roms 7 … life under law (1)

Romans 7

In Ch 5, Paul has demonstrated that humanity is divided into two different peoples united to two humanity heads. One group belongs to Adam and is dominated by sin and death. By natural birth everyone belongs to Adamic humanity. The second group is in Christ where, by contrast, grace, righteousness and life reign. Through faith in Christ, Christians are delivered from Adam and the domain of sin and death and are translated into the domain of grace, righteousness and life (Roms 5:12-21).

We may ask how a Christian is delivered from the authority of sin and of death? How is this effected? Much of the answer has been revealed in Ch 5, however, in Ch 6. Paul tells of a significant event that that takes place in conversion with far-reaching implications .

In Ch 6, Paul reveals that when we believe in Christ we not only are saved by his death but we share in it. We die too. Indeed sharing in his death is an important aspect of our salvation. Freedom comes by recognising that we are no longer captive to the various powers found in the world. The powers and authorities of this world have claims on us only as long as we live. When we die we are set free from the authorities of this life (7:2, 6:7). When we die their claim on us is broken; sin’s authority over our life is broken. Sin is not merely an act, it is an authority an administration. Those who sin, sin controls. For those who have died, however, whatever rights or power sin, Satan and death wielded over us are broken. They must be because we are no longer alive in this world.

In Ch 6, Paul advances the implications of death with Christ. He reveals that not only are we no longer held captive by sin but we are no longer held captive by law; we are no longer under law but under grace (6:14,15).

And so we arrive at Ch 7 where Paul continues to employ the principle of death. He states the principle in v1 – the law is only binding on a person as long as he lives (v2). Speaking to Christians he affirms that they have died to the law through the body of Christ (v4). By the law, Paul means the Sinai covenant, the law of Moses (v22).

7:1-6. Dead to the law, married to Christ

Ch 7 is of special importance to Jewish believers to whom it is primarily addressed (v1); law, except where it means a principle, normally means the Sinai covenant (cf. v7). Many devout Jews were converted in the early years of the church and after conversion they often remained zealous for the law of Moses (Acts 21:20). Paul is anxious that they learn just how profoundly different law and Christ are, how spiritually fatal a sense of obligation to law was and how in Christ they have been freed from that obligation. He does this through the analogy of marriage. Marriage, in a patriarchal society, meant the husband was the authority in the home. Paul likens both law and Christ to authoritative husbands. He points out that death dissolved the marriage bond and permitted marriage to another. So death in Christ freed Christian Jews from their marriage to law allowing them to marry Christ. Death was vital for it is impossible to be married to two husbands. To do so would be adultery, even bigamy.

While marriage is a metaphor it is a metaphor very close to the realities it describes. The law is a covenant that was binding like a marriage and the believer’s relationship to Christ is a marriage. Death it seems to me is more than a metaphor. It is a legal principle that makes possible abandoning Judaism and living as a Christian; in God’s universe believers are designated dead with Christ and as such not subject to the world’s powers. Death not only experientially dissolves relationships it legally or formally breaks them too. This argument was important for Jewish believers whose conscience may trouble them if they no longer lived like a Jew. Their commitment to law was deep. They knew the covenant was binding. They needed to see clearly the rationale for freedom from it.

Thus verses 1-6 are foundational in the chapter. They present the vital truths explaining the radical change between Judaism and Christianity.

Furthermore, they flag up another important matter namely that marriage to Christ is is not only different to but also superior to their previous marriage to law. There is more than a hint that life under law was less than ideal. Paul describes law as a relationship of captivity (v6). Instead of producing fruit for God which the gospel did, law, because perverse human nature was aroused by the law to sin, produced fruit to death (7:5)

In. Ch 8, Paul develops what it means to be married to Christ by exploring ‘the new way of the Spirit’ (7:6). However, in the rest of Ch 7, he develops what ‘the old way of the written code’ looks like and feels like experientially. In fact vv7-24 are mainly a commentary of 7:5.

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.

Ch 7:7-24 is divided into two sections. It features the responsible ‘I’ (Ego), In vv 7-14 the ‘I’ is in the past tense while from vv14-24 the ‘I’ is in the present tense. Some think this divide represent the pre and post conversion self, however, this is mistaken because Paul throughout the passage is dealing with someone under law and not a gospel convert. The present tense is more likely a rhetorical device to make powerless before the law vivid. Christ and law, as noted in vv1-6 are two different authorities belonging to two different realms. It’s impossible to be married to both. Whatever the reason the the present tense is a dramatic present thrusting upon the reader the real emotional pain of the one who is married to the law. It’s probably better to concentrate Paul’s own structure. Vv7-12 Is the law sin? Vv13-24. Is the law death?

A digression

Paul develops the effects of law on those under it by means of a persona. By using the first person singular (‘I’) he makes himself the generic person under law. As a Jew he was eminently suited to the role. Paul had lived for some time under law and has been zealous to keep it. However, the chapter is more than merely autobiographical. The Pauline ‘I’ is representative of everyone under law. In a sense he speaks for all of Israel. The ‘I’ is Israel.

The OT era of law is in many ways a tragic story of people ‘in the flesh’ obligated to keep the law of God the one thing they are unable to do (v5, 14). Note, in vv5,6 he uses the plural‘we’ before adopting the ‘I’. Some say that Paul’s persona is only representative of unregenerate people. After all, it is surely only unregenerate people who are ‘of the flesh’ and ‘sold under sin’. But this is to make a category error. It is true that no Christian believer is ‘in the flesh’ or ‘sold under sin’ but Paul is not describing a Christian. He is describing someone married to law, a Jew (or gentile God-fearer) ‘under law’.

Law and Christ are two very different relationships. As we saw they are quite different domains. In Christ, grace, righteousness and life reign. But this is not the case with law. Under law, these qualities are not a gift to be received but a prize to be earned; law’s premise was ‘this do and live’ (v 10, Lev 18:5; Gals 3:12).. In fact, only in Christ are we removed from the realm of flesh and placed in the realm of the Spirit. In him the age to come begins. Though the efficacy of the death of Christ we enter death with him dying to the flesh that belongs to the old world (Gals 5:24; Roms 8:8). But those not in Christ have not died to the flesh, including all OT saints, only by the indwelling Spirit is it possible to put to death the deeds of the body and his indwelling is a new covenant gift. And so, it seems to me, those under law were in the flesh, whether regenerate or unregenerate.

In fact, if we had to choose between whether the ‘I’ is regenerate and unregenerate there are are signs that point to a regenerate person. His hatred of sin is one (v15). His confession that the law is good is another (16). His desire to do good despite failure (vv18 – 23) Particularly his statement ‘I delight in the law of God in my inner being’ sounds very much like a circumcised heart. And would an uncircumcised heart cry out as he feels his failure to obey ‘O wretched man that I am’. My point is not to insist that the ‘wretched man’ is regenerate but simply to say we probably shouldn’t jump to conclusions either way. The question is a red herring. It is an issue we smuggle in and not one Paul seems interested in. He makes no attempt to create categories. He speaks of any and all under law. The law did not inquire if the heart was circumcised, it simply demanded obedience and gave no power to obey.

Perhaps I should add a comment on a popular view of the ‘wretched man’. Many have taught that this is a description of a Christian at his holiest. It is a view that has probably grown out of the experience of mature commentators conscious of their sins.; here, they say, is a spiritual man wrestling with sin. However, I think it is a mistaken use of this text. Again, Paul is not describing a man in Christ, he is describing a man under law. This is not the fight of a believer as in Gals 5. There is no victory envisaged here, only defeat. It is the level of defeat that makes him wretched. He needs to be taken out from law and placed in Christ. He does not need to hear that his experience of defeat is the acme of godliness.

Finally, when we read vv7-25 we encounter a sophisticated monologue. As we’ve noticed Paul adopts the persona of a person under law. However, he does so as a Christian and brings Christian insight to his experience as a Jew under law. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the voice of the Christian Paul and the voice of the Paul held captive by law.

After this lengthy digression let’s return to the text.

Vv7-12. Is the law sin?

Paul is evidently critical of life under law; it held those under it captive and was ‘the old way of the written code.’. As an administration it had serious shortcomings. However, Paul is not critical of the law itself. Indeed he vindicates it. The law is, after all, God’s law. The law is not flawed. It is spiritual (v14). It was holy, righteous and good (v12). Later he will speak of delighting in the law of God in his inner being (v22). When we look at the Psalms we find these law extolling sentiments too (Ps 19, 119). The old covenant of law was glorious (2 Cor 3:77, v11). This, however, is not the whole story. In fact, in salvation terms, law was inadequate and that is why a new covenant was needed; one built on better promises with surpassing glory (Hebs 8:6; 2 Cor 3). The law made nothing perfect. In particular, it was powerless to change fallen flesh. (7:14-24): It was weak (Hebs 7:18-22). Paul says the same thing in Ch 8. He speaks of the law being ‘weakened by the flesh’ (8::3).

An important truth to grasp is that law was addressed to man ‘in the flesh’. Many find this difficult to accept but it is important if we are to follow Paul’s argument. The law did not assume the presence of life but offered it upon obedience (9,10). Law addressed those alive in the world and in biblical thinking this is everyone not in Christ (Cols 2:20) and who is therefore ‘in the flesh’. Notice Paul describes life under law as ‘in the flesh’ (v5). More on this later. At the moment, the difficulty to note is that fallen flesh is neither capable of obeying nor does it wish to obey.

What are the effects of law on the human heart? Paul insists the law is not the source of sin, rather sin exploits the law for its own end while the law reveals sin and the human heart in their true colours. The law, he will show, does not control sin nor does it transform the heart. What does he say about the law and sin?

Firstly, the law exposes sin; it tells us what is wrong (v7). Secondly, through the influence of sin, the law excites sin (v8). When a man has no law he may not be attracted to various kinds of behaviour; sin lies dead (v8). However, give him a law that forbids and what is forbidden he immediately wants to do (v8, 9). The problem is not the law but sin. Sin controls his heart and therefore he is instinctively opposed to what is commanded. As FF Bruce says, the smoker who has stopped smoking doesn’t realise how much he wants to smoke until he sees a sign ‘No Smoking’. Sin, like Satan, is a strong and subtle tyrant. The fall is re-enacted continually as sin, like Satan, takes advantage of God’s command to provoke disobedience (v11). The result is the commandment that promised life pronounces death, similar in some ways to the garden (v10, 11).

In a sense the ‘I’ is not only Paul, or Israel but Adam too. The story of Israel under law is our story too as is, to some extent, the story of Adam in the garden. Disobedience will lead ultimately to physical even eternal death but that is not Paul’s point. He is speaking of the sentence of death on the conscience (v10,11). Before he knew the law he was alive (his conscience was unperturbed by sin) but as soon as the law exposes and excites his sin he stands condemned (v9). A sinful man living under law feels his condemnation and distance from God. Again, the echoes from the garden are plain… Adam hides because he has died…you shall surely die has multiple levels of fulfilment.

Vv13-24. Is the law death

Paul, still eager to exonerate the law, stresses that death does not properly belong to the law but to sin. What was good exposed what was evil. In fact, the law not only exposed sin, and excited sin, it also enlarged sin. Sin grew into a transgression, a rebellion… something sinful beyond measure Sin pushed human behaviour into the realm of conscious rebellion (v13). The full evil if the human heart was exposed leading to the confession, ‘I am of the flesh, sold under sin’. Law shows sin for what it is (v13) but it doesn’t make it what it is. Nor is the law responsible for the sin of those under law, it is sin that makes men sin. By the law is the knowledge of sin’ (3:20). Law, by revealing sin, its power and its ugliness, served a positive purpose; it prepared for Christ. This seems to be Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:19-22.

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made… Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe… Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

Faith is here the gospel era of faith in Christ. Faith stands in opposition to works or to law which were ‘not of faith’ (Gals 3:20). In v14 Paul presents the bald truth of life under law and the fundamental futility.

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

From v14-24 he reiterates the goodness of the law, his powerlessness before sin and his complete inability to obey even if he desires to do so. We feel his incomprehension (v15), his self-loathing (v15), and his despair (v19). Little wonder he exclaims ‘O wretched man that I am’ (v 24). And so he describes for us his dilemma, and it is a dilemma, for he doesn’t want to be such a comprehensive failure before law.

He considers various players in his drama. There is the law which is spiritual and good and in which he delights in his inner being.. There is the ‘I’, the responsible ‘I’. There is ‘’the flesh’ , his fallen nature opposed to God (v14). And there is sin, a controlling power in the old era*. Paul defines his humanity; it is flesh. Flesh has a few meanings in the Bible. Here it means sinful human nature opposed to God. (8:7,8). Paul as the ‘I’ under law has learned important lessons. He has learned he sins (v7) and more importantly he has learned he is controlled by sin (v14, 23). He has learned that sin is serious. He has learned that his basic nature, ‘flesh’, is utterly sinful – in his flesh dwells no good thing (vv 14, 18, 25). He has learned to distinguish between the ‘I, his flesh, and sin. His mind and will delight in God’s law but something deep inside of him resists and does the opposite. Paul identifies it as sin that dwells within; he has learned that sin is a formidable power. Sin is a principle, a power, a law that controls him and Paul, the Jew under law, is helpless before it. The law has made all of this abundantly clear. In fact, others both Jew and gentile had observed the same phenomenon. Many have admired virtues but achieving them is a different story.

We should remember that there were many in Judaism who were zealous for the law. There still are. Devout Jews study the torah today and, I assume, delight in it. Like C1 Israel they may have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge (9:1). If they have any personal awareness or grasp of the immensity of its commands they will be crushed by it. And presumably many are. Of course, many try to hide from its imperious commands. In the C1 they did so by reducing law to largely external commands. They tried to domesticate it and make it manageable. But God’s law cannot ultimately be controlled. No doubt, as with Paul, there were times when its force hit home and killed them. The NT believers also found law to be difficult (Cf. Acts 15:10, 28).

What was the effect of law in those living under it?. For many the law was a delight (Ps 19, 119). It led in paths of righteousness (Ps 23). It was a delight to the man in Roms 7. Yet alongside this joy there was a growing shadow for the very laws that were a delight birthed sin and failure. Things were revealed to be sinful that had not before seemed wrong. Moreover, dismayingly, the psyche not only delighted in the law, it rebelled against it. Civil war raged in the heart. The law zealous Jew felt the weight of personal sin on his conscience and was crushed by it – he died. It became clear to him that the internal war had only one outcome – sin reigned. Whatever the desire to do good sin won. Sin permeated his every part; he was its slave. The law had done its work well. It revealed he was sinful at a level he had never realised. He began desperately to desire a way to be rescued from who he was and found rescue in Christ.

The Jewish believers in Rome would recognise themselves in Paul’s description. Actually, there is a sense in which many believers recognise this experience. It is normally a conviction of sin that drives people to Christ.

Paul expresses such a sharp disjunction between what in his mind he wants to do and inner passions that push him in another direction that he is prepared to say of his evil that he does it is ‘not I but sin that dwells within me’ (v17). This is not a way of distancing himself from responsibility for his actions rather it is a frank acknowledgement of dominating indwelling sin. He is helpless before the surges of his own nature that is deeply sinful. He is utterly bound by his sinful passions and feels his wretchedness.

The the best thing the law could do was produce the moral wretchedness that feels the need of a deliverer. The law was a guardian, a pedagogue, a confining disciplinarian, until Christ came. When our heart feels the weight of sin it cries out for rescue.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

And the cry, whether a redemptive-historical wail or the cry of an individual heart, receives the same answer ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’.

When the time was right God sent his son, born under the law that he may redeem those who were under the law (Gals 4:4,5)

The law was added because of transgressions until Abraham’s seed arrive…everything was imprisoned under sin so that the promise (3:8,9), by faith in Christ Jesus, may be given to those who believe… before faith came we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith (Christ) would be revealed. (Gals 3:19-23)

And so Roms 7 leaves us reaching out for Roms 8. There the tone changes to one of triumph. Here is a way forward from the mosaic law and any law-based righteousness. Believers are ‘in Christ Jesus’ and benefit from his death. In his death sin that ran rampant in humanity is condemned (v3) and death is defeated (10,11). The Spirit of life has set us free from the powers of sin and death (v2) and rescued the believer from the ‘body of death’(7:24). Law’s condemnation (8:1, 77:11). is dealt with in the death of Christ. We discover as we walk by the Spirit freedom from the power of sin and death that found strength in the law. Our walk by the Spirit produces the righteousness** that the law required. Roms 7 when describing the ‘wretched man’ has no mention of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, however, dominates Ch 8. Romans 8 is an expansion of ‘you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead in order that you may bear fruit for God’…. We serve in the new way of the Spirit Roms 8 is marriage to Christ.

* The one thing he does not have is the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of union with Christ. In formal terms the OC did not promise the Holy Spirit yet the Holy Spirit was active in the OC. He was active in regeneration which is by the Spirit The Spirit was in their midst and it seems was with them though not in them. This accounts for the holiness of OT believers. It was a holiness that went beyond what law could provide and anticipated the new covenant,

**Paul is not saying we are sent back to the law as our rule for righteousness. We are not called to keep the law or observe the law but rather our gospel lives fulfil the law (8:4); its essence is fulfilled in the heart of God’s people (Roms 13:8-10). If we were to keep the law the church would simply be an extension of Judaism. The eschatological goal of the law was life in the Spirit not more law. Again, we may learn from the law as we may learn from other areas of the OT. However, we are not under it as a covenant .


How can we use Roms 7 rhetorically today?

Presumably part of the reason why Paul writes this chapter is because some Jewish converts were finding it hard to leave the old covenant of law which they rightly believed was God given; they were Christians seeking to live under law. Paul writes to show them how incongruous this was. I suppose Jewish converts today may face a similar challenge. In a sense, all Christians face something similar when they are tempted to reduce the Christian life to a series of commands that they set out to keep, forgetting to factor in a sense that they live in divine grace and led by the Spirit. We can warp Christian liberty into mere rule-keeping. It’s interesting to note how rarely NT exhortations are expressed in law language though there are warnings about the consequences of turning away from gospel living.

Few of us will engage with devout Jews where Roms 7’s persuasive force would be useful. We, for the most part, live in a gentile world and one where God’s laws carry little weight. Yet it is perhaps just for that reason that the Ten Commandments may need to be heard. Preachers in the past preached the law before they preached the gospel. Certainly God’s historical order we saw was to give the law leading to Christ. There is no hard and fast rule here but there may be a need to convict of sin before preaching Christ. We may need to demonstrate the illness before providing the cure.

When speaking to Christians we may wish to combat a mistaken idea ingrained in many reformed circles particularly. It is best expressed in the aphorism; ‘the law sends me to Christ for justification and Christ sends me to the law for sanctification’. The first half of the saying is partly true, the second half is wholly false. The gospel rescues from law and does not send anyone back; we have died to law, there is no going back. Both justification and sanctification are found in the gospel and neither is found in the law. All we will ever need is found in Christ.

Romans 7 teaches preachers and theologians that any gospel of self-help and mere moralism is doomed to failure. Such a gospel is not gospel at all it is law. Moreover, it is law so diminished and diluted that it is unlikely to do the principal thing law did, awaken the conscience and ‘kill’.

As already needs there is a tendency in all of us to reduce Christian living to rules. This is a soft-legalism that is unhelpful. It is the revelation in the gospel that produces fruit for God. Preaching all that God has done for us in Christ is what provides the impetus for Christian living. The imperatives of the epistles generally arise out of indicatives.

Some divide the law up into categories (moral, civil and ceremonial) and think some areas of the law are redundant or changed (civil and ceremonial) but not others (the moral law or Decalogue). It is true that the Decalogue written on tablets of stone is the heart of the law. Also the various categories are helpful but Paul does not make these distinctions in Romans 7 or elsewhere. These categories are theological more than biblical. In fact, the one law cited comes from the 10 commandments (v7) so Paul certainly includes death to the Decalogue. Secondly, the Bible does not compartmentalise the law because law is a covenant. A covenant is either accepted in entirety or not at all. No, when Paul says we have died to the law he means the whole law. Through death we are removed from the world where the law covenant had authority. I repeat, this does not mean we cannot learn from the law, we can. We can learn from it as we study its place in redemptive history and understand the import of its laws. But, as a covenant it has no authority in our lives. If it did we would all be living as religious Jews. This holistic understanding of law needs to be grasped.

PS. I have not yet reconciled Ps 19, 119 to Roms 7. Towards a solution i offer the following: Roms 7 reflects the formal basis of the OC and so there is no mention of the Holy Spirit for he wasn’t a covenant promise: as a result covenant obedience was impossible; it may be that Roms 7, wasn’t the experience of all as some knew the enabling of the Spirit.. In Ps 119, the writer asks for life yet says he has been given life. He seems to see it as the outcome of keeping the law; he expresses that he needs divine enabling and an enlarged heart to keep the law., It seems as if the writer of Ps 119 is regenerate and depending upon divine enabling, by implication, the Spirit. Some suggest in Psalm 119 the law is written on his heart,


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