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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Romans 7

Verse 1

This chapter relates closely to what Paul had already written, especially with reference to the law of Moses; and the problem to which he addressed these words was that of the inordinate attachment of many Jewish Christians to the law, and their determination to bind certain provisions of it upon Gentile converts to Christ. This great problem, perhaps the greatest problem of all that confronted that age of the church, was of overriding consequence anywhere it surfaced; and Paul was certain that it would surface in Rome, hence the content of much of this epistle. The great apostle, more than any other, was responsible for divorcing Christianity from Judaism; and, but for his efforts, it was altogether possible that Christianity itself might have become but an antechamber of Judaism. A full and constant attention to what the problem was should accompany the study of this chapter.

Three times Paul had already indicated the severance of Christian faith from its Judaistic parent: (1) In Romans 3:20-24, he had elaborated the truth that no flesh can be justified by the law, that the law and the prophets themselves had foretold the new faith, and that God's grace had provided free and full redemption "in Christ Jesus." (2) In Rom.5:20,21, he had shown the temporary nature of the law, given primarily to expose sin, making it "abound," and that it was not true life at all but the means through which "sin reigned in death." (3) In Romans 6:14, Paul flatly declared that Christians were not under law at all, but under grace (a synecdoche for the entirely new system of Christianity). These three considerations of the relationship between the law of Moses and Christianity make up the subject of the entire seventh chapter, in which Paul took them up one by one and in the reverse order, proving first (Romans 7:1-5) that Christians are not bound in any sense whatever to the law of Moses, next showing holy the law made sin abound (Romans 7:6-13), and then demonstrating why no flesh could be justified by the law (Romans 7:14-25).

Or are ye ignorant, brethren (for I speak to men who know the law), that the law hath dominion over a man for so long a time as he liveth? For the woman that hath a husband is bound by law to the husband while he liveth; but if the husband die, she is discharged from the law of the husband. So then, if while the husband liveth, she be joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if the husband die, she is free from the law, so that she is no adulteress, though she be joined to another man. (Romans 7:1-3)

These three verses have a bearing upon the Christian doctrine of marriage, as indicated by Hodge, thus:

The doctrine concerning marriage, which is here incidentally taught, or rather which is assumed as known by Christians and Jews is, that the marriage contract can only be dissolved by death. The only exception to this rule is given by Christ (Matthew 5:32); unless indeed Paul (1 Corinthians 7:15) recognizes willful and final desertion as a sufficient ground of divorce.[1]

Regarding divorce, the Holy Scriptures teach that marriage is dissolved: (1) by death; (2) by adultery; and (3) by desertion, the latter not being strictly considered as ANOTHER ground beyond that given by Christ, but rather as prima facie evidence of the existence of ground (2), that of adultery. Paul did not here mention any exceptions, his analogy depending upon death as the terminator of Israel's marriage with God, and thus making the mention of any exceptions unnecessary.

Bearing in mind Paul's purpose in this paragraph of showing that Christians are no longer under Moses' law, the thrust of his words is simple and dramatic. In the Old Testament, God represented himself as being a husband to Israel and the relationship between them and God as a marriage contract (Jeremiah 31:32; Ezekiel 23, etc.). That marriage contract is no longer in force, for God died to Israel in the person of his Son upon Calvary! That really nullified the relationship between God and Israel. Thus, God is represented as a husband whose death has broken the ties that bound him to the wife Israel, not merely leaving Israel free to be united to another (Christ), but also leaving the old ties (the law of Moses, etc.) without any meaning or validity at all!

Paul could have selected other grounds for affirming that God had annulled the marriage contract with Israel, such as Israel's wanton disobedience and disregard of it as set forth by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:32f); but Paul's choice of the astounding fact of God's death in the person of his Son was a far more appropriate expression of the absolute termination that had fallen upon Judaism. Israel's wanton rebellion against God had come at last to full fruit when Christ himself was slain by them (see under Romans 3:26); and therefore, as far as the whole system of Judaism is concerned, it has exactly the same status as a marriage contract after the husband's funeral. Christ as God risen from the dead is married to another, the new bride being his church (Ephesians 5:22-33); and what a preposterous thing it would be to suppose that the new wife should abide by the terms of the marriage contract of the old wife. Devastatingly, Paul removed all grounds upon which the Judaizing teachers in the church might seek to impose portions of the law upon Christians.

Macknight's discernment of Paul's purpose in this paragraph is seen in this:

(Paul's purpose is) to wean the Jews from their extreme attachment to the law of Moses, and to make them sensible of the absurdity of pressing that law upon the Gentiles.[2]

Thus, it was the annulment of God's marriage contract with Israel through the death of Christ that abrogated and terminated that entire system, finally and irrevocably. As Paul himself expressed it: "He took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Colossians 2:14).

Scholars have made extensive efforts to view this chapter as applicable primarily to Christians with a consequent perplexity as to the meaning here. Griffith Thomas noted that "there are very few commentators clear on this point";[3] and even Macknight considered that the "Jews were put to death by the body of Christ";[4] and, from this, he reasoned that the Jews were free of the law of Moses because of their own death in the person of Christ; but to be "dead with Christ" and "in Christ" is to have eternal life, a result which cannot be claimed upon behalf of the people who rejected and crucified the Lord. The death of Christ did indeed have a consequence to Israel, as seen below.

The death of Christ (God come in the flesh) meant that all things whatsoever that pertained to God's relationship with Israel (viewed scripturally as a marriage contract), including the law of Moses, circumcision, the sacrifices, and the whole theocratic system perished on the cross of Jesus and were buried in the new tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; and don't forget to include the sabbath day in all that. Thus, not even Israel, much less Christians, had any further spiritual benefit to be procured through keeping the religious regulations of the Old Testament. God was free of all prior obligations resulting from the covenants with Israel, free to be married to another; but this meant that Israel was also free of any further obligation or benefit in the law. The great promise to Abraham was not annulled, but was shown to have been upon a higher level and ultimately designed to include all the families of the earth, Jews and Gentiles alike, as the one new man "in Christ," and therefore Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise.

[1] Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 220.

[2] James Macknight, Apostolical Epistles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1960), p. 88.

[3] Griffith Thomas, St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 183.

[4] James Macknight, op. cit., p. 90.

Verse 4

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God.

Paul thus drew the conclusion from the premises stated above (which see). In the relationship of the new institution, or church, to God, it was utterly incongruous to suppose that any of that old system pertained to the new relationship, especially in view of the total rejection of Christ by the old institution. Christians, whether of Jewish or Gentile descent, had nothing, either of benefit or blessing, in the old system. For Jewish Christians, Christ died to annul their old contract with God; thus they were free to be united with Christ as a portion of his bride the church, this being the import of the words, "that ye should be joined to another." For Gentile Christians, their freedom from the old system was also complete. Not only had it never applied to them; but additionally, the law was made repugnant to them because under the law, Christ himself was made a curse (Deuteronomy 21:23); and the epic fact of Jesus' suffering "without the gate" (Hebrews 13:12) symbolized the total dissociation of Jesus Christ together with all spiritual blessings in him from everything connected with the law of Moses. How utterly unthinkable it was that true believers in Christ should have any regard for a system that crucified him, making him a curse, and casting him without the camp and beyond the pale! The most astounding failure of the law of Moses was seen in that very thing, that at last it cast forth upon what amounted to the city dump, the holy Christ himself, thus finalizing and sealing forever the utmost incompatibility between the law and Jesus Christ. By definition, to be "in Christ" is to be absolutely beyond and apart from the law and everything in it. Christians, all of them, Jewish and Gentile, are recipients of unbounded freedom in Christ who rose from the dead, to bring forth fruits of righteousness in him.

Verse 5

For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law, wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.

Under Romans 7:4 Paul's teaching is viewed as applicable to both Jewish and Gentile Christians, the same being essentially one "in Christ"; but this should not obscure the fact that the Jewish element in the church was primarily in the focus of Paul's words here.

In the flesh ... refers to the nature of the Mosaic covenant, primarily one of flesh. It was the connection of the chosen people with the flesh of Abraham, and the rite of circumcision, which was a mark in the flesh, that Paul had in view. It should be noted that Paul was not here contrasting two methods of salvation in Christ, as sometimes alleged, but was contrasting life under the law of Moses with the life of faith in Jesus Christ. Regarding the unbearable nature of Moses' law, Peter said,

Now therefore why make ye trial of God, that ye should put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear (Acts 15:10).

The inability of the Mosaic system to give the worshiper any valid victory over sin was due: (1) to the fact that no forgiveness was possible, (2) that there was no impartation of the Holy Spirit, and (3) that there was utterly no justification in the keeping of its precepts. No wonder that Peter referred to it as a yoke of bondage.

Verse 6

But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that wherein we were held; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Now that we have ... shows that Paul was here identifying himself as a former disciple of the law, thus including himself with the Jewish Christians to whom he addressed this appeal. Paul's use of the first person here should be noted.

Newness of the spirit ... oldness of the letter ... These phrases refer to the life "in Christ Jesus" on the one hand, and to life under Moses' law on the other. "Oldness of the letter" is a reference to exactly the same thing that that was signified by the use of "in the flesh" in the preceding verse. Paul's various usage of the same phrase is again apparent in that. In this paragraph, "flesh" means the covenant of flesh, or the law of Moses; in Galatians 2:20, it means alive in the physical body; and in Romans 8:9, it has reference to living after the lusts of the flesh.

Sanday's exegesis on the meaning of this verse is,

The true reading runs thus: "But as it is, we were (we are) delivered from the Law, having died to that wherein we were held. In the act of our baptism which united us to Christ, we obtained a release from our old tyrant, the Law."[5]

The insinuation that "oldness of the letter" has reference to obeying the commandments of Christ, and that "newness of the spirit" means being saved by "faith and nothing but faith" is unfounded, and such a construction of Paul's words is an unjustifiable distortion.

Verse 7

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Howbeit, I had not known sin, except through the law: for I had not known coveting, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.

Is the law sin ...? Paul here identified what law was his subject by appealing to the tenth commandment in the law of Moses. How is it possible for people to affirm that Paul was speaking of the commandments of Jesus Christ by his use of the term "law" in this chapter? As noted in the paragraph heading this chapter, Paul here (Romans 7:7-13) expounded further the manner in which the law of Moses made sin "abound" (Romans 5:20-23). Also, Paul had mentioned again, only a moment earlier, that the law had wrought forth "in our members to bring forth fruit unto death"; and in the next few verses Paul more fully explained what was meant. To be sure, he had not meant that God's law was sin. However, there was a way for sin to take advantage of it. Thus:

The perverseness of human nature is such that the mere prohibition of an act suggests the desire to do that which is prohibited. The act when done is invested with the character of sin which it hitherto did not possess. It becomes a distinct breach of the law, where previously there had been no law to break.[6]

It is exactly such facts regarding sin that may be observed in the example Paul gave from his own experience. Before the giving of the law of Moses, there were doubtless many who desired their neighbor's ox, or his ass, or his wife; but that was, at that time, a violation of no known law, the inward desire of forbidden things having never been prohibited prior to the law of Moses. Paul here stated, of that very sin, that he would never have known what it was except the law had said, "Thou shalt not covet"!

Verse 8

But sin, finding occasion, wrought in me through the commandment all manner of coveting: for apart from the law sin is dead.

This verse identifies sin in the human heart as the primary cause of violating God's law; but, in the sense of multiplying violations, the law itself is an ally of sin. Thus it is true that "through the commandment," as a secondary cause, all manner of violations are multiplied. Human nature being what it is, the very existence of law, given a rebellious heart in people, becomes the occasion of sin "abounding."

Verse 9

And I was alive apart from the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

Alive apart from the law ... has reference to a state of innocence, or unconscious morality, as yet without instruction, and uncondemned, which condition may be assumed as a description of Paul's childhood innocence; but, after being instructed in the law, that is, "when the commandment came," sin revived in him, and he fell into the deadness of transgression and sin. Significantly, the last two clauses show that the state of innocence was merely relative; sin had been there all along, from the date of accountability, but more or less dormant. Seizing the occasion of the commandment, sin leaped up and thrust Paul through with all manner of violations; as a result of which, he became consciously guilty and subject to the penalty of eternal death, that being the import of "I died."

Verse 10

And the commandment, which was unto life, this I found to be unto death.

The commandment ... is another synonym for Moses' law; and by such an expression as this, that the law is "unto life," he wished to soften the impact of what he had said about the law bringing death and causing sin to abound. Paul had the utmost respect for the old law. Who but himself could have said that he "had lived in all good conscience" with reference to it? Paul here recognized the holy purpose of that law God gave through Moses; and the holy purpose of the law was not the thing Paul here denounced; it was the practical application of it, due to the perverseness af human nature. Although the law had indeed been given to people that they might keep it and live, they were unable to do it; and thus they found, as did Paul, that it was not "unto life," but "unto death."

Verse 11

For sin, finding occasion, through the commandment beguiled me, and through it slew me.

The reaction of sinful people to God's commandments is not due to the evil of the commandment but to the evil of human hearts. The sinful mind lyingly represents God's commandments as being opposed to human freedom, to human interests, and as being barriers to legitimate human desires and needs. The command of God, as in Eden itself, is made to appear as a frustration of something that man might rightfully have expected, or as the prohibition of some achievement people might have attained, had it not been for the commandment! All such thoughts, and countless other falsehoods, appear as the deceitfulness of sin, causing the poor violator to fall into the ways of death.

Lenski has the following perceptive word regarding this:

The commandment is lyingly made to appear as a disagreeable obstacle to the gratification of our desires, to our "free self-expression," to our "living our own lives." Forbidden fruits are sweet; and the commandment which forbids them is thus used as an impetus by the sin power to make us reach out after those fruits just because they are forbidden. Hid from us by the lying deception are the consequences, that once tasted, those fruits turn to ashes in our mouths, or that we can escape the bitter results as little as all the millions that have tried it, or that we can atone for our passions by doing some good. Ovid writes, "The permitted is unpleasing; the forbidden consumes us fiercely," and again, "We strive against the forbidden and ever desire what is denied."[7]

Regarding the manner in which the commandment becomes an occasion for sin, Whiteside has this:

Concerning the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God said to Adam and Eve, "Thou shalt not eat of it." By his lying speech, Satan deceived Eve. He did not deceive her by means of the commandment; but he took the commandment as an occasion to approach her, and deceive her into believing that it would be greatly to her advantage to eat the fruit. Death was the penalty for that disobedience. Hence, the devil seized the occasion, or the opportunity, presented by the command, and by his artful speech deceived her, and by the command slew her.[8]

[7] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963), p. 468.

[8] Robertson L. Whiteside, A New Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to Saints in Rome (Denton, Texas: Miss Inys Whiteside, 1945), p. 153.

Verse 12

So that the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous and good.

The law of Moses was holy because it came from God, righteous because of the justice of its precepts, and good because of the benefit intended for mankind through the Father's giving of it. This high estimate of Moses' law will be further justified in the subsequent verses of this chapter, in which, not the law itself, but the sinful bent of human nature, will be shown as bearing the blame for the sin and death that abounded under God's law. Again, from the homely wisdom of Whiteside,

A good law is not to blame, if people disobey it and bring punishment upon themselves.[9]

If there had been any doubt whatever of which law Paul spoke in this chapter, it would have been resolved in this. Of what other law could it ever have been said by an apostle that it was holy, righteous, and good? This overriding fact must be kept in view for a clear understanding of this chapter, where Paul was speaking of the law of Moses and its ineffectiveness as a power to enable people to live above sin.

The law ... and the commandment ... actually may not require that a distinction between these entities be made, although one is possible, the first having reference to the whole Mosaic system, and the latter to specific laws. As Barrett noted,

Often when Paul speaks of "law," the word might be paraphrased, "The Old Testament System of Religion." This equivalence is valid in the present chapter.[10]

[9] Ibid., p. 155.

[10] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1957), p. 140.

Verse 13

Did then that which is good become death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might be shown to be sin, by working death to me through that which is good; - that through the commandment sin might become exceeding sinful.

Here again, as often in Romans, the old diatribe style of discourse is followed, the objection Paul addressed being this: "Paul, you have praised the law as righteous and good; but since it has brought death, how can you say it is good?" Paul's answer was his favorite "God forbid." Certainly not! The fault was not with the law but with the sin of human hearts. Barrett wisely observed that this verse betrays not the least interest in psychology!

Paul simply states that sin led to death - the doom of creation separated from the Creator; and that this happened that sin might stand out in its true colors. The serpent had promised Eve that men should be as God (Genesis 3:5); but the rebellion begun with the highest conceivable hope ended in condemnation and death. Sin might appear as human progress, or in any other attractive guise; but death proved it to be nothing but sin. The most damning feature of its disclosure was the fact that sin had used in its death-dealing work God's gift, the law.[11]

The exceedingly sinful and destructive nature of sin is supremely exhibited in this, that through deceit, seduction, and falsehood, sin (here personified) induces the sinner to break God's commandment, thereby using the commandment which had been given and was intended solely for man's good, to become the instrument of the sinner's death, thus (in a figure) slaying the sinner with God's own commandment, death ensuing from the penalty inherent in the broken commandment.

Verse 14

For we know that the law is spiritual but I am carnal, sold under sin.

Paul here began consideration of a third element in the law of Moses that made it an absurdity to accept the law as binding upon Christians, that being the fact that justification was absolutely impossible under that system. See paragraph heading this chapter. If proof had been wanting that it is the law of Moses under consideration, here it is again. Of what other law could it have been said that "it is spiritual"? Paul's experience as a Christian is the last thing that could be considered as the topic here. "I am carnal, sold under sin ..." Are such words as these any fit comment of any child of God who has been redeemed by the blood of Christ? To use Paul's words, God forbid! To refer these words to Paul's status as a Christian, or to the status of any other Christian, is to torture the word of God. Such a construction upon these words approaches blasphemy Paul had just finished saying that Christians are "dead to sin" and "alive unto God" in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11); and to apply these words to Christians is to contradict what had just been stated.

What was Paul's meaning? The grammatical impossibility of using this verse to cancel Romans 6:11, coupled with the fact that the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in this chapter, the latter fact especially, provide the most eloquent proof possible that the conflict noted in the following verses resulted, not from any Christian experience whatever, but from the tragic efforts of truly noble souls (of whom Paul himself was numbered) who had diligently sought to please God under the old institution.

All of the commentators who have applied the latter words of this verse to the redeemed in Christ have misunderstood the apostle. For example, Hodge has this: "Every Christian can adopt the language of this verse."[12] But, pray tell how can it ever be accepted as fact that a true Christian, one forgiven of all past sins, endowed with the Holy Spirit (conspicuously not mentioned here), dead to sin, alive unto God, risen with Christ, walking in newness of life, possessing all spiritual blessing "in Christ" - how can THAT person be spoken of as "sold under sin"? Never!

I am carnal, sold under sin ... Of course, it is Paul's use of the first person present tense in these words that is regarded as the principal support of the interpretation of this passage (here to the end of the chapter) as a Christian experience; but Paul's thought here was retrospective, despite the present tense. The author of Hebrews (probably the same apostle) used the present tense and first person in Romans 6:1 of that epistle accommodatively, as is undoubtedly done here. A history teacher's instruction of a class studying the American Revolution might say of Washington's winter at Jockey Hollow:

We are now with Washington's army west of the great swamp in New Jersey. Cold and hunger are our enemies. Disease stalks us; desertion is increasing; and there is even mutiny.

In such a presentation, the first person present tense cannot indicate the present time at all; and we are certain that Paul's present condition when he wrote Romans was absolutely not indicated by his use of first person present tense in Romans 7:14ff.

But there is an even stronger reason for rejecting the application of this latter part of Romans 7 to the Christian and the construing of these words as a description of the Christian's inner struggle over sin. That reason is grounded in the magnificent scope and sweeping comprehension of the word "NOW" in Romans 8:1, immediately after this passage. Paul's reverberating "now" in that place imposes its antithesis "then" upon this whole passage. What Paul was speaking of here was a past condition. He was speaking of the fruitless struggle of noble souls under the law of Moses who, despite their efforts, found no justification thereunder. "THEN" is the word that flies like a banner over this part of Romans. True, it is not spoken here. but it is more than implied; it is demanded by the antithetical "now" that opens the eighth chapter.

A great deal turns upon the proper understanding of this passage. It is not an inconsequential or indifferent matter, whether or not the miserable struggle outlined here applies to Christians or to Jews under the law. The advocates of false teaching, if permitted to preempt this passage through distortion of its meaning, use it to shore up the crumbling structure of their theory. For example, note this:

It is plain, therefore, that Paul here means by THE LAW, the will of God as a rule of duty, no matter how revealed. From this law, as prescribing the terms of our acceptance with God, Christ has delivered us. It is the legal system, which says, "Do this and live," that Christ has abolished, and introduced another, which says, "He that believes shall be saved."[13]

In these astounding words of Hodge, the scandal of the "faith only" heresy is concisely stated, including its invariable corollary that even the benevolent terms of the gospel of the Lord Jesus, constituting the ground of our acceptance with God, and delivered by the Christ himself - that even all this is abolished (!) by Jesus Christ. In such views as illustrated by the quotation above, Christ is represented not merely as abolishing his own terms of entry into the eternal kingdom, but as introducing "another" system. And what could that be? "He that believes shall be saved"! Of course, that is nothing but a misquotation of Christ's words, as follows:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16).

Certainly, Christ never said, "He that believes shall be saved"; Hodge said that! Furthermore, it is precisely in such a deduction as that of Hodge that there is discovered the error of the widely prevalent interpretation of Paul's words here as a picture of "Christian experience." No interpretation, however plausible (and theirs is not even plausible), could be correct if it can be made to support such a corrupt deduction as Hodge's "He that believes shall be saved." Such a deduction is the noisome bubble that rises to the surface of the pond, betraying the rotten carcass on the bottom.

During the first three centuries of the Christian era, the "Christian experience" interpretation of Paul's words in this place was practically unknown. Godet summarized the views of ancient commentators thus:

A large number of commentators, consulting the context more strictly, think that the apostle, in virtue of his past history, is here introducing himself as the personification of the legal Jew, the man who, being neither hardened in self-righteousness, nor given over to a profane and carnal spirit, seeks sincerely to fulfill the law without ever being successful in satisfying his conscience.[14]

The "large number of commentators" mentioned by Godet includes most of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and a dozen other names of the most able commentators of a thousand years. Any thought that the view advocated in this commentary is novel or unusual is erroneous. It is the view of making this passage a description of Christian experience that is novel and opposed to thought which prevailed for centuries before Martin Luther and the doctrine of justification by "faith only." How did the change in style of interpreting this passage come about?

Godet affirmed that Augustine changed from the historical interpretation to the new position "after his dispute with Pelagius," and then showed how Augustine's view was adopted by Jerome, by the Reformers, and later by such men as Philippi, Delitzsch, and Hodge. Hodge denied that Augustine's change came after the dispute with Pelagius, insisting that it came "long before the controversy commenced."[15] Neither Hodge nor Godet named any authority to support their opinion of the time of Augustine's change; but all are agreed that the interpretation of Paul's words in this passage as a Christian experience received its first great impetus in the teachings of Augustine; and thus the interpretation came at a date far too late (Augustine lived 354-430 A.D.) to be persuasive. Unless a person is prepared to throw the rest of the New Testament away, along with most of Romans, he simply cannot base a doctrine of salvation "by faith alone" on this epistle.

Upon the basis of considerations set forth above, the premise accepted here is that Paul, using the first person present tense, made himself the personification of the legal Jew, of upright intent, who sought sincerely to please God under the law, Paul himself being perhaps the most perfect example of such a person ever to live on earth. Who but Paul could have said that he had lived "in all good conscience before God"?

[12] Charles Hodge, op. cit., p. 231.

[13] Ibid., p. 217.

[14] F. Godet, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 271.

[15] Charles Hodge, op. cit., p. 239.

Verse 15

For that which I do I know not; for not what I would, that do I practise; but what I hate, that I do.

Perhaps the RSV is nearest the true meaning of this first clause with "I do not understand my own actions." Phillips has "My own behaviour baffles me"; and the New English Bible (1961) translates, "I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine." The second and third clauses mean that under the law of Moses, wherein was no promise of forgiveness and no impartation of the Holy Spirit, the best of human intentions fell far short of the worshiper's intentions, to say nothing of the absolute perfection required by the law. The worshiper under that system was powerless to attain any success in doing either what he wished to do, on one hand, or in refraining from what he did not wish to do, on the other hand.

Verse 16

But if what I would not, that I do, I consent unto the law that it is good.

This is an appeal to the conscience as a witness that God's law is holy and good, as affirmed in Romans 7:12. When people violate God's law, the inevitable feelings of guilt are sufficient evidence that the law is spiritual and holy. Hodge made the consent mentioned in this verse, the consent that the law is good, to be the ground of supposing the person in view was a Christian; but Paul had already revealed that even the reprobate Gentiles, suffering under God's judgment of hardening, had such an inner witness of God's righteousness and of the justice of his laws (see under Romans 2:15):

Barrett understood this verse thus:

The very fact that I am unhappy about my own deeds confirms that the law is just and good. Is the law sin? Certainly not; it is confirmed by conscience.[16]

Verse 17

So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me.

In using the conscience of the inner man to affirm the justice of the law, Paul raised another problem which Barrett paraphrased thus:

We find man in a state of rebellion against God, and under sentence of death. For this unhappy situation, the law is not to blame; but neither, it now appears, am "I," for I agree with the law and disapprove of the sins I commit. Who then is to blame?[17]

Paul answered that problem by stating that it is not my real self who does evil works but sin dwelling in me. This fact of a person's acting out of character is seen in the inspired words of the Master relative to the prodigal son, of whom it was said that "when he came to himself, etc."

It is in this verse that the theory of applying these words to Christians relies on the fact that the conscience, or inner self, of the person spoken of approves of God's law; but again, there is enough of the divine image left in every man, regardless of how reprobate, to produce this inward approval of God's law (see under preceding verse). That Paul was still speaking of the noble Jew under the law is still evident, as attested by Brunner:

Of course, Paul speaks of this contradiction in man, of him who is under the Law, who does not know Christ. Only he who disrupts the order of the verses can deny this.[18]

And yet it is also a fact that there is an inward conflict in every man, as proved by the pangs of conscience upon wrongdoing; but the inward conflict in Christians is fantastically diminished and cannot be thought of in the terms used here. That there is in the child of God, even the best and truest, disturbing echoes of the old conflict is certain; and it may even be that Paul here fused the consideration of the two conflicts (the savage one under the law, and the far milder one for the Christian), speaking in a certain sense of both of them. In the same paragraph of Brunner's quotation just cited, that author said,

Of which (conflict) is Paul speaking? Does he speak of that experience which Ovid has expressed, "I perceive the better and approve of it but I follow that which is worse"? Yes, and no. Of course, Paul speaks of this contradiction in man, of him who is under the Law, who does not know Christ. Only he who disrupts the order of the verses can deny this. And yet, the Christian Paul speaks quite differently from the heathen Ovid of the misery of man under the Law! Paul thus does not speak of what man outside Christ knows of himself but of how matters really stand with the godless man outside Christ. This is one thing upon which the blunt Yes or No is wrecked.[19]

We may be thankful for Brunner's perception here; because, once this difference is noted, it is quite easy to account for some of Paul's assertions in these verses, which apart from facts observed: by Brunner would be more difficult. Significantly, Paul's words here go far beyond any analysis of the conflict under law that could have been made without the knowledge imparted through the acceptance and obedience of Christ. Thus, through his greater knowledge as a Christian, Paul was dealing here with the inward conflict of the legal Jew in terms of the way it actually was, rather than in terms of the legal Jew's perception of it. Thus, if there is any reference whatever in this passage to the conflict within Christians (and this author cannot believe that there is), then it would have to be in the sense suggested here by Brunner. In any case, Paul's analysis here is even far too strong a statement of even the Jew's knowledge of his conflict, and thus even further removed from being a statement of any so-called Christian experience.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), p. 63.

[19] Ibid., p. 64.

Verse 18

For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not.

Paul in this verse did not deny to man under the law of Moses any intention of doing right, for the power "to will" is allowed; only the ability to deliver on the good intention is denied. Here it is well to note some of the distinctions which theologians like to make when discussing such a thing as the will. Paul did not always use such terms in the sense of definitions accepted by people. Thus:

When Luther and Calvin deny a good will to man under the Law, they understand by it something entirely different from what is meant here.[20]

It is exactly in this, taking "will" to mean what Paul clearly did not mean, that the "converted Christian" is imported as the subject of this passage. It will be recalled from the statements Paul made in earlier chapters (Romans 2:14 etc.) that he did not deny a certain "good will" even to the reprobate Gentiles. Again from Brunner:

The Gentile as well as the atheist knows something of this delight in the good, this approval of the Law, even though he swears a thousand times that he does not believe in God. We are not here concerned with the atheist; but one thing is clear: Just as Paul does not entirely deny the Gentile the knowledge of the Law, so he also does not deny him a certain delight in the Law, a certain approval of it; in which case, the Gentile, of course, does not know whose law it is. Paul the Christian knows.[21]

Thus it is clear why Paul used language in referring to people under the Law that seems to have an application to Christians, especially when it is considered that there is a conflict (though nothing like that outlined here) in the heart even of Christians, this latter conflict being in the background of Paul's thought here, but certainly not the topic of his argument.

[20] Ibid., p. 65.

[21] Ibid.

Verse 19

For the good which I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I practise.

This knowledge of what it means to be out of Christ and under the law of Moses is imparted to us, not from the standpoint of the intellectual pagan, but from the viewpoint of the great Christian apostle who saw much more clearly than any unregenerated man could have seen it, just what an awful state of wretchedness and misery must ever pertain to the man who is unredeemed, who is not "in Christ." Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no way by which even the best intentioned of unregenerates could exist in any other state than the one depicted here. That wretchedness, truly considered, is the perfect description of every man who is out of Christ, whether or not he might be less or more aware of it; and it is also a description of the true state of every Christian who for any reason whatever failed to abide "in Christ." The interpretation which would make this marvelous description of every non-Christian to be a description of the true life in our blessed Lord partakes of the genius of the evil one himself, and it should be rejected out of hand. Think what a terrible description of humanity apart from the Saviour this passage presents. It is a picture of humanity unable to do what is approved and desired to be done, and at the same time a humanity condemned to the "practice" (yes, that is the word) of things which are acknowledged to be undesirable and reprehensible even by the victims themselves. If this is not a good description of our own sinful generation which has turned away from God to walk in their own foolish ways, where is there a better one?

Verse 20

But if what I would not, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me.

Humanity is helpless to live correctly until the sin-problem is solved. All of the enlightenment and lofty aspirations of all the ages go for naught, as long as sin dwells in human hearts. This verse, far from being a statement of the way it is with Christians, is the way it is with everyone on earth EXCEPT Christians. In the unregenerated man, sin reigns in his mortal body (Romans 6:12); and, until that sin is washed away and the man stands justified in Christ Jesus, this verse is the divine sentence against his life. Sure, the unregenerated has certain nobilities pertaining to all men created in the image of God, effaced and eroded though that image is; but the power to live the type of life that would be acceptable to the inner conscience of the victim himself is simply not in him, for, until he is redeemed in Christ, he is still a slave of sin; and he will never be anything else until he is made free "in Christ Jesus."

This verse has the effect of softening somewhat the condemnation of sinners: it is not really they, but the evil master whom they serve who "does" the sin. How pitiful it is, then, that any should continue in sin! This fits the words of the Lord himself whose favorite word for sinner was the term "fool" or its equivalent. Thus the Saviour spoke of the foolish builder (Matthew 7:26), the foolish virgins (Matthew 25:2), the fool whose soul was required of him that night (Luke 12:20) and the foolish disciples who did not believe the prophets (Luke 24:25); etc. Even in the Old Testament, the denier of God is called "the fool" (Psalms 14:1).

This verse is one of the great ones in all the word of God. While not denying that unregenerated people (particularly those under Moses' law) have certain knowledge of what is right and wrong and possess certain characteristics of nobility; such persons are absolutely incapable of overcoming sin. They are carnal, sold under sin, servants of the evil one, subject to the reign of sin in their mortal bodies; and the power to rise above their wretchedness can be imparted to them only if they shall receive the Lord Jesus Christ, die to sin, through union with him; and then only may they rise to walk in newness of life. It is the unspeakable victory of the Christian that he has the power to say "NO" to sin. See under Romans 6:15ff. Absolutely nothing has ever been more hurtful to Christianity than the allegations of so-called Christian teachers to the effect that the child of God "cannot help sinning," this verse itself being quoted as teaching that! God forbid. It is true that the unregenerated cannot help it; but the child of God can live above sin, not in any absolutely perfect sense, of course, but practically.

On this verse, Adam Clarke wrote:

We find here that there is a principle in the unregenerate man stronger than reason itself; a principle which is, properly speaking, not of the essence of the soul, but acts in it as its lord, as a tyrant.[22]

To this student of God's word, the allegations of expositors to the effect that the awful conflict depicted here, with its inevitable fruition in sin and failure, is the norm of Christian experience is as near an approach to blasphemy as may be found in modern writings. If this is the norm of Christian experience, to be owned by all as the state of being Christ's disciples, then the Christian redemption is a farce. Why? Look at Romans 7:19 again. The person described here is a practicing sinner. "I practice!" The elements of good will, knowledge of the law, approval of good and abhorrence of sin - these attributes mentioned in this passage refer to the elemental endowments of all human life; and Paul's teaching here showed that not even the existence of such inherent attributes could deliver from the practice of sin; only Christ can do that! The conflict is exactly that described by the pagan writers themselves; and the curious reader is referred to the writings of Dr. Adam Clarke (Vol. VI, p. 88) for a list of statements similar to Paul's words here, by such pagan writers as Euripides, Francis, Horace, Ovid, and others. If this is normal Christianity, the Christians are not a white above the pagans. The strong language of this verse led some ancient speculators to suppose that man had two souls, a good soul and a bad soul; and the counterpart of this has existed in the church throughout the ages in the aberrations of those who supposed that they could live in sin without incurring guilt, since it was their "baser selves" that did the wrong!

Commenting upon such trifling improvisations upon God's word by speculators, Adam Clarke wrote:

Thus not only the ancients, but many moderns, have trifled; and all will continue to do so who do not acknowledge the Scriptural account of the fall of man, and the lively comment upon that doctrine contained in the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans.[23]

[22] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1837), Vol. VI, p. 79.

[23] Ibid, p. 90.

Verse 21

I find then the law, that, to me who would do good, evil is present.

The law spoken of here, which compels the unregenerate to do evil, is the rule of Satan in the soul of the unredeemed. Regardless of whatever high ideals and aspirations may be in the unregenerate heart, as long as Satan is the master within, evil will continue to be present. Not even the knowledge of God's good law can change the bondage to which the sinner is sold. Christ can make him free, but nothing else can.

Barrett and other commentators identified the controlling "law" which bound the sinner to sin as "self-righteousness";[24] and Adam Clarke thought it was

Any strong and confirmed habit, under the influence of which the man generally acts.[25]

but the more reasonable identification of that force which binds the unregenerate to the mast of sin would be to refer it to Satanic power over the unsaved. After all, the great force of evil in this world is personal. Self-righteousness and bad habits are deplorable; but there is a power of evil mentioned in this verse which is beyond all such things, and from which man, alone, is utterly incapable of extricating himself.

[24] C. K. Barrett, op. cit., p. 149.

[25] Adam Clarke, op. cit., p. 90.

Verse 22

For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.

This is said to be the verse, beyond all others, which shows that Paul was speaking of Christians in this passage; but a glance at Romans 2:17-20 reveals that the legal Jew is still the exclusive subject. The language: here is nearly identical with that, where it is said that the man "rested upon the law, gloried in God, knew his will, approved the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law," etc. In fact, Paul's description of the legal Jew in that passage is even more flattering than his description here, where a relatively mild "I delight in the law of God" is used. Since the meaning in Romans 2:17-20 is most certainly the legal Jew, it is mandatory to assume that exactly the same person is in view here.

Again we have recourse to the exegesis of the inimitable Adam Clarke, whose words on this verse are not merely good exegesis, but are also a refutation of the prejudice which affirms, quite inaccurately, that "all of the greats since Luther have construed this passage as a description of Christian experience." Clarke said:

Every Jew and every unregenerated man, who receives the Old Testament as a revelation from God, must acknowledge the great purity, excellence, and utility of its maxims; and without the mercy of God can never be redeemed from the curse entailed upon him for his past transgressions.[26]

The inward man ... does not mean regenerated man, or the regenerated portion of a man, since it is of unregenerates that Paul here spoke. This usage of the expression was followed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16 and Ephesians 3:16, according to Clarke. He further stated:

"The inward man" as used here means the mind, without regard to the state, whether unregenerated or renewed. To say that the inward man means the regenerate part of the soul is supportable by no argument.[27]

[26] Ibid., p. 89.

[27] Ibid.

Verse 23

But I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.

This "different law" is generally identified somewhat as follows: The nobler type of unregenerate, knowing about God's law, approving of it, and deciding to live by it, has only himself to rely upon, because he does not know Christ. Regardless of his efforts, he cannot attain salvation, or even a free conscience. His life is rendered ineffectual through powerful human passions, and the frequent indulgence of them, which, from repeated gratification, have grown into the status of "a law" or rule of conduct for his life. Although such a view as this appears reasonable, it is the conviction here that the dominating power in unregenerated people is none other than Satan; and the different law mentioned here has reference to Satan's rule in people's hearts. The mention of a "warring" against the sinner requires that personal intelligence be understood as a part of the conflict, and that consideration points squarely at Satan.

The tremendous figure of speech employed in this verse is that of the investment, siege, capture, and destruction of an ancient city, all of this being implied by such a term as "warring." First, the soul is surrounded with evil, the very nature of the mortal pilgrimage being that it shall be enacted among people, for the most part evil and unregenerated people, whose vile conversation, constant harassment, continual scorn, unremitting opposition, and daily rejection of Christian values are a normal accompaniment of all life on earth. Every soul is thus surrounded. The opposition is not merely tacit, or theoretical, but it is a warfare. Great engines of destruction were deployed against ancient cities; and so it is with every soul. Great battering rams, catapults, excavators, and demolishers of every description are brought forward by the enemy to do battle against the soul. It is a cruel, heartless, "no quarter" contest. In the verse before us, the soul resisted the siege, but to no final effect; it was taken by storm. The city fell; its inhabitants were carried into captivity and made the permanent slaves of the enemy. Such is the awful and inevitable fate of every soul which is not saved "in Jesus Christ." In Christ indeed is victory; out of him there is nothing but frustration, defeat, slavery, and death. No wonder that Paul cried out in the following verse with a cry that voices the agony and despair of unsaved humanity!

Verse 24

Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death!

This is the cry of every man who is not saved. In the large view, it is the agonizing cry of all the world, especially of the benighted populations of the pre-Christian ages. Victory was impossible until Jesus came. The law of Moses was indeed a beautiful and spiritual law, but it did not provide people with the power to keep its noble precepts. This failure was due to the fact that the great Enabling Act of man's redemption had not then taken place. The Saviour had not come. Indeed, there were learned pagans, as well as noble and upright Jews, who tried vainly to live as God directed, whether from their own inadequate notions of what God taught, or, as in the case of the Jew, from contemplating the higher and better revelation through Moses; but in every case, and without distinction, all fell short of the glory of God; all failed to acquire holiness; all were unable to achieve justification, sanctification, righteousness, or holiness. It was all a losing battle, start to finish; and the condition of the whole human race in those long pre-Christian ages was one of the uttermost pathos and misery. It was the long, long night of earth' darkness, during which people turned their eager faces to the stars and prayed for daylight. It was truly a night of sin and death, during which the wretchedness of that disastrous defeat in Eden was communicated to every man that ever lived. Hopelessness, despair, shame, misery and death - what a legacy of the reign of the evil one - and then Jesus came!

Body of this death ... is one of the most terrible metaphors in the Bible. The besieged soul resisted only to be overthrown. He was captured, enslaved, borne away in sorrow; but that was not all. He was chained to a dead body! Bruce, Clarke and others have explained the metaphor thus:

There seems to be here an allusion to an ancient custom of some tyrants, who bound a dead body to a living man, and obliged him to carry it about, until the contagion from the putrid mass took away his life! Virgil paints this in all its horrors in the account he gives of the tyrant Mezentius.[28]

The body of death to which every unregenerate is chained is that of his own unregenerated nature. It is his freedom from that, that a man must have to escape the wretchedness mentioned here. Acceptance of the gospel of Christ, through obedient faith, cuts the chains that bind people to their former selves, enabling them to be born again. After conversion, the sins that people commit do not remain upon them and bind them, as formerly, but are cleansed and forgiven continually during the Christian pilgrimage (1 John 1:7).

Verse 25

I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then I of myself with the mind, indeed, serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord ... stands as the answer of the agonizing question of the previous verse respecting delivery from the body of death; and, although it is not framed grammatically as the answer to anything, the quality of its constituting an answer is inherent in the context. If there had been no answer, there would have been no reason to thank God; and this outburst of praise, somewhat like a stroke of lightning, illuminates the darkness of this terrible chapter, and permits a fleeting glance at all that Paul was about to say in the eighth. But, before proceeding to that, Paul was about to state formally, once more, the conclusion so carefully derived from the discourse in this chapter, namely this, that, regardless of how the unregenerated man might serve God with his mind, unless he had found refuge in Christ, he was yet chained to the body of death, and in consequence of that, he would serve the law of sin with his flesh. It is imperative to note that the last sentence of this verse is still dealing with the same subject as the whole seventh chapter, and that it does not apply to Paul as a Christian.

Wuest noted that:

This last summation does not describe Paul after he had found the way of deliverance through Jesus Christ, but is a recurrence to his discussion of his state before he found the victory, and closes the discussion with the question, "Is the law sin?"[29]

Greathouse concurred in this thus:

The balance of this verse summarizes the dreary state of man in the flesh, as set forth in the preceding section.[30]

In Phillips' and Moffatt's translations, the last sentence is placed adjacent to Romans 7:24, leaving the final words of the chapter, "I thank God ..." One must admit that such an arrangement seems logical and would help men to outline what Paul wrote; but the fact remains that Paul did not slavishly follow the rules of grammarians. Bruce Barton once described Paul's words and sentences as "tumbling all over each other, like hot rocks out of a volcano"!

In the exegesis attempted in this chapter, it may appear shocking to some that the usual ascription of the depressions and conflicts of this chapter to the normal experience of Christians has been rejected; but it is the deepest conviction of this writer that incredible harm has derived from what has grown to be (since the Reformation) the usual method of explaining this chapter. True, great and learned men have taken the position rejected here; but others just as great and learned have opposed them, some of them in the most emotional way, and with as much feeling as possible; and this chapter will be closed with a quotation from Adam Clarke whose skill and understanding of the scriptures are certainly not surpassed by any in the other school of expositors, and who so accurately expressed what is in the heart of this student of God's word, as pertaining to this question.

The strong expressions in chapter seven have led many to conclude that the apostle himself in his regenerated state is the person intended. That all that is said in this chapter of the carnal man, sold under sin, did apply to Saul of Tarsus, no man can doubt; that what is said here can ever with propriety be applied to Paul the apostle, who can believe? Of the former, all is natural; of the latter, all here said would be monstrous and absurd, if not blasphemous. ... If we are to take what is said here as his (Paul's) experience as a Christian, it would be presumptuous in us to expect to go higher; for he certainly had pushed the principles of his religion to their utmost consequences. But his whole life, and the account which he immediately gives of himself in the succeeding chapter, proves that he, as a Christian and as an apostle, had a widely different experience; an experience which amply justifies that superiority which he attributed to the Christian religion over the Jewish; and demonstrates that it is not only well-calculated to perfect all preceding dispensations, but that it affords salvation to the uttermost to all those who flee for refuge to the hope that is set before them. Besides, there is nothing here spoken of the state of a conscientious Jew, or of St. Paul in his Jewish state, that is not true of every genuine penitent; even before, and it may be, long before, he has believed in Christ to the saving of his soul. The assertion that every Christian, howsoever advanced in the divine life, will and musk feel all this inward conflict, is as untrue as it is dangerous. That many so-called Christians, and probably sincere, do feel all this may be readily granted; and such we must consider to be in the same state with Saul of Tarsus previous to his conversion; but that they must continue thus is nowhere intimated in the gospel of Christ. We must take heed how we make our experience, which is the result of our unbelief and unfaithfulness, the standard for the people of God, and LOWER down Christianity to OUR most reprehensible and dwarfish state.[31]

One other word from Clarke regarding the opinion that would refer the conflict of Romans 7 to the norm of Christian experience is the famous quotation from Clarke by Tholuck, which was disapprovingly quoted by Hodge:

This opinion (that of referring the conflict in chapter seven to the norm of Christian experience) has most pitifully and shamefully, not only lowered the standard of Christianity, but destroyed its influence and disgraced its character.[32]

[29] Kenneth S. Wuest, Romans in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), p. 126.

[30] William M. Greathouse, Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1968), p. 157.

[31] Adam Clarke, op. cit., p. 93.

[32] Charles Hodge, op. cit., p. 241.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Romans 7". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.