FREE FROM LAW Romans 7
“For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sin passions aroused by the Law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death” (Rom. 7:5).Even Christians find God’s Law hard to keep—for good reason!
More on Law.
Romans 7 explores the impact of the Gospel on the individual in his or her relation to “God’s Law.” This is one of the Bible’s most difficult passages, but contains exciting truth! To understand it, we need to note that Paul uses “law” in more than one sense here. We’ve earlier seen that “God’s Law” is God’s revelation of morally righteous standards. But here “law” is not only those standards, but also the impact of those standards on human nature. Paul is concerned not only with laws, but with the response God’s commandments stimulate within us. There’s also another use of “law” in this chapter. When Paul speaks of a “law at work” within him, as in verse 21, or the “law of my mind” and the “law of sin at work in the members” (v. 23), he means not standard, but “fundamental principle.” The “law of gravity” is a statement of a fundamental principle of our experience: things fall down toward earth. The “law of sin at work in my members” is also a statement of a fundamental principle of human experience: we do wrong, even when we don’t want to. In his talk about these “laws,” Paul is making statements about how human nature works and does not work. What Paul says is that God’s Law and human nature aren’t compatible, any more than a car designed to run on gasoline is compatible with diesel fuel. God’s Law may be great fuel for diesel engines. But human nature operates on gasoline. And this leads to the issue that Paul explores in Romans 7. What is the relationship of the Gospel to a divinely given Law that, however “good” and “right” it may be, has never been able to produce righteousness in a single human heart?
Christians are free from man’s obligation to keep the Law (7:1–3). We must be, if we are to live holy lives (vv. 4–6). To try to relate to God through His Law makes the Christian life a constant, losing struggle (vv. 7–20). But God in Christ rescues us from our native inability (vv. 21–25).
Understanding the Text
“The Law has authority over a man only as long as he lives” Rom. 7:1–4. The old Gospel hymn says, Free from the law, oh happy condition. Jesus has died, and there is remission. Cling to the cross, your burden will fall. Christ has redeemed us, once for all. But the Jewish reader of Romans is sure to object to that first line. How can a human being be “free from the law”? Paul’s argument was rooted in the fact of union with Christ, which he introduced in Romans 6. In a marriage the husband and wife are united as one, and as one are subject to the “law of marriage.” But if one spouse dies, the other is free from the marriage law. He or she is no longer obligated to be faithful to the deceased spouse. The Christian is united to Jesus, and as long as each lived, each was responsible to God’s Law. But Jesus died on Calvary, and we “died” with Him! As a dead person is released from obligation to keep God’s Law, so are we! Moreover, when Christ was raised, we became obligated to Him, not to the Law. Jesus is that “another” to whom we now belong. Paul never suggested that we Christians aren’t to live disciplined and righteous lives. He did, however, remind us that we respond, not to a written code, but to a Person. Our new and exciting obligation is to respond to Jesus, not to a list of do’s and don’ts, however fitting that list may be. “The sinful passions aroused by the Law” Rom. 7:5. This is a key to Paul’s exploration of the Law and the believer, and explains why the New Testament teaches that the Christian must be freed from the Law. Law arouses man’s sinful passions, and produces fruit unto death. The idea isn’t all that unfamiliar. Think of the mom who made chocolate chip cookies for a get-together with some friends. She says to her kids, “Don’t touch the cookies. They’re for my group, and I have just enough.” Now, any kid worth his salt is going to naturally want a chocolate chip cookie. The smell alone is enough to awaken the desire. But when Mom says, “Don’t touch,” somehow the odor becomes almost irresistible. Her law has even further aroused the children’s cookie passion. Law, Paul says, is like that. Somehow it stimulates man’s sinful nature. And we all know it. That’s why the old saying, “Forbidden fruit is sweeter,” hangs on in our culture. We all realize that, somehow, the saying is true. You just can’t motivate people to do what’s right and good by saying, “You ought to!” or “You must!” “We have been released from the Law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” Rom. 7:6. In saying that we have “died” to the Law that once bound us, Paul was saying first that we’re legally free from obligation to the Law, and that Law is now irrelevant to our life in the Spirit. My children have suffered over the years as I’ve used their doings in illustration after illustration. I suspect all preacher’s kids have the same problem. But anyway, here I go again. My youngest son is seeing a lovely gal named Liz. I’ve noticed that no one tells him, “You have to phone Liz this evening.” Or, “You must take Liz out at least three times a week.” Somehow their relationship isn’t a matter of “have to’s” or “musts” at all! What happens is that Tim wants to call and see Liz. His growing love makes rules for such things in their relationship totally irrelevant. This is what Paul wants us to realize about our relationship with God. “Have to’s” and “musts” have no relevance! We love Jesus. And love for God will move us to do willingly what no rules could compel. “Fruit to God . . . fruit for death” Rom. 7:4–6. In a way, this paragraph is about horticulture. It describes two systems for growing fruit. And it says, you can’t mix systems. One system relies on the pronouncements of Law. But such pronouncements stimulate man’s sinful nature, and the fruit produced is sin “unto death.” The other relies on relationship, with the Spirit of Jesus taking the place of Law. The Spirit stimulates that resurrection life we received from Jesus, and produces fruit “to God.” That fruit is exhibited in righteous acts and godly character (Gal. 5:22–23). The sad thing is that all too many Christians try to fertilize their spiritual lives with liberal applications of Law. And then they can’t understand why their Christian life seems such a burden, and failure a constant companion. What you and I need to do is to focus our heart’s attention on our Lord, and hear what Scripture says to us as a loving invitation to walk with Him. When we do, our Christian life will seem exciting, and success will walk by our side. First-century seamen relied on heavy stone anchors like these to hold their vessels. These anchors were effective . . . except when the bottom was smooth and they could obtain no hold. This is what Paul said about God’s Law in Romans 7. The Law in itself is holy, righteous, and good (v. 12). But human nature is so hard and smooth the anchor could not hold. The fault is not in God’s Law, but in us! “I would not have known what sin was except through the Law” Rom. 7:7–13. Paul talked principle and concept. Now he talked experience. How does the believer experience God’s Law? First, Law makes us aware of sin. It puts a bright, bold label on things that are wrong. That label isn’t like the skull and crossbones on medicine bottles, which warns us away. It’s more like the two punctures in the skin, that inform us the snake that just bit us is poisonous. If you’re struck suddenly by a hiding snake, the quick way to tell if the bite is venomous is to look at it closely. If there’s a row of little marks, you’re safe. But if there is the mark of two fangs, venom has already been introduced into your system. That’s what God’s Law did for Paul. In labeling acts sin, it caused the apostle to realize that death had already been introduced into his system. The Law itself may be good. But it deals a fatal blow to our assumption that we are alive and well! Don’t be surprised if Law treats you this same way. It’s supposed to. If you and I could make it by ourselves, we wouldn’t need such reminders. By testifying to us of death, God’s Law grips us firmly by the shoulders, turns us around, and points us to Jesus. He is the source of life, for us, and for the world.
One Too Many(Rom. 7:14–25)
The other day I saw the TV interview of a woman who has multiple personalities. One personality is warm and loving, another childlike and petulant, a third angry and promiscuous. These personalities developed early in life and, as in all such cases, remained unaware of each other, though each controlled the woman’s actions at different times. In a way, Paul suggested that he too was a victim of multiple personalities. But he was all too aware of them! One “I” was his “sinful nature.” There was nothing good about this “I.” It not only kept on doing evil, it messed up the good Paul wanted and tried to do (vv. 19–20). Then there was another “I,” an “inner being” (v. 22) that passionately wanted to do good. This “I” delighted in God’s Law, and responded to it. What troubled Paul was that every time the “inner being” acted, the “sinful nature” jumped right in to corrupt and spoil the good. It’s as if a person with multiple sclerosis were writing a letter. In his mind’s eye he sees each word crisp and clear. But when he writes, the palsy in his hands forms almost unreadable letters, shaky and distorted. In just this way, Paul cried out in frustration; he as a believer wanted only to do good. But something inside kept spoiling his best efforts. The principle of sin and death was like another personality within him, at war with the personality that wanted honestly to serve God. We all have one personality too many. But we do have a wonderful source of comfort. The words we form as we seek to make our very lives a love letter to God may be shaky, but God sees and wel- comes our love. He knows it’s not the “I” of the inner man that makes our offerings imperfect, but the “I” of the sinful nature. Just as a parent welcomes with delight the first efforts of a toddler to write his name, so God welcomes our every effort to please Him. Someday that one personality too many will be gone. Only the “I” that delights in God and His Law will survive our resurrection. As Paul said, “Thanks be to God,” for Jesus “will rescue me from this body of death” (vv. 24–25). But until then, thanks be to God for another wonderful gift. God doesn’t demand that we be perfect as we seek to please Him. He only asks that we love Him—and that we try.
Don’t let failures dampen your love for God, or your eagerness to please Him.
“God uses failure, sickness, breakdown, sin, personal tragedy, and sorrow to reduce His people to usefulness. Unless the servant of God learns to depend utterly on God and to forsake self-dependence of any kind, he or she remains too strong to be of much value.”—Robert C. Girard