If Paul were writing the recipe for the gospel in the book of Romans, chapters 6-7 would be the break before the main course where the chef walks the dinner guests through the cooking process. Just as certain foods break down at the right points to create such outstanding flavor, the Christian’s relationship with sin breaks down so that the beauty of union with Christ appears. We have been remade into a new creation in Christ, and chapter 7 helps us understand that change to a greater degree.
1 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
4 Likewise, my brothers, 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. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
The tension is palpable in this passage. Paul's Jewish audience would be sitting on the edge of their seat. He is telling them that their entire life devoted to the Mosaic law no longer has any bearing on their relationship with God. That's a lot of good news that sounds at first like bad news. A death has occurred. Life has changed.
Paul is elaborating on his point in 6:14, that we are no longer under the law but under grace. He wants to show them the logic of the break with the law that Jesus has made. The illustration is one of marriage. Two people are married to one another until one of them dies. Then, upon that death, the remaining spouse is released from the bond of marriage. Likewise, death severs one’s bondage to the law. It is the releasing point.
Verse 4 is the main point of the passage. Paul is presenting the transfer of masters. Those in Christ have died to the law through the body of Christ so that union with him can become a reality. The law hasn't died. The believer has died. But in death, the believer went into life with Christ.
Before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we had no hope. We could never obey the law. We could never reach God’s holy standard. Because we have a desire for rebellion against God, the law incites our flesh against him. The law arouses sin in the flesh rather than subdues. The law condemns. It offers no hope if we don’t measure up. If we are to be right with God, we need another way to him.
And so, we died with Christ. In that death, the law released its grasp on our heart, and we were set free. We have the new way of the Spirit. The written code is of help to us now as a guide to holy living, but it was never the power for holy living. Now that we've died to it, we walk in newness of life in Christ, and we have the power to obey. In Christ, we have everything the law could never give us. We have peace with God.
The law was universally binding but deadly. Jesus is selectively binding but life-giving. We can perish under the law, or we can come under the grace of Christ.
Ray Ortlund comments.
We were married to Mr. Law. He was a good man, in his way, but he did not understand our weakness. He came home every evening and asked, “So, how was your day? Did you do what I told you to? Did you make the kids behave? Did you waste any time? Did you complete everything I put on your To Do list?” So many demands and expectations. And hard as we tried, we couldn’t be perfect. We could never satisfy him. We forgot things that were important to him. We let the children misbehave. We failed in other ways. It was a miserable marriage, because Mr. Law always pointed out our failings. And the worst of it was, he was always right! But his remedy was always the same: Do better tomorrow. We didn’t, because we couldn’t.
Then Mr. Law died. And we remarried, this time to Mr. Grace. Our new husband, Jesus, comes home every evening and the house is a mess, the children are being naughty, dinner is burning on the stove, and we have even had other men in the house during the day. Still, he sweeps us into his arms and says, “I love you, I chose you, I died for you, I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And our hearts melt. We don’t understand such love. We expect him to despise us and reject us and humiliate us, but he treats us so well. We are so glad to belong to him now and forever, and we long to be “fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:10)!
Being married to Mr. Law never changed us. But being married to Mr. Grace is changing us deep within, and it shows.
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Commentator Douglas Moo points out that Romans 7:7-25 has two primary purposes. The first is to vindicate the law from any suggestion that it is sinful or evil (v.7). The second is to show how, despite this, the law has come to be a negative force in the history of salvation (v. 8). The law itself is not sinful. After all, it comes from God, who cannot sin. But the law does bring knowledge of sin. There is a connection between the law and sin, but they are not connected to one another. Mankind stands in the gap, serving as the link.
Sin seized an opportunity to act as it came face to face with the law. When we see the law, we know what we are not supposed to do and what we should do instead. The law awakens us to sin because it shows us what sin is in explicit terms. We can see it there on the paper before us. "Do not…" "Do…" We see it, and our flesh cries out against it. As soon as we are told what not to do, we want to do that very thing. Like a child who is told not to touch the stove, we want to rest our hand upon it just to test the warmth.
Sin multiplies. We not only commit the one sin but multiply it into a thousand different flavors of sin. Before the giving of the law, sin was not active in the same way. But after the law, sin grew in power because sin became obvious. Our heart is so wicked that before the law of God we run toward more sin, not less. Our hearts are like mold spores looking for water. The law is like a continuous faucet. The more water, the more mold.
Sin seizes an opportunity through the law to multiply, deceive, and ultimately kill. Where sin lives, people die. Where sin dies, people live. But the law does not destroy sin. Sin must die another way. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death (v. 10). The law doesn't change the heart. It exposes the heart. As St. Augustine said, "God commands what we cannot do that we may know what we ought to seek from him." The path forward is not stricter obedience, but a new heart from God.
There are strong opposing views on who Paul is speaking about in 7:7-25. I will spare you the debate points now and say that I take the view that this is Paul speaking of himself in the present. That is, Paul, a Christian, is talking about the struggle with sin that exists in the Christian’s life. With that assumption, then, let’s look ahead.
Tim Keller provides a good synopsis of this passage.
All of life is a battle between two selves, but there’s a different war before you become a Christian from the war that happens after you become a Christian…What Paul is trying to show us here is there’s a war between the selves that happens before you meet Christ, and then there’s a war between the selves that happens after you meet Christ. The war between the selves before you meet Christ is a world without hope. You cannot win…The war after you meet Christ you cannot lose.
In verses 7-13, we see the battle that we cannot win. It's a fight against the law of God. In verse 7, Paul points to the last of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not covet." He knows that he's failed to live up to that commandment. Paul, being a devout Jew all his life, has always been knowledgeable of the law. He's not talking about a new commandment, but a new experience with that commandment. He’s talking about that experience of awakening to the law and its demands. Before the law of God, we all fall short. It stands over us with a whip. Anytime we don’t live up it beats us. Before the law of God, we face a battle we cannot win because we have a heart that cannot obey.
But in verses 14-25, Paul tells us of the battle that we cannot lose. Everyone has a moral compass. We know what we should do. The problem is that we can't do what we know we should do. We do the opposite. It's a losing battle. But for the Christian, a change has taken place. We face the battle with a new weapon. We don’t face it alone, naked before the law. We face it in the power of Christ, alive to God because of him.
In Romans 7:7-13, Paul talks about the Christian as if he is two people in one body. There is the Moral Self with a high moral compass, wanting to obey the law. Then there is the Law-Breaking Self who breaks the law. Before coming to Christ, we are both of these selves. We are slaves to our desire to live the "right" life, and yet we are slaves to our desire to make our flesh feel good.
But when Christ comes to us, we are changed from the heart. The old self in two parts was doomed. The Moral Self wants to obey the law, but the Law-Breaking Self hates the law since it impedes fulfilling fleshly desires. What we need is not for the Moral Self to grow and overpower the law-breaking self. We can never get there. The two selves destroy one another. So, no matter how hard you work on the Moral Self over against the Law-Breaking Self, the Law-Breaking Self will always counter-attack. You might take two steps forward, but you'll always take another step back.
So, what we need is an end. The Law-Breaking Self needs to die. But the Moral Self isn't the one to do the job. It just isn't sufficient. What we need is not fertilizer for the Moral Self, but poison for the Law-Breaking Self. We need a new birth. We can’t do what we want to do. We delight in the law in our inner being, but we see another law waging war against God and capturing us in sin. Who will deliver us?
The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ. In his life, he became the Moral Self unlike anyone else ever has. He obeyed all the way through. He never gave in to the Law-Breaking Self. He was more alive to God than any human who has ever lived. But that alone wasn't enough to save. We didn't just need to see another person live the perfect moral life; we needed someone to kill the law-breaking self for us because we can't do it.
Jesus Christ becomes our peacemaker at the cross. There, the ultimate Moral Self lays it all aside and puts on the Law-Breaking Self. He becomes what he has never been so that he can kill what we can never kill. He does the work on our behalf and gives us victory in his resurrection.
Paul breaks out in thanksgiving in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He has delivered us from this body of death and given us newness of life. He has become the wretched man so that we can become the righteous man. Before coming to Christ, we are in a battle we cannot win. The Law-Breaking Self will always slay the Moral Self. After coming to Christ, we are in a battle we cannot lose. Though the war rages on inside, there is a new power that overtakes both of our selves. Jesus Christ obeyed on our behalf and became for us the law-breaker so that we don’t have to rely on our Moral Self and we aren’t condemned by our Law-Breaking Self. We are a new creature altogether.
That’s why, as we enter Romans 8, Paul can say there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. The battle in our heart doesn’t matter as much anymore because Jesus has won the war on our behalf. Skirmishes may break out, but we know the victory party is coming soon.