Notes from a small group study
Sources: MacArthur Study Bible, NIV
The Grace of God: A Journey of Discovery in Romans, by Alan Perkins
Romans, by Thomas R. Schreiner
NIV Application Commentary: Romans, by Douglas J. Moo
In chapter 6, Paul used different analogies to explain what it means for the believer to be under grace rather than under law: spiritual death vs. eternal life, slavery to sin vs. slavery to righteousness. In chapter 7, he gives us another analogy, comparing being under the law to being married and being under grace as having been widowed from the law.
In chapter 6, Paul has told us that believers are not under the law, but are under grace. In vv. 16-23, he denies that grace is a license to sin without restraint. Having dealt with that false view, Paul now contends that God has released Christians from the law, not so we would be free to sin, but so we would be free to serve our Lord, Jesus Christ.
1Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.
4 So, my brothers and sisters, 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 for God. 5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh,[a] the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Paul’s point is that those who have trusted in Christ have become united with Him in His death (6:3-8; 7:4) and are therefore free from the authority of the law. Paul uses as his example the law of marriage. As long as a woman’s husband is alive, she is “bound” to him—that is, she is obligated to remain faithful to him. Under the law, if she violates this by marrying another man, she is called an adulteress.
Paul is using three parallels with this illustration:
1. Under the law, the wife was under the authority of the husband; so also the Jews had been under the authority of the law.
2. Just as the husband’s death released the wife from his authority, so our death to the law through Christ has freed us from the law’s authority.
3. Just as the husband’s death freed the wife to marry another man, so our death to the law has freed us to become united with Christ.
The analogies are not perfect, since it is the husband’s death that frees the wife, while it is our own death to sin that frees us. But Paul’s point is well stated. Death frees one from the law’s authority, and we have died to sin in Christ. Therefore, Christians are free from the law’s authority.
V. 4—Paul applies this principle to the Roman Christians (“…you also died…that you might belong to another…”). He is driving home the point that being dead to the law is a practical truth for them, not just an abstract theological principle: the practical point is in this verse—“…you also died to the law through the body of Christ.” That is, Christ suffered a real bodily death on the cross, and when we became united with Him through our faith, we shared in His death also in our being dead to sin but alive in Christ. Christ’s death on the cross released us from the law. Christ’s death released us from the law so that we might belong to Him and bear fruit for Him.
That fruit is our obedient service to God, in contrast to “…fruit for death…” (v. 5), the result of sinful passions. Galatians 5:22-23 gives us the list of the fruits of the Spirit, which constitutes God’s will for every Christian: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In stressing that Christ is “…Him who was raised from the dead…,” Paul is careful not to leave his readers without emphasizing again that death is not the end. Not only did Christ die to free us from the law, but also He rose again to give us new life.
V.5—Paul explains why it was necessary for our old self to die in order to bear fruit for Christ. We were controlled by the sinful nature, and the law actually pointed out people’s sin nature to themselves. Paul held that the presence of the law actually aroused the sin nature in those controlled by the flesh.
V.6—The result of our freedom from the law is not independence, but rather a new kind of service. Our service to God is now guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, rather than guided by a list of regulations which, unlike the Holy Spirit, have no power.
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[b] 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
V.7—The law points out specific acts of disobedience and calls those acts sin. (In our culture, people prefer to call sin “a mistake” or “a character flaw.”) Paul chooses coveting (the 10th commandment, Exodus 20:17) as his example. All of the other commandments (for example, prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, etc.) could be interpreted as outward acts of sin, which possibly could be kept fully.
Matthew 19:16-22 provides an example of one coveting his wealth but having kept the other commandments:
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
The commandment against coveting demonstrates that the law has to do with the heart and not merely outward actions.
V.8—Paul speaks of sin as an active force which uses the law to produce acts of disobedience: “…for apart from the law, sin is dead…” Every parent and teacher has experienced this: nothing is more certain to motivate a child to do something than to forbid it. Disobedience comes when there is a prohibition against an act.
Vv. 9-10—Paul is remembering the time in the past when, although he was instructed in the law, he saw the law merely as a set of rules to be obeyed to obtain God’s favor. But when he considered the law against coveting, he realized the depth of his own sin. He realized that his sinful nature produced in him all kinds of coveting (v. 8) and “…sin sprang to life…” (v. 9).
V. 11—“…sin…deceived me…” There is always an element of deceit in sin. It appears attractive and causes us to overlook its eventual negative consequences.
V. 12—The law is holy, righteous, and good. In this verse, Paul answers the question he posed in v. 7 (“Is the law sinful?”). The law is not sin, but it is used by mankind’s sinful nature to produce disobedience.
V. 13—Paul now moves on to a second question: Even if the law itself is not sin, doesn’t it cause death? The assumption is that something that causes death must be evil and not good. But Paul is emphatic in denying that the law causes death. Rather, it is sin working through the law that causes death. Paul illustrates the sin nature in vv. 14-25.
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Vv. 14-25 are the source of some controversy among biblical scholars. Some hold that the subject of these verses is Paul’s experience prior to his conversion, while others hold that vv. 14-25 refer to Paul’s ongoing experience as a believer. I believe the latter to be the case. The verb tense changes from the past (vv. 8-13) to the present (vv. 14-25), indicating to me that Paul is shifting from describing his past before ‘Christ to his present experience as a Christian. In addition, in vv. 14-25 Paul emphasizes that he desires to do good. The unbeliever, being a slave to sin, would not have this as his or her objective. But the Christian would, being a slave to righteousness. Only the believer truly desires to do morally good and live in complete righteousness before God and to keep from sinful and self-serving behavior. Also, only a believer would characterize himself or herself as a wretched person (v. 24) in need of deliverance, as he or she fights with the old nature. Finally, the struggle Paul describes in this passage is a common Christian struggle with the sinful nature, as described in Galatians 5:17: “…the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh.”
While some commentators hold that vv. 14-25 must be referring to Paul’s pre-conversion life, citing the fact that nonbelievers struggle with sin, too, according to their (flawed) consciences, it is a fact that believers struggle with sin because they are no longer slaves to sin. The sinful nature struggles against the Spirit, which lives in every Christian.
V. 14—“I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin…” A better translation would be “I am fleshly” or “I am made of flesh,” emphasizing that the physical body is the instrument through which sin works.
Vv. 15-25—For the first century Christian reader who subscribed to keeping the law, this passage emphasizes the futility of using behavioral standards to please God and earn His favor. To every Christian, Paul here describes that all-too-familiar dilemma—that of conforming our thoughts and actions to the righteousness that God has declared us to possess in His sight. Conversely, those trying to live by the law find that they cannot resist sin, because the law provides no power to do so.
V. 18—A more accurate translation of this verse would be: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh.” There is no inherent righteousness in our human nature. Righteousness is imputed to us by God through Jesus, and righteous thinking and behavior does not come from our flesh, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Holy Spirit is the power in us to counteract the sinful nature of the flesh.
Vv. 24-25—“What a wretched man I am!” This is the testimony of every Christian. All of us face that constant struggle between the Spirit and the flesh. “Who will rescue me…”—probably addressed with the Christians in Rome in mind, who were trying to please God and gain His favor by obeying the law. Inevitably, they broke the law in their human efforts. V. 25 provides the answer to anyone trying to earn God’s favor through righteous behavior. It is Jesus, not our human attempts as righteous behavior, which delivers us.
Paul’s conclusion might be expressed this way: To those who minimize God’s Grace in favor of the standards of the law, it is not God they are serving but the flesh, which is the law of sin.