What Paul writes in chapter 7 of the books of Romans is so radical that if someone read or heard it without knowing who wrote it they might wonder what kind of godless anarchist the author was.
When reading the Bible, context is king. Nowhere is this more true than in the seventh chapter of the book of Romans. What Paul writes in this chapter is so radical that if someone read or heard it without having read the earlier chapters it would astound them and they would wonder what kind of godless anarchist Paul was, for in this chapter Paul teaches that we are free from the law of God.
But Paul is no anarchist and he certainly is not godless as the earlier portions of his letter make clear.
In the first few chapters of this epistle, Paul has explained that when God judges the work of our lives, we always come up short. There is no one who is righteous, no one deserving of heaven or any kind of reward.
That is not certainly true of the pagans whose ancestors abandoned the true God and substituted gods more like themselves, corrupted by their power, arbitrary, capricious and able to be manipulated. Paul blasts them for their foolishness and immorality.
But then he shows that even those who have known the true God and have been governed by his laws fail in many ways to serve and obey him. Their lives are marked by the same evils that mark the lives of unbelievers. Paul concludes that no one is righteous in God’s eyes. God’s law always condemns them.
But there is a way for anyone to become righteous. Christ, the Word of God, by whom God made the heavens and the earth, became accountable for our evil and was executed for our sins. Because of this, God can justly declare anyone not guilty. Those who hear God’s verdict and accept it receive its benefits: their faith is counted as righteousness, they are reconciled with God, and there is peace between them and God.
But there is more. God not only declares us righteous; he actually begins to make us righteous. We cannot live forever as we are, for sin brings death even when God has forgiven it, and heaven would not be heaven if the people who lived in it were still as prone to evil as we are. Because sin is part of our heritage and has corrupted our very nature, making us righteous requires that we be remade both spiritually and physically. God accomplishes this regeneration by joining us with Christ in baptism so that we share in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In chapter 6, Paul says that we should be struggling against sin because we have died to it. Just as God has declared us righteous and we are therefore becoming righteous (because everything that God says happens), when we were baptized God declared us dead, emancipating us from our slavery to sin. He also joined us with Christ and to the power that raised him from the dead, so that we might live before him in righteousness and faith.
At present this work is only partially done. Our bodies and the physical structures and cultural conditioning that shape our thoughts and emotions have yet to be changed. They will remain with us until we die. But spiritually, we are already animated by the life of Christ that was given us in baptism. God’s Holy Spirit has been poured out on us and dwells within us that we might serve God.
As a result, Christians often experience the kind of struggles that Paul describes in chapter 7 of Romans. He writes:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.Romans 7:15,18
Sin no longer rules over us, but some days it makes us miserable, and some days we lose the battle. We find ourselves doing things we had no intention of doing or failing to do things that we knew that we should be doing.
On those days we do well to remember what God has done. That our faith is counted as righteousness and that the righteousness God has spoken into existence will become as real and certain and tangible as the ground we walk on. It is in this faith that we soldier on and continue our struggle against sin.
Surprisingly, the law of God can actually work against us in this struggle. The reason is that God’s commandments not only show us our sins, they actually awaken sin and intensify it. Paul writes:
I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.Romans 7:7b-11
For the natural man there is no power that counteracts this effect of the law except their fear of the consequences of disobedience or the hope of immediate reward.
Parents understand this because they have seen it in action. When I was very young my mother and father lived in a trailer in the vicinity of Ft. Wood where I was born. The boundary of the trailer’s yard was marked by white stones. One day my mother put me down in the yard, told me to not to go beyond the stone. Then she went back into the trailer and looked out the window. What do you think she saw? You’re right! She saw me clambering over the rocks toward freedom. She came back out of the trailer and acquainted me with the consequences of such disobedience. I soon learned to stay inside the line formed by the stones.
That doesn’t mean that the tendency to do the opposite of what I was told died that day. It is in fact still there within me, as it was in Paul, and it is still within you. As we grow taller, we learn to look over our shoulder and check whether Mom is watching. As we get older, we begin to balance the benefits we think we will get from our disobedience against the penalties we’ll incur if we are discovered. But God’s penalties are death and hell and God is always watching. Yet we still disobey him.
The result of this is that God’s commandments teach us right from wrong, but they do not help us do what is right. In fact, they have the opposite effect. They incite disobedience. Worse, trying harder, makes it harder yet and can lead to frustration and then to hatred of God and his seemingly impossible expectations.
But God does not expect us to live in perfect conformity to his commandments, he expects us to trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ and to believe that God has declared us righteous for his sake. In fact, when God declared us dead and buried us with Christ in baptism, he released us from our obligation to the law. Paul writes:
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 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. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.Romans 7:4-6
The life that we live as Christians, we live by faith that Christ lives and works through us. Each day we offer ourselves to God for his service knowing that there are good things that he has prepared for us to do and that he will reward us for doing them, even if they are done poorly.
I once heard Al Berry tell a story about working in his garden on a hot day. His young grandson who was with him went into the house to get a drink and brought a glass out to him. “Here, Poppi,” he said, “I brought you a drink.” As he took the glass Berry noticed it was marked with mud from his grandson’s dirty fingers, but he took the glass and drank it and let the cool water refresh him because it had been given him by his grandson. In much the same way, Berry said, God accepts our works, imperfect though they may be. He does so because he loves us, and we love him and that’s all that really matters.
So, because we have died with Christ, we are free from the law, but we are not free to sin. We have been freed from the requirements of the law so that we can serve God in love and please him imperfect as we are. We’ll have more to say about that life of faith and service and about the Spirit who makes it possible in the weeks ahead. Until then may God comfort you with this word of grace. May you remember that your sins are forgiven and that your heavenly Father loves you more than you can possibly know. Amen.