Romans Chapter 7

The master/slave relationship with the law. Released from one to marry another. To bear fruit to God: die to the law. Law/death vs. Spirit/life. The law reveals sin. The commandment brought death, not life. Men’s utter helplessness. We need WHO, not HOW.

The master/slave relationship with the law. Released from one to marry another. To bear fruit to God: die to the law. Law/death vs. Spirit/life. The law reveals sin. The commandment brought death, not life. Men’s utter helplessness. We need WHO, not HOW.

(Bấm vào đây để đọc tiếng Việt)

In Romans 6:14, Paul asserted that we're no longer under law, but under grace, and here in chapter 7, he began to show the reader the limitation of the law in a believer's life: the law continues to rule him, as long as, and only as long as, he lives. This also means that when that person dies, the law can no longer has power over him.

Paul uses the term “lord over” to describe the relationship between believers and the law. He does not use terms such as guidance, encouragement, training, leading, etc., terms that are more fitting for the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Jesus also spoke of a new relationship with His followers, He no longer calls them slaves or servants, but friends, because now through the Holy Spirit they know God’s will. (John 15:15).

The word “dominion” implies coersion, obligation, without willingness or freedom of choice, punishment for failure to comply. The penalty is as severe as “The soul that sins it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). In short, the relationship between the law and a believer does not reflect the gospel, or good news.

Therefore Paul must be using a very negative term, “lord over,” to describe a relationship that is also negative between the law and the believer. The lordship of the law will present only one way out that is death, and as long as the one under the law still lives, there will be condemnation, threat, judgement, punishment, in a manner of no difference than that between a slave and his master. Paul wrote this with the intention of helping the believer realize they need to escape from the captivity under the law.

Released from one to marry another

2For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage. 3So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:2-3)

Paul used an example in marriage based on Jewish custom which allows a wife to remarry without committing adultery. That is when the husband dies, she can marry another. Let us pay attention to three important terms: 1) “the law” which binds the wife to her husband, 2) “husband” is the one with an unbreakable bond to the wife, and lastly 3) “free,” as in liberty, or freedom.

To bear fruit to God: die to the law

4So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. (Romans 7:4)

After using an example of marriage to establish a foundation upon which a wife can marry another man without committing adultery, when her husband dies. Paul now shows us how we can become “wife,” or “bride” of Christ.

In Paul’s example, the wife is released from the law when her husband dies, but in verse 4 above, Paul wrote that the wife, or we believers, died to the law already. It seems Paul is implying that the death of either party will nullify the law that bind them together. But how is it that we’re alive and yet can be considered dead to the law? In verse 4 Paul says that it is through the body of Christ. Somehow Christ’s death on the cross is now counted toward us as a payment for sin, to purchase us from the law that bound us to the body of death. This is exactly how God’s plan of salvation works out. This is miracle of grace that brought tears to my eyes: “How can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me.”

Now let’s talk about “bearing fruit to God.” Looking back over the four gospels, especially John 15:5, when Christ Jesus said: “I am the vine, and you are the branches. He who is in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit.” Over many decades, having read many books and heard many sermons, I was led to believe that “to be in Christ” means to keep doing things that believers should do. But if you have labored with me in this Romans study, patiently follow Paul’s lengthy but careful discourse up to this point, you must come to the same conclusion that to be in Christ means, and can only happen when, you died to the law. Let us read verse 4 one more time: “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God.” You died … so that … If you haven’t done the first step, you cannot proceed to the next. If you haven’t died to the law, you cannot become one with Christ. But once you become one with Christ, He will bear fruit in you as a byproduct of such relationship.

There is though one more implication before we leave this part of the study. Christ died on our behalf so we may be released from the law that bound us to the old husband, the sinful flesh. What happens when some like the Galatians go back to the law, hence go back to the old husband? Wouldn’t this be the ultimate form of spiritual adultary? Of lukewarmness? Of serving two masters? No, choose one and never look back.

Law/death vs. Spirit/life

5For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code. (Romans 7:5-6)

Even now as I’m translating my Vietnamese study notes to English, I’m shocked to see how badly it was translated from the King James version. The Vietnamese translates “For when we were in the flesh,” to the effective meaning of “For when we still lived in fleshly pursuit.” Though badly translated, it may have helped prove my assessment that there is profound misunderstanding, or willing hypocrisy, on the part of those who hold the faulty view yet not spending any amount of labor trying to understand what Paul is really saying. What happens to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”? (2 Timothy 2:15).

Based on the faulty (but practically correct in reflecting the misconception) Vietnamese translation, what does it mean to “be in the flesh?” I assert that the overwhelming majority believes that this means to be lured still by fleshly desires. But before we delve further into this passage to get its true meaning, let us continue to take apart this whole passage.

In verse 5, Paul said we were IN THE FLESH, and then in verse 6 he announces a change in status that we have been RELEASED FROM THE LAW. Let us express what he just said in a couple of ways:

  1. We were in the flesh, because we were still under the law
  2. Because we have been released from the law, we’re no longer under the dominion of the flesh

Then it stands to reason that to be in the flesh has the same meaning with to be under the law, or conversely to die to the flesh also means to die to the law. This is an amazing truth that believers for thousands of years past have misintepreted and consequently misapplied in ways not reflecting biblical truth.

Let’s take for example the effect of the law on sin, where it is written in verse 5 above that “sinful desires, aroused by the law,” flies right in the face of conventional understanding that the law helps in restraining the sinful nature. This is what is written in the Bible, that the law actually arouses man’s sinful flesh. And if it is so, then why in the world did God give man even more law through the addition of the 10 commandments, beyond what they already knew in their conscience? The answer is, contrary to what many think, He gave the law to show how utterly depraved they all are.

“For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” (Romans 8:3)

In short, relying on the law to live the Christian faith will lead to failure, and the fruit borne by the flesh as it is provoked by the law will only be fruit for death.

Verse 6 writes: “we have been released from the law … so that we may serve …” which shows us a pattern contrary to conventional teaching, but will yield abiding fruit, because it is based on God’s Word. One who desires to serve God cannot rely on the law as his counselor. “Thy Word is the lamp unto my feet” cannot be the law, or commandments, but Word spoken from heaven as sure as the nails on the cross that: “The righteous will live by faith.” God’s Word is not commandments written on tablets of stone, because “the letter kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6), but is the Word Himself, is “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

So how do we serve God? In the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the written code, or law, or rules, or regulations, or commandments. New way vs. Old way, New Covenant vs. Old Covenant. If the Old can bring us salvation then Christ didn’t need to die on the cross. The new way of the Spirit is through only one straight and narrow way: faith. For if it is by the power of the Spirit, there is no need of “flesh and blood” that can only produce fruit for death (John 3:6).

This is one of the most profound passage on the life of faith. Now having arrived at this point we must come to the understanding that to be “in the flesh” does not mean to keep tripping and falling over common weaknesses or temptations, or conversely to die to the flesh does not mean one strive to become sinless, or reach the goal of no longer falling into temptation, because this is not possible with anyone who has a sinful nature, which all of mankind do possess.

To die to the flesh is to no longer operate from the negative position of continually battling against flesh and blood, or to measure our relationship with God based on sins, but on righteousness, on plate already swiped clean by the blood of the Lamb. This believer who, through faith, considers himself already dead to sin, that it no longer holds the power of condemnation upon him. Practically he still sins, because he sins even when he performs his most righteous deeds, but positionally he is as pure as the whitest of snow.

The Hebrews of old only focused on the giants to the point they left the promised land and headed back to the desert to die. Is it the same thing with us to day? Are you still battling sins or have you stood the ground of a conqueror with Christ? Are you setting your hearts on things above, or are you looking down like Peter and sink? That is the difference between the old way of the written code, which is the law, and the new way of the Spirit, which is by grace and through faith.

The law reveals sin

7What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “ Do not covet.” (Romans 7:7)

It was perhaps for answering someone who might slander what Paul wrote in verse 5 that it was the law that aroused sinful desires, he explained that though that was the unexpected effect of the law, it was by no means the same thing as sin. The law serves to reveal sin for what it is, much like the X-ray which sweeps through the body to reveal diseases that need remedy, but the X-ray itself does not provide the cure, and the X-ray is not the disease it reveals.

The commandment brought death, not life

8But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead. 9And I was once alive apart from the law, but with the coming of the commandment sin became alive 10and I died. So I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death! 11For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died. (Romans 7:8-11)

While the law may deter its subjects from the carrying out of the transgression and gives temporary relief, it actually increases sinful desires. It may help a person avoid the temporal consequences of sins, but due to its increasing the internal effect of sins, it drives a person further and further away from God, much like the knowledge of good and evil that drove our first parents away from their Creator.

When was Paul, or when were we, alive apart from the law? Perhaps the time in every one of our lives when we were too young to develop a conciousness of good and evil. But that time of childhood innocense quickly left us as we grew up, and the commandment, or the conscience of everyone be they Jews or not, bring sin to life and we all died spiritually as a result.

Wasn’t this what happened to Eve (who represents mankind, whereas Adam is a type of Christ) after she ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? In Genesis 2:17, God said: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

How can it be that “the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death!”? Commandment such as “Do not covet,” “Honor your parents,” and others, how can they bring death? Ah, but they indeed can, for one simple reason, mankind, just like Eve, lost the ability to carry out God’s golden rules. When they still walked with God in the garden, they had no other gods before Him, until they invited one into their minds in the form of the knowledge of good and evil. The golden rules now show them the glory that is but a distant memory; it showed them how far they have fallen short of God’s glory. Nevertheless, it was intended to bring life when it can successfully nudge the sinner toward their Savior, but it will bring death to those who try to uphold it to achieve God’s righteousness.

In their present fallen state, it would be better for them not to have the commandments, but it’s too late, because the law had already became their master since they ate of the forbidden tree.

What opportunity does the law provide for sin? How does sin deceive men through it? Perhaps it deceives them much like how the snake deceived Eve. Over the ages, men have been deceived into thinking that the way to salvation is through some form of observances of certain law. But according to verse 10 above, the laws bring death, not life; it brings death through the revealing of sins, and of condemnation as a consequence of such revelation. Many Christians are still deceived in this way; the law may have played a part in leading them to Christ, but now they lift it up like an idol. Instead of being humbled by the law, they become haughty because of it.

Men’s utter helplessness

13Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. 14For we know that the law is spiritual- but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. 15For I donʼt understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want- instead, I do what I hate. 16But if I do what I donʼt want, I agree that the law is good. 17But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. 18For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me. (Romans 7:13-20)

This series of verses further confirmed what Paul wrote in verse 10 above, that the commandment brought death instead of life. It brought death because of men’s inability to do what they know is good, and it increased tendency toward things that they know they should not do.

In verse 18, Paul asserted that “nothing good lives in me.” If what Paul said is true, how can something good come out of something that has nothing good within it? Then what amount of exhortation, teaching, admonition, training, can produce light out of utter darkness? life out of death? Flesh can only give birth to flesh, and the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (I Cor 15:50). This should lead to the understanding that the common approach of ministries based on exhortation toward behavior modification will inevitably lead to frustrating Christian experiences. Why preach to the dead? About the only thing one can do with the dead is to bring them to someone who can give them life.

In short, now dwells within Paul two realities, one of the mind that knows and willing to do what is good, and one of the flesh that wants to do evil.

We need WHO, not HOW

21So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 23But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks 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. (Romans 7:21-25)

The law Paul spoke of in verse 21 is a statement of undisputable truth that his evil tendency is ever present within him. His life has two parts, one part of flesh that is a slave under sin, and another of his mind that desires to serve God. It is this battle between the flesh and the mind/spirit that puts him in constant struggle that he had to call out: “Wretched man that I am!” This should dispel any notion that Paul has got it all figured out, that his Christian life is one of an overcomer based on conventional teaching.

But it is his subsequent question that gives us the answer to how he escaped this conundrum: Who will rescue me from this body of death? The question is not who will show him how to overcome the sin of his flesh, but who will save him. Not how many thousand tips and techniques on how to lead a victorious life, but WHO. Not how to train this dead body so that it will one day will become a champion, but WHO. And yes, once again I risk an overuse of this complaint, that even as Christ came to show us the WHO, men went on continuing to teach the walking dead to behave as fully functional children of God.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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