No Problem With The Law, But It’s Not The Spirit
Paul had firmly placed the Law on the side of sin and death (5.20-21; 6.14; etc.). Undoubtedly, some Jewish Christians began to accuse Paul of licensing sinful activity. After all, if we are not under Law, why would sin be wrong? Paul had emphatically stated that we cannot continue in sin, because when we were baptized into Christ we died to sin and the epoch of Adam, being raised to life and the new epoch of Christ (6.1-14). Furthermore, since the Law was placed in the old epoch of sin and Adam, we died to it too and are now joined to Christ (7.1-6).
But what does this mean for the Law? Paul has just stated that “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” (7.5). Was the Law at fault? “Is the Law sin?” (7.7) In this passage Paul will endeavor to explain the connection between the Law and sin, placing the blame on flesh and on sin while declaring the Law to be holy, righteous and good (7.7-13). He will then relate his personal experience of living under the Law, desiring to do God’s will, but experiencing sin reign in His flesh (7.14-25).
All of this prepares us for the Spirit’s introduction in chapter 8. The Law may have been holy, righteous and good, even spiritual in nature, but it was not the Spirit. Significantly, the work of the Spirit and His contrast with the Law was revealed in the prophets:
- Jeremiah 31:31–33 (ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
- Ezekiel 36:25–27 (ESV) 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Sin Took Advantage Of The Law (vss. 7-13)
- “Is the Law sin?” Of course not! Paul will rightfully describe the Law as “holy and righteous and good,” (7.12), even referring to it as “spiritual,” (7.14). In giving His Law, God declared that “if you diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God,” (Deut. 28.1-2). So, what was the problem?
- The problem was man! Specifically, the problem was man when ruled by his flesh. When Paul speaks of “flesh” (Greek sarx) he’s not simply referring to man’s physical bodies. After all, our physical members can be presented to God as instruments of righteousness (see Romans 6.12-13). Rather, “flesh” was the dominant principle of our old lives. “Flesh” typified our lives in the old epoch of Adam, sin and death. Thus, Paul said, “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” (Romans 7.5). Paul will return to the struggle of trying to serve God while in flesh in Romans 7.14-25, but having shown that the Law aroused sin when we were in the flesh, Paul must show that the Law was not at fault.
- Law shows what is wrong, and Paul’s point was that when we’re dominated by flesh, we corrupt this positive aspect of law; we desire to do what is wrong simply because it’s wrong. Thus Paul could state that “apart from the law, sin lies dead”, i.e. sin uses the prohibition to entice the flesh. David McClister offers this explanation: “The Law of Moses, by its nature as an external law, had a serious problem associated with it in that it mainly addressed our actions, the things we do in the flesh. Even those parts of the Law that attempted to transform our inner selves (such as the tenth commandment which prohibited coveting) eventually became issues with the flesh… Like a parent’s good instruction to a little child, ‘Don’t touch the stove,’ the process of announcing that good commandment started a process in motion. The child was not thinking about touching the stove until the parent said something about it, then his natural curiosity takes over and drives him to touch the stove. In a similar, but more serious way, that part of us that wants to control itself (our flesh) found itself excited by the Law’s prohibition and prompted us to do the very thing God said not to do.” (Blessed Be God, Page77)
- You can see how this was true when Eve sinned in the Garden. God’s commandment (Gen. 2.17) made one tree out of bounds. This commandment was for her good, but the commandment also increased her desire for it, a desire that Satan was able to prey upon (Gen. 3).
- Consider also that Israel did not make an idol (Exodus 32) until after God forbade it (Exodus 20.4-5).
- Paul says the same thing occurred with him and coveting. Coveting what others have is a “natural,” i.e. fleshly, desire, but the Law declares it sinful. Being declared wrong intensified Paul’s fleshly desire, leading to his spiritual death.
- So, no fault should be found with the Law, but so long as man is governed by flesh the Law will only incite sin in him. What man needs is to be freed from the flesh, to be governed by the Spirit. This is exactly what Paul says happens in Christ, which is the focus of chapter 8.
- While not the point of the passage, this passage does effectively destroy any notion of our inheriting Adam’s sin (i.e. original sin). Note Paul’s words in vs. 9, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” The Law, the command to not covet, was given ~1500 years before Paul lived (see Exodus 20.17), but Paul was spiritually alive before he came to understand the obligation of this commandment (“when the commandment came”). This is what we mean by speaking of an “age of accountability”. While that phrase is not used in the Scriptures, the point is made in this passage and others (see Ezekiel 18.20; Isaiah 7.16). Paul died when he transgressed God’s Law, not when Adam transgressed.
The Struggle Between The Inner Man & The Outer Man (vss. 14-25)
- The most important question to decide on when examining this passage is at what stage in life was Paul referring? Many hold (and reasonably so) that Paul was referring to his present, Christian life. The main reason for taking this position is that Paul uses the present tense. The other position is that Paul was speaking of his former life, when he was still under the Law and in the epoch of Adam. This position seems best for the following reasons:
- Paul speaks of this time as being “sold under sin” (7.14). However, as we read in 6.7, “he who has died is freed from sin.” While we recognize and admit that Christians still sin (1John 1.8-10), that is a far cry from the bondage Paul is describing in this passage.
- Paul will contrast this time with living under the Spirit in chapter 8. That existence is typified as being free from condemnation because “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8.2) What Paul is describing in 7.14-25 is anything but freedom.
- It is best to treat the entirety of Chapter 7 as Paul’s explanation of the problems of living while dominated by the flesh. While the Law is not at fault, being holy, just and spiritual (7.12,14), the flesh is provoked by the Law to sin (7.5,14). Paul, having been a conscientious Jew, knew all to well the struggle of desiring to follow God, but seeing sin reign in his flesh. That agony is what Paul describes in this passage, but that agony could only be relieved by Christ and the giving of the Spirit (7.25, chapter 8)
- But what about Paul’s use of the present tense? The best answer to me is that Paul is relating this as a personal story. Such stories, while occuring in the past, are often told in the present tense.
- Paul’s point is simple, yet emphatic. While the Law may be holy, righteous and good, even described as “spiritual,” man in the flesh (belonging to the epoch of Adam) is sold into the bondage of sin. The Law may reveal the will of God to him, he may even desire to do the will of God in his inner man, yet he will find himself doing the very evil that he did not wish to do.
- What did Paul mean by “no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me,” (vs. 17,20)? We can easily rule out one thing: Paul was not refusing to take responsibility for his actions. He has already stated that he was responsible for his own sin and spiritual death (vs. 9). The likely solution is that Paul has personified sin, emphasizing it’s power contrasted with his own will while in the flesh. This seems to agree with Paul’s words in vss. 18-19, 22-23 and the last portion of vs. 25.
- Paul’s purpose has been to show the hopeless condition of a good man under the Law. The flesh is too weak, sin is too powerful. So, Paul exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (vs. 24) While Paul has applied this to himself, his intent was to convince his fellow Jewish Christians that they were not justified by the Law… they couldn’t be.
- Man’s hope? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vs. 25). While Paul summarizes his former struggle at the end of vs. 25, he will return to the solution in chapter 8. Christ has freed us from this body of flesh, by giving us the Spirit!
- Note: each of us can identify with Paul’s struggle in this passage, but I would ask you to remember that Paul was speaking of his inner conflict under the Law, not in Christ. Christians will continue to have some struggles, even sin, but being in bondage to sin is what happens outside of Christ. If we are feeling “sold under sin” (7.5) and “wretched” (7.24) something has gone terribly wrong; we’re “living in the flesh” (7.5) and not “according to the Spirit” (8.4).
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