The Christian and the Law (preaching resource for 7/9/23, 6th Sunday after Pentecost)
This post exegetes Romans 7:7-25, providing context for the RCL Epistles reading for 7/9/23. It draws on John Stott’s "The Message of Romans," and "The Expositor’s Bible Commentary."
|"St. Paul Shipwrecked on Malta" by Laurent de La Hyre|
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In Romans 7:1-6 Paul celebrates the release of believers from the law, characterizing the law negatively as barring marriage to Christ, arousing sin, causing death, and impeding life in the Spirit. What gives? Is Paul teaching that the law is evil? Paul anticipates these questions and accusations and addresses them by asking and answering two related questions: *Is the law sin?* (7), and *Did that which is good [the law] become death to me?* (13). To both questions Paul replies: *certainly not!* (7) and *by no means!* (13). Paul then proceeds in the rest of Chapter 7 with a lengthy digression about the purpose of the law (Romans 7:7-13) and the weakness of the law (Romans 7:14-25) in the life of a believer. In doing so, he performs a delicate balancing act. On the one hand he defends the law as God’s revelation that, in a certain context, is *holy, righteous, good* and *spiritual* (12, 14), but on the other hand, Paul is dismissive of the law as unable, in any context, to save or to transform.
A. The purpose of the law
Romans 7:7-13. In this section Paul defends against charges that he is teaching that the law is evil. In making this defense, Paul defends the law itself, showing that, though it is not a believer’s source of justification or sanctification, the law does have three God-ordained purposes in a believer's life.
In this section, Paul illustrates his points by speaking of the personal experience of a person identified only as ‘I’. Who this ‘I’ is, is debatable. It is natural to assume that Paul is speaking of his personal experience. He may, for example, be referring to the time when he was an innocent child *alive apart from law*; but then the commandment ‘came' at his bar mitzvah at age 13, in which he became a 'son of the commandment' and he became responsible for his own behavior; then came his 'dawn of conscience' when *sin sprang to life*; and then his adolescent rebellion caused separation from God (he 'died'). Or, Paul may have in mind his pre-conversion life as a Pharisee where he was 'alive' in his own estimation, and untroubled by the law. But things changed when he was personally convicted of sin. Before this conviction (‘apart from law’) sin was dead and he was alive, but when the conviction (‘commandment’) came, there was a complete reversal—sin sprang to life in his awareness and he died (8b, 9a).
A second possibility is that Paul is impersonating Adam. *Once...alive apart from law* could correspond to Adam’s innocence in paradise. *The commandment came* could refer to God's command to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden (Gen. 2:17). Sin *sprang to life* and seized *the opportunity afforded by the commandment* (8) could mean that sin (the serpent) was in the garden even before man, but had no opportunity of attacking man until the command "thou shalt not eat of it"... had been given. Sin having *deceived* him (11) could recall Eve's complaint that the devil had deceived her (Gen. 3:13; cf. 2 Cor. 11:3; 1Tim. 2:14). The awakening to sin (7f.) could recall Adam’s false desire (Gen. 3:6) and his disobedience to God's commandment (9, 11) brought death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19).
A third possibility is that Paul is impersonating the experience of all of Israel as a people who received the law (‘commandment’) at Sinai. But it is probably best to understand that in this section Paul has in mind all of these situations and is thus speaking of life under ‘law’ in general and in a universal sense. In the next section (Romans 7:14-25), he switches the tenses of all of his verbs and the highly personal illustration seems to change focus, as we will see.
1. The law reveals sin (7)
Paul has already written that 'through the law we become conscience of sin' (Rom. 3:20). Now he of his own experience: *I would not have known what sin was except through the law* (7a). This probably means both that he had come to recognize the gravity of sin, because the law unmasks and exposes it as rebellion against God, and that he had been brought under conviction of sin by it. In his case it was the tenth commandment prohibiting covetousness which convicted him: *For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet"* (7b). Paul had described himself when a Pharisee as having been 'blameless' in regard to righteousness under the law (Phil. 3:6). But this was a 'legalistic righteousness' (NIV)—external conformity to the law. But the *covetousness desire* to which he refers in Romans 7:8 is internal –- a desire, a drive, a lust—and is itself a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5), because it puts the object of desire in the place of God. Paul could well have obeyed the other nine commandments in word and deed; but covetousness lurked hidden in his heart. So it was the prohibition of covetousness in the Law of Moses which the Holy Spirit used to open Paul's eyes to his own depravity and convicted him of sin.
2. The law provokes sin (8)
Having already said that 'our sinful passions [were] aroused by the law' (5), Paul now writes: *But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead* (8). *Aphorme* ('opportunity') was used of a military base, 'the starting-point or base of operations for an expedition' (BAGD), a springboard for further advance. So it is that sin establishes within us a base or foothold by means of the commandments which provoke us. This provocative power of the law is a matter of everyday experience. Ever since Adam and Eve, human beings have always been enticed by forbidden fruit. For example, a peremptory traffic signal says 'stop' or 'reduce speed now', and our instinctive is, 'Why should I?' Or we see on a door the notice 'Private - do not enter', and we immediately want to cross the prohibited threshold.
Augustine gives us in his Confessions a good example of this perversity. One night at the age of sixteen, in company with 'a gang of naughty adolescents', he shook a pear tree and stole its fruit. His motive, he confesses, was not that he was hungry, for they threw the pears to the pigs. 'I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing, but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.' 'Was it possible', he asked himself, 'to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?' In all such cases the real culprit is not the law but sin which is hostile to God's law (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.
3. The law condemns sin (9-13)
Apparently describing his own personal experience in solidarity with Adam and the Jewish race, Paul continues: *I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death* (10). In other words, the law condemned him. To explain this further, Paul first repeats the sentence from verse 8 that *sin* seized *the opportunity afforded by the commandment* (he mentions 'the commandment' six times in these verses because it is the role of the law which he is unfolding), and adds that sin first *deceived me* (presumably by promising blessings it could not deliver) and then *through the commandment put me to death* (11). Thus, all three of these verses (9, 10 and 11) speak of the commandment in relation to death; they anticipate verse 13, in which Paul will clarify that what caused his death was not the law but sin which exploited the law.
Here then, are the three devastating effects of the law in relation to sin: It exposes, provokes and condemns sin. For 'the power of sin is the law' (1 Cor. 15:56). 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. The law is exonerated; sin is to blame. The teaching of this paragraph is well summarized in the question of verse 7 and the affirmation of verse 12. Question: *Is the law sin?* (7). Affirmation: *So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good* (12). That is, its requirements are both holy and righteous in themselves and also good (agathos), meaning 'beneficent in their intention'.
This brings Paul to the objectors' other question about the law: *Did the law become death to me?* (13). Certainly verse 10 seemed to implicate the law as being responsible for death, stating that the commandment which 'was intended to bring life actually brought death'. So was the law guilty of offering life with one hand and inflicting death with the other? *Did that which is good, then, become death to me?* Paul answers this second question with his emphatic *God forbid!* The law does not cause death; sin does. *But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good* (i.e. through the law), *so that* (this was God's intention) *through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful* (13b). Indeed the extreme sinfulness of sin is seen precisely in the way it exploits a good thing (the law) for an evil purpose (death).
In answer to both questions, then, Paul has declared that the culprit is not the law (which had a good purpose in the life of Israel under the Old Covenant) but sin (which misuses the law). Verses 8 and 11 are closely parallel, both describing sin as *seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment*, either to produce sin (8) or inflict death (11). 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 behavior. In a similar way Paul exonerates the law. The villain here is indwelling sin which, because of its perversity, is aroused and provoked by the law. It is indwelling sin which accounts for the weakness of the law, as Paul goes on to show.
B. The weakness of the law
Romans 7:14-25. Having defended the law in verses 7-13 as not responsible for sin or death, Paul now proceeds to show that nevertheless the law is weak. Though in itself it is holy, it is impotent to make us holy. This important truth lies behind the rest of Romans Chapter 7 where we note that although Paul continues to use the personal 'I', he changes the tenses of all the verbs. He has been using the past tense: 'Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came...I died' (9). This was his past, pre-conversion experience (and probably meant to be typical of Adam and of all Israel). But now suddenly his verbs are in the present tense: 'What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do' (15). It sounds like Paul is describing his post-conversion experience. But is that the case? The earliest Greek interpreters from Origen onwards repudiated this option. They could not accept that a regenerate and mature believer like Paul could describe himself as *sold as a slave to sin* (14), when he has just celebrated his transfer to another slavery which in reality is freedom (Romans 6:6, 17-18, 22). Could this post-conversion Paul confess that he cannot do what he wants to do, while he does do what he hates (15)? Could it be this Paul who cries out in great anguish and wretchedness for deliverance (24), apparently now forgetting the peace, joy, freedom and hope of the justified people of God which he has previously portrayed (5:1ff.)? So these commentators concluded that Paul was impersonating an unregenerate person, at least until 8:1ff., and was portraying the human being in Adam, not in Christ.
The western church, however, followed Augustine in the view that Paul is writing here of a person (perhaps himself) who is a regenerate (born-again) believer. This person at first sounds like an unbeliever, saying they are *unspiritual* (14; RSV 'carnal') and declaring that *nothing good lives* in them, that is, in his *sinful nature* (18). But only believers think and speak of themselves in self-disgust and self-despair. Note also that this person says the law is *holy, righteous and good* (12), and *spiritual* (14), but also refers to it as *the good I want to do* (19). He states both that *in my inner being I delight in God's law* (22) and that *I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law* (25). This is not the language of the unregenerate for in the next chapter Paul declares that 'the sinful mind [AV 'the carnal mind'] is hostile to God' and that 'it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so' (Rom. 8:7). This person, however, feels love for the law, not enmity; and is submissive to it, not rebellious. Finally, this person longs for deliverance. He yearns to be rescued 'out of this body of death', that is, out of this present state of sinfulness and mortality into a new and glorious resurrection body. Such a person, deploring evil in his fallen nature, delighting himself in God's law, and longing for the promised full and final salvation, seems to provide ample evidence of being regenerate.
Yet, this person does not seem to be a healthy and mature believer. For believers 'used to be slaves to sin' but now 'have been set free from sin' and have become slaves to God and righteousness (Rom. 6:17ff.), whereas this believer declares himself to be still the slave and the prisoner of sin (14, 23). True, conflict between flesh and Spirit is normal Christian experience, but what is described here seems to be only unremitting defeat. Moreover, this person appears to know nothing, either in understanding or in experience, of the Holy Spirit. Since Romans 7:6 characterizers the Christian era as the age of the Spirit (rather than of the law), one would have expected this chapter to be full of the Spirit. Instead, Romans 7 is full of the law (mentioned, with its synonyms, 31 times). It is Romans 8 which is full of the Spirit (mentioned 21 times) and which calls the indwelling of the Spirit the authenticating mark of belonging to Christ (Romans 8:9). If then we are looking for a description of the normal Christian life we will find it in Romans 8. Romans 7, with its concentration on the law and its omission of the Spirit, does not seem to be a description of Christian normality.
Who then is this person? He seems to be a Jewish-Christian who has been born again yet still seeks to live under the law. But in doing so he finds defeat (even despair). He seems to know very little (or nothing) of life in the Spirit—seeking to live for Christ under the law rather than in the freedom of the Spirit. He has not fully experienced the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. Even if he understands that he is 'not under law but under grace' for justification, he has not fully grasped (and experienced) that he should also be 'not under law but under the Spirit' for sanctification. He has not yet exchanged 'the old way of the written code' for 'the new way of the Spirit' (Rom. 7:6). He is relying on the law, and has not yet come to terms with its weakness.
That this person finds defeat and despair is not the fault of the law, for the law is good, although weak. Rather, the culprit is *sin living in me* (17, 20)—the power of the indwelling sin which the law is powerless to control. Not until Romans 8:9ff will the apostle bear witness to the indwelling Spirit as alone able to subdue indwelling sin. Before that, however, he will refer specifically to the law as 'weakened by the sinful nature', and will declare that God himself has done what the sin-weakened law could not do. He sent his Son to die for our sins in that the law's requirement might be fulfilled in us, provided that we live 'not according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit' (Rom. 8:3-4). Only when the gospel has replaced the law, and the Holy Spirit the written code, can defeat be replaced by victory.
As we now turn to Rom. 7:14-25, we note that it divides itself into two paragraphs (14-20 and 21-25), both of which open with a positive reference to the law *we know that the law is spiritual* (14), and *in my inner being I delight in God's law* (22). The tragedy is, however, that the person Paul is impersonating cannot keep this law. Nor can the law keep him or transform him. Both paragraphs elaborate the weakness of the law, which is attributed to sin.
1. The law and the 'flesh' in believers (7:14-20)
In this paragraph the apostle writes almost exactly the same things twice, presumably for emphasis, first in verses 14-17 and then in verses 18-20. Each section begins with a frank acknowledgement of innate sinfulness. It is a question of self-knowledge. *We know* (14) and *I know* (18). And in both cases the self-knowledge concerns the flesh (*sarx*). Although *the law is spiritual*, the writer himself is *unspiritual*, 'fleshly', still possessing and being oppressed by his twisted, self-centered nature (*sarx*), on account of which he can also describe himself as *sold as a slave to sin* (14), or 'the purchased slave of sin' (NEB). We have already noted the difficulty of reconciling this admitted slavery to sin with the freedom from sin, and slavery to God and righteousness, which Paul claimed for Christians in the previous chapter (6:18, 22). The continuing slavery to sin is easier to understand if the 'I' is a believer who is still under the law.
The corresponding statement of verse 18a is this: *I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature (sarx*). This cannot be interpreted absolutely, meaning that there is nothing at all in fallen human beings which can be labeled 'good', since God's image in which we are still made (Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9), although defaced, has not been destroyed, and since Jesus himself spoke of the possibility of even pagans doing good (e.g. Mt. 5:46f.; 7:11). Since the person Paul is describing goes on in the second part of the verse to say that he has *the desire to do what is good* (18b), it seems likely that the 'nothing good' of the first part of the verse alludes to his inability to turn the desire into action. It also means that everything 'good' in human beings is tainted with evil. Those who are still under the law, therefore, although (being regenerate) they love it, yet (being also fallen) are enslaved, and so incapable of turning good desires into good deeds.
Secondly, each of the two sections of this paragraph continues with a vivid description of the resulting conflict (15 and 18b-19). After confessing that he does not altogether understand his own actions (15a), and that he has desires for good which he cannot carry out (18b), the writer summarizes his inward struggle in negative and positive counterparts. On the one hand, *what I want to do I do not do*, and on the other *what I hate I do* (15b). Similarly, *what I do is not the good I want to do*. Instead, *the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing* (19). He is conscious of a divided 'I'. For there is an ‘I’ which wants the good and hates the evil, and there is an ‘I’ which acts perversely, doing what is hated and not doing what is wanted. The conflict is between desire and performance; the will is there, but the ability is not. Surely this is the conflict of a regenerate person who knows, loves, chooses and longs for God's law, but finds that by himself he cannot do it. His whole being (especially his mind and will) is set upon God's law. He wants to obey it. And when he sins, it is against his reason, his desire and his consent. But the law cannot help him. Only the power of the indwelling Spirit could change things; and that will come later.
Thirdly, each section of this paragraph ends by saying (in almost identical words) that indwelling sin is responsible for the failures and defeats of the person under the law whom Paul is impersonating (16f. and 20). Both verses contain a premise and a conclusion. The premise is stated in the phrase *if I do what I do not want to do* (16a, repeated in 20), drawing attention to the radical discontinuity between will and deed. Then the first conclusion is *I agree that the law is good* (16b) and the second is *that it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me* (17, repeated in 20). Who, then, is to blame for the good I do not do and the evil I do? This is what Paul clarifies. It is not the law, for three times he declares its holiness and goodness (12, 14, 16). Besides, in wanting so ardently to do good and avoid evil, he is hereby endorsing and approving the God-given function of the law. So the law is not to blame. But neither, Paul goes on, am 'I myself' (the authentic ‘I’) responsible. For when I do evil I do not do it voluntarily. On the contrary, I act against my better judgment, my will and my consent. It is rather the *sin living in me*, the false, the fallen, the counterfeit 'I'. The real I, 'I myself', is the 'I' which loves and wants the good, and hates the evil, for that is its essential orientation. Therefore the 'I' which does the opposite (doing what I hate and not doing what I want) is not the real or genuine 'I', but rather a usurper, namely 'indwelling sin' (17, 20) the ‘sinful nature’ (18). In other words, the law is neither responsible for our sinning, nor capable of saving us. It has been fatally weakened by the flesh (what Paul refers to as our sinful nature – the *sarx*).
2. The double reality in believers under the law (7:21-25)
Having given a graphic description of inward conflict, as he identifies with believers who continue to seek deliverance and transformation under the law, Paul now summarizes the situation in terms of their double reality, even though this is not the complete story, since still the Holy Spirit is not yet included in it. He depicts this double reality four times in four different ways, as the two ‘I’s’ (egos), the two laws, the two cries and the two slaveries.
First there are two egos: *So I find this law* ('I discover this principle', REB) *at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me* (21). The antithesis between the 'I' who wants the good and the 'I' beside whom the evil lies is more obvious in the Greek sentence by reason of the repetition of *emoi*, meaning 'in me' or 'by me'. One might paraphrase it: ‘When in me there is a desire to do good, then by me evil is close at hand.' Thus the evil and the good are both present simultaneously, for they are both part of a fallen yet regenerate personality.
Secondly, there are two laws: *for in my inner being* (that is, in the real regenerate me) *I delight in God's law* (22). It is the object of my love and the source of my joy. This inner delight in the law is also called *the law of my mind* (23), because my renewed mind approves and endorses God's law (cf. 16). *But I see* in addition *another law*, a very different law, which is *at work in the members of my body*. This Paul calls *the law of sin* which is continuously *waging war against the law of my mind and making me its prisoner* (23). Thus the characteristic of 'the law of my mind' is that it operates 'in my inner being' and 'delights in God's law', whereas the characteristic of 'the law of sin' is that it operates 'in the members of my body', fights against the law of my mind and takes me captive. Once again, this is the condition of the person who is still under the law; it is the Holy Spirit who is missing.
Thirdly, there are two cries from the heart: One is *What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?* (24). The other is *Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!* (25a). The former is not so much 'a heart rending cry from the depths of despair' as a cry of longing, which ends in a question mark, while the latter is a cry of confidence and thanksgiving, which ends in an exclamation mark. Yet both are the exclamations of the same person, who is a regenerate believer, who laments his corruption, who yearns for the final deliverance at the resurrection (indeed, 'groans' in waiting for it, 8:23), who knows the impotence of the law to rescue him, and who exults in God through Christ as the only Savior, although again the Holy Spirit is not yet introduced. The two cries are almost simultaneous, or at least the second is an immediate response to the first. It anticipates the declaration of Romans 8:3-4 that God has done through his Son and Spirit what the law was powerless to do.
Fourthly, there are two slaveries: *So then*, Paul concludes, *I myself (the authentic, regenerate I) in my mind am a slave to God's law*, for I know it and love it and want it; *but in the sinful nature* (in my *sarx*, my false and fallen self, uncontrolled by the Spirit) I am *a slave to the law of sin* (25b), on account of my inability by myself to keep it. The conflict is between my renewed mind and my unrenewed *sarx*. This believer, seeking to follow God through the lens of the law finds himself in continuing slavery to the law of sin.
This is a fitting conclusion to this description of a Jewish believer who seeks to continue under the law. The two egos, two laws, two cries and two slaveries together constitute the double reality of people who are indeed regenerate but who are still living under the law. Indwelling sin masters them; they have not yet found the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Nor has Paul yet alluded to it, though he soon will in Chapter 8.
How are we to apply this passage today? Romans 7:4-6 are the key verses, setting the two orders or ages and covenants over against each other in sharp antithesis as *the old way* and *the new way*. Though both are called 'service', the old was characterized by 'letter' (written code), while the new is characterized by 'Spirit' (the Holy Spirit's indwelling presence). In the old order we are married to the law and controlled by the flesh, and we bore fruit for death, whereas as members of the new order we are married to the risen Christ and liberated from the law, and we bear fruit for God.
The point is this: as Christians we are called to live in the freedom of the Spirit. To do so, we need to be careful to not fall prey to legalism, which is spiritual slavery. We must beware parting from reliance on the indwelling Spirit to reliance on an external code, which means departing from Christ to the law. God's purpose for us is not that we should be Old Covenant Christians, regenerate, but living in slavery to the law and in bondage to indwelling sin. Rather, God's purpose for us is that we should be New Covenant Christians who, having died and risen with Christ, are living in the freedom of the indwelling Spirit. It is of this freedom to which Paul turns next in Romans Chapter 8.