The Letter to the Romans



22. Death and The Law


Romans 7:1-6


In Romans six, Paul explains that when we are born again we literally come alive spiritually and die to sin. In other words, we pass from being "in Adam" to being "in Christ". Our identities change; our capabilities and desires change; we have new power from the Holy Spirit.

Now, in chapter seven, Paul goes a step further; he explains that not only have we died to sin in Christ, but we have also died to the law. He introduces chapter seven by calling his readers "brothers"-a term of family identity and solidarity. Peter first called his fellow believers "brothers" in Acts 1:15-16 when the disciples met to select a replacement for Judas. Throughout the New Testament, believers addressed each other as "brothers", validating in each other the reality that in Christ, they were all adopted into God's family.

Paul uses an illustration from marriage to explain that now, as children of God and brothers in Christ, believers are no longer under the law. He explains that law binds a woman to her husband as long as he is alive. Only if her husband dies is the woman released from the authority of the law governing marriage and is freed to marry another man. As long as both parties in a marriage are alive, the law has absolute authority over their status. Further, the law's effect is permanent-unless someone dies and thus releases the involved parties from the control of the law.

In this passage, Paul is saying that the law defines human relationships and sets the standards by which those relationships must operate. Even if people wish to deviate from the standard practices of their contracts and covenants, the law holds them accountable and responsible for fulfilling their obligations. Law trumps human desires and holds people to a higher standard. 1 Corinthians 7:39 confirms the legal authority which governs marriage, and Luke 16:18 alludes to the law's moral authority over marriage.

In other words, in an unregenerate world, law is the power that controls society and inter-personal relationships. Law defines the conditions of relationships and the behaviors that are appropriate. It is the authority which declares a person to be good and obedient or out of compliance and worthy of punishment. Only by dying can a person be released from the controlling, defining power of the law.

Law, in fact, is so powerful and intimately involved in people's lives that Paul personifies it in verse four: "So, my bothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God." In other words, just as it takes the death of a husband to release a woman from the law so she can marry another, so a Christ-follower dies in Jesus and emerges as a new person who is released from the law and is free to belong to Christ instead. As a born again Christian, a person inherits the reality of Jesus' death. Jesus' death paid the penalty the law required, and his death becomes the Christian's ransom from the control and restriction of the law.

Because we have died to the law, we can now be loyal to a new authority: to Jesus himself. No longer do we look to external dogmas or creeds to direct our behavior. Jesus now lives in us by means of the Holy Spirit, and he prompts us from within to live holy lives. The law and its message of condemnation is no longer our authority. We now belong to Jesus.

Before Jesus' death, all mankind were "prisoners of the law. We were under its supervision, and we were locked up by the law, held as prisoners by its external restraint until Christ came. (see Galatians 3:22-25) When Jesus came, however, he fulfilled the law and paid the penalty for sin. He accomplished in himself all that God required of humanity. His death satisfied the law's demands of death for sin, and his resurrection released us from the bondage of mortality and gave us freedom to live in Christ. We now answer to the One who was stronger than the law, who fulfilled it where we could not. Jesus is our authority instead of the written code.


Death to Sin and the Law

Paul's linking our death to sin with our death to the law prompts a question: how are sin and law related that we belong to both of them (and die to them both) at the same time? Paul emphasizes that the law is "holy, righteous and good" (v. 12). How, then, is this righteous revelation from God something to which we die?

In Romans 3:10-20 Paul begins to explain this phenomenon. Absolutely everyone is born in sin and lives under its power until they accept Jesus' sacrifice and his righteousness. The law, which reveals God's holy requirements for his creatures, speaks to everyone in their sinful condition. It reveals what sin looks like, and it awakens those blind in their natural states to the reality that there is a standard outside themselves that condemns their natural behavior and demands something better.

The law brings wrath, Paul says in Romans 4:14-15. Without knowledge of the law's requirements, people are not guilty of transgressing it specifically, even though they are born dead in sin. When a person discovers the law, however, the sin in his life becomes identified, and he learns that he is hopelessly flawed. He cannot meet the law's standards, and he realizes he is doomed to die. Even if a person tries to meet the law's standards, he can never do it adequately. As long as a person relies on the law as his standard for living and his means of perfecting himself, he is under a curse (Galatians 3:10-12), because the law condemns to death those who do not keep it perfectly.

God gave the law to awaken humanity to the reality of their deeply sinful natures. He gave it to make people desire to be different, and he also gave it to provide an external control on people to keep them from blindly plunging recklessly deeper into sin. The law awakened guilt and a sense of desperation; in fact, its purpose was to drive humans to the point of despair over their own inability to live righteous lives. It pushed people to know they needed a Savior. (Galatians 3:23-24)

The law was a written outline of the righteous requirements of the sovereign God. It was necessary in order to bring people to the awareness that they do not define themselves; they are under the authority of Someone far greater. The law, however, could not bring people into a relationship with this Someone any more than reading a list of my house rules could introduce my sons to me. The law could bring people to a point of longing to know the One whose purity and standards promised a life of peace that they had never experienced, but it was only a promise-a shadow of a reality they could not yet know personally.

Until Jesus came, died, and rose again, people's sin kept them bound to the law and its curse. Jesus' sacrifice satisfied the law's requirements, and his blood opened a way for people to know God. Jesus' death released humanity from the inevitable curse of death and provides a way for all to be born again and to be freed from the authority of the impersonal law. When people are in Christ, they are no longer managed by the written rules; they are under the power and authority of God himself who lives in them.


Fruit for Death or Fruit for God?

By defining the behaviors that are the result of evil, the law made people conscious of sin. That consciousness of sin made people think about wrongdoing more than they ever did before the law came. By pondering the things that they knew to be unlawful, people began to long to do those forbidden deeds. The law actually increased people's thoughts about sin and also their acting out on those thoughts. The law literally increased sin in humanity. (See Romans 7:7-11)

Before our death to the law and our rebirth in Christ, we "bore fruit for death." Fruit for death includes all the self-serving and self-destructive activities which our human natures can devise: immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, "and the like." (see Galatians 5:19-21) Fruit for death also includes invisible sin-our alienation from God because in our minds we are his enemies. (Colossians 1:21) This enmity bears spiritual fruit for death as well: false humility, the worship of angels, idle notions, false dreams and visions, observance of ascetic rules forbidding eating and touching certain foods or objects-all of which appear noble and holy but "lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Colossians 2:18-23) Fruit for death also includes sins of omission including refusing to help the hungry, thirsty, or needy. (see Matthew 25:41-46)

Our death to the law, however, is not merely a legal transfer of guilt and penalty. It's vital that we remember that Jesus took the pain in his own body and paid the cost for our release. Jesus voluntarily offered himself to be beaten, mocked, spit upon, and tortured (see Isaiah 50:6) He suffered and was despised and rejected. (Isaiah 53:2-6) The new, living way we have to the Father is literally Jesus' blood; the barrier that protected us from God's wrath and righteous judgment was Jesus' body. When Jesus took the torture and the black death of separation from God, the curtain that veiled us from God's most holy presence was torn away. Jesus was the veil that protected us by separating us from the Father's wrath and holiness; his torn body removed that separation and restored us to peace with God. (see Hebrews 10:19-22)

When we have died to the law and belong instead to Jesus, a new life begins for us. We begin to bear fruit for God instead of for death. We are set free from death so we can become "slaves to God" and reap holiness and eternal life. (Romans 6: 22) When we belong to Jesus, we are controlled by the Holy Spirit instead of by our sinful natures. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from death dwells in us and "gives life to [our] mortal bodies." (Romans 8:9-11) While we are still in our mortal state with our yet-unredeemed bodies, the Holy Spirit begins to change us and fill us with the power and the life of God. He begins to produce God's work in us and to give us God's thoughts and understanding. Our lives begin to reflect the new covenant reality that Jesus said would be our marching orders from him: loving one another as He himself loved us. (John 13:34) All the commandments of the Old Testament can are summarized in the new commandment Jesus gave us: we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. "Love is the fulfillment of the law." (Romans 13: 9-10)

This humanly impossible requirement to love one another as Jesus loved us becomes reality because God answers Jesus' prayer for us. He asked the Father to put the love He has for his Son into our hearts. Further, he promised that He would be in us, and his prayer for us was that, as a result of God sharing himself with us, we would be one with one another and with God just as He and the Father are one. (John 17:20-21, 25-26)

Belonging to Jesus means literally that God makes his dwelling in us and places God's own love for Jesus into our hearts. We are no longer our own; we are born anew of the Spirit, and we live in and for God. As we begin to realize and rely on the presence of the Spirit in us, we begin to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Our Father himself disciplines us so we can share in his holiness; His work in us produces righteousness and peace. (Hebrews 12:10-11) Further, whenever our hearts condemn us with discouragement or guilt, we can know that we belong to God because His love is in us. He is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:18-20), and he has made them captive to him.

When we "serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code," we learn to live by faith in Jesus. Instead of taking charge of our lives and deciding to straighten up by resolving to change, we learn to surrender the issues in our lives to Jesus. By faith we understand that through Jesus the "righteous requirements of the law" have already been met in Jesus and credited to us by the Holy Spirit's indwelling and putting in us the very presence of Christ. (Romans 8:3-4) This reality does not destroy our still-sinful bodies and minds, but it does give us new power and possibilities. When the Holy Spirit fills us, we finally have the capability of living by faith. Unlike the past in which living in sin was an inescapable reality, we now can choose to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Our mortal bodies with their sinful natures and self-absorption are still present. They conflict with the truth the Holy Spirit gives us (Galatians 5:16-18), but now we can choose to follow the Spirit instead of falling victim to our sinful selves.

We can actually be re-enslaved by refusing to follow the Spirit and by returning to rituals and laws for our guides to "righteous" living. We have been set free for the sake of freedom (Galatians 5:1), and we must treasure and guard that freedom by allowing the Holy Spirit to empower us not to turn back to the "easy way" of performance and law-keeping. (See Galatians 4:8-11) Turning back to the law once we have known Jesus betrays his sacrifice for us. The law, as we have seen, increases sin in our lives by its continuous reminders and prohibitions. The Spirit, on the other hand, calls us to live in the freedom of walking with Jesus. By following after the Spirit instead of succumbing to our sinful natures' pulls on us, we can live above envy, conceit, and the arrogance of thinking we can regulate our own purity. Instead of returning to the legalism that enmeshes us in sin, we can choose to say "Yes!" to the Holy Spirit and reap the fruit he plants in us: love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:16-18, 24-25)

In Christ we are new creations born of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:17). God makes us alive while we are still dead in our sins, and he transforms us into people who reflect Jesus. In Jesus we die to the world's principles of asceticism and religious rituals and observances. In spite of the apparent merit of strict requirements and prohibitions, they do nothing to change our tastes and drives or our characters. We are not to submit to these things. (Colossians 2:13-14, 20-23) Instead, we are called to fasten our eyes on Jesus and to follow the Holy Spirit's leading in our lives.

Following the Holy Spirit requires risk. Instead of planning our lives and working to accomplish our goals, we surrender, piece by piece, the elements of our lives to God as He makes us aware of His will for us. He begins to heal our hearts' wounds by asking us to face honestly the truths about our lives. He makes us aware of our character flaws and begins to ask us to surrender our natural impulses to indulge ourselves or to be defensive by choosing instead to trust Him at the moments of temptation or attack.

The Holy Spirit has the power to change us. The law has no such power, and we cannot accomplish our own sanctification by trying to observe the law. Our call is to surrender to Jesus and to allow the Holy Spirit in us to change us as we give up our "rights" to self-protection.



God is calling you to complete surrender. The areas in your life where you struggle with sin, anxiety, anger, and fear are the areas Jesus wishes to heal with his resurrection power and victory. You may not be consciously living by the law, but in whatever areas you struggle with trying to "fix" yourself or with trying to bolster your self-discipline, you may be functioning under the principle of the law rather than faith.

Almost always, something bigger than we can see underlies our compulsions and temptations and habitual sins. Almost always, we cannot truly overcome habits, addictions, rage, defensiveness, passive-aggression, laziness, depression, or any other character flaw by resolving to change. The only true hope we have for becoming victorious over the things that cripple us is to surrender those habits and reactions to Jesus.

Even though our destructive habits frustrate and even paralyze us, it feels far less threatening to decide to discipline and "treat" ourselves than to surrender to Jesus our right to have those weaknesses and defense mechanisms. Nothing less than surrender, however, will yield victory. When we are in Christ, he begins to show us the things in our lives that stand between us and intimacy with him. As we begin to acknowledge the habits that we continue to control-or at least reserve the right to have-the Holy Spirit clarifies that our growth in Jesus demands that we surrender those habits to Him.

Walking by faith instead of living under the law translates into being willing to surrender reactions, defense mechanism, and habits that we have used to manage our lives. Living in the Spirit requires us to trust Jesus enough to let go of things that feel as if they are organic parts of ourselves if He shows us they are standing in the way of being intimate with Him.

After we accept Jesus, if we continue to live by the law we back away from allowing Jesus alone to shape and direct us and our experiences. After the Holy Spirit comes to live in us, he calls us to deeper and more abandoned trust. Learning to live by the Spirit feels like a risk because we begin to surrender things that define us and on which we depend for security. Yet it is that very surrender of our supposed security that bringsmjh true security: trusting Jesus to provide for and to care for us instead of spinning our wheels trying to manage our circumstances.

Ask God to show you what he wants you to know about yourself that you can't clearly see. Ask Him to give you His courage and wisdom to know what to surrender to Him, accepting His strength and love in the place of your cherished habits. Ask Jesus to teach you the truth you haven't been able or willing to know. Ask Him to be more real to you than your fear, and ask Him to fill your heart with his peace and strength as you risk trusting Him with the things He is asking you to give up to him.

Praise God for making us His children! Praise Jesus for making it possible to restore us to life and eternity with Him. Praise the Holy Spirit for working out in us the love and holiness of God.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Copyright (c) 2004 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted April 17, 2004.
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