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.
Quick show of hands: how many of you would consider yourselves to be rule-followers? How many of you think of yourselves as rule breakers. I tend to be a rule breaker, especially when I am driving. Lindsay on the other hand is a rule follower. Once we were stuck in traffic on I-20 in Texas, and so I thought I’m not going to just sit here so I pulled off into the grass, crossed the median and got on the service road. The whole time Lindsay is going what are you doing; you’re not supposed to do that. And, I’m like its fine; its fine. And, I had no sooner said, “it’s fine” when I saw the flashing lights behind me.
If you’ve been journeying with us through Romans, you know that that Paul has talked a great deal about “the law,” the rules that controlled Jewish life and worship, and he continues down that road today. And, its possible that you fully understood what Paul was saying in our text today, but my guess is maybe not. Cause, here’s the reality. It’s super confusing, and it’s not just us. Paul’s writing was confusing to readers in his day. It can be really difficult for us gentiles, living 2000+ years later to fully understand all of this stuff about the law. And, “the law,” here is the same law that Paul has talked about throughout Romans, the mosaic law. And what is confusing to us is the fact that Paul seems to denounce the law or speak negatively about the law. This was also something that his contemporary readers picked up on as well. And, that’s confusing because God is the one who gave the law to the people. And, our understanding of God is that he is the one who made the earth and all creatures and that as he made those things he looks at each of them and said, “it is good.” In other words, our theology says that God does not make mistakes. Yet, to read Paul here, it almost sounds like that is what he’s claiming. Look at verses 5 and 6 for example:
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.
Wait, so somehow the law is arousing our sin? Are you saying that God gave something to the people that would bring about sin? He goes on:
6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive.
Isn’t God all about freedom and grace…so why does Paul say that this thing that God gave the people was actually a source of captivity to them?
Well, guys, the truth is that this chapter is actually one of the most debated chapters in all of Romans. Paul’s train of thought is somewhat difficult to follow. You would not be alone in feeling like you need to read things over and over again. And, that is particularly true starting in verse 7, which we’ll get to next week. So, as a result there are at least 3 significant and credible and Biblically faithful ways of approaching and understanding this chapter. And a good bit of the confusion here comes not simply from how Paul talks about the law, but how he talks about himself. As we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, Christ brings us freedom from slavery to sin. And yet in chapter 7, Paul famously says,
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.
Now, listen, we know that Christians still struggle with sin, but we are no longer enslaved to sin. Sin is no longer our only master. We have a new master, and that new master has given us his Spirit so that we no longer have to be in servitude to sin. So, when Paul claims to not do what he wants, we have to ask this question: When Paul says that, is he talking about the old Paul or the new Paul? Is he talking about the old Pharisaical and murderous Paul or the new regenerate, Christ following, Holy Spirit-filled Paul? In other words, is he describing a normal “Christian” experience, of feeling out of control regarding sin or is he describing the experience of a lost person. Or, is it none of the above as one view claims? And, in order to answer that question, we have to break down the text and first explore verses 1-6 and figure out what he is first saying about the law.
This is G.K Chesterton. He was a very well-known writer back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Christian scholar Will Timmons retells this story about Chesterton. There is a famous story that a newspaper in Britain asked this question in a headline, “What is wrong with the world?” That may be a question you’ve been asking lately during what one person lovingly called “our dumpster-fire of a year.” Chesterton sent a letter in response to that newspaper’s question.
Yours, G.K. Chesterton
And, this is exactly the point that Paul is making here. The problem is not so much the law, the problem is us, and the fact that outside of Christ, we are slaves to sin. So, when a slave to sin encounters the law, there are a few things that happen.
- The law reveals your sin. When a slave to sin encounters the law, the law, in its truth shows you who you really are. Paul will go on to say, “because of the law I learned what it is to covet. At the same time though, I realized that I am horribly covetous.” So, the law causes sin to abound not because it is a source of sin, but because it reveals sin. To use an extremely current analogy, its like saying COVID numbers are going up because we’ve increased testing. Before encountering the test, the disease wasn’t revealed, but once encountering the test the disease is revealed and it’s clear I have it. So, to that end, the law was a sort of diagnostic tool.
- The law inevitably leads those who are enslaved to sin deeper into sin. Here’s what I mean. When you encounter your sin through the law, you have only two options. You can either repent or you can ignore and go deeper into sin. The word for this is rebellion. I’ve been told what is right and true and good, and I reject that to do what I want instead. And, this is classic human behavior, starting in the garden, and it is something that we all have done. If there is no law. If there are no rules…there’s nothing to rebel to against.
- The law condemns you to death. Because it reveals your sin and perhaps pushes you deeper into sin…the law facilitates your undoing. Now, the law is just. It doesn’t condemn you without cause.
So, what’s the problem here? Is it the law? No. It’s me. It’s us.
But, now, through Christ, you’ve died to the law, Paul says. The thing that used to reveal your sin and push you deeper into sin…you’ve died to all of that. You don’t fall under its purview anymore. Look at verse 6
6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive,
What held you captive? The law? No! Sin!
so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
So, Paul is presenting two ways of life here. The old way…the way of the flesh…the way of slavery to sin. And, the new way, the way of the Spirit, the way of slavery to Christ, the life released from the law. The old way increased sin and brought condemnation as our sin was revealed. The new way brings life, freedom and grace. And, this is the key for us. It can easy to read all this stuff about the law and think that it doesn’t apply to us in any way. But, we would be wrong. Back in Romans 2, Paul said that there is coming a day when God will judge the secrets of men. That’s not just for Jews who’ve lived under the law; that is for all people. So, when God judges the secrets of your life by his holy standard, what will he find? Hopefully, we all realize that if God is judging your life based on the merits of your life compared to the merits of Christ, we will all stand condemned. But, if our faith instead is placed in Christ, then we are released from the condemnation of our sin, and the merits of Christ are transferred/attributed to us. That’s why Paul will say in chapter 8,
“there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
The law of Moses, that was the old covenant. But, Jesus says that through his blood, a new covenant has been established, fulfilling the old. Jesus took on our sin and our death, the condemnation due us so that we would no longer stand condemned.