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Romans vii. 7-25

THE Apostle has led us a long way in his great argument; through sin, propitiation, faith, union, surrender, to that wonderful and "excellent mystery," the bridal oneness of Christ and the Church, of Christ and the believer. He has yet to unfold the secrets and glories of the experience of a life lived in the power of that Spirit of whose "newness" he has just spoken. But his last parable has brought him straight to a question which has repeatedly been indicated and deferred. He has told us that the Law of God was at first, ideally, our mystic husband, and that we were unfaithful in our wedded life, and that the injured lord sentenced to death his guilty spouse, and that the sentence was carried out—but carried out in Christ. Thus a death-divorce took place between us, the justified, and the Law, regarded as the violated party in the covenant—"Do this and live."

Is this ancient husband then a party whom we are now to suspect, and to defy? Our wedlock with him brought us little joy. Alas, its main experience was that we sinned. At best, if we did right, (in any deep 188 sense of right,) we did it against the grain; while we did wrong, (in the deep sense of wrong, difference from the will of God,) with a feeling of nature and gravitation. Was not our old lord to blame? Was there not something wrong about the Law? Did not the Law misrepresent God's will? Was it not, after all, Sin itself in disguise, though it charged us with the horrible guilt of a course of adultery with Sin?

We cannot doubt that the statement and the treatment of this question here are in effect a record of personal experience. The paragraph which it originates, this long last passage of i., bears every trace of such experience. Hitherto, in the main, he has dealt with "you" and "us"; now he speaks only as "I," only of "me," and of "mine." And the whole dialect of the passage, so to say, falls in with this use of pronouns. We overhear the colloquies, the altercations, of will with conscience, of will with will, almost of self with self, carried on in a region which only self-consciousness can penetrate, and which only the subject of it all can thus describe. Yes, the person Paul is here, analysing and reporting upon himself; drawing the veil from his own inmost life, with a hand firm because surrendered to the will of God, who bids him, for the Church's sake, expose himself to view. Nothing in literature, no Confessions of an Augustine, no Grace Abounding of a Bunyan, is more intensely individual. Yet on the other hand nothing is more universal in its searching application. For the man who thus writes is "the chosen vessel" of the Lord who has perfectly adjusted not his words only but his being, his experience, his conflicts and deliverances, to be manifestations of universal spiritual facts.

We need hardly say that this profound paragraph 189 has been discussed and interpreted most variously. It has been held by some to be only St Paul's intense way of presenting that great phenomenon, wide as fallen humanity—human will colliding with human conscience, so that "no man does all he knows." Passages from every quarter of literature, of all ages, of all races, have been heaped around it, to prove, (what is indeed so profoundly significant a fact, largely confirmatory of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin,108108See J. B. Mozley's Lectures, etc., ix, x.) that universal man is haunted by undone duties; and this passage is placed as it were in the midst, as the fullest possible confession of that fact, in the name of humanity, by an ideal individual. But surely it needs only an attentive reading of the passage, as a part of the Epistle to the Romans, as a part of the teaching of St Paul, to feel the extreme inadequacy of such an account. On the one hand the long groaning confession is no artificial embodiment of a universal fact; it is the cry of a human soul, if ever there was a personal cry. On the other hand the passage betrays a kind of conflict far deeper and more mysterious than merely that of "I ought" with "I will not." It is a conflict of "I will" with "I will not"; of "I hate" with "I do." And in the later stages of the confession we find the subject of the conflict avowing a wonderful sympathy with the Law of God; recording not merely an avowal that right is right, but a consciousness that God's precept is delectable. All this leads us to a spiritual region unknown to Euripides, and Horace, and even Epictetus.

Again it has been held that the passage records the experiences of a half-regenerate soul; struggling on 190 its way from darkness to light, stumbling across a border-zone between the power of Satan and the kingdom of God; deeply convinced of sin, but battling with it in the old impossible way after all, meeting self with self, or, otherwise, the devil with the man. But here again the passage seems to refuse the exposition, as we read all its elements. It is no experience of a half-renewed life to "take delight with the law of God after the inner man." It is utterly unlawful for a half-regenerate soul to describe itself as so beset by sin that "it is not I, but sin that dwelleth in me." No more dangerous form of thought about itself could be adopted by a soul not fully acquainted with God.

Again, and quite on the other hand, it has been held that our passage lays it down that a stern but on the whole disappointing conflict with internal evil is the lot of the true Christian, in his fullest life, now, always, and to the end; that the regenerate and believing man is, if indeed awake to spiritual realities, to feel at every step, "O wretched man that I am"; "What I hate, that I do"; and to expect deliverance from such a consciousness only when he attains his final heavenly rest with Christ. Here again extreme difficulties attend the exposition; not from within the passage, but from around it. It is literally encircled with truths of liberty, in a servitude which is perfect freedom; with truths of power and joy, in a life which is by the Holy Ghost. It is quite incongruous with such surroundings that it should be thought to describe a spiritual experience dominant and characteristic in the Christian life.

"What shall we say then?" Is there yet another line of exegesis which will better satisfy the facts of both the passage and its context? We think there is one, which at once is distinctive in itself, and combines 191 elements of truth indicated by the others which we have outlined. For those others have each an element of truth, if we read aright. The passage has a reference to the universal conflict of conscience and will. It does say some things quite appropriate to the man who is awake to his bondage but has not yet found his Redeemer. And there is, we dare to say, a sense in which it may be held that the picture is true for the whole course of Christian life here on earth; for there is never an hour of that life when the man who "says he has no sin" does not "deceive himself" (1 Joh. i. 8). And if that sin be but simple defect, a falling "short of the glory of God"; nay, if it be only that mysterious tendency which, felt or not, hourly needs a divine counteraction; still, the man "has sin," and must long for a final emancipation, with a longing which carries in it at least a latent "groan."

So we begin by recognizing that Paul, the personal Paul, speaking here to all of us, as in some solemn "testimony" hour, takes us first to his earliest deep convictions of right and wrong, when, apparently after a previous complacency with himself, he woke to see—but not to welcome—the absoluteness of God's will. He glided along a smooth stream of moral and mental culture and reputation till he struck the rock of "Thou shalt not covet," "Thou shalt not desire," "Thou must not have self-will." Then, as from a grave, which was however only an ambush, "sin" sprang up; a conscious force of opposition to the claim of God's will as against the will of Paul; and his dream of religious satisfaction died. Till we close ver. 11, certainly, we are in the midst of the unregenerate state. The tenses are past; the narrative is explicit. He made a discovery of law which was as death after life to his then religious experience. He has nothing to say of counter-facts 192 in his soul. It was conviction, with only rebellion as its issue.

Then we find ourselves, we hardly know how, in a range of confessions of a different order. There is a continuity. The Law is there, and sin is there, and a profound moral conflict. But there are now counter-facts. The man, the Ego, now "wills not," nay, "hates," what he practises. He wills what God prescribes, though he does it not. His sinful deeds are, in a certain sense, in this respect, not his own. He actually "delights, rejoices, with the Law of God." Yet there is a sense in which he is "sold," "enslaved," "captured," in the wrong direction.

Here, as we have admitted, there is much which is appropriate to the not yet regenerate state, where however the man is awakening morally, to good purpose, under the hand of God. But the passage as a whole refuses to be satisfied thus, as we have seen. He who can truly speak thus of an inmost sympathy, a sympathy of delight, with the most holy Law of God, is no half-Christian; certainly not in St Paul's view of things.

But now observe one great negative phenomenon of the passage. We read words about this regenerate sinner's moral being and faculties; about his "inner man," his "mind," "the law of his mind"; about "himself," as distinguished from the "sin" which haunts him. But we read not one clear word about that eternal Spirit, whose glorious presence we have seen (vii. 6), characterizing the Gospel, and of whom we are soon to hear in such magnificent amplitude. Once only is He even distantly indicated; "the Law is spiritual" (ver. 14). But that is no comfort, no deliverance. The Spirit is indeed in the Law; but He must be also 193 in the man, if there is to be effectual response, and harmony, and joy. No, we look in vain through the passage for one hint that the man, that Paul, is contemplated in it as filled by faith with the Holy Ghost for his war with indwelling sin working through his embodied conditions.

But he was regenerate, you say. And if so, he was an instance of the Spirit's work, a receiver of the Spirit's presence. It is so; not without the Spirit, working in him, could he "delight in the law of God," and "with his true self serve the law of God." But does this necessarily mean that he, as a conscious agent, was fully using his eternal Guest as his power and victory?

We are not merely discussing a literary passage. We are pondering an oracle of God about man. So we turn full upon the reader—and upon ourselves—and ask the question, whether the heart cannot help to expound this hard paragraph. Christian man, by grace,—that is to say, by the Holy Spirit of God,—you have believed, and live. You are a limb of Christ, who is your life. But you are a sinner still; always, actually, in defect, and in tendency; always, potentially, in ways terribly positive. For whatever the presence of the Spirit in you has done, it has not so altered you that, if He should go, you would not instantly "revert to the type" of unholiness. Now, how do you meet temptation from without? How do you deal with the dread fact of guilty imbecility within? Do you, if I may put it so, use regenerate faculty in unregenerate fashion, meeting the enemy practically alone, with only high resolves, and moral scorn of wrong, and assiduous processes of discipline on body or mind? God forbid we should call these things evil. They are good. But they 194 are the accidents, not the essence, of the secret; the wall, not the well, of power and triumph. It is the Lord Himself dwelling in you who is your victory; and that victory is to be realized by a conscious and decisive appeal to Him. "Through Him you shall do valiantly; for He it is that shall tread down your enemies" (Psal. lx. 12). And is not this verified in your experience? When, in your regenerate state, you use the true regenerate way, is there not a better record to be given? When, realizing that the true principle is indeed a Person, you less resolve, less struggle, and more appeal and confide—is not sin's "reign" broken, and is not your foot, even yours, because you are in conscious union with the Conqueror, placed effectually on "all the power of the enemy"?

We are aware of the objection ready to be made, and by devout and reverent men. It will be said that the Indwelling Spirit works always through the being in whom He dwells; and that so we are not to think of Him as a separable Ally, but just to act ourselves, leaving it to Him to act through us. Well, we are willing to state the matter almost exactly in those last words, as theory. But the subject is too deep—and too practical—for neat logical consistency. He does indeed work in us, and through us. But then—it is He. And to the hard pressed soul there is an unspeakable reality and power in thinking of Him as a separable, let us say simply a personal, Ally, who is also Commander, Lord, Life-Giver; and in calling Him definitely in.

So we read this passage again, and note this absolute and eloquent silence in it about the Holy Ghost. And we dare, in that view, to interpret it as St Paul's confession, not of a long past experience, not of an 195 imagined experience, but of his own normal experience always—when he acts out of character as a regenerate man. He fails, he "reverts," when, being a sinner by nature still, and in the body still, he meets the Law, and meets temptation, in any strength short of the definitely sought power of the Holy Ghost, making Christ all to him for peace and victory. And he implies, surely, that this failure is not a bare hypothesis, but that he knows what it is. It is not that God is not sufficient. He is so, always, now, for ever. But the man does not always adequately use God; as he ought to do, as he might do, as he will ever rise up afresh to do. And when he does not, the resultant failure—though it be but a thought of vanity, a flush of unexpressed anger, a microscopic flaw in the practice of truthfulness, an unhallowed imagination darting in a moment through the soul—is to him sorrow, burthen, shame. It tells him that "the flesh" is present still, present at least in its elements, though God can keep them out of combination. It tells him that, though immensely blest, and knowing now exactly where to seek, and to find, a constant practical deliverance (oh joy unspeakable!), he is still "in the body," and that its conditions are still of "death." And so he looks with great desire for its redemption. The present of grace is good, beyond all his hopes of old. But the future of glory is "far better."

Thus the man at once "serves the Law of God," as its willing bondman (δουλεύω, ver. 25), in the life of grace, and submits himself, with reverence and shame, to its convictions, when, if but for an hour, or a moment, he "reverts" to the life of the flesh.

Let us take the passage up now for a nearly continuous translation.


What shall we say then, in face of the thought of our death-divorce, in Christ, from the Law's condemning power. Is the Law sin? Are they only two phases of one evil? Away with the thought! But—here is the connexion of the two—I should not have known, recognized, understood, sin but by means of law. For coveting, for example, I should not have known, should not have recognized as sin, if the Law had not been saying, "Thou shalt not covet."109109Exod. xx. 17.—Observe here that great fact of Christian doctrine; that desire, bias, gravitation away from God's will, is sin, whether carried into act or not. Is not St Paul here recalling some quite special spiritual incident? But sin, making a fulcrum of the commandment,110110Ἀφορμὴν λαβοῦσα διὰ τῆς ἐντολῆς. produced, effected, in me all coveting, every various application of the principle. For, law apart, sin is dead—in the sense of lack of conscious action. It needs a holy Will, more or less revealed, to occasion its collision. Given no holy will, known or surmised, and it is "dead" as rebellion, though not as pollution. But I, the person in whom it lay buried, was all alive (ἔζων), conscious and content, law apart, once on a time (strange ancient memory in that biography!). But when the commandment came to my conscience and my will, sin rose to life again, ("again"; so it was no new creation after all) and I—died; I found myself legally doomed to death, morally without life-power, and bereft of the self-satisfaction that seemed my vital breath. And the commandment that was life-wards, prescribing nothing but perfect right, the straight line to life eternal, proved (εὑρέθη) for me deathwards. For sin, making a fulcrum of the commandment, deceived me, into thinking fatally wrong of God 197 and of myself, and through it killed me, discovered me to myself as legally and morally a dead man. So that the Law, indeed (μὲν), is holy, and the commandment, the special precept which was my actual death-blow, holy, and just, and good. (He says, "the Law, indeed" (μὲν), with the implied antithesis that "sin, on the other hand," is the opposite; the whole fault of his misery beneath the Law lies with sin.) The good thing then, this good Law, has it to me111111Ἐμοὶ is slightly emphatic; as if to say, "at least in my case." become death? Away with the thought! Nay, but sin did so become that it might come out as sin, working out death for me by means of the good Law —that sin might prove overwhelmingly sinful, through the commandment, which at once called it up, and, by awful contrast, exposed its nature. Observe, he does not say merely that sin thus "appeared" unutterably evil. More boldly, in this sentence of mighty paradoxes, he says that it "became" such. As it were, it developed its character into its fullest action, when it thus used the eternal Will to set creature against Creator. Yet even this was overruled; all happened thus "in order," so that the very virulence of the plague might effectually demand the glorious Remedy.

For we know, we men with our conscience, we Christians with our Lord's light, that the Law, this Law which sin so foully abused, is spiritual, the expression of the eternal Holiness, framed by the sure guidance of the Holy Spirit; but then I, I Paul, taken as a sinner, viewed apart from Christ, am fleshly, a child of self, sold to be under sin; yes, not only when, in Adam, my nature sold itself at first, but still and always, just so far as I am considered apart from Christ, 198 and just so far as, in practice, I live apart from Christ, "reverting," if but for a minute, to my self-life. For the work I work out, I do not know, I do not recognize; I am lost amidst its distorted conditions; for it is not what I will that I practise (πράσσω), but it is what I hate that I do (ποιῶ). But if what I do is what I do not will, I assent to the Law that it, the Law, is good; I shew my moral sympathy with the precept by the endorsement given it by my will, in the sense of my earnest moral preference.112112For this meaning of θέλειν see the closely parallel passage, the almost sketch or embryo of this paragraph, Gal. v. 17. But now, in this state of facts, it is no longer I who work out the work, but the indweller in me—Sin.

He implies by "no longer" that once it was otherwise; once the central choice was for self, now, in the regenerate life, even in its conflicts, yea, even in its failures, it is for God. A mysterious "other self" is latent still, and asserts itself in awful reality when the true man, the man as regenerate, ceases to watch and to pray. And in this sense he dares to say "it is no more I." It is a sense the very opposite to the dream of self-excuse; for though the Ego as regenerate does not do the deed, it has, by its sleep, or by its confidence, betrayed the soul to the true doer. And thus he passes naturally into the following confessions, in which we read at once the consciousness of a state which ought not to be, though it is, and also the conviction that it is a state out of character with himself, with his personality as redeemed and new-created. Into such a confession there creeps no lying thought that he "is delivered to do these abominations" (Jer. vii. 10); that it is fate; that he cannot help it. Nor is the 199 miserable dream present here that evil is but a phase of good, and that these conflicts are only discordant melodies struggling to a cadence where they will accord. It is a groan of shame and pain, from a man who could not be thus tortured if he were not born again. Yet it is also an avowal,—as if to assure himself that deliverance is intended, and is at hand,—that the treacherous tyrant he has let into the place of power is an alien to him as he is a man regenerate. Not for excuse, but to clear his thought, and direct his hope, he says this to himself, and to us, in his dark hour.

For I know that there dwells not in me, that is, in my flesh, good; in my personal life, so long, and so far, as it "reverts" to self as its working centre, all is evil, for nothing is as God would have it be. And that "flesh," that self-life, is ever there, latent if not patent; present in such a sense that it is ready for instant reappearance, from within, if any moral power less than that of the Lord Himself is in command. For the willing lies at my hand; but the working out what is right, does not.113113Read not οὐχ εὑρίσκω, but simply οὔ. "The willing" (τὸ θέλειν), as throughout this passage, means not the ultimate fiat of the man's soul, deciding his action, but his earnest moral approbation, moral sympathy, the convictions of the enlightened being. For not what I will, even good, do I; but what I do not will, even evil, that I practise.114114Again ποιῶ and πράσσω, as in ver. 16. Now if what I do is what I do not will, no longer, as once, do I work it out, but the indweller in me, Sin.

Again his purpose is not excuse, but deliverance. 200 No deadly antinomianism is here, such as has withered innumerable lives, where the thought has been admitted that sin may be in the man, and yet the man may not sin. His thought is, as all along, that it is his own shame that thus it is; yet that the evil is, ultimately, a thing alien to his true character, and that therefore he is right to call the lawful King and Victor in upon it.

And now comes up again the solemn problem of the Law. That stern, sacred, monitor is looking on all the while, and saying all the while the things which first woke sin from its living grave in the old complacent experience, and then, in the regenerate state, provoked sin to its utmost treachery, and most fierce invasions. And the man hears the voice, and in his new-created character he loves it. But he has "reverted," ever so little, to his old attitude, to the self-life, and so there is also rebellion in him when that voice says "Thou shalt." So I find the Law—he would have said, "I find it my monitor, honoured, aye and loved, but not my helper"; but he breaks the sentence up in the stress of this intense confession; so I find the Law—for me, me with a will to do the right,—that for me the evil lies at hand. For I have glad sympathy with (συνήδομαι) the Law of God; what He prescribes I endorse with delight as good, as regards the inner man, that is, my world of conscious insight and affection115115In itself, the phrase ὁ ἔσω ἄνθρωπος is neutral. By usage it attaches itself to ideas of regeneration. See 2 Cor. iv. 16, Eph. iii. 16. in the new life; but I see (as if I were a watcher from without) a rival (ἕτερον) law, another and contradictory precept, "serve thyself," in my limbs, in my world of sense and active faculty, at war with the law of my mind, the Law of God, adopted 201 by my now enlightened thinking-power as its sacred code, and seeking to make me captive in that war116116Αἰχμαλωτίζοντα: "Making me prisoner of war." Observe the present tense, which indicates not necessarily the full success of the strategy, but its aim. to the law of sin, the law which is in my limbs.

Unhappy man am I. Who will rescue me out of the body of this death,117117The Greek equally allows the rendering "out of this body of death." out of a life conditioned by this mortal body, which in the Fall became sin's especial vehicle, directly or indirectly, and which is not yet (vii. 23) actually "redeemed"? Thanks be to God,118118Read χάρις τῷ Θεῶ. who giveth that deliverance, in covenant and in measure now, fully and in eternal actuality hereafter, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So then, to sum the whole phenomenon of the conflict up, leaving aside for the moment this glorious hope of the issue, I, myself, with the mind indeed do bondservice to the law of God, but with the flesh, with the life of self, wherever and whenever I "revert" that way, I do bondservice to the law of sin.

Do we close the passage with a sigh, and almost with a groan? Do we sigh over the intricacy of the thought, the depth and subtlety of the reasoning, the almost fatigue of fixing and of grasping the facts below the terms "will," and "mind," and "inner man," and "flesh," and "I"? Do we groan over the consciousness that no analysis of our spiritual failures can console us for the fact of them, and that the Apostle seems in his last sentences to relegate our consolations to the 202 future, while it is in the present that we fail, and in the present that we long with all our souls to do, as well as to approve, the will of God?

Let us be patient, and also let us think again. Let us find a solemn and sanctifying peace in the patience which meekly accepts the mystery that we must needs "wait yet for the redemption of our body"; that the conditions of "this corruptible" must yet for a season give ambushes and vantages to temptation, which will be all annihilated hereafter. But let us also think again. If we went at all aright in our remarks previous to this passage, there are glorious possibilities for the present hour "readable between the lines" of St Paul's unutterably deep confession. We have seen in conflict the Christian man, regenerate, yet taken, in a practical sense, apart from his Regenerator. We have seen him really fight, though he really fails. We have seen him unwittingly, but guiltily, betray his position to the foe, by occupying it as it were alone. We have seen also, nevertheless, that he is not his foe's ally but his antagonist. Listen; he is calling for his King.

That cry will not be in vain. The King will take a double line of action in response. While his soldier-bondservant is yet in the body, "the body of this death," He will throw Himself into the narrow hold, and wonderfully turn the tide within it, and around it. And hereafter, He will demolish it. Rather, He will transfigure it, into the counterpart—even as it were into the part—of His own Body of glory; and the man shall rest, and serve, and reign for ever, with a being homogeneous all through in its likeness to the Lord.

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