By Jeff Smelser
The question concerning whom the first person pronoun represents in Romans seven has long been debated. Augustine, most Calvinists, and most commentators since Augustine take the chapter as a whole to be a description of Paul’s own state at the time that he wrote the epistle, and consequently, the state of every Christian. On the other hand, the ancient Greek commentators, Arminians, as well as a few Calvinists argue that when saying such things as “I am carnal, sold under sin ” (7:14), Paul is not talking about his own present state, but is rather describing the state of a sinner who becomes aware of his plight by the operation of law.(1)
This writer, for the most part, holds to the position which Isaiah Boone Grubbs defended in his commentary. Grubbs stated that “It has been a needless puzzle . . . to decide whether this passage is applicable to the regenerate or the unregenerate.”(2) Grubbs contended that the apostle Paul is concerned, not with the distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate, but rather “between the state of any one under a legal system without grace on the one hand, and the state under a gracious system on the other.”(3)
It will be the purpose of this article to demonstrate by means of a careful exegesis that this passage cannot be describing an inner conflict that is typical of Christians, but is rather describing the futility of attempting to achieve a righteousness under a legal system. Such a view of the passage is entirely in harmony with the rest of an epistle which teaches that, “now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested . . . even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe” (3:21-22).
In Romans 7:5, Paul writes, “For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were through the law, wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. ” Verses 7 through 25 expound on this verse, showing that under law, man could not attain righteousness and only found death. On the other hand, verse six says, “But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that wherein we were held, so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter. ” And in chapter eight, Paul picks up with this theme saying, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:1-2).
Paul’s purpose is not to discuss natures which oppose one another within the child of God. Rather in chapters seven and eight he is contrasting our state “when we were in the flesh, ” when, because of sin, we were condemned by law, with our state after “we have been discharged from the law” and our sins are cleansed by the blood of Christ. In the course of this discussion, Paul emphasizes that apart from Jesus Christ, we can not be saved even though we might desire to obey the law. This is true because we all do sin and therefore can only be condemned by the law. Therefore characterizing himself as being apart from Jesus Christ and grace, the inspired writer can say:
For I delight in the love of God after the inward man: but I see a different law in my members, warring against my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members (7:22-23).
With these things in mind, an exegesis of the passage is in order. The following outline of verses seven through twenty-five will prove helpful in studying the exegesis.
I. The Sanctity Of The Law.
A. Sinful passions are through the law (7:5).
B. This does not make the law sinful (7:7a).
1. The true function of the law is that it makes manifest sin (7:7b).
a. Law becomes the occasion of sin (7:8a).
b. For without law to define sin, there is no sin (7:8b).
c. The function of law is illustrated by its effect upon one when he first becomes responsible to it (7:9-10).
2. So it is sin that brings death, and law is only the occasion of sin (7: 11).
C. The law itself is holy, and the commandment is good (7:12).
1. It is sin, not the commandment that brought death (7:13a).
2. Thus the true nature of sin was manifested (7:13b).
II. The Carnality of Man.
A. Though, as has been demonstrated, the law is spiritual, man is sold under sin (7:14).
1. This is evidenced by the fact that a man brings about evil in spite of his desire not to do so (7:15).
a. The very fact that a man does not desire to work evil proves his consent to the goodness of the law itself (7:16).
b. The explanation for a man’s actions being contrary to the desires of his mind is that the source of sin is the sinful passions which, dwell in man (7:17-18a).
c. These sinful passions cause man to fail in his attempt to meet the requirement of law (7:18b-20).
2. The conclusion is reached that in spite of a desire to keep the law, evil is present (7:21-23a).
B. Man’s failure to keep the law brings him into captivity (7:23b).
I . Man is therefore helpless under law and cries out for a deliverer (7:24).
2. Deliverance is through Jesus Christ (7:25a).
3. Man, of himself, i.e. apart from Christ, is still sold under sin even though with the mind he desires to keep the law (7:25b).
7:7 The significance of the term law as used in this context needs to be determined at the outset. Obviously, Paul is making a direct reference to the Law of Moses, he quotes from the Decalogue. This would only seem natural in view of the rest of the epistle. However, within this chapter, Paul is not so much concerned with law “in terms of its impermanent expression in the Mosaic system” as he is with the Mosaic system as a means of legal justification.(4)
In verse five, the apostle wrote of “the sinful passions which were through the law. ” So the question arises in verse seven, “Is the law sin?” Does the fact that sinful passions are through the law mean that the law is sin? Paul answers, “May it not be!” How then is it said that sinful passions are through the law? Simply because, “I had not known sin except through the law. ” Take coveting, for example, “I had not known coveting, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”
7:8 Thus it was through the commandment that sin wrought all manner of coveting. Paul emphasizes this, saying that, “apart from the law sin is dead. ” Commenting on this passage, R.L. Whiteside explained, “As sin is lawlessness, sin would not be operative where there is no law.”(5)
7:9 Again emphasizing the necessity of the existence of law in order that sin might be manifested, and thereby demonstrating the true function of law, Paul states, “I was alive apart from the law once.- but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. ” When was Paul, or any man, ever apart from law prior to being subject to law? Whiteside answered this question, saying, “The only time Paul was without law was during the years of his childhood, before he reached the years of accountability.”(6) He later commented, “It would be interesting to hear one of those advocates of hereditary total depravity tell us when Paul was alive without the law and when he died spiritually.”(7)
One such advocate, namely, Charles Hodge, attempted to avoid the problem by saying that Paul is describing the time when he “fancied himself in a happy and desirable condition … by being alive was meant being at ease in a fancied state of security and goodness . . . .”(8) In other words, Paul didn’t mean that he at that former time had spiritual life. Rather the phrase, “I was alive apart from the law” refers to a state of blissful ignorance of the fact that he was actually guilty, and spiritually dead.
However, this explanation does not make good sense within the context. Paul speaks of having “died” as a result of having sinned. This was no mere “fancied” death. Just as it is actual spiritual death that results from sin, the life that is viewed as being in opposition to this death must be an actual spiritual life.
If therefore man is alive prior to the years of accountability, when does he die? What is meant by “the commandment came”? Again following Whiteside:
The command came to Paul when he began to realize his own individual responsibility in the matter of obeying God. Then “sin revived.” Sin sprang to life. It does not mean that sin came to life again.(9)
Whiteside’s explanation of he hamarda anezesen is confirmed by lexicographer Walter Bauer’s comment on the loss of the force of ana. He translated the phrase, “sin became alive.”(10)
7:10 So it is sin that brings death, but only insomuch as there is law. “And the commandment which was unto life, ” if it were obeyed, was ‘found to be unto death ” in that man violates law, is therefore guilty of sin, and consequently dies.
7:11 The ASV translates verse eleven, “for sin, finding occasion, through the commandment beguiled me, and through it slew me, ” whereas the KJV translates it, “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. ” Notice the difference in punctuation, and consequently, in what took place dia tes entoles (through, or by the commandment). Either construction is possible grammatically, but the latter is to be preferred contextually, for it is difficult to see how a person could be deceived through the command of God.(11)
Several, taking the former construction, have argued that this is done in that the very fact that something is forbidden by law makes it even more tempting. This concept is often paralleled to the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. J.P. Lange stated that sin “made the commandment a provocation.”(12)
It is true that the very fact that something is forbidden may make it even the more desirable to some. However, Paul is not describing only the rebellious individual, but all men under law and, as will be emphasized later, especially those who see God’s law as good and desire to stand righteous. In regard to this latter kind of man, it cannot generally be said that the forbidden status of something makes it even more tempting
Moses E. Lard interpreted the passage correctly. He wrote:
Hodge and some others would point thus: For sin taking advantage, by the precept deceived me; that is deceived me by the precept. But this is erroneous. The precept was not the instrument of deception, but the circumstance that furnished sin the advantage. The presence of the precept was a fact. Of this fact sin took advantage to deceive . . . . Now by dropping sin as personified, and substituting Satan for it; and by adverting again to the parallel of Adam, the meaning becomes clear. God said to Adam, “You shall not eat of it.” Satan now had his advantage. Accordingly, he said to the woman, “you shall not die.” This deceived her. it was the precept, then, that afforded the advantage: but the lie did the deceiving. And so in the case at hand. It was through the presence of the precept that the advantage was taken, but by some other means that the deception was effected.(13)
7:12 So then Paul concludes that indeed, “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good. ” The question, “Is the law sin?” has been answered. Yes, the sinful passions were through the law, but the law is not sin. It is holy.
7:13 It has been demonstrated that the law is good, so now the question arises, “Did then that which is good become death unto me?” Not at all. “But sin (became death unto me) by working death to me through that which is good,- – that through the commandment sin might become exceedingly sinful. ” It was not the law that wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death, but sin; “the sinful passions . . . wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (7:5).
What then is meant by “that … sin might become exceeding sinful”? Lard wrote, “by effecting my death by a just law, its (i.e., sin’s-JTS) true nature might become known.”(14) We might add that, if the law had not been just, death could have been effected through it by something not wicked. But inasmuch as the violated law is, in fact, just, the violation is shown to be “exceeding sinful.”
7:14 In verse fourteen, Paul begins to explain more explicitly how sin works death through the law.(15) “For we know that the law is spiritual. but I am carnal, sold under sin. ” Whiteside commented:
Sin is here personified, and Paul represents himself as having been sold to sin as a slave . . . . he was . . . speaking of himself as a type of all who were under the bondage of sin.(16)
Thus the fact that man is carnal explains Why he violates the spiritual law, and therefore, how death is produced. Since man is carnal, he is susceptible to fleshly desires and therefore he does not perfectly obey law.
Much of the controversy concerning whether or not Paul is speaking throughout the chapter of the experiences of one who is a child of God centers around this verse. D.M. Davies dealt with this controversy:
The language of verses 14-25 is too strong to permit of its being applied to the Christian experience …. There is no doubt that the last clause of this sentence (in vs. 15, JTS) refers to the practice of slavery. The main message of chapter six is that in Christ a man is free from sin. How then could Paul, describing a situation of tension in his Christian experience, say that he was sold under sin? Where then is the freedom from sin which he insists on in the previous chapter?(17)
So Paul’s point is not that even as a Christian, a man will constantly have inner turmoil between right and wrong, but rather that because man is carnal, he cannot stand just under a legal system.
7:15 At this point the evidence which demonstrates that “I am carnal, sold under sin ” is introduced.(18) Paul writes, “For that which I do I know not: for not what I would, that do I practice, but what I hate, that I do.”
Although he granted that the meaning “is rare,” Lard suggested “approve” rather than “know” as the proper translation of ginosko in this context, saying:
. . . to render the word know, in the present clause, is to make the Apostle, not only contradict himself, but speak like a simpleton. “For what I do, know not.” If a man know not what he is doing, he is demented.(19)
However, Whiteside responded:
Lard, with others, misses the significance of the word know. It does not mean simply to be conscious of the particular act one is performing, but also to grasp the nature and consequences of what one is doing . . . . When Paul was persecuting Christians, he was conscious of his acts, but was utterly ignorant of the nature and consequences of his deeds.(20)
Perhaps also it would help to distinguish more precisely between the words translated “do” and “practice” in order to clarify the verse. In this passage, katergazomai should be taken to mean achieve or accomplish,(21) prasso to mean do or commit,(22) and poid can be translated cause, bring about, or accomplish.(23) R.C. Trench restated the long recognized distinction between these last two words saying, “poiein brings out more the object and end of an act, prassein the means by which this object is attained.”(24)
Thus we might translate the verse: “For that which I accomplish I know not. For not what I would, that I do; but what I hate I bring about.” Now we can very easily see how one could know what he is doing, and yet perhaps not know what those actions would accomplish. We can even see how he might hate the very results that his actions bring about.
So Paul, picturing himself as under law, demonstrates that he is carnal and sold under sin in that he does things which are wrong, even though he would not do these things if he were fully aware of and convinced of the consequences of his actions. The pleasure of the moment which appeals to the fleshly side of man hides from view and ultimate consequences.
7:16 Paul again emphasizes that the law itself is good: “If what I would not, that I do, I consent unto the Law that it is good.” H.P. Liddon commented, “This opposition of his real desires to his actual conduct implies his real concurrences with the moral excellence of the Law.”(25)
7:17 In verse seventeen, Paul makes the logical inference from the preceding verse.(26) “So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me. ” The “I” refers to the mind, i.e. the inward man (see v. 22). Paul uses “a figure of speech . . . in which one member of a sentence is negative in order to emphasize the other member.”(27) Compare John 12:44: “He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me. ” The lusts of the flesh are so strong, they may cause a man to be deceived (e.g. “Ye shall not surely die”), to momentarily rationalize the irrationality of acting contrary to his mind’s desire to obey God. Since the appeal of the pleasure of the moment is to the fleshly side of man, Paul lays the blame there, not to exonerate the mind (the mind is guilty of succumbing), but in order to explain how it is that a man who desires to be righteous can still sin. Paul is not denying personal responsibility. Rather, he is still proving that even if a man desires to do the will of God, under a legal system his fleshly desires lead to inescapable death.
7:18 Paul again specifies that facet within man which influences him to sin, saying, “For I know that in me, that is in my flesh dwelleth no good thing. ” It is my fleshly side that leads me to sin. “For to will is present with me” – the “wish,” or “want,”(28) to do good exists, “but to do that which is good is not”- this “wish,” or “want,” does not always triumph over the fleshly desires; and so to always do that which is good is not a reality.
Concerning the term “flesh,” Grubbs wrote:
The term is used here not (in,-JTS) a physical but in an ethical sense, referring to the seat of the appetites – passions and lusts. “For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.”(29)
The impression should not be left that Paul is arguing that the fleshly desires always overcome the desire to do good, or even necessarily predominately. Grubbs noted that the good to which man under law cannot attain is not an occasional good deed, but “the Absolute Good, the morally perfect.”(30) This is the good that is required by law, and this is the good which does not dwell in the flesh.
Earlier it was stated that Paul is using himself to represent especially those who see God’s law as good and desire to obey it and stand righteous, but who only find death under law. All that has been said in verses fifteen through eighteen emphasizes this desire to serve God, which is “with the mind” (7:25). This concept is totally at odds with the theory of Calvinism, and “commentators who are thoroughly wedded to that theory become confused in trying to explain verses 14-23. They cannot understand how a sinner could desire to do good, or delight in any good thing.”(31)
7:19 Paul illustrates the statement made in the preceding verse by pointing out that, “the good which I would I do not: but the evil which I would that I practice.”(32)
7:20 Then, having illustrated his point, Paul again affirms that it is the fleshly side of the would-be righteous man that leads him to sin: “It is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me.”
7:21 Most commentators take law in this verse to be the principle that, “to me who would do good, evil is present.” Along this line, Lard suggests the meaning to be, “When I wish to do good . . . I find it the rule with me that evil is present.”(33)
However, the argument has been made that “ho nomos (the law, – JTS) in Paul always seems to have much more definitely the suggestion of something with legislative authority,” and therefore, Paul must still be referring to the Law of Moses in this verse.(34)
Walter Gutbrod discusses nomos as used by Paul and contradicts this conclusion, saying that at times, Paul “uses nomos in a fig. sense. In this case it is mostly found with a corresponding gen. or a word of explanation.” He cites nomos pisteas (law of faith -JTS) in Romans 3:27 as an example and then adds, “In R. 7:21 we do best to take nomos fig. The content of this nomos is then the fact that evil is present with me when I seek to do good. This rule is called a ‘law’ because there is no evading its validity.”(35)
Whiteside’s demand that nomos refers to the law of Moses “when not restricted by other words”(36), fails to acknowledge that in verse 21, nomos is indeed restricted by other words, namely, “that to me who would do good, evil is present.”
7:22 Verse 22 makes clear how in the preceding verses, Paul could say “it is no more I that do it.” The “I” that is not the source of desire to sin is the inward man: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but . . .
7:23 . . . I see a different law in my members,” that is, in my fleshly members, or sinful passions.(37) The different law is the law of sin (v. 25) which wars against what is good and desired by the mind. When the mind succumbs to fleshly desires, man sins and stands guilty under law. In such a state man has been brought into captivity; he is sold under sin, all because he is carnal.
7:24 Paul utters the helpless exclamation “of the man whom sin and law have brought to despair.”(38) “Wretched man that I am, ” because I am incapable of obeying law perfectly and therefore, sold under sin and brought into captivity under law. It must be emphasized that this is not the cry of the apostle Paul who is saved by grace. This is the cry of a man who is apart from grace. “Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?”
7:25 The deliverance comes. Man can find freedom from the law of sin through Christ. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
After bringing the grace of God into the picture as the means of deliverance, Paul again turns his attention to man’s state apart from grace: “So then I of myself with the mind, indeed serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. ” Not simply, douleo (I serve), nor even ego … doule5 but autos ego … douleo, translated “I of myself . . . serve” (ASV, RSV) or “I myself . . . serve” (KJV, NASB, NIV, NUB). The emphasis is on what a man can achieve himself, i.e., without Christ. Such a man may with the mind desire to serve God, but the flesh leads him to sin. Thus he serves the law of sin, i.e. he is a bond servant, a slave of sin, incapable of escaping death. In this manner, in the last sentence of the chapter, Paul sums up what he has been saying in verses 14-23.
The point of this chapter is not to describe the constant war against temptation that must be waged even by the individual who is in Christ, other passages do that. The point of this chapter is to describe the hopelessness of man’s condition apart from Christ. Then chapter eight describes the salvation found in Christ.
10. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 53.
34. W. Robertson Nicoll, gen. ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint ed., 1976). Vol. 2: St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, by James Denney.
35. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. gen. eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967; reprint ed., 1977), Vol. 4: A-N, “nomos, ” by Walter Gutbrod.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 19, pp. 586, 598-601
October 6, 1983