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…
At the outset we observe two remarkable things.
1. Two distinct forces (ver. 15), represented as if they were two Egos, the one hating what the other does, the one willing to do what the other strenuously refuses. What are these?
(1) The moral desire, going ever with the law of God — which is "holy, just, and good."(2) The animal choice following ever the "law of sin in the members." The choice and the desire, which ought ever to be one in the one being, are in man's case two. All are bound to admit the existence of this fact, however they may differ in their methods of explaining it.
2. The development of these two powers in the same person. The language shows a kind of underlying personality in which these two selves live — "the wretched man" (ver. 24); "the inner man," the moral core of our nature — the man of the man. That there should be an opposition between the desire and the choice of different men is a remarkable fact. But that each man should be a self-divided kingdom, a self-created battleground on which heaven and hell fight their campaigns, is a fact as wonderful as it is evident. Here we have the inner man —
I. IN ABSOLUTE SUBJECTION TO THE FLESH — thoroughly animalised. It is the state prior to the advent of the commandment (ver. 10), when "sin was dead," and the man fancied himself morally "alive." The soul of infants, of course, is in this state. It is the creature of bodily appetites and desires. It seems wise and kind that the mind should for a time lie dormant in these frail organisations — that the muscles, limbs, and nerves might get strength. But the language is evidently intended to apply to adults. And are not millions walking after the flesh, and living to the flesh? the great question of their existence being — "What shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?" The passage teaches that the state of the soul in this stage of its history is —
1. A state of unconscious sin. "Without the law sin was dead." It produced no compunction. The soul was "dead in trespasses and sin." There is no moral struggle against it. Still, though sin is not a matter of consciousness, it is sin.
(1) It is a violation of our constitution. Were we like the brute, without intellect or conscience, it would be proper to give full play to all our animal impulses and desires. But as we have souls connecting us with moral law, whose well-being consists in the possession of virtue, and which outlive the body, to allow the body a mastery over the soul is a more monstrous anomaly than the enthroning of a ruthless savage as the monarch of a civilised people.
(2) It is a violation of the design of our being. Why are we thus organised? That our spiritual nature might be buried in the material, that the Divine spark might be extinguished, or even clouded by the animal nature? No. The body is designed as a temple in which the soul is to worship, an organ by which the soul is to subordinate the material universe to its service.
(3) It is a violation of Biblical injunctions. We are commanded "to mortify the flesh," etc., to keep in subjection our bodies, etc.
2. A state of false life. "I was alive without the law once" — without the understanding of the law. In this fleshy stage of being, man is so destitute of all sense of responsibility, and all convictions of sin, that he fancies everything right. He lives, it is true. See him revelling in pleasure, or bustling in business. There is life, but it is a false life; not that of an intelligent moral being, made to act to the glory of God. It is the life of a dying man, who in his delirium fancies himself strong and hale; it is the life of a maniac who acts under the impression that he is a king. Such, then, is the state of man in the first stage of his soul's history.
II. IN VIOLENT BATTLINGS WITH THE FLESH (vers. 9-24). In the first stage the conscience was asleep. Not so now. A new era has dawned — conscience is roused from her long slumbers, and a scene of terrible conflicts has commenced. This second stage —
1. Is introduced by a spiritual revelation of the Divine law. "The commandment came." The law of God flashed on the conscience and revealed the true moral position. The bodily eye would never be developed without light. It would of course be a perfect organism, but it would not yield the sensation of sight. So with the conscience. It is a perfect organism, but without God's law it will never see. Bring "the commandment" upon it, and it will give the man a new world. When the beams of morning play upon the eyeball, the slumbering tribes awake; so when the light of God's law breaks on the conscience, the man awakes to his true condition. The revelation gives him three horrific feelings.
(1) The feeling of utter wrongfulness. He looks within and finds "no good thing." He feels towards the commandment as Hamlet's wicked mother felt towards her reproving son — "Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul," etc.
(2) The feeling of miserable slavery.
(a) In corporeal slavery the soul may rise on the wings of devotion, may revel in thought: but here the spiritual faculties are manacled.
(b) Death puts an end to physical and political slavery; but this spiritual slavery, death has no power to destroy.
(3) The feeling of moral death. Sin woke into consciousness, and "I died." The law was "found to be unto death." It "slew" him. What is the feeling of the criminal, who has been cheering his doleful state with the delusive hope of pardon, when the executioner tells him the fatal hour is come? What is the feeling of the young man whose blood is warm, heart buoyant, and hopes high, when the physician tells him that a fatal plague has seized him? The feeling of death! What is it? The question produces a cold shiver throughout the frame. But the feeling of death in relation to the soul, what can be more horrific?
2. Is characterised by a struggle to get deliverance by the law. In the first stage the law was disobeyed, but then there was no feeling about it; it was done mechanically. But now there is a struggle for a deliverance by the law.
(1) And this is futile, because the revelation of the law stimulates the tendency to disobey it. "It wrought in me all manner of concupiscence." Without the law sin was dead. To our depraved nature, "stolen waters are sweet." The moment a thing is prohibited our desire to obtain it is increased.
(2) And the struggle is painful, because whilst the law stimulates the tendency to sin, it deepens the impression of its enormity. It is when conscience approves of what we practically oppose that our life becomes intolerable. Thus the sinner in this state cries out, "O wretched man that I am," etc. This, then, is the second stage of the soul's history. Some reach it and agonise there forever. Cain, Belshazzar, Judas, did. Some reach it as did the thousands on the day of Pentecost, and thence pass on to the peaceful and perfect stage of being.
III. IN VICTORIOUS SOVEREIGNTY OVER THE FLESH. "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord."
1. The deliverance comes not by the law. The law brought on the conflict. The law exposed the disease, but had no remedy; the slavery, but it could not emancipate; the danger, but it could not deliver.
2. As an illustration of the enormity of sin. It is sin that has reduced man to this state in which he cries out, "O wretched man that I am," etc.
3. As a proof of the glory of the gospel. Science, education, law, the utmost human ingenuity and effort, none of these can deliver man. The gospel alone can do it, has done it, does it, and will do it.
(D. Thomas, D. D.)
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."