I've been on an exciting exploration of Romans chapters 5 to 8, which is still ongoing. (At least it's been exciting to me!) I first wrote the article that follows in June 2015. After eight months, I finally typed it up ready to post on Thursday. Then to my great surprise, the very next day, I was at a conference where a remarkably similar conclusion was reached, so maybe this is a good time to share.
I hope you enjoy my musings …
My attention was initially captured by a common theme in Matthew 5 and Romans 7.
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus did not come to lower the standard, but to raise the bar.
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
The verses that follow make it clear He is shifting the focus away from the externals to the internal realm – the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. That’s where the real battleground lies.
"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
The rich young ruler found the same thing out in a different way. He had kept all the commandments pertaining to externals, and yet he was dissatisfied – something was missing, and he did not have the assurance of having obtained eternal life. Jesus’ response to him pinpointed the internal matters of the heart, where the young man was a captive (the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth – Matthew 13:22):
Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. (Mark 10:21-22)
Now in Romans 7:7-25 Paul describes his own revelation – that the Law addressed the matters of his internal thoughts and desires and not just externals – and that as a result he found himself unable to live up to its requirements.
I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Romans 7:7-11)
Paul goes on to give an intimate portrait of his struggle with sin. In verses 15-20 he writes:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practising what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate ... So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
But here’s the key, I believe, to making sense of this passage: Romans 7:7-25 must be read in context. In verses 1 to 6, Paul’s crucial message is that we have died to the Law:
- Verse 4 – you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
- Verse 6 – But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
Thus Romans 7:7-25 is parenthetical, sandwiched between verses 1 to 6 and chapter 8, with the clear message that we have now died to the Law and that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:2)
We therefore have a stark choice, with no middle ground – submit to the Law and to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Colossians 2:20-21) – or submit to the promptings of the Spirit in newness of life.
So if I find myself wrestling, in the way Paul describes in Romans 7:19-23, the appropriate response is not to keep wrestling! The reason for my struggle is that I have slipped into believing again that I am still subject to the law of sin and death, which is a lie! It may have been true about me once, but not anymore. (Hence in Colossians 2:8, Paul admonishes, See that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception …)
Therefore the appropriate response is to bring my beliefs into line with what God now says about me – that I have died to the Law, been released from the Law and joined to Jesus (Romans 7:4-6). I am now in Christ, and subject to the law of the Spirit of life in Him. (See Romans 8:2.)
This is what it means to keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery, because It was for freedom that Christ set us free. (Galatians 5:1)
[All quotations from the Bible are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.]