THE LAW, ALTHOUGH GOOD IN ITSELF, WAS THE OCCASION OF NEW SINS
A Summary of Romans 7:7-12
A Summary of Romans 7:7-12
In these verses the Apostle discusses the relations which God’s positive law bore to man and sin. He is most probably not discussing his own personal religious experience, either as a Christian or before his conversion, but is rather describing the state of man without grace and with only God’s law to help him in the struggle against sin.
But here at the outset, a difficulty is raised. Paul has just spoken (Rom 7:4) of death to the Law, as he had before (Rom 6:2) spoken of death to sin. One might therefore conclude that sin and the Law were the same thing, i.e., that the Law was something bad in itself and contrary to the will of God. This view Marcion and other heretics afterwards took, although St. Paul here swiftly corrected such a fallacious conclusion by the words “God forbid.” Furthermore, since there seems to be question here not only of the Mosaic Law, but also of all positive divine law or precept (ο νομος . . . της εντολης [the law…the commandment; see Rom 7:7-8])—such as was given to Adam. Noe, Abraham, and all the ancient Patriarch —certain critics, like Julicher, have concluded that St. Paul meant here to reject, at least in principle, all positive divine law. Fr. Prat (La Theologie de Saint Paid, I, p. 320) has even asked, by way of objection, if the argument of St. Paul might not be turned also against the law of grace. If the old positive law, it is objected, was abrogated because it only served to excite concupiscence, and thus increase the number and gravity of men’s sins, why impose any other law on Christians, and so augment their peril, even though they are given more grace to combat sin?
The solution given to these difficulties by Lagrange is that St. Paul is not treating in this place of the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, nor is he giving the reason why it was abrogated. The reason for the abrogation of the Law has already been given (Rom 7:4), which was the death of Christ, to which the faithful are associated by Baptism. The present section (Rom 7:7-12), therefore, says the great exegete, is rather “a sincere apology for the Law, which was good, and at the same time, a very clear affirmation that all law was insufficient, because it did not give any power to conquer sin; but, on the contrary, rather afforded sin the occasion to muster force for the destruction of man. The conclusion is not, therefore: The Mosaic Law ought to be abrogated, nor: All divine positive law ought to be abrogated; but: It is foolish to place confidence in any positive law.” “One might even conclude,” he adds, “if one so wishes, that all laws, as laws, have their inconveniences, and that, consequently, it is necessary to trust entirely to grace, and to count upon grace to triumph over the shortcomings of every law that is the occasion of sin” (Ep. aux Rom., h. 1.)
Again the question is asked who is meant by the “I” and the “me” running through these Rom 7:7-12? There are chiefly three different responses to this question: (a) According to St. Augustine (primo modo), St. Chrysostom, and St. Thomas Aquinas, the “I” represents man in general, humanity, before the Law of Moses was given; (b) according to St. Augustine (secundo modo), St. Jerome, Origen, and Cornely, the “I” is a young Israelite who has been instructed in the Law from his infancy; (c) according to Lagrange—modifying the opinion of St. Methodius, Cajetan, and others—the “I” here means man in the state of innocence, or Adam in the terrestrial paradise.
But what is the meaning of sin here? In the first two theories, by “sin” would be meant original sin in its proper sense, or that evil force which comes from original sin, and which we call concupiscence. In the third theory the term would designate sin in general, or sin as a concrete force or power, almost as a person, manifesting itself as original sin and otherwise (Lagrange).
We shall now proceed to explain this difficult section (Rom 7:7-12) in accordance with the third system or theory, which to us seems perhaps best calculated to meet all the difficulties involved. We have, then, three actors to reckon writh: the ancient divine positive law, man in the state of innocence, and sin personified. Cf. Lagrange, h. 1.
Rom 7:7. What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? God forbid. But I do not know sin, but by the law; for I had not known concupiscence, if the law did not say: Thou shalt not covet.
Is the law sin? i.e., was the ancient divine positive law, of which the Law of Moses was the most perfect type, bad in itself, the same as sin, being the cause of sin. St. Paul rejects with indignation such an impious deduction.
But I do not know sin, etc., i.e., man in a state of innocence did not have a practical or experimental knowledge of sin (2 Cor 5:21), although he knew it speculatively. “Sin” means sin personified, in general, as manifested in original and other sins.
But by the law, i.e., by the positive declaration of God. There is here plainly an allusion to the Mosaic Law (Exodus 20:17; Deut 5:21), but the meaning is not necessarily restricted to it. Man would not have known sin, except theoretically, aside from the Law of God. And what is here said of the divine positive law, holds also in its measure, for the natural law which God has written on every human heart.
Concupiscence here means illicit desire in general, as a general cause or source of sin (St. Thomas). The divine positive law given even in paradise forbade not only exterior sinful acts, but also internal unlawful desires (Gen 2:17).
The nesciebam (“I would not have realized”) of the Vulgate does not so exactly express the Greek as would nescirem (“I would not know”).
Rom 7:8. But sin taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.
But sin, i.e., sin in general, the powerful enemy of man, made use of the commandment, i.e., of God’s positive precept, to excite man’s will. This was true of the serpent of old in the Garden of Eden. According to Cornely and his theory, “sin” here means concupiscence, which, remaining after the remission of original sin, found in the command not to covet (verse 7) an occasion to excite in the young Israelite all manner of evil desires.
It is a characteristic of our nature that we are often more inclined to those things which are forbidden us. Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupinusque negata . . . quod licet ingratum est, quod non licet arcius urit ( We are always eager for forbidden things, an yearn for what is denied us…What we can have for the asking we never want, to forbid a thing adds ardour to our longing. Ovid, Amor. iii. 4, 17; ii. 19, 3). Thus sin, taking advantage of God’s precept, excited all kinds of desires in our first parents, for the forbidden fruit of paradise. But without the law sin was dead, i.e., when there was no positive law, as for a time in paradise (Gen 2:16), sin was without any force; it was hidden and did not manifest itself, because before the prohibition of the law it did not have occasion to show its power by alluring to forbidden acts. Thus man was “without the law,” for peccans absque mandato non tenetur lege peccati (“without sin, the command is not forced by the law of sin.” St. Jerome). Cornely, in the second theory explained above, says the period “without the law” means the years of infancy, before the dawn of reason, when sin was “dead,” i.e., had no meaning for the young Israelite. I’m not very sure about the accuracy of my translation of the quote from St Jerome.
There should be no comma after accepta in the Vulgate, and per mandatum should precede peccatum. A comma after mandatum is the preferable construction (Lagrange, Cornely).
Rom 7:9. And I lived some time without the law. But when the commandment came, sin revived,
I lived some time, etc., i.e., before the Law of Moses (St. Thomas); or before the use of reason (Cornely); or more probably before the precept was imposed on Adam in the Garden of Eden (Lagrange). It is true that “commandment” (της εντολης) can signify the Law of Moses, or a precept of the Law, such as the command not to covet; but since there seems to be question of living a real spiritual life before the coming of the commandment, it is difficult to see how this could be reconciled with the facts as they existed from the Deluge to Moses (against the first theory). There is less difficulty in Cornely’s theory, according to which the young Israelite lived a life of grace between the time of circumcision and the moment when the Law began to oblige. In this opinion sin revived would mean that original sin, having been effaced by circumcision, revived in concupiscence as soon as the child attained the use of reason and realized the existence and obligation of the precept, “thou shalt not covet.” In the third theory sin was dead, i.e., was without any force against any positive law, until that law existed, but when the command was given, as in paradise, it revived, i.e., it began to exercise its force, overcame its victim, and man died.
Rom 7:10. And I died. And the commandment that was ordained to life, the same was found to be unto death to me.
The commandment which was given to lead man to sanctity and to life eternal became, through deliberate actual sin on man’s part, the occasion of his fall from grace and of his spiritual death. The cause of this dreadful evil was not the commandment, but the weakness and sinfulness of man.
Rom7:11. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, seduced me, and by it killed me.
See commentary above, on verse 8. The Apostle explains how the commandment, good in itself, became an occasion of death through sin. Here the reference seems to be very clearly to what took place in Eden when Eve was seduced by the serpent (Gen 3:13; 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14).
The punctuation of this verse in the Vulgate is correct, and shows what that of verse 8 should be.
Rom 7:12. Wherefore the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
The Apostle now responds to the question raised in Rom 7:7. Both the law and the commandment are holy, i.e., every precept given by God is holy. The law is holy as opposed to religious impurity; it is just, because it rewards the good and punishes the bad; it is good as conducing to sanctity (Euthymius). If the law was the occasion of many sins, that was on account of the weakness and wickedness of man.
Cornely understands “law” here to mean the whole Mosaic legislation, and “commandment” to refer to the precept, “thou shalt not covet” (verse 7).
The quidem (μεν “indeed”) of the Vulgate without its corresponding autem (δε “but”, “however”), shows that the thought is incomplete, and that we must understand: “sin, however, is bad.” To clarify: the subject introduced by Quidem (Greek: μεν) usually demands some form of contrast, e.g., the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good; sin, however is bad.