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Freedom from the domination of the law
In the section just completed, Paul urged the Romans, on the strength of their baptismal connection with Christ (chapter 6, verses 3-23), to consider themselves dead to sin and free from its slavery. In chapter 7 he will speak of a similar type of liberation—this time, however, it is the Christian’s freedom from the law that is under discussion.
We have previously called attention to the fact that the Greek word usually translated as “law” (nomos) requires some special attention. The word allows a variety of meanings, and there often is a significant difference indicated by whether it has the definite article or not. When Paul here says, “I am speaking to men who know [nomos],” it’s without an article. Hence Paul is not referring to a specific law, but he is using the word in the sense of a general set of laws. Paul is giving his readers credit for knowing how the legal system works.
His progression of thought in this section is as follows: In verse 1 he states the legal principle he wants his readers to focus on; in verses 2 and 3 he gives an example illustrating that principle; and in verse 4 he then makes the connection to the spiritual truth he wishes to teach, namely, the Christian’s freedom from any legal requirements for salvation.
Romans chapter 7, verse 1
Do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to men who know the law—that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?
The legal principle Paul sets forth is fairly simple and straightforward. A law—any law—has authority over a person only so long as that person is alive. The law obligates living people; it has no claim on the deceased. The latter are both literally and figuratively “dead to the law.” They take no orders; they make no response. The point Paul would have us notice is that death changes a person’s relationship to the law.
The apostle now proceeds to illustrate this truth with an example from everyday life. He draws from the marriage laws that regularly are in force in an orderly society.
Romans chapter 7, verses 2 and 3
For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.
The point stated theoretically in verse 1 is illustrated practically in these two verses. The death of a spouse allows the surviving partner to remarry. In both cases the point is the same: a death changes things; it breaks the power of the law. Paul now moves on to show that this general legal principle in everyday life has its counterpart in the spiritual realm. There too death changes things. It loosens the law’s grip. Paul points out this similarity when he writes:
Romans chapter 7, verse 4
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.
The Christian has “died to the law.” A death has happened, so that the law’s hold on the Christian has been broken, making the Christian eligible for a new relationship to be formed, or as Paul puts it, free to “belong to another.”
To understand what Paul is saying here, we need to go back and explain a few of the elements Paul has incorporated into this verse. Note first of all that here “law” has a definite article. Therefore, “law” needs to be understood as a specific law, the law of God that has a hold on people and justly requires punishment for every sin. Being subject to the punishing power of this law is the natural state of every man, woman, and child since Adam’s fall into sin.
As indicated by Paul’s illustration, the only release from the law is the one provided by death. But the marvel of God’s plan of salvation is that it provided a way that did not require the sinner to die. Rather, God provided a substitute, his sacrificial Lamb, to die in the sinner’s place. This substitute’s death was credited to the sinner. Sinners themselves do not actually die, as they rightly deserve for their sins, but instead die “through the body of Christ” on Calvary.
Notice how we’re right back to the thought of chapter 6, with its stress on our connection to Christ through Baptism. Through Baptism we died and were buried with Christ (chapter 6, verses 3 and 4). Hence a death has happened—for the Romans and for us—so that Paul can say, “You also died to the law through the body of Christ.”
Thus, by the grace of God, the law’s hold on us has been broken. That opens up a grand new possibility: “that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead.” Like the woman whose husband died, thus making her eligible for remarriage, so the sinner’s death to the law and its domination permits a new union, one with “him who was raised from the dead,” namely Christ.
Earlier Paul urged his readers, set free from the slavery of sin, to live a life that “leads to holiness” (chapter 6, verse 22). He says much the same here also to those freed from the domination of the law. Christ suffered and died for us to free us from the law, Paul says, “in order that we might bear fruit to God.” Living to God, leading a life of holiness, bearing fruit to God—all these are expressions describing the new life of faith and good works that follow upon Christ’s freeing us from the demands of the law.
It goes without saying that in our new state of being free from the law, the law can’t be the motivating force for bearing fruit for God. In fact, a person subject to the law bears quite different fruit.
Romans chapter 7, verses 5 and 6
For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Paul is careful to avoid saying that the law of God is something bad. Read his words carefully here to catch his emphasis that it is “the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law” that are the problem. They, not the law, result in the sinner’s producing “fruit for death.” Paul will shortly be saying a great deal about the proper place and role of the law. For the moment he is concentrating on just one point, namely, that the law is not the driving and energizing force that enables the Christian to lead a life of holiness. That ability has to come from a different source. It comes from the Spirit. “But now, by dying to what once bound us [the law], we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code [the law].”
When Paul calls this the “new way of the Spirit,” we need to realize that it is new only in the sense that it is the followup and the successor to the previous, old stage where the law was in control. For a very similar statement regarding the new status of the Christian after being freed from sin, review chapter 6, verse 14. There Paul wrote, “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” The Holy Spirit works in the believer an appreciation for God’s grace, and that appreciation reflects itself in a new life of love and service to God and our neighbor. Incidentally, this is the first time in the letter that Paul mentions the Holy Spirit. In the next chapter, Paul will be speaking in detail about the Spirit’s work.
Paul is aware that some of the things he has said in urging the Christian’s freedom from the law could sound negative and uncomplimentary to God’s law. Someone might wonder, Is the law perhaps something bad? Paul anticipates such a reaction on the part of his readers and therefore poses the question:
Romans chapter 7, verse 7
What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!
Perhaps the remark most likely to raise a question would be the apostle’s description of the believer’s former condition. When we were under the law, Paul says, “sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies.”
If sinful passions were aroused by the law, is the law of God perhaps responsible for sin? Paul stoutly denies that, but it still leaves him with the task of explaining the connection between sin and the law. He proceeds to supply that explanation in the next paragraph. His division of material there is as follows: In verses 7 to 13 he recalls the role of the law in his early life; in verses 14 to 25 he speaks of his present life as a Christian.
Paul begins his defense of God’s law with an illustration of the good service it rendered him early in his life. He points to the law’s useful function of alerting people to what God’s will is so they can know and avoid what is evil.
Romans chapter 7, verse 7
Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”
Paul uses the first person singular throughout this chapter. What he describes is actually true for the life of every person, but seemingly for reasons of tact, Paul restricts his remarks to himself. In that way he is protected against anyone’s feeling accused or confronted by what he says about the law. But even more important, it lends credibility to Paul’s observations. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s been there!
As an illustration of the service the law rendered to him, Paul chooses the example of coveting. The word he uses for “coveting” is a neutral term, meaning simply “desire.” It could be a good desire, as in the case of Jesus’ use of the term on Maundy Thursday evening when he says to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke chapter 22, verse 15).
But the term also allows a wide range of evil desires. It often includes the idea of lust, as well as the more common English meaning of “covet” in the sense of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, namely, having a strong desire to obtain what belongs to one’s neighbor.
Paul no doubt had learned early in life that stealing was wrong. However, he would not have known the full extent of God’s will. He would not have realized that not only is taking a neighbor’s property wrong, but it’s wrong even to want to take or to entertain thoughts of getting a neighbor’s property.
The law did Paul a service by pointing out to him something that was wrong and harmful, much as the park ranger does us a service when he warns us of a steep drop-off next to the path on which we’re hiking.
Hence the law in itself was something good that served Paul well—until the scoundrel Sin appeared on the scene and misused God’s good law!
Romans chapter 7, verses 8 and 9
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
Paul says, “Apart from law, sin is dead.” Twice previously Paul has expressed a similar thought (chapter 4, verse 15 and chapter 5, verse 13). His point is not that sin is totally lacking or nonexistent when the law isn’t spelled out. Rather, the activity of sin is different when there is no specific commandment to transgress. We might paraphrase the verse as follows: Apart from law, sin is dormant. Sin is there, but it needs a line in the sand to step over in order to show itself as sin. The law draws that line in the sand, and sin incites the sinner into stepping over it. In a manner of speaking, the law, or commandment, provides the “opportunity.” It did that in Paul’s life, and he has to admit, “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
If a freshly painted park bench has a WET PAINT sign on it, as surely as night follows day, people will go up and touch the paint to see if it really is wet. The fault lies not with the sign but with the perversity of the passersby. The end result, however, can easily be that the thing that which intended to be helpful and protective now appears to be the problem. The sign on the park bench that was intended to be helpful can appear to be the cause of paint-stained hands and ruined clothes. So it was in Paul’s life. When the commandment stating God’s will became known to him, dormant sin “sprang to life.”
Romans chapter 7, verses 10-12
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Sin is the villain, not God’s law. Sin serves up all kinds of deceptive rationalizations: it will be enjoyable; everyone is doing it; nobody will be hurt by it; it’s necessary for survival in a dog-eat-dog world; and so on. Sin offers all kinds of deceptive encouragement to step over the line—until the sinner has fallen into the trap. Then it turns on him and confronts him with the death penalty, the just consequences of disobeying God’s will as spelled out in the law. Hence Paul can tell the Corinthians, “The power of sin is the law” (1st Corinthians chapter 15, verse 56), and the law shows its power when it thunders, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans chapter 6, verse 23). Thus the law that was given to be helpful actually ends up bringing death.
Is the law, then, the problem? Not at all! Follow the simple line of thought in verse 11. Stripped of its modifiers, the sentence reads, “Sin . . . deceived me, and . . . put me to death.” Sin is the villain, not the law. “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”
The law may be good, but what about its death-dealing aspect? That certainly is a feature that can’t be ignored. Paul addresses that issue with a theoretical question:
Romans chapter 7, verse 13
Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
There is no denying that the law condemns the sinner to death, but even that verdict of death serves a useful purpose. It shows how serious sin is and thereby becomes a call to repentance. When I see the slippage between what God asks of me in his law and what I do in my life, I then realize how utterly sinful I am and what trouble I’m in. I need help; I need a Savior. Fortunately, that Savior is there for all of us in the person of Christ Jesus.
The need for a Savior from sin doesn’t disappear when a person becomes a Christian. Conversion to faith in Christ doesn’t just give us a start so that we can become good enough to be acceptable to God on our own. No, faith in Christ accepts the perfect righteousness Christ has earned for us. God credits that righteousness to the believer. God looks at the believer as perfectly holy. He declares the believer to be just and holy. Hence justification is one hundred percent completed.
The new life of faith, however, the Christian’s walk with God, is in a constant state of becoming. The Christian’s life of holiness, often called sanctification, grows and matures as the Christian experiences continually new outpourings of grace and goodness from a loving God.
The very fact that one needs to speak of growing and maturing indicates that the Christian’s sanctification is an ongoing thing; it’s never completed here in this life on earth. The Christian life, in fact, is marred by frequent lapses into sin that call for repentance and forgiveness. The first of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses began with that thought when it stated, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew chapter 4, verse 17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”*
(* Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 31, page 25.)
That sin continues to surface in our lives should not surprise us, because even the great apostle Paul had to admit to the continuing force of sin in his life.
Romans chapter 7, verses 14-17
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
There has been considerable discussion among Bible students as to what Paul means when he says, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Some feel that such a strong statement could not be made of a Christian. Therefore they assume Paul is still speaking of his preconversion days, the time referred to in the previous section (verses 7-13) when Paul first learned the full meaning of God’s law.
It seems more likely, however, that the key to Paul’s thought here lies in understanding the dual nature of the Christian—what Luther speaks of when he describes the Christian as being “saint and sinner at the same time.” What that means is that at all times the new self of faith is beset by the old sinful nature, the old Adam. Both old and new self remain active in the Christian throughout this earthly life.
Seeing both an old self and a new self active in the Christian’s life accords well with what Paul described to the Galatians. He wrote to them about the “conflict” going on within every child of God. He told them, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want” (chapter 5, verses 16 and 17).
The view that the Christian is a combination of both the old and new self is the interpretation assumed here in Romans. Hence it is Paul the Christian who in verses 17 to 24 laments the fact that he still keeps on sinning every day. We should note, however, that while the old and new self are found side by side in the Christian, they do not hold an equal place. The Christian’s real identity lies with the new self. Not the old sinful nature but the new self is the true “I” Paul refers to when using the first person singular pronoun in this section. Where that is not the case, as in verse 18, Paul alerts us to the change.
Because there is an “unspiritual” component in him by virtue of the sinful nature clinging to him (as it is with every Christian), Paul has to admit that he continues to sin daily. In fact, so tenacious is the old Adam’s hold that Paul can describe himself as being “sold as a slave to sin.” This does not mean that Paul is under the control of sin. Remember that sin’s domination has been broken by Christ’s death, a death the believer shares through Baptism. Sin is not the master of Paul’s life, but, time and again, his old sinful nature spoils even Paul’s best intentions. He has to concede, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
The translation “I do not understand what I do” is perhaps a bit misleading. Paul understood full well what he was doing—or rather not doing. The problem in translating this verse lies in the fact that we’re again dealing with a verb that allows a number of meanings, depending on its context. Literally, the apostle wrote, “I do not know what I do.” The verb for “know,” however, is not restricted simply to having knowledge about something. Very often the word contains the idea of knowing by personal experience, of knowing intimately, of knowing with affection and approval. Hence we might translate here, “I do not approve of what I’m doing, because what I want to do, I don’t do, but what I don’t want, that I keep right on doing.”
Recall that Paul is in the midst of making a defense for God’s law, which he has described as “holy, righteous and good” (verse 12). Paul is addressing that point when he now continues, “If I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.” The NIV translators have reproduced verse 16 literally, but our English idiom is a little different from the Greek here. We might catch the force of Paul’s logic a little more easily if we invert the English word order and say, “If I really don’t want to do what I’m doing, then I agree that the law is good.”
That line of logic can be illustrated from the life of a person who unfortunately has become addicted to drugs. His life is a mess: he’s become unemployable; he’s on the verge of losing his house; his children are suffering and his wife is threatening to leave him. Remorsefully, he looks at the situation and says, “I don’t want to go on like this. The law of the land is right when it forbids the misuse of the drugs I’ve gotten into.” Paul is in the same frame of mind. When he doesn’t want to do the bad things God forbids, he’s actually agreeing with God that God’s laws and commands are good and right.
But how, then, can Paul’s continuing in sin be explained when he knows God forbids it and has to agree that God is right in forbidding it? Paul answers, “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”
This is not a cop-out on Paul’s part but an accurate assessment of his situation. We have noted that the Christian retains an old sinful nature throughout this earthly life. That nature lives alongside his new and real self, which was created by the Holy Spirit when the Spirit brought that person to faith in Christ. This new self is totally in sync with God’s will. It wants to do the things God wants done. So it is also in Paul’s case. His new self, his “inner being” (chapter 7, verse 22), delights in God’s law. Hence the problem does not lie with the Christian’s new self or with God’s law. The villain is sin, which operates through the old sinful nature, which still clings to every Christian.