Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?VII.
(1-6) The Apostle takes up an idea to which he had alluded in Romans 7:14-15 of the preceding chapter, “Ye are not under the Law, but under grace;” and as he had worked out the conclusion of the death of the Christian to sin, so now he works out that of his death to the Law. This he does by an illustration borrowed from the marriage-bond. That bond is dissolved by the death of one of the parties to it. And in like manner the death of the Christian with Christ releases him from his obligation to the Law, and opens out to him a new and spiritual service in place of his old subjection to a written code.
(1) Know ye not.—Here again insert “or”: Or know ye not, &c., carrying on the thought from the end of the last chapter. Is not, argues the Apostle, what I say true? Or do I hear the old objection raised again, that the system under which the Christian is living is not one of grace in which eternal life is given freely by God, but the Mosaic law? That would show an ignorance—which in you I cannot believe—of the fact that the dominion of the Law ceases with death, of which fact it is easy to take a simple illustration.
To them that know the law.—The Roman Church, as we have seen, was composed in about equal proportions of Jewish and of Gentile Christians. The Jews would naturally know the provisions of their own law, while the Gentile Christians would know them sufficiently to be aware of the fact, from their intercourse with Jewish members of their own community, and from hearing the Old Testament read in the synagogues, where their public worship was still conducted. The practice of reading from the Old Testament did not cease on the transition from Jewish to Christian modes of worship; it survives still in the “First Lesson.”
For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.(2) For the woman which hath an husband.—The illustration is not quite exact. The Law is here represented by the husband, but the Apostle does not mean to say that the Law dies to the Christian, but the Christian to the Law. The proposition must therefore be understood to be stated in a somewhat abstract form. Relations of the kind indicated are terminated by death (not necessarily the death of one party to them more than another). The relation of wife and husband ceases absolutely and entirely on both sides, and not merely so much of it as affects the person who dies.
Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.(4) Are become dead.—Were rendered dead—somewhat stronger than simply “ye died.”
By the body of Christ—i.e., by the death of the human body of Christ upon the cross. The Christian, as the last chapter has shown, is so united to Christ that whatever has happened to his Master has happened also to him. Christ was put to death upon the cross; he therefore has also been put to death with Him. But why put to death to the Law? Probably all that is meant is simply that the Christian died, and therefore all the relations contracted before that death came to an end. At the same time he entered upon new relations corresponding to his new and risen state.
The argument can hardly be said to have a logical cogency in a controversial sense. It is not, quite strictly speaking, argument at all, but rather emphatic assertion, with all the weight of apostolic authority, and in a graphic illustrative form. The gist of it all is, “You have done with the Law and assumed a new spiritual life in Christ: see that you make this a reality.”
That we should bring forth fruit unto God.—This mystical and ethical union with Christ will not be unproductive; it will have for its fruit a life consecrated to God.
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.(5) The new alliance ought not to be unproductive, for the old alliance was not unproductive. Before that mortification of the flesh which proceeds from our relation to the death of Christ, we bore a fruit generated through our carnal appetites by the Law, and the only being to whose honour and glory they contributed was Death.
The sins committed under the old dispensation are regarded as due to a two-fold agency—on the one hand to the Law (the operation of which is described more particularly in Romans 7:7-8), and on the other hand to the flesh, which was only too susceptible to any influence that would call out its sinful impulses. Those impulses have now been mortified, as if by a course of asceticism, through union with the death of Christ.
The “body” is regarded by St. Paul as a neutral principle, which is not in itself either good or bad. It is simply the material frame of men, which though itself “of the earth earthy” is capable of becoming a dwelling-place for the Spirit, and being put to holy uses. The “flesh” is the same material frame regarded as the seat of sinful appetites, and with a tendency to obey the lower rather than the higher self. The proper way to overcome this lower self is by that spiritual asceticism which the believer goes through by his appropriation of the death of Christ.
Motions of sins.—The same word which is translated in Galatians 5:24, “affections”—those emotions or passions which lead to sin.
Which were by the law.—Which the Law served to stimulate and quicken in the manner described below.
Did work.—Were active or astir, opposed to that state of torpor or mortification to which they were reduced in the Christian.
Unto death.—Death is here personified as the king of that region which sin serves to enrich.
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.(6) That being dead.—Our translators seem to have had a false reading here, which is not found in any MS., but arose from an error of Beza and Erasmus in interpreting a comment of Chrysostom’s. The true reading runs thus: “But as it is we were” (not “are”) “delivered from the Law, having died to that wherein we were held.” In the act of our baptism, which united us to Christ, we obtained a release from our old tyrant, the Law.
Wherein we were held.—Oppressed, held in bondage.
That we should serve.—Rather, perhaps, so that we serve; result, not purpose. Our release from one master implied an engagement to another. Our new state is one in which we serve an active living Spirit; our old state was a bondage to the dead and formal letter.
The “Spirit” is here the Holy Spirit, as the animating principle of the new life, and as opposed to a system which proceeds merely by external precepts and requirements.
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.(7) What shall we say then?—The Apostle had spoken in a manner disparaging to the Law, and which might well give offence to some of his readers. It was necessary to correct this. And so now he proceeds to lay down more precisely in what it was that the Law was defective, and what was its true function and relation to the history and struggles of humanity.
In what follows the Apostle speaks throughout in the first person. He is really making a general statement which applies to all mankind; but this statement is based upon his own personal experience. Self-analysis is at the bottom of most profound psychology. The Apostle goes back in thought to the time before he had embraced Christianity, and treats his own case as typical. There can be little question that the description which follows to the end of Romans 7:24 is a description of the unregenerate state of man. It is one prolonged crisis and conflict, which at last finds its solution in Christ.
Is the law sin?—The Law had just been described as stimulating and exciting “the motions of sins.” Was this true? Was the Law really immoral? No, that could not be.
Nay.—Rather, howbeit (Ellicott), nevertheless. The Law is not actually immoral, but it is near being made so. It is not itself sin (sinful), but it reveals, and so in a manner incites to, sin.
I had not known.—Strictly, I did not know. I had no acquaintance with sin except through the Law. Before the introduction of law, acts that are sinful in themselves, objectively viewed, may be done, but they are not sinful with reference to the person who does them. He has no knowledge or consciousness of what sin is until it is revealed to him by law.
Sin.—Here a sort of quasi-personification. The principle or power of sin into contact and acquaintance with which the Apostle was brought for the first time by the Law.
I had not known lust.—The Apostle introduces an illustration from a special law—the Tenth Commandment. “Lust” is here to be taken in the special sense of covetousness, desire for that which is forbidden. Doubtless there would be many before the giving of the Law who desired their “neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant,” &c.; but this would not be coveting, it would not be desire of that which was forbidden, for the simple reason that it was not forbidden. Covetousness, then, as a sin, the Apostle did not know until he was confronted with the law against it.
But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.(8) Taking occasion.—The word in the Greek implies originally a military metaphor: taking as a “base of operations,” i.e., an advanced post occupied as the starting-point and rendezvous for further advances. Sin is unable to. act upon man without the co-operation of law, without being able to hold up law before him, and so show itself in its true colours.
The words “by the commandment” may either go with “taking occasion” or with “wrought in me.” The sense would, in either case, be very much the same, “taking advantage of the commandment,” or “wrought in me by the help of the commandment.” The first is the construction usually adopted, as in the Authorised version, but there seem to be reasons of some force for preferring the second. The phrase “wrought in me coveting by the commandment” would thus be parallel to “working death in me by that which is good,” below.
Concupiscence.—Rather, coveting; the same word which had been used above. Sin and the Commandment together—Sin, the evil principle in men, acting as the primary cause, and the Commandment as the secondary cause—led their unfortunate victim into all kinds of violation of the Law. This is done in two ways: (1) the perverseness of human nature is such that the mere prohibition of an act suggests the desire to do that which is prohibited; (2) the act, when done, is invested with the character of sin, which hitherto it did not possess. It becomes a distinct breach of law, where previously there had been no law to break. This is what the Apostle means by saying that “without the Law sin was dead.” Until there was a written prohibition, Sin (the evil principle) was powerless to produce sinful actions.
For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.(9) I was alive.—The state of unconscious morality, uninstructed but as yet uncondemned, may, compared with that state of condemnation, be regarded as a state of “life.”
Revived.—The English version well represents the meaning of the original, which is not that sin “came to life,” but that it “came to life again.” Sin is lurking in the heart from the first, but it is dormant until the Commandment comes; then it “revives.”
I died.—Became subject to the doom of eternal death.
And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.(10) Which was ordained to.—“The very commandment which was for life I found to be for death” (Ellicott). The Law was instituted in order that it might give life to those who were under it and who kept it. They did not keep it, and therefore it brought them not life but death.
For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.(11-13) The cause of this miscarriage lay not with the Law but with Sin. Sin played the tempter, and then made use of the Commandment to condemn and destroy its victims. All this time the Law (i.e., the whole body of precepts) and the Commandment (i.e., the particular precepts included in the Law) remained perfectly good in themselves. They could not be otherwise, having come from the hand of God Himself. Sin was the fatal power. The Law and the Commandment were only passive instruments which it wielded for the destruction of man. But at the same time Sin itself was exposed by them in all its ever-increasing enormity.
Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.(12) Wherefore.—This word introduces a conclusion, not from the verse immediately preceding, but from the whole of the last five verses. The Apostle glances back for a moment over the course of his argument.
Was then that which is good made death unto me? 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.(13) Was then that which is good . . .?—Was it possible that the Law, holy and good as it was, could simply lead miserable men to death and ruin? No, it was not possible. It was not the Law that did this but Sin—acting, it is true, through the instrumentality of the Law. All this, however, only had for its end to show up Sin for the monster that it really is.
Sin, that it might appear sin.—We must supply with this “was made death.” Sin, no longer remaining covert and unrecognised, but coming out in its true colours, brought me under the penalty of death.
By the commandment.—If the Commandment served to expose the guilt of man, still more did it serve to expose and enhance the guilt of that evil principle by which man was led astray. Such is the deeper philosophy of the whole matter. This short-lived dominion was no triumph for Sin after all. The very law that it took for its stay turned round upon it and condemned it.
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.(14-25) Further and detailed proof why it was that though the Law appealed to all that was best in man, still he could not obey it.
(14) For we know.—There is no need to argue the question. We Christians all know that the Law is spiritual. It is divinely given and inspired. On the other hand, man, though capable of communion with God, is dominated by that part of his nature which is the direct opposite of divine, and is entirely earthly and sensual. This sensual part of his nature is the slave—and just as much the slave as if he had been sold in the auction mart—of Sin. (Comp. 1Kings 21:20; 1Kings 21:25.)
For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.(15) That which I do I allow not.—Rather, that which I perform I know not. I act blindly, and without any conscious direction of the will; that higher part of me which should preside over and direct my actions, is kept down by the lower physical nature.
Which I do.—St. Paul uses three words for “to do” in this passage, the distinction between which is hard to represent in English. That which is employed here and in Romans 7:17; Romans 7:20, is the strongest, “perform”—deliberate action, thoroughly carried out. The other two words differ, as “do” and “practise,” the one referring to single, the other to habitual and repeated actions.
What I would.—If my will had free course I should act very differently.
If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.(16) But the fact that I desire to do what is right is itself a witness to the excellence of the Law, which commands that which I desire.
Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.(17) This, then, appears to be the true explanation of the difficulty. There is really a dualism in the soul. I am not to be identified with that lower self which is enthralled by sin.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.(18-20) Enthralled it is, and the will is powerless. What I do and what I will are opposite things. It is therefore sin that acts, and not I.
I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.(21) I find then a law.—Of the many ways of taking this difficult verse, two seem to stand out as most plausible or possible. In any case “a law” should be rather “the law.” This is taken by the majority of commentators, including Bishop Ellicott, in the sense of “rule,” “habitually-repeated fact.” “I find this law, or this rule, that when I would do good evil is present with me.” Such is my constant and regular experience. The objection to this interpretation is that it gives to the word “law” an entirely different sense from that which it bears in the context, or in any other part of St. Paul’s writings. The other view is that which is maintained by Dr. Vaughan. According to this we should have to assume an anacoluthon. The Apostle begins the sentence as if he were going to say, “I find therefore the Law (the Mosaic law), when I desire to do good, unable to help me;” but he changes somewhat the form of the sentence in the latter portion, and instead of saying “I find the Law unable to help me,” he says, “I find that evil is at my side.” “To me” is also repeated a second time, in the Greek superfluously, for the sake of greater clearness. Or perhaps a still simpler and better explanation would be that the Apostle had intended in the first instance to say, “I find the Law, when I wish to do good, putting evil before me,” and then shrank (as in Romans 7:7) from using so harsh an expression, and softened it by turning the latter half of the sentence into a passive instead of an active form—“I find the Law, when I wish to do good—that evil is put before me.”
For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:(22) I delight.—“I delight in (and with) the Law of God.” I sympathise with and approve of it after the inward man, i.e., in the higher part of my being. “The inward man” corresponds nearly, though not quite, to the “law of my mind,” in the next verse. It stands rather midway between it and the spirit. The mind is the moral and rational faculties considered as moral and rational. “The inward man” is the higher part of man’s nature considered as capable of receiving the divine grace. The “spirit” is the same when actually brought into communion with God.
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.(23) Another law.—A different law. “In my members,” i.e., that has its chief seat of activity in my members. This is the law of sin, which is ready to take advantage of every fleshly impulse.
O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?(24) So this intestine struggle goes on unceasingly and reaches no decision, till at last the unhappy man cries out, almost in despair, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Who, that is, will help me to overcome these fleshly desires, gendered by a corrupt human nature, which are dragging me down to imminent destruction? The body is the cause of sin, and therefore of death. If only it could be released from that, the distracted soul would be at rest and free.
The body of this death.—Thu body (the slave of sin and therefore the abode) of death. The words are a cry for deliverance from the whole of this mortal nature, in which carnal appetite and sin and death are inextricably mingled. To complete this deliverance the triple resurrection—ethical, spiritual, and physical—is needed.
I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.(25) It has been released. It is Jesus our Lord to whom the thanks and praise are due. Though without His intervention there can only be a divided service. The mere human self serves with the mind the law of God, with the flesh the law of sin.
I myself.—Apart from and in opposition to the help which I derive from Christ.
The abrupt and pregnant style by which, instead of answering the question, “Where is deliverance to come from?” the Apostle simply returns thanks for the deliverance that has actually been vouchsafed to him, is thoroughly in harmony with the impassioned personal character of the whole passage. These are not abstract questions to be decided in abstract terms, but they are matters of intimate personal experience.
The deliverance wrought by Christ is apparently here that of sanctification rather than of justification. It is from the domination of the body, from the impulses of sense, that the Christian is freed, and that is done when he is crucified to them with Christ.