The Law, Sin Nature, and Moral Choices

THE APOSTLE PAUL TELLS us that the Law is binding only on those who are yet alive. Paul chose a simple illustration for this: a married woman is bound to her husband by the Law so long as he is alive. Accordingly, if her husband dies, she is released from him by the law of marriage. If she marries while her husband is still alive, she is guilty of adultery. From a legal and secular position, we are permitted to marry as many times as we wish and do not have to wait until our former spouse dies. Imagine the impact our having to wait to remarry would have on whether couples call it quits. Many might think twice and perhaps find a way to repair their relationships. However, as we will see, Paul is speaking of “divorce” from our former self (our previous lifestyle) and our “marriage” to Christ. This is what Paul means by serving in newness of spirit, and not by the oldness of the letter of the Law (see Rom. 7:6).

In Romans 7, Paul informs us that our new life in Christ does not fully negate or destroy the flesh. Rather, it provides the ability to serve in newness through the Spirit of God.

Eugene Peterson writes in The Message//Remix, “You shouldn’t have any trouble understanding this, friends, for you know all the ins and outs of the law—how it works and how its power touches only the living” (Rom. 7:1-2).(1) He adds, “When Christ died he took [the] entire rule-dominated way of life down with him and left it in the tomb, leaving you free to ‘marry’ a resurrection life and bear ‘offspring’ of faith for God. For as long as we lived that old way of life, doing whatever we felt we could get away with, sin was calling most of the shots as the old law code hemmed us in” (7:4-6). Paul writes, “…you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (7:4). The gospel offers Jesus Christ, whom the Law (i.e., the OT) promised.

Jesus Fulfilled the Law

The Law is of great importance insofar as it illustrates our inability to obey “to the letter” no matter how hard we try. Yet, the Law has not been discarded. Rather, it points forward to Jesus. Jesus literally fulfilled OT revelation. Not only does the OT point forward to Jesus, His teachings refer back to the OT. That is, the Law points to Christ, and Christ points to the Law. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). We absolutely cannot earn salvation through obedience to the Law. Matthew Henry writes, “Let none suppose that Christ allows his people to trifle with any commands of God’s holy law… [for it] is the Christian’s rule of duty.”(2) Every biblical teaching and prophecy, regardless of how small, must be fulfilled. We obey the Law by conforming to the Word, who is Jesus Christ.

The Priestly Order of Melchizedek

We read about the priestly order of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:1-2: “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. [Melchizedek] is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.” The writer of Hebrews here is quoting Psalm 110:4, which says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Psalm 110:4, says in Melchizedek priesthood and kingship were pulled together as they would be in Christ.(3) Both the name Melchizedek and his realm of Salem (“Jerusalem”) resoundly point to the One who was yet to come (Heb. 7:2).

Melchizedek is also identified in Genesis 14:18, where Moses wrote, “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)” The name Melchizedek is from a combination of the Hebrew words for “king” and “righteous,” making Melchizedek a righteous, kingly priest. Bread and wine were suitable refreshments for Abram (later, Abraham) and his followers upon return from rescuing Lot. Henry writes, “Christ appointed the same as the memorials of his body and blood, which are meat and drink indeed for the soul.”(4) He continues, “Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, is the Mediator both of our prayers and praises, and not only offers up ours, but his own for us… Jesus Christ, our great Melchisedek [sic], is to have homage done to him, and to be humbly acknowledged as our King and Priest; not only the tithe of all, but all we have, must be given up to him.”(5) Melchizedek is also discussed in Psalm 110. Verse 4 describes Him as “king of righteousness” whose sphere is Salem or Jerusalem.

Martin Luther on Romans 7

I have mentioned before how Martin Luther struggled immensely with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” Luther’s obsession with the issue of righteousness caused him much grief. Nothing mattered to him more than his faith and his obedience to God. Yet, he often felt overwhelmed by the fear of death and hell.(6) A feeling of terror overwhelmed him during the writing of his first sermon—a foreboding sense of being unworthy of God’s love washed over him. He was convinced that he was not doing enough to be saved. Over-wrought with a sense of his own sinfulness, he supposed he was not a good monk; that his life was full of lust and immorality despite his commitment to the gospel. Luther repeatedly punished his body—whipping himself, enduring harsh winter conditions without a coat or shoes, denying himself of basic physical needs. He worried that his confessions would not be exhaustive enough to cover all his wrong deeds; that he would die in his sins.

After years of much prayer, meditation, and struggle, Luther discovered the true meaning of God’s Word. He said, “Then finally God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is a gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith, and that sentence, The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel, is passive, indicating that the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment the face of the whole of Scripture became apparent to me.”(7) Gonzalez says Luther came to understand that the “justice” or “righteousness” of the righteous is not our own, but God’s. He settled on salvation through faith alone, in Christ alone. “Justification by faith” does not mean that we must do that which God demands of us in order to be saved, as if it were something we have to achieve. Rather, it means that both faith and justification are the work of God, free to sinners. Luther writes, “God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are (accounted) righteous before Him.”(8)

Luther provides an amazing expository explanation of Romans 7. Despite being redeemed from our sins through faith in the atoning death of Christ on the cross, we need to work on walking by the Spirit rather than in the flesh. Luther writes, “…unless first the inward dying (to sin) takes place, sin remains and has dominion, and with it the Law which rules through sin.”(9) Paul, in Romans 7:4, means to show that there are two men (in the believer), the old and the new, corresponding to Adam and Christ. This refers, of course, to fallen Adam. By divine grace, our old man is dead. Accordingly, we are delivered from the letter of the Law, making it possible to serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter (Rom. 7:6).

We cannot forget that while we yet remain in the flesh, sin continues to be present. But, as followers of Jesus and lovers of the Law and all that is good, sin no is longer present as a dominating power over us. He who has confessed his sins should not believe that he can quietly live on in sin.

In Romans 7:14, Paul says, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” He knows he remains in a physical body and subject to temptation, and is displeased with himself when he walks in the flesh. As a spiritual man he recognizes only that which is good. Yet he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). Paul (as a spiritual or “new” man) does not consent to the sinful passions of his flesh, but admits that his spiritual walk is not perfect. Sin nature remains in him. This is also true for us. As Luther notes, “The one and the same person is both flesh and spirit.” We have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. This “desire” is the readiness of our spirit to live in righteousness and newness.

Concluding Remarks

Paul reminds us, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). Luther calls this dilemma “twofold servitude.” Paul said that with his mind (will?) he serves the Law of God, but with the flesh he serves the law of sin (Rom. 7:25). He clearly believes that as believers we have the potential to serve God and Satan, although arguably never at the same time, for we can only serve one master at a time (see Matt. 6:24). Psalm 1 is among my favorites in Scripture. The first and second verses say, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

We cannot stand on the promises unless we know them. We are to hide God’s Word in our hearts that we might not sin. Paul said we should put off our old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of our mind, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4:22-24). This is the same righteousness Paul talks about in Romans 1:17. Luther quotes Paul from his Epistle to the Galatians: “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:16-17). Luther concludes his remarks on Romans 7 by saying, “The Spirit (that is, the spiritual man) does a good work by not yielding to the evil lust; but he does not perform that which is good inasmuch as he himself cannot destroy the evil lusts.”

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theo.

Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references are taken from the ESV (English Standard Version).

(1) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Sprints, CO: NavPress), 2006).
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 865.
(3) Derek Kidner, Kidner Classic Commentaries, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008),
(4) Matthew Henry, Ibid., 28.
(5) Matthew Henry, Ibid., 28.
(6) Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 22.
(7) Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, CN:Yale University Press, 2006), 183-85.
(8) Gonzalez, Ibid., 25.
(9) Luther, Ibid., 108.

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