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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible
Romans 7

 

 

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Verses 1-25

Change of "Husbands" But a Struggle for Freedom

In Romans 7:1-25 we are faced with the case of a renewed conscience recognizing the claims of righteousness - or more correctly, holiness - hating evil and desiring good - while his utter powerlessness to do the good fills him with dismay and wretchedness. His is plainly the case of a soul born of God, for no unbeliever actually hates evil. The new nature in the believer, however, being the very nature of God (2 Peter 1:4) is that which gives him an abhorrence of evil. Still, here the soul must learn that abhorring evil and loving good is not in itself the power for doing good.

Now the most common, yet most destructive mistake when the soul is so burdened, is the assumption that the law is to be the rule or standard of a life lived for the Lord - that which must govern the soul in order to bring forth fruit. Or if not the law as given by Moses, yet a certain standard of conduct (perhaps largely self-conceived) which requires obedience as an exaction. The first few verses of our chapter are a plain declaration that it is not God who imposes such exactions upon the redeemed soul - nor merely a declaration of this, but an explanation of the believer's thorough deliverance from the law, not merely in regard to justification, but in regard to bearing fruit unto God. Justification has been thoroughly entered into and fully settled in chapters 3, 4,and 5, and this question is not raised again. Hence, let us be clear that our question now is that of a justified person bringing forth fruit unto God (v. 4).

And at the outset may we remark that "legality" is not to be confined to that attitude that seeks to gain or maintain a standing before God by means of obedience to law; but as in our present chapter, it is the attitude of a justified saint who seeks to bring forth fruit unto God by obedience to law. This latter attitude is as harmful to growth as the former is to peace.

In verse 1 those who know the law are addressed, for the better a soul knows the law, the clearer will be his conviction that it does not assert any authority over a dead man. For it regards man as alive in the flesh and addresses him on that ground, claiming dominion over him only "as long as he liveth."

Verses 2 & 3 adduce the illustration of marriage, the law binding a woman to her husband as long as he is alive, but when he is dead, that law has no more to say to her: she may marry another without the slightest suggestion of infringing the law which, while her husband was living, would call her an adulteress for such a thing. The point of the illustration is simply that death, while it does not destroy or change the law, does away with the authority of law in that case.

Verse 4 applies this principle pointedly to believers, to show that the law, in their case, makes absolutely no claim. "Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God."

Romans 6:2 has declared that believers are "dead to sin"; Romans 7:4 goes a step farther, to declare them "dead to the law." Who can deny therefore that the saints of God are delivered as fully from the authority of the law as from the authority of sin? "Dead" means dead in any case, and law can have no more to say to a dead man than sin can. The doctrine is simple: we are "dead to the law by the body of Christ" - not by physical death, nor by an experience of self-denial or self-mortification. Identification with the death of Christ delivers me as fully from the law's claims as He by His death is free from them. Every believer is identified with Him in His death. "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you" (John 6:53). Thus a believer becomes partaker with Him in His death.

It is plain that the verse contemplates two distinct masters (or husbands) - "the law," and "Him who is raised from the dead." There can be no such thing as identification with both at once. This the figure makes clear. It must be clean free from the one if joined to the other. Death alone can procure this freedom, and Christ's death is my death, so that my connection with law is absolutely broken, in order that Christ may be fully and singly my possessor and Master. This is the only basis of bringing forth fruit unto God. Law demanded, no doubt, but it did not, could not, bring forth fruit. It could go as far as death, but could have nothing to do with resurrection. Christ is raised from the dead: this is fruit: indeed "He is the firstfruits." Law then is but a "thing"; Christ a Living Person, and the very life of the saints. Compare Colossians 3:4. Blessed deliverance from an irksome bondage into a joyous freedom! It changes our motive entirely - no longer to be harassed by the feeling that we ought to do what is right, or good; but strengthened and comforted by the motive of delight in pleasing the Lord. This is liberty, for which there is no substitute, and no imitation that can remotely compare with it.

The bolder relief is given to the picture by the retrospect of verse 5. "When we were in the flesh" is of course the reminder of our unsaved state (compare Romans 8:8-9). The result of that former state, as experience has taught us, was bringing forth fruit unto death. But it is solemnly instructive to notice the means of this - "the motions of sins which were by the law." Has not every awakened conscience verified this in experience? Law laid imperatively upon the soul has not restrained sin: it has stirred up the motions of sins in self-will and rebellion. Man revolts, and sins more when he is sternly commanded to do this, or to not do that. And we also, while in the flesh, thoroughly resented an imposition laid peremptorily upon us, and were embolded to rebel.

Verse 6 gives the present contrast - "delivered from the law, having died in that in which we were held" (JND). It is not that the law had died, of course, but we have died as regards the law. The deliverance (as easily understood) is to the end "that we should serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter." As verse 5 has reminded us of our former experience, so verse 6 gives us what is to be our new and proper experience as believers.

Verse 7 refers back to verse 5, which had said the motions of sins were by the law. Does this infer that the law is sin? Far be the thought. It is "the strength of sin" (1 Corinthians 15:56), that is, its stern prohibitions only stirred man's evil nature to more determined sin and rebellion, and sin became the stronger in its defiance of God. Is the law to blame for this? Certainly not: man's evil nature is to blame. But, as Paul says, "I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, "Thou shalt not covet." Thus the law exposes sin in all its horror. Law commands me not to covet, and I see my evil nature assert itself because of the very prohibition. Can I then deny that I am a sinner?

Thus the commandment gave sin a point of attack (v. 8). Sin rose up against the prohibition, only to work in me every lust. The law was a whip for the slave (in a sense), who uses it as a cause for rebellion: it brings out the sin and evil of the heart. No scourging or treatment of the most harsh kind could ever draw from our blessed Lord the bitter enmity that similar treatment would from the natural heart of man. Why? Because "in Him was no sin." Nothing could come out but what was in. Law could only confirm His purity, while it draws out and exposes the evil of our own natural hearts.

"For without the law sin was dead." This refers to our experience, of course. As long as no imposition was placed upon me, sin's power meant nothing. "For I was alive without the law once." Alive in the flesh, without the law, I felt no burden of sin with its solemn sentence of death. As long as I may indulge my own will, with no prohibition, sin as to me appears to have no power - I am alive, sin is dead. But let law forbid my self-will, and I see sin revive in its bold and bitter rebellion, and I find in myself no power to control it after all. "When the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." The sin in my flesh, which I had so little suspected, when the commandment came, sprung into a strong activity, and I could not but feel in its determined working the sentence of death upon myself. "I died." This is of course a vivid description of the apostle's experience, an experience necessarily preceding proper deliverance. It is not the truth of "death with Christ" here, which is a judicial fact for all believers, but a matter of the soul's experience.

The commandment, which had said "This do and thou shalt live," I found in my case to be "unto death," not life. "For sin, getting a point of attack by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me." We shall notice here again that sin is personified as a monstrous, deceitful enemy, striking my death-blow by the commandment.

"Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." Holy, it fully repudiates evil: Just, it is a scourge only to the sinner, and hence unquestionable in justice: Good, it calls for love, which "is the fulfilling of the law." Can that which is good then be the means of my death? But no. Sin cannot be ignored this way, and the law be blamed for what sin has done. But sin, that it might appear in its abhorrent character, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. The commandment then exposes sin for what it is - that we might perceive its exceeding sinfulness. This result in itself is good for us. Its prime object is personal self-judgment, and is only learned properly when this is the case. Thus in our chapter it is an intensely personal experience.

This is most strikingly seen in verse 14, where, speaking of a well-known fact, he says, "We know that the law is spiritual," but looking, not at men generally, but himself, he adds "but I am carnal, sold under sin." This he knew to be the truth as to himself. Not at all that this would be his state after deliverance was known, but it was the practical experience of his soul when he knew not the liberty of the Spirit of God. After the knowledge of deliverance (in Romans 8:1-39) there is not this self-occupation at all: there is neither self-denunciation nor self-exaltation. Of course there is no reason why a believer should be carnal, but the experience of this must always come before deliverance, in whatever measure, for we have been the slaves of sin, and of law in some sort. The opposite of carnal is spiritual which all believers ought to be, though never to claim to be such. Carnality is certainly not a normal Christian state but to honestly face it when there, is necessary if there is to be deliverance. This then is intensely personal experience, detailed a little more in the succeeding verses.

Notice in this that there is an "I" in bitter conflict with another "I." For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." Now even an unbeliever often approves what is good, tries in a measure to do it, but more often weakly gives way to the evil - nay, in fact actually prefers it. Reality of desire is not there, and of course neither is power.

But the child of God hates evil because it is the character of his new life to do so: for the same reason he truly desires good. But despite the earnestness of desire, the power for good seems as far from him as in his unsaved state. This is his perplexity. The Spirit of God also dwells in him, the more stirring his desires after holiness, though the Spirit is not mentioned here at all, for the experience does not take His power into account. This in fact is the reason of misery. Also the bad mistake is made of mixing spiritual desires with fleshly energy, as if the flesh could produce the virtues of the Spirit.

It is then my conception of what I should be for God fighting against what I actually am. In other words it is (shall we say good?) flesh in conflict with confessedly bad flesh. But whether I think it good or bad, it is nevertheless "flesh." It is "I" in either case. There is no power in flesh to put down the flesh. The first "I" will never triumph, however righteous. If it could be so, the first man (Adam) would never have had to give place to the second (Christ). He shall have the glory of conquering in the lives of His saints. Hence the only value in the conflict of flesh with flesh is to teach us the utter vanity of flesh, whether it is "grass" or "the flower of grass," - its finest form.

Nevertheless, there is this much promise of deliverance, - that I consciously take sides with the law against myself. This at least is the spirit of repentance and self-judgment, in which state of confessed helplessness, the Lord delights to meet with and bless the soul. But it is still low ground. The soul taught of the Spirit takes sides with God against self - not with law against self. For law is but a thing and has no life to triumph over sin. When I see the power of God for me, as against sin, then I rest, for the triumph is sure.

However, reasoning from verse 16, there is the conclusion of verse 17. It is not I, as to will and intention, who do the evil, "but sin that dwelleth in me." Involuntarily, despite my precautions and determination, the evil principle of my nature, like a fretting leprosy, breaks out again and again. Thus sin is at least distinguished as the terrible and powerful enemy of the soul. And this is good, for it were ruinous to fail to recognize an enemy or to underestimate his power. When it is plainly seen what is the true character of our souls' enemies, it may stagger us to compare with it the poverty of our own forces, but it would drive us to seek other refuge - in Him who only is stronger than all enemies.

So that there is no doubt progress in this learning by experience: indeed in verse 18 it comes to the deeply-felt conviction that "in me, (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing." This is truth and deeply important truth, but it is not yet deliverance, of course. There is still occupation with self, and a sort of review of the thoughts and feelings of the soul when the sense of its poverty lies heavily upon it. There seems the still lingering hope that the will may be able to triumph over sin in the flesh. How often this is the case with souls even who utterly condemn themselves and see nothing good whatever in their flesh. It is inconsistent, of course, but which of us will easily give up self, whatever its proven worthlessness? This in fact but illustrates more vividly the thorough perversity of the heart and magnifies the need of another Deliverer. We must learn that strength of will-power is of no value in such a case: sin is too much for it.

Struggling with self as the soul is, he comes to distinguish sin from himself (vv. 19, 20) and to attribute the evil he does to the sin that dwells in him. This quietens the struggle somewhat (when he almost repeats what he had said in v. 17, and is evidently considering the significance of it), for he sees that at every point his defense gives way to the superior power and subtlety of sin. What use is fighting if there is defeat at every turn? Yet capitulation would be treachery against the truth, and his very nature would cry out against it.

From verses 21-23 we have the deduction from these experiences that a law of sin binds the soul, whatever its desires. Thus occupation with doing good results only in bringing out the evil of our hearts. It is occupation with Christ that keeps us from evil - not merely with doing good. This awaits Romans 8:1-39 however, where the soul is lifted fully above its "doings."

"For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." This delight he speaks of is no doubt proper enough, but it is also plain that his occupation is more with "the law of God" than with God Himself, and his misery is not to be wondered at. He must learn that "the law of God" is neither to be his standard of conduct, nor his resource of strength, but must find these in the Son of God. In these verses (22 & 23) he sees two distinct laws - that is, governing principles - in conflict, each claiming him, but the "law of sin" consistently vanquishing "the law of God," so that he, despite his own will, is carried captive. It is a profound perplexity to him, and he is thus no doubt learning that "the law of God" is not "the power of God" (compare Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:24). "The law of God" is not to be the governing principle of the redeemed child: this must be the prerogative of the indwelling Spirit of God - as in fact Romans 8:2 will give us.

Finally, in verse 24 his soul cries out in the utter misery of confessed helplessness - "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Can he surrender himself to sin, which has such power? Never! How could he ever make peace with that which is so horrible an enemy of God? But does he now say "How shall I deliver myself?" No: he has given up hope in this direction, but looks for another to deliver him - "Who shall deliver me?" Is there any wonder, when this thought breaks in upon his soul, that there is the brightly awakened hope of v. 25? - "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Thus, looking outside of himself, he thanks God. He realizes his impotence, and that he must trust another deliverer. This gives calmness to consider the deliverance itself, which is described in the first four verses of Romans 8:1-39.

For verse 25 (Romans 7:1-25) is not the language of a delivered soul, but of one who has recognized the impossibility of self-deliverance, and that he must look out from himself to Christ. It is an honest confession he makes, "So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin," - but he is still the sufferer, only now as it were bringing his illness to the divine Physician, with a frank explanation of the symptoms. A delivered soul does not with the mind "serve the law of God," nor find himself still given over to the law of sin which the flesh would serve. The proper state of the soul is, "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:2-3). The mind is to be on Christ, not on law, though it be "the law of God." The point of importance then is that he here puts himself, in his wretched state, into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pride would seek a good state first, before presenting ourselves into His hand, but this would not do. He must have the glory of being the only Deliverer.

 


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Bibliography Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Romans 7:4". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/lmg/romans-7.html. 1897-1910.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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