"As I see it, and explain at length in my exposition, the greatest cause of trouble is to become obsessed by the so-called ‘man of Romans 7’, and to approach the entire chapter, as a consequence, from the standpoint of Christian experience." —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
"It is a small and narrow mind that is afraid to change; it is a sign of greatness that one is prepared to admit at times that one has been mistaken, and that therefore you have had to change your position." —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
"[W]e must approach this matter with care, and above all, with great humility. Nothing is quite so bad and reprehensible as a party spirit. Whatever party we belong to, or whatever views we may hold, a party spirit is always wrong. Our great concern should be the Truth. Of necessity, we all hold a particular point of view and adhere to some system of doctrine. We cannot avoid doing so. People who say that they do not hold to any particular system, and that they are ‘just biblical’, are simply confessing that they have never really understood the teaching of the Bible. But though we may find ourselves, in general, following a certain line of exposition, a particular school of thought and of teaching, a particular view of dogmatic theology, we must never allow that to turn into a party spirit. Though this is true of us, we must come to every particular statement of the Scripture with an open mind; we must try to discover what the Scripture is saying, because no system is perfect, and at particular points even the best system may have certain defects. No system worked out by man ever has been, or ever will be perfect. Therefore, though we are governed in general by certain views, that does not mean that we must slavishly follow in every detail what has generally been taught by that particular school of thought. We must always be honest, we must seek earnestly for ‘the unction of the Holy Spirit’, we must realize that no teachers in the Church have had a complete monopoly of Truth. We must realize that at certain points the best systems can be somewhat defective because they are human products. So we approach this section of Scripture with great humility, with great carefulness and concern, and yet without a prejudiced mind.
As we approach this problem we are confronted by two possible procedures. One is for me to outline immediately the view I hold of this section, and then, as we come to the particular statements, to proceed to prove that this is the correct view. But I have rejected that way of approach because I believe there is another method which is not only better in itself, but also more Scriptural. It is the method we have hitherto adopted and is as follows.
First, let us look at the particular statements as if we held no view with respect to the whole section; let us try to discover what each statement says, and then, having arrived at what seems to be the meaning of each particular part, let us gather all together and try to arrive at a conclusion.
That is undoubtedly the better method, the method to be followed in any realm and department of thought. It is always right to listen to the evidence before you give a verdict. He is a very poor judge who starts with his verdict, and then proceeds to turn down everything that opposes it, instead of listening first to all the arguments, and giving them their full value. And any ordinary fair-minded man would follow the same procedure. As Christians, we should know the terrible danger of prejudice, and how it has so often led to rancour, wrangling, a bitter party spirit, and even cruelty and war, in the long history of the Church. It behoves us, therefore, more than anyone to adopt this second method. So we shall proceed to take this passage in the way in which we have approached so many other passages of Scripture. We shall adopt the inductive method and work up to a conclusion." —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
It is generally agreed that most of the Fathers of the Church, during the first three centuries, regarded these verses as being a description of the unregenerate man. That is just a fact of history.
Let us now take a somewhat closer view of the argument. What is the main thrust of the section? What is the Apostle really concerned to do here? We start with the word ‘For’, with which verse 14 opens. Never has this word been more important than at this point; because it tells us that Paul is not introducing an entirely new section here, not starting upon a new subject; he is continuing with the previous one. This section is an elaboration and a further and a deeper exposition of what he has already been saying. The next term settles that once and for ever. ‘For’, he says, ‘we know’. What do we know? ‘That the law is spiritual’. In other words, from verse 14 and onwards the Apostle is still dealing with the Law and its functions, as has been the case from the 1 st verse of this chapter. That is still the theme; he has not finished with the Law, he has not finished with his exposition with regard to the Law and its function.
I am suggesting, therefore, that from this 14th verse to the end of the chapter Paul is still dealing with the same major theme that has occupied him from the beginning of the chapter. He is answering the charge brought against him with respect to his teaching concerning the Law. And we have seen that there were two main charges brought against his teaching, and two subsidiary charges. The general charge was that he was dismissing the Law altogether, and saying that the Law was of no value at all. That charge he answers in the first six verses. But in doing so he seems to be saying two things about the Law to which certain people objected. The first is conveyed in verse 7. ‘What shall we say then? Is the law sin?’ That arises because in verse 5 he seemed to say that the Law was sin - ‘For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law (energized by the law), did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death’. And we have seen that from verse 7 to verse 11 Paul has been dealing with that charge and proving that the Law is not sin; it is sin itself that has so abused and twisted and misused the Law that it has produced, and led to, sin. But a second objector asks in verse 13, ‘Was then that which is good made death unto me?’ And Paul answers immediately, ‘God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.’ But he was not satisfied with that. This is always his method. In verse 7, having raised the question, ‘What shall we say then? Is the law sin?’ he replies, ‘God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law.’ Then he proceeds to expound that in the following verses. He does precisely the same here. He asks the question, ‘Was then that which is good made death unto me?’ and answers immediately in the remainder of verse 13. But he does not stop at that; he goes on to expound it: and that is what we have in verses 14 to the end of the chapter.
Or we can put it positively and say that Paul is concerned here to show his actual view of the Law, to show what the Law is in and of itself, what it was meant to do, and especially what it was not meant to do. The Law is God’s Law; it is ‘holy, and just, and good’; it was meant to do certain things, but equally clearly it was not meant to do certain other things, and it cannot do them.
That is why we have to become ‘dead to the law’ before those things can happen. I suggest that he is still concerned with that theme; and that his fundamental object in particular is to show what the Law could not do. In other words, the Apostle in this section is not primarily concerned to ‘give his experience’; he has not set out just to tell us something about himself. He is telling us and setting out before us his view of the Law - the nature of the Law, what it is meant to do, and what it is not meant to do, or the limits to the Law. In other words in this section he is, in particular, refuting the charge that he had taught in verse 5 that the Law is death or produces death. But at the same time he is showing how the Law, because of sin in man, becomes a minister of death. He had already shown this with respect to the charge that the Law is sin. He says that the Law is not sin, but because of the character of sin in man the Law aggravates sin, ‘produces it’, in a sense makes a man sin, and so brings out the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin’.
That is my suggestion as to the meaning and purpose of this section. May I offer a little proof of this at this point, before we proceed any further. Look at what the Apostle says in verses 2 and 3 of the next chapter. Verse z: ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.’ Here we find the same two thoughts again. The Law, because of sin in man, has become ‘a law of sin’, a law that aggravates sin.
It has also become a Law that produces ‘death’, or leads to death - again because of sin. So he now calls it ‘the law of sin and death’. That is the same Law of which he has been speaking since the beginning of chapter 7. He has proved that in terms of the relationship between husband and wife. Having said all he has said about it in chapter 7, in chapter 8, verse 2, he sums it up as ‘the law of sin and death’. Then to make his point doubly sure he says in verses 3 and 4, ‘For what the law could not do’ - that is what he is concerned about - ‘what the law could not do because it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (in order) that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit’. In other words I suggest that in chapter 8, verses 2, 3 and 4, he is summing up all that he has been saying in chapter 7. He seems to say, ‘Well now, there I have proved it to you; that is what I have been saying all along; that now “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” hath set us free altogether from the Law which had become to us a law of “sin and death”.’ Above all, I repeat, his original intention is to prove that the Law was never given either to justify or to sanctify us, that indeed it has become an actual hindrance in both respects, and we have to be set free and delivered from it before we can be either justified or sanctified.
I suggest, then, that that is the theme of this section. It is about the Law, what it does do, what it does not do, what it cannot do. The Apostle is not primarily writing about himself or his experience, but about the Law and the truth about the Law.
There is one other general point which I must take up - the point that is so constantly made - that here the Apostle changes the tense in which he speaks. Hitherto he has been talking about the past. He has said ‘I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.’ He is talking about the past and we have agreed that he was talking about the past. But now, says someone, here he suddenly changes his tense and he says, ‘We know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal’ - not ‘I was carnal’ - ‘sold under sin’. And he goes on in the present tense, ‘For that which I do’ - not that which I did - ‘that which I do I allow not: for that which I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I’. It is all, they say - and rightly - in the present tense. What do we say to this?
There are those who say that this settles the whole matter, and that when he says ‘I am’ he means ‘I am’, when he says ‘I do’ he means ‘I do’, and that clearly enough, he is describing his personal experience at the very time of writing. But that does not follow for a moment, and of itself does not prove anything whatsoever. If there were such a proof there would never have been the great discussion I have described, and a man like Augustine would never have changed from one position to the other. That the matter of tense does not settle the question, and that the matter cannot be disposed of so simply, can be stated in the following way. A form that is very often adopted in pleading a case, or in establishing a point, is to employ the method of speech known as the ‘dramatic present.’ This is done very often by preachers. I often use this method myself. I say to a man who puts a certain proposition to me, ‘Well now, if that is so, the position you leave me in is this’. I am putting it in the present - I do this, I say that. I am dramatizing the argument, saying, ‘Well now, this is the position in which you leave me’; and then I proceed to put it in terms of that position; ‘This is how I find myself if what you are saying is right.’ It is a very common way of establishing a point. So we are entitled to say that the Apostle here is putting this whole position in this personal and dramatic way in order to make it objective. He puts it in terms of a person and how that person finds himself, and what he finds in himself, in the light of this particular position.
In other words, all I am saying at the moment is that we must not be carried away by the notion that the mere change in the tense establishes the only possible interpretation of this particular section. And let me add that the great men who have taken the different points of view are on the whole ready to grant that what I have just been saying is a simple and well-known fact, namely, that this personalizing, this dramatic representation, is a form of expression frequently used in the Scriptures.
I am carnal, sold under sin.
But, alas, we know something else also - ‘I am carnal, sold under sin’. We have here what is, in many ways, the key statement of the whole of this section; and, as is his custom, the Apostle puts it right at the beginning, so that we may be able to understand throughout what he is saying. Here is the first fundamental and general statement. ‘Carnal’1 The word itself actually means ‘fleshy’, ‘pertaining to the flesh’, ‘fleshly’. We have already met with it several times. It is a description of man as he is by nature in contrast with the life of the spirit. The contrast is always ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’. It means man’s life as organized and lived apart from God and the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. It is really present in verse 5: ‘For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.’ You have it again in verse 6: ‘But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.’ We interpreted that as saying that‘the oldness of the letter’ is characteristic of being ‘under the law’, which is the same as being ‘in the flesh’. A man who is ‘in the flesh’ is ‘under the law’. So when he says here, ‘I am carnal’, he does not mean that the flesh which remained in him was carnal, he does not say that there was something that was still within him which was carnal; he says that he himself is carnal - ‘I am carnal’.
In Scripture the term ‘carnal’ is used in two main ways. The first is the one I have already been expounding, and which you find again, for instance, in the next chapter in verses 5-9. ‘They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit’ - mark the contrast - ‘the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh’ - these carnal and carnally minded people - ‘cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.’ Such is the common use of the term.
But there is a second use of the term ‘carnal’. We find it in the First Epistle to the Corinthians at the beginning of chapter 3. Notice how the Apostle puts it: ‘And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal?’ There Paul describes the ‘carnal’ person as one who is ‘a babe in Christ’, an immature Christian, a Christian who lacks fuller understanding. He says, ‘I could not give you the fuller truth that I would have liked to have given you, because you are still carnal’. Obviously he means that though they were born again and had become Christians, they are still ‘babes in Christ’, and so much of their thinking is still that old type of thinking. In other words he says that they were behaving as if they were still ‘carnal’. What else can he possibly mean? They are born again, and they are therefore ‘in the Spirit’; and yet he says that they are ‘carnal’. The Apostle can only mean that they are carnal in the sense that they go on thinking in the old way in which they used to think before they became spiritual.
Those are the only two uses of this word carnal that we find in the Scripture. What light does the first use throw on this statement, ‘We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal?’ Are we not already in a position to draw out an inference? This statement cannot possibly be about the mature Apostle Paul. He cannot say of himself as the Apostle who wrote this Epistle to the Romans ‘I am carnal’, if by ‘carnal’ you mean what he says it means in the next chapter, verses 5-9. But it cannot possibly carry the second use either, because that would mean that the Apostle is a mere ‘babe in Christ’, for in writing to the Corinthians he not only tells them that they are babes, and that he cannot give them the spiritual teaching which a spiritual man could give them, he also tells them in chapter 2 of that Epistle that there are other Christians of whom it can be said that they are ‘spiritual’, that they have the ‘mind of Christ’, and that ‘he that is spiritual judgeth all things’, etc. There is the type of Christian who can follow his exalted teaching; the Corinthians cannot do so because they are ‘carnal’, mere ‘babes’. It is patently clear, therefore, that the Apostle cannot possibly be saying of himself, ‘I am carnal’, in that sense.
Whatever is being taught here, therefore, we can say that this is not a statement about a man who is unregenerate, neither is it a statement about a man who is as fully developed as a Christian as anyone can possibly be in this life, and in this world. The unregenerate do not know and cannot say that ‘the law is spiritual’; and the Apostle who wrote this Epistle could not possibly be in the same condition as the Corinthians.
‘But I’ - who is this? He is someone who is ‘carnal’. Look through your Bibles as to the meaning of the word carnal; try to find something over and above what I have put before you, and then face this question. Is this a description of the Apostle Paul when he wrote this Epistle? Is it a description of a Christian man who has matured as much as it is possible for a Christian to mature and to develop while he is alive in this world? For the moment do not go further than that. This is a preliminary and a key statement. We must not rush past it. ‘I am carnal’. It is not the only thing that is true about this ‘I’; there is something further which we shall go on to consider - ‘sold under sin’. We have surely realized already that there is no glib or easy answer to the problem posed by this section. We must proceed cautiously and reverently, giving every word and statement its full value, and above all, free from a desire to assert our particular point of view. May we all seek that ‘unction’ and ‘anointing’ from ‘the holy One’, for the matter with which we are dealing is beyond the realm of grammar and intellectual dexterity.
*For the whole exposition on this passage, see D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Exposition of Romans.