I. The Place of the Law in the Believer’s Life (Chap. 7)
The apostle now anticipates a question that will inevitably arise: What is the relationship of the Christian to the law? Perhaps Paul had Jewish believers especially in mind in answering this question, since the law was given to Israel, but the principles apply just as much to Gentile believers who foolishly want to put themselves under the law as a rule of life after they have been justified.
In chapter 6 we saw that death ended the tyranny of the sin nature in the life of the child of God. Now we will see that death likewise ends the dominion of the law over those who were under it.
7:1 This verse is connected with 6:14: “You are not under law but under grace.” The connection is, “You should know that you are not under law—or are you ignorant of the fact that the law has dominion over a man only when he is alive?” Paul is speaking to those who are familiar with fundamental principles of law, and who therefore should know that the law has nothing to say to a dead man.
7:4 In applying the illustration, we must not press each detail with exact literalness. For example, neither the husband nor the wife represents the law. The point of the illustration is that just as death breaks the marriage relationship, so the death of the believer with Christ breaks the jurisdiction of the law over him.
Notice that Paul does not say that the law is dead. The law still has a valid ministry in producing conviction of sin. And remember that when he says “we” in this passage, he is thinking of those who were Jews before they came to Christ.
We have been made dead to the law through the body of Christ, the body here referring to the giving up of His body in death. We are no longer joined to the law; we are now joined to the risen Christ. One marriage has been broken by death, and a new one has been formed. And now that we are free from the law, we can bear fruit to God.
7:5 This mention of fruit brings to mind the kind of fruit we bore when we were in the flesh. The expression in the flesh obviously doesn’t mean “in the body.” In the flesh here is descriptive of our standing before we were saved. Then the flesh was the basis of our standing before God. We depended on what we were or what we could do to win acceptance with God. In the flesh is the opposite of “in Christ.”
Prior to our conversion we were ruled by sinful passions which were aroused by the law. It is not that the law originated them, but only that by naming and then forbidding them it stirred up the strong desire to do them!
These sinful passions found expression in our physical members, and when we yielded to temptation we produced poison fruit that results in death. Elsewhere the apostle speaks of this fruit as the works of the flesh: “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries” (Gal. 5:19-21).
7:6 Among the many wonderful things that happen when we are converted is that we are delivered from the law. This is a result of our having died with Christ. Since He died as our Representative, we died with Him. In His death He fulfilled all the claims of the law by paying its awful penalty. Therefore we are free from the law and from its inevitable curse. There can be no double jeopardy.
Payment God will not twice demand—
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand
And then again at mine.
— Augustus M. Toplady
We are now set free to serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. Our service is motivated by love, not fear; it is a service of freedom, not bondage. It is no longer a question of slavishly adhering to minute details of forms and ceremonies but of the joyful outpouring of ourselves for the glory of God and the blessing of others.
7:7 It might seem from all this that Paul is critical of the law. He had said that believers are dead to sin and dead to the law, and this might have created the impression that the law is evil. But this is far from the case.
In 7:7-13 he goes on to describe the important role which the law played in his own life before he was saved. He emphasizes that the law itself is not sinful, but that it reveals sin in man. It was the law that convicted him of the terrible depravity of his heart. As long as he compared himself with other people, he felt fairly respectable. But as soon as the demands of God’s law came home to him in convicting power, he stood speechless and condemned.
The one particular commandment that revealed sin to him was the tenth: You shall not covet. Coveting takes place in the mind. Although Paul may not have committed any of the grosser, more revolting sins, he now realized that his thought life was corrupt. He understood that evil thoughts are sinful as well as evil deeds. He had a polluted thought life. His outward life may have been relatively blameless, but his inward life was a chamber of horrors.
7:8 Sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. Evil desire here means coveting. When the law forbids all kinds of evil coveting, man’s corrupt nature is inflamed all the more to do it. For example, the law says, in effect, “You must not conjure up all sorts of pleasurable sexual encounters in your mind. You must not live in a world of lustful fantasies.” The law forbids a dirty, vile, suggestive thought-life. But unfortunately it doesn’t give the power to overcome. So the result is that people under law become more involved in a dream-world of sexual uncleanness than ever before. They come to realize that whenever an act is forbidden, the fallen nature wants to do it all the more. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov. 9:17).
Apart from the law sin is dead, relatively speaking. The sinful nature is like a sleeping dog. When the law comes and says “Don’t,” the dog wakes up and goes on a rampage, doing excessively whatever is forbidden.
But when the commandment came — that is, when it came with crushing conviction—his sinful nature became thoroughly inflamed. The more he tried to obey, the worse he failed. He died as far as any hope of achieving salvation by his own character or efforts was concerned. He died to any thought of his own inherent goodness. He died to any dream of being justified by law-keeping.
7:10 He found that the commandment, which was to bring life actually turned out to bring death for him. But what does he mean that the commandment was to bring life? This probably looks back to Leviticus 18:5, where God said, “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” Ideally the law promised life to those who kept it. The sign outside a lion’s cage says, “Stay back of the railing.” If obeyed, the commandment brings life. But for the child who disobeys and reaches in to pet the lion, it brings death.
7:11 Again Paul emphasizes that the law was not to blame. It was indwelling sin that incited him to do what the law prohibited. Sin tricked him into thinking that the forbidden fruit wasn’t so bad after all, that it would bring happiness, and that he could get away with it. It suggested that God was withholding pleasures from him that were for his good. Thus sin killed him in the sense that it spelled death to his best hopes of deserving or earning salvation.
7:12 The law itself is holy, and each commandment is holy and just and good. In our thinking we must constantly remember that there is nothing wrong with the law. It was given by God and therefore is perfect as an expression of His will for His people. The weakness of the law lay in the “raw materials” it had to work with: it was given to people who were already sinners. They needed the law to give them the knowledge of sin, but beyond that they needed a Savior to deliver them from the penalty and power of sin.
7:13 What is good refers to the law, as is specifically stated in the preceding verse. Paul raises the question “Did the law become death to me?” which means “Is the law the culprit, dooming Paul (and all the rest of us) to death?” The answer, of course, is “Certainly not!” Sin is the culprit. The law didn’t originate sin, but it showed sin in all its exceeding sinfulness. “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (3:20b). But that is not all! How does man’s sinful nature respond when God’s holy law forbids it to do something? The answer is well-known. What may have been dormant desire now becomes a burning passion! Thus sin through the commandment becomes exceedingly sinful.
There might seem to be a contradiction between what Paul says here and in 7:10. There he said he found the law to bring death. Here he denies that the law became death to him. The solution is this: The law by itself can neither improve the old nature on the one hand nor cause it to sin on the other. It can reveal sin, just as a thermometer reveals the temperature. But it cannot control sin like a thermostat controls the temperature.
But what happens is this. Man’s fallen human nature instinctively wants to do whatever is forbidden. So it uses the law to awaken otherwise-dormant lusts in the sinner’s life. The more man tries, the worse it gets, till at last he is brought to despair of all hope. Thus sin uses the law to cause any hope of improvement to die in him. And he sees the exceeding sinfulness of his old nature as he never saw it before.
Now he changes to the present tense to describe an experience he had since he was born again—namely, the conflict between the two natures and the impossibility of finding deliverance from the power of indwelling sin through his own strength. Paul acknowledges that the law is spiritual—that is, holy in itself and adapted to man’s spiritual benefit. But he realizes that he is carnal because he is not experiencing victory over the power of indwelling sin in his life. He is sold under sin. He feels as if he is sold as a slave with sin as his master.
7:15 Now the apostle describes the struggle that goes on in a believer who does not know the truth of his identification with Christ in death and resurrection. It is the conflict between the two natures in the person who climbs Mount Sinai in search of holiness. Harry Foster explains:
Here was a man trying to achieve holiness by personal effort, struggling with all his might to fulfill God’s “holy and righteous and good” commandments (v.12), only to discover that the more he struggled, the worse his condition became. It was a losing battle, and no wonder, for it is not in the power of fallen human nature to conquer sin and live in holiness. 25
Notice the prominence of the first-person pronouns—I, me, my, myself; they occur over forty times in verses 9-25! People who go through this Romans 7 experience have taken an overdose of “Vitamin I.” They are introspective to the core, searching for victory in self, where it cannot be found.
Sadly, most modern Christian psychological counseling focuses the coun selee’s attention on himself and thus adds to the problem instead of relieving it. People need to know that they have died with Christ and have risen with Him to walk in newness of life. Then, instead of trying to improve the flesh, they will relegate it to the grave of Jesus.
In describing the struggle between the two natures, Paul says, what I am doing, I do not understand. He is a split personality, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He finds himself indulging in things that he doesn’t want to do, and practicing things that he hates.
7:17 This leads to the conclusion that the culprit is not the new man in Christ, but the sinful, corrupt nature that dwells in him. But we must be careful here. We must not excuse our sinning by passing it off to indwelling sin. We are responsible for what we do, and we must not use this verse to “pass the buck.” All Paul is doing here is tracking down the source of his sinful behavior, not excusing it.
7:18 There can be no progress in holiness until we learn what Paul learned here—that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells. The flesh here means the evil, corrupt nature which is inherited from Adam and which is still in every believer. It is the source of every evil action which a person performs. There is nothing good in it.
When we learn this, it delivers us from ever looking for any good in the old nature. It delivers us from being disappointed when we don’t find any good there. And it delivers us from occupation with ourselves. There is no victory in introspection. As the saintly Scot, Robert Murray McCheyne said, for every look we take at ourselves, we should take ten looks at Christ.
To confirm the hopelessness of the flesh, the apostle mourns that although he has the desire to do what is right, he doesn’t have the resources in himself to translate his desire into action. The trouble, of course, is that he is casting his anchor inside the boat.
7:19 Thus the conflict between the two natures rages on. He finds himself failing to do the good he wants to do, and instead doing the evil that he despises. He is just one great mass of contradictions and paradoxes.
7:20 We might paraphrase this verse as follows: “Now if I (the old nature) do what I (the new nature) don’t want to do, it is no longer I (the person) who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Again let it be clear that Paul is not excusing himself or disclaiming responsibility. He is simply stating that he has not found deliverance from the power of indwelling sin, and that when he sins, it is not with the desire of the new man.
The law, though he delights in it after the inward man, gives him no power. In other words, he is trying to accomplish what God has declared to be an utter impossibility—namely, making the flesh subject to God’s holy law. He finds that the flesh minds the things of the flesh, and is very enmity itself to the law of God, and even to God Himself. 26
7:24 Now Paul lets out his famous, eloquent groan. He feels as if he has a decomposing body strapped to his back. That body, of course, is the old nature in all its corruption. In his wretchedness he acknowledges that he is unable to deliver himself from this offensive, repulsive bondage. He must have help from some outside source.
7:25 The burst of thanksgiving which opens this verse may be understood in at least two ways. It may mean “I thank God that deliverance comes through Jesus Christ our Lord” or it may be an aside in which Paul thanks God through the Lord Jesus that he is no longer the wretched man of the preceding verse.
The rest of the verse summarizes the conflict between the two natures before deliverance is realized. With the renewed mind, or the new nature, the believer serves the law of God, but with the flesh or (old nature) the law of sin. Not till we reach the next chapter do we find the way of deliverance explained.