Grace and the Law (A Study in Romans)

Romans 7:1-13

Do you ever wish they had consulted you before making a particular law? You drive through a residential area posted 45 mph, but you see only three houses within the space of a mile. My wife and I sometimes discuss what appear to be illogical laws and then conclude, “Well, they didn’t consult us when making that law.”

The Christian’s Death to the Law (vv. 1-6)

Paul makes this point by appealing to the example of a sinner, a proposed law keeper, and a believer. In this and the following chapter, he uses the word law in four different ways: a reference to the Mosaic Law, a reference to civil laws, a reference to the Ten Commandments, and a reference to laws governing principles, such as the law of gravity. He demonstrates how the law cannot save the sinner, the one who proposes to keep it, or even the believer who has been given a new nature in Christ.

The first example is the sinner. Sinners are condemned by the law just as criminals are. They have broken a particular law which is responsible for their going to jail, being fined, or having to perform community service (or a combination of all three). If they infringed on no law, they would not have been arrested, fined, or jailed. They find themselves in this predicament only because the law said they weren’t supposed to do what they did. If stealing were not against the law, we could take what we want without threat of reprisal, regardless of whether it belonged to us or not.

Additionally, the one who proposes to keep the law is not saved by it. The reason is that we cannot consistently or perfectly abide by its dictates. As hard as we try, we will periodically break a law established by our town, state, or nation. Speeding is a typical example. We may not consider ourselves speeders unless we exceed the limit by more than five miles per hour, but technically exceeding it by only one makes us a lawbreaker. Failing to slow down at a school crossing or crossroads puts us in the same category. The law also has a spirit that must be considered. Jesus addresses this aspect of obedience in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Nor can the believer with a new nature obey God’s law perfectly or be saved by it for the new nature continually battles our flesh. Salvation is not found through obedience to the law. Had it been, Christ and Calvary would have been unnecessary.

From here, Paul moves to the example of life, marriage, the death of a spouse, and unfaithfulness in marriage to further illustrate his point of the law’s inability to save. Laws only apply to those who are alive. When we die, the law no longer matters, nor will we have any influence over what laws are enacted. While death breaks our relationship to the law, it does not exempt us from the judgment that follows for breaking the law while we were alive.

Laws governing marriage only apply while both spouses are alive. When one dies, the law governing faithfulness and adultery no longer apply to the remaining partner. The widow or widower is free to remarry without penalty of breaking laws applying to faithfulness. Death releases them from previous agreements and arrangements. While many choose not to remarry, they could if they desired without breaking previously established marriage bonds.

Similarly, the believer has died with Christ on the cross. The law can no longer condemn us for in Christ our sins are paid for (Romans 8:1). Just as the person whose spouse dies is no longer bound by the laws of marriage, so we are no longer bound to the law in that we must perfectly obey it to experience salvation. Christ has accomplished that for us.

A married person could only be convicted of adultery if their spouse was alive. Just as death breaks our relationship to the law, so our identification with Christ breaks our marriage to sin. It no longer fits who we are and have become in Christ. We have the freedom to obey, a freedom we didn’t possess before. Paul’s discussion of the law is not meant to infer there was something inferior or evil about God’s law. It was good and the commands designed for our benefit. The problem lay within us. We were powerless to obey.

The law has no power over the believer. Having examined how the death of one marriage partner released the remaining partner from the bond, Paul now turns to application. Believers are no longer held by the power of the law because we have died with Christ. We are placed in that experience when we trust Christ as our Savior. His death for sin becomes our death to sin. Our participation in his death is vicarious. We participate spiritually in his death, and God counts us as having been there when Christ died on the cross.

The power of the law was negative in some sense. The more a person tried in their own strength to obey, the more discouraged they became because of their inability. A steady stream of sacrifices was the major reminder. Now having been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, we have new power for obedience. We still miss the mark occasionally, but God sees us in Christ. This means we have total and perfect obedience in position even if we don’t in practice.

We also have the resident Spirit of God enabling us to live obediently. Sinful practices will not and cannot be the norm. The Spirit gives us the power to produce good fruit (deeds) for God. Paul names them in another epistle: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). These are compared to life under the law: guilt, restraint, sacrifices, ceremonies, rules, pressure, failure, discouragement, and disappointment.

Such is the condition of every person prior to salvation. We are controlled by our sinful nature. The law arouses sinful desires and they transpose themselves into sinful actions. Our nature leads us to long for forbidden things. Just like the cow who wants the grass on the other side of the fence even though there is plenty within the pasture. Temporary satisfaction, a sense of power, an intoxicating nature, and the pleasurable feeling associated with rebellion are all reasons we do wrong just for the sake of it.

The believer’s service to God comes not through obedience to a set of laws but by the power of the Spirit. We don’t reach God by keeping rules (even though rules are important), but through Christ. We don’t serve simply because the law states we should but out of love and gratitude for what Christ has done. We don’t serve to get approval, but because we already have it.

God’s Purpose in the Law (vv. 7-13)

In listing the detrimental effects of the law, Paul did not imply the law had an evil nature. God gave it so it had purpose, intent, and goodness inherent in it. God’s laws show us what he considers sin. How would we know it was wrong to covet, steal, murder, or worship a piece of wood unless God’s law informed us? The law shows his standards and then reveals how we measure up. Since we don’t, it reveals our need for help. Before we can see where we need or can be, we must see where we are. And if there were no laws, chaos would erupt in society and in our personal lives.

Sin destroyed God’s good purpose of the law. Paul says sin took advantage of God’s good law by arousing sinful desires in the very people who attempted to obey it. The law said not to covet, but people found themselves coveting anyway. Our struggle is identical. Returning to the example of the speed limit, we find ourselves wanting to fudge beyond the law’s limit. We may not steal in the manner stealing is normally defined, but we take a few materials from our desk at work and bring them home to use.

God’s law is not sinful. Our inner nature drives us to disobedience. Nor does the law force us to sin. We make that decision. The Greek word variously translated advantage, opportunity, or occasion is aphorme and is a military term that speaks of forming a bridgehead from which an attack is made. Sin uses God’s good law as a point from which to harass us.

While God’s law helps us determine what God considers sin, it does not contain the power to avoid it. Similar to a sign warning against swimming because the waters are shark infested. If we decide to swim anyway and a shark attacks us, the sign isn’t at fault. Nor does the sign have any power to deliver us from the sharks.

Looking at the law through God’s perspective, we realize the law is not simply a set of restrictions God placed on us because he is mean. The laws are guidelines given for our protection from harmful attitudes and actions. Paul admitted sin deceived him just as it does us. He was transparent with his readers. Sin promises satisfaction and tells us our desires can be fulfilled and enjoyed without consequence. Sin promises power in exchange for cooperation, even as it did for Adam and Eve.

Because of God’s grace, he gave the law to relate his standards. Through Christ, he demonstrated grace by allowing him to fulfill the law on our behalf so we can also through our identification with him by faith. By the grace of God’s indwelling Spirit, we now have the power to obey his commands.

Martin Wiles
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