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LETTER TO J. S. HARFORD, ESQ. ON THE
SEVENTH CHAPTER TO THE ROMANS,
Your letter gave me greater pleasure than I could easily express. I was confident of the ground I had taken, but very diffident of my success in doing it justice. I waited, therefore, with no little anxiety, for the judgment you might pass on my attempted elucidation : I need not tell you how much your estimate of it has pleased and satisfied me. In truth, I feel unspeakable gratification in your cordial disposition to extend your view as far as Holy Scripture opens its bright vista
I am not surprised at what you tell me of Mr.
's adherence to the low interpretation of the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans; yet, I certainly regret that a mind which, to appearance, was so winged by Nature, should, “ after much reflection,” conclude itself doomed, not only to go upon all fours, but to bear a heavy chain through life. However, I am really so much of an optimist as to be ready to think, that when so upright a man sees that passage of Scripture in a light so contrary to what I conceive indicated by
its whole structure, it is, somehow or other, best for him so to understand it; and that any other meaning of it would be disproportioned to the general scheme of doctrine in which his favourite authors have trained him, and which, in the course of nature, has become more and more rooted and grounded in all his mental habits.
I, accordingly, imagine, that the “ much reflection” of which Mr.
speaks, consisted rather in bringing the passage under the successive or concurrent light of the teachers whom he studied, than in examining the words of St. Paul by their own light, and eliciting from themselves their precise logical import. I am persuaded that, whenever the passage has been thus attentively considered, the result has been exactly as it was in the instance of Dr. Doddridge, whose note I conceive to state St. Paul's real meaning with unbiassed judgment and conscientious frankness.
But, while Doddridge's note is as clear and comprehensive as its length would allow, the grounds of the interpretation could not be introduced : I would wish, therefore, to direct your attention to one or two particulars in St. Paul's mode of treating the subject, which may possibly not have struck you, and which, I think, greatly strengthen the conclusions in which you are already disposed to rest.
I need not, on this occasion, use any thing else than the English translation, as sufficient justice is done in it to St. Paul's language. Turn, then, if you please, to the fifth verse of the chapter; and think, whether we have not here, in a single sen
tence, the theme which is descanted on in the following verses, commencing with the seventh and ending with the twenty-fourth.
It is a remarkable practice of St. Paul to introduce a next topic just before he concludes the topic in hand. In the doctrinal part of the Epistle to the Romans he scarcely ever fails to observe this rule, as I could exemplify in various instances; but it will suffice to mention that instance which occurs in the end of the fifth chapter, where you will observe a foundation laid for the discussion in the former part of the sixth chapter, by the remark made in the twentieth verse of the fifth chapter; after which he returns to and finishes the important matter he had been propounding. Thus, you may perceive that the first verse of the sixth chapter hangs upon the twentieth verse of the fifth, like a hook inserted into the
eye which was previously provided for it.
I have directed your attention to this peculiarity in St. Paul's composition,--or, I should rather say, in the structure of this particular Epistle, because, if the import of the fifth verse of the seventh chapter were not of itself sufficiently obvious, the Apostle's prevalent method of thus referring to what was about to follow would invincibly establish the force of the proposition. “ When we were in the flesh,” he says, “ the motions of sin, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.”
Now, what were the motions of sin, which were by the law (I mean, what could the idea
implied by this expression amount to), but those very sensations which the Apostle proceeds to describe ? The motions of sin which wrought in the members could be no other than those risings of concupiscence, of which he was unconscious, till, after a course of self-complacency in the regularity of his outward obedience (which he calls being “ alive without the law once "), he felt the force of that inward commandment, “ Thou shalt not covet.” It appears that the Apostle, or the person whose character he assumes, had been so engaged with the external commandments as to have overlooked the spiritual precept with which the decalogue concluded; but which, when once adverted to, was felt to contain the concentrated force of the whole moral law. He, therefore, calls it the law and the commandment, as if it alone was worthy of the name; because this commandment alone went to the root of all moral evil, as being “ a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” In fact, to feel the force of the law in this inward respect was essential to the due apprehension of its moral nature; for outward commandments, separate from their moral spirit, become positive instead of moral injunctions. Accordingly, at the very time when the inward force of the law was so detecting in him “ all manner of concupiscence,” as to appear as if itself had produced what it so vividly discovered, it more and more manifests its own contrasted excellence: it is “ holy, just, good,” spiritual, and, at length, even delightful to his higher mind; though the
corruption of his lower nature is still holding him in a captivity, from which, as yet, he does not even see the means of deliverance.
Now, that this entire conflict is comprehended in, and identical with, the brief statement in the fifth verse, is evinced by this circumstance, that “the motions of sin in the members,” there spoken of, are said to have been “ by the law ;” and, therefore, a synchronism and co-identity with what follows are necessarily implied. For, there would not have been “ motions of sin by the law” in one who was “ alive without the law :” the commandment must have“ come,” before it could have thus seemed to give new force to depravity; and, accordingly, this very idea again and again recurs, or, rather, is dwelt upon, as the point chiefly to be illustrated.
“ When the commandment came sin revived, and I died; ” and “ the commandment which in its nature tends to life (here I am obliged to alter the translation), was found to tend to death ; for sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me and by it slew me; that is (evidently), slew all the hopes I had cherished, while I attended merely to the plausibility of an outward righteousness, and a mechanical obedience.” What is all this, therefore, but the saying, in other words, and with more vivid expansion, that “ the motions of sin, which were by the law,” did work in his members, to bring forth fruit unto death?” And the conflict is accordingly terminated in the exclamation, “Oh, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death ?”