This is the second installment in a three-part Bible Study in Romans 6, 7, and 8.
Paul clarifies the relationship between the law and sin in Romans Chapter 7. The heading for Chapter 7 in Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message is Torn Between One Way and Another. Paul begins by giving us an analogy from marriage. He says in Romans 7:1, “Do you not know, brothers and sisters, for I am speaking to those that know the law, that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?” Paul has already argued in Chapter 6 (as we saw in Part One of this study) that we died with Christ, and we have therefore died to sin. In Chapter 7 he will argue that, in our union with Christ, we also died to the law. When we died to sin we also died to the law of Moses. In the eyes of the law, we are dead.
We have been given new life with Christ. So where does that put us? Paul’s second point is that we are under a new authority. In verse 2, he uses the analogy of marriage, in which death can affect the legal status of the living. He says, “For example, 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.” The law of marriage is binding only so long as both partners are alive. As soon as one dies, the marriage restrictions are gone. By comparison, under the old covenant, we were bound to the law. But since we died with Christ, we are released from the law, and as a result, a new union can be formed. That’s what Paul is interested in – a new union. Because a death has occurred – the death of Jesus Christ – a new relationship can be formed.
Paul applies his analogy to the law in verse 4. He says, “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to Him that was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Paul’s point is that death breaks the bond of the law, and a new bond is permitted. As believers, we died to the law through the death of Christ, and our allegiance is to Him rather than the law. We have to be released from the law so we can be united with Christ.
We are supposed to avoid sin, but sin is no longer defined by the laws of Moses. Rather, it is defined by the character of Christ. We are to conform to Him, and since He is not bound by the law of Moses, neither are we. We belong to the One “who was raised from the dead.” Why? To “bear fruit for God.” We are to serve Him. When we first trusted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we enjoyed our initial access into grace. God intends for His children to continue accessing grace day by day throughout their lives. Every time we face any matter with dependence upon the Lord Jesus, we are drawing from the bottomless ocean of God’s grace. His grace becomes our resource for living.
Paul contrasts the “before and after” again in verse 5: “For when we were in the realm of the flesh” [some translations say “sinful nature” – the Greek word is sarx], “the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.” The Amplified Bible says, “When we were living in the flesh [trapped by sin], the sinful passions, which were awakened by [that which] the Law [identifies as sin], were at work in our body to bear fruit for death [since the willingness to sin led to death and separation from God].” Before Christ, our lives were dominated by our sinful nature, and our sinful desires, instead of bearing fruit for God, brought us death. But with Christ, our life need no longer be controlled by the flesh.
Paul says that our sinful passions were “aroused by the law.” As he said in Romans 5:20, the law had the ironic result of increasing our desire to sin. Before Paul develops that thought more, he makes this conclusion in verse 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.” The law once bound us, but we have been released from it. Instead of serving God according to the law, we serve in a new way, defined by the Holy Spirit. (Paul explains that in chapter 8.)
“What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful?” (v. 7). If the law causes our desire for sin to increase, is the law bad? Paul says, “Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” Romans 3:20 says, “…because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” (NASB) Unfortunately, that is a dangerous bit of knowledge. We tend to think that if we know what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do we will comply.
The relationship between law and sin is worse than simply giving information. Paul is saying that the law, by defining sin, told his sinful nature how to sin more. Our sinful nature wants to violate laws. If you give it a rule, it wants to break it. So the law, by prohibiting certain things, made people do them even more, because of our perverse nature. Is Paul really talking about himself, or is he just giving a general principle, writing in the first person? Some people are troubled by the idea that Paul struggled with sin throughout his Christian life. They would like to put all that struggle in Paul’s past, but Paul was human.
In the literary flow of Romans, Paul is talking about something that happens after we come to faith in Christ. In chapter 6 he said that we died to sin, but we still have to fight it. In chapter 7, he says that we died to the law, but we are to serve Christ in the way of the Spirit. He does not want to make it sound effortless or automatic. The struggle that began before we came to faith continues even after – and indeed that’s the experience of many Christians. “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” (v. 8-9). When was he alive apart from the law? When he was a baby, too young to understand. But when he learned the law, the sinful nature inside of him found a way to express itself — by rebelling. Sin sprang to life, and Paul sinned. He was condemned.
The law is not the problem — it’s just that it is so easily hijacked by our sinful desires. The law didn’t cause us to take a wrong turn — it just told us where we would end up if we took it, and the perversity inside us made us take the wrong turn. Sin deceived us and put us on the pathway to death. The law isn’t the culprit — it was an unwitting accomplice. So Paul concludes in verse 12 that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” The law is holy, but it can’t make us holy. The law is about performance. Those who live by the law are left to their own resources to work up a life that measures up to the perfect standards of God. Those who daily put their faith in the Lord Jesus for the issues of life access grace for godly living.
Paul says, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” (v. 14) How could this be the Christian Paul, who said he died to sin and is no longer its slave? In verse 15 he describes the struggle: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” The Message puts it this way: “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.” Paul wants to do good, but he ends up doing bad, and he struggles to know why. He has a converted mind that wants to do the will of God, but his flesh wants to do bad. Why? Because there is another power at work within him, that is, in his flesh.
“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good” (v. 16). The fact that he doesn’t like his own behavior is evidence that he likes the law. “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (v. 17). The Message says, “…if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes.” All the blame goes to sin, not to Paul, and that is why he can say that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (See Romans 8:1). Whatever bad they do is blamed on the sin within them, not on the new person they are in Christ.
It is as if Paul explains the problem by splitting himself in two — there is the old person, in the sphere of sin, and there is the new person, alive in Christ. The new person is enslaved to Christ, but the sinful nature is still enslaved to sin. Being freed from sin and enslaved to righteousness is not automatic — it involves a struggle. Galatians 5:17 describes the same struggle: “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.”
“For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (v. 18). Paul qualifies his statement by saying that he’s talking about the flesh, the sinful nature, not his new nature in Christ. All the good in Paul’s life comes from Christ living in him, rather than originating in himself. The good comes from the new nature, the bad comes from the old. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 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” (v. 18-19). He wants to do good, but he sometimes sins. The sin within him makes him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do.
Paul summarizes this issue in Romans 7:21-23 when he says, “So I find it to be the law [of my inner self], that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully delight in the law of God in my inner self [with my new nature], but I see a different law and rule of action in the members of my body [in its appetites and desires], waging war against the law of my mind and subduing me and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is within my members.” (Amplified) This is the nature of the struggle. Although he wants to do good, the evil within him sometimes causes him to do things that he hates. So he groans, as he says in Romans 8:23, waiting for the redemption of his body, the resurrection, and the ultimate victory over his sinful nature.
Paul describes in the Book of Romans a deep frustration—one with which all Christians can identify. The agony comes from realizing that our sinful flesh refuses to respond to the requirements of God’s Law. Those things which we despise, we find ourselves doing. No matter how much we may wish to serve God in our minds, we find ourselves sinning in our bodies. As Paul describes his frustration in Romans 7, with his mind he desires to serve God. He agrees with the Law of God and rejoices in it. He wants to do what is right, but his body will not respond. He watches, almost as a third party, as sin sends a signal to his body, and as his body responds, “What would you like to do?” Paul finds, as we do, that our fleshly body refuses to obey God. Instead, we tend to do that which we desire, rather than that which delights God.
As long as we continue under the law as a covenant, and seek to be justified solely by our own obedience, we continue to be the slave of sin in some form. Paul makes a devastating self-assessment in verse 8: “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t.” (NLT) Paul is not saying that the believer who sins moves from being a Christian to being a non-Christian. More likely, he is saying that, in the moment of failure, sin got the upper hand. Remember Paul’s warning in Romans 6:12: “Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires.” (NLT) He tells us to not let sin reign in our mortal bodies so that we obey its lusts. In other words, we should not sell ourselves to sin.
Paul concludes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (NIV)
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