The Believer’s Relationship to the Law, 1-25
7:1 Or do you not know, brothers and sisters (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law is lord over a person as long as he lives?
“You’ll never get out of the seventh of Romans while I’m your minister,” Alexander Whyte once told his Edinburgh congregation.
‘Paul is not beginning a new topic but is further illustrating the theology of Rom 6:14, “you are not under law, but under grace.” By this he does not mean that the believer is free from responsibility to fulfill the content of the law which, as we have seen, articulates God’s unchangeable will for humanity. Rather, freedom from the law means no longer to be under its condemnation or obligated to undertake the impossible task of fulfilling it on our own.’ (ECB)
‘The basic thought of the passage is founded on the legal maxim that death cancels all contracts. Paul begins with an illustration of this truth and wishes to use this picture as a symbol of what happens to the Christian. So long as a woman’s husband is alive, she cannot marry another without becoming an adulteress. But if her husband dies, the contract is, so to speak, cancelled, and she is free to marry anyone she likes.’ (DSB)
Although this chapter has been hotly debated in various schools of holiness teaching, Stott points out that we must force our way back into the historical, cultural and theological setting from which Paul wrote. Note, for example, that ‘the law’ (or similar terminology) has been referred to in every one of this chapter’s first 14 verses, and thirty-five times in Rom 7:1-8:4. Paul’s account of the law so far has been a very negative one: the law reveals sin, Rom 3:20; condemns the sinner, Rom 3:19; defines sin, Rom 4:15; 5:13; brings wrath, Rom 4:15; was added to increase the trespass, 5:20. Accordingly, God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the law, Rom 1:17; 3:21, although the law bears witness to it, Rom 1:2; 3:21. Sinners are justified, not by keeping the law but through faith in Christ, Rom 3:27. Such faith upholds the law by assigning to it its proper function, Rom 3:27. This principle is illustrated in the case of Abraham, Rom 4:13f. All of this negative teaching about the law is summarised in 6:14f, when Paul states that ‘we are not under law, but under grace’. The present chapter begins with further emphasis on the fact that believers have been released from the law. All of this sounds like of denial of the central place of the law as celebrated in Psa 19 and 119 and elsewhere, and like a clear-cut permission for antinomianism.
There are those today who would claim that the category of ‘law’ has been abolished for believers. The only law remaining is the law of love. Such teachers claim Rom 6:14f (’you are not under law’) and 10:4 (’Christ is the end of the law’) in their favour. But it is clear that Paul is referring in these passages to the law as a way of salvation. God still expects his people to follow the law by living lives of love and righteousness, Rom 8:4; 13:8,10. Paul’s teaching is neither legalistic (being bound by the law as means of becoming right with God) or antinomian (maintaining that the believer is freed from all the requirements of the law). Rather, he wants us to be ‘law-fulfilling free people’ (Stott), loving God’s law and seeking to fulfil it. In vv1-6 Paul teaches that the law no longer has authority over us: this is his message to legalists. In vv7-13 he nevertheless defends the law and says that it is good: this is his message to antinomians. In vv14-25 he describes ‘the inner conflict of those who are still living under the regime of the law. If left to ourselves in our fallenness we cannot keep God’s law, even though we delight in it. Nor can the law rescue us. But God has done what the law could not do, by giving us his Spirit, Rom 8:3f. This is the experience of those who find their freedom in fulfilling the law.’
Ryle says: ‘I am quite satisfied that [this chapter] does not describe the experience of an unconverted man, or of a young and unestablished Christian; but of an old experienced saint in close communion with God.’ (Holiness)
The law has authority over a man only as long as he lives – This is a universal axiom: the law is for life; death annuls it.
7:2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage. 7:3 So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress.
Marriage is, of course, ‘till death us do part’. The law binds her, but death frees her.
‘The apostle is saying that the woman’s status as a wife has been abolished, completely done away. She is no longer a wife.’ (Morris)
7:4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. 7:5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 7:6 But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.
As a wife is married to her husband and thus bound to him, they were ‘married’ to the law and bound to it. But as death terminates marriage and allows the wife to marry another, so they died to the law and were therefore free to belong to God
Our death to the law means that we are no longer under its curse and condemnation. It happened ‘through the body of Christ’, that is, by means of our union with Christ in his death on the cross.
In order that we might bear fruit to God – Some commentators think that this is a continuation of the marriage metaphor, and the ‘fruit’ is offspring, in the form of holiness. But, if that were the case, Paul could have easily said, ‘offspring’.
‘This fruit-bearing is the unexpected sequel to our severance from the law that confounds all legalists, who think that the relinquishing of law is fatal to the production of good works.’ (Wilson)
At the end of ch 6 we were faced with the question: ‘Whose slave are you?’ Now, a similar question is posed: ‘To whom are you married – to the law or to God?’
The sinful nature – ‘sarx’ – ‘flesh’. ‘When Paul speaks about “being in the flesh” throughout his writings, he is not talking about our physical nature as such, about physical passions and desires, but about a way of life, an orientation of life, a life lived apart from God’s purposes for us.’ (HSB)
The sinful passions aroused by the law – ‘The Flagship Hotel in Houston, Texas, is built right next to the water. Large plate-glass windows adorn the dining room, which is on the lowest floor. However, the windows kept getting broken by guests fishing from the balconies above. Heavy sinkers had to be used to cast to the water, but the lines were often too short and so would crash against the windows below. Finally the management removed the “NO FISHING FROM BALCONY” signs from the rooms. The windows were safe at last.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching)
We serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code – The distinction here ‘is between the old covenant which was one of “letter” (gramma), and external code written on stone tablets, and the new covenant which is ont of “Spirit” (pneuma), for the new age is essentially the age of the Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit writes God’s law in our hearts.’ (Stott)
‘The “newness” of this service consists in the life, power, and effectiveness which it derives from its Author, the Holy Spirit.’ (Wilson)
No longer are believing Jews like Paul in bondage to rules, regulations and rituals to please God, based on their own self-effort. No longer must he and they be anxious whether their efforts will be sufficient to please God, knowing that his standards are absolute. Now in Christ they are forgiven everything. Now they are free from the otherwise inevitable kingship of Sin reigning in Death over them. God is no longer their judge in a hearing whose outcome they fear. Rather, God is their Father because Christ is their Saviour and Lord. The judgement of God has been passed and it has been passed on Christ, in their place. They are now free, “discharged” from that prison of fear.
Subjection to the Law is for Paul and for them in the past – or should be. But this appears to be the very reason Paul is writing. Some Jews among the believers in Rome appear to want to be under Law and, most likely, to subject Gentiles also to the Law. Paul, too, as a lifelong Jew may also have found himself drifting back into old ways of thinking.’ (Barnett)
7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”
Most of Paul’s references to the law so far have been negative. The opening of the present chapter celebrates our discharge from the law, in order that we might be bound to Christ. All this could easily lead to the charge of antinomianism against Paul. But to the question, “Paul, do you repudiate the law?” the resounding answer is, “Certainly not!”
Paul has already dealt with an aspect of this question, by rejecting the notion that grace encourages sin, 6:1,15. Now he deals with the same kind of problem from the perspective of the law. ‘In Rom 6 he has argued that grace does not encourage sin’ on the contrary, it renders sin inadmissible, even inconceivable. In Rom 7 he now argues that the law does not create sin and death; on the contrary, it is our fallen human nature which is to blame for them.’ (Stott)
The apostle actually has a ambivalent attitude towards the law. On the one hand, he defends it as a revelation of a righteous God, vv7-13. On the other hand, he is acutely aware of its weakness, in that it is impotent to save, vv14-25.
Paul’s passionate argument in this chapter undermines the thought that when he speaks of the law his is thinking primarily of Jewish boundary-markers. ‘Paul’s heroic (though futile) struggle in Romans 7 would be a farce had he been thinking of food laws, fat offerings, and firstfruits—and this goes for his enormous preoccupation with the law as a whole.’ (Edwards, UBCS)
I would not have know what sin was except through the law – The law is not sinful; on the contrary, it reveals sin.
Suppose a paperboy has a habit of cutting corners as he delivers his papers. There is one particular home where he has ridden his bicycle across the lawn so often that he has worn a narrow trail across it. But he doesn’t think anything of it. Then one day, as he is about to ride across this particular lawn, he notices that a sign has been put up: “KEEP OFF THE GRASS. NO BIKES.” But he rode straight across the grass, following his well-worn trail, right up to the feet of the waiting home-owner. A few few homes truths were shared with the boy. The point is this: before, his transgression was not fully seen or realised. But now, it was. And that, according to this verse, is the function of the law.
7:8 But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead.
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment – There is a military allusion. The law provided sin with an ‘operational’ base from which to launch its attacks.
‘This provocative power of sin is a matter of everyday experience. Ever since Adam and Eve, human beings have always been enticed by forbidden fruit…In all such cases the real culprit is not the law but sin which is hostile to God’s law, Rom 8:7. Sin twists the function of the law from revealing, exposing and condemning sin into encouraging and even provoking it. We cannot blame the law for proclaiming God’s will.’ (Stott)
7:9 And I was once alive apart from the law, but with the coming of the commandment sin became alive 7:10 and I died. So I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death! 7:11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died. 7:12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.
Once I was alive apart from the law – Alive, that is, in his own esteem.
When the commandment came – Some think that this is a reference to his initiation as a ‘son of commandment’ (bar mitzvah) at the age of 13.
‘How vain therefore is it to expect salvation from the law, since all the law does, in its operation on the unrenewed heart, is to condemn and to awaken opposition! It cannot change the nature of man.’ (Hodge)
Sin…deceived me – This recalls Eve’s deception by Satan, Gen 3:1-13.
‘Here, then, are the three devastating effects of the law in relation to sin. It exposes, provokes and condemns sin…But the law is not in itself sinful, nor is it responsible for sin. Instead, it is sin itself, our sinful nature, which uses the law to cause us to sin and so to die.’ (Stott)
The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good – ‘As “holy” the commandment reflects the transcendence and purity of God and demands of us the correspondent consecration and purity; as “right”]eous” it reflects the equity of God and exacts of us in its demand and sanction nothing but that which is equitable; as “good” it promotes man’s highest well-being and thus expresses the goodness of God.’ (Murray)
7:13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
That which is good – the law. The question is, ‘is the law responsible for bringing death?’ The answer is another strong negative. It is our sin that causes our death, not the law.
‘Take a criminal today. A man is caught red-handed breaking the law. He is arrested, brought to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. He cannot blame the law for his imprisonment. True, it is the law which convicted and sentenced him. But he has no-one to blame but himself and his own criminal behaviour.’ (Stott)
7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual—but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. 7:15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate. 7:16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. 7:17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.
We know that the law is spiritual – Here is a commonly-agreed truth that Paul wants now to affirm and develop. ‘The law is not only holy, righteous and good (v. 12) but also spiritual, that is, the work of God’s Spirit. This means that its origin is divine rather than human.’ (Osborne)
Unspiritual – sarkikos, ‘carnal’, ‘pertaining to the flesh’. It refers to human nature, but in context, to fallen human nature; to human nature as belonging to this world and under the power of sin and death.
Paul has just vindicated the law, in vv7-13. However, he will now show that although the law is good, it is weak. It is good, and yet powerless to make us holy. It provides moral guidance, but lacks transforming power.
Sold as a slave to sin – For Moo and others, this statement helps to clinch the case for regarding the ‘”I” of this chapter as in an unregenerate state, because in Rom 6:18,22 Paul declares that the believer has been set free from such slavery. But this, according to Packer, ‘misses the point’, which is that Paul in the present verse is using language pictorially, rather than theologically; he is expressing how things feel, rather than stating them in precise theological categories. Edwards, similarly: ‘It is a metaphor, dramatic to be sure, but still a metaphor of the ongoing battle with sin in the process of sanctification.’ Other passages of Paul, such as Gal 5:16-18, carry a similar meaning.
Hodge, on the other hand, points out that Paul ‘does not intend to say that he was given up to the willing service of sin; but that he was in the condition of a slave, whose acts are not always the evidence of his inclination. His will may be one way, but his master may direct him another. So it is with the believer. He does what he hates, and omits to do what he approves, ver. 15. This is a description of slavery, and a clear explanation of what is intended by the expression, “sold under sin.”’
Packer writes: ‘The thesis of the paragraph, “I am carnal, sold under sin,” is stated categorically and without qualification, but not because this is the whole truth about Paul the Christian, but because it is the only part of the truth about himself that the law can tell him. What the law does for the Christian is to give him knowledge of the sin that still remains in him.’ (Keep in Step with the Spirit, p226)
v15 Note the change of tense from the past to the present.
7:18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.
7:21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 7:23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.
In my inner being – ‘Deep inside’.
I see another law at work – heteros, a different law. ‘This ‘law’ is the ‘force’ or ‘power’ of sin, which Paul sets in contrast to the law of God (see also Rom 3:27; 8:2). Paul confesses himself to be a prisoner of this law of sin, a strong indication that he is describing his past experience as a Jew under the law (contrast Rom 8:2).’ (Moo, NBC)
In modern paraphrase, Paul is almost saying, “I know what to do in theory, but I keep getting it wrong in practice.”
7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? – This is a cry not so much of despair as of longing. It is consistent with ‘groaning’ of God’s people as they eagerly await their redemption, Rom 8:23. It is consistent with Paul’s self-assessment as expressed in 1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 1:15.
It was the custom of ancient conquerors to prevent the escape of their prisoners by tying a dead body to their backs. With such gruesome burdens, these poor wretches could not run away. Paul may have had this in mind; so some think Rom 7:24 should read: “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this dead body?”
If, as Moo and others think, Paul is in this chapter describing the pre-conversion experience of himself and his fellow-Jews, then we must note the objection of some that he gives no hint elsewhere of any struggle with sin prior to his becoming a believer. Indeed, Phil 3:2-11 seems to imply a certain complacency in this regard. Moo answers that in the Philippians passage, Paul is describing his status as a Jew, whereas in the present passage his is describing his experience from his perspective as a Christian believer. With respect of Pharisaic righteousness, Paul was blameless, but with respect to heart-righteousness, he was very far from blameless (as his persecution of Christ’s followers proves). At the time he thought himself to be irreproachable; later, he realised that his conscience had been deeply troubled. So it was with Martin Luther: ‘However irreproachable my life as a monk, I felt myself, in the presence of God, to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience.’
This body of death is this mortal body, sin’s present place of residence. The deliverance that Paul longs for will not take place until ‘the mortal puts on immortality’ (1 Cor 15:54). This is the consummation towards which those who have God’s Spirit look forward to in Rom 8:23.
I myself – αὐτὸς ἐγώ – ‘I, even I’. This emphatic expression ‘expresses Paul’s sense of how painfully paradoxical it is that a Christian man like himself, who desires so heartily to keep God’s law and do only good, should find himself under the constant necessity of breaking the law and doing what in effect is evil. But such is the state of the Christian till his body is redeemed.’ (Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, p225).
Some construe this expression to mean, ‘I, by myself’; ‘I, without Christ’s help’. But it is unlikely that it can bear this meaning.
Sinful nature – sarx, ‘flesh’.