If you ask the average unbeliever on the street who has some familiarity with the Christian faith what Christianity is about, my guess is that that person would say something about “doing good things,” “abiding by a list of rules,” “avoiding sin,” and the like. In my own experience, when I tell unbelievers that I am a pastor that often elicits a response about a number of things they need to do differently.
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a pastor.”
“You know, I really should to stop yelling at my kids as much as I do.”
The nice thing about that, of course, is that it opens the door for a gospel presentation, where I’m able to say that none of us can stop sinning enough or do enough good to be justified before God and our only hope is faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. The interesting thing about that response from unbelievers, however, is that it reveals what they think of the Christian life. It is obviously, to them, a life of rules that they’re feeling some conviction about failing to live up to.
But I’m curious what we think the Christian life looks like. Maybe some of us think of the Christian life as a set of rules, a list of dos and don’ts that we try to live in accord with as best we can. But if that’s the case, then the question that has to come to mind is: “Why wasn’t the law that God gave Moses sufficient, then?” After all, the law of Moses was full of rules and commands, as detailed as what kind of fabrics your clothing could be made of and what kinds of animals were acceptable for eating. If the Christian life is a set of rules, then did Jesus come just to add more rules to the list? Or, if we would say, “No, the Christian life isn’t simply a set of rules,” then what is it? What does it look like to live as a Christian?
These are the questions that I want to try to answer this morning. And the reason I want to answer them is because in Romans 7:1-6, Paul begins to lay out for us how the law functions in the life of a Christian, why we needed to be “released from the law,” and what the life of one who has come to faith in Christ looks like.
But the best way I know to explain Paul’s argument in this text is by starting with a point that Paul brings up in verse 5 of our text because unless we understand this point, then we’ll struggle to understand why what he’s arguing in verses 1-4 is necessary. So, the point I want to start with this morning is this:
The law was never sufficient to change us (from the inside) but only to reveal what was inside of us (and condemn us).
Paul begins our section in verses 1-4 talking about the believer’s position in regards to the law. But, as I mentioned, I think what helps us understand that argument is what Paul says in verse 5. Here’s what he says: “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.”
Now, let me break that down for us a bit. By “while we were living in the flesh,” Paul is referring to our lives as non-believers. We were all born into the world with guilty before God because of sin and actually under the enslaving power of sin because (as I mentioned last week) our desires were sinful, which is why Paul can, in the next breath, make reference to “our sinful passions.” He doesn’t say that because he knows some particulars about how these Roman believers used to live. He’s able to say that because he knows that this is true of every unbeliever. Through our corrupt and deceitful desires, we are slaves to sin, unable to break away from it because we desire it too much.
And because this was true of us, during this time, we sinned. Just skip over the phrase “aroused by the law” for a second and complete the sentence. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions . . . were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Again, this is simply putting together what we’ve seen the last few weeks. Because our desires were sinful, we actually sinned, in our body (i.e. “in our members”)—with our thoughts, words, and actions—and what we did was worthy of death.
But now let’s come back to the phrase that we skipped. Paul notes that our sinful passions that characterized us before we became believers were “aroused by the law” so that we committed acts of sin. In other words, Paul is saying that the law God gave to Moses—including commandments like: do not murder, do not steal, do not covet, and the like—when we heard or read that law, it actually served to stir up the sinful desires that were in us to carry out sin.
Wait a second, we might say, does this mean that the law was an evil, sinful thing God gave to Moses? Well, Paul actually will deal with that very question in the text we’ll look at in two weeks. But I’ll go ahead and tell you Paul’s short answer: “No.” But what Paul is showing us in verse 5 is that the law did have a weakness. It was unable to change what was inside of us. It was only able to reveal what was inside of us, and as unbelievers with sinful desires, what the law revealed and drew out of us was sin.
We can see this with children, can’t we? A toddler, for example, can be playing in the living room, being happy and content, and before you leave the room you say to him, “While Daddy leaves the room, make sure you don’t get anywhere near the Christmas tree.” And what may well happen is that this command not to touch the Christmas tree all of the sudden, when met with the sinful nature of the toddler’s heart, arouses within him a desire to touch the Christmas tree so that when you come back into the living room it might look like a bomb went off in the middle of your Christmas tree.
In this situation, your command, “Don’t touch the Christmas tree” didn’t create a rebellious desire in your child, inserting a desire within his heart that wasn’t already there. The command, when heard by a child with a rebellious nature, simply aroused the sinful passions already present within the child so that he carried out his rebellion.
That’s how the law worked in our lives before we were believers. Unable to actually change our desires, it just revealed them, and aroused us to act on them. And the result was that we did all kinds of things that are deserving of the Lord’s judgment. And this brings us to the second point I want us to see.
As long as the law had that function in our lives, we were slaves to sin.
Now, I’m going to logically explain why this is the case based on what we just saw in verse 5, but let me show it to you explicitly in this chapter. Earlier in 6:14 Paul said, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Becoming an object of the Lord’s saving grace has made it so that sin no longer has dominion over us (or, we might say, enslaves us). But we can also take that statement by Paul and state the converse of that, then, can’t we? We can see that when we were under law sin did have dominion over us (again, enslaved us). So as long as the law (which is unable to change our desires but merely reveal our desires, arouse our sinful desires to carry out acts of sin, and show that we deserve divine punishment) had that role or function in our lives, we were merely left as slaves to sin.
Again, I used one example with the toddler tearing into the Christmas tree, but we could multiply it, couldn’t we, so that commandment after commandment merely arouses the toddler, with his sinful desires, to commit sin after sin after sin.
Well, as long as the law was there, revealing and condemning, we were merely left enslaved to sin and condemned before God. So something had to happen. Well, what did happen? The answer is that we died to the law, which brings us to our third point.
We were freed from the law by dying with Christ so that we could be joined to Christ.
In order to explain this point we need to go back to the beginning of our text. Paul starts in verse 1 by asking his readers a question he knows they know the answer to. He writes, “Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?”
Now, one reason Paul would bring up this point this way is because this was a maxim that the Jewish rabbis would teach, “If a person is dead, he is free from the Torah and the fulfilling of the commandments.” So, even Jewish unbelievers who denied the gospel Paul preached would agree with this premise. If you are dead, then the law is no longer binding on you.
But Paul isn’t just relying upon a maxim taught by the Jewish rabbis of his day, he also illustrates this truth that death ends a legally binding relationship by pointing to the nature of marriage. He writes in verses 2, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.” That is simple enough. Paul is merely saying what we know. We are married till “death do us part.”
And Paul continues, “Accordingly, she will be called an adulterous if she lives with another man while her husband is alive” (v. 3a). Now, when Paul says this he’s not now trying to dive into circumstances where divorce and remarriage are allowable. That’s not his point. He’s merely showing that death dissolves a legal relationship, and if a woman decides that she’s going to try to live with another man while her legal relationship of marriage is still binding, then we would rightly say that she’s committing adultery.
“But,” Paul notes, “if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress” (v. 3b). Here, Paul’s point becomes clear: death ends a legal relationship.
Then, in verse 4, Paul applies this illustration to us, a believers. He 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.”
That is, Paul is showing us that we have been freed from our condemning relationship with the law because we have died with Christ. Now, we might have expected this to go a bit differently because in the marriage relationship the woman is free because her husband dies, and when Paul draws the application, we are the ones who are free because we die. But, if you think about it, the illustration couldn’t really go a different way, and it still serves the purpose of showing that death ends a legal relationship.
So, here’s what Paul is saying, because the law was powerless to change our hearts, our relationship with the law was one where it aroused us to carry out sinful actions and be condemned by hearing its commandments. But when we believed in Christ and were united with him by faith, then we died with Christ (who laid down his life for us on the cross). Therefore, because we died, our sin-arousing, condemning relationship with the law has ended because death ends legal relationships. Yet, we who died get to continue to live. Why? Paul answers when he identifies Jesus as “him who has been raised from the dead” (v. 4). Through being united with Christ, we die, and our relationship with the law ends. But, through being united with Christ, we get to live, and so (and here’s where the marriage illustration serves another purpose) we get to join ourselves to another.
Therefore, now, instead of belonging to the sin-arousing, condemning law that only left us enslaved to sin, we get to be joined in a relationship to Jesus Christ, who comes to dwell in us through his Spirit so that we are changed from the inside (the very thing the law couldn’t do).
And this brings us to our last point:
Being joined with Christ and having his Spirit within us, we now can live lives where we bear the fruit of obedience to God, serving our brothers and sisters in love.
Paul has already said in verse 4 that we died to the law “in order that we may bear fruit for God,” and he adds in verse 6, “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.”
Here’s what Paul is getting at, when all we had were a list of external rules and dos and don’ts that couldn’t change our hearts, we were hopeless to live the Christian life. But now we’ve been united with Christ. Now, his Spirit has come to indwell us and form and shape our desires. Therefore, now, we can live lives of obedience unto God.
In other words, no, the Christian life isn’t simply a set of rules or dos and don’ts. If that is all it was, then we’d still have our problem of having hearts enslaved to sin. The Christian life is, rather, about a person—Jesus. And when he comes to dwell within us and shape our hearts and desires, we live the Christian life by living in accord with the desires of his Spirit within us. That’s what the Christian life is.
Now, we can confirm that by seeing what Paul says in Galatians 5. In verse 13 of that chapter, Paul, having told them that they were now free from condemnation (since they were justified by faith) exhorts them not to use that freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (i.e. as an opportunity to sin) but as an opportunity “through love” to serve one another.
But, the question may have been asked, “Paul, how do I practically, as a justified person, live a life of love and service toward my brothers and sisters?” And he answers in Galatians 5:16-17, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
Here, I think, it’s all coming together. Because your old, sin-desiring heart has been changed, and you have the Spirit, the way you walk in loving service is by submitting to the desires of the Spirit who is within you. After all, his desires are to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.
But the problem is, as we noted last week, that until Jesus returns, the desires of the flesh (who we were before we believed) are not entirely gone. So, the desires of the flesh are to do all kinds of sins. Therefore, we submit to the desires of the Spirit and deny the desires of the flesh. Or, going back to what we said last week, we might say that we starve the desires of the flesh and feed, cultivate, and follow the desires of the Spirit. Starve and feed. Fast and feast.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be given commands. Because we’re not yet glorified (as we will be at the resurrection), our hearts can still deceive us, especially as sin can harden our hearts, so that we can miss what godly living looks like. This is why the New Testament continues to give us commands like, “Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not covet.”
But there are two differences with these commands. The main difference is that we now have hearts and desires (through the Holy Spirit) that hear these commands and are aroused to obedience. “Yes,” we respond, “I want to serve my brother instead of gossiping about him and envying him.” And the other difference about these commands is that they don’t encompass for us everything about the Christian life. So, yes, I can wake up, think about my dear brother or sister in Christ and think, “The Bible tells me I shouldn’t murder him,” and, Lord-willing, that command is met with a heart that does not desire to murder him and says, “That’s a good command that I want to obey.” But I also wake up with the Spirit producing in me love and want to move beyond a list of rules or dos and don’ts, and I’m burdened to say, “Lord, how can I love my brother in Christ today? Equip me to serve him “in the new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).” And the Spirit may move me to intercede for him in prayer, or write him an encouraging note, or give me some other practical way I can serve him through the gifts that the Spirit has equipped me with.”
And all of that is possible and enabled because through union with Christ, I died with Christ, and when I did I died to the law which merely gave me external commands and couldn’t change my heart. But now I’ve been made alive with Christ, given the Spirit with his desires, and can serve (again, Paul’s words in v. 6) “in the new way of the Spirit,” which is a remarkable picture of the Christian life.
And that’s what we one day will be perfectly. One day our hearts and our desires will be so perfectly glorified that we’ll naturally love God and love our neighbors perfectly. Every desire will be to this end. There won’t be any war within us ever between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. And because we’ll be perfected, heaven won’t have to be filled with signs, commanding us not to do evil and to do good. It’ll simply be our desires. But what Paul is showing us is that this heart transformation has already started now. Already our lives of obedience have moved beyond simply having commands. God’s Spirit, who indwells us, is already producing within us desires that love God and love our neighbors, and when we submit to and carry out those godly desires, it is a glorious thing.
In fact, imagine for a second a church full of people who have the Spirit of Christ indwelling them, producing within them love, joy, peace, patience, etc., that moves us to pursue loving and serving others. What a glorious picture that would be. Well, brothers and sisters, that’s what the church is. It’s what the church is supposed to be. And as we starve and fast from the desires of the flesh and feed, feast upon, cultivate, and carry out the God-given desires of the Spirit, we will walk in this way.
Then, as Jesus told us, others will see our love for one another (which is a fruit of the Spirit) and know that something is different about us, namely, that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s what I want us to envision, long for, pray for, and pursue as a church. But all of it is possible only because we’re united by faith with the one who lived a perfect life for us, died to pay the penalty for our sins, and was raised from the dead so that we could have eternal life and live our lives bearing fruit for God. Therefore, let us visibly proclaim this morning that we have heard God’s Word and choose to respond to it in obedient faith by coming to the table this morning. Amen.