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There are two different words translated "good" or "right" in Romans 7: ἀγαθός and καλός. I'm trying to determine whether there is any distinction intended.

I realize that the "basic" sense (or at least the common gloss) of καλός is beautiful, but it's evidently being used in a moral sense here, and I'm having a hard time seeing what (if any) meaning it carries here different from ἀγαθός.

Did Paul intend to convey two different concepts by these two words?

Excerpting from vv. 12-21 (NA28 | ESV):

ὥστε ὁ μὲν νόμος ἅγιος καὶ ἡ ἐντολὴ ἁγία καὶ δικαία καὶ ἀγαθή.
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Τὸ οὖν ἀγαθὸν ἐμοὶ ἐγένετο θάνατος; μὴ γένοιτο·
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!

ἀλλ᾿ ἡ ἁμαρτία...διὰ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ μοι κατεργαζομένη θάνατον...
It was sin, producing death in me through what is good ...
...
εἰ δὲ ὃ οὐ θέλω τοῦτο ποιῶ, σύμφημι τῷ νόμῳ ὅτι καλός.
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.

νυνὶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγὼ κατεργάζομαι αὐτὸ ἀλλὰ ἡ οἰκοῦσα ἐν ἐμοὶ ἁμαρτία.
So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί, τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, ἀγαθόν·
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.

τὸ γὰρ θέλειν παράκειταί μοι, τὸ δὲ κατεργάζεσθαι τὸ καλὸν οὔ·
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω ποιῶ ἀγαθόν, ἀλλ᾿ ὃ οὐ θέλω⸃ κακὸν τοῦτο πράσσω.
I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
...
εὑρίσκω ἄρα τὸν νόμον, τῷ θέλοντι ἐμοὶ ποιεῖν τὸ καλόν, ὅτι ἐμοὶ τὸ κακὸν παράκειται·
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

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It seems to me that when Paul uses the word ἀγαθός here, he is speaking of absolute, higher, good; and when he uses the word καλός, he is speaking of what is "proper" or "correct" (or "right") in the context of what the rules of the law guide him to do.

The idea, if I am correct here, is that we cannot know absolute good [ἀγαθός] on our own, but need a set of rules ("the law") to guide us. A more literal translation that I use employs the notion of "working out" what is ἀγαθός with the help of the law, which points one in the "right" (viz. καλός) direction, so to speak.

καλός and ἀγαθός are synonymous in the context of Romans 7:12-21 in that if we are doing the "right" or "correct" [καλός] thing under the law, then the law is guiding us toward what is good in the more absolute sense [ἀγαθός].

To illustrate this, I burden the translation of καλός with the meaning "correct" (in the sense of "right"), or "correct [thing to do]" in the verses below.

I am not completely sure that this is the perfect interpretation, but it is the only reasonable explanation I can think of for Paul using two different Greek words for what we refer to as "good" in this passage.

12 So that the law indeed [is] holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good [ἀγαθός].

13 Hath then that which [is] good [ἀγαθός] become death unto me? May it not be!

But sin, that it might appear sin, worked out death to me through that which [is] good [ἀγαθός]; that sin might become exceeding sinful through the commandment.

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

15 For what I work out, I know not.

For what I wish, I practice not;

but what I hate, this I do.

16 But if, what I do not wish, this I do, I consent unto the law that [it] is correct [καλός] .

17 Now then, no longer am I working it out, but sin which dwelleth in me.

18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good [ἀγαθός]:

for to will lieth beside me; but to work out the correct [καλός] [thing to do] I find not.

19 For what good [ἀγαθός] I wish, I do not;

but what evil I wish not, this I practice.

20 Now if, what I wish not, this I practice, no longer am I working it out, but the sin dwelling in me.

21 I find then the law in me, that, when I wish to do the correct [καλός] [thing to do] that the evil lies beside me.

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The two words occur several times together in the same verse, which is very helpful.

Matthew 7:17-18

Even so every good (ἀγαθὸν) tree bringeth forth good (καλοὺς) fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good (ἀγαθὸν) tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good (καλοὺς) fruit.

Luke 8:15

But that on the good (καλοὺς) ground are they, which in an honest (καλοὺς) and good (ἀγαθὸν) heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.

Romans 7:18

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: (ἀγαθὸν) for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good (καλοὺς) I find not.

1 Timothy 5:10

Well reported of for good (καλοὺς) works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good (ἀγαθὸν) work.

Looking at these verses, it can be seen that ἀγαθὸν refers to inner good (what is unseen, i.e within) and καλοὺς refers to outer good (what is seen, i.e. without). If you like, this is equivalent to the notion of unmanifest Tao and manifest Tao, or cause and effect.

So, yes. There are different concepts being expressed by the two words.

Addendum

It seems, to some, that this idea is not so obvious, so let me draw a picture, and then elaborate further using the snippets Susan quoted.

enter image description here

ὥστε ὁ μὲν νόμος ἅγιος καὶ ἡ ἐντολὴ ἁγία καὶ δικαία καὶ ἀγαθή.
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

The Law is ἀγαθή (a good tree - inside, at its core)

Τὸ οὖν ἀγαθὸν ἐμοὶ ἐγένετο θάνατος; μὴ γένοιτο·
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!

Did the Law that is ἀγαθή (a good tree), bring death to me? Certainly not!

ἀλλ᾿ ἡ ἁμαρτία...διὰ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ μοι κατεργαζομένη θάνατον...
It was sin, producing death in me through what is good ...

It was sin that brought death to me, which I recognise because I know the Law is ἀγαθοῦ (a good tree)

εἰ δὲ ὃ οὐ θέλω τοῦτο ποιῶ, σύμφημι τῷ νόμῳ ὅτι καλός.
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.

Paul is now talking about DOING stuff, which is about FRUIT, i.e the outward product of the inward substance, and he recognises that the ἀγαθή Law should produce καλός fruit.

Οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί, τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, ἀγαθόν·
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.

But it doesn't, because his flesh is not ἀγαθή, i.e. his flesh is not a (good tree) like the Law.

τὸ γὰρ θέλειν παράκειταί μοι, τὸ δὲ κατεργάζεσθαι τὸ καλὸν οὔ·
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

Paul is again referring to DOING stuff, so he's dealing with FRUIT, i.e. the outward product of the inward substance

οὐ γὰρ ὃ θέλω ποιῶ ἀγαθόν, ἀλλ᾿ ὃ οὐ θέλω⸃ κακὸν τοῦτο πράσσω.
I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

The fruit he produces is not in keeping with the ἀγαθόν Law.

εὑρίσκω ἄρα τὸν νόμον, τῷ θέλοντι ἐμοὶ ποιεῖν τὸ καλόν, ὅτι ἐμοὶ τὸ κακὸν παράκειται·
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

So, he has discovered a new law operating within himself: when he tries to produce the καλόν fruit that should result from the ἀγαθόν Law, evil is always near.

Of course, we know his conclusion on this matter: only God can rescue him from his body of death.

  • I know it's not required, but out of courtesy, could those who downvote my answers please leave some indication as to why. If the idea of inner and outer good is not obvious to the downvoter, then give me an example from Susan's question where you think it doesn't fit, and I'll demonstrate how it does. – enegue Nov 7 '15 at 11:16
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    I'm sorry but this is utterly unconvincing. You may even be right —the mastery of Greek that would be needed to verify or debunk this is above my paygrade— but I don't see any evidence presented there that backs up your conclusion. You've taken a couple disparate texts from different authors with different immediate contexts, ignored seemly a lot of uses where each term could potentially be construed differently, and drawn out something tenuous based on the English renderings. I would expect an answer to teach something about the Greek approaches concepts such as "inner" vs. "outer". – Caleb Nov 7 '15 at 13:33
  • Caleb, you don't need to be a master of the Greek language to see an obvious pattern in usage. Tell me please, which of the lines in Susan's question are giving you trouble, and I'll show you how they fit. – enegue Nov 7 '15 at 19:32
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    Actually, you do have to be a master to spot when something that seems obvious to untrained eyes actually involves important subtleties. I may not know Greek but I am bilingual and I know from experience that the sort of thing your asserting is obvious might actually have other explanations. And it seems you are unable to rule out other possibilities because you don't even know what they might be. Ergo my assessment that this unconvincing. – Caleb Nov 7 '15 at 19:57
  • Caleb, I don't have to show you every possibility. All you have to do is consider "the one" before you, and if you can give me an example from Susan's question where you think my explanation doesn't hold, then please do so, – enegue Nov 7 '15 at 20:24
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One difference between the two words is a focus on the external and internal states. ἀγαθός if internally focused: it is intrinsically good whether or not it is seen [18 - agathos] καλός is externally focused: it is outward beauty, or that which is beautiful. [2570 - kalos]

It is possible for something to look good on the outside but lack that inward quality. Likewise it is possible for something to be good on the inside yet lack outward beauty.

So Paul is saying the Law is good both intrinsically and outwardly. That is, in contrast to Paul (and all people) the Law not only looks good, the Law is good.

  • So basically enegue's answer is right? I don't think this goes beyond Caleb's original objections to that answer, unless I'm missing something. – Steve Taylor Nov 8 '16 at 16:14
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    @SteveTaylor Yes. I think enegue's answer is correct (although obviously the OP and others do not). Perhaps the issue is over the added material (as Caleb notes). I do not think there is any difficulty in the Greek. I believe there is a basic concept expressed in the basic difference in the two words. I have stated the difference as succinctly as possible. I think the credibility of the site is hurt when good answers are not accepted and there is no feedback as to why. – Revelation Lad Nov 8 '16 at 17:14

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