Calvin continues by saying that by not grieving the Holy Spirit and by living and walking as He guides and instructs us, it will be easier for us to deal with carnal lusts. This will allow us to devote more of ourselves to do those things God has deemed to be right. Calvin warns that believers should not just sit around and talk idly because they don’t want to make mistakes, or excuse their inactivity because they claim there is no power to do all the things God desires. It all boils down to having complete confidence in God’s calling so that we develop a love for righteous living. Since we have been chosen, we should live worthy of our vocation. So we should learn to embrace the Lord, not only to justify our calling, but also to promote our sanctification.
John Bengel combines what these two verses say in order to point out that when those over whom the flesh once had dominion, and when temptations were rampant, repent, their spiritual nature is now in full control. They have tipped the scale in favor of their spiritual nature. This must never be allowed to become unbalanced again so that the sinful nature regains any advantage. It is all by God’s grace that makes this possible. Bengel also says that beginning with this passage, Paul has put our sinful nature in its place, and we can get on with living a holy life, which is the inheritance of all believers.19 To put this another way, once a believer has been delivered from the bondage of sin, they are no longer a debtor to their carnal nature. With the help of the Spirit, they now have dominion over the flesh and can delight in their new freedom. So the phrase, “The devil made me do it,” does not qualify as an alibi. It should be, “I let the devil talk me into doing it.” In other words, when the flesh, under the influence of the sinful nature, asked to be satisfied, you decided to give in. Remember the serpent, Adam and Eve? If we were saying “yes” to our sinful tendencies back then, why can’t we now say “yes” to our spiritual tendencies instead?
Adam Clarke makes the point that since we have been brought into a state of pardon by the grace of God through the death of Christ, who now stands at the right hand of the Father as our mediator, there is no reason for us not to continue to love and serve God to the best of our abilities. Clarke believes strongly that if we seek for that grace and spiritual help which the Gospel says is available and furnishes, we can resist, and, by resisting, subdue the deeds of the flesh, against which the law gave us no assistance. Then we can live a temporary life of faith, love, and holy obedience down here, so we can enjoy an eternal life of praise, glory, and honor up there.20
Robert Haldane comments on verse 12 by saying that ruling in every decision on the side of the spiritual nature instead of the sinful nature is a consequence drawn from what the Apostle said earlier about dethroning sin and elevating the spirit to rule which removes hostility against God. It also goes along with what Paul had been saying about the great privileges given to the believer by having the Spirit of God dwelling in them. He not only gives life to their souls but secures the future quickening and raising of their bodies from the grave. That’s why Paul speaks of the believer’s obligation to live a holy life by walking according to the Spirit and developing the character which Paul said they should be their goal. After all, were they not once debtors to the flesh which by nature filled them with corruption, guilt, and weakness? They were hoping thereby to get out of life the best they could by obeying the flesh’s lust and desires. However, while the ways of the flesh promised them happiness, it was misery and sorrow that they got.21
1 Psalm 116:12
2 Ibid. 116:17-19
3 Galatians 5:19-21
4 Ibid. 6:7-8
5 1 Corinthians 9:27
6 Galatians 5:24-25
7 See Ephesians 4:22
8 Titus 2:11-12
9 Ephesians 4:30
10 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Tamid, folio 32a
11 See Galatians 5:22
14 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Origen: Ibid.
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 121
17 Ephesians 4:30
18 Galatians 5:25
19 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 291
20 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 348-349