Scripture: Romans 7:1–7:6
Every child raised in a devout Jewish home came to recognize very early the presence of a very significant influence in his life. From earliest memory he heard it recited in his home and in his synagogue. It became the chief text in his school. He learned to read from it. He memorized long portions of it. It was part of his racial and family as well as his religious identity.
The influence to which I am referring is the Torah, the Law of God, particularly as it was recorded by Moses in the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures. Paul was no exception. In his own writings he tells us: “as touching the Law, I was a Pharisee.” In other words, he was trained in a school of theological thought which held the Law in highest esteem and studied it with the greatest vigor and seriousness.
With this background in mind, it is highly significant then when we read Paul making statements like these: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.” (3:21). Or, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (3:28). Or, even more significantly, “You are not under law but under grace.”(6:14)
In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul has presented the doctrine of justification by faith. At the conclusion of chapter 5, it is as though Paul could see, in his mind’s eye, hands going up all over his audience with questions or objections to what he has just said. And so he stops, and in chapters 6 and 7, he deals with those questions and objections. The first issue he dealt with in chapter 6 is this: Doesn’t justification by faith encourage people to continue in a sinful lifestyle or to treat sin lightly? Paul’s answer to that question is a forceful, “No way!”
Before we move on to chapter 7, I want to point out a connection here that I only recently made. As I said, chapters 6 and 7 represent a lengthy parenthesis in the letter as he departs from his main line of logic to deal with objections and questions. Yet the two chapters are quite distinct in their subject matter. It occurred to me that the two chapters line up with Paul’s logic from the earlier chapters. You may remember that in those chapters, Paul was dealing with the question: Who needs the Gospel? We looked at three different case studies as Paul brought different categories of people before God’s court and argued the legal case against them. The first person he brought before the court was the “pagan man”; those who lived an openly sinful life without any regard for the law of God. It struck me that these are the people who might be inclined to think that if they can be justified by grace through faith, then let’s keep on sinning. Or at least others might make that argument: “Paul, if you tell the pagan that he can be saved by just believing in Christ and if God truly “justifies the wicked” as you said in Romans 4:5, then what’s to stop him from just continuing in sin?” That is the objection Paul has answered in chapter 6.
But you may recall that Paul then proceeds to bring two more categories of people before God’s court; the moral man and the religious man. In both cases, these were Jews; people who had the law, knew the law and honored the law of God. These were the people who were most likely to object to Paul’s statements that it was possible to be justified by faith “apart from observing the law.” It is to their objections that Paul turns in chapter 7.
“Paul, what do you mean by these statements about the law? How can you, as a former Pharisee, taught by the best Jewish rabbis, say these things? And if we are saved by faith apart from the law, then what is the relationship between the follower of Christ and the law?” If you have read the Book of Acts, you know that this was a burning and divisive issue in the early church. It comes up again and again in the epistles of the New Testament. It was and remains an important and difficult topic. As a result, Romans 7 is an important and difficult passage. We are going to take three weeks to work our way through it.
Today, we are going to focus on just the first 6 verses and the title of my message is: We’re Free! Let me take just a moment to read the text so we have it in front of us:
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? 2 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. 3 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.
4 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. 5 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. 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.
Paul first introduces his specific target audience for this section of the letter; “men who know the law.” As I said, these are the Jews in his audience who previously relied on their observance of the law for their right standing with God. He uses the Jewish, or Biblical law of marriage to draw an analogy and make his point. His point is that death ends a legal relationship. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But when he dies, she is free. She can marry another man without penalty and without stigma. The death of her husband has set her free from the law of marriage.
Now Paul makes his application in verse 4. And it is a twist in logic. So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ. Did you catch the twist? In the case of marriage, it is the husband who dies, setting the wife free. In the matter before us, it is the believer (the wife, if you will) who dies. But the principle holds true (at least by analogy) that death severs the legal relationship. You also died to the law through the body of Christ. In making this point, Paul is going back to chapter 6 and the truth of our union with Christ. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ and were justified by faith, we were “baptized into Christ” or united with Christ. What is true of him is true of us. He died. We died with him. And when we died, our legal relationship with the law was changed. When we died with Christ, we were not only set free from sin and death. We were set free from the law.
Let’s take a moment to think back on the realities of life in the “old marriage” under the law. What was life like back then? Here is Paul’s description in verse 5. 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.
That was the old reality. “Controlled by the sinful nature” can literally be translated, “when we were in the flesh.” It is referring to the preconversion, pre-Christian life. In this life, the law is described as “arousing sinful passions.” Sin is so deeply entrenched in us, that the law’s effect is to stir it up. It is universal among Adam’s descendents, is it not? Tell a child not to stick a knife in the electric socket, and what does he want to do? He may never have even thought of doing it before! But now? He has a great desire to do it. Law stirs up sinful passions. Say “No!” and the Adamic nature says, “Yes!” Tell him, “Don’t!” and the son of Adam says, “I will!”
There’s another phrase in this verse: “We bore fruit for death.” If we put this back into the context of the marriage analogy, the fruit can be seen as the children of the old marriage. And the reality was a cruel one. There were none! This was a marriage that only produced miscarriages or still-born children. It is a picture of barrenness and futility.
We also find that in the old marriage we were in bondage. If we look down at verse 6, we find that the law is described as something which once bound us. The law was a cruel master. We could not keep it, yet we could not escape its demands.
Finally, we find that the law, at its very best, was an external standard which only produced external conformity. At the end of verse 6, Paul speaks of the “old way of the written code”, or as the KJV translates it: the oldness of the letter. As I read those words of Paul, I am taken back to all that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus went beyond the letter of the law and external conformity to a legal standard and penetrated to the matters of the heart. “You want to talk of murder? Let’s go deeper and talk about anger in the heart. You want to speak of adultery? Let’s go to the heart of the matter and talk about lust. You want to demonstrate your righteousness by praying on the street corner? Let’s go into the secret place of prayer and evaluate what happens there.” The law doesn’t change the heart. It never could.
I will pause here to point out that this is true not only of the Jewish or Old Testament law. It is also true of the laws of all religions. All laws, no matter how profound, ultimately lead to this kind of sterile, external conformity; a loveless, barren marriage. People sometimes compare religions and observe that they are very much alike. By this, they usually mean that their moral standards and requirements are often very similar. This is all well and good. But unless we can do something about the sin that indwells us, we cannot keep these laws and standards. They just stir up our passions, produce empty futility, create bondage and even at their best produce only a kind of external, hypocritical righteousness; the kind Jesus compared to “white washed sepulchers” filled with decaying bodies.
But the good news that Paul is announcing to all who will listen and receive it with faith is that We’re Free from all of that.
Let’s go back to Paul’s analogy of marriage. This is the key to Paul’s whole argument in verse 4: So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another… There is the key. Justification by faith resulted not only in the end of the old marriage, but in the beginning of a new marriage to a new husband. We are now free to “belong to another”. Who is this new husband? It is “him who was raised from the dead.” It is Jesus Christ.
Earlier metaphors that Paul used in chapter 6 stressed obedience and submission. The marriage metaphor he uses here captures the reality that ours is a very intimate and personal love relationship. We belong to Jesus Christ in the same way that a bride belongs to her husband. And it is a love relationship with a purpose; that we might bear fruit to God. Contrast that to the old marriage; barren, futile, bearing fruit for death. Bearing fruit to God! What a wonderful description of the purpose of life; all of life. As our relationship with Jesus Christ grows, our lives will be transformed as we are sanctified and produce the fruit of righteousness as his life flows through us.
In this new spiritual marriage relationship, we are also set free from spiritual bondage as Paul tells us 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.
“We have been released from the law.” That is the new reality. We’ve been set free from the old husband. What does this mean? It means that the law’s demands have been fulfilled for us by Christ. We no longer are required to strive to obey the law in order to earn our salvation or be accepted by God. We’re free! But it is not a freedom to run riot according to the pattern of the pagan in chapter 1, but a freedom to “serve in the new way of the Spirit.”
Well, we have lots of ground yet to cover. I know I have not answered all the questions. As I said, this is the first of three messages on this chapter, and Paul will continue to address the issue of the law and its role and purpose in the rest of the chapter.
I want to close this message with an illustration I heard many years ago from one of my professors. It is the story of a very unhappy woman, trapped in a loveless marriage to a harsh and demanding husband. The man treated her as a virtual slave. Every morning, before he left for work, he would make a list of all the household chores he wanted her to do while he was gone; wash the windows, do the laundry, wax the floor…The list would vary from day to day, but it was always long and exhausting. When he returned at the end of the day, he would take the list and go around the house to be sure that it had all been done to his satisfaction. If it wasn’t, he would rant and rave and shout and sometimes even hit her.
Needless to say, she was absolutely miserable, living in fear and perpetually exhausted, hating every minute of every day. Then one day, her husband died. Time passed and she met another man. What a contrast! He was gentle, considerate, loving and she soon fell deeply in love with him. They were married, and the marriage was very happy. It was hard to believe she was the same woman. She hated to see him leave in the morning, and she couldn’t wait for him to return in the evening so they could be together.
One day as she was sorting through some old storage boxes while going about her chores, she ran across an old piece of paper. She recognized it as one of the lists her old husband used to leave her with her chores for the day. As she read it through she came to an amazing realization. That very day, she had already done everything on that list and more. And she had done it with a song in her heart and energy to spare. Because she had done it freely, from her heart and out of love for her new husband.
We’re free! We have been released from the law so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Put yourself back in the sandals of a devout Jew in the first century who has just read the first 5 chapters of Romans. What might he/she be feeling/thinking/questioning?
- How do the first 6 verses of Romans 7 address some of those concerns?
- Does the argument from the “law of marriage” clarify or confuse the issue for you? Discuss the reasons for your answer.
- Read v. 4 and the phrase “to belong to another”. What does it mean to you to “belong” to Christ?
- What do you think it means to “bear fruit to God”? In what ways would you like to see that happen in 2012?