The law and the believer

Chatswood Baptist Church

Romans 7:1-25

1. Until death do us part

1.1. Kylie and me

It was just over 32 years ago that Kylie and I got married. We were married in the church where we met. Kylie had come to Newcastle to work as physiotherapist in Newcastle Hospital and she started attending the church that I had grown up in. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but it didn’t take that long before love started to bud and we found ourselves standing up in that church making our vows to one another. I still remember parts of what we said. “With this ring I wed you with all that I am and all that I have I honour you”. Like most couples we made vows and promises to belong to one another for life. In the older wedding ceremonies this was sometimes worded as “until death do us part” or perhaps, as I think we said, “as long as we both shall live”. What we vowed was that it would only be the death of one of us that would release us from this marriage. Until one of us died I would belong to Kylie and she would belong to me. We would belong to one another until death parted us. By the grace of God, for 32 years we have been able to keep those vows with resorting to murdering one another.

2.2 The law and us

In the reading today, in chapter 7 Paul uses this the analogy of marriage to help make his point that we had to die to the law so that we might belong to the Lord Jesus. Paul again is reminding the believers at Rome of what they should have known about the Law – that it was impossible to be released from the authority of the law without death severing the relationship. Having told them in the previous chapter that they were no longer under law but under grace (6:14), in chapter 7 Paul spends some time explaining how and why the law and us had to part company and who was to blame for why we couldn’t stay together.

Romans 7:1-3

7 Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 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 that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man [marries another man NIV84] 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 if she marries another man. [1]

Paul argues here that with us and the law it was a “until death do us part” sort of relationship. Paul makes the point in verse 1 that the law only has authority over someone only as long as that person lives. If that person dies, then they are released from the law. I would argue that this is the case because the penalty that the law demanded for sin has been paid for. As Paul has said the wages of sin is death (6:23). The law that Paul is referring to is the law of Moses and he is saying that the bond that those under the law had with the law was a “until death do us part” sort of an arrangement. Paul has illustrated the principle using marriage as an example. According to the law a woman would only be released from the law that bound her to her husband only if her husband died. Only the death of her husband would release her so that she could belong to another.

Paul argues that in similar way it took a death, in this case our own death, to severe our legal connection to the law, so that we might belong to another. Of course, usually if you are the one who dies you’re not the one that does the remarry so that you can belong to another. But Paul in using this marriage illustration is not trying to say everything is exactly the same but that really the death of one of the two parties changes things bringing release from the obligation of the contractual relationship between the two parties.

Paul has argued in the previous chapter that those who have been baptised into Christ have been baptised into his death (6:3) and not only share in his death but also in his resurrection so that we too might live a new life (6:4). Paul can say that our old self was crucified with him setting us free from sin. Now here in chapter 7 Paul argues that it also set us free from the law so that we might belong to another. This other is the Lord Jesus, the one who was raised from the dead so that we can live a new life, one which Paul says bears fruit to God. Under the law we couldn’t do this because we could never keep its demands. But in Christ we are under grace and we receive the gift of righteousness and the Spirit of God so that we might become children of God (as we will see in chapter 8). It is only by belonging to Jesus that we can bear fruit for God under the law we could never do it. Not because there was anything wrong with the law as well see but with us.

2.3 Before and after (v5-6)

In verses 5 to 6 Paul goes on to explain the necessity of this. He has explained why we had to part company with the law and belong to Christ. He does this by giving us a before and after picture. You know those sorts of picture, that show just how bad things were before they did whatever they did. It’s usually a training program or a diet you go on or shake that you drink. But then they show you the picture of the person afterwards and they look incredible, like a new person. If it is a moving picture, a video, they’ll tell you how much better things are now for them. “Before I had felt old and had no energy but now, I feel young again and I have lots of energy to do the things I couldn’t do. I used to sit on couch and what TV and now I can get out there and play with the kids. I’m a new person”

In verse 5 Paul tells us how it used to be before we were believers, when we were belonged to the realm of the flesh and were under the law and were without the Spirit of God.

Romans 7:5

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, w the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.

The law didn’t curb our sinfulness it only aroused our sinful passions so that we committed more sin doing exactly what the Lord told us not to do. Putting the law and us together only resulted in more sin so that we bore fruit for death. Again, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

In verse 6 we have the “after” picture of what we became having died to what once bound us. We have been released from the law and its demands so that we can serve in this new way of the Spirit.

Romans 7:6

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.

This is the only way we can live to God. It wasn’t the old way of the written code. We couldn’t live with the law and its demands. We couldn’t keep its demands and so we had to die to the law so that we could be released from it so that we might belong to Christ who makes us righteous and gives us the Spirit so that we can serve in the new way of the Spirit as children of God. It wasn’t that law was bad, but it never had the power to change us to live a new life and bear fruit to God. It is Jesus and his work for us and in us who does this and that’s why you and I, we need to belong to him. It’s only in and through Christ that any of us can be pleasing to God. You’re never going to please God by trying to keep all the rules and do all the right things. The law is too demanding to be married to for people like us who are sinners. We only bear fruit for death. We have been released from the law so that we might serve in the new way of the Spirit.

2. The guilty party (7-23)

Exactly what that looks like Paul won’t explain until chapter 8. You might have expected him to immediately go on and tell us what walking in the Spirit is like. But the Spirit isn’t mentioned again until chapter 8 where he gets mentioned a whole lot. What gets a lot of mention in the remainder of this chapter is the law and what Paul does is he answers a few questions about the law that some of his readers might have been likely to raise. The rest of the chapter is largely given over to the question of whether law itself was responsible for sin and death. Did we have to be set free from the law because the law was causing all the problems in the relationship? Was the Law the guilty party in all of this? Should it wear blame for all our woes? Paul, again uses, a couple of questions to make his point and further his argument that it isn’t the law that is to blame.

Romans 7:7

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not!

Romans 7:13

13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means!

Today/tonight we are going to look at the answer to these two questions to understand the real problem and why Paul says that we can’t blame the law for sin and death. Paul here speaks from personal experience as one who had been under the law. You will notice that he uses the personal pronoun, “I” a lot. I believe Paul is speaking from his own perspective as a Jew who had been devoted to the law as many Jews were. I think he is describing the problem that not only the apostle had but historically the problem that all Israel had under the law.

2.1 Sin is the real culprit (7-12)

In answer to Paul’s first question as to whether the law is to blame for all the sin, Paul says that sin itself is the real culprit. The law is good and holy and righteous (v 12) but sin does its dirty work in us and it takes advantage of the law to work death in those who are under the law.

Romans 7:7-12

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” f But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

The law isn’t to blame its sin. The Law exposes sin and shows us just how sinful we are, but it isn’t directly responsible for the sin in our lives. When Paul says that apart from the law sin was dead, he doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist before the coming of the Law, but that it appeared lifeless and inactive. But put sin in the presence of the Law and sin springs to life because the essence of sin is rebellion and you can only give expression to that rebellion when there is a command or a law to rebel against and disobey. Without the law sin is there but it is hidden away and unaccounted, but give someone a command, something that they can disobey, and sin will spring to life. It’s then that you see not only the sin that is there but just how ugly it really is and how the sentence of death is what you are under because of it. Paul says that he never would have known what coveting really was except for the command that told him “You shall not covet”. Paul here might have been thinking of the last of the ten commandments.

Exodus 20:17.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Once the law came along Paul knew what it was to covet and sin took the opportunity and produced all kinds of coveting in him, houses, wives and servants and oxen and donkeys, anything that belong to his neighbour. Paul argues that we don’t blame the law for this it is sin that really is the culprit. It seizes the opportunity afforded by the command to do its nasty work in us. Sin uses the law to bring death.

2.2 I am the real problem

This brings Paul to his second question that has to do with whether the law is to blame then for death. Did that which is good become death to me?  This question isn’t very different to the previous one and Douglass Moo suggests that Paul has possibility posed it for as yet in his answer he has left out “a key player” in all of this, us. I think Paul secondly saying that I am real problem. He is the real problem. Sin lives in us. It is not the evil out there somewhere. It is the evil the dwells in me and controls my heart. In verses 13 to 23 I think Paul describes the problem that all of those under the law (and all of us) had with sin.

I must put my cards on the table at this point and reveal my hand. A lot of people think that Paul is describing the believer’s present struggle with sin in these verses. I don’t think he is. I don’t deny that we all struggle with sin and it won’t be a constant temptation and battle for us while we live in this world. But what Paul describes here isn’t a struggle it is total defeat from which we he looks for deliverance. I believe that what Paul is describing was what life was life for him as Jew or a typical Israelite wanting to live under the law but “sold as slave to sin” (v14). I don’t think Paul could describe a believer in this way not after arguing in chapter 6 that in Christ we are no longer slaves to sin.  I think that he talks of his own struggle as a Jew but puts it in the present tense and the first person singular to make it more vivid for us. Having said that lets turn our attention to verse 13.

Romans 7:13

13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. [2]

Again, Paul’s answer first makes the point that the Law exposes sin that sin might recognised as that which brings about our death. As Paul said earlier in chapter 5 sin was in the world before the law was given but it couldn’t be charged against anyone’s account at that time for there was no law. But nevertheless as Paul has told us death still reigned (see Romans 5:12-14), but with the coming of the law the sin that was there but once was unaccounted for is seen. It is recognised to be what brings about our death. The law reveals the depths of our problem, how exceeding sinful sin in us is. The problem is with us and our inability to do what is right for we were slave to sin. This is why those under the law had to be released from it and are now under grace because they couldn’t keep the law’s demands. Paul describes the depths of that problem in verses 14 to 23 by talking about how as a Jew he knew that the law was good, but he didn’t have the power to do what it required.

Romans 7:14-23

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. u For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.

Paul says that the problem was the sin that was living in him. Paul’s isn’t trying to excuse himself here, but he was saying that even though he knew that the law was good, good didn’t dwell in him. Although he wanted to do good, evil was always right there with him so that he didn’t do it. He talks about another law at work in him making him a prisoner of the law of sin. Sin just isn’t out there causing havoc; it is in us. It is the evil that lives in us. It’s our rebellious nature, or our idolatrous self-centeredness. We are the problem. It wasn’t the law. It is the sin that rules our hearts. Paul says that the problem was with me and my inability to do the good despite knowing that it is right thing to do. We are the problem – it the sin that’s inside us that rules our hearts.

Paul’s conclusion is found in verses 24.

Romans 7:24

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

Paul’s conclusion is that we need to be rescued. We are in a wretched state. There is nothing that we could do to deliver ourselves out of the mess that we found ourselves in. We were slaves to sin, incapable of doing what we knew was right, and under the sentence of death. We need rescuing and it is at this point of acknowledging his own wretchedness that the apostle Paul interrupts his description of what it was like under sin to thank God who delivers him through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Romans 7:25

25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

3. We all need to be rescued

3.1 We all need to recognise our own wretchedness.

We all need to realise how wretched we are and look to God to deliver us. It isn’t until we recognise what we really like and just how wretched we really are that we will see our need to be rescued and look to God. We must realise that we have the same problem with sin that Paul and the Israelites had. We are slaves to sin. We can’t keep the laws demands. Even when we want to do the good, we can’t for there is no good in us. We might know what the right thing is and what God says we should do, but we don’t have the power to do it. We don’t keep the law the way that it is meant to be kept – to glorify God. Even the so called “good” that we do is done for the wrong reasons and what we earn for ourselves is death. What a wretched man I am, says Paul.

Friend, if you have got to realise that the problem is us. It is you and it’s me. We don’t have the power to be what the law requires of us and there is nothing any of us can do about it. Coming to church and trying to keep a few good rules won’t do it. The good that you do will never be good enough. You need God to make you a whole new person and you can only be that person through dying with Christ so that you might be raise with him to belong to him.

3.2 We all need Jesus

We all need Jesus. We need him to deliver us. The law couldn’t fix this problem it could only bring it to light. It wasn’t ever a matter of a have few good rules to follow. Rules only highlight our inability to keep them – which is a good thing – because exposes the problem with our hearts. It would take God sending his Son into the world as a sin offering so that we might be forgiven and freed from penalty of sin so that sin might no longer be our master and death our wages. It was his death and resurrection that made it possible for us, the guilty party, to go free and live a new life, as child of God so that we can serve him and bear fruit to God. If you have never cried out to God to deliver you let me urge you, plead with you to do it today. Stop trying to do what you can’t do and ask God to deliver you in Christ so that you can live a new life and be a child of God.

3.3 We need to remember who we belong to.

Lastly, you and I have to remember who we belong to and what we have become in Christ. We are no longer that wretched man or woman that we were. We are no longer under the law’s condemnation, but under the grace of the Lord Jesus.  We belong to him who died and rose again to bring forgiveness and give us a new life.

Friends, we always must remember that, he has made all the difference in our lives. You and I could never have fulfilled the righteous demands of the law, but he did this for us, ultimately dying on a cross to pay the penalty that the law demanded. So, when we doubt and are feeling wretched in ourselves and when Satan comes and accuses us that no good lives in us, we are to tell him that Christ now lives in us and that we belong to him. And like a loving husband who shares everything that he has with his beloved, Christ has shared everything that we need with his bride, the church, his people. His victory over sin and death is now our victory. His righteousness, now our righteousness. His life, now our life. “Thanks be to God” says Paul, “who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We now don’t live a life trying to be good enough, but a life of thankfulness to God through Christ Jesus our Lord.

[1]  Except with otherwise indicated all Bible reference are quote from The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 7:13). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.