“For we know that the Law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.”
After having said that great evils had taken place, and that sin, taking occasion by the commandment, had grown stronger, and the opposite of what the Law mainly aimed at had been the result, and after having thrown the hearer into a great deal of perplexity, he goes on next to give the rationale of these events, after first clearing the Law of any ill suspicion. For lest — upon hearing that it was through the commandment that sin took that occasion, and that it was when it came that sin revived, and through it deceived and killed — any one should suppose the Law to be the source of these evils, he first sets forth its defense with considerable advantage, not clearing it from accusation only, but encircling it also with the utmost praise. And this he lays down, not as granting it for his own part, but as declaring a universal judgment. “For we know,” he says, “that the Law is spiritual.” As if he had said, This is an allowed thing, and self evident, that it “is spiritual,” so far is it from being the cause of sin, or to blame for the evils that have happened. And observe, that he not only clears it of accusation, but bestows exceeding great praise upon it. For by calling it spiritual, he shows it to be a teacher of virtue and hostile to vice; for this is what being spiritual means, leading off from sin of every kind’.
And this the Law did do, by frightening, admonishing, chastening, correcting, recommending every kind of virtue. Whence then, was sin produced, if the teacher was so admirable? It was from the listlessness of its disciples. Wherefore he went on to say, “but I am carnal;” giving us a sketch now of man, as comporting himself in the Law, and before the Law. “Sold under sin.” Because with death (he means) the throng of passions also came in. For when the body had become mortal, it was henceforth a necessary thing for it to receive concupiscence, and anger, and pain, and all the other passions, which required a great deal of wisdom to prevent their flooding us, and sinking reason in the depth of sin. For in themselves they were not sin, but, when their extravagancy was unbridled, it wrought this effect. Thus (that I may take one of them and examine it as a specimen) desire is not sin: but when it has run into extravagance, being not minded to keep within the laws of marriage, but springing even upon other men’s wives; then the thing henceforward becomes adultery, yet not by reason of the desire, but by reason of its exorbitancy. And observe the wisdom of Paul. For after praising the Law, he hastens immediately to theearlier period, that he may show the state of our race, both then and at the time it received the Law, and make it plain how necessary the presence of grace was, a thing he labored on every occasion to prove. For when he says, “sold under sin,” he means it not of those who were under the Law only, but of those who had lived before the Law also, and of men from the very first. Next he mentions the way in which they were sold and madeover.
Verse 15. “For that which I do, I know not.”
What does the “I know not” mean? — I am ignorant. And when could this ever happen? For nobody ever sinned in ignorance. Seest thou, that if we do not receive his words with the proper caution, and keep looking to the object of the Apostle, countless incongruities will follow? For if they sinned through ignorance, then they did not deserve to be punished. As then he said above, “for without the Law sin is dead,” not meaning that they did not know they were sinning, but that they knew indeed, but not so distinctly; wherefore they were punished, but not so severely: and again; “I should not have known lust;” not meaning an entire ignorance of it, but referring to the most distinct knowledge of it; and said, that it also “wrought in me all manner of concupiscence, not meaning to say that the commandment made the concupiscence, but that sin through the commandment introduces an intense degree of concupiscence; so here it is not absolute ignorance that he means by saying, “For what I do, I know not;” since how then would he have pleasure in the law of God in his inner-man? What then is this, “I know not?” I get dizzy, he means, I feel carried away, I find a violence done to me, I get tripped up without knowing how. Just as we often say, Such an one came and carried me away with him, without my knowing how; when it is not ignorance we mean as an excuse, but to show a sort of deceit, and circumvention, and plot. “For what I would, that I do not: but what I hate, that I do.” How then canst thou be said not to know what thou art doing? For if thou willest the good, and hatest the evil, this requires a perfect knowledge. Whence it appears that he says, “that I would not,” not as denying free will, or as adducing any constrained necessity. For if it was not willingly, but by compulsion, that we sinned, then the punishments that took place before would not be justifiable. But as in saying “I know not,” it was not ignorance he set before us, but what we have said; so in adding the “that I would not,” it is no necessity he signifies, but the disapproval he felt of what was done. Since if this was not his meaning in saying, “That which I would not, that I do:” he would else have gone on, “But I do what I am compelled and enforced to.” For this is what is opposed to willing and power.
But now he does not say this, but in the place of it he has put the word, “that I hate,” that you might learn how when he says, “that I would not,” he does not deny the power. Now, what does the “that I would not” mean? It means, what I praise not, what I do not approve, what I love not. And in contradistinction to this, he adds what follows; “But what I hate, that I do.”
Verse 16. “If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the Law, that it is good.”
You see here, that the understanding is not yet perverted, but keeps up its own noble character even during the action. For even if it does pursue vice, still it hates it the while, which would be great commendation, whether of the natural or the written Law. For that the Law is good, is (he says) plain, from the fact of my accusing myself, when I disobey the Law, and hate what has been done. And yet if the Law was to blame for the sin, how comes it that he felt a delight in it, yet hated what it orders to be done? For, “I consent,” he says, “unto the Law, that it is good.”
Verse 17, 18. “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.”
On this text, those who find fault with the flesh, and contend it was no part of God’s creation, attack us. What are we to say then? Just what we did before, when discussing the Law: that as there he makes sin answerable for everything so here also. For he does not say, that the flesh worketh it, but just the contrary, “it is not I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”
But if he does say that “there dwelleth no good thing in it,” still this is no charge against the flesh. For the fact that “no good thing dwelleth in it,” does not show that it is evil itself. Now we admit, that the flesh is not so great as the soul, and is inferior to it, yet not contrary, or opposed to it, or evil; but that it is beneath the soul, as a harp beneath a harper, and as a ship under the pilot. And these are not contrary to those who guide anduse them, but go with them entirely, yet are not of the same honor with the artist. As then a person who says, that the art resides not in the harp or the ship, but in the pilot or harper, is not finding fault with the instruments, but pointing out the great difference between them and the artist; so Paul in saying, that “in my flesh dwelleth no good thing,” is not finding fault with the body, but pointing out the soul’s superiority. For this it is that has the whole duty or pilotage put into its hands, and that of playing. And this Paul here points out, giving the governing power to the soul, and after dividing man into these two things, the soul and the body, he says, that the flesh has less of reason, and is destitute of discretion, and ranks among things to be led, not among things that lead. But the soul has more wisdom, and can see what is to be done and what not, yet is not equal to pulling in the horse as it wishes. And this would be a charge not against the flesh only, but against the soul also, which knows indeed what it ought to do, but still does not carry out in practice what seems best to it. “For to will,” he says, “is present with me; but how to perform that which is good, I find not.” Here again in the words, “I find not,” he does not speak of any ignorance or perplexity, but a kind of thwarting and crafty assault made by sin, which he therefore points more clearly out in the next words.
Verse 19, 20. “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.”
Do you see, how he acquits the essence of the soul, as well as the essence of the flesh, from accusation, and removes it entirely to sinful actions? For if the soul willeth not the evil, it is cleared: and if he does not work it himself, the body too is set free, and the whole may be charged upon the evil moral choice. Now the essence of the soul and body and of that choice are not the same, for the two first are God’s works, and the other is a motion from ourselves, towards whatever we please to direct it For willing is indeed natural, and is from God, but willing on this wise is our own, and from our own mind.
Verse 21. “I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me.”
What he says is not very clear. What then is it that is said? I praise the law, he says, in my conscience, and I find it pleads on my side so far as I am desirous of doing what is right, and that it invigorates this wish For as I feel a pleasure in it, so does it yield praise to my decision. Do you see how he shows, that the knowledge of what is good and what is not such is an original and fundamental part of our nature, and that the Law of Moses praises it, and getteth praise from it? For above he did not say so much as I get taught by the Law, but “I consent to the Law;” nor further on that I get instructed by it, but “I delight in” it. Now what is” I delight?” It is, I agree with it as right, as it does with me when wishing to do what is good.
And so the willing what is good and the not willing what is evil was made a fundamental part of us from the first. But the Law, when it came, was made at once a stronger accuser in what was bad, and a greater praiser in what was good. Do you observe that in every place be bears witness to its having a kind of intensitiveness and additional advantage, yet nothing further? For though it praises and I delight in it, and wish what is good the“evil is” still “present with me,” and the agency of it has not been abolished. And thus the Law, with a man who determines upon doing anything good, only acts so far as auxiliary to him, as that it has the same wish as himself. Then since he had stated it indistinctly, as he goes on he gives a yet more distinct interpretation, by showing how the evil is present, how too the Law is a law to such a person only who has a mind to do what is good.”
This is a quote of St John Chrysostom on Romans Chapter 7: 14-22 (Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1 Vol: 11)
It is posted to demonstrate how the Scriptures are interpreted within the Tradition of the Church. The meaning is not distorted but carefully placed within proper bounds consistent with the logic of Tradition. St John does not just demand blind acceptance but uses good reasons to explain the meaning correctly.
This passage has some good points about human nature, free-will and essence.