After writing about our need for God, the desired response of faith, the grace of God and our connection with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection through our baptism Paul makes some clarifications in chapter 7 about the law. Not being a first century Jewish Christian myself it is a little hard to wrap my mind around what Paul has to say about the law in Romans 1-6. I am glad he included 7 because, even though it is still a little confusing, he does tie together some loose ends. For more on Paul and the law in the early chapters of Romans see this post.
Examples of being freed from other obligations:
If you read chapter 7 apart from the context of the letter it appears Paul veers off course for a moment to talk about a marriage issue. This is not the case. Paul is using something they already understood as a launching pad to help them understand what he is saying about the law. In introducing his marriage analogy Paul starts by saying that “the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives.” In chapter 6 he used an illustration of a slave who is freed from his duties to his master by death. Paul certainly didn’t mean to compare marriage to slavery here! What he is talking about here is how the general principle in life is that when you die you are freed from your previous obligations – when a slave dies he is freed from his obligation (Rom 6:11,22) and when a man dies his wife is freed from her obligation by law (Rom 7:1-3). So it is with how we relate to sin and the law. The implication is that we who have been baptized have in fact died (Rom 6:1-6) and the result of that death is that we are free from our previous masters (sin and law) and obligations in order to serve another (Rom 6:18). In Romans 7:4-6 he tells us that the other master and obligation is to God by way of the Spirit. So we are freed from obligations to sin as our master and to law as our master. The only other option is to have God/righteousness be our master and call the shots. We will talk more about that in a moment.
Dying to the law:
So Paul has said that those in Rome needed to die to sin and they needed to die to the law. On the surface it seems like Paul is putting both sin and law in the same boat. That raises the natural question that Paul anticipates in 7:7 “Is the law sin?” The answer is no. Later he says that the law is actually good, holy, and righteous (7:12). We often let our logic bind us up and put us in a box that will not let us see the logical answer. We logically conclude that if the law had to be put to death, just like sin did, it must also have been evil. Paul is trying to clarify here that it is entirely appropriate to say at the same time that the law was good, holy, and righteous AND needed to be put to death. How can he say that? He tells us in 7:7-20. Law was intended by God for good. It was intended to show us the ugliness of sin. But sin manipulated and distorted God’s intent for the law to bring about more sin in our lives. It reminds me of my sister who was watching my nephew play by the pool. She yells over to him, “Don’t you jump in that pool!” Now, if she had not mentioned the possibilities, chances are he might have never thought of the possibility of such a wrong doing and violation of his mother’s will. So what did he do? He jumped right in, of course! If law had the power and ability to defeat sin and death there would have been no reason for people to die to the law. But that was not the function of the law. The function of the law was to teach us what sin is (7:7). If God had only left us with the law we would have no answer for death and no power over sin. Jesus came to fulfill the law (Mtt 5:17) in doing so he brought an answer for sin and a power that was able to overcome/overpower sin and death – resurrection of the dead.
Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7:7-25?
There has been a lot of ink spilled trying to answer this question. If you try to logically work your way through the possibilities there is no answer that comes out perfect. [See Cranfield’s commentary for the six logical possibilities of who Paul might be talking about.] If it is Paul speaking of his life prior to becoming a Christian there was no time Paul was without the law in his early life as he states in 7:9 (that could eliminate the possibility of the “historical present” theory. It is hard to see Paul writing like this as a Christian as his whole point in the prior verses. If it is Paul after becoming a Christian he has already been set free from these bonds and should have already died to the evil he is talking about here.
So who is Paul speaking for in these verses? Witherington says this is about all people with the problem of Adam and who are still lost. Wright thinks this is about the nation of Israel and their continued struggle with sin even after receiving the law. I am not sure I agree with either of those views but I see where they are coming from and each has its own strength and merit. If we could logically deduce exactly who Paul was talking about here we could come to the conclusion that these verses are for “those people.” Instead, these verses could be about any of us as we all struggle in dealing with sin, even after we were supposed to have died to it. Because we cannot say this is about this group or that or Paul at this time or that…we each have to internalize this message and hear what it has to say to us today. The fact is we all struggle and we have all experienced this tension. Regretably, even after our baptism we need to be reminded that the answer to the struggles we have with sin is Jesus Christ (7:25).
The point Paul is trying to get us to see here is not so much who is talking and who is Paul trying to be. This passage is about deliverance. He bookends this tense struggle that is described in 7:14-25 with slavery terminology again. In 7:14 we have – “sold as a slave to sin” and in 7:25 – “slave to the law of sin” and we also have in 7:25 the word “Lord.” What we have in between there is someone who is wrestling with the deliverance process. Think about being a slave for a moment. You are made to do things that you do not want to do. Your master requires you to do what ought not to be done. If you had your way you would do something else but because the slave master (sin) is in charge a slave to sin ends up doing what sin desires and not what they know is right. Read 7:14-25 out loud taking on the role of someone who is a slave, ordered by an evil master to do what ought not to be done. It goes back to the point of chapters 6-7 – this is exactly what we have to die from to be delivered to a new type of freedom to serve the spirit. God has set us free…how often do we allow ourselves to be more comfortable with the master we were supposed to have died to and been freed from than the one who purchased our freedom and deliverance from the slavery of sin? Sin is not an option. Law is not an option. The only place deliverance and real life can be found is through Jesus Christ our what? Lord/Master. We have to allow Him to call the shots if we are ever going to truly live a resurrected life.