Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Helplessness of the Sinner, Romans 7:7-8:4

by J. Oliver Buswell

Man has been shown to be a sinner, not only in his particular deeds of corruption, and not only in his corrupt nature considered apart from particular deeds. man has also been shown to be a sinner in his status as a member of the fallen race represented in the original sin of Adam, and represented in the act of crucifying the Son of God.
This being the case, it is of course inconceivable that mankind, or any individual mere man, could in any way compensate for human sin or offer any vindication of the moral order of God's universe. The natural man, when convicted by the Holy Spirit of God, may recognize the rightness of God's law and may earnestly wish to be in harmony with it, but the natural man stands utterly in need of both propitiation, whereby he may be justified, and enablement whereby he may begin and continue to live a holy life.
It is my conviction that the "wretched man" described by the Apostle Paul in the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans is Paul's picture of himself under conviction of the Holy Spirit, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus.
I recognize that the majority of sound Calvinistic commentaries (though not all) take this wretched man to be a picture of a born-again person undergoing a spiritual struggle. In part at least the motivation for the latter interpretation is found in the fact that anti-Calvinists and Arminian perfectionists, generally take the opposite view. On the ground that the Christian has, or may have, perfection in this life, the Arminian perfectionist is inclined to interpret the "wretched man" as undergoing a struggle prior to conversion. Although the latter is my view, at least I am not motivated by Arminian or perfectionist considerations. That the Christian is not perfect in this life, and that there are fearful struggles within the Christian life subsequent to regeneration, is made abundantly evident to me by such other Scriptures as Galatians 5:13-6:1. In the latter passage we have "the flesh" (fallen human nature) struggling against the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit contends against the flesh, so that, "You cannot do the things which you otherwise would."
Granted that the majority of the descriptive items predicated of the "wretched man" could apply to any person in any kind of spiritual struggle, whether regenerate or not, and granted that an uninstructed Christian might erroneously apply to himself every part of the description, yet there are certain particulars in the description which the Apostle Paul positively could not apply to a born-again individual. For example, the wretched man declares, "I am sold [as a slave is sold] under sin" (v.14). Paul has just said in clear language that "We are no longer slaves of sin, for the party dying [with Christ] has been justified from sin" (Romans 6:6,7). Further, the wretched man declares, "To do the good is not provided to me" (v.18b). On the contrary, Paul constantly teaches that the enablement of grace is provided to the born-again person. "No temptation has taken you but such as is common to man. God is faithful, who will not permit you to be tempted beyond your ability, but He will make with the temptation also a way of escape so that you will be able to bear it" (I Corinthians 10:13). "I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me" (Philippians 4:13).
There are other details in the description which apply much more accurately to the lost man under conviction than to the regenerate men, but these two points seem to me sufficiently conclusive.
The description begins with the question of fallen man in relation to the law, "What then are we going to say? The law is sin? No indeed! On the contrary, I should not have known sin except through law. In particular, I should not have recognized lust, if the law had not said 'Thou shall not lust [Ex. 20; 17]'" (v.7).
We may well imagine Saul of Tarsus, as a brilliant young man studying in Jerusalem, examining himself by the Ten Commandments. His self-righteousness might make him immune to the condemnation of the first nine; although in the light of the interpretation given by the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, he would have stood condemned by them all. However, it was the tenth commandment which examined the motives of his heart. When the law said, "Thou shalt not have evil desires," he experienced conviction. "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). So he continues the description, "Sin took occasion through the commandment and worked up in me all kinds of lust" (v.8a).
These words are followed by a reminiscence, "Without the law sin was dead, and I was alive without the law at one time" (v.8b). When was Paul "alive without the law"? or when was he in such a condition that "sin was dead"?1 In my opinion, the only possible answer to these questions is that these words describe a stage in the youth of Saul of Tarsus. He was a young man from a good home, harmonious with the convictions of his father and his grandfather.2 He was advanced in Judaism beyond many of the young men of his own age (Galatians 1:14). We may well imagine that Saul of Tarsus at one period of his life was not at all conscious of any condemnation of the law. He was "alive" to himself within the horizon of the world in which he lived. His parents and his teachers praised him. he was well pleased with himself. The idea that the law condemned him was quite remote from his consciousness.
However, when he became vividly conscious of the tenth commandment, everything changed. "When the commandment came, sin came to live, and I died; and the commandment which is [intended] for life, even this was found in my case to be for death. Sin indeed took occasion through the commandment and deceived me; yes, through it, sin put me to death" (vv.9-11).
Paul now asks a question basic to the understanding of the atonement: Is the holy law of God to be condemned, or set aside, or nullified, because the law brings sin to light? Paul's answer is that the foregoing facts prove the opposite.
"So therefore the law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good. Is it the case then that the good proved to be death for me? No indeed! On the contrary [all this took place] in order that sin might appear to be sin by working death in me through that which is good; in order that sin, through the commandment, might prove to be supremely sinful. We know indeed that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal [i.e. my nature is that of fallen humanity]. I am sol [as a slave is sold] under [the mastery of] sin" (vv.12-14).
What could more vividly display the state of conviction in the conscience of a formerly self-righteous young man, as the holy law of God gave him an overwhelming consciousness of his sin? What could more vividly set forth the hopelessness and helplessness, the condemned situation, of fallen humanity confronted by the holy law of God?
Paul continues with a moving description of the distress of a deeply convicted but unregenerate mind. "I do not know what it is that I am working out. It is not what I choose that I am putting into practice, but what I hate, this is what I am doing. But if what I do not choose, this I am doing, I agree with the law, [I agree] that is good. But now it is no longer I who am working it out, but indwelling sin in me.
"I know that there does not dwell in me, that is, in my fallen human nature,3 anything good. Indeed, to choose the good is possible for me but to work out the good is not possible."
"Not, indeed, what I choose am I doing, that is, the good; but what I do not choose, that is, the evil, this I am practicing. But if the very thing which I do not choose is what I am doing, it is no longer I who am working it out, but sin which dwells in me.
"I find therefore the law for me as I choose to do the good, that the evil is provided to me.4
"Indeed, I take pleasure in the law of God in my inward being,5 but I find another law in my faculties, fighting against the law of my mind,6 and bringing me into captivity to [itself,] the law of sin in my faculties" (vv.15-23).
What a description of the unregenerate mind, wholly devoid of the enablement of God's grace, yet convicted by the Holy Spirit through the law, by which "comes the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).
There follows here the wail of despair, the outcry of the sinner in utter defeat, followed immediately by the irrepressible ejaculation from Paul himself as he recounts the experience. The best that the lost man could do, apart from Christ, would be to find release from his body. Death would end the struggle. But Paul cannot refrain from exclaiming that the solution is not in death but in Christ.
"Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me out of this body characterized by death?" (v.24). The very sound of the words is a wail of despair, Talaiporos ego anthropos! (v.24). The Apostle Paul after his conversion could never have spoken thus of himself. When he thought of death in any favorable manner, it was "to be with the Lord" which would be "far better" (Philippians 1:23). Paul's yearning as a Christian was not for death, but for the coming of Christ and the instantaneous immortality without death, which will be the lot of those who live until the Lord's return. (II Corinthians 5:4).
The glad ejaculation, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (v.25a) must be taken as the answer to the struggle as a whole, and not as implying that through Christ the wretched man is to be delivered out of his body. The latter interpretation would strikingly contradict Paul's teaching and the former is more natural as he draws toward the conclusion of this particular description.
Paul's conclusion of this section, as I construe the text, includes Romans 7:25b-8:4. "Is it the case then7 that I myself, in my mind serve the law of God, but in my human nature8 I serve the law of sin? There is, you see, no condemnation now to those who are in Christ Jesus, for the reason that the mode of operation9 of the life-giving spirit10 in Christ Jesus has delivered you from the mode of operation of sin and death.11 Indeed the inability of the law is in the fact that it is weak because of fallen human nature.12 God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and concerning sin, condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who carry on, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 7:25-8:4).
The words, "Sending His own Son . . . concerning sin, condemned sin in the flesh," quite definitely refer to the atonement. The phrase, "in the flesh," here designates the locus of the condemnation.13 God had condemned sin in Eden. He had condemned sin from mount Sinai. He had condemned sin from heaven. But now God in the flesh condemns sin. In the flesh Christ lived a perfect life, His "active obedience," and offered that perfect life as perfect sacrifice in His flesh on the cross. In the same body in which He suffered, He arose again from the dead. Thus in His active obedience, in His suffering obedience, and in His resurrection, God in the flesh condemned sin.
Paul's conclusion as a whole then is that the utter hopelessness of lost humanity, confronted by God's holy law, is wholly incapable of any remedy whatsoever, except by the atonement which Christ accomplished on the cross.


1 It must be remembered that "death" in the Bible never means non-existence. The person who is dead to sin is alive to God, and the person who is dead in sin is alive to himself and to the world.
2 In Paul's declaration recorded in Acts 23:6, the plural form of the word "Pharisees" in the Greek text, is significant, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees." This would probably indicate that his family had been Pharisees for two or more generations.
3 Literally, "in my flesh."
4 I have translated parakeitai in these verses both "it is possible" and "it is provided." The literal meaning of the word is "it lies at hand."
5 Literally in the "inner man." The phrase occurs in only two other passages in the New Testament, Eph. 3:16; II Cor. 4:16. The phrase is familiar in classical Greek as a reference to the non-material man in contrast to the body. See for example Plato's Republic, Book IX, Section 589, cited by Thayer.
6 Note here that "mind" explains "inner man."
7 Construe ara as interrogatory, pointing the first alpha with a circumflex. The Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon calls attention to the fact that Theodore Zahn, in his commentary on Romans, suggests that ara should be thus construed in this text.
8 Literally, "my flesh."
9 Literally, "law."
10 Literally, "Spirit of life."
11 The law of sin and death is referred to in chapter 7, vv. 21,23, and previously chapter 6:23, "The wages of sin is death."
12 Literally, "the flesh." The law can crush and destroy but it cannot make alive that which is dead in sin (Galatians 3:21).
13 See Robertson, Davis, Short Grammar, Section 324, p. 201.