So far, in writing this Bible study on the book of Romans, I have found most of the commentaries I have used to be in basic agreement with one another. There have been some minor differences, but they usually arrived at the same conclusions. To most writers Paul has been very clear in his logic. Romans 7, however, has commentaries going off in a variety of directions. Some use it to establish rules for marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Others use it as an illustration of how perfection can be attained in this lifetime. Differences include everything from opinions on whom the deceased husband represents to what period of life Paul refers to in his struggle with sin.
Since Paul’s logic has been very straightforward for the past six chapters, it stands to reason that he would not suddenly deviate into foreign ground. He has been writing about how all are guilty of sin and how those who believe in Christ are freed from sin. He has just finished a chapter on how the believer is dead to sin and is made alive in Christ. Eternal life comes as a gift of grace from God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Those who knew the law, however, saw it as a gift from God. Amid the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, God had given the law to the Israelites after delivering them from bondage. They had been set free from slavery to Egypt and given instructions as to how they should live by the One who had freed them. The law set them apart from the godless people around them.
Even though the law was a source of pride for the Israelites, it became a heavy burden for them. The Pharisees had made sure of that. They had piled precept on precept. Their code of ethics went far beyond that which was required by God. Still, every attempt had to be made to gain the favor of God through obedience to God’s law. Paul argued that believers have been released from the law’s condemning hold on them. For Paul to claim that justification and redemption came apart from the law was a totally foreign concept to them. Was the law, then, of no value whatsoever?
The Law and Separation
Just as Paul had used the analogy of slavery in the previous chapter, in this chapter Paul begins by using marriage as an illustration of how the Christian is free from the law. In marriage, a husband and wife are bound to each other for life. Should the wife marry another man while the husband is alive, she becomes an adulteress. However, once the husband has died, she is released from the marriage bond and free to marry the other man.
Paul does not write these words to introduce us to new rules for behavior in marriage. Paul takes an already existing pattern to explain how believers are no longer subject to the law. Several commentaries try to associate one of the characters in the illustration with a counterpart. For some the husband is the law, the wife is the church or the Christian. When the husband dies, the wife is free to remarry; therefore, when the law dies the Christian is no longer bound by the law but is now married to Christ. These explanations fall apart because the law does not die. It is in full force within the illustration in that the woman does not remarry until her husband dies, as required by the law. In fact, Paul goes on to explain that the “law is holy, the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). It is alive and well. In addition, it is the believer who has died to sin and has risen in Christ (6:2).
The problem arises when we try to make this an allegory instead of a simple illustration. Paul uses this to illustrate that the law can only apply to living people. Once a person dies, there can be freedom from the law. Therefore, when one has died in Christ, he is raised up with Christ into newness of life. Such a person is no longer bound to the law.
At the same time, Paul hints that such freedom can lead a person into a new relationship. Just as the widowed woman could establish a relationship with another man and even bear fruit, so also the Christian is enabled to do good works. In the newness of life, the Christian is no longer bound by the sinful passions aroused by the law. Instead, his desire is to bear good fruit through the Holy Spirit’s work in his life.
The Law and Sin
Simply because the Christian has died to sin does not mean that the law is now abolished for the Christian, nor does it make the law evil. The simple truth is that the law reveals and exposes sin. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it very well. Question 3 asks, “How do you come to know your misery?” The answer is this: “The law of God tells me.” Paul writes, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (v. 7).
Left to themselves, very few people think of themselves as evil. Recently I was teaching some of the distinctions of the Reformed faith to a class of new believers. They were more than willing to agree that we are all totally depraved. When we got to the teaching of limited atonement, I asked the class if they thought Jesus died for everyone. They were pretty much in agreement that Jesus died for all people everywhere until I wrote the name Adolph Hitler on the board. There was an audible gasp. Did Jesus die for him? “Of course not,” came the reply.
I asked, “Why not?”
“Because he was evil!” one person in the room answered.
“Not that evil!”
I gave another example of a young man who decades ago was arrested for luring pre-teen boys into his home, where he killed them and ate them. “Did Christ die for him?” Then I told of how this man was converted to Christ while in prison. Before God, the sins of Adolph Hitler and the young man in prison are no greater than our sins. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). It takes the law of God to show us that our hearts are only evil all the time (Gen. 6:5).
Not only does the law expose our sin but it also provokes us to sin. The public high school I attended in the late sixties was well aware of the drug culture that was sweeping across the continent. On a regular basis the school would hold assemblies for the students to show films and give lectures on the horror of hallucinatory drugs. The trouble was that we heard it so often that many of the young students became curious and started experimenting with drugs.
Something within our very nature wants to rebel against the law. How many times haven’t we been tempted to touch the wet paint simply because the sign said, “Do not touch”? How many times haven’t we tailgated the car that pulled out in front of us? How many times haven’t you told your child not to jump in a mud puddle, only to see her triumphantly splash through the ever-deepening, murky water.
Those who try to live by the law discover very quickly that their legalistic system develops more problems than it resolves. The church in Galatia experienced all kinds of troubles because of their legalistic ideas. Paul wrote, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15). Their legalism did not make them more spiritual. Instead, it led them into sin.
The Law and Self
Paul then goes on to describe the Christian conflict (vv. 14–24). These verses have caused great debates among Bible scholars. As Paul writes about desiring to do good and yet finding himself doing evil instead, is he writing about the unbeliever, his life as a Pharisee before his conversion, his life as a mature Christian, or is he describing the life of a carnal Christian?
Because Paul writes in the present tense, it seems best to read these words as an explanation of the struggle Paul deals with every day of his Christian life. Prior to conversion, a person would not be concerned about the law nor seek to please God. Nor is Paul reflecting back on when he was a Pharisee. At that time he prided himself in keeping the law and considered himself faultless by legalistic standards (Phil. 3:4–6). Finally, carnal Christians would not understand the struggle that Paul describes in these verses. These verses are a self-portrait of a man who loves the law of God and longs to serve God but finds himself continually falling short of his goal. What true Christian who seeks to serve God has not experienced the very struggle of which Paul writes?
This is the struggle between the old nature and the new nature. When God calls us to be Christians, He calls us to a lifetime struggle against sin. In these verses, Paul wants us to feel the struggle that each Christian goes through as we battle against that old nature.
It is the old nature that not only desires to sin but also seeks to convince us that we can save ourselves and that we are able to please God. I have met people who use these verses (and especially v. 25) to argue that perfection can be attained prior to the grave. I once even met a man who told me he had not sinned for seven weeks. The simple truth is that it is an impossible battle. We cannot win this on our own. A true understanding of the law convicts us again and again that we have failed.
The Law and Salvation
God’s purpose for giving the law was to reveal His will to the Israelites and to prove to them, over a period of fifteen hundred years, that they could not save themselves by keeping the law. That is true for us as well. The struggle against the old nature actually becomes a positive thing because it leads us to the cross. As we realize that we are unable to keep the law perfectly, it points us to the one place where salvation can be found. It is only in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ!
Even though we are dead to sin, the struggle against sin continues throughout the entire life of the Christian. That is not what we want to hear today. All too often when we hear conversion stories at mission rallies the speaker is someone who lived a horrible life before coming to Christ. Once he was converted, however, everything in his life turned around. It is a wonderful, positive, and motivational fund-raising speech. But the life of the Christian is anything but easy. Paul certainly bore the marks of Christ (Gal. 6:17). Yet he could write, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Such good news caused Paul to burst out in the doxology, “Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!” May that be our doxology as well!
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. How does Paul use the illustration of a marriage between husband and wife?
2. In the first “marriage” in Paul’s illustration, to whom was the Christian once married? Was that an easy
or difficult marriage? How did it end?
3. In the second “marriage,” to whom are you now married? Is it an easy or difficult marriage? Will it end?
4. What use of the law does Paul explain here?
5. How does the law expose our sin?
6. In what ways has an awareness of sin created more temptation in your life?
7. Describe the Christian conflict between the two natures.
8. Can we go without the law? What is our relationship to the law now?