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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Romans 7

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-6

23

Chapter 15

JUSTIFICATION AND HOLINESS: ILLUSTRATIONS FROM HUMAN LIFE

Romans 6:14-23 - Romans 7:1-6

AT the point we have now reached, the Apostle’s thought pauses for a moment, to resume. He has brought us to self-surrender. We have seen the sacred obligations of our divine and wonderful liberty. We have had the miserable question, "Shall we cling to sin?" answered by an explanation of the rightness and the bliss of giving over our accepted persons, in the fullest liberty of will, to God, in Christ. Now he pauses, to illustrate and enforce. And two human relations present themselves for the purpose; the one to show the absoluteness of the surrender, the other its living results. The first is Slavery, the second is Wedlock.

For sin shall not have dominion over you; sin shall not put in its claim upon you, the claim which the Lord has met in your Justification; for you are not brought under law, but under grace. The whole previous argument explains this sentence. He refers to our acceptance. He goes back to the justification of the guilty, "without the deeds of law," by the act of free grace; and briefly restates it thus, that he may take up afresh the position that this glorious liberation means not license but divine order. Sin shall be no more your tyrant creditor, holding up the broken law in evidence that it has right to lead you off to a pestilential prison, and to death. Your dying Saviour has met your creditor in full for you, and in Him you have entire discharge in that eternal court where the terrible plea once stood against you. Your dealings as debtors are now not with the enemy who cried for your death, but with the Friend who has bought you out of his power.

What then? are we to sin, because we are not brought under law, but under grace? Shall our life be a life of license, because we are thus wonderfully free? The question assuredly is one which, like that of ver. 1, and like those suggested in Romans 3:8; Romans 3:31, had often been asked of St. Paul, by the bitter opponent, or by the false follower. And again it illustrates and defines, by the direction of its error, the line of truth from which it flew off. It helps to do what we remarked above, to assure us that when St. Paul taught "Justification by faith, without deeds of law," he meant what he said, without reserve; he taught that great side of truth wholly, and without a compromise. He called the sinner, "just as he was, and waiting not to rid his soul of one dark blot," to receive at once, and without fee, the acceptance of God for Another’s blessed sake. Bitter must have been the moral pain of seeing, from the first, this holy freedom distorted into an unhallowed leave to sin. But he will not meet it by an impatient compromise, or untimely confusion. It shall be answered by a fresh collocation; the liberty shall be seen in its relation to the Liberator; and behold, the perfect freedom is a perfect service, willing but. absolute, a slavery joyfully accepted, with open eyes and open heart, and then lived out as the most real of obligations by a being who has entirely seen that he is not his own.

Away with the thought. Do you not know that the party to whom you present, surrender, yourselves bondservants, slaves, so as to obey him, -bondservants you are, not the less for the freewill of the surrender, of the party whom you obey; no longer merely contractors with him, who may bargain, or retire, but his bondservants out and out; whether of sin, to death, or of obedience, to righteousness? (As if their assent to Christ, their Amen to His terms of peace, acceptance, righteousness, were personified; they were now the bondsmen of this their own act and deed, which had put them, as it were, into Christ’s hands for all things.) Now thanks be to our God, that you were bondmen of sin, in legal claim, and under moral sway; yes, every one of you was this, whatever forms the bondage took upon its surface; but you obeyed from the heart the mould of teaching to which you were handed over. They had been sin’s slaves. Verbally, not really, he "thanks God" for that fact of the past. Really, not verbally, he "thanks God" for the pastness of the fact, and for the bright contrast to it in the regenerated present. They had now been "handed over," by their Lord’s transaction about them, to another ownership, and they had accepted the transfer, "from the heart." It was done by Another for them, but they had said their humble, thankful that as He did it. And what was the new ownership thus accepted? We shall find soon (Romans 6:22), as we might expect, that it is the mastery of God. But the bold, vivid introductory imagery has already called it (Romans 6:16) the slavery of "Obedience." Just below (Romans 6:19-20) it is the slavery of "Righteousness," that is, if we read the word aright in its whole context, of "the Righteousness of God," His acceptance of the sinner as His own in Christ. And here, in a phrase most unlikely of all, whose personification strikes life into the most abstract aspects of the message of the grace of God, the believer is one who has been transferred to the possession of "a mould of Teaching." The Apostolic Doctrine, the mighty Message, the living Creed of life, the Teaching of the acceptance of the guilty for the sake of Him who was their Sacrifice, and is now their Peace and Life-this truth has, as it: were, grasped them as its vassals, to form them, to mould them for its issues. It is indeed their "tenet." It "holds them"; a thought far different from what is too often meant when we say of a doctrine that "we hold it." Justification by their Lord’s merit, union with their Lord’s life; this was a doctrine, reasoned, ordered, verified. But it was a doctrine warm and tenacious with the love of the Father and of the Son. And it had laid hold of them with a mastery which swayed thought, affection, and will; ruling their whole view of self and of God. Now, liberated from your sin, you were enslaved to the Righteousness of God. Here is the point of the argument. It is a point of steel, for all is fact; but the steel is steeped in love, and carries life and joy into the hearts it penetrates. They are not for one moment their own. Their acceptance has magnificently emancipated them from their tyrant enemy. But it has absolutely bound them to their Friend and King. Their glad consent to be accepted has carried with it a consent to belong. And if that consent was at the moment rather implied than explicit, virtual rather than articulately conscious, they have now only to understand their blessed slavery better to give the more joyful thanksgivings to Him who has thus claimed them altogether as His own.

The Apostle’s aim in this whole passage is to awaken them, with the strong, tender touch of his holy reasoning, to articulate their position to themselves. They have trusted Christ, and are in Him. Then, they have entrusted themselves altogether to Him. Then, they have, in effect, surrendered. They have consented to be His property. They are the bondservants, they are the slaves, of His truth, that is, of Him robed and revealed in His Truth, and shining through it on them in the glory at once of His grace and of His claim. Nothing less than such an obligation is the fact for them. Let them feel, let them weigh, and then let them embrace, the chain which after all will only prove their pledge of rest and freedom.

What St. Paul thus did for our elder brethren at Rome, let him do for us of this later time. For us, who read this page, all the facts are true in Christ today. Today let us define and affirm their issues to ourselves, and recollect our holy bondage, and realise it, and live it out with joy.

Now he follows up the thought. Conscious of the superficial repulsiveness of the metaphor-quite as repulsive in itself to the Pharisee as to the Englishman-he as it were apologises for it; not the less carefully, in his noble considerateness, because so many of his first readers were actually slaves. He does not lightly go for his picture of our Master’s hold of us, to the market of Corinth, or of Rome, where men and women were sold and bought to belong as absolutely to their buyers as cattle, or as furniture. Yet he does go there, to shake slow perceptions into consciousness, and bring the will face to face with the claim of God. So he proceeds. I speak humanly, I use the terms of this utterly not-divine bond of man to man, to illustrate man’s glorious bond to God, because of the weakness of your flesh, because your yet imperfect state enfeebles your spiritual perception, and demands a harsh paradox to direct and fix it., For-here is what he means by "humanly"-just as you surrendered your limbs, your functions and faculties in human life, slaves to your impurity and to your lawlessness, unto that lawlessness, so that the bad principle did indeed come out in bad practice, so now, with as little reserve of liberty, surrender your limbs slaves to righteousness, to God’s Righteousness, to your justifying God, unto sanctification-so that the surrender shall come out in your Master’s sovereign separation of His purchased property from sin.

He has appealed to the moral reason of the regenerate soul. Now he speaks straight to the will. You are, with infinite rightfulness, the bondmen of your God. You see your deed of purchase; it is the other side of your warrant of emancipation. Take it, and write your own unworthy names with joy upon it, consenting and assenting to your Owner’s perfect rights. And then live out your life, keeping the autograph of your own surrender before your eyes. Live, suffer, conquer, labour, serve, as men who have themselves walked to their Master’s door, and presented the ear to the awl which pins it to the doorway, each in his turn saying, "I will not go out free."

To such an act of the soul the Apostle calls these saints, whether they had done the like before or no. They were to sum up the perpetual fact, then and there, into a definite and critical act ( παραστησατε, aorist) of thankful will. And he calls us to do the same today. By the grace of God, it shall be done. With eyes open, and fixed upon the face of the Master who claims us, and with hands placed helpless and willing within His hands, we will, we do, present ourselves bondservants to Him; for discipline, for servitude, for all His will.

For when you were slaves of your sin, you were freemen as to righteousness, God’s Righteousness. It had nothing to do with you, whether to give you peace or to receive your tribute of love and loyalty in reply. Practically, Christ was not your Atonement, and so not your Master; you stood, in a dismal independence, outside His claims. To you, your lips were your own; your time was your own; your will was your own. You belonged to self; that is to say, you were the slaves of your sin. Will you go back? Will the word "freedom" (he plays with it, as it were, to prove them) make you wish yourselves back where you were before you had endorsed by faith your purchase by the blood of Christ? Nay, for what was that "freedom," seen in its results, its results upon yourselves? What fruit, therefore, (the "therefore" of the logic of facts,) used you to have then, in those old days, from things over which you are ashamed now? Ashamed indeed; for the end, the issue, as the fruit is the tree’s "end," the end of those things is-death; perdition of all true life here and hereafter too. But now, in the blessed actual state of your case, as by faith you have entered into Christ, into His work and into His life, now liberated from sin and enslaved to God, you have your fruit, you possess indeed, at last, the true issues of being for which you were made, all contributing to sanctification, to that separation to God’s will in practice which is the development of your separation to that will in critical fact, when you met your Redeemer in self-renouncing faith. Yes, this fruit you have indeed; and as its end, as that for which it is produced, to which it always and forever tends, you have life eternal. For the pay of sin, sin’s military stipend ( οψωνια), punctually given to the being which has joined its war against the will of God, is death; but the free gift of God is life eternal, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

"Is life worth living?" Yes, infinitely well worth, for the living man who has surrendered to "the Lord that bought him." Outside that ennobling captivity, that invigorating while most genuine bond service, the life of man is at best complicated and tired with a bewildered quest, and gives results at best abortive, matched with the ideal purposes of such a being. We "present ourselves to God," for His ends, as implements, vassals, willing bondmen; and lo, our own end is attained. Our life has settled, after its long friction, into gear. Our root, after hopeless explorations in the dust, has struck at last the stratum where the immortal water makes all things live, and grow, and put forth fruit for heaven. The heart, once dissipated between itself and the world, is now "united" to the will, to the love, of God; and understands itself, and the world, as never before; and is able to deny self and to serve others in a new and surprising freedom. The man, made willing to be nothing but the tool and bondman of God, "has his fruit" at last; bears the true product of his now recreated being, pleasant to the Master’s eye, and fostered by His air and sun. And this "fruit" issues, as acts issue in habit, in the glad experience of a life really sanctified, really separated in ever deeper inward reality, to a holy will. And the "end" of the whole glad possession, is "life eternal."

Those great words here signify, surely, the coming bliss of the sons of the resurrection, when at last in their whole perfected being they will "live" all through, with a joy and energy as inexhaustible as its Fountain, and unencumbered at last and forever by the conditions of our mortality. To that vast future, vast in its scope yet all concentrated round the fact that "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is," the Apostle here looks onward. He will say more of it, and more largely, later, in the eighth chapter. But as with other themes so with this, he preludes with a few glorious chords the great strain soon to come. He takes the Lord’s slave by the hand, amidst his present tasks and burthens, (dear tasks and burthens, because the Master’s, but still full of the conditions of earth,) and he points upward-not to a coming manumission in glory; the man would be dismayed to foresee that; he wants to "serve forever"; -but to a scene of service in which the last remainders of hindrance to its action will be gone, and a perfected being will forever, perfectly, be not its own, and so will perfectly live in God. And this, so he says to his fellow servant, to you and to me, is "the gift of God"; a grant as free, as generous, as ever King gave vassal here below. And it is to be enjoyed as such, by a being which, living wholly for Him, will freely and purely exult to live wholly on Him, in the heavenly places.

Yet surely the bearing of the sentences is not wholly upon heaven. Life eternal, so to be developed hereafter that Scripture speaks of it often as it began hereafter, really begins here, and develops here, and is already "more abundant" [John 10:10] here. It is, as to its secret and also its experience, to know and to enjoy God, to be possessed by Him, and used for His will. In this respect it is "the end," the issue and the goal, now and perpetually, of the surrender of the soul. The Master meets that attitude with more and yet more of Himself, known, enjoyed, possessed, possessing. And so He gives, evermore gives, out of His sovereign bounty, life eternal to the bondservant who has embraced the fact that he is nothing, and has nothing, outside his Master. Not at the outset of the regenerate life only, and not only when it issues into the heavenly ocean, but all along the course, the life eternal is still "the free gift of God." Let us now, today, tomorrow, and always, open the lips of surrendering and obedient faith, and drink it in, abundantly, and yet more abundantly. And let us use it for the Giver.

We are already, here on earth, at its very springs; so the Apostle reminds us. For it is "in Jesus Christ our Lord"; and we, believing, are in Him, "saved in His life." It is in Him; nay, it is He. "I am the Life"; "He that hath the Son, hath the life." Abiding in Christ, we live "because He liveth." It is not to be "attained"; it is given, it is our own. In Christ, it is given, in its divine fulness, as to covenant provision, here, now, from the first, to every Christian. In Christ, it is supplied, as to its fulness and fitness for each arising need, as the Christian asks, receives, and uses for his Lord.

So from, or rather in, our holy bond service the Apostle has brought us to our inexhaustible life, and its resources for willing holiness. But he has more to say in explaining the beloved theme. He turns from slave to wife, from surrender to bridal, from the purchase to the vow, from the results of a holy bondage to the offspring of a heavenly union. Hear him as he proceeds:

Or do you not know, brethren, (for I am talking to those acquainted with law, whether Mosaic or Gentile,) that the law has claim on the man, the party in any given case, for his whole lifetime? For the woman with a husband is to her living husband bound by law, stands all along bound to him. "His life," under normal conditions, is his adequate claim. Prove him living, and you prove her his. But if the husband should have died, she stands ipso facto cancelled from the husband’s law, the marriage law as he could bring it to bear against her. So, therefore, while the husband lives, she will earn adulteress for her name if she weds another ("a second") husband. But if the husband should have died, she is free from the law in question, so as to be no adulteress, if wedded to another, a second, husband. Accordingly, my brethren, you too, as a mystic bride, collectively and individually, were done to death as to the Law, so slain that its capital claim upon you is met "and done," by means of the Body of the Christ, by the "doing to death" of His sacred Body for you, on His atoning Cross, to satisfy for you the aggrieved Law; in order to your wedding Another, a second Party, Him who rose from the dead; that we might bear fruit for God; "we," Paul and his converts, in one happy "fellowship," which he delights thus to remember and indicate by the way.

The parable is stated and explained with a clearness which leaves us at first the more surprised that in the application the illustration should be reversed. In the illustration, the husband dies, the woman lives, and weds again. In the application, the Law does not die, but we, its unfaithful bride, are "done to death to it," and then, strange sequel, are wedded to the Risen Christ. We are taken by Him to be "one spirit" with Him. [1 Corinthians 6:17] We are made one in all His interests and wealth, and fruitful of a progeny of holy deeds in this vital union. Shall we call all this a simile confused? Not if we recognise the deliberate and explicit carefulness of the whole passage. St. Paul, we may be sure, was quite as quick as we are to see the inverted imagery. But he is dealing with a subject which would be distorted by a mechanical correspondence in the treatment. The Law cannot die, for it is the preceptive will of God. Its claim is, in its own awful forum domesticum, like the injured Roman husband, to sentence its own unfaithful wife to death. And so it does; so it has done. But behold, its Maker and Master steps upon the scene. He surrounds the guilty one with Himself, takes her whole burthen on Himself, and meets and exhausts her doom. He dies. He lives again, after death, because of death; and the Law acclaims His resurrection as infinitely just. He rises, clasping in His arms her for whom He died, and who thus died in Him, and now, rises in Him. Out of His sovereign love, while the Law attests the sure contract, and rejoices as "the Bridegroom’s Friend," He claims her-herself, yet in Him another-for His blessed Bride.

All is love, as if we walked through the lily gardens of the holy Song, and heard the call of the turtle in the vernal woods, and saw the King and His Beloved rest and rejoice in one another. All is law, as if we were admitted to watch some process of Roman matrimonial contract, stern and grave, in which every right is scrupulously considered, and every claim elaborately secured, without a smile, without an embrace, before the magisterial chair. The Church, the soul, is married to her Lord, who has died for her, and in whom now she lives. The transaction is infinitely happy. And it is absolutely right. All the old terrifying claims are amply and forever met. And now the mighty, tender claims which take their place instantly and of course begin to bind the Bride. The Law has "given her away"-not to herself, but to the Risen Lord.

For this, let us remember, is the point and bearing of the passage. It puts before us, with its imagery at once so grave and so benignant, not only the mystic Bridal, but the Bridal as it is concerned with holiness. The Apostle’s object is altogether this. From one side and from another he reminds us that "we belong." He has shown us our redeemed selves in their blessed bond service; "free from sin, enslaved to God." He now shows us to ourselves in our divine wedlock; "married to Another," "bound to the law of" the heavenly Husband; clasped to His heart, but also to His rights, without which the very joys of marriage would be only sin. From either parable the inference is direct, powerful, and, when we have once seen the face of the Master and of the Husband, unutterably magnetic on the will. You are set free, into a liberty as supreme and as happy as possible. You are appropriated, into a possession, and into a union, more close and absolute than language can set forth. You are wedded to One who "has and holds from this time forward." And the sacred bond is to be prolific of results. A life of willing and loving obedience, in the power of the risen Bridegroom’s life, is to have as it were for its progeny the fair circle of active graces, "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, self-control."

Alas, in the time of the old-abolished wedlock there was result, there was progeny. But that was the fruit not of the union but of its violation. For when we were in the flesh, in our unregenerate days, when our rebel self, the antithesis of "the Spirit," ruled and denoted us, (a state, he implies, in which we all were once, whatever our outward differences were,) the passions, the strong but reasonless impulses, of our sins, which passions were by means of the Law, occasioned by the fact of its just but unloved claim, fretting the self-life into action, worked actively in our limbs, in our bodily life in its varied faculties and senses, so as to bear fruit for death. We wandered, restive, from our bridegroom, the Law, to Sin, our paramour. And behold, a manifold result of evil deeds and habits, born as it were into bondage in the house of Death. But now, now as the wonderful case stands in the grace of God, we are (it is the aorist, but our English fairly represents it) abrogated from the Law, divorced from our first injured Partner, nay, slain (in our crucified Head) in satisfaction of its righteous claim, as having died with regard to that in which we were held captive, even the Law and its violated bond, so that we do bond service in the Spirit’s newness, and not in the Letter’s oldness.

Thus he comes back, through the imagery of wedlock, to that other parable of slavery which has become so precious to his heart. So that we do bond service, "so that we live a slave life." It is as if he must break in on the heavenly Marriage itself with that brand and bond, not to disturb the joy of the Bridegroom and the Bride, but to clasp to the Bride’s heart the vital fact that she is not her own; that fact so blissful, but so powerful also and so practical that it is "worth anything" to bring it home.

It is to be no dragging and dishonouring bondage, in which the poor toiler looks wistfully out for the sinking sun and the extended shadows. It is to be "not in the Letter’s oldness"; no longer on the old principle of the dread and unrelieved "Thou shalt," cut with a pen of legal iron upon the stones of Sinai; bearing no provision of enabling power, but all possible provision of doom for the disloyal. It is to be "in the Spirit’s newness"; on the new, wonderful principle, new in its full manifestation and application in Christ, of the Holy Ghost’s empowering presence. In that light and strength the new relations are discovered, accepted, and fulfilled. Joined by the Spirit to the Lord Christ, so as to have full benefit of His justifying merit; filled by the Spirit with the Lord Christ, so as to derive freely and always the blessed virtues of His life; the willing bondservant finds in his absolute obligations an inward liberty ever "new," fresh as the dawn, pregnant as the spring. And the worshipping Bride finds in the holy call to "keep her only unto Him" who has died for her life, nothing but a perpetual surprise of love and gladness, "new every morning," as the Spirit shows her the heart and the riches of her Lord.

Thus closes, in effect, the Apostle’s reasoned exposition of the self-surrender of the justified. Happy the man who can respond to it all with the "Amen" of a life which, reposing on the Righteousness of God, answers ever to His Will with the loyal gladness found in "the newness of the Spirit." It is "perfect freedom" to understand, in experience, the bondage and the bridal of the saints.


Verses 7-25

Chapter 16

THE FUNCTION OF THE LAW IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

Romans 7:7-25

THE Apostle has led us a long way in his great argument; through sin, propitiation, faith, union, surrender, to that wonderful and "excellent mystery," the bridal oneness of Christ and the Church, of Christ and the believer. He has yet to unfold the secrets and glories of the experience of a life lived in the power of that Spirit of whose "newness" he has just spoken. But his last parable has brought him straight to a question which has repeatedly been indicated and deferred. He has told us that the Law of God was at first, ideally, our mystic husband, and that we were unfaithful in our wedded life, and that the injured lord sentenced to death his guilty spouse, and that the sentence was carried out-but carried out in Christ. Thus a death divorce took place between us, the justified, and the Law, regarded as the violated party in the covenant-"Do this and live."

Is this ancient husband then a party whom we are now to suspect, and to defy? Our wedlock with him brought us little joy. Alas, its main experience was that we sinned. At best, if we did right, (in any deep sense of right,) we did it against the grain; while we did wrong, (in the deep sense of wrong, difference from the will of God,) with a feeling of nature and gravitation. Was not our old lord to blame? Was there not something wrong about the Law? Did not the Law misrepresent God’s will? Was it not, after all "Sin itself in disguise," though it charged us with the horrible guilt of a course of adultery with Sin?

We cannot doubt that the statement and the treatment of this question here are in effect a record of personal experience. The paragraph which it originates, this long last passage of chapter 7, bears every trace of such experience. Hitherto, in the main, he has dealt with "you" and "us"; now he speaks only as "I," only of "me," and of "mine." And the whole dialect of the passage, so to say, falls in with this use of pronouns. We overhear the colloquies, the altercations, of will with conscience, of will with will, almost of self with self, carried on in a region which only self-consciousness can penetrate, and which only the subject of it all can thus describe. Yes, the person Paul is here, analysing and reporting upon himself; drawing the veil from his own inmost life, with a hand firm because surrendered to the will of God, who bids him, for the Church’s sake, expose himself to view. Nothing in literature, no "Confessions" of an Augustine, no "Grace Abounding" of a Bunyan, is more intensely individual. Yet on the other hand nothing is more universal in its searching application. For the man who thus writes is "the chosen vessel" of the Lord who has perfectly adjusted not his words only but his being, his experience, his conflicts and deliverances, to the manifestations of universal spiritual facts.

We need hardly say that this profound paragraph has been discussed and interpreted most variously. It has been held by some to be only St. Paul’s intense way of presenting that great phenomenon, wide as fallen humanity-human will colliding with human conscience, so that "no man does all he knows." Passages from every quarter of literature, of all ages, of all races, have been heaped around it, to prove, (what is indeed so profoundly significant a fact, largely confirmatory of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin,) that universal man is haunted by undone duties; and this passage is placed as it were in the midst, as the fullest possible confession of that fact, in the name of humanity, by an ideal individual. But surely it needs only an attentive reading of the passage, as a part of the Epistle to the Romans, as a part of the teaching of St. Paul, to feel the extreme inadequacy of such an account. On the one hand, the long groaning confession is no artificial embodiment of a universal fact; it is the cry of a human soul, if ever there was a personal cry. On the other hand, the passage betrays a kind of conflict far deeper and more mysterious than merely that of "I ought" with "I will not." It is a conflict of "I will" with "I will not"; of "I hate" with "I do." And in the later stages of the confession we find the subject of the conflict avowing a wonderful sympathy with the Law of God; recording not merely an avowal that right is right, but a consciousness that God’s precept is delectable. All this leads us to a spiritual region unknown to Euripides, and Horace, and even Epictetus.

Again it has been held that the passage records the experiences of a half-regenerate soul; struggling on its way from darkness to light, stumbling across a border zone between the power of Satan and the kingdom of God; deeply convinced of sin, but battling with it in the old impossible way after all, meeting self with self, or, otherwise, the devil with the man. But here again the passage seems to refuse the exposition, as we read all its elements. It is no experience of a half-renewed life to "take delight with the law of God after the inner man." It is utterly unlawful for a half-regenerate soul to describe itself as so beset by sin that "it is not I, but sin that dwelleth in me." No more dangerous form of thought about itself could be adopted by a soul not fully acquainted with God.

Again, and quite on the other hand, it has been held that our passage lays it down that a stern but on the whole disappointing conflict with internal evil is the lot of the true Christian, in his fullest life, now, always, and to the end; that the regenerate and believing man is, if indeed awake to spiritual realities, to feel at every step, "O wretched man that I am"; "What I hate, that I do"; and to expect deliverance from such a consciousness only when he attains his final heavenly rest with Christ. Here again extreme difficulties attend the exposition; not from within the passage, but from around it. It is liberally encircled with truths of liberty, in a servitude which is perfect freedom; with truths of power and joy, in a life which is by the Holy Ghost. It is quite incongruous with such surroundings that it should be thought to describe a spiritual experience dominant and characteristic in the Christian life.

"What shall we say then?" Is there yet another line of exegesis which will better satisfy the facts of both the passage and its context? We think there is one, which at once is distinctive in itself, and combines elements of truth indicated by the others which we have outlined. For those others have each an element of truth, if we read aright. The passage has a reference to the universal conflict of conscience and will. It does say some things quite appropriate to the man who is awake to his bondage but has not yet found his Redeemer. And there is, we dare to say, a sense in which it may be held that the picture is true for the whole course of Christian life here on earth; for there is never an hour of that life when the man who "says he has no sin" does not "deceive himself". [1 John 1:8] And if that sin be but simple defect, a falling "short of the glory of God"; nay, if it be only that mysterious tendency which, felt or not, hourly needs a divine counteraction; still, the man "has sin," and must long for a final emancipation, with a longing which carries in it at least a latent "groan." So we begin by recognising that Paul, the personal Paul, speaking here to all of us, as in some solemn "testimony" hour, takes us first to his earliest deep convictions of right and wrong, when, apparently after a previous complacency with himself, he woke to see-but not to welcome-the absoluteness of God’s will. He glided along a smooth stream of moral and mental culture and reputation till he struck the rock of "Thou shalt not covet," "Thou shalt not desire," "Thou must not have self-will." Then, as from a grave, which was however only an ambush, "sin" sprang up; a conscious force of opposition to the claim of God’s will as against the will of Paul; and his dream of religious satisfaction died. Till we close ver. 11 (Romans 7:11), certainly, we are in the midst of the unregenerate state. The tenses are past; the narrative is explicit. He made a discovery of law which was as death after life to his then religious experience. He has nothing to say of counter facts in his soul. It was conviction, with only rebellion as its issue. Then we find ourselves, we hardly know how, in a range of confessions of a different order. There is a continuity. The Law is there, and sin is there, and a profound moral conflict. But there are now counter facts. The man, the Ego, now "wills not," nay, "hates," what he practises. He wills what God prescribes, though he does it not. His sinful deeds are, in a certain sense, in this respect, not his own. He actually "delights, rejoices, with the Law of God." Yet there is a sense in which he is "sold," "enslaved," "captured," in the wrong direction.

Here, as we have admitted, there is much which is appropriate to the not yet regenerate state, where however the man is awakening morally, to good purpose, under the hand of God. But the passage as a whole refuses to be satisfied thus, as we have seen. He who can truly speak thus of an inmost sympathy, a sympathy of delight, with the most holy Law of God, is no half-Christian; certainly not in St. Paul’s view of things.

But now observe one great negative phenomenon of the passage. We read words about this regenerate sinner’s moral being and faculties; about his "inner man," his "mind," "the law of his mind,"; about "himself" as distinguished from the "sin" which haunts him. But we read not one clear word about that eternal Spirit, whose glorious presence we have seen: [Romans 7:6] characterising the Gospel, and of whom we are soon to hear in such magnificent amplitude. Once only is He even distinctly indicated; "the Law is spiritual" (Romans 7:14). But that is no comfort, no deliverance. The Spirit is indeed in the Law; but He must be also in the man, if there is to be effectual response, and harmony, and joy. No, we look in vain through the passage for one hint that the man, that Paul, is contemplated in it as filled by faith with the Holy Ghost for his war with indwelling sin working through his embodied conditions.

But he was regenerate, you say. And if so, he was an instance of the Spirit’s work, a receiver of the Spirit’s presence. It is so; not without the Spirit, working in him, could he "delight in the Law of God," and "with his true self serve the law of God." But does this necessarily mean that he, as a conscious agent, was fully using his eternal Guest as his power and victory?

We are not merely discussing a literary passage. We are pondering an oracle of God about man. So we turn full upon the reader-and upon ourselves-and ask the question, whether the heart cannot help to expound this hard paragraph. Christian man, by grace, -that is to say, by the Holy Spirit of God, -you have believed, and live. You are a limb of Christ, who is your life. But you are a sinner still; always, actually, in defect, and in tendency; always, potentially, in ways terribly positive. For whatever the presence of the Spirit in you has done, it has not so altered you that, if He should go, you would not instantly "revert to the type" of unholiness. Now, how do you meet temptation from without? How do you deal with the dread fact of guilty imbecility within? Do you, if I may put it so, use regenerate faculty in unregenerate fashion, meeting the enemy practically alone, with only high resolves, and moral scorn of wrong, and assiduous processes of discipline on body or mind? God forbid we should call these things evil. They are good. But they are the accidents, not the essence, of the secret; the wall, not the well, of power and triumph. It is the Lord Himself dwelling in you who is your victory; and that victory is to be realised by a conscious and decisive appeal to Him. "Through Him you shall do valiantly; for He it is that shall tread down your enemies." [Psalms 60:12] And is not this verified in your experience? When, in your regenerate state, you use the true regenerate way, is there not a better record to be given? When, realising that the true principle is indeed a Person, you less resolve, less struggle, and more appeal and confide-is not sin’s "reign" broken, and is not your foot, even yours, because you are in conscious union with the Conqueror, placed effectually on "all the power of the enemy"?

We are aware of the objection ready to be made, and by devout and reverent men. It wilt be said that the Indwelling Spirit works always through the being in whom He dwells; and that so we are not to think of Him as a separable Ally, but just to "act ourselves," leaving it to Him to act through us. Well, we are willing to state the matter almost exactly in those last words, as theory. But the subject is too deep-and too practical-for neat logical consistency. He does indeed work in us, and through us. But then-it is He. And to the hard-pressed soul there is an unspeakable reality and power in thinking of Him as a separable, let us say simply a personal, Ally, who is also Commander, Lord, Life-Giver; and in calling Him definitely in.

So we read this passage again, and note this absolute and eloquent silence in it about the Holy Ghost. And we dare, in that view, to interpret it as St. Paul’s confession, not of a long-past experience, not of an imagined experience, but of his own normal experience always-when he acts out of character as a regenerate man. He fails, he "reverts," when, being a sinner by nature still, and in the body still, he meets the Law, and meets temptation, in any strength short of the definitely sought power of the Holy Ghost, making Christ all to him for peace and victory. And he implies, surely, that this failure is not a bare hypothesis, but that he knows what it is. It is not that God is not sufficient. He is so, always, now, forever. But the man does not always adequately use God; as he ought to do, as he might do, as he will ever rise up afresh to do. And when he does not, the resultant failure-though it be but a thought of vanity, a flush of unexpressed anger, a microscopic flaw in the practise of truthfulness, an unhallowed imagination, darting in a moment through the soul-is to him sorrow, burthen, shame. It tells him that "the flesh" is present still, present at least in its elements, though God can keep them out of combination. It tells him that, though immensely blest, and knowing now exactly where to seek, and to find, a constant practical deliverance (oh, joy unspeakable!), he is still "in the body," and that its conditions are still of "death." And so he looks with great desire for its redemption. The present of grace is good, beyond all his hopes of old. But the future of glory is "far better."

Thus the man at once "serves the Law of God," as its willing bondman ( δουλευω, Romans 7:25), in the life of grace, and submits himself, with reverence and shame, to its convictions, when, if but for an hour, or a moment, he "reverts" to the life of the flesh.

Let us take the passage up now for a nearly continuous translation.

What shall we say then, in face of the thought of our death divorce, in Christ, from the Law’s condemning power. Is the Law sin? Are they only two phases of one evil? Away with the thought! But-here is the. connection of the two-I should not have known, recognised, understood, sin but by means of law. For coveting, for example, I should not have known, should not have recognised as sin, if the Law had not been saying, "Thou shalt not covet." But sin, making a fulcrum of the commandment, produced, effected, in me all coveting, every various application of the principle. For, law apart, sin is dead-in the sense of lack of conscious action. It needs "a holy Will," more or less revealed, to occasion its collision. Given no holy will, known or surmised, and it is "dead" as rebellion, though not as pollution. But I, the person to whom it lay buried, was all alive, conscious and content, law apart, once on a time (strange ancient memory in that biography!). But when the commandment came to my conscience and my will, sin rose to life again, ("again"; so it was no new creation after all) and I-died; I found myself legally doomed to death, morally without life power, and bereft of the self-satisfaction that seemed my vital breath. And the commandment that was lifewards, prescribing nothing but perfect right, the straight line to life eternal, proved for me deathwards. For sin, making a fulcrum of the commandment, deceived me, into thinking fatally wrong of God and of myself, and through it killed me, discovered me to myself as legally and morally a dead man. So that the Law, indeed, is holy, and the commandment, the special precept which was my actual death blow, holy, and just, and good. (He says, "the Law, indeed," with the implied antithesis that "sin, on the other hand," is the opposite; the whole fault of his misery beneath the Law lies with sin.) The good thing then, this good Law, has it to me become death? Away with the thought! Nay, but sin did so become that it might come out as sin, working out death for me by means of the good Law-that sin might prove overwhelmingly sinful, through the commandment, which at once called it up, and, by awful contrast, exposed its nature. Observe he does not say merely that sin thus "appeared" unutterably evil. More boldly, in this sentence of mighty paradoxes, he says that it "became" such. As it were, it developed its "character" into its fullest "action," when it thus used the eternal Will to set creature against Creator. Yet even this was overruled; all happened thus "in order," so that the very virulence of the plague might effectually demand the glorious remedy.

For we know, we men with our conscience, we Christians with our Lord’s light, that the Law, this Law which sin so foully abused, is spiritual, the expression of the eternal Holiness, framed by the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit; but then I, I Paul, taken as a sinner, viewed apart from Christi am fleshly, a child of self, sold to be under sin; yes, not only when, in Adam, my nature sold itself at first, but still and always, just so far as I am considered apart from Christ, and just so far as, in practice, I live apart from Christ, "reverting," if but for a minute, to my self-life. For the work I work out, I do not know, I do not recognise; I am lost amidst its distorted conditions; for it is not what I will that I practice, but it is what I hate that I do. But if what I do is what I do not will, I assent to the Law that it, the Law, is good; I show my moral sympathy with the precept by the endorsement given it by my will, in the sense of my earnest moral preference. But now, in this state of facts, it is no longer I who work out the work, but the indweller in me-Sin.

He implies by "no longer" that once it was otherwise; once "the central" choice was for self, now, in the regenerate life, even in its conflicts, yea, even in its failures, it is for God. A mysterious "other self" is latent still, and asserts itself in awful reality when the true man, the man as regenerate, ceases to watch and to pray. And in this sense he dares to say "it is no more I" It is a sense the very opposite to the dream of self-excuse; for though the Ego as regenerate does not do the deed, it has, by its sleep, or by its confidence, betrayed the soul to the true doer. And thus he passes naturally into the following confessions, in which we read at once the consciousness of a state which ought not to be, though it is, and also the conviction that it is a state "out of character" with himself, with his personality as redeemed and new-created. Into such a confession there creeps no lying thought that he "is delivered to do these abominations"; [Jeremiah 7:10] that it is fate; that he cannot help it. Nor is the miserable dream present here that evil is but a phase of good, and that these conflicts are only discordant melodies struggling to a cadence where they will accord. It is a groan of shame and pain, from a man who could not be thus tortured ii he were not born again. Yet it is also an avowal, - as if to assure himself that deliverance is intended, and is at hand, -that the treacherous tyrant he has let into the place of power "is an alien" to him as he is a man regenerate. Not for excuse, but to clear his thought, and direct his hope, he says this to himself, and to us, in his dark hour.

For I know that there dwells not in me, that is, in my flesh, good; in my personal life, so long, and so far, as it "reverts" to self as its working centre, all is evil, for nothing is as God would have it be. And that "flesh," that self-life, is ever there, latent if not patent; present in such a sense that it is ready for instant reappearance, from within, if any moral power less than that of the Lord Himself is in command. For the willing lies at my hand; but the working out what is right, does not. "The willing," as throughout this passage, means not the ultimate fiat of the man’s soul, deciding his action, but his earnest moral approbation, moral sympathy, "the convictions" of the enlightened being. For not what I will, even good, do I but what I do not will, even evil, that I practice. Now if what I do is what I do not will, no longer, as once, do I work it out, but the indweller in me, Sin.

Again his purpose is not excuse, but deliverance. No deadly antinomianism is here, such as has withered innumerable lives, where the thought has been admitted that sin may be in the man, and yet the man may not sin. His thought is, as all along, that it is his own shame that thus it is; yet that the evil is, ultimately, a thing alien to his true character, and that therefore he is right to call the lawful King and Victor in upon it.

And now comes up again the solemn problem of the Law. That stern, sacred, monitor is looking on all the while, and saying all the while the things which first woke sin from its living grave in the old complacent experience, and then, in the regenerate state, provoked sin to its utmost treachery, and most fierce invasions. And the man hears the voice, and in his new-created character he loves it. But he has "reverted," ever so little, to his old attitude, to the self-life, and so there is also rebellion in him when that voice says "Thou shalt." So I find the Law-he would have said, "I find it my monitor, honoured, aye and loved, but not my helper"; but he breaks the sentence up in the stress of this intense confession; so I find the Law-for me, me with a will to do the right, -that for me the evil lies at hand. For I have glad sympathy with the Law of God; what He prescribes I endorse with delight as good, as regards the inner man, that is, my world of conscious insight and affection in the new life; but I see (as if I were a watcher from without) a rival law, another and contradictory precept, "serve thyself," in my limbs, in my world of sense and active faculty, at war with the law of my mind, the Law of God, adopted by my now enlightened thinking power as its sacred code, and seeking to make me captive in that war to the law of sin, the law which is in my limbs.

Unhappy man am I Who will rescue me out of the body of this death, out of a life conditioned by this mortal body, which in the Fall became Sin’s especial vehicle, directly or indirectly, and which is not yet [Romans 7:23] actually "redeemed"? Thanks be to God, who giveth that deliverance, in covenant and in measure now, fully and in eternal actuality hereafter, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So then, to sum the whole phenomenon of the conflict up, leaving aside for the moment this glorious hope of the issue, I, myself, with the mind indeed do bond service to the law of God, but with the flesh, with the life of self, wherever and whenever I "revert" that way, I do bond service to the law of sin.

Do we close the passage with a sigh, and almost with a groan? Do we sigh over the intricacy of the thought, the depth and subtlety of the reasoning, the almost fatigue of fixing and of grasping the facts below the terms "will," and "mind," and "inner man," and "flesh," and "I"? Do we groan over the consciousness that no analysis of our spiritual failures can console us for the fact of them, and that the Apostle seems in his last sentences to relegate our consolations to the future, while it is in the present that we fail, and in the present that we long with all our souls to do, as well as to approve the will of God?

Let us be patient, and also let us think again. Let us find a solemn and sanctifying peace in the patience which meekly accepts the mystery that we must needs "wait yet for the redemption of our body"; that the conditions of "this corruptible" must yet for a season give ambushes and vantages to temptation, which will be all annihilated hereafter. But let us also think again. If we went at all aright in our remarks previous to this passage, there are glorious possibilities for the present hour "readable between the lines" of St. Paul’s unutterably deep confession. We have seen in conflict the Christian man, regenerate, yet taken, in a practical sense, apart from his Regenerator. We have seen him really fight, though he really fails. We have seen him unwittingly, but guiltily, betray his position to the foe, by occupying it as it were alone. We have seen also, nevertheless, that he is not his foe’s ally but his antagonist. Listen; he is calling for his King.

That cry will not be in vain. The King will take a double line of action in response. While his soldier-bondservant is yet in the body, "the body of this death," He will throw Himself into the narrow hold, and wonderfully turn the tide within it, and around it. And hereafter, He will demolish it. Rather He will transfigure it, into the counterpart-even as it were into the part-of His own body of glory; and the man shall rest, and serve, and reign forever, with a being homogeneous all through in its likeness to the Lord.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 7:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/romans-7.html.

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Saturday, December 14th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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