Let me remind you that chapters 1 and 2 of Romans are about the fact that we’re all sinners who are liable to God’s wrath and curse. Chapters 3 and 4 are about how we’re justified through faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith in the Saviour we’re pardoned and accepted by God. Then chapters 5 to 8 are about the assurance of glory. Since we’ve been justified through faith, nothing will prevent the believer from being glorified in the presence of God one day. Nothing will prevent us. So, death won’t stop us, because even though death came into the world through Adam’s sin, nevertheless life has come into the world through Jesus Christ’s obedience to his Father in heaven who sent him into the world to die for us. So, death won’t stop us; it’s been dealt with by Christ. That’s what chapter 5 was about.
And sin won’t stop us, because through faith we’re united with Christ in his death and resurrection so that just as he died, so we have died to sin so that we ought not to live in it any longer. And just as the Lord Jesus was raised, so we have been raised with him to live a new life of obedience to God. So, sin won’t stop us; it’s been dealt with by Christ. That’s what chapter 6 was about.
And the law won’t stop us. And that’s what chapter 7 is about which we’ll start to look at today. Nothing at all will separate us from God who is working out his plan to bring sinners like us into his glorious presence one day.
So, chapter 7 is about the law of God which God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai. And Paul has two main points to teach us in chapter 7. First of all, he teaches us that a person must be released from bondage to the Mosaic law so that we might serve the Lord in the new way of the Spirit. That’s what verses 1 to 6 are about. Then, in verses 7 to 25 Paul explains that the law is good because it’s from God, but it’s been taken over, if you like, by sin; and sin uses it against us. We’ll get to that next time. But for now, we’ll concentrate on verses 1 to 6.
In verse 1 Paul reminds his readers of a general principle which they already know. He wrote:
Do you not know, brothers….
In other words:
You already know this, don’t you?
And then he adds that he knows he’s speaking to people who know the law.
Now, when Paul mentions the law in his NT letters, he usually means the Mosiac law — the law which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai and which the Jews boasted about having. And since he says to his readers here that they know the law, some commentators suggest that the congregation in Rome was made up of Jewish believers. Or, at least, a large number of the congregation were Jewish believers. But that’s unlikely, because there are clear indications in the letter that Paul is addressing mainly Gentile believers.
If that’s the case, how can Paul be so confident that they know the law? It’s possible that before they were converted to faith in Christ they were god-fearers. In other words, they were Gentiles who believed in the God of the Israelites and who worshipped with the Jews in the synagogue. Just think back to the book of Acts and you’ll remember that whenever Paul arrived at a new city, he went to the synagogue to preach; and often it was the Gentile god-fearers in the synagogue who believed, while the Jews refused to believe. So, it’s possible that something similar happened in Rome: some of the first to believe the good news were Gentile god-fearers who once worshipped in the Jewish synagogue and who were, therefore, familiar with the Old Testament laws. Or, it may be that these believers had simply become familiar with the law since their conversion to Christianity in the same way we’re familiar with the Old Testament law because we believe it’s God’s word and it’s important that we know it.
In any case, it’s likely that Paul is addressing Gentiles, but he’s confident they’re familiar with the law of Moses. And so, he’s confident that they’ll understand the general principle which he now states:
The law has authority over a man only as long as he lives.
So, while you’re alive, you have to obey the law. But after you’re dead, well, then you’re dead and you’re free from the law. And Paul is saying to his readers:
You know this, right?
Verses 2 and 3
In verses 2 and 3, Paul illustrates that general principle by referring to marriage. According to the law, a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he’s alive. Once two people are married, it’s God’s will for them to remain married. So, what do we say in the marriage ceremony? The groom promises to be a loving, faithful and dutiful husband until God shall separate them by death. And then the bride promises to be a loving, faithful and dutiful wife until God shall separate them by death. And after the rings are exchanged, the minister says:
By this sign you take each other, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, till death do you part.
They are bound to each other while they’re alive.
But, says Paul, if the woman’s husband dies, she’s released from the law of marriage. In other words, she’s released from the obligation imposed on her by the law which bound her to her first husband; and she’s now free to marry another man, if she so desires. If her first husband were alive, and she divorced him and remarried, she’d be deemed an adulterous by the law. But if her first husband dies, she’s free to marry again.
Well, as I’ve said, Paul is illustrating the general principle which he stated in verse 1 that the law has authority over us only as long as we’re alive. Once someone dies, the law’s authority over us is broken.
In verse 4, Paul applies this general principle to the life of the Christian. Now, it’s a bit confusing, because the details of the illustration in verses 2 and 3 don’t match up perfectly to the details of the application in verse 4. But we’ll try our best to make sense of it.
So, Paul begins:
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ.
In the example in verses 2 and 3, the husband died and his wife was freed from the law. In the application in verse 4, the believer dies and it’s the believer who is set free from the law.
When did we die? Well, we died when we first believed and were united by faith with Christ. He died on the cross, and through faith in him, we died with him. And having died with him, we’re now freed from the law.
Let’s move on. Paul wrote:
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another.
In the illustration in verses 2 and 3, the husband died, and his widow was therefore free to marry another man. In the application in verse 4, the believer dies with Christ and is therefore free to belong to someone else. Once we belonged to the law and were obligated to keep it. Now though, we’re free to belong to someone else.
And who do we now belong to? Well, look again at what Paul wrote:
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.
We now belong to Christ. Having died to the law, we’re free to enter into a new relationship, which is with the Lord Jesus.
And Paul tells us at the end of verse 4 what the end result of this new relationship will be: Now that we belong to Christ, we’ll be able to bear fruit to God. In other words, our new relationship with Christ will produce in us those actions and thoughts and desires which bring glory to God.
Verses 5 and 6
‘Now, hang on!’ we might want to say:
Hang on. Surely the law God gave to Moses shows us how God wants us to live? Surely God’s law is designed to show us how to live a life which will bring glory to God? Now you’re telling us we need to be freed from the law in order to bring glory to God? Explain yourself, Paul!
And so, in verses 5 and 6, Paul offers us an explanation. Unfortunately the NIV translation of verse 5 is not great. According to the NIV, Paul wrote:
For when we were controlled by the sinful nature….
However, more literally Paul wrote:
For when we were in the flesh….
When Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ he’s not so much thinking about something that is part of us. Instead he’s thinking about a realm or a kingdom which we once were part of before we believed in the Lord Jesus. And this should be familiar to us from what Paul has been saying, because he’s spoken before about how we were once in Adam and now we’re in Christ. In the realm, or in the kingdom, of Adam, everything is marked by sin and unrighteousness and death; but in the realm, or in the kingdom, of Christ, everything is marked by obedience and righteousness and life. It’s the difference between the old age to which we once belonged before we believed, and the new age to which we now belong, now that we believe.
And so, when we were in the old realm of the flesh — the realm of sin and unrighteousness and death — our sinful passions or those sinful desires to disobey God were aroused by the law. In other words, the law of God stirred up our desire to disobey God. And so we bore fruit for death. That is, if we remained like that, we would end up suffering death: eternal punishment away from the presence of the Lord.
Now, isn’t that interesting? People hear God’s law. And undoubtedly, some people are convicted by it. They’re humbled because they haven’t kept it. But others hate God’s law. They resent it. And they resent God’s authority over them. And so, hearing God’s law only makes them want to break it. It arouses their natural rebelliousness against God. You say to a small child:
And how often, what’s the next thing they do? They go ahead and touch, because they want to show that you’re not the boss of me. And sinful humans are like that towards God and his law.
That’s the way it was when we were still in the realm of the flesh. But now, says Paul in verse 6, things have changed. And he goes on to explain how things have changed. He says we have died to what once bound us. Just as the wife was once bound to her husband, but has been set free to marry again by his death, so we died with Christ. And we’re no longer bound to the law of Moses. No, we’ve been released from the law of Moses so that we might serve God in a new way. And Paul describes this new way to serve God as the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.
So, we once belonged to the old age, the old realm of the flesh. And all we had then was the law which God gave to Moses and which he wrote down for people to read. And when we read it, often it just stirred up our natural rebelliousness and our desire to disobey God. But now — now that we have come to believe in the Lord Jesus and have been united with him through faith — we live in the new age, the new realm of the Spirit, who has been given to us. And the Holy Spirit, living inside of us, helps us to serve the Lord and to bring glory and honour to him.
So, we died with Christ when we believed in him. And because we died, our old relationship to the law of Moses has been broken. And we now belong to Christ; and we have his Spirit living inside us to help us to obey God.
Perhaps you’re thinking:
Hang on! What about the Old Testament law? What about the Ten Commandments? Are you saying we don’t have to obey them now?
Let me try and answer that briefly by referring to the distinction between the law as the way to life and the law as a rule for life. While the law is still for us a rule for life which teaches believers God’s will for us, nevertheless, we’re not to regard the law as the way to life. In other words, keeping the law is not the way to obtain eternal life. We cannot climb up to God and to eternal life by our good deeds. Keeping the law is not the way to obtain eternal life, because all of us are sinners who sin against God and who fall short of doing his will every day. But that’s the mistake that many of the Jews made, because they believed they could become right with God and receive eternal life by keeping the law. And it’s still the mistake of those who think they can climb up to God by the good things they do. But no one can climb up to God by their good deeds, because all of us have sinned and we come short the the glory of being like God. The only way for sinners like us to receive eternal life is by trusting in the Saviour. But once we believe, we turn to the law of God to show us the way to live a life which is pleasing to the Lord. The law is not the way to life. But the law is the rule for our life. And God gives his believing people the Holy Spirit to help us to walk in his ways.