The Christian and the Moral Law
3. The law and its inability. The law and the saint (vv 14-25).
This is a portion concerning which there has been much controversy. It has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some would even question if it is to be understood as the actual experience of the Apostle. They would consider it a hypothetical case! Some consider it to be Paul’s experience in his unregenerate days. This view has been expressed in the following words: “Paul is laying bare in Romans 7, his inward exercises. They are the experiences of a morally good man judged according to the standards of men, who has the desire to behave well, but something within him hinders him from doing what he mentally approves, and he does what he disapproves and hates. The man of Romans 7 is obviously not a profligate sinner nor is he a regenerate man, but a pious God-fearing man who is endeavouring to gain divine favour, and life everlasting by the deeds of the law.” If this view is adopted then the agonizing cry, “O wretched man that I am,” must have been uttered by Paul when he was still the kicking beast, breathing out murder and slaughter. This seems utterly inconceivable. Moreover, if it was uttered by him in his unconverted days then we should have it stated in the past tense as in verses 7-13. It should have been, “O wretched man that I WAS.”
Others think that it is the portrayal of the experience of a carnally minded Christian, one who is constantly living a defeated life. But it may well be questioned if carnally minded Christians ever have such deep soul exercises.
W. Kelly in his notes on Romans writes as follows on this portion: “It is the case of one quickened, but not yet submitting to the righteousness of God. Hence being jealous for God, but ignorant of the full place in which redemption sets the believer, such a soul puts itself under law. There is an awakened conscience but no power. The state described, however, is in no case, I believe, final, but transitional, though bad and legal teaching may keep a soul in it till grace acts fully, it may be on a death-bed or what is equivalent.”
Then there are those who think that it is an accurate description of the spiritual exercises, failures and aspirations of a spiritually-minded believer who is keenly conscious of the fact of indwelling sin and is longing for the final deliverance. From his inward depths he yearns for deliverance from “this body of death.”
Horatius Bonar in his notes on the chapter says: “It furnishes a key to an experience which would otherwise have seemed inexplicable. It is God’s recognition of the saint’s inner conflict, and an indispensable process of discipline.”
And Bishop Ryle in his book on “Holiness” says: “In this chapter Paul says nothing which does not practically tally with the recorded experiences of the most eminent saints in every age, and he does say several things which no unregenerate man or weak believer would ever think of saying or cannot say. What I do lay stress upon is the broad fact that the best commentators in every era have almost invariably applied the 7th of Romans to advanced believers.”
In order to guide our thinking in an attempt at unravelling the complex situation and experience described in the section, the following points should be noted:
a. The verb tenses are all in the present. This is in marked contrast to the preceding paragraph where all the verbs are in the past tense. In that paragraph the Apostle is quite obviously relating his experience before and leading to his conversion. His experience detailed in verses 7-13 dovetail into or synchronizes with the illustration given in verses 1-6. Having been slain or executed, the law ceased to have dominion over him.
b. He speaks of the “inward man” a phrase only found twice elsewhere in the New Testament. In Corinthians 4:16 the same Apostle speaks of the outward man as perishing, but of the “inward man” as being renewed daily. Then in the Ephesian encyclical he prays for his readers that they might be “strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man” (ch. 3:16). In both of these cases the term can only apply to believers. It is difficult to interpret it otherwise in Romans 7. To equate the words with a more mental approval militates against the analogy of these other Scriptures. Moreover, the “mind of the flesh,” the only mind the unregenerate man has, is enmity with God, hence it cannot delight in the law of God. In Romans 7 Paul not only approves of the law and its demands, he delights in it (Comp. Ps. 1.). Is such an experience within the range of possibility to an unregenerate person? Scripture teaching would not lead us to think so.
c. The deliverance he cries out for is not deliverance from the law of sin in the members, but from this “body of death.” As long as he was in the body co-existence with the law of sin which is in its members was unavoidable. The cry and the expression of thanks point to the coming of the Lord and the references to it in Chapter 8 as taught by the late W. E. Vine in his commentary on this Epistle, and also by the late C. F. Hogg.
d. The final words of the chapter are a summing up of the experience described in the earlier verses: “So with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” Here as before, the Apostle speaking as a representative believer, sums up in the concluding statement his line of argument (WE-V). The words “I myself” would suggest that Paul was anxious that we should understand this as his normal experience. The words cannot represent the experience of the unconverted. They depict a dualism which is only true of the regenerate. A closer study of the portion will confirm this conclusion.
We know intuitively that the law is spiritual. It is all that Paul acknowledged it to be, “holy, just and good.” “But, I am carnal, sold under sin.” This is considered by many to be an insuperable difficulty making it impossible to interpret it as the experience of a true believer, far less of a spiritually minded believer. However, we do well to note, as pointed out by Calvin in his commentary on Romans, that the word used here for “carnal” refers to the flesh in its material rather than in its ethical sense. It is the word used in Corinthians 3, where we read of the “fleshy tablets of the heart.” Paul does not say that he was carnally minded like the Corinthians, but he acknowledged that he was still in the body, and as yet not redeemed. For that the believer waits.
In verses 15-17 the problem is viewed negatively. He finds that he is unable to resist doing what he knows to be wrong, that is, desiring or coveting the forbidden thing. In verses 18-20 it is viewed from the positive aspect or standpoint. He acknowledges that he is unable to do that which he knows to be right. In verses 16 and 20 he gives his conclusions: “If then I do that which I would not …” I confess two things: (1) The law with its prohibitions is good. (2) My failure is due to indwelling sin.
It is clear that the portion speaks of a conflict of desires, of an irreconcilable dualism in the Apostle’s life, and he has recorded for us that which he learned in this severe school of discipline. The lessons he learned were both humbling and salutary. We do well to take heed to them.
a. “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh dwelleth no good thing.” This is a lesson of primary importance. It was the lesson that led Job to confess, “Therefore I abhor myself,” and Peter to say, “I am a sinful man, O Lord.” It is the message of Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” It is incurably evil.
b. “I find then a law that when I would do good, evil is present with me.” “I see another law in my members,” a contrary law which wages constant warfare against the law of my mind, and seeks to reduce me to captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. He discovered that he had a bias toward this law of sin, and inclination to obey it. It was natural for him to submit to its edicts or commands.
c. “So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” He learnt that the flesh in him would own allegiance to no other master than sin. This he repeats in chapter 3-7. “For the mind of the flesh is enmity against God.” The flesh can never be converted. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” It is as evil and incorrigible in its working in the oldest and most mature saint as it is in the youngest believer.
The message of Romans 7 is one which no Christian can afford to ignore. He will do so at his peril. It is the red flag of warning waved by none other than the great Apostle himself. On the fifth day of creation fish, great whales, and fowl were created. On the sixth there was the same dual type of life, beasts and creeping things. Then man was created and placed in authority over them all. In Romans 7 we have this dualism. To take a census of the life which abounds in the sea is beyond man’s power. These can be taken to represent the hidden motives, both good and bad. Among the birds of the air there are also the clean and the unclean. They are suggestive of what passes through the mind. The Apostle elsewhere refers to the “desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph. 2:3). Creeping things are defiling. Food vessels were to be covered lest any should fall into them (Num. 19:15. Lev. 11:29-33 ).
The experience of Romans 7 may well be illustrated by that of Israel in the wilderness. But in this connection we need to remember that while Israel was in Egypt, the Wilderness, and Canaan at successive periods; the believer is in each at the same time. The nation literally and physically went out of Egypt into the
Wilderness, and later they literally left the Wilderness and entered into the Canaan. But that is not the case with the Christian. He is in the world though not of it, and is assured of preservation from its doom by the blood of the lamb. In the Wilderness he finds every provision for his spiritual needs, and in the land he enjoys all the spiritual blessings with which the believer has been blessed in the heavenlies in Christ. Of the Wilderness God said: “The Lord thy God led thee … in the Wilderness to humble thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart” (Deut. 8:1-3). This is the lesson of Romans 7.
The cry from the depths and its answers (7:24-25 and ch. 8):
“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This seems like a cry of despair wrung from the depths of his anguished spirit. It echoes the cry of the Psalmist: “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee.” The body, previously referred to as the “body of sin” and the “mortal body” is now referred to as “this body of death.” And he yearned for deliverance from IT, not merely from the law of sin which was engraved on its members. The Apostle would seem to be thinking in terms of the Roman custom of binding the corpse of the victim to the back of the ciminal. The picture is a very graphic one. Had the words been “HOW shall I be delivered?” They would have suggested that he was looking either within himself or elsewhere for some way of deliverance. Having learnt the futility of all self-effort, he does not look for victory but for deliverance. Victory is something which we may bring about, but deliverance is something which is wrought entirely for us by another. This deliverance, this emancipation from the body of death, is to be ours at the rapture, the coming again of our Lord.