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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Romans 7

 

 

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Verses 1-25

THE OPENING WORDS of chapter 7 direct our minds back to the 14th and 15th verses of the previous chapter, where the apostle had plainly stated that the believer is not under law but under grace. A tremendous controversy had raged around this point, to which the Acts bears witness—especially Romans 15:1-33.

That point was authoritatively settled at Jerusalem as regards the Gentile believers. They were not to be put under the law. But was the point as clear when Jewish believers were in question?

It was evidently by no means clear to the Jewish believers themselves. Acts 21:20, proves this. It was very necessary therefore that Paul should make the matter abundantly plain and definite; hence his recurring to the theme as he opens this chapter. The words enclosed in brackets in verse Romans 7:1 show that he is now specially addressing himself to his Jewish brethren. They alone knew the law, in the proper sense of the term. Gentiles might know something about it as observers from without: Israel knew it from within, as having been put under it. This remark of Paul’s furnishes us with an important key to the chapter, indicating the point from which things are viewed.

The first six verses of this chapter are doctrinal in nature, showing the way by which the believer is delivered from the bondage of law and brought into connection with Christ. From verse Romans 7:7 onwards, we have a passage which is highly experimental. The actions of the law, on the heart and conscience of one who fears God, are detailed. We are given an insight into the experimental workings of law which ultimately prepare the believer for the experience of the deliverance found in Christ and in the Spirit of God. It is a remarkable fact that in all chapter 7 there is not one mention of the Holy Spirit; whereas in chapter 8 there is probably more mention of Him than in any other chapter of the Bible.

The Apostle’s starting point is the well known fact that law extends its sway over a man as long as he lives. Death, and death only, terminates its dominion. This is seen very clearly in connection with the divine law of marriage, as stated in verses Romans 7:2-3.

The same principle applies in spiritual things, as verse Romans 7:4 states, though it does not apply in exactly the same way. The law is in the position of husband and we who believe are in the position of wife. Yet it is not that death has come in upon the law, but that we have died. Verse Romans 7:4 is quite plain as to this. Verse Romans 7:6 appears to say that the law has died, only here the correct reading is found in the margin of reference Bibles. It is not, “that being dead...,” but rather, “being dead to that...” The two verses quite agree.

We have become dead to the law “by the body of Christ.” This at first sight seems somewhat obscure. Paul refers, we believe, to that which was involved in our Lord taking the body prepared for Him, and thereby becoming a Man. He took that body with a view to suffering death, and hence the body of Christ is used as signifying His death. It is the same figure of speech as we have in Colossians 1:22, where we are said to be reconciled “in the body of His flesh, through death.”

We have died from under law’s dominion in the death of Christ. In this way our connection with the first husband has ceased. But all is in view of our entering into a new connection under the risen Christ. Every Jew found the old husband—the law—very stern and unbending, a wife-beater in fact; though they had to admit they richly deserved all they got. We, Gentiles, can hardly imagine how great the relief when the converted Jew discovered that he was now under Christ and not under law. “Married” to Christ, risen from the dead, the standard set was higher than it ever was under law, but now an unbounded supply flowed from Him of the grace and power needed, and hence fruit for God became a possibility. As Husband, Christ is the Fountain-head of all support, guidance, comfort and power.

How striking the contrast which verse Romans 7:5 presents! Indeed the verse itself is very striking for it names four things that go together:—flesh, law, sins, death. Of old the law was imposed upon a people “in the flesh.” In result it simply stirred into action the sin which ever lies latent in the flesh. Consequently the “motions” or “passions” of sins were aroused and death followed as God’s judgment upon all. “Flesh” here is not our bodies, but the fallen nature which has its seat in our present bodies. Every unconverted person is “in the flesh;” that is, the flesh dominates them and characterizes their state. But you notice that for believers that state has passed away. The Apostle says “when we were in the flesh.”

Another contrast confronts us when we turn to verse Romans 7:6. “when we were... But now.” Having died with Christ, we are not only dead to sin, as chapter 6 enforces, but dead also to the law and therefore delivered from it. Consequently we can now serve God in an entirely new way. We not only do new things, but we do those new things in a new spirit. In the previous chapter we read of “newness of life.” (verse Romans 7:4.) Now we read of “newness of spirit.”

We read of people in Old Testament days who turned from lives of recklessness and sin to the fear of God—Manasseh, King of Judah, for instance, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 33:11-19. It might perhaps be said of him that he walked in newness of life during the last years of his reign. Yet he could only serve God according to the principles and ways of the law-system under which he was. It was impossible for newness of spirit to mark him. If we want to see service in newness of spirit we must turn to a converted Jew of this present period of grace. He may once have done his best to serve God in the spirit of strict law-keeping. Now he discovers himself to be a son and heir of God in Christ Jesus, and he serves in the spirit of a son with a father—a spirit which is altogether new.

An employer may set two men to a certain task, one of them being his own son. If the young man in any degree realizes the relationship in which he stands he will set about the work in a spirit altogether different to that of a hired servant. Our illustration would perhaps have been even nearer the mark had we supposed the case of a wife serving her husband’s interests. Delivered from the law by death, the death of Christ, we are linked with the risen Christ in order to fruitfully serve God in a spirit that is new.

Teaching such as this most evidently brings Christ into prominence and puts the law into the shade. Does it in any way cast an aspersion on the law? Does it even infer that there was something wrong with it? This point is taken up in verses Romans 7:7-13, and it is made abundantly clear that the law was perfect as far as it went. The mischief was not with the law but with the sin which rose up against the law, finding in the law indeed that which provoked it, and also that which condemned it.

Verse Romans 7:7 tells us how the law exposed and condemned sin. Before the law came we sinned but did not realize what sinners we were. Directly the law spoke we discovered the true state of the case. Just as a plumb-line reveals the crookedness of a tottering wall, so the law exposed us.

Yet it was sin and not law that wrought the mischief, as verse Romans 7:8 states; though sin somewhat camouflaged itself by springing into activity directly it was confronted with the definite prohibition of the law. The very fact that we were told not to do a thing provoked us to do it!

As a matter of fact then the law affected us in two ways. First, it stirred up sin into action. It drew a line and forbade us to step over it. Sin promptly stirred us up to transgress by stepping over it. Second, in the presence of this transgression the law solemnly pronounced the death sentence upon us. True, the law set life before us; saying, “This do, and thou shalt live.” Yet in point of fact all it ever did in regard to us was to condemn us to death, as failing utterly to do what it commanded. These two results of the law are tersely stated at the end of verse 9:— “Sin revived, and I died.”

This being the state of the case, no blame of any kind attaches itself to the law, which is “holy, and just, and good.” Sin, not the law, is the culprit. Sin worked death, though it was by the law that the sentence of death was pronounced. Sin indeed was working before ever the law was given, but directly it was given sin had no excuse and its defiance became outrageous. Sin by the commandment coming became exceeding sinful, as verse Romans 7:13 tells us.

We have now got to a part of the chapter where the Apostle speaks in the first person singular. In verses Romans 7:5-6 it was “we... we... we...” after the question with which verse Romans 7:7 opens it is all “I... I... me... I...” This is because he now speaks experimentally, and when experience is in question each must speak for himself.

The opening words of verse Romans 7:14 may seem to be an exception to what we have just said but they are not. It is a fact that the law is spiritual, and not a mere matter of experience—and it is stated as a fact which we know In contrast with it stands what “I am,” and this has to be learned as a matter of sad experience, “carnal, sold under sin.”

How do we learn what we are? Why, by making a genuine effort to conform to the spiritual demand which the law makes. The more earnest we are about it the more effectively is the lesson burned into our souls. We learn our sinfulness in trying to be good!

Let us recall what we learned in chapter 6 for there we were shown the way. Realizing by faith that we are identified with Christ in His death we understand that we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, and consequently we are to yield ourselves and our members to God for His will and pleasure. Our souls fully assent to this as right and proper, and we say to ourselves, with considerable enthusiasm perhaps, “Exactly! that is what I am going to do.”

We essay to do it, and lo! we receive a very disagreeable shock. Our intentions are of the best but we somehow are without power to put these things into practice. We see the good and approve it in our minds, yet we fail to do it. We recognize the evil of which we disapprove, and yet we are ensnared by it. A very distressing and humiliating state of affairs, which we find stated in verse 19.

In verses Romans 7:14-23 we get “I” no less than 24 times. “Me” and “my” occur 10 times. The speaker evidently describes an experience, during which he was simply swamped in self-occupation. All his thoughts were turned in upon himself. This is not surprising for this is exactly the normal effect of the law upon an awakened and conscientious soul. As we examine those verses, we can see that the exercises recorded resulted in valuable discoveries.

1. He discovered by experience the good and holy character of the law. It is good as verse Romans 7:9 states; but he now has to say “I consent unto the law that it is good.”

2. He discovered by experience his own fallen state: not only “carnal” but “sold under sin.” Anyone who has to confess that he is so overpowered to be compelled to avoid what he wishes and practice what he hates, and so be in the humiliating position of continually disowning his own actions (verse Romans 7:15) is indeed enslaved. We are like slaves sold in the market to a tyrannical master:—sold under sin.

3. Yet he learns to distinguish between what has been wrought in him by God—what we call “the new nature”—and the flesh which is the old nature. Verse Romans 7:17 shews this. He recognizes that there is his true “I” connected with the new nature, and an “I” or a “me” which he has to repudiate, as being the old nature.

4. He learns by experience the true character of that old nature. If it be a question of “me,” that is, “the flesh” (here you see, it is the old “me” that he has to repudiate) in that no good is found, as verse Romans 7:18 tells us. Good simply is not there. So it is useless searching for it. Have some of us spent weary months, or even years, looking for good in a place where it is non-existent?

5. He learns further that though he is now possessed of a new nature, an “inward man” (verse Romans 7:22) yet that in itself bestows no strength upon him. The inward man may delight in God’s holy law; his mind may consent to the law that it is good, but all the same there is a more powerful force working in his members that enslaves him.

What a heart breaking state of affairs! Some of us have known it bitterly enough. Others of us have a taste of it now. And if any as yet have not known it they may well be alarmed, for it at once raises a question as to whether they are as yet possessed of a new nature. If there is nothing but the old nature, struggles and exercises such as these must in the nature of things be unknown.

Such exercises are of great value as preparing the soul for the gladness of a divinely wrought deliverance.

As we draw near to the end of chapter 7 it is important for us to notice that in this passage the word law is used in two senses. In the great majority of instances it refers of course to the law of God formulated through Moses. In verses Romans 7:2-3 however we get “the law” of a husband; in verse Romans 7:21, “a law”; in verses Romans 7:23; Romans 7:25, “another law,” “the law of my mind,” and “the law of sin.” In these cases the word is evidently used to signify a power or force which acts uniformly in a given direction: in just the sense in which we use the word when we talk of “the laws of nature.”

If then we read again the above verses, substituting the words, “controlling force” for the word, “law,” we may gain a somewhat clearer view of what the Apostle is saying. Take verse 23. The controlling force with each of us should be our minds: our bodies should be held in the subject place. This should be so in a very special way with those whose minds have been renewed by the power of God. But there is sin to be reckoned with, which exerts its controlling force in our members. The terrible fact has to be faced by us, and experimentally learned, that if left to ourselves, sin proves itself the stronger force, assumes control and we are held in captivity.

No wonder the Apostle in the remembrance of it cries out in anguish, “O wretched man that I am!” We too know something of this wretchedness, surely. Have we never felt ourselves to be like a wretched seagull bedraggled from head to tail with filthy oil discharged from passing motor-ships? The law of its mind, the law of air both without and within its feathers, is totally overcome by the horrid law of sticky oil! And who shall deliver it? It has no power in itself. Unless someone captures and cleanses it, it must die.

Verse Romans 7:24 contains not only the agonized exclamation but also that important question, “Who shall deliver me?” The form of the question is important. Earlier in the story, when the speaker was passing through the experiences detailed in verses Romans 7:14-19 for instance, his question would have been, “How shall I deliver myself?” He was still searching for something within himself which would accomplish it, but searching in vain. Now he is beginning to look outside himself for a deliverer.

When not only our self-confidence but our self-hope also is shattered, we have taken a big step forward. We inevitably then begin to look outside ourselves. At first perhaps we only look for help, and consequently look in wrong directions. Yet sooner or later we discover it is not help that we need, but rather a positive deliverance by a power that is not of ourselves at all. Then, very soon, we find the answer to our cry. Deliverance is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord, thanks be to God! He is as able to deliver us from the slavery of sin as He is from the guilt of our sins.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Romans 7:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/romans-7.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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