What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust…
(1) To the unregenerate. It has been much discussed whether this section describes a justified man, or a man still unforgiven. The latter view was held by and the Greek fathers generally. The former was adopted by and the Latin fathers generally. It was received in the West during the Middle Ages; and by the Reformers. It is now held, I believe, by most Calvinists. Among Arminians the view of the Greek fathers prevails. It is worthy of remark that this is the older opinion, and was theirs who spoke the language in which this Epistle was written. That this section describes Paul's own experience before justification, I hold for the following reasons.
1. In the last section we saw a great change take place in Paul, a change from life to death. This change brought him into the state described in ver. 5. But in ver. 6, Paul says, and he never wearies to repeat it, that another change, as glorious as this was sad, had been wrought in him by the power of God. The completeness of this change has been frequently set before us (Romans 5:10; Romans 6:11, 22; Romans 7:6). Paul is dead to sin, set free from its service, dead to the law which formerly bound him to a cruel master. This second change must be located between ver. 13, which gives the purpose of the first change, and Romans 8:1, which describes the state of those who enjoy the second. And since vers. 14-25 deal with one subject, we must put the second change either between vers. 13 and 14, or between chaps. 7 and 8. Now we have no hint whatever between vers. 13 and 14 of a change. But in Romans 8:1, the change is written in characters which no one can misunderstand. The words "made me free from the law of sin" proclaim in the clearest language that the bondage of vers. 23, 25 has passed away.
2. Again, this section contradicts all that Paul says about himself and the Christian life. He here calls himself a slave of sin, and groans beneath its bondage. He is a calamity-stricken man. But in the last chapter he describes his readers as dead to sin, and set free from its service. In what sense could a Roman Christian dare to reckon himself dead to sin, if this section were a picture of the liberty from sin enjoyed by an apostle? Paul here says that sin dwelling in his flesh is the true author of his actions. But in the next chapter he says that they who live after the flesh will die. He here declares that he works out that which is bad. But in Romans 2:9, he teaches that upon all who do so the anger of God will fall. If these words refer to a justified person, they stand absolutely alone in the New Testament.
3. It has been objected that the language of this section is inapplicable to men not yet justified. But we find similar language in the lips of pagans. "What is it that draws us in one direction while striving to go in another; and impels us towards that which we wish to avoid?" ( Seneca). "We understand and know the good things, but we do not work them out" (Euripides). "I have evidently two souls for if I had only one it would not be at the same time good and bad; nor would it desire at the same time both honourable and dishonourable works, nor would it at the same time both wish and not wish to do the same things. But it is evident that there are two souls; and that when the good one is in power, the honourable things are practised; but when the bad, the dishonourable things are attempted" (Xenophon). "I know what sort of bad things I am going to do: but passion is stronger than my purposes. And this is to mortals a cause of very great evils" (Euripides). "I desire one thing: the mind persuades another. I see and approve better things: I follow worse things" (Ovid). These passages prove that in many cases men are carried along against their better judgment to do bad things, and that even in pagans there is an inward man which approves what God's law approves.
4. What Paul says elsewhere about his religious state before justification confirms the description of himself here given. He was a man of blameless morality (Philippians 3:6); it was in ignorance that he persecuted the Church (1 Timothy 1:13); he was zealous for God (Acts 22:3); a Pharisee of the strictest sect (Acts 26:5); no doubt he sought to set up a righteousness of his own (Romans 10:3). Of such a man's inner life we have a picture in this section. His conscience approves the law: he makes every effort to keep it: his efforts only prove his moral powerlessness, and reveal the presence of an enemy in whose firm grasp he lies: he seeks to conquer inward failure by strict outward observance, and perhaps by bloody loyalty to what he considers to be the cause of God. In the conscientious Pharisee we have a man who desires to do right, but actually does wrong. And the more earnestly a man strives to obtain the favour of God by doing right, the more painfully conscious will he be of his failure.
5. It has been objected to the view here advocated that all this is the experience of many justified persons. But this only proves that the change in us is not yet complete, and Paul makes this a matter of reproach (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). On the other hand, there are thousands who with deep gratitude acknowledge that, while this section describes their past, it by no means describes their present state. Day by day they are more than conquerors through Him that loved them.
6. Then why did Paul puzzle plain people by using the present tense instead of the past? Let the man who asks this question write out the section in the past tense. "I was a man of flesh: I saw another law fighting against me, and leading me captive: I cried, 'Calamity-stricken man,'" etc. The life and reality of the section are gone. To realise past calamity, we must leave out of sight our deliverance from it. The language of the last section made it easy to do this. Paul's description of his murder by the hand of sin was so sad and so real that he forgot the life which followed. Hence when he came to speak of the state in which that murder placed him, it was easy to use the present tense. Of this change of the point of view we have already had other examples. In Romans 3:7, Paul throws himself into the position of one guilty of falsehood, and sets up for himself an excuse. In Romans 4:24, he stands by the writer of Genesis, and looks upon the justification of himself and his readers as still future. In Romans 5:1, he urges them to claim peace with God through justification. In Romans 5:14, after contemplating the reign of death from Adam to Moses, he looks forward to the future incarnation of Christ. In Romans 6:5, he speaks in the same way of the resurrection life in Christ. We shall also find him, in Romans 8:30, throwing himself into the far future, and looking back upon the nearer future as if already past. This mode of speech is common in all languages. But it is a conspicuous feature of the language in which this Epistle was written.
7. I cannot agree with those who say that Paul refers in this section to the state of babes in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1); and in the next, to full salvation. The next chapter certainly describes Paul's own experience, which was that of full salvation. And the language of this section is frequently used by those who are only in part saved from sin. But the least babe in Christ has experienced a resurrection from the dead (Colossians 2:13), and a deliverance purchased with the blood of Christ. Of such resurrection and deliverance there is no hint in this section, till the last verse of it proclaims the dawn of a brighter day.
8. If the above interpretation be correct, we have in this section the fullest description in the Bible of the natural state of man. Even in the immoral there is an inner man which approves the good and hates the bad. But this inner man is powerless against the enemy who is master of his body, and who thus dictates his conduct. In spite of his better self the man is carried along the path of sin. This is not contradicted, nor its force lessened, by Paul's admission in Romans 2:26, that even pagans do sometimes what the law commands. Their obedience is only occasional and imperfect, whereas the law requires constant and complete obedience. A man who breaks the laws of his country is not saved from punishment by the occasional performance of noble and praiseworthy acts. Although men unforgiven sometimes perform that which deserves approbation, they are utterly powerless to rescue themselves from the power of sin, and to obtain by good works the favour of God.
(Prof. J. A. Beet.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.
WEB: What shall we say then? Is the law sin? May it never be! However, I wouldn't have known sin, except through the law. For I wouldn't have known coveting, unless the law had said, "You shall not covet."