Father Callan’s Commentary on Romans 7:13-25

NOT THE LAW, BUT SIN IS THE CAUSE OF DEATH; THE LAW WAS
IMPOTENT IN THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE FLESH AND THE
SPIRIT 

A Summary of Romans 7:13-25~It is a disputed question whether here or with the following verse, begins a new section, embracing the rest of this chapter. Lagrange and Kuhl (against Cornely, Julicher and others) prefer to begin the section with the present verse, because the prevailing idea which is here introduced is that of death. It has already been made clear that the law was not the cause of sin, but now the question is raised whether it was not the cause of death. This latter inference is rejected as vigorously as was the former one. Sin was the cause of death; and the Apostle in these verses (Rom 7:13-25) describes the force and power of sin, and the impotency of fallen man under the yoke of the law. He shows that while man recognized the justice and sanctity of the law, he was nevertheless, unequal to the struggle which ensued between the flesh and the reason, and was lured to sin, and so succumbed to defeat and to death.  Therefore, sin being victor, wielded its dreadful influence against the law itself.

It is further disputed whether St. Paul in these verses is speaking of man not yet regenerated in Jesus Christ through Baptism, or the contrary. The majority of the Fathers and most modern authorities, Catholic and Protestant, hold the first view; while St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and many non-Catholic interpreters prefer the second opinion, namely, that the Apostle is here speaking of man already regenerated by Baptism, but aware of his inability without grace really to fulfil the law of God. The first opinion seems far the more probable, because more conformable to the context. It is admitted by all that, up to the end of verse 12, the Apostle is speaking of unregenerated man, and there seems no sufficient reason for saying that with verse 13 or 14 he begins to speak of man regenerated. If the present tense is used, it is only to give added vigor to his words. The aim of the Apostle is to show the powerlessness of the law as a principle of salvation—a powerlessness which made the triumph of sin more evident, and obliged man to have recourse to the grace of Jesus Christ (Lagrange).

We hold then, that there is question in this section (Rom 7:13-25) of fallen unregenerated man, of sin in general, and of the general positive law of God.

Rom 7:13. Was that then which is good, made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it may appear sin, by that which is good, wrought death in me; that sin, by the commandment, might become sinful above measure.

That then which is good means the positive law or precept of God.

Made death, i.e., did it become the cause of spiritual death, by leading to sin? No, says St. Paul. It has already been explained (Rom 7:10) that sin was the cause of death ; the commandment was only the occasion. But it may rightly be asked why God gave the law or commandment, since He certainly foresaw it was to be the occasion of death. St. Paul replies,—(a) in order that sin might appear sin, i.e., might manifest its own evil nature and be recognized as such; (b) in order that sin might be recognized as something evil above measure, inasmuch as it made use of a good thing, the commandment, for an evil purpose, turning an instrument of life into an instrument of death.

The advantage, therefore, of the law, was this, that it brought out the real nature of sin. Without any law man would have known only theoretically the distinction between good and evil, but the law has made him realize in a practical way that which is good and that which is bad. If the law occasioned the multiplication of sins, it also served to expose the real nature and malice of sin, as something opposed to the will of God and the order of divine providence; and it did, moreover, make man recognize his own weakness and misery, and the powerlessness of the law to save him, thus forcing him to look to grace and to the future Redeemer for salvation (Rom 7:24). We understand sin in this verse as in the verses preceding.

In the Vulgate appareat does not so literally express the Greek as would appareret.

Rom 7:14. For we know that the law is spiritual ; but I am carnal, sold under sin.

We know, etc., i.e., we are all agreed that the law is spiritual, i.e., that God’s positive law, given in the beginning to our first parents, as well as later to Moses, was from above, from God Himself. But I, i.e., fallen man, deprived of grace, am carnal, i.e., dominated by my lower nature, which corrupted by sin seeks the things that are opposed to God.

Sold under sin, i.e., become the slave of sin, obeying the behests of sin.

It is to be observed that the Apostle says here the law is spiritual (πνευματικος = pneumatikos) , whereas in verse 6 he spoke of the “oldness” of its “letter.” Answer: The Apostle is not bound to observe the same terminology in speaking of different aspects of the law. This lack of uniformity or consistency of style will be further explained, if we hold that in verse 6 he is speaking of the Mosaic Law, but here of the positive law of God in general.

Rom 7:15. For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do.

Now the Apostle speaks in terms that amount almost to an exaggeration. He says that man is an enigma, he cannot understand him, or, at least, his works and actions. Man’s nature was not altogether corrupted by original sin, and hence even without grace he can know and love moral good and distinguish it from moral evil in many instances; but when it comes to the actual doing of the one and the avoiding of the other frequently he finds himself bereft of the necessary power. Often he would do the good which he likes, but he has not the power; often likewise he would avoid the evil which he hates, but he has not the power.

It is evident that I will and I hate here refer merely to simple velleity; whereas I do not and I do are external actions which, proceeding from an absolute will that has overcome velleity, are imputable to the agent.

The human situation here described by St. Paul can be as well understood as referring to the period before the Law of Moses as after that period. Just as the Mosaic Law indicated for the Jews the good to be done and the evil to be avoided, but gave no help for the execution of its mandates, so likewise did the natural law unobscured show the pagans what they should do, and what they should not do, without, however, giving them the necessary help to put into practice its promptings. The Gentiles as well as the Jews felt the conflict between their lower and their higher nature. Hence Ovid wrote: Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (Metam. VII. 20, 21). Similarly speaks Epictetus of the transgressor: Quod vult non facit, et facit quod non vult (Enchir. II. 26).

The bonum and malum of the Vulgate are not in the Greek; they are a gloss, evidently implied in the context. The same is to be said of good and of evil in our English version.

Rom 7:16. If then I do that which I will not, I consent to the law, that it is good.

If that which I feel I ought not to do, because it is evil, is forbidden by the law, my feeling is a testimony that the law is good and holy ; my mind and my conscience are a witness that the law is good.

Rom 7:17. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

Since the higher part of man desires to conform to God’s law and do that which is right and good, while his lower nature makes it often impossible for him to observe the law in practice, St. Paul concludes that there are in man two principles: the I that would obey the law and do good, and sin that prevails over man’s superior nature and produces evil. The Apostle speaks as if man in his unregenerated state were really possessed by an evil spirit, but he is only again personifying the sin which came into the world with Adam, which is inherited by all of Adam’s descendants and which tyrannizes over man, ever inclining him to violate the law of God (Lagrange). St. Paul is not here wishing to deny or to diminish man’s culpability; neither is he fixing the degree of responsibility which underlies those violent movements of passion that lead to sin, and are often the consequences of sin. He wishes only to make known both the state of misery in which man finds himself under the slavery of sin, and the cause which makes him do that which he knows is evil and which he hates. This cause, he says, is sin—sin personified, which entered the world with the fall of Adam and ever remains, infecting human nature.

Rom 7:18. For I know that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will, is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good, I find not.

Here St. Paul says clearly that it is a fact of experience that there are in man two forces, equivalent in a certain sense to two persons : the one which is devoid of good and is the slave of sin, namely, the flesh, which does evil; the other, the interior man (verse 20), the reason (verse 23), which, with an imperfect and inefficacious will, wishes to do good, but is unable to accomplish it. There dwells not in the flesh a principle of good that can combat sin, because the flesh is the slave of sin; and the intelligence, the reason, the judgment of conscience desires to do good, but is overpowered by the forces that incline to evil. The dualism is, therefore, between the flesh enslaved by sin, and the reason or intelligence which perceives the good; it is not between the soul and the body.

Here, as well as in verses 19 and 20, I will and I will not express mere velleity or inefficacious volition; whereas I do means a complete voluntary act, although not necessarily manifested externally.

In the Vulgate perficere, which signifies a complete moral act, whether internal or external, should rather be operari (κατεργαζεσθαι: “To work fully.” Translated as “accomplish” above). Perficere means “to accomplish,” “to do thoroughly”, “perfect”, “complete”. Operari means “work,” “labor”. 

Invenio (“find”, “discover”) is not represented in the Greek MSS., which read: (ευρισκω, Latin: velle-”to be willing”). Velle adjacet mihi, perficere autem bonum non (“For to will is present with me: but to accomplish that which is good– not”). The words I find should be omitted therefore. 

Rom 7:19. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do.

See above, on verse 15. The Apostle is not denying free will, nor saying that man is necessitated to evil; he is merely saying that man disapproves of the evil he does and would like to do good.

Rom 7:20. Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

The conclusion of verse 17 is here repeated. If man does evil which he hates and wishes not to do, it is no longer he, but sin within him, that does the evil. Yet man is responsible (see above, on verses 15, 17, 18). 

Rom 7:21. I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me.

Judging from what was said in the preceding verses, which is unregenerated man’s daily experience, St. Paul draws this psychological conclusion or explanation, that there is in man another law, the law of sin (verse 23), fighting against the reason and the judgment of conscience, and leading man into sin. The law (τον νομο) here does not mean the Law of Moses (Cornely, Lagrange), nor any law other than a constant rule of action, a natural tendency, the law of man’s condition (verses 23, 25), which, when man wishes to do good, ever inclines him to evil and to sin.

The Fathers and ancient exegetes understood “law” here, with the article in Greek, to mean the Mosaic Law; but this view cannot well be sustained and has been rejected by nearly all modern interpreters, Catholic and non-Catholic, except Zahn. Cf. Cornely, h. l. 

Rom 7:22. For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man:
Rom 7:23. But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members.

Man in his unregenerated state, considered according to the inward man, i.e., according to his nobler part, his reason, is delighted with the law of God, because he knows that it is good and holy, but according to the law of the flesh or of sin, which has its seat in his material members, and which fights against the law of reason, he is drawn away from the law of God and led like a slave to evil. Man here is spoken of as captivated, i.e., enslaved by sin, and hence he is surely in an unregenerated state. Captivating, however, means only moving man to sin, not forcing him to consent,— motione non consensione (“to move, not consent” St. Aug., 2 Ep. contra Pelag., cap. 10).

The term “law” (νόμος) occurs four times in these two verses. The more common opinion considers the law of God and the law of the mind as one; and, likewise, another law and the law of sin as one. Kuhl, however, following the opinion of St. Jerome, holds that there are here four distinct laws: the law of God and the law of sin, which are exterior to man, and the law of the mind and the law of the flesh, or that other law, which are within him. But as St. Paul is at present considering man only as he finds him, in the state of original sin with its consequences, he is really speaking of only three distinct laws; for the law of the members, or of the flesh, is in reality the law of sin in fallen man (Lagrange).

In verse 23 repugnantem legi does not so well express  αντιστρατευομενον as would militantem adversus legem. The first phrase is used in the Vulgate and means “repugnant to the law.” The second means “fighting against the law” and is the translation employed by the Douay-Rheims: But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members. 

Rom 7:24. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 

Unregenerated man, feeling his enslavement to sin, cries out almost in despair for help from God to be delivered from the body in which dwells sin, the cause of death. He does not ask to be freed from his mortal body, but only from the body inasmuch as it is the slave of sin, and so destined to temporal and eternal death (Cornely). In other words, he asks to be delivered from sin, which resides in his members, in such a way that his body will no longer be the seat of that evil power which leads both body and soul to death temporal and eternal. 

Rom 7:25. The grace of God, by Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh, the law of sin.

To the foregoing question the Apostle gives a reply that comes directly from his fervid heart. That which will deliver man from the tyranny of sin is not the power of his mind or reason, not the positive law of God, whether Mosaic or other, but the grace of God communicated to man through the merits of Jesus Christ. Then resuming all that has preceded, he concludes by insisting on the unity of man, in whom, however, there exist contrary tendencies, one inclining to the law of God, the other leading to sin.

The first part of the verse is differently read in the MSS. The reading of the Vulgate and of the Itala is supported by only a few rare MSS. The reading preferred by Tischendorf, Nestle and Lagrange is χαρις τω θεω. Hence the translation of the critical reading would be gratia Deo, “thanks be to God“, instead of gratia Dei, “the grace of God“. This latter translation would require the genitive, whereas the Greek has the dative case, (cf. 1 Cor 15:57, for a similar passage).

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