III.6. Romans 7:7-25. The Function and Failure of the Law.
The somewhat confused passage just dealt with, in which several moral ideas and metaphors are struggling for the mastery, is followed by a famous passage of luminous power in which St. Paul expounds, with a profound insight into human nature, the function and failure of law.
The close alliance into which St. Paul constantly puts 'the law' with the reign of sin, an alliance hardly suggested by any other New Testament teacher, suggests inevitably the idea that St. Paul, like the later Gnostics, regarded the law itself as 'sin,' that is, as owing its origin to the power of evil and working for its ends. Such an idea he of course repudiates. But all the same it is law, written or proclaimed, and law only, which both awakens the sense of sin in man and stimulates sin itself to put forth its power. Let me take myself, we may imagine St. Paul as saying (for the 'I' of this passage is very far from being strictly autobiographical), as representing man in his moral history. I was alive apart from any law once. That is to say, I lived as suited me best, according to my instincts, asking no moral questions and troubled by no scruples. And all this time sin, considered as a moral tyrant, was as if dead. I had no defined moral ideal and consequently no struggle and no failure. Then comes the law with its 'You shall not covet' (or do this or that). It imposes limits in the name of God on my life of instinct. It cries 'Hands off!' At once I find opposition between me and the law. I do covet this and that which the law says I must not have. I find myself in the eye of the moral law a transgressor. And there is something more than my own lawless desire in opposition to the law. I become conscious of a great power of sin at work in the world and in me — something greater than myself, which intervenes in the struggle and reinforces the opposition to the law. The tyrant Sin rouses himself on the pretext afforded by the hostile commandment, and exercises his power both by stimulating my desires, like Eve's (ver. 8), and deceiving my intelligence, like hers, to believe that good is evil (ver. 11), and so brings me by means of the commandment into a state of flat disobedience to the law, which is death. For the law was given for life — 'This do, and you shall live'; but there is the necessary converse — 'This transgress, and you shall die' (vers. 7-11).
The law then, it is quite plain, is the expression of the will of God. And the particular commandment is holy and righteous and good. Is the good then my poison? No. But what has happened is this — the expression of the good in the law has brought the tyranny of sin out into the light. It had me in its power before, but I did not know it and I did not struggle. But as soon as the law aroused in me the beginning of moral consciousness, sin used the commandment as its knife to kill me; and so showed its hideous character — which indeed it was the divine intention to uncloak by means of the law (12-13).
For this it is that we must recognize as the true state of the case. On the one hand a spiritual law proclaimed over me. On the other hand a man who in virtue of my fleshly nature have been sold to be a slave of sin, and who as a slave find myself doing acts by force of circumstances, the true nature of which I do not understand, and which, so far from choosing, I hate (vers. 14, 15). For I am not only of this fleshly nature; I have also a conscience which responds to the claim of the law and recognizes it as right. But my wish to obey the law is not strong enough to carry my flesh with it. Thus my actual practice is in flat contradiction to the ideal of my choice. But from now onmy will is on the side of the law, and myself is in my will. What runs so uncontrollably to evil is, it appears, not myself at all, but the alien tyranny of sin which has taken possession of me and made my flesh its haunt and instrument — the haunt and instrument of evil only and not of good. So I can only wish good and practise evil, and become more and more conscious that I am not my own master. The law of God, accepted by my will, becomes the law of my mind or inner being; but when I seek to impose it on my limbs and act accordingly, I find another law — the law of the tyrant Sin — holding sway in my lower nature; my authority is defied and I myself am dragged in humiliating captivity to sin in my lower nature (vers. 16-23). My body has become the death of my spirit. It is my prison-house. I cry out in my misery for deliverance. And it is this deliverance which I praise God for having given me through Jesus Christ our Lord. (By union with Him my higher self is reinforced, and I can control my lower nature and become my own master.) But in my isolated, unassisted self, the best that I can get to is a flat contradiction between the service of the law of God in my mind and the service of sin in my flesh (vers. 24, 25).
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. However, I had not known sin, except through the law: for I had not known coveting, except the law had said, You shall not covet: but sin, finding occasion, created in me through the commandment all manner of coveting: for apart from the law sin is dead. And I was alive apart from the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died; and the commandment, which was to life, this I found to be to death: for sin, finding occasion, through the commandment beguiled me, and through it slew me. So that the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good. Did then that which is good become death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might be shewn to be sin, by working death to me through that which is good; — that through the commandment sin might become exceeding sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I know not: for not what I would, that do I practise; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I would not, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not. For the good which I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I practise. But if what I would not, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the law, that, to me who would do good, evil is present. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then I myself with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
St. Paul, as has been said, is constantly in his epistles of this period stating briefly or alluding to the failure of 'the law' to supply man with the moral strength needed to live a good life at peace with God. Thus: 'The power of sin is the law.' 'As many as are of the works of the law are under a curse.' 'The letter (the written law) kills.' 'Through the law comes the knowledge of sin.' 'The law works wrath.' 'The law came in beside, that the trespass might abound.' The first of these sayings, occurring as it does altogether out of apparent connection with the context, shows us as clearly as anything could how full of the idea his mind was. But only here, in this chapter, does he open his heart to us to show us the experience on which such a strange and original conclusion was based.
We can imagine a youth of intensely susceptible moral and religious nature like Saul of Tarsus passing out of the home of his boyhood into the school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem. The one subject of instruction there was 'the law' — the divine law which was the pride of Israel's race — in all the grand severity of its moral requirement and in all the complexity of its ritual regulations. It was the one topic. And all about him he saw the Pharisees building up the fabric of a meritorious life before God out of their observances. Now, no doubt the most easily self-satisfied Pharisees made much of the principle of compensation — that 'obedience to certain laws' (e.g. the law of the sabbath or 'the law of fringes') 'was as good as obedience to the whole.' The Pharisee of our Lord's parable who went up to the temple to pray, satisfied himself because he observed certain practices beyond the requirements of the law. Our Lord bears witness that the Scribes and Pharisees paid tithe of mint and anise and cummin — traditional extensions of the law — and omitted the weightier matters, judgement, mercy, and faith, yet were righteous in their own eyes. On the other hand, the maxim of St. James, 'Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all,' was a commonplace of the Jewish schools.
There can be no doubt that it must have been the severer teaching that fastened upon young Saul's mind. He acknowledged himself a 'debtor to keep the whole law.' And in ritual detail, though no doubt the effort required was immense, he managed to be 'blameless.' But in the weightier and deeper matters it was not so. The moral law, enforced and commented upon, continually confronting him with its 'You shall not,' brought to light in him the fact of sin — in desire, we should gather, rather than in act or word. The law said 'You shall not covet' (or lust). And Saul said, 'But I do lust after this and that and the other. My heart and my desires are not in harmony with the law. No, the very fact that the law prohibits it seems to make my wrong desire stronger.' So the whole Pharisaic idea of a moral life — the standing over against God and building up a fabric of merits — seemed to be unsatisfactory. The fabric in his own case was full of internal rottenness. It would not bear severe examination. Moreover he could not but observe the lives of those around him who were so well satisfied with their moral edifices, and he recognized that their satisfaction was due to nothing but hypocrisy or shallowness. As he went later to Jewish settlements in various centres, he saw always the picture of a life fair in its own eyes and rotten in fact. His general experience of Jewish life is summed up strongly enough in the second chapter of this epistle. Thus he drew the conclusion that the law could not be really kept — it was only possible to keep it by means of evasions and compensations which made it worse than useless.
Meanwhile there was forming itself in Saul's mind the conviction that the whole attitude of the Pharisees towards God was false. They lived as if God had made a contract or covenant with them, and within the terms of this covenant man could deal with God on an independent basis. God must keep to His covenant and not augment it or change it. And on their side the people of God under the covenant had nothing to do but to keep their part of the bargain and claim their reward with a conscious and proper pride in the merits of their race and of themselves. This was exactly the spirit in which they rejected Jesus as the Christ, as it was also exactly this spirit which He had chosen for His sternest denunciations. But all this idea of merits, all this boasting, must have come to seem to Saul's mind monstrously untrue to the real fundamental relation of man to God. For who makes you to differ? and what have you, O Jew, that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast yourself as if you hadst not received it? Thus St. Paul's training must not only have made him feel that he could not satisfy himself in keeping the whole law; but it must also have convinced him that law itself as a principle, law as understood and represented among the orthodox Jews, was fundamentally and permanently incompatible with the real relation of man to God. There were many elements in the Old Testament, notably in the Psalms, in which a quite different relation of man to God was indicated — a relation of meek trust as of a son to a father, and of penitence and dependence and peace. But in the teaching St. Paul had received, the law, the legal covenant of man and God, which suggested a quite different moral attitude, was the essential element; and that, we must suppose, he felt increasingly sure was a foundation on which he could not stand.
No doubt these deep questionings about the law, and the growing misery accompanying them, made him at first all the more zealous for it. No doubt they explain his fanaticism against the Christians. No doubt his 'kicking against the goad' represents the rebellion of his heart against anything which seemed to threaten the position of the law of his fathers, and especially against the utter upheaval of foundations involved in accepting for Christ Him whom the leaders of his people had rejected and caused to be crucified. But when he had effected the great transition, when he had found in Jesus Christ all that satisfied his deepest instincts about God and his deepest desires for union with Him, his old experience of the law took shape in a profound theory of its place in the divine education of the human race. Ultimately man is meant to be in such close and harmonious relations to the divine Spirit that he should both know what is right and do it by an inner light and power. But an outward written law was a necessary prelude to this; and that in the main because sin — individual sins and the long tradition of sin — had hardened men's consciences and blinded their eyes, and the divine law as proclaimed through the conscience had become in consequence either utterly inadequate or had even been silenced altogether. A written law therefore, peremptory and explicit, and announcing its sanction in definite penalties, was needed to teach men anew what God really required. It was given in such a mode as threw men on their own independent moral strength, and by that very fact convinced the best among them of their inward weakness and sin; while to many more it appeared rather as involving an impossible effort — as 'a yoke which neither they nor their fathers were able to bear.' In either case it was their 'tutor to bring them to Christ' — with His teaching of God, not as a taskmaster, but as a Father, righteous indeed, but still more loving. And if there were others again, shallow or worthless men, whom the law simply hardened in the superficial self-righteousness of mere 'observances,' or the worst sort of religious hypocrisy, that was only another way of demonstrating its inadequacy. It left the world to choose between the Pharisees and Christ as representing real righteousness.
This 'doctrine of the law' involves both its necessary function and its failure. There can be indeed to no thoughtful mind any doubt as to its necessary function. Conscience, individual and social, is continually going to sleep. It may be taken quite for certain that if Christ were among us in manifest power by His Spirit to-day — as He ought to be in the Church — our society as a whole would be smitten anew with a sense of sin, and not least of social sin. Our familiar excuses for our selfish indulgence of our lusts, for our weak surrenders to passion and impulse, for our commercial dishonesties, for our failures to carry righteousness into politics, for our social injustices, for our selfishness and luxury, for our scamped and half-hearted work — the familiar pleas of commercial or physical necessity, or political exigencies, or lack of knowledge, or absence of responsibility, or the influence of heredity — would dry up and wither on our lips under the powerful glare of the divine 'letter' — You shall, You shall not. God has not 'given any man license to sin,' He has given no man exemption from the trouble or the suffering or the loss involved in doing right. The obligation is peremptory to be just, to be merciful, to be honest, to be self-denying, to be pure. And if we do not care to take the trouble to be so, the only alternative is to have Christ for our adversary, and find at last the horrible depth of meaning which His words contain — 'Thus and thus have you made void the word of God by your tradition.' 'Inasmuch as you did it not, depart, you cursed, into eternal fire!' 'It is good for you to enter into the kingdom of God maimed or halt or with one eye, rather than having two hands or feet or eyes to be cast into hell, where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched.' These and the like words are metaphorical — but metaphors which are intended to teach the heart only the more vividly because they are metaphorical.
Indeed, in each age, and therefore in ours, most fertile of excuses, we need the letter to kill us; the stern, outward, unmistakable announcement of God's will to assure us that God does not change with our whims or feelings, and cannot accommodate Himself to immoral necessities. In each age, and therefore in ours, most capable of moral self-deception, we need continual and forcible reminders that a quiet conscience is no adequate guarantee of agreement with God, unless we have taken pains to keep our conscience enlightened by meditating on the divine word.
And if St. Paul's account of the function of 'the law' is true, so also is his account of its necessary failure. It is obviously true if you confine 'the law' to meaning what in the tradition of the Pharisees it had come to mean, or what in his ideal way of thinking St. Paul defined it to mean — that is, not the whole Old Testament with its anticipations in prophecy and psalm of the temper of sonship and its evangelical forecasts of the new covenant, but bare precept, expressing externally and unmistakably the will of God. Mere law, instructing men truly and searchingly as to God's requirement in thought as well as word and deed, instructing men and challenging them, and doing nothing more, is so manifestly incomplete an expression of God's relation to man, quite apart from all question of its ritual elements, that it can in the nature of things serve only a temporary purpose in the conscience, by leading us to a truer knowledge of Him who terrifies indeed, but only in order to reassure, and kills but only in order to raise to life again.
At this point it is necessary to answer the two much-disputed questions — and it is possible to do it briefly — Is St. Paul, in giving this summary of moral experience, speaking 'of himself or of some other man'? and — Is the struggle described in verses 14-24 to be regarded as occurring without or within the frontiers of the regenerate state?
There is no doubt that St. Paul must be in part really describing an experience through which he passed. He was really, we may imagine, 'alive without the law once' in the sense that he was brought up a happy Jewish child, under the law but not deeply feeling the terror of its claims, until he was growing towards the 'independent' period of life and found himself confronted with its requirements in detail. There need be no doubt that he is speaking of some experience of his own when he alludes, here as elsewhere, to the deceitfulness of sin; and when he describes the two stages of moral progress — the first, in which the conscience of the man is awakened to recognize that his habitual practice is not in any full sense controlled by his reason and will; and the second, in which the will is deliberately enlisted on the side of good, and the man only made thereby the more conscious that his will is in no real control of his actions, but that he is the captive of the alien power of sin. In some sense, though St. Paul does not give us the materials for saying exactly in what sense, he must have passed through these stages of experience. He must have really felt himself the slave of sin, though the sin was of a sort which left him, 'as touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.' He must have felt that he could not do what he ought; and the bitterness of his persecuting zeal may have been in part the reflection of this sense of impotence.
And so far as St. Paul is speaking of himself, there can be no shadow of doubt that the state of conflict lay almost wholly outside his conversion and regeneration. It was 'prevenient grace' — God's dealing with him before he acknowledged Christ — that set his will so strongly to desire and approve the right; and his new personal faith in Jesus, and the might of the Spirit of Jesus to whom he became united, gave him the power to do what he had so long and so ineffectually been willing. This was his experience, and he bears witness to it. Even though he would have made no claim to sinlessness after his conversion, yet the sense of sin which possessed him so strongly, which made him call himself 'not worthy to be called an apostle,' 'less than the least of all saints,' and 'chief of sinners,' was in the main a memory of what was past. The present sense was the consciousness of power in Christ. It is inconceivable that St. Paul should describe himself, while a Christian, as 'sold under sin.' And it was an idea of human corruption quite different from St. Paul's which prevented Augustine and Calvin from recognizing that either a pious Jew, or a Gentile which had not the law, could be moved by the divine Spirit to 'rejoice in the law of God after the inner man' (ver. 22), quite independently of any knowledge of Christ.
But if St. Paul is in a real measure autobiographical in this passage, there is no reasonable doubt that he is not merely so. He has generalized his experiences to represent the moral experiences of the race. The 'I' is the human individual in general. Thus 'alive without the law,' if it can in a certain sense describe what St. Paul had once been, describes much better the state of men — Greeks and Romans, or men all the world over 'before the law came' — who had an easy social standard and lived natural lives without any troublesome moral ideals, and were wholly unvisited by conscientious scruples or the terrors of the divine holiness. Upon such men comes the severer knowledge of the righteousness of God through the teaching of some prophet or founder of religion. It may come to men collectively in a nation or group, and result in some general movement of conscience. Or it may come to an individual through some circumstance which confronts him with a higher moral claim than he has ever faced before — through the example of a friend, through a book or a sermon. To many in St. Paul's day the synagogues, where 'Moses had in every city them that preached him,' had been the means of their awakening to the moral claim of God. And whenever men are thus confronted with the divine law of righteousness, in a more or less perfect form and with more or less of impressiveness laying its prohibitions upon them — 'You shall not do this or that' — if they do not harden their hearts to it, they pass through the stages of experience which St. Paul has so admirably idealized. There is that in them which the prohibitions of the divine law stimulates into antagonism. They become conscious of a power which beguiles or cheats them into breaking the law; they awake to the sense of sin and failure to do God's will, and find that they are not their own masters, but are drifting under the impulse of what is not themselves. There awakens in them the conscience and will to approve and choose what is right, and with that a 'self-contempt bitterer to drink than blood,' as they realize that though they approve and choose the right they cannot do it. Thus the conviction is strengthened that their true selves are on the side of God and right, and that which holds them captive is an alien tyranny which has got its lodgement in their lower nature.
This is the psychological moment for the arrival of the gospel. The man who simply desires the right and is paralyzed by his own impotence to realize it in his own strength, out of the depth of his despair learns that God is not a taskmaster and judge, but a Father; that He is not his adversary, but is on his side; that if he will simply surrender himself to the divine love, as it is made evident in Christ, all his past failures and sins are as if they had never been, and for the future God will not teach him from outside and leave him to struggle alone, but will work in him to will and to do His good pleasure. Then the sense of moral impotence may pass into the sense of power in Christ. And in proportion as any man's actual life-history, or the history of any group of men, corresponds to this ideal sketch, the period of moral struggle and failure may fall in the main outside the regeneration and new life in Christ.
But, almost from the beginnings of Christianity, and increasingly as Christianity has become popular, men have been 'christened' in infancy or in mature life without the moral issue having been defined or the moral will awakened. An ordinary Englishman, for example, is baptized in infancy. This means that he is actually regenerate and introduced into the body of Christ. In rare cases he is so brought up as to realize this, and corresponds so willingly with the teaching that he lives the life of the regenerate from the first, and never, except in a very refined form, knows the sense of impotence or passes through the period of hopeless struggle. He has never found God's commandments grievous. But in most cases there is no such pains taken to enlighten the young conscience, or no such readiness of correspondence. The man lives as his surroundings suggest — a decent enough life, very likely, and more or less honourable, but never in face of the full divine law. And such an one is 'alive without the law.' For him all the experiences St. Paul describes are still to come, inside the circle of his actual regeneration. And they may be very gradual and slow, and may repeat themselves, more or less, innumerable times. St. Paul's is an ideal picture; but the intended issue is always the same. When we find ourselves saying, 'To will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not,' we may be quite certain that we are not realizing the power of our new birth. We are as men whom God has as yet only externally visited. We are conscious of our own weakness and of the strength of evil; but not of the third force, stronger than either ourselves or the power of evil, which is at our disposal if we will draw upon it. What is needed is a deliberate and whole-hearted realization that we are in Christ and Christ is in us by His Spirit; an unconditional surrender of faith to Him: a practice, which grows more natural by exercise, of remembering and deliberately drawing by faith upon His strength in the moments of temptation and not merely upon our own resources. 'In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth I will do thus and thus.' So we too may form like St. Paul the habit of victory. We too may cry in sober earnest 'It is no longer I that live (in my naked self), but Christ that lives in me.' 'I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.'
When that sense of struggle or failure which St. Paul describes occurs, as is generally the case with us traditional Christians, in the process of our awakening to the knowledge of the new birth, we may in a sense say that the struggle is part of the process of regeneration; but the word 'regeneration' best describes, not a process, but a single divine act upon us and in us, and this single divine act is consistently identified in the New Testament with our baptism, though it is only realized by our moral conversion when we awake to claim the privileges of our new life.
There are two smaller points which claim notice.
We are reminded by the way in which St. Paul speaks of sin, in this and other passages — as a force or power greater than the individual man, which possesses him and dominates him through his lower nature — and especially by the consciousness which he betrays of its 'beguiling' power, that he believed in personal agencies of evil. 'Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood (merely), but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.' Particularly it is in the deceitfulness of sin that St. Paul realizes what one must call the personal character of the evil power. He is profoundly conscious that there makes itself heard in temptation a voice as of a person which lies to us, as it lied to Eve, as to the true character of the suggested action; and when we have been deceived and seduced, and have done the deed, and its real character has become apparent, 'the tempter' turns round upon us with the grin of unmasked malevolence. Is there any one who can really dissociate from his own spiritual experience this idea of the tempter and the deceiver?
We do well to remember in reading this passage the meaning of the recurring word 'law.' In modern English it has come to mean the principle or method observable in anything. Such and such a thing, we say, exhibits such and such a law, i.e. acts constantly in such and such a way. It is natural therefore for us to read this meaning into the word in verse 21, as in the Authorized Version, 'I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me,' i.e. I find that this is what constantly happens. But the Greek word, as used in the Old and New Testaments, does not bear any meaning like this. It means always the injunction or set of injunctions imposed by a law-giver. In this passage it is used seven times of the divine (Mosaic) law. When the will accepts this law and would impose it on the lower nature, it becomes 'the law of the mind,' i.e. the law which the mind enjoins (verse 23). With this conflicts 'the law of sin,' 'the different law,' which sin or the evil one would impose and which has gained actual sway 'in our members.' We must then interpret verse 21 in harmony with this use, and taking the sentence to be a broken one, translate, as the margin of the Revised Version, 'I find then, in regard of the law, that, to me who would do good, evil is present.'
 'I was myself in both [flesh and spirit], but more myself in what I approved than in what I disapproved.' — Augustine, Confessions, viii. 5.
 Rather, as margin, 'I find then in regard of the law': see below, p. 269.
 Cf. 1 Cor. xv. 56; Gal. iii. 10; 2 Cor. iii. 6; Rom. iii. 20; iv. 15; v. 20.
 See J. B. Mayor in The Epistle of St. James (ii. 10), p. 86.
 Gal. v. 3.
 Phil. iii. 6.
 It is disappointing, I think, that the grave appeal to the Church as regards social duty, made by the bishops assembled at Lambeth last year in commending to the notice of us all the report of their Committee on Industrial Problems, has received such scant attention, except from a certain group of Churchmen who were already occupied with the problem. It might have been expected that this solemn appeal would have vastly widened the area of attention.
 'Inter regenerandum.' St. John will not speak of a wilful sinner as truly 'begotten of God,' 1 John iii. 9; v. 18, &c.
 See Dale, quoted in Ephesians, p. 86.
 Eph. vi. 12.
 Cf. 2 Thess. ii. 9-11: 'The working of Satan with all ... deceit of unrighteousness ... a working of error, that they should believe a lie.' 2 Cor. xi. 14: 'Satan fashioneth himself into an angel of light.' 1 Tim. ii. 14: 'The woman being beguiled has fallen into transgression.' Cf. Heb. iii. 13: 'The deceitfulness of sin.'
 It never appears to be used, as in classical Greek, for 'custom,' either in LXX or N.T.
From St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I A Practical Exposition by Charles Gore D.D. Reprinted in 1900. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
To the Romans, vol I - C. Gore
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.