Freed from the Law to Serve God – Romans 7:1-6
Pastor Mark Hardy August 26, 2012
An elderly woman who attended a legalistic church was confronted one Sunday by a member of the church leadership because she didn’t wear dresses with sleeves that came down to her wrists. The person told her that someone might lust after her because her arms were exposed. She tried to explain that was unlikely to happen since she was almost eighty years old. But he wouldn’t stop insisting.
So she finally gave in to the pressure and during the week bought a pretty dress with long sleeves that had red strawberries all over it. She was excited to go to church thinking that the person would finally be pleased with her and stop making her feel guilty. When she arrived she saw his wife and said to her, “Well, how do you like my new dress?” Looking it over, she curtly replied, “Those strawberries are much too red. The dress is worldly. You are just trying to attract attention to yourself” and then walked away. At that moment the elderly woman left the church and never came back.
It’s about time! Legalism is the belief that people are saved or sanctified by keeping a set of rules. It is measuring spirituality by a list of do’s and don’ts. But legalism is wrong and deadly! This is what we will be looking at this morning.
Having already said to believers in 6:14, “…for you are not under law but under grace,” Paul went on in vv. 15-23 to focus on why it is wrong for believers to abuse grace by excusing their sin. But now as he comes to 7:1, Paul picks up where 6:14 left off and puts the focus on why believers are not under law. Turn in your Bible to Romans 7.
In Romans 7:1-6 Paul’s main point is a general principle that he sets out to make perfectly clear. We see three parts of the general principle in this passage that Paul wants all believers to understand and apply in their Christian lives.
The first part of the general principle is this:
I. The principle is Stated that death Cancels all Obligations
A. Look at v. 1: Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?
1. Paul begins with the word “Or” which better links 7:1-6 with 6:14 rather than 6:23. Here he is posing an alternative to the Roman Christians that they can either admit the truth of 6:14 that they are “not under law but under grace” or deny it.
2. When Paul says “do you not know” he appeals to what he assumes they already know. This is evident from his statement “(for I am speaking to those who know the law).”
3. Notice that he calls them “brethren,” which is an affectionate greeting to the entire Roman church not simply to the Jewish Christians. He hasn’t used this greeting since 1:13, indicating that he feels very deeply about what he is going to say to them.
4. Now what is it that these believers already know? It is this: “…that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives.”
5. The word “law” (nomos) here does not refer to law in general or to the Roman law, but rather to the Mosaic Law which both Jew and Gentile believers in the church at Rome had knowledge of. The word “law” occurs twenty-three times in chapter 7, eight times in the first six verses.
6. Notice again “…that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives.” The word “jurisdiction” (kurieuei) means to exercise lordship, dominion, or authority over someone.
7. It is in the present tense in the Greek, indicating that the Mosaic Law continually has authority over those who are subject to it. But this authority is limited to a person’s lifetime—“…as long as he lives.”
8. The Law’s jurisdiction is binding only on the living. However, death cancels all obligations. Once a person dies, he or she is free from bondage to the Law.
9. This is the general principle that was well known to everyone. But to clarify this principle Paul now gives an example.
10. We see this in the second part of the general principle, which is this:
II. The principle is Illustrated by the Law of Marriage
A. Look at vv. 2-3: For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband.
1. This illustration is easy to understand in itself. According to Scripture God designed marriage to be a solemn bond between a man and a woman alone, not same-sexes, and this most intimate of relationships is to last a lifetime, “till death us do part” (Gen. 2:22-24; Mal. 2:13-16).
2. The law of marriage is binding as long as both partners are alive. Here we see that the wife is permanently “bound” (dedetai) to her husband as long as he lives, but when he dies she is “…released from the law.”
3. The word “released” (katergetai) means to make null and void, abolish, render inoperative, and put out of business. In other words, the husband’s death dissolves the marriage bond in the eyes of the Law.
B. Paul goes on to say in v. 3: So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.
1. A wife who is “joined to another man” while her husband is still living, “…shall be called (chrematisei—literally, publicly named or branded as) an adulteress” (moichalis). She is sexually unfaithful to her marriage vows to her husband before God. This is also true of an unfaithful husband.
2. However, if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress if she chooses to be “joined” or married to another man, as long as he is a Christian (1 Cor. 7:39). Why? Because death cancels all marriage law obligations.
3. This is the point of Paul’s marriage illustration. He is not giving the final word on divorce and remarriage, although some use these verses to try to prove that remarriage on any basis other than the death of one’s spouse is adulterous.
4. I believe that John MacArthur is correct when he says, “This passage has absolutely nothing to say about divorce and cannot legitimately be used as an argument from silence to teach that divorce is never justified for a Christian and, consequently, that only the death of a spouse gives the right to remarry. Such a discussion requires treatment of other passages” (i.e. Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; and 1 Corinthians 7:10-15). (pg. 360)
5. Now although the marriage illustration is fairly easy to understand, the problem comes when we try to press its details and make them correspond exactly to v. 4.
6. The third part of the general principle is this:
III. The principle is Applied to every Believer’s own Life
A. Look at v. 4: Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
1. This is the key verse in this paragraph. The word “Therefore” (oste) shows that Paul is drawing a conclusion from vv. 1-3.
2. Again he affectionately calls all of the Roman believers “my brethren,” which is even more personal than in v. 1. Then he says to each believer “…you also were made to die to the Law.”
3. The one Greek word translated “were made to die” (ethanatothete—aorist passive indicative) emphasizes the completeness and finality of the believer’s death as an accomplished historical fact. It is passive in the Greek, indicating that it was God Himself who made us die to the Law not ourselves.
4. We died to the Law; the Law didn’t die to us. Therefore, we are no longer “under law” because the Law has no authority over the dead.
5. This is where the marriage illustration doesn’t correspond exactly in every point with the application. If the husband represents the Law and the wife represents the believer it doesn’t work.
6. For the Law would have to die before the believer could be released, but nowhere does Paul ever teach that the Law dies; it is believers who die to the Law. Everett Harrison said, “It was not feasible in the illustration to have the woman die, because then she would not have been available for marriage to another, which is vital to the application in which a new relationship is set up between the believer and Christ.” (pp. 76-77)
7. The main point of similarity between the marriage illustration and the application should be limited to one thing. It is the general principle that death cancels all obligations. That’s what Paul is driving home!
8. Therefore, just as the husband’s death dissolves the binding relationship with the marriage law, so the believer’s death with Christ dissolves the binding relationship with the Law. We died to the Law! That’s the application!
B. Notice again how we died to the Law in v. 4. Paul says, “…through the body of Christ.”
1. The “body of Christ” in this context doesn’t refer to the church but to Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. Our union with Christ in His death on the cross is what severed our bondage to the Law. (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:22; Heb. 10:5, 10; 1 Pet. 2:24)
2. And there are two results or purposes for which God made us die to the Law. Paul says the first is “…so that you might be joined to another.”
3. The other person here is Jesus Christ. And notice how Paul describes Him, “…Him who was raised from the dead.
4. In other words, the risen Christ will never die again. This implies that your new relationship with Him is eternal!
5. Therefore, as a believer you have not only died with Christ, but are also spiritually risen with Him to be “joined” (genesthai) or married to Him, who is the Bridegroom of His church (Eph. 5:24-27; 2 Cor. 11:2).
6. What Paul says about all believers here is his own personal testimony in Galatians 2:19, “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.”
7. Douglas Moo correctly states, “Just as the believer ‘dies to sin’ in order to ‘live to God’ (chapter 6), so he or she is ‘put to death to the Law’ in order to be joined to Christ. Both images depict the transfer of the believer from the old realm to the new. As long as sin ‘reigns,’ God and righteousness cannot; and neither, as long as the law ‘reigns,’ can Christ and the Spirit.” (pg. 415)
8. Paul then says the second result or purpose is “…in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Notice here that Paul changes from “you” to “we” to stress the obligation that all believers produce good spiritual fruit, including himself.
9. Being joined to the risen Christ insures that all true believers “…bear fruit for God.” And this fruit includes righteous attitudes, character, words, and deeds that bring glory to God (Ps. 1:3; 92:14; Prov. 11:30; Jer. 17:8, 10; Matt. 7:17; Jn. 15:1-8; Rom. 1:13; 6:21-22; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 2:10; 5:9; Phil. 4:8-9, 17; Col. 1:6: Phil. 1:11; Tit. 3:1; Heb. 13:15)
10. Since all believers will bear some fruit for God in their lives, this is why an unproductive believer is not living as God designed.
11. Paul now goes on to further elaborate the application of v. 4 in vv. 5-6 and gives the reason why believers must understand and apply the truth that in Christ they have died to the Law. He does this by contrasting the believer’s life before Christ and after Christ in reference to the Law.
C. First, our life before Christ in v. 5: For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.
1. Here Paul reminds us of three things that characterized our old lives as unbelievers. The first thing was that “…we were in the flesh.”
2. The word “flesh” (sarx) is used in Scripture in many ways. When it is used simply of the physical body it has absolutely no evil connotation, for the body is merely a neutral instrument that can be used for good or bad, for God or sin.
3. But when “flesh” is associated with sin, as it is here, it is man’s commitment to independence and autonomy from God and His resources. It is everything related to “self”—self-obsession, selfishness, self-centeredness, self-reliance, self-everything.
4. John Murray says that it means fallen “human nature as controlled and directed by sin.” (pg. )
5. C.E.B. Cranfield describes it as “…our fallen, ego-centric human nature and all that belongs to it.” (pg. 372)
6. And John Peter Lange says that “Flesh is…the whole nature of man, turned away from God, in the supreme interest of self, devoted to the creature…The ruling principle of the flesh is undoubtedly selfishness.” (Zemek pg. 26)
7. Therefore, when Paul says that we were “in the flesh” he is talking about our entire unsaved life before Christ when we were habitually and characteristically controlled and dominated by the powers of sin, death, and the Law.
8. The second thing that characterized our old lives as unbelievers was the constant presence of: “…the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law.” These “sinful passions” or desires refer to such things as lust, anger, hatred, ill will, jealousy, envy, fear, etc. that disobey God and His moral Law.
9. Notice again that these were “aroused by (stimulated or intensified by) the Law.” We will see how the Law does this next time in vv. 7-13.
10. Notice the close connection between sin and the Law (3:20; 4:15; 5:20). In 1 Corinthians 15:56 we read, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
11. Contrary to what we often think, Paul says that the Law does not restrain sin; it actually aids and abets sin. It stimulates fallen human being’s innate rebelliousness against God.
12. Thomas Schreiner comments, “The Law is a power belonging to the old age that wields influence over human beings and exercises control by provoking sin. (pg. 351)
13. And Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that sinful passions “…are actually inflamed even by the Law of God. The very law that prohibits them encourages us to do them, because we are impure.” (Morris pg. 274)
14. In other words, the problem is not with the Law, but with us as sinful people. Because of this reality our sinful passions were aroused by the Law.
15. The third thing that characterized our old lives as unbelievers was that our sinful passions were habitually: “…at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.”
16. The sinful passions of the heart always “bear fruit” or find expression through the various “members of our body.” These are all manifestations of the sinful flesh, as indicated in Galatians 5:19-21.
17. For example, an angry heart is expressed in a clenched fist or hateful words; a jealous heart is expressed in a slandering tongue; and sexual lust is expressed in looking at inappropriate things or involvement in sexual immorality.
18. And as we have seen before, the result of sinful fruit bearing is always “death.” John Murray says about this death, “Death is personified and viewed as a master to whom we bring forth fruit, that is to say, to whom we render service.” (pg. 245)
19. This is death in all its aspects or dimensions: spiritual, physical, and ultimately eternal death and condemnation, as stated in the Law for all those who reject Jesus Christ.
D. But in stark contrast to what we once were before Christ, Paul shows us our new life after Christ in v. 6: But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
1. Once again the word “released” (katergethemen) means to make null and void, abolish, render inoperative, and put out of business. And the reason why we as believers have already as an accomplished fact “…been released from the Law” (aorist passive indicative) by God is because we have already with Christ “…died to that by which we were bound” permanently, that is, the Law.
2. Since the Law had jurisdiction over us only as long as we lived (v. 1), our death with Christ cancels all of our obligations to it. As believers we are now free from the penalty and power of sin to which the Law had us bound and condemned.
3. And yet, our freedom is not a license to sin but to do for the first time what is truly righteous and pleasing to God. The result or purpose of our true freedom in Christ is a new way of service.
4. Look at what Paul says at the end of v. 6, “…so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” The word “serve” (douleuein) here refers exclusively to the service of a slave.
5. One whose sole purpose is to obey the will of his master. And our new Master whom we as believers serve now is the merciful Lord Jesus Christ.
6. Notice again that our service is “…in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” Here we see the double contrast: “newness” verses “oldness” and “Spirit” verses “letter.”
7. This is the second time in Romans that Paul uses the contrast between “Spirit” and “letter,” the first was in 2:27-29. The “oldness of the letter (gramma)” refers to the minute particulars of the written code, which is powerless to effect a righteous life before God or produce a service acceptable to Him.
8. Paul is not talking about the Law itself here, but the misunderstanding and misuse of it as a legalistic way of life apart from the Spirit whereby people attempt to gain salvation or sanctification by trying to keep an external code or set of rules. In essence they are saying, “If I can just do it right then life will work and I can achieve what I want.”
9. That’s nothing more than legalism! Do everything you can to look right and do right then everything will work out right.
10. But God’s Law was never intended for that. The Law is not an instrument of salvation but of condemnation (Gal. 2:16); it is a death certificate not a new birth certificate.
11. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 we read that “…the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
12. Therefore, the problem is not with the Law itself, for it is “holy and righteous and good” (v. 12) and “spiritual” (v. 14). The problem is with sinful people who not only can’t keep it, but also misuse and abuse it for their own selfish purposes.
E. But in stark contrast to serving in the “oldness of the letter,” our service to God as believers is to be “…in newness of the Spirit.”
1. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit who brings about a new attitude and disposition within us the moment our salvation and effects newness of life in service to God. His implanted love within our hearts is to be the motive of our all we do.
2. Only the Holy Spirit can restrain sin in our lives. And t is only in dependence on His power that we can obey God’s moral Law bear righteous fruit to the glory of God.
3. So here we see the contrast between the perversion of the Old Covenant in trying to control our lives by keeping an external code, and the New Covenant in which we live in dependence on the Holy Spirit who has written God’s moral Law on our hearts.
4. This is a contrast between two era, whereby we have been transferred from the old to the new, from our before Christ life to our new life after Christ.
5. Thomas Schreiner accurately states, “The newness of the Spirit fulfills the old covenant promise that the new covenant would give people ability to keep the statutes and commandments of the law (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 26:26-27). (pg. 353)
6. For the first time, because of the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit we as believers can truly keep the moral law of God. It is our guide for Christian living (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
In closing, we as believers must understand and apply in our Christian lives the truth of the general principle that having died with Christ we have also died to the Law, as far as its condemnation. But this does not mean that we are no longer responsible to keep its moral commands.
But we are not to be legalists who try to keep the Law in our own self-efforts, or libertines (antinomianism) who have no rules and turn our liberty in Christ into license to sin. Instead, we are to be lovers of God and others who joyfully love and obey God’s Law as empowered by the Spirit of God. Only then can we properly serve God and bear fruit that brings glory to Him.
May we say with the psalmist in Psalm 119:97, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.”