The following article from the pen of Brother Roberts appeared in The Christadelphian, September 1906 and is considered to be an outstanding exposition of the very important seventh chapter of Romans. It is, at the same time, both simple and extremely practical. It is therefore highly recommended as valuable reading material for young and old alike. Brother Roberts states: “This seventh chapter of Romans is almost a touchstone by which a man’s whereabouts in spiritual understanding may be ascertained”. He also writes: “Carnal men do not know what carnal nature is: anomalous though it may appear, it requires spiritual discernment to be able to know and recognise ‘the flesh’ in all its signification”. We would strongly encourage everyone to take the time to read this most helpful article and feel sure that it will be found to be time well spent.

This chapter forms part of a chain of reasoning, but may nevertheless be considered apart without disadvantage, if its relation to the chain is recognised. It presents an illustration of Peter’s remark about the epistles of Paul: “Wherein are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). There are statements in it that are only intelligible on a just apprehension of human nature in all its relations. Those who grasp only some of these, are baffled by some of those statements. It requires spiritual-mindedness to see their truth or understand them. Carnal men do not know what carnal nature is: anomalous though it may appear, it requires spiritual discernment to be able to know and recognise “the flesh” in all its signification. A lion does not know itself a lion, though it be such; man only knows it. Even so a carnal man does not know what the carnal nature is, which can only be discerned by the Spirit and by those who are taught thereby. To carnal men, this spiritual discernment is only a thing to laugh at, but it is none the less a palpable reality, which enables those possessing it to understand Paul, and to endorse Paul’s experience as their own. This seventh chapter of Romans is almost a touchstone by which a man’s whereabouts in spiritual understanding may be ascertained. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

The seventh chapter of Romans is particularly addressed “to them that know the law (of Moses)” (verse 1): because the argument to be employed was to hang on an illustration derived from the law, and to relate to their position in reference to the law.

The first fact laid down is, that the jurisdiction of the law over a man extended to the full term of his life. However long he might live, he could never reach an age when he would be free. “The law hath dominion over a man so long as he liveth.” Death put an end to this dominion, for no law could reach dead men. This is illustrated by the case of a husband to whom a wife was bound so long as he lived, but at whose death she was free to be married to another. Her husband died really, and she died legally, to the law holding them in union as man and wife; and the woman was at liberty to form a new connection. Paul applies both features of the illustration to the case in hand: “Ye, my brethren, are become dead to the law.” How? “By the body of Christ.” How came they to be related to the body of Christ? By being “baptised into Jesus Christ” (chap 6:3), and so becoming members of his body (Eph 5:30). What had the body of Christ to do with death? It was hung on Calvary till death invaded it. What had this to do with escaping the jurisdiction of the law? Christ was made under the law, subject to death like his brethren (Gal 4:4; Heb 2:9, 14-16). Therefore, when he died under the curse of the law, the jurisdiction of the law ceased; and when he rose again, he was “another” man in relation to what he had been before: a free man; by marriage with whom, we may obtain freedom also.

Is this what Paul means by the illustration of a widow being married to a new husband? Yes. He says “Ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another.” To whom? “To him who is raised from the dead.” Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to be married to the first Christ—Christ before crucifixion? Yes, if Renunciationism were the truth; for that teaches a free Christ before he became so by death and resurrection. But according to God’s wisdom, it would not have been sufficient, for he was not then free. Is it to the dead Christ we are married? No: “To him who is raised from the dead,” partaking whose death in baptism, we also partake of his purchased freedom from the law of sin and death. The imputation of being baptised into “a condemned Christ” is one of the slang vulgarisms of Renunciationism carrying weight only with the simple.

The object of this way of God is stated to be “that we should bring forth fruit unto God.” This is no chance saying or rhetorical finish to a sentence. It defines a principle and an object. It touches the very marrow of the plan of salvation. The object of that plan is that the glory of the goodness that will come by it may be directly and proximately and apparently due to Jehovah, and that the glory of the creature may be excluded. It is in one place expressed by Paul thus: “That we should be to the praise of his glory,” and again, “To the praise of the glory of his grace.” Had salvation been given as a reward of merit, there would have been something for the flesh to glory in: fruit brought forth in such a connection, would have been fruit unto ourselves; but “the law having entered that the offence might abound,” and all the world having thus become guilty and condemned, room is made for the abounding of grace or favour in our admission to forgiveness of sin for Christ’s sake, in whom the law has been vindicated and fulfilled. Fruit brought forth by those occupying this position of favour in Christ, is “fruit unto God.” They “show forth the praises of him who hath called them out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet 2:9). They are God’s husbandry (1 Cor 3:9): God’s workmanship created (by Him) in Christ Jesus unto good works (Eph 2:10). He has predestinated them unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of His will to the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph 1:5, 6).

To this position they are called by the gospel (2 Thess 2:14). When called, they are “in the grace of Christ” (Gal 1:6). The favour of being admitted to such a position is anterior to all “works.” The works to come after will decide whether or no we are to continue in it, but in the first instance, the conferring of it is independent of our works. Here lies the solution of all apparent conflict in the writings of the apostles on the subject of grace and works. The opportunity of being saved is of faith that it might be by grace (Rom 4:16), and it is of grace that it might be to the praise of God, to whom praise only truly belongs; and not to man who is powerless and empty; that we might bring forth fruit unto God and not to ourselves.

(Verse 5): “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.” In the literal sense, Paul was still in the flesh when he wrote these words, as illustrated by such remarks as “Though we walk in the flesh, we war not after the flesh” (2 Cor 10:3); “As many as have not known my face in the flesh” (Col 2:1). But in his spiritual relations, he was no longer “in the flesh”. He did not stand on the flesh; his hopes were not founded on its achievements; his friendship towards God was not based on its merits, but on God’s favour in Christ. It was his doctrine, that “they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8), because “all having sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), they were condemned already, and could not justify themselves from past sins by their good deeds. Hence, Paul did not and could not rest in the flesh as a ground of confidence. He describes himself and those who were with him, as those who rejoiced in Christ Jesus, “and had no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). But Paul once rested in the flesh, as is evident from this 5th verse: “When we were in the flesh.” As he says in Phil 3:4, “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law, a Pharisee.”

Before Paul saw Christ near Damascus, he was resting on his achievements under the law; he was then, spiritually, “in the flesh;” and his statement in the verse before us is, that “when he was in the flesh, the motions of sins which were by the law did work in his members to bring forth fruit unto death.” “But now,” says he, “we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held (that is, the bondage of the law which held them, ended in Christ, on whom it expended its whole curse), that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” The law is styled “the letter” because of its being a matter of writing, whereas the liberty of the gospel was a matter of living message by the Spirit from the Father. To serve under the latter was a far more glorious thing than to stand in a written law, in sin-laden doubt. In this connection, we can understand Paul’s language in 2 Cor 3: “Our sufficiency is of God, who hath made us able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the Spirit, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven on stones, was glorious … how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.”

But this argument about the law causing sin and bringing condemnation, suggests, on the face of it, that the law is a sinful thing. Paul accordingly anticipates and answers the objection. “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin but by the law.” Here we must pause a moment to consider the “I” of this and the succeeding eighteen verses. Who is it? It would not be necessary to ask this superfluous question were it not for a class of interpreters who find it necessary to say that this “I” is not Paul, but (to use their language of Ashdod) “an unregenerate man”—an ideal personation of wickedness introduced by Paul, to illustrate the workings of sin. A very rapid glance is sufficient to show the erroneousness of this gratuitous suggestion. The “I” of Paul’s discourse is one who is wretched on account of his shortcomings (v 24): this is not the condition of a man “dead in trespasses and sins.” Paul’s “I” thanks God at the prospect of deliverance through Christ (25): which the typical sinner of the new theory could not do. Paul’s “I” delights in the law of God after the inward man (22): this does not the so-called “unregenerate man.” Paul’s “I” also is one who “would do good” (21); who is conscious of a conflict between “the law of his mind” and “the law in his members;” who consents unto the law that it is good (16); who has the will to perform it (18), and who with the mind serves the law of God (25), in all which particulars the “I” differs totally from the man to whom his remarks are applied by the class in question. Most obviously the “I” is Paul himself, as the connection requires, and as is conclusively proved by the last sentence of the soliloquy: “So then with the mind, I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” Nothing but the requirements of a wrong theory could have suggested the violence of taking away these words from Paul, and putting them into the mouth of a so-called “unregenerate man”.

But now comes the question how some of the statements are to be understood if Paul is the speaker. This will best be answered by a close following of the statements, in the consideration of which, we shall find that Paul speaks of himself at different stages of his life, whence we obtain one clue to a right understanding. In answer to the question whether the law, after all he had said, was not to be considered sinful, he says (as already quoted): “God forbid! Nay, I had not known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust (ie, unlawful desire) except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet!” His object is to prove that the law was a spiritual institution designed to make manifest the corruptness of human nature. Keeping this in view (which is stated in verse 14), it is easy to follow the argument. Paul’s notions of sin were derived from the law; for if the law had not forbidden certain natural actions of the mind he would have remained ignorant of sin in these directions, though fully exercised therein. As he says elsewhere (Rom 3:20): “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” His argument is “the law is spiritual; for it taught me what sin was.” It made him aware of his tendency sin-wards. “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law, sin was dead.”

Here is a distinctly retrospective allusion—a reference to a past experience of Paul, which becomes more definite in the next three verses: “For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment which was ordained to life I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.” As a child of the circumcision, rejoicing in the inherited privileges of Abrahamic extraction, Paul, in his early years, was alive, looking up to God with confidence, and forward with hope in the promises made to the fathers. But when the commandment came to him, on his arrival at maturity, that is, when he came as an adult under the operation of the law—when his faculties awoke and his mind opened to the full perception of what the law required, he experienced the revulsion of feeling described in these verses. He found himself condemned by the law which was ordained to, and to which he looked for, life.

But he puts not the blame on the law. It was the propensities native to himself that rebelled under the dictation of the law. The conclusion he draws from the premises is (verse 12), “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, just and good.” But he again recurs to the apparent paradox: “Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid;” and in the next sentence he gives us the philosophy of the law, so to speak—a philosophy which is foolishness to the natural man, but in which, nevertheless, it is possible to discover a surpassing beauty. He states that its object was that “sin might appear sin, working death in him by that which was good; that sin by the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (verse 13). Sin (the natural rebelliousness of the human heart against the authority of God) was latent without the law. A man without command to do that which was disagreeable, or abstain from that which was pleasant to his natural impulses, could not be manifest either to himself or others in his real disposition towards God. He would be a sinner undeveloped for want of opportunity; innocent of transgression because of the absence of law, but certainly not a righteous man whose characteristic is submission to God. The object of the law was to make this latent sinner manifest. “The law entered that the offence might abound” (Rom 5:20). It was added because of transgression in this sense (Gal 3:19), that every mouth might be stopped and all the world become guilty before God (Rom 3:19). It was a complicated system of exactions by which weak human nature was certain to become convicted in many transgressions. For this reason it is that Paul was able to say, “As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal 3:10).

Sport has been made of the fact that God gave a law that men were not able to keep. Son-of-Belial like, the questioner has dared the presumptuous question, Why should He do such a thing? It would be a sufficient answer to ask, “Hath not the potter power over the clay,” to work it on any principle he chooses? It is easy to argue with apparent force against the principle in question. It is easy to ask, What would be thought of the man that should appoint his fellow a task impossible for him to accomplish, and then punish him for not performing it?

It is easy to quote Pharaoh ordering bricks without supplying the material; but all this is nothing to the point. You cannot argue from such a transaction between man and man, to what it is between God and man. First, man has no power over, or right of property in his fellow, whereas man is the workmanship and the property of God; and He may do with man what man may not do with man; for who shall say to Him, What doest thou? But the next thought is of even more consequence. Between man and man such a transaction, without any object beyond itself, would be tyrannical; whereas on the part of God, as an element in a process by which great good is to be worked out, it is the form of wisdom and kindness. One man cutting off another man’s leg with the intention to maim, is a monster: with the intent to save life from a dangerous malady, he is a benefactor. This illustrates the difference between the two, and demonstrates the shallowness of all arguments from man to God as to the working of this principle.

God gave a rigorous and burdensome law, that men might at last come to know how sinful they are, and how powerless to work out for themselves eternal good. Here it may be asked, Why did He allow man to get into such a state? Why didn’t He so watch and hedge the beginnings of things, that man might have continued very good, and earned the divine favour by his unfailing compliance with the divine will? The answer is: that God might be exalted in salvation being a thing of His own favour. Again it may be asked, Why is it so very important that God should be exalted? Why not develop eternal society upon the principle so much applauded in the world, of self-reliance, independence, self respect, &c. Here we touch the root and marrow of the whole subject. The recognition of God as the highest and the best and the benefactor— direct, tender and cordial—is necessary for the pleasure of God and the well-being of man, and is demanded by the eternal reason of things as the first law. God is eternal and sovereign: man a helpless dependent upon His power, wisdom and goodness. The recognition of this fact is the essential basis of intercourse between God and man, let alone eternal fellowship. The distinct, thrilling, striking recognition of this fact is brought about by precisely the experience through which God has put that part of the human race, of whom He intends to make future use. The law convinces them all as transgressors: every mouth is shut. There is no room for glorying. Salvation has come of the pure goodness of God, in harmony with His own wisdom. God is exalted, and we are abased to the position of humble recipients of His favour, in Christ, in whom our sins have been condemned. As an indispensable preliminary to this result, it was necessary that the natural man should be put under the law, “that sin (in him) might appear sin, and that by the commandment it might become (what it is) exceedingly sinful.”

“For we know,” continues Paul (verse 14) “that the law is spiritual:” it is the dictates of the Spirit’s authority and the embodiment of the Spirit’s wisdom, imposed upon the natural man, who as the Spirit’s work and property, is bound to be subject: “But I (Paul) am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do, I allow not, and what I would, that do I not; but what I hate that do I. If, then, I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 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. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then, a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man. 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. Oh! wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (verses 14-24).

These are the words that constitute the difficulty which some experience in the understanding of the 7th chapter of Romans. They think it inconceivable that Paul, the obedient and exemplary saint, who could say, “Be ye followers of me;” “Walk as ye have us for an example,” could describe himself in words which appear to imply an abandoned character. Their difficulty arises from a superficial view of the case. The difficulty disappears when we follow Paul in the full depth of his argument. He is dealing with the roots and the foundations of the subject. He is showing what the law is in itself, and what human nature is in itself. The former he proves to be holy and spiritual; and though the occasion of sin to those placed under it, the cause of this he shows to lie in them and not in it. He makes us of himself to illustrate the point; for he could speak experimentally as one in whom the law had wrought its full work of causing him to know himself. And although standing in the liberty of the gospel, and serving and delighting in the law of God after the inward man, he was still in the flesh physically, and, therefore, carried about with him the spiritual burden of the old man, whom, though held in subjection, he found to be an ever-present obstacle to the full flights marked out by the new mental man created in him in Jesus Christ. He could, therefore, declare all the things set forth in the concluding half of the chapter, without creating any difficulty as to his acceptable walk and conversation.

Those who have soared the highest, spiritually, will understand this the best. Spiritual-mindedness only feels the burden of the natural man. The natural man, pure and simple, has no sense of burden in a spiritual direction; he is content with his attainments because he knows nothing beyond them; like a rustic dauber on canvas, well pleased with his own productions and those of his fellowdaubers, which would fill with anguish the soul of a true artist. Paul had become spiritually-minded, but this was an engraftment from without. It was super-imposed on the natural Paul by the education of the truth and (in his case) the direct instruction of the Spirit. It was a new man united with the old or natural man. There was thus a duality created, of which every man similarly subject to the Spirit is conscious; not a separable duality, but still a felt one, so far as mental operations are concerned. It is necessary to have this duality in view, in order to appreciate Paul’s remarks in question. The duality is very visible in his remarks. Of the one he says, “In me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing;” implying that in the other me—that is, the new “me,” the mental “me” created by the Spirit through the word—there was some goodness, viz, a capacity to “delight in the law of God after the inward man” (verse 22). Again, “I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind.” This is what he said to the Galatians: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal 5:17).

The implantation of the mind of the Spirit by the word, does not extirpate the natural man with his affections and lusts; it imposes but a check, a control, a power to restrain and crucify, and bring into subjection. But this power does not obtain complete ascendancy: as long as the body continues physically the mortal, sinful thing it is, the natural man acts as an obstruction to the operations of the new man of the Spirit, causing the person thus dually-constituted to feel and speak as Paul, being conscious, like him, of inability to accomplish what he “would,” and a necessary submission to things he “would not.” Of the natural man, which (though in subjection) continues till we are glorified, he can say, “I am carnal, sold under sin.” This we inherit: sin personified is the owner of the human race, because through disobedience at the beginning, it obtained possession of the whole, and therefore, of the saints, such as they are as natural men, and continues in possession till they are redeemed from the power of the grave. The release begins with the mind and ends with the body. The latter continues “dead because of sin” (Rom 8:10), till he for whom we look from heaven shall “change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body.” While they continue in the flesh, they can say with Paul, “That which I do I allow not; what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”

This has always been a puzzle to the carnal class, but is intelligible enough to those who “delight in the law of the Lord after the inward man.” Many illustrations of its meaning might be given. Let one or two suffice. Perfect fellowship with God (and it is after a perfect fellowship that the new man aspires) requires a continual memory and a continual love and adoration of Him—a continual sense of His greatness and holiness—a continual praise, though unexpressed. To forget God is sin; to see Him always before us at our right hand is the example set for us by the Spirit in David and his son. But behold this natural sinner with which we as yet are clogged: his thoughts get easily filled with other things; he gets exhausted in physical energy, and in a state of mental blank towards God; nay, worse, through this weakness, he perhaps forgets his duty to a neighbour, and fails to sustain the part of an obedient son. The commandments concerning submission to evil, or concerning the doing of good, may be forgotten by him. He may think selfish thoughts or contemplate a selfish purpose, or fail in the management of his affairs, as a disinterested and faithful steward of the manifold grace of God. Concerning anger also, from the same weakness he may often fail. These things which he does, he allows not. He hates them, and himself as the performer. The things that he would do – the continual communion with God, the continual serenity, and purity, and love, and obedience, the continual blessing and comforting of others – he does not. His attainments are feeble, and blemished by continual imperfection; and in consequence, he knows by experience what are the unutterable groanings Godwards, through the interceding Spirit in Christ, to which Paul alludes in Romans 8:26.

At the same time, he takes the comfort that Paul administers to himself: “If, then, I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.” We will not be held accountable for the non-performance of the impossible. It is not that He may punish us, but that He may make His kindness the more obvious, that weakness is the inheritance of the children of God in the first stage. Sin dwelling in them is the cause of their short-comings. The new mental man created by the truth (where he is created and is kept alive by the continual nourishment of the word)— repudiates and grieves for the short-comings. He consents heartily unto the law of all God’s requirements that it is good. It is not he that is guilty of the things he grieves for. If things were as he ardently desires, he would serve God day and night continually, without fault. It is a grief and a burden that he has not yet apprehended that for which he has been apprehended of God. He is looking and longing with all his heart for the time when he will be delivered from the bondage of the corruption, and rise to equality with those glorious beings, the angels of his power, who “excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening to the voice of his word—His ministers that do his pleasure” (Psa 103:20). In the spirit-nature, conformity with the will of God will be as instinctive and easy to him as failings are with him now. He yearns for this nature, and strives to walk in accordance with its dictates now. His life in its overt acts is ordered in harmony with its precepts.

This, in fact, is the great difference between him and those who are purely carnal: the latter have no aspirations Godwards, but are content with what they “know naturally as brute beasts”; the other pants after God, as the hart panteth for the water brooks, and strives to obey His commandments while yet in a state of humiliation before Him, because of the cleaving of his soul to the dust. He joins fervently in Paul’s exclamation, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death. I thank God (who shall deliver me) 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.” That is, mentally, we seek after what God requires; but physically, we are subject to those conditions and necessities whose existence is due to sin.

There is much in all these things that to the merely mathematical mind will appear paradoxical. No man can comprehend them who is destitute of a living sense of a living God, for this is the leading factor in the whole problem. Because the natural man is destitute of this (“for the carnal mind is enmity against God. It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be”—Rom 8:7); therefore it comes to be true that “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned.” But let a man fear God, which is the beginning of wisdom, and let him reverently, diligently and prayerfully read His word, and he will be able to understand these (at first sight difficult, but really) comforting and glorious things, for it is written: “My son, if thou wilt receive my words and hide my commandments with thee, so that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom and apply thine heart to understanding; yea, if thou criest after knowledge and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Prov 2:1-5). “The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that hope in His mercy” (Psalm 147:11). “All the words of His mouth are in righteousness. There is nothing froward or perverse in them. They are all plain to him that understandeth and right to them that find knowledge” (Prov 8:8, 9). “Who is wise and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? For the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them, but the transgressors shall fall therein” (Hosea 14:3). “Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov 16:5). “For evil men understand not judgment; but they that seek the Lord understand all things” (Prov 28:5).