The psalmists spoke much about the joy of God’s law, and how obedience to it leads to blessedness (read: happiness). And that’s all fine in theory, but that reality is not actualised for us. Why? Because, as James says:
James 2:10 (ESV)
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.
Our consciences are sufficient for us to discern that we’ve not kept the whole law. If, for some reason, our conscience isn’t enough, then we have the first three chapters of Romans to show us. “All have sinned” to some degree or another. Therefore, no matter how diligently we might obey God, our past disobedience means we remain guilty, and any minor infraction today or tomorrow would nullify all obedience. Reliance upon law is HARD!
This is precisely why God’s plan and purpose has always been to save mankind by grace through faith, not obedience to law.
Believers and Sin
In our studies in Romans, Paul has been discussing two question that arise concerning how believers relate to sin and law. If we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and not by rote obedience, then what place does obedience have? What is the impact of disobedience?
Paul first draws out two questions in chapter 6. The first asks: if grace is greater than sin, and it abounds to cover all sin, then we could deliberately sin now to increase grace! If grace covers sin, then more sin means more grace, and more grace is a good thing! Well, Paul shows that this argument fails. Salvation is all about resurrection; sin is all about death. They are opposites. It’s never going to be a good thing to increase that which brings death!
Rather, Christ solves death problem: He died, having never sinned. Then God resurrected Him, never to die again. Believers are brought into that death-to-life, so that we receive the hope of the same resurrection. Correspondingly, a key aspect of salvation is our death, that is, dying to sin. Therefore, if we continue to sin, it’s simply inconsistent with this new identity of ours.
Does Sin Matter?
The second question Paul considers is: if we’re no longer under the law, then does sin matter? If I’m not under the law, does it matter if I break it? Paul shows that yes, it absolutely matters. Why? Well, beyond what we’ve just said about sin leading to death, sin is a slave-master. When you or I disobey God, we are obeying sin. We can either serve God, the outcome of which is joy and life and peace, or we can serve sin. You gotta serve somebody. Either sin, which leads to slavery and death, or God, which leads to sanctification (greater holiness) and eternal life.
So yes, it matters for us to eschew sin and choose to obey God.
Believers and Law
Now Paul turns his attention to law. What is its relationship with sin? Is law the cause of sin? What purpose does the law have, if God saves through grace and promise? Romans 7 answers these questions. The first part speaks to the legalists: those of us who overemphasise law-keeping today, thinking they can enhance their relationship to God. The second speaks to libertines: those inclined to overemphasise our freedom in Christ, disregarding holiness, discipline and godly living.
Unbound from Law
First, Paul uses the law itself to show that death frees us from law. This is why it’s so important that death is central to salvation. In Christ’s death, we also die, and that death releases us from the law. Paul refers to the law as the “old way” of serving God, which was through all the do’s and don’ts.
This point is critical for those of us who feel the weight of legalism. If we are in Christ, united with Him in His death, then the old law is not binding on us anymore. What a relief! No longer are we living in fear of the gavel of God the Judge coming down.
However, we still serve God. Paul says that the mode of service has changed. Previously it was “in the old way of the written code.” Now, we serve “in the new way of the Spirit.” There is still service! What’s changed is the heart and reason behind it. Simply put, in changes from “I have to, I must, I’ve got to” and into “I get to, I’m able to, I’d love to.”
So what is the purpose of the written code? Well, as we saw in chapter 7, the law does three things: it exposes sin, it provokes sin, and it condemns sin. You can see this with young children. Tell them not to do something, and what do they immediately want to do? As Paul said, he wouldn’t have coveted without the law saying “don’t covet.”
Paul’s snapshot of his current life can be hard reading. Why such struggle for the Christian? Because, as he says elsewhere:
Galatians 5:16–18 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The struggle remains because we have to make a continual and active choice to “walk by the Spirit.” There is an ongoing inner struggle between the “old man” of sin and the “new man” of the Spirit. There is the part of us that delights in God and says “amen!” to His commands to do right, and there is the part of us that clings to selfishness and sin.
The Law’s purpose for a believer, then, seems to be complete. It served as a “schoolmaster” (see Galatians 3) to show us the impossibility of salvation through obedience. Now we’ve come to Christ, the law of God is fulfilled in us by Christ. Paul urges us to “serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”