(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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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. 1 Kings 21:20; 1 Kings 21:25.)
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.
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 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.