The Letter to the Romans
Sin and the Law Romans 7:1-12
In Romans chapter seven, Paul deals with the fundamental inadequacy of the divine Law to deliver us from sinning in daily life. In this chapter, Paul speaks to those who have known the Law, to those who had experienced being under the rules and regulations of the old covenant (7:1). For the most part he was referring to Jews and perhaps those Gentiles who had voluntarily taken it upon them selves to follow the lifestyle that God prescribed in the old covenant. In this chapter Paul shows why Law and right moral values, as good as they are, are not sufficient to deliver us from sinning.
Now for us who accept Paul’s letter as God’s inspired scripture, it is difficult to appreciate the radical nature of Paul’s words in this chapter. at he said was perceived as rank heresy by the Jewish religious leaders of his time. A little background on the typical Jewish view of God’s Law might help us to under-stand just how radical Paul really was.
The Jews viewed the Law as divine in origin; therefore, it provided imperishable light and was the source of all wisdom, since it showed Israel the way to live a holy life. Since the Law was divine, it would last forever as God’s holy standard and it would never pass away. The Law was seen as a source of spiritual life, paving the way to God and a fulfilling life. Most of all, the Law was the supreme manifestation of God’s grace to Israel, that she and she alone was chosen out of all the nations. Thus the Law made Israel holy and functioned to set her apart and keep her morally pure from the sinfulness of the nations. It was the Law that marked Israel out from all the nations as God’s special possession, as the object of God’s special favor. Many Jews believed that the Gentile nations were characterized by sin, not Israel, the people of God.
Paul’s View of the Law
In contrast, Paul argues that the Law was not eternal, but temporary, and that the Jews had to die to the Law and so come out from under the authority of the old covenant. Although the Law was divine in origin and did show Israel the path of life, nevertheless it became a way of death for her. According to one ancient Jewish writer, the Law was given that we might hear fruit to God, but Paul argues that it is only by dying to the Law that we might hear fruit to God (7:4). The Law, instead of being the source of spiritual life it was intended to be, inadvertently became the means of hearing fruit for spiritual death. So it became necessary to die to the Law.
To die to the Law is to be released from its authority, just as when you die physically you are no longer subject to obey the Laws of the country of which you are a member. The very idea of dying to the Law would have sounded blasphemous to the Jew, who would have seen the Law as eternal, imperishable and life-giving. Why would one die to a covenant that was conceived to be the perfect revelation of God that produced spiritual life for those who were within its bounds? In fact, the Law produced the occasion for sinful passions to bear fruit for death, not the fruit of God (7:5).
Israel’s problem was that she did not perceive how serious her problem with sinning actually was. The vast majority of Jews thought they obeyed the Law pretty well, maybe not perfectly, but certainly a whole lot better than the "sinners" in the nations around them. The Jews did not see themselves as powerless and helpless before the awesome power of sin. The Jews did not see that they were in a state of spiritual captivity, just as they had been physically in captivity in Babylon more than five hundred years before.
Israel thought her problem was the Gentile nations around her, an oppressor which was external to her. But Paul shows in Romans 7 that the real problem is in the human heart. Paul shows that Israel, far from being different from the rest of the human race, actually was an example of the hopelessness of the human condition under sin’s/Satan’s power. Paul’s concern in Romans 7, therefore, is to demonstrate that the Jewish view of the Law and human ability to keep the Law are fundamentally in error, since the Jews were really in spiritual captivity to sin.
I have spent so much space discussing the Jewish background to this chapter so that we can more fully appreciate what Paul had to deal with at the time he was writing. It is important to know what Paul originally meant because it is only on the basis of that original meaning that we can figure out what the significance is for us in our daily living. We can approach the Scriptures to find out the precise original meaning, or we can approach it as a guide to daily living. Both are valid, but the first provides the authoritative basis for the second.
Why Die to the Law?
In Romans 7:1-4 Paul is speaking to those who have had some experience living under the old covenant, namely the Jews. The Jews were "married" to the Law, that is, they were obligated to observe it until death, just as marriage was designed to be "until death do you part." Only death could break the obligation of the Jews to observe the old covenant Law, only death could break its authority over them. So Paul brings up the necessity of dying to the Law. But why did the old covenant need to come to an end? After all, doesn’t it teach us good moral values? What went wrong with a Law that God Himself had made? That is the question which the rest of chapter seven is designed to answer.
In verses five and six and, in fact, the whole rest of the chapter, Paul explains why it is that the Jew must be released from the authority of the Law. But if we were never Jews, and were never under the Law, how can this chap-ter have any significance for us? Although we were never under old covenant law, we were always under the law of conscience, the inner voice God put within our hearts so that we might know right from wrong. And all of us have violated that conscience over and over again.
Although we may not have known the particulars of God’s holy law, nevertheless we all knew right and wrong in basic outline. In fact, one might say that Israel is just a specific example of what humanity is like as a whole. Humanity might complain that God had never revealed the right way to them, but even when God did reveal His law to a specific nation, they immediately went out and broke it by worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32). So Israel’s problem with the Law is just a specific example of humanity’s problem with God.
In the second half of verse four, Paul states why the Jews had to the to the Law, why their spiritual union to the Law had to he broken. They had to be released from their vow to obey an out-ward external law of commands written on stone so they might belong to or be joined to one who would be the true Law within them, that is, Christ, Himself. Only in this way would they be able to bear spiritual fruit for God.
The Jews thought that the Law was God’s definitive and final revelation of His will. But that is not the case. The written Law is like a painting of a per-son, a fine portrait but, nevertheless, only a copy which points to the One who is the Ultimate Reality. So no merely external law can ever be an adequate revelation of God’s will and character.
Only a person can express God’s personhood and will. That is why the Law needs to he within us, written on our hearts as the prophet Jeremiah put it (Jeremiah 31:31-34), rather than on tablets of stone. We must be married or spiritually joined not to an external Law but to a person, to the One Person of the universe who expresses Himself though us and in us. He is Law itself, for the Law is merely the written revelation of who He is. And when the One who is Perfect Law lives His life through us, we bear His fruit and express His nature.
What is the "Flesh"?
On the other hand, in verse five Paul describes what life was like under old covenant Law. First he says, "when we were in the flesh…." The word were refers to a condition in the past which is no longer true for the believer in the pre-sent. So whatever it means to be "in the flesh," it is something that can no longer be true of the believer. The word flesh has several different meanings depending upon the context in which the word is used. We must remember that it is ultimately not a dictionary that deter-mines the meaning of a word, but how the word is actually used in a sentence. It is the surrounding words in the sentence that give a word its meaning. The word flesh can refer to the soft parts of the body as opposed to the hones, or it can simply refer to the body as whole. Paul does not have these ideas in mind here, since it is very evident that believers are still in the body, and Paul is describing a condition which is no longer true of us.
Third, flesh can refer to our humanity as a whole: that which is weak, erring and mortal, in contrast to God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and immortal. Paul certainly does have this understanding of flesh in mind here, for he wishes to convey the powerlessness of human beings before the power of sin and to portray how the Law is unable to effectively deliver us from sin’s grasp.
But that definition is not all that Paul means by the word flesh. In Paul’s writings at least, the term flesh also has the meaning of sinful opposition to God, a connotation of hostility towards and rebellion against God that has characterized humanity since the fall of Adam and Eve. In Romans 8:7 Paul says that "the mind of the flesh (sinful rebellious humanity) is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s Law, nor can it do so. Those in the flesh cannot please God." Notice the last phrase: cannot please God. Those who are in the condition of sinful humanity are powerless to please God in any form whatsoever. In Gal. 5:17 Paul says the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit. So flesh is sinful humanity in rebellion against God.
But as we shall see, the Cross delivers humanity from sin, which is Satan’s law. Since a law is basically how a thing works, sin is the law by which Satan operates in the world. Satan’s law is to oppose God and rebel against whatever God has declared Himself to be. Since God has declared that He cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), Satan became the father of lies (John 8:44). Not possessing a true nature of his own, he could only express what God was in reverse, by rebelling against God. Satan, and therefore sin, can never be a truly creative force, for it can only define itself in opposition to something else. For if there is nothing for sin to rebel against, how can that rebellion be expressed? This is why sin requires the Law to exist in order to express itself.
But what flesh cannot mean is an internal sinful human nature that continues somehow to exist inside the believer once they become a Christian. The reason that this cannot be true is that Paul clearly refers in Romans 7:5 to a condition in the past, to a condition which he assumes to be no longer true for the Christian. If it is in the past, then we cannot continue to be in that condition. Therefore, flesh does not refer to some evil nature that Christians continue to fight against within themselves. No, flesh refers to humanity as a result of the fall, to humanity operated by Satan in rebellion against God. Thus although Christians continue to he flesh in the sense that we have a physical body, we are no longer flesh in the sense of belonging to sinful humanity operated by Satan.
Why Do We Sin?
When we were in the flesh, that is when we were operated by Satan (see Eph. 2:2-3), the Law aroused sinful passions in us that bore fruit for death. Passions are just another word for desires, and they refer to what motivate or drive us as persons. In fact, desire or passion is fundamental to being a spiritual being. The word spirit, or ruach in Hebrew, refers to a strong powerful wind which moved across the desert. So our spirit is what moves us or motivates us into action. Desire is at the root of action, and our choices and actions follow our desires. If we have the wrong desires, we will have sinful actions. In this chapter Paul is not just interested in how we have violated the Law in our actions, rather he is interested in the root of all our sinful actions–in what motivated us to act the way we did. The root is desire or spirit. Because we had the wrong spirit dwelling within us, we did his desires (John 8:44).
Paul says that these sinful passions were at work in our bodies. The word for "at work in" refers to a spiritual power which operates within a person. The same word is used in Eph. 2:2 to refer to Satan operating or at work in the children of disobedience. Satan is the source of those sinful desires which are at work in the sinner. These passions are at work in the body because the body is the means by which those desires are expressed in actions. Without the body, we cannot do any-thing, we can perform no actions. With the spirit we desire, with the soul we think, plan or reason out how to carry out that desire, and with the body we perform the action. Spirit, Soul, Body: Desire, Thought, Deed.
According to James, evil desire gives birth to sin and sin gives birth to death, just as according to Paul, sinful passions bear fruit for death. Now Paul and James do not mean merely physical death, but eternal death. Their point is that if we live a life filled with sinful actions which are the fruit of having Satan’s desires operate within us, then we shall receive the consequences of our actions–eternal separation from God. We cannot escape the law of con-sequences–God will give to each according to what he has done (Rom. 2:6).
But if we only have an external Law, and not the One who is the Law dwelling within us, we will inevitably produce sinful actions which will inevitably lead to eternal death. This is why Paul insisted on the necessity of dying to the Law. The Law, though intended for Israel’s blessing, actually became the means by which Satan/sin brought the curse of death to Israel (Gal 3:10). So Israel had to be delivered from the curse which the external law pronounced upon her as well as from the power of sin.
Verse six stands in direct contrast to what was the case in verse five. By dying to what once bound them, the Jews who believed were released from the requirement to fulfill the old covenant Law, and therefore from its curse. They could now serve God in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the letter. The "letter" refers to the external law outside the human heart, powerless to expel the old spirit of Satan and powerless to remove his evil desires from our hearts.
But the old Law is replaced not by a new set of rules or moral values, but by a person, the Spirit of God, who lives out through us His own Law, the law of his own moral character, since He is the true Law. But we Gentiles were never under the Law in the sense of the old covenant. Nevertheless all human beings are under some form of law in so far as we have a rudimentary understanding of right and wrong, and many of us have much more than that. And all of us who are Christians, despite our attempts to keep God’s Law and live up to His perfect moral standard, have invariably found out that we could not do so. So at some level we all need to be delivered from external law, even if we never had to come out from under the authority of the old covenant as the Jews did.
Is the Law Sinful?
Now all this talk of dying to the Law immediately provokes a reaction from Paul’s opponents: If the Law arouses sinful passions in us, is it then something sinful? (Rom. 7:7). How could something as good and holy as God’s Law arouse sinful passions in us? It is as if Paul were turning the Law into something invented by Satan, or at least that is what his opponents were accusing him of. Although we must die to external law, law itself is not the problem. Rather it is that indwelling spirit of sin or Satan which is the problem and which must be removed from us. We must be delivered from his coveting and desiring of the wrong things in our spirits.
It is not that we must be delivered from desire as such, for we are spirit and we were created to desire. We cannot help but desire. But the spirit which indwells us determines which direction our desire will go, whether we shall express the divine character through our desire, or whether we will express Satan’s rebellion against God’s character in our actions. So Paul emphatically denies that he equates the Law with something sinful.
Instead he says that it was only through the Law that we became conscious of sin (7:7). The Law defined what sin was and therefore gave Satan the opportunity to express his rebellion through our humanity. Unless God expresses His will, Satan/sin has nothing to rebel against. Without law, there-fore, Satan is powerless to express him self. That is why Satan does not appear in the Garden of Eden in Gen. 3 until God gives the command to Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan cannot oppose God with-out the Law to rebel against. But when Law is given, Satan/sin seizes the opportunity to express himself by producing all sorts of covetous desires within us.
Is the Problem a Sinful Human Nature?
But if sin is really Satan expressing his rebellion through us, how can we be held responsible for what he does? Wouldn’t it be better to say that God can hold us responsible for our sins because we have a sinful human nature–that it’s "just us" who are doing the sins, and not Satan? After all, we don’t want to give anyone the excuse that "the devil made me do it." But the problem of human responsibility for sin is not so easily resolved. It is no better to say that a sinful nature made me do it than to say that "the devil made me do it."
If I am born with this supposed "sin nature" or "sin principle" and I inevitably sin because of it, how can I be held responsible for what I do? Since this "sin principle" is not part of me as created by God, how can I be held responsible for what it produces in me any more than I can be held responsible for what Satan does through me? And just what is this sin principle anyway? What is its relationship to the devil? It seems to me that some irrational and impersonal principle is being substituted for a spiritual being who stands in personal opposition to God, a concept which I can grasp.
Slaves to Sin, but Responsible
So if it is Satan who is the spiritual power of sin, the spirit which produces his covetous desires in us and motivates us to commit sinful actions, how can we be held responsible for what we do? Actually Paul has already answered this question in Romans 6:15-23. There he says that when we offer ourselves to someone to obey them as slaves, we become slaves to the one we obey. You see, we are not helpless slaves of the devil apart from our free choice, rather we become enslaved to the devil through our own choice.
When Adam broke God’s command, Satan entered in and took over, since by his disobedience Adam offered himself as a slave to Satan. From the time we were infants we have followed Adam’s example and with each new encounter with Law, we made a decision whether to obey or disobey. Each choice had consequences, and we became more and more deeply enslaved to the choice we were making.
So enslavement to sin happens to us not apart from our choice but in and through our own choices. We just don’t realize that we are being enslaved and we especially don’t realize that we are being enslaved by a spiritual being who is taking us over. Satan’s enslavement of us is the consequence of ours and Adam’s choices. Because of that we can be held fully responsible for all that Satan produces in us. We agree and in fact love what Satan does through us until the Spirit of God comes along and convicts us, giving us a new perspective on what we have done. By convicting us and leading us to hate what we have done, God grants us repentance and the opportunity to escape the trap of the devil who has taken us captive to do his will (2 Tim. 2:25-26).
So in Romans 7:8 Paul asserts that sin or Satan seizes the opportunity that the Law provides and produces in us every kind of covetous desire. How does the Law provide an opportunity for sin? Because without the Law, sin has nothing against which to express its rebellious nature. Without the expression of God’s will, sin is dead, inoperative, dormant. Like a seed in the desert that does not have the necessary water to sprout, so sin cannot express itself without Law. But if rain should come, even hundreds of years later, the true nature of the seed will express itself, jut as Satan will reveal his true colors when he encounters divine Law.
So when the Law was given to Israel, the sinful rebellion against God was provoked into expression within her. The Law exposed Satan! And when the Law came, Israel immediately fell as Adam did when she sinned with the golden calf. Just as the serpent deceived Adam and Eve with the fruit, so sin deceived Israel with the golden calf, making disobedience appear desirable in the eyes of the Israelites. So when Paul says he was alive apart from the Law (Rom. 7:9-11), he is really referring to the time when Israel had a relationship with God before they received any commands from God.
So the Law provided Satan, hidden and unexposed until this time, with the opportunity to express His rebellion against God. Just as he is the misuser of all things good, so he misuses the good and holy Law to express His hostility toward God. He does this by presenting disobedience to us as though God were depriving us of something good for us, just as he convinced Eve that God was withholding something that was desirable for gaining wisdom (Gen. 3:6). In this manner sin deceives us (Rom. 7:11), by presenting what is evil as if it were something good. Though the commandment was intended to provide life for the people of God, sin/Satan misused the Law and turned it to an evil end. Through the Law, Satan brought all humanity under a sentence of eternal death.
Paul concludes that the Law is not the problem, being holy, just and good (7:12). The problem is sin or Satan, whose hostile opposition to God causes him to turn God’s Law to evil ends. But Satan’s misuse of the Law is not the last word, for all that Satan does ultimately fits within God’s plan of redemption.
God allows us to experience the full consequences of our wrong choice, to experience enslavement to the devil in all its horrible depth, that we might see the wrongness of our decision and repent. Thus it is through the experience of the wrong and sinful that we come to appreciate the right and the good, and all the misuse that Satan does will be turned to good within God’s plan.
In the next article I shall explore 7:13-25, in which Paul presents us with a vivid picture of our addiction to sin in all its forms, and shows us why the Law and right moral values are inadequate as an answer.