God’s Good Law

Lesson 23: Romans 7:1-12

God’s law is not appreciated by fallen man.

The corrupted moral nature we inherit from Adam makes us long to be free from moral obligations, and free from our feelings of guilt.

Some who abhor the idea of answering to some higher authority than their own desires make fun of the moral laws of Scripture. They ridicule the God of the Bible. They believe they are naturally smarter than believers because of what they see as superior assumptions about the way things are and came to be. By convincing themselves that they are more intelligent, they dismiss the moral principles they dislike.

When they get caught breaking a law, they point out how many others have violated it too as if that should excuse them. They might cite special circumstances that exempt them from compliance, or they put the blame on others implying that they were the ones who instigated them and got them in trouble. Shifting blame, and excusing immoral behavior are tactics as old as the Garden of Eden.

This is how the Bible describes the spiritually dead heart. The lost find it hard to show real respect for the law that condemns him. Today we hear a lot about the decline of the “rule of law” in our world. Even the unbeliever can see to a certain degree that a relativistic view of ethics does not work. When humans replace God’s absolute standard with his own attempts to adjust morality to fit varying situations, it creates divisions and anger among people with no foundation for settling differences or ensuring a safe society.

Even some who call themselves “Christians” look for ways to explain away God’s law. Some quote verses taken out of their context to imply that the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the principle of Grace have eliminated God’s moral principles. They use an unbiblical concept of what they call “love” as if it now replaces the commandments of God. Many treat biblical law as if it was just a Jewish concept with little importance to us today. They see it as the opposite of the gospel message. On the extreme there are those who claim that being a Christian is just a change of belief which involves no change of life.

From what they say, you would think they believe God made a mistake by giving his law, and in time he came to regret it. Hopefully no one would go that far. Such a concept makes God an error-prone deity who has to learn by his mistakes. This would be nothing less than horrible blasphemy.

These desperate attempts to escape our obligation to God’s commandments are tragic. They cannot be supported with Scripture taken in its true context. Those who are taken in by them live with an obscured view of God and of how his world works.

Romans 7 helps us understand the continuing
value for God’s law when it is rightly understood.

To explain this important benefit Paul takes us through a few steps. He wants us to understand that though God’s law is not and never has been a way to life, it is and always must be the way of life.

There is a sense in which believers are released from God’s law. Paul had been telling the Roman Christians about being set free from the mastery of sin. In Romans 6:14 he wrote, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” In Romans 7 he is dealing with some clarifying issues.

First Paul clarifies a general legal principle:

Romans 7:1, “Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives?”

The word translated as “dominion” by this translation is rendered by others with the word “jurisdiction”. The word in the original text is related to the word kurios (κυριος) which is usually translated as “lord”. It carries the idea of authority. In the legal sense, it is the jurisdiction a court has over citizens in its district.

Death releases a person from legal relationships. Law is only designed in its most general sense to deal with the living. The greatest penalty law can impose is execution. If a person is already dead, then the law’s harshest demand has already been met.

Paul then gave an illustration no one would disagree with who knows the Bible.

Romans 7:2-3, “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.”

1. According to God’s law Marriage is a bond for life.
Marriage is introduced in Genesis 2 where Adam and Eve are said to have become “one flesh”. The union of two into one flesh is to last as long as the two live. Death is the only moral means of ending a marriage in God’s sight. It cannot be ended by simply declaring it over. God is said in Malachi 2:16 to be abhorred by divorce. This is why in the traditional marriage vow we promise before God, “till death us do part.”

If the woman has another man while her spouse is alive, she is called an “adulteress.” The Bible demanded the execution of anyone who violated marriage by sexual infidelity. Since infidelity caused the execution of one partner, the marriage was ended by death. The innocent party was no longer bound because the condition of the vow had been met, “till death us do part.”

In the teachings of Jesus we see that in a society where execution is not practiced for adultery, a divorce of the innocent spouse is permitted (Matthew 19:9). It is as if the offender was put to death as God demands.

2. When death ends one legal relationship, it makes way for a new relationship.
If a spouse is dead, the living partner is free to be joined to another. Once the conditions of a legal bond are met, the bond is no longer in effect. Only then can a new bond be acceptable.

Paul used this principle, to explain the
bondage of our soul by the law of God.

Romans 7:4-6, “Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another — to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”

It can get a little confusing in this section if we fail to follow the flow of thought. Paul is trying to explain a complex idea. To make his point he sometimes speaks of bondage in one sense, and at other times in another. In one sense the sinner is bound to sin, in another it is the law that binds him.

This bondage was explained in detail in the first few chapters of Romans. Adam represented all humans. When he sinned, his guilt and corruption passed on to all his natural descendents. Everyone since Adam is separated from God and is called “spiritually dead.” This “spiritual death” makes them unable to do anything truly good in God’s eyes (Romans 3:10-12). They take God’s glory for themselves. They do what is forbidden. They neglect what is commanded. God’s law both reveals the crime, and demands the sentence. The result is eternal separation from God. That is how the law binds the sinner to sin as his master.

Only by fulfilling the demand of the law can anyone be released from its sentence. God’s justice demands eternal suffering and death, since all have sinned. The suffering and death of Jesus in the sinner’s place releases him from his bondage to sin. Christ satisfies the law’s legal demands, so the person represented is “delivered from the law” in that sense.

Verse 5 shows that our bondage to sin is exposed by our unlawful behavior. Sin is more than just guilt inherited from Adam. It is also a fallen disposition. The corrupted nature puts self ahead of God. It influences the motives that lay behind what may appear to us to be good deeds. When people sin they reveal their sinful passions. They look for perverted ways too satisfy human needs. The law is what defines and exposes sin. It is what condemns the person to the just punishment of death.

Since it is the inner work of new life that sets the sinner free from death by Christ, he is not only released from the old master, he is at the same time joined to a new master. The new lord is righteousness. It both declares the sinner to be innocent by the righteousness of Christ which is credited to him, and it enables him to do what is truly good. The good he does is rendered possible by his restored fellowship with God in Christ.

Verse 6 shows that through the death of Jesus we are set free from our former bondage. The Savior met the demand of death for his people. Instead of the foolish and vain hope of being saved by keeping the outward letter of the law, the redeemed person comes to understand that nothing he can do will remove his guilt. When the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work he learns that his guilt has been fully removed by Jesus as his Substitute. He is made able to do what is truly good, and is bound to a new master altogether.

Though the Holy Spirit is clearly at work in the application of the work of the Messiah, many translators do not capitalize the word “spirit” in verse 6 (KJV, ASV for example). They see the contrast in the last part of this verse as between the words “letter” and “spirit.” The “letter” [grammatos (γράμματος)] is the law, the written expression of the spiritual [pneumatos (πνεύματος)] reality behind it which is fulfilled in the now finished atoning work of Christ.

The main point in this passage is that we are released from one bondage to be joined to another. Just as the fallen human is exposed by God’s law as a sinner, the law also lays out the kind of behavior that ought to be seen in the Christian. We are set free from sin to be bound to righteousness. Moral and godly living is the goal. The moral principles of God’s law remain binding, but not in the sense of condemnation of or dominion over the redeemed sinner. It is not the law that is put to death. It is our old relationship to it. That was the message Jesus was conveying in Matthew 5:17.

The law of God must be treasured, not despised.

Romans 7:7-11, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.”

Some might foolishly reason this way. If the law is what obligates us to a standard we cannot obey, and it condemns us inescapably, then is the law an evil thing? Is the law sin? That is the reasoning of the fallen heart. It wants to find fault with the judgments of God’s law.

Paul adds his answer immediately with an emphatic, “No!” Do not let such an idea even be considered! The opposite is true. The law has a very good and important purpose in God’s plan.

The revealed moral law of God exposes sin for what it is in our lives. Paul uses the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet,” to prove his point. It is not just the outward act that makes a thing sinful. It is also the inward greed and coveting that is in itself sinful. We would not know that even our motives and attitudes can condemn us if God had not revealed it to us. It was by God’s law that Paul learned about his corrupt nature and his need for redeeming grace.

Paul was a Pharisee before he was regenerated by grace. He imagined that he was good in God’s sight, spiritually alive, and had done nothing seriously wrong. When the Holy Spirit made him realize the inner truth of the 10th commandment, he realized that where he once saw life, there was really death.

Paul’s experience is like that of everyone else. The sinner is blinded and prejudiced against true justice. He finds fault in the system, in his circumstances, or in others, but not ultimately in himself. He adds up all the good he believes he has done, and imagines that it must count for something in God’s estimation. He fails to see that even his good deeds flow from a corrupt nature. He steals God’s glory and is discontent with God’s provisions. As the Prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 64:6, “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags…”

God has given us his law. He graciously sends his Holy Spirit to apply the life-giving work of Christ. By these works of grace we are informed, convinced, and humbled before a Holy God. The law by which Paul thought he could earn God’s blessing, actually condemned him. It drove him to repentance and faith in his only hope, the Redeemer Jesus Christ.

By the new knowledge and life implanted in him, the law became a blessing not a curse. What he once imagined as his way to life, that way which frustrated him, became the rule of life, by which he could show God how much he loved him.

God’s law, therefore, is a good thing!

Paul concludes this section in verse 12.

Romans 7:12, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.”

Being released from the law’s condemnation, Paul learned that his freedom meant being bound to another master, righteousness. The law had served its good purpose, and now had become his guide to living thankfully.

So many today claim that Jesus said that God’s law is now replaced by love. To that we answer, “No!” To use Paul’s expression, “Let it not be!” One of the most tragic of modern deceptions is that Christ ended the moral law of God. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

Later Jesus was asked which is the great commandment in the Law? Far from putting down the law, Jesus quoted from the law! First he quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5, which comes right after the listing of the 10 Commandments. In Matthew 22:37-38 he said, “… ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.”

Then Jesus quoted from Leviticus 19:18. In Matthew 22:39 he said, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

After that, Jesus explained that these two words of the law are a summary of the whole of the law. In Matthew 22:40 he said, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus saw the principle of love imbedded in the law. The law of God defines what love is all about. He used love as a summary of the law, not as a replacement of it.

Psalm 119 tells us that believers learn to love the law of God. The law is not a mean principle. It is one that is graciously given for our benefit. It shows us the high moral nature of our Creator. It convicts us of our depravity. It exposes what a great debt we owe to our Savior, and helps us appreciate the amazing love with which he loves his people.

Psalm 119:97, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
Psalm 119:165, “Great peace have those who love Your law …”
Psalm 119:174, “… Your law is my delight.”

Now that we are set free from the old master, we are bound to the new one. The law no longer condemns us or dominates over us as those who remain under the slavery of sin.

The law now guides us as to how those redeemed by grace are to live for God’s glory. Therefore the Christian must keep the moral law of God in the very center of his thoughts. The law gives content to the wisdom presented in verses like Philippians 4:8. Without God’s moral revelations in his law, the terms there would remain undefined.

The Christian walk is not marked out by an attitude of self-pride, or moral arrogance. It is marked by humble obedience. In John 14:15 Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” That saying of Jesus was taken from the Old Testament law also. Five times in the books of Moses God identifies his people as those who love him and keep his commandments.

What once seemed a demanding and condemning set of rules, becomes a welcomed teacher. We use God’s law in evangelism. It is the tool God gives us for convincing the suffering and lost of their need for a Savior. We use God’s law as a guide for society. By it we know what will bring God’s blessing upon a nation and community. We use God’s law as a rule of life. By it we can know how to honor our God, and show him our sincere thankfulness for his grace.

Learn the commandments of God. Teach them to your children. Talk about them in your home. Bring them up in daily conversation. Use them to help the discouraged and depressed of heart diagnose the real cause of their misery. Use them to counsel your friends in Christ as they make decisions. List the promises and benefits of the Law laid out in Psalm 119. Do all you can to treasure and benefit rightly from the wonderful gift of God’s law.

by Bob Burridge ©2011

(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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