Romans 7

The apostle had already laid down that sin should not have dominion over the Christian, because he is not under law but under grace. He now unfolds the relations of the believer, even had he been a Jew, to the law; and this he does with admirable wisdom which the mass of his best expositors that it has been my lot to see, not to speak of others, have failed to appreciate

“Or are ye ignorant, brethren, for I speak to [men] knowing law, that the law has dominion over the man as long time as he lives? For the married woman is bound to the living husband by law; but if the husband die, she is discharged from the law of the husband.” (Ver. 1, 2.) Thus death is the grand principle, as with sin, so with law. It is indeed a confessed and universal axiom. It was fitting to take up the woman rather than the man, because he is treating of our responsibility to do the will of the Lord; and it is emphatically the woman’s place to obey her husband. But this, as he demonstrates, is quite independent of the law, which simply deals with man alive in the flesh. Now his thesis in the preceding chapter was the death of the Christian with Christ, which is no less true and forcible when applied to the law as to sin. During the husband’s life the wife is bound; if he have died, she is quit. Death severs the bond. “Therefore then, while the husband liveth, she shall be called an adulteress, if she belong to another man. But if the husband die, she is free from the law so as not to be an adulteress by belonging to another man.” (Ver. 3.) It is difficult to conceive a blow more destructive to the common notion of putting the Christian under the law as his rule of life. Two husbands are intolerable. Not only is the law not the actual husband, but the apostle will not hear of Christ and the law. It must be Christ alone. To admit of any other association is to be false to Him. If the law had been the old husband, such is no longer the relationship of the Christian. Death having come in, the former obligation terminates, and there is freedom to belong to another without fear of adultery, even to Christ exclusively. Compare for our practice Phil. 3:13, 14.

“So that, my brethren, ye also have been put to death to the law by the body of Christ that ye should belong to another — him that was raised out of [the] dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” (Ver. 5.) Far from its being the aim of God to maintain the rule of the law, the express design and effect of grace is to bring the Christian (even if a Jew formerly) out of the old relationship into an absolutely new one founded on the death of Christ, that he should henceforth belong exclusively to Him risen from among the dead, and this in order to glorify God by fruits acceptable to Him.

It will be observed, however, that the apostle carefully abstains from the least insinuation that the law is dead. Not so does God deliver. The law lives to curse and kill all within its sphere. But we by death with Christ pass out of its power to touch us; and having a new husband, even Christ risen, we dare not allow any other spiritual rule: else we are guilty of what is most grievous in His eyes and an utter breach of our new relationship. And this alone secures fruitfulness Godward. Subjection to Christ fulfils the law without thinking of any one or thing but Him. You cannot serve, you ought not to serve, two masters.

“For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins that [were] by the law wrought in our members to the bearing fruit to death; but now have we got discharge from the law, having died in what we were held, so as for us to serve in newness of spirit and not in oldness of letter.” (Ver. 6.)

Thus evidently the flesh and the law (as we may add the world) are correlative; and the Christian belongs to neither, but to Christ, and to Him risen from the dead. We are no longer in the flesh; we were there, and to this state the law applied: it is made not for the righteous, but the unrighteous. The Christian is dead to law, not it to anybody. Not only does the law work death and condemnation to the unbeliever, but the Christian who meddles with it as a rule for his path will prove it, if taught of God, to be a rule, not of life, but of death. As Christ is our life, so is He our pattern and power through the Holy Ghost, who forms us according to the word which reveals Him to our souls.

It is scarcely needful to point out how false is the doctrine of the common text and translation, which the margin corrects. If true, Antinomianism would follow, than which nothing is more false and evil. Death to law as well as to sin is the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the privilege of the Christian. The law lives to condemn every living soul who pretends to a righteousness of his own.

The passage on which we now enter has been the occasion of as extraordinary discord in thought and comment as any other in the epistle, and I cannot but think with small fruit as to intelligence of God’s mind revealed in it. The source of the difficulty is the ordinary one — ignorance of the Christian’s position or standing, and consequently of his relation to the law. Had the six preceding verses of Romans 7 been understood, there would have been no such obscurity and no room for such divergence among those who have discussed it. But death with Christ to sin and law is an unknown region, and the loss to souls from ignorance of it is incalculable.

The point, which divides the mass of those who have written and preached on it, as well is of multitudes of those influenced by them, is the question whether the experience described is that of a natural man or of a Christian. It is assumed on both sides that one or other it must be. But the assumption is an error, and the failure of both lies exactly here. It is impossible rightly to understand the passage if applied either to a natural man or to a Christian. There may be, there is, a transitional state constantly found in souls when they are born again, but not yet in conscious deliverance; and this is the precise state, here in question. Paul may have passed as most do through this experience more or less during the three days, when without sight he neither ate nor drank. He was converted then, no longer therefore a natural man, but not yet filled with the Holy Ghost. Certainly he personates the case and reasons it out fully from verse 7 to the end of the chapter. 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 places itself under law; and the operation of the law is therefore exhibited to us. There is an awakened conscience, but no power. If the new nature were not there, such experience could not be: if the Holy Ghost were there, power would follow, as we see in Romans 8 where we have the proper normal state of the Christian. 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 deathbed, or what is equivalent.

“What then shall we say? [Is] the law sin? Let it not be. But I should not have known sin unless by law; for lust also I had not known unless the law had said, Thou shalt not lust. But sin, having taken occasion by the commandment, wrought out in me every [manner of] lust; for apart from law sin [is] dead. But I was alive apart from law once; but the commandment having come, sin revived, and I died; and the commandment that [was] unto life was even found for me unto death. For sin, having taken occasion by the commandment, deceived, and by it slew me. So that the law [is] holy, and the commandment holy, just, and good. Did then the good become death to me? Let it not be; but sin, that it might appear sin, working out death to me by the good, that sin might become excessively sinful by the commandment.” (Ver. 7-13.)

Thus the apostle takes pains to relieve the law of all censure. Far from this, it was the excellency of the law which was so fatal to the sinner. It knows no mercy; it cannot mitigate its terms or its punishment. By the law is the full knowledge of sin, said the apostle in Romans 3. So here, whether objectively or in inward consciousness, law is the means of its discovery, not from any defect in law but from the sinfulness of sin, which is here personified as the foe that is seizing a point for attacking man. But here the apostle is occupied with the proof not of guilty acts but of an alien rebellious nature, and hence singles out the last commandment, the prohibition of covetousness or lust, as the most adapted to convict of sin, not merely of sins. And how true this is! Who does not know the irritation produced by a restraint on the will? So all manner of lust is excited, for apart from law sin is dead: let the commandment have come, and all is over. It never did, it cannot, improve the flesh, but contrariwise provokes it by the curb applied. What is really wanted is a new nature and a transforming object; but law neither communicates the one nor reveals the other: grace does both through Christ our Lord. The fault is solely in the first man, the deliverance is exclusively in the Second. Law sets forth what man ought to be, but condemns him necessarily for the sin it makes active and manifest, without the smallest power to save from it any more than to strengthen against it. On the contrary, says the apostle, “I was alive apart from law once, but, the commandment having come, sin revived and I died.” Thus what pointed to life only proved an instrument of death. But if the living man die, law cannot quicken the dead. It is the Son’s to quicken whom He will, even as the Father does. But here again the apostle is careful to lay all blame on sin, which, having taken occasion by the commandment, slew by it the deceived man. Thus the law is vindicated, the nature it in vain appeals to is alone in fault; for the commandment is holy, just, and good. Did then the good become death to me? asks the apostle. Not so; it is sin here again he treats as the true culprit, “sin that it might appear sin, working out death to me by the good, that sin might become excessively sinful by the commandment.” Could the Jew, however prejudiced against grace, however prepossessed in favour of law, complain with justice? Is it not the evident truth?

The apostle turns now to a discussion of the working of the law, and the discovery which the renewed man makes of no good thing in him, that is, in his flesh. It is one set free reflecting on his state when under law. “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal,22 sold under sin.” (Ver. 14.) Thus it is opened by the technical expression of christian knowledge, and this inwardly. But the soul is shut up to a sense of its own overwhelming evil. Only observe it is the bitter sense of bondage to sin, and not the love of sin. Still, though it is one born again, there is no strength whatever. “For what I work out I know (or, own) not, for not what I wish I do, but what I hate this I am doing. But if what I do not wish this I am doing, I agree to the law that [it is] good; but now [it is] no longer I that work it out, but the sin that dwelleth in me.” (Ver. 15-17.) It is no small anguish for the soul to feel, who had thought that to be forgiven was all, and that after this nothing but light and joy remained. And now to find oneself weighed down by a constant inward dead weight of evil, to prove experimentally that one is a slave to sin, effort only making it manifest, is a distress as grave as it is unexpected. He learns, however, that it is not himself that loves sin, for he really hates it. Sin is there, and it is not himself now, as he learns even in this painful experience. But what a wretched state! what slavery!

It is evident that the state described is not that of deliverance; it is not therefore the normal state of the Christian, but one of transition. The reader will be perhaps as pleased as I with the substance of the following note, which I did not expect from Doddridge. “The apostle here, by a very dexterous turn, changes the person and speaks as of himself. This he elsewhere does (Rom. 3:6; 1 Cor. 10:30; chap. 4:6) when he is only personating another character. And the character here assumed is that of a man, first ignorant of the law, then under it, and sincerely desiring to please God, but finding to his sorrow the weakness of the motives it suggested, and the sad discouragement under which it left him; and last of all with transport discovering the gospel, and gaining pardon and strength, peace and joy by it. But to suppose he speaks all these things of himself or the confirmed Christian — that he really was when he wrote this epistle — is not only foreign but contrary to the whole scope of his discourse, as well as to what is expressly asserted, Rom. 8:2.”

It is a question of power coming in, not of will; for he is supposed to will the contrary, but alas! does what he wills not. Thus the moral character of both natures is made plain. The flesh never goes along with the moral judgment and desire of the renewed man while under law. But it is well to observe that there is another discussion in verses 18-20 leading to the same result and closing similarly, only with greater emphasis personally in its course. “For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, no good dwelleth; for to will is present with me, but to work out the good [is] not; for I am not doing good which I wish; but evil which I wish not, this I do. But if what I wish not, this I am doing, [it is] no longer I that work it out, but the sin that dwelleth in me.” (Ver. 18-20.)

It is a renewed “I,” but obliged to feel that it is powerless. The hated evil continually gains the day, and the good that is acknowledged and valued slips through undone — a dreadful lesson, yet the truth of our nature, wholesome and needful to learn. Grace turns it to excellent account, and ere long, if there be simplicity and subjection of heart through the Holy Ghost to Christ.

In all the previous process it is striking to see how totally eclipsed is every object and power of faith. It is throughout self, though not self indulged and gratified, but self proving to itself intense cause of misery and disappointment. Christ in the end becomes all the more welcome; and the deliverance is of grace, not activity of self, through Him. After this activity in the energy of the Spirit can safely follow: before it, if possible, it would only veil the knowledge of self from us, and so far hide the truth and foster both self-love and self-righteousness.

It will be observed too, how admirably the apostle, while asserting fully the new place which grace gives by our having part with Christ in His death, guards the law from all impeachment. Let the Jew be ever so sensitive, God’s honour is safe; and it was not Paul who forgot or wounded it, whatever the adversaries of the gospel averred. As the law was not sin, so it was not death. The entire fault lay in man’s sin, not in God’s law. The converted feel this and cleave to the law, let it be ever so peremptory and painful. But it never does nor can deliver; on the contrary, it demonstrates the abject, thorough, hopeless bondage to sin in which our nature is held — the more felt, the more the sanctity of the law is owned. Under law, therefore, the renewed soul finds peace impossible. Impossible in this state to do anything but condemn oneself. This is true and good as far as it goes, but it is not the christian state, though it is the condition in which Christians must find themselves till they know deliverance from their state of sin, and not the forgiveness of their sins alone.

We see progress before full sense of emancipation comes. It is in the second discussion, not the first, that the soul is represented as saying “in me, that is, in my flesh, no good dwelleth.” The distinction of the new nature from the old becomes more apparent, though power is still wanting. The next verses show us how the misery is brought to a crisis, but through grace to a close.

Verses 21-23 furnish the conclusion from the discussion we have seen doubly pursued. “I find then the law for me wishing to do the right thing that evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God according to the inner man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.” Guilt is not the matter in hand, but power, or rather the total absence of it; so that, with the best possible dispositions and desires, all ends in captivity to sin, though it is now hated. It is not the soul in the death and darkness of nature, but renewed. God is loved, evil abhorred; but the soul finds itself powerless either to give effect to the one or to avoid the other. There is progress notwithstanding, sad as the experience is still, and slow as the soul itself may be, to realize or allow it. Hence, he now speaks of the opposition he finds in his members, the law of sin that is there. There is a growing sense of distinctness, as well as of internal conflict. This does not give peace any more than power — far from it. As far as feeling goes, never was he more intensely miserable.

But the deepening of the darkness precedes the light of day. New light dawns when all seemed most forlorn. “Wretched man I! who shall deliver me out of this body of death?” This expression of distress, not without hope, yet bordering on despair, is the direct road to the Deliverer. The mistake was looking to himself, the humiliating process was the discovery of his own powerlessness for good however loved, against his own evil however honestly detested. All turns on the question of a Deliverer outside self. All expectation of victory over self by himself is proved to be the sheerest vanity of vanities. Another becomes the true and sole resource. Who that other is remains not for a moment an object of hesitation to the believer. The inquiry has only to be raised in order to receive the most decided and triumphant answer. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus is not alone the one ground of pardon through His blood-shedding; He is equally the Deliverer from the withering sense of death which the believer experiences when, honestly seeking to subdue his own will and work out the good he delights in and eschew the ill he hates. Broken to nothingness by the continual proof of his own failure, spite of prayer, watching, and efforts of every conceivable kind, he abandons himself as hopelessly wretched, looks out of himself inquiringly, and answers at once the demand of his soul with a song of thanksgiving for Jesus.

The Spirit of God, however, takes care at once to guard the soul, now humble and filled with praise, from the illusion that the flesh is changed for the better. Not so: the two natures retain each its own character. “Therefore then I myself with the mind serve God’s law, but with the flesh sin’s law.” (Ver. 25.) We shall see more of the deliverance itself, and its consequences, in the following chapter. Meanwhile we learn here that, if the flesh acts at all, it can only be to sin. Such is its law. Deliverance does not alter the bent of man’s nature, which is the same in all, in the Christian as in the unbeliever. Only the former, not the latter, has a new nature, deliverance in and through Christ, and the Holy Spirit as the power of enjoying his privileges and of walking accordingly, as we shall soon learn.

22 The best authorities (, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc.) read σάρκινος, not σαρκικὸς as in the received text. The difference is that the former is a confession of being mere flesh physically. So it is in 2 Cor. 3:3; Heb. 7:16, and probably in 1 Cor. 3:1 (but not in verses 3, 4, where the other form is clearly right). In Rom. 15:27; 1 Cor. 9:11; 2 Cor. 1:12; 2 Cor. 10:4; 1 Peter 2:11, it is σαρκικός, in most of which the physical idea of flesh would be out of place. In our text the difference is of some importance as corroborating the scope of the passage that the will was not engaged. Were this meant to be expressed, σαρκικὸς would be the more proper term.