STRUGGLES WITH THE LAW
Do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to men who know the law—that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? Romans 7:1
As Paul turns to chapter 7, his focus is still very much on the law. Obviously, he is speaking to numerous Jewish believers in Rome who are quite familiar with the law or even skilled in it. Stott points out that the words “law,” “commandment,” or “written code” are mentioned in every verse of this chapter from 1 through 14 and some 35 times from 7:1 – 8:4. 1 In this chapter Paul is stressing the binding and holding power of the law (Gen. 2:24; cf. Mt. 5:32). It is clear here that the only thing that can release a person from the legal bonds of the law is death.
Paul then gives an example of the law’s hold over humanity by mentioning how a married woman is bound by it: “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 of marriage” (7:2). It is clear that in Moses’ day some allowance was made for divorce when the marriage was not suitable. In Matthew 19:8 Jesus clarifies the reason for this allowance. It was made because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. He states that from the beginning it was not so and that marriage once entered into should not be broken.
At approximately Jesus’ time there were two Jewish schools of thought on this subject of divorce. The School of Hillel held that a woman could be divorced for any and every reason. However, the School of Shammai was much more conservative. It appears that Jesus’ views were more in line with the latter school of thought.
“So then, if she marries another man 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, even though she marries another man” (7:3). In this section Paul is not dealing with divorce directly but only by way of illustration. However, his teaching here is a severe rebuke to twenty-first century morals, even Christian ones. The US-based Barna Research Group (Barna.org) disclosed in 2009 that the Christian rate of divorce was almost the same as the overall US rate of 33 percent. Born-again Christians were only a point lower while Protestants as a group were actually a point higher. All this is strange information when compared with Jesus’ teaching about divorce. He said: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).
As usual, Paul introduces us to some rather complex arguments and it is possible to get our heads in a spin trying to follow all his reasoning. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that prince of preachers, used to tell his students that when didactic speech failed to enlighten their hearers they might reveal the meaning by opening the window to the pleasant light of analogy. 2 Paul attempts to do this here but the analogy or metaphor he uses is somewhat incomplete, at least it is to our natural minds. Perhaps we should remember the old rule of Bible interpretation that we should not try to “make a metaphor run on all fours.” In other words, we cannot press a metaphor too hard or we might end up with a false idea.
“So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God” (7:4). In order to have a complete metaphor it would be necessary for the law, who is our master, to die. However, that is quite impossible. We observe in many scriptural passages that the law is eternal (Psa. 119:44, 144, 152, and 160). It cannot pass away or die because it is the word of God. So we see that it is not the law that dies (as analogy would seem to require) but it is Christ who dies and we by faith die with him. 3 In Galatians 2:20 Paul sums it up: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Since we have died, or rather since we have been put to death and raised to life, we are now free from the law and free to enter into a relationship with Christ. We are also free to bear fruit to God. This is no doubt a reference to the fruit of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. Some commentators go so far as to say that we are now married to Christ and are already bringing forth fruit of our marriage relationship with him. There may be a problem with carrying this picture too far at present because we see that the actual marriage of the Lamb is still future and does not take place until Revelation 19:7.
The Bible speaks of believers as betrothed or espoused to Christ and in preparation for the wedding to come. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul seems to speak of this: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (cf. Eph. 5:25-27). Nevertheless, our lives are being purified by the Holy Spirit and spiritual fruit is already being produced in our lives as we await the consummation. It is clear that we believers are to be putting on the beautiful wedding garments of praise and holiness, even as we await the marriage (Eph. 4:22-25; Isa. 52:1, 61:3; Col. 3:12).
Paul continues: “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death” (7:5). The law, although perfect, good, right, just and so forth, had the adverse effect of increasing sin, as we have seen previously. It put the spotlight on sin so to speak. Its function was not therapeutic but diagnostic. 4
“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” (7:6). We are now dead to the law and its constraints and we are now free to serve in the Spirit. We remember in the creation of the world how the Spirit hovered over the earth as it was being formed (Gen. 1:2). Now we see in the church, his new creation, how the Spirit hovers over us and remakes us into Christ’s image. We now are able to move in the Spirit, pray in the Spirit, worship in the Spirit and walk in the Spirit. What an advantage we have over Israel in all this. It appears that most of Judaism deemed that the Spirit had departed from them with the last of the prophets and would not return until the coming of Messiah. 5 How doubly sad that Israel missed the Messiah’s coming as well as the giving of his
We see that the way of the Spirit is the new and living way while the way of the legal code is the old and dying way. Wuest points out that there are two Greek words for “old.” One is archaios, meaning old regarding time, while the other is palaios, meaning old regarding use, or something that is worn out or useless. It is the second word that is used here. 6
THE LAW AND SIN
What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” Romans 7:7
We have seen earlier that a primary function of the law is to reveal sin. In this respect the law seems to even increase sin by bringing it into focus. As we have said, the law itself has been described as “perfect,” “holy,” “righteous,” and “good,” and therefore it cannot be described as “sinful.” The law has been compared to a mirror where we see our true selves (warts and all) or even to an x-ray machine that reveals our inmost beings. Paul illustrates the law’s purposes by bringing up the sin of covetousness. Interestingly, this is the one commandment that focuses on inner motives rather than on the outward acts (Exo. 20:17). Paul could be perfectly comfortable in his coveting until he read the words of the law, “You shall not covet!”
“But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead” (7:8). The Greek word for “opportunity” or “occasion” used here is aphormēn, and describes a base of operations for a military expedition. 7 All the devil really seeks in our lives is a base or a foothold where he can begin his invasive work.
From this passage we can see how it is precisely the law that increases the desire for sin in our lives. 8 In one modern illustration of this, a waterfront hotel in Florida was concerned that their guests might try to fish from their balconies, so they posted signs reading: “NO FISHING FROM THE BALCONY.” Immediately they began having problems with people trying to fish from their balconies. This included sinker weights breaking hotel windows and the fishing activities disturbing other guests. Finally, they solved the problem by simply taking the signs down. After that no one even thought of fishing from
the balconies. 9
There was another illustration often used by the preacher and teacher of years gone by, Dr. Harry Ironside. He told of a young Indian who had never been off the Navajo reservation until he traveled with Ironside to Oakland, California. The Indian lad remarked: “Me very tired so me get off train to walk platform and stretch legs. While me walk around platform, me see sign that say, ‘Do Not Spit Here.’ Me look at sign, and me think, ‘what strange sign white man put up—Do Not Spit Here.’ Then he said, ‘While me look at sign, before I know what happen, me spit!’”10
Paul continues to describe his own situation: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (7:9). In this early part of the chapter Paul may be describing his schooling as a Jewish child, which first exposed him to the law. For upper-class Jewish children that schooling began around age five. Of course, today the whole burden of the law is taken on for Jewish boys at age thirteen with the Bar-Mitzvah ceremony. Although this ceremony dates only from Talmudic times, it is entirely possible that there was some similar custom in Paul’s day. Paul is no doubt speaking of the loss of his childhood innocence toward sin and the law with the arrival of his “age of accountability” before God.
He continues: “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death” (7:10-11). The deception of sin mentioned here sounds a lot like the deception that influenced Eve in Genesis 3:13. Of course, that deception brought death for the whole human race.
“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (7:12). Once more Paul summarizes the sterling qualities of the law. Although it illuminates sin and even seems to increase sin by focusing upon it, the law itself is holy. Because the law is part of the eternal word of God, it too is eternal. It will never pass away. Jesus didn’t come to do away with the law but he came to fulfill and establish the law (Mt. 5:17). To be more specific, he came to write the law on the hearts of all believers (Jer. 31:33). As Martin Luther once said: “Grace makes the law lovable to us…and the law is no longer against us but one with us.”11
We will see it stated later in Romans 7:14 that the law is spiritual. It seems today that there are a lot of Christians who misunderstand the law. It is a common thing for people to quote Romans 10:4 from the NIV translation, and say: “Christ is the end of the law…” Most other translations consulted read as the New King James: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” We would have a difficult time proving from scripture that Christ is the end of the law, since the law will go on forever. As believers did in olden days, we can continue to love the law and even to delight ourselves in it. However, we are not made righteous by it. That is the big difference.
“Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” (7:13). We cannot blame the CAT Scan (Computerized Axial Tomography) when it reveals a malignant tumor in our bodies and neither can we blame the law. The problem is sin and our sinful flesh. The law is perfect but we in our weakness are unable to keep the demands of the perfect law. Wuest calls that effort “the monkey wrench of self-dependence” which is dropped into the machinery, stopping the works of the Holy Spirit and hindering his victory. 12 Martin Luther adds his comment on the next verse: “Paul says, ‘The law is spiritual.’ What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths
of the heart.”13
It is interesting indeed that in this whole chapter Christ as a person is not mentioned until verse 25, and the Holy Spirit as a person is never mentioned at all. As Stedman puts it: “Do It Yourself Christianity never works!” And “sin is not only doing something wrong, but that it is also trying to do something right in our own effort.”14
PAUL’S OWN STRUGGLE WITH THE LAW AND SIN
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. Romans 7:14-15
This section of Romans has been hotly debated by scholars over the centuries. The big question is, “Who is talking here?” Are these the frustrations of an unconverted person or are they the frustrations of the converted? To be more specific, is this unconverted Paul speaking or converted Paul? To know the answer to this will obviously make a world of difference in our interpretation of these verses.
There are many opinions regarding this section and the fog of controversy around its interpretation is thick. However, let us try to peer through the fog and gain understanding of these important scriptures. There are many facts and hints indicating that these are the words of a converted person and specifically, converted Paul himself. Indeed, this has been the opinion of many throughout church history. This includes church fathers, particularly Augustine, the reformers and a number of modern scholars. 15
What are some of the reasons for thinking these are the frustrations of a converted Paul? Prior to Paul’s conversion we do not find such a dirge of desperation in his speech or actions, but rather much confidence and boldness. Then there is the unusual introduction of the present tense in verses 14 ff., which seems to represent Paul’s mind at writing rather than prior to his conversion. 16 Harrison mentions several other points for our consideration. We should note that the author’s description of his life before Christ in Philippians 3:6 does not jibe with his thinking here. We need to take into consideration the progress of thought so far in Romans. Paul has already dealt with the unsaved condition and has moved on in his writing to the area of sanctification with its problems. Then, the very conflict here characterizes the Christian life elsewhere in Paul’s writings, especially in Galatians 5:17. We also see that the desire for holiness pictured in this passage could only be that of a believer, since the unsaved are pictured as hostile to God and to his program. At the close of the passage, while he acknowledges the deliverance of Christ, he still speaks of the problem as a continuing one for the Christian. 17
The real clincher in the argument is that most Christians would easily see themselves pictured in Paul’s sighing and frustration. We have all “been there and done that” as Christians, and chances are we are still doing it occasionally. Pfeiffer and Harrison add this: “Here Paul unfolds his own inward struggles. He does not tell this as an interesting piece of autobiography, but because he knew that his readers had the same struggles.”18 The little book of 1 John reminds us of how the Christian must continue in the struggle with sin, even until the close of this age. John says: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 Jn. 1:10). Even towards the end of his life, Paul could still speak of himself as the “chief” or “worst” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
It is important that we be clear on this section and not confused. What do other scholars say about it? Osborne states “Very few Christians have read this section without thinking of their own struggle against sin.”19 Barclay adds: “Here Paul is giving us his own spiritual autobiography and laying bare his very heart and soul.”20 Pett states: “Paul is bringing out here the constant skirmishing which takes place in every Christian life.”21 Calvin adds “We must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God.”22
Paul goes on: “And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (7:16-17). Paul knows that the law is good and right and wants to do it, but is unable because of sin. The apostle goes on to blame indwelling sin as the culprit. Here it may sound like Paul is making the old excuse, “the devil made me do it!” Wuest comments that such a statement “is safe for a Christian like Paul—it is not safe for everybody…A true saint may say it in a moment of passion, but a sinner had better not make it a principle.”23
“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (7:18-19). It seems that Paul is distinguishing between his sinful nature and the renewed inner man, along with the “good” Spirit of God dwelling within him. Again he displays what David Brown calls “the double self of the renewed man.”24 Or as Calvin puts it, “The faithful… are divided into two parts—the relics of the flesh, and grace.”25
“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” (7:20). It was the famous Christian author C.S. Lewis who said: “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good.”26 We cannot miss the fact that Paul uses “I” a lot in this section. Paul is stuck in the miry clay of flesh and is trying to please God by his own efforts at fulfilling the law. Satan loves to play this game with Christians, since there is no way they can ever win or be triumphant over indwelling sinful flesh. They are doomed to frustration and eventual despair in their attempts to serve God.
“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (7:21). Obviously Paul is dealing with the law of Moses, but we see here that he is discovering another law or law-like rule. Robert Brow sees it as a kind of “Murphy’s Law” in the spiritual realm, a law that says “whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”27 Such is the case when we have fallen back to live and operate in the fleshly mode. Why would we ever go there in the first place? We go there because it is natural to our flesh and comfortable (at least we think so for a time). We go there because of the constant drag of our flesh. But fleshly living is a dangerous enterprise.
My wife and I recently observed a mother Magpie seeking to introduce her two newly-born chicks into the winged world. The Magpie is a beautiful bird with black and white coloration and a strikingly long black tail. It appeared that these little ones had outgrown their nest or else had fallen from it. One of the birds did very well and was soon hopping and fluttering up into the tallest branches of one of our trees. The other one was not so fortunate but seemed reluctant to use its apparently healthy wings. Instead, it spent the day in our back yard, only occasionally hopping up to low-lying branches. My wife and I coaxed the bird to spread its wings and fly like its sibling, but all to no avail.
We longed for it to “soar on wings like eagles” and not to be weary (Isa. 40:31). We knew that earth-bound living was a dangerous enterprise for birds. One day on my walk I was saddened to see the carcass of our little bird friend beside the road. Probably a cat or a car had finished the story and our little bird would never soar into the heavens. Such is the future of all earth-bound or flesh-bound living.
The Bible seems to be clear that we have an opportunity to live either in the spiritual life (pneumatikos) or in the fleshly life (sarkikos). Interestingly, it is from the root of the later Greek word sarkikos that we get “sarcophagus,” which is a stone funeral receptacle for a corpse. The choice of which kind of “living” is up to us. We must always remember that “…the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
“For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7:22-23). This is but another indication that it is a Christian Paul who is talking here. Paul’s inner man delights in God’s law but his members seem to delight in “Murphy’s Law.” We see here that if we persist in fleshly living and thinking, it grows stronger and we become bound by it, or once more a prisoner.
A CRY FOR DELIVERANCE
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God— through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Romans 7:24-25
The language used here is not that of a newly awakened sinner but rather it is the cry of an agonized believer who is burdened down under a load which he longs to shake off. 28 Paul is not saying “What a wretched man I was!” but “What a wretched man I am!” The load he carries is one of flesh and legalism, man’s attempt to please God, which leaves one weary and frustrated. The Greek word used here for “wretched” according to Morris has the meaning of being “wretched through the exhaustion of hard labor.”29 In this instance Paul is a man who is completely worn out. He has at this point sunk back into legalism momentarily, failing to keep the demands of the law through the efforts of his flesh. He is now at last ready to call upon the Lord for help.
In my own experience I have so often arrived at this point. There is no telling how many times in the last half-century that this minister and Bible teacher has cried out in desperation: “I call to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies. The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears” (Psa. 18:3-6). Always, in just a short period of time, the Lord comes with his mighty Holy Spirit and restores my soul. He lifts my sagging spirit to new and wonderful heights.
What an inspiration and encouragement it must be to every believer to realize that even the great Saint Paul had his problems of occasionally reverting to legalistic and carnal type thinking. In his final years the apostle Paul probably understood the scripture better than anyone alive. After all, he had actually visited in the heavenly places and heard things that were unspeakable as we have seen earlier. He had probably done more than all the other apostles in evangelizing the planet by taking the gospel to the ends of the known world. We are aware that Saint Peter once lapsed into carnal and legalistic thinking and had to be publicly rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2:11-16). But it is hard to imagine Paul doing so. Yet, it is obvious here that he did at times. If Paul had to constantly fight against the flesh, we should no longer be ashamed or dismayed at our own struggles.
There comes a point of desperation in which we finally give up on ourselves. Some time back as a Christian I joined Paul in penning a few frustrations of my own. I cried out, “I give up! I surrender! I am sick and tired of trying to be a good Christian. I am sick and tired of failing and watching other Christians fail! I have lived too long in Romans 7 and now I want to live in Romans 8. I am tired of “doing” and I want to hear again the word that “it’s done!” I want to finally relax and realize that Christ has done it all—that my salvation and my justification are “done deals.” I want to finally understand that there is “no condemnation,” not now, not ever. AMEN!