Master Sermon List
The Saint and the Seventh Chapter of Romans
by Horatius Bonar
I do not see how any one with a right insight into the apostle's argument, without a theory to prop up, or with any personal consciousness of spiritual conflict, could have thought of referring this chapter to a believer's unregenerate condition, or to his transition state while groping his way to rest.
It furnishes a key to an experience, which would otherwise have seemed inexplicable, the solution of perplexities which, without it, would have been a stumbling-block and a mystery.
It is God's recognition of the saint's inner conflict as an indispensable process of discipline, as a development of the contrast between light and darkness, as an exhibition of the way in which God is glorified in the infirmities of His saints, and in their contests with the powers of evil. Strike out that chapter, and the existence of sin in a soul after conversion is unexplained. It accounts for the inner warfare of the forgiven man, and gives the apostle's experience as a specimen of the conflict.
The previous chapters show the man forgiven, justified, dead, and risen with Christ. Is not sin extirpated, then? The seventh chapter answers, "No." It no longer reigns, but it fights. It does not, indeed, bring back condemnation or bondage or doubt, but it stirs up strife, strife which the completeness of the justification does not hinder, and which the saint's progress in holiness does not arrest, but rather aggravates, so that at times there seems to be retrogression, not advancement in the spiritual life.
"I delight in the law of God after the inner man," are the words, not of an inquirer, or doubter, or semi-regenerate man, but of one who had learned to say, with saints of other days, "0, how love I Thy law" (Psalm 119:97), nay with Messiah Himself, "I delight to do Thy will, 0 My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart" (Psalm 40:8).
"With the mind I myself serve the law of God," is the language of one to whom obedience had become blessedness, and who was not only looking into the perfect law of liberty, but continuing therein (James 1:25), in whose estimation serving righteousness (Rom 6:18), serving God (6:22), serving the Lord, and serving the law of God, were equivalents. But then he who thus speaks, this very Paul, who had died and risen with Christ, who had been in the third heaven, adds, "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. 0 wretched man that I am' Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? .. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God: but with the flesh the law of sin." This is not the language of an unregenerate or half-regenerate man.
When, however, he adds. "I am carnal, sold under sin." is it really Paul, the new creature in Christ, that he is describing? It is; and they who think it impossible for a saint to speak thus, must know little of sin, and less of themselves. A right apprehension of sin, of one sin or fragment of a sin (if such a thing there be), would produce the oppressive sensation here described by the apostle-a sensation which twenty or thirty years' progress would rather intensify than weaken. They are far mistaken in their estimate of evil, who think that it is the multitude of sins that gives rise to the bitter outcry, "I am carnal." One sin left behind would produce the feeling here expressed. But where is the saint, whose sins are reduced to one? Who can say, "I need the blood less and the Spirit less than I did twenty years ago?"
It is to be feared that some are carrying out their idea of "no condemnation," of resurrection with Christ, and of the perfection of the new man, to such an extreme as to leave no room for conflict after conversion. They do not see that while conversion calms one kind of storm, it raises another, which is to be lifelong. To such persons, this seventh chapter of Romans is as great a vexation as is the ninth chapter to the deniers of divine sovereignty: both are conscious that their theology would be more manageable without the explanations and modifications which these chapters force upon them.
They seem to teach that the regenerate man is made up of two persons, two individuals-the old man and the new man, constituting two separate and independent beings, an angel and a devil linked together-the old man unchangeably evil, the new perfect and impeccable. In this case one is disposed to ask:
1. Who is responsible for sin committed? Not the new man, for he is "perfect," and unless he either sins himself, or helps the old man to sin, he cannot be accountable for the evil done. A good man and a bad one, shut up in one prison, would not agree; but the former, however uncomfortable, would not feel responsible for the sins of the latter. Like David, he might mourn that he dwelt in Meshech, or like Lot, he might vex his righteous soul with the deeds done around him, but he would not take guilt to himself because of his neighbour's misdeeds.
It is the old man alone, then, that is the sinner!
2. Who gets the pardon? Is it the old man or the new? Not the new, for he is perfect; and it will hardly be affirmed that it is he who gets pardon for the sins of the old man. It must then be the old man that confesses the sin and gets the forgiveness, and is washed in the blood! Or is there no pardon needed, or none possible, is such a case? Are the sins of the old man unpardonable? If not unpardonable, why is he said to be hopelessly bad?
3. What becomes of the old man at death? Is he cast into hell? Or, if not, what becomes of him? Is he annihilated? If he be the sinner, and if his sins are not pardoned, what is to be done with him and with his sins?
4. For whom did Christ die? Not for the new man, seeing he is perfect from his creation. It must, then, have been for the old man, and for him alone, seeing it is he only that sins!
5. Who is it that dies, is buried, rises and ascends with Christ? Not the old man, surely? He does not rise again, and sit in heavenly places. Not the new man. He does not die, nor is he buried.
6. Who was it that was born again? Not the new man; he did not need that change. Not the old man; he was incapable of it.
7. Who is it that makes progress? Not the old man. He is beyond improvement. Not the new man, for he is perfect. So that there is no room for "the inner man being renewed day by day." Scripture teaches that the whole man advances, "increases in the knowledge of God," the old element becoming weaker, and the new stronger, and the individual growing in hatred of sin, love to God and Christ, the righteous law, and every holy thing. But how those who insist on the perfection of the new man and the unchangeableness of the old can teach progress, we do not see.
These questions, thus asked and answered, lead us to the simple conclusion that the language of the apostle is figurative. "Not figurative at all," said a friend to us. There is no figure in the matter. Only a rationalist would say so. Bible words are all real and literal." Real I grant; not always literal.
There are figures in Scripture. When the Lord said, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees," He used a figure, and His disciples were wrong in accepting His words literally. They were the rationalists. When He said, "Ye must be born again." He used a figure, and Nicodemus was mistaken in construing His language literally. He was the rationalist. The disciples and Nicodemus, by their literalities, turned our Lord's words into foolishness. So do some among us, by their teaching as to the old and new man. If there be no figure, then there must be two bodies, two souls, two spirits, those of the old man and the new; for a man is a being made up of body, soul and spirit. If there be no figure here, there will be no figure in Ezekiel 36:26, and it must be maintained that God literally takes out one heart and puts in another-takes out a stone and inserts flesh-in which case the old nature disappears entirely and the new reigns alone.
We know that there is conflict in the soul. But this is not between two persons or personalities, or separate individuals, but between two parts of one person. In the case before us, the one person is Paul-once Saul, now Paul. He feels himself responsible for the sins of the old man; he gets the pardon for the old man's sins; for the old man is but another name for a part of his own very self. It was Paul who was born again, who died and rose with Christ. He was "begotten again," not by the insertion of a foreign substance called "the new creature" into him, but by his becoming a new creature. The whole man is converted, puts on Christ, is washed in His blood, and clothed with the righteousness of God-soul, spirit, conscience, intellect and will. These are not perfected at once, but the transformation begins at regeneration, and though there are two conflicting elements, there is one responsible self or person.
This mysticism as to the old and new man proceeds on a confusion similar to that which mixes up justification and sanctification. The "old man," in the apostle's figure, evidently means sometimes our former legal condition, and at other times our former moral state. In the first sense, the old man is "crucified," "put off once for all, in believing, when we cease to have "confidence in the flesh" (Phil 3:3). Thus far it is true that it is not amended, but set aside entirely. In the second sense, there is a daily putting off what is old, and putting on what is new. It is like our putting on Christ, which is done once for all at justification, but also gradually, in the process of renewing, so that in one place we read, "Ye...have put on Christ" (Gal 3:27), and in another, "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 13:14). The mixture of these two things is the chief source of the errors we have been exposing.
This mysticism or confusion is a serious thing. It has been sometimes taught in such away as to lead men to believe that their peace rested on the perfection or impeccability of the new man. They were taught that the new man could not sin, that all sin came from the old man, whom they had put off, and that therefore they did not need to trouble themselves about sin. No doubt the consciences of some of these misled individuals shrunk from the full application of this antinomianism, but others went on in sin, not so much because grace abounded, as because they were not responsible for the sins indulged in. The new man in them did not commit the sin; it was the old man, who did it all, and what better could be expected of one who was totally incorrigible!
Thus the foundations were destroyed; the ground of reconciliation was not the blood of the Sin-bearer, but the new man; the foundation of peace was a perfect self, and not a perfect Christ. Nay, Christ was made the minister of sin, and all manner of evil was justified, on the plea that the new man could not sin.
This doctrine, as sometimes stated, reads not amiss. It looks plausible, as professing to rest on the very words of Scripture. But it only needs a slight analysis, a little taking to pieces, to show that its effect, if carried out, would be to destroy the feeling of responsibility, to weaken the sense of sin, to blunt the edge of conscience, to shift the foundation of a sinner's peace from Christ to self, to render the blood of sprinkling unnecessary, to hinder personal holiness, and to supersede the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul. For, as to this last, if the doctrine be true, there is no room for the Spirit's operation, any more than for the blood, as He cannot work in the old man, and does not need to work in the new.
That the Christian is not responsible for sin committed against his better will, nay, that sin in the Christian is not sin at all, has been maintained from Romans 7:17; "It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me." In this, however, the apostle is not shaking off responsibility from himself, but explaining a fact, giving the solution of a difficulty. The verse contains one of those peculiar Oriental negatives which the imperfection of human speech renders necessary, in order to bring out the whole of a great but complex truth, which, in less peculiar language, could not be perfectly enunciated. The passage is only one out of several, exhibiting the same apparently contradictory form of assertion. The others are as follows: "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal 2:20); "Unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord" (1 Cor 7:10); "I laboured..., yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor 15:10); "It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you" (Matt 10:20); "Of such an one will I glory, yet of myself I will not glory" (2 Cor 12:5). From these examples it is plain that the apostle, in Romans 7:17, did not intend to disavow either personality or responsibility or free agency, but simply to affirm the existence in himself of an overmastering element or power of evil, the consciousness of which led to the statement, "I am carnal, sold under sin," and to the exclamation, "0 wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"
The dislike which some have to consider this chapter as expository of a saint's daily conflict is by no means a safe sign of their religion or their theology. That peace with God through the blood of Christ should be the beginning of warfare seems to us one of the most inevitable conclusions from the gospel, whether of Christ or of Paul. Indeed, it goes farther back than this, to the first promise regarding the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and this warfare, internal no less than external, has filled up the life of every saint from the beginning. Apostolic conflict is but a reproduction of patriarchal. Abel and Stephen, Noah and Peter, Abraham and Paul, move over the same battlefield, for the church is one, her covenant one, her warfare one, her victory and glory one. Each saint has "groaned, being burdened," the groan has deepened as the light increased, and the New Testament fullness of liberty, instead of diminishing, has intensified the conflict. One can imagine David or Elijah perplexed about this unending war.
How thankful they would have been for the seventh chapter of Romans, as the clearing up of the mystery! Yet they fought on, as men fight in the twilight or the mist; they finished their course and won their crown. And shall we, in these last days, fling away the key to the mystery, which the Holy Spirit has given us by Paul? Or shall we get quit of the mystery by denying the existence of the conflict? Shall we stifle conscience by calling that no sin which is sin? Shall we extenuate trespass because found in a saint? Shall we sit easy under evil, because done by the old man, not the new, by the flesh, and not by the spirit? Shall we nurse our spiritual pride by calling the internal conflict an abnormal and unnecessary phase of Christian life, ascribing it to imperfect teaching, or meager faith, or the retention of the beggarly elements of Jewish bondage?
We may notice here 1 John 3:9: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin." This cannot mean that no man, once born again, ever commits sin; in that case there is no Christian upon earth. The apostle, in Chapter 1:7,8, takes for granted that the Christian does commit sin; nay, that he dare not say he has no sin without making God a liar, and showing that the truth is not in him. He means to affirm that the being born of God is the only way of deliverance from sin, and that holiness is the true and natural result of being born of God.
This kind of affirmation is common: "None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself' (Rom 14:7), that is, such is the life which might be expected from us. "He is the minister of God to thee for good" (Rom 13:4), that is, he would be, if he fulfilled his office. It is added, "He cannot sin, because he is born of God," that is, it is totally contrary to his nature to sin. See also the following passages: "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit" (Matt 7:18), that is, it is contrary to its nature to do so, though it sometimes does; "As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast," (Mark 2:19), that is, it would be incongruous and unnatural. (Compare such passages as the following: Luke 11:7; 14:20; John 7:7; 8:43; 9:4; 12:39; Acts 4:16,20; 1 Cor 2:14; 10:21; 2 Cor 13:8.) These passages show that "cannot" often means, not that the thing does not or might not occur, but that its occurrence is wholly against the nature of things. "Whoso abideth in Him sinneth not" (1 John 3:6); that is, this is the true and only preservation from sin. God's seed remaineth in us, for we are "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God" (1 Peter 1:23).