Today we continue our romp through the middle of Romans, that book of the New Testament you should read at least three or four times a year to keep you Christian, not to mention Lutheran. Last week, we heard about our baptismal union with Christ in His death. Namely, that God in Baptism has declared us dead to Sin and alive to Him in Christ, that we have been baptismally buried with Christ in His death so that we may be raised with Christ in His resurrection. And as a result, we are to agree with God’s Word to us in Baptism and consider ourselves dead to the lordship of Sin and alive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Romans chapter 7 now deals with the reality of living in this forensic tension between the “now” of faith and the “not yet” of sight, this time between our baptismal death and resurrection and our ultimate and final death and resurrection. Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that we are not “really” already dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ. We are. But not in a way that we ourselves can perceive it.
There is no outward difference between a baptized person and an unbaptized one. You can’t go through the terminal at LAX and look at all the people waiting at the gates and say, “This one’s baptized; this one’s not.” Oh, you might make an educated guess or two about that woman wearing a crucifix or the man reading his Bible. But there’s no discernible outward difference between someone who is a baptized believer and someone who isn’t. Good works? Atheists do them too. Pray? Lots of people pray to all sorts of gods. Discipline? Athletes have bodily disciples too. Unlike circumcision which was an outward, visible mark in the flesh, Baptism is an inward, hidden mark of the Spirit. The heart is new, but the flesh is old. We’re new creations in Christ living inside of old creations in Adam. And that creates a tension in this life, which is what Romans 7 is all about.
You are forensically dead, meaning that God has spoken you to death. And when God speaks, it is so, no matter how long it takes in time for that to happen. “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” The Word says, “Be light, be sea and dry land, be fruitful and multiply” and it happens ever thereafter because the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. The Word says, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” and 700 years later it happens because the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. It’s the same with you in your Baptism. God has spoken. He has declared you dead to Sin and Death ahead of your death. And so dead you are, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
The apostle Paul compares it to the marriage covenant. The law of marriage is binding only so long as both parties are alive. It is “till death us do part.” Once a spouse has died, the legal bond of marriage is ended. In the same way we are legally bound to Sin and Death by the Law. This is the condition in which we all are born. It’s the condition in which you were born. But now, by the baptismal Word of God, you have died to the Law through the body of Christ into which you were baptized. You were once captive to Sin and Death but now you have been liberated, set free by being declared dead to Sin, Death, and the Law.
Remember the way Sin, Death, and the Law are connected. If you don’t get this, you won’t understand what Paul is saying and you won’t see how this works in your own life. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul says, “The sting of Death is Sin, and the power of Sin is the Law.” Work it backwards. What gives Sin its power is the Law. The commandment of God. Yes, that’s right. Not intuitively obvious, but true nonetheless. The Law of God empowers Sin and gives it its potency. And it’s Sin that’s the stinger of Death. So the very commandment that promised life becomes death in the presence of Sin. So take away the Law and you take way the potency of Sin. Disempower Sin and Death has lost its sting.
That’s what Jesus did for us. He became Sin for us. He took the stinger of Death into His own flesh and in so doing fulfilled the Law. You might say that he’s become the antiserum to the poison of the Law. He became Sin and let the Law kill Him. And in rising from the dead, having defeated Death, He now becomes for you the “antiserum,” the medicine of immortality that heals the poison of the Law that’s killing you.
The thing we don’t ever seem to get straight is that the Law doesn’t make sinners better. In fact, it makes them worse. Piling commandments on a sinner is like pouring gasoline on a fire. The apostle Paul uses an example from his own life. He studied the Law. He read in the Law “Do not covet.” Previously he had no notion that coveting was even sinful. It turns out to be idolatry of the heart, but that’s not exactly obvious on first glance. So you would think that having read the Law “Do not covet,” Paul would have begun getting the coveting out of his life and making some improvement in the greed department. But the opposite actually happened. Sin grabbed hold of the opportunity created by the commandment and produced all sorts of covetous desires in Paul and he died. It killed him. The commandment that promised life killed him.
So this is the formula: Sin plus the Law equals Death. That’s what killed Jesus. He became our Sin and the Law killed Him. Sin plus the Law equals Death. So when you apply the Law to sinners, and there is no one who is without Sin, you are going to kill them. In a good way, yes. But it’s still a death. That’s what Jesus meant in this morning’s reading from Matthew where He says, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” To take up your cross is to take up your death and follow Jesus to His death. Because it’s ultimately and finally only in death that we are freed from the Law, the way a married person is freed from the law of marriage.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. Don’t expect a steady diet of law to make you into a better person. The Law doesn’t change a sinner into a saint. Sinless saints are born not made. They must be born from above in Baptism by water and Spirit. All that the Law can do is kill the sinner. That’s all. The Law of God is good, it’s holy, it’s just, it’s pure and perfect and more. But when you apply the Law to someone who has the Sin “virus” it is going to prove fatal. Not only that, but Sin will be amplified to the point that it becomes sinful without measure.
There is a lot of practical implication here. You don’t need 40 days of purpose to improve yourself. You need to die and rise in Jesus’ death and resurrection. You need to consider yourself and see yourself for what God says you are – dead to Sin but alive to God in Christ.
You need to understand how the Law works. It works in three ways. You may have memorized it once as “curb, mirror, and guide.” Those aren’t bad, but I’d like to tweak them a bit without changing their meaning. First, God uses the Law to keep us all in line. He works through parents and government and authority structures; He uses the laws of the land and Robert’s Rules of Order to do damage control. To keep us from walking on each other’s lawns, driving in each other’s lanes, grabbing at each other’s throats. And so He curbs the sinner to keep him in bounds so he doesn’t hurt others and himself. That’s an outer use of the Law. You can’t curb the heart. You can’t pass laws about thoughts and desires. You can only curb outward behavior, keep the order.
Second, God uses the Law to do the deep diagnosis of our condition. He lifts what Paul calls the “veil of Moses” and interprets the Law the way Jesus did in the sermon on the mount. He shines the Law into our hearts, like a spiritual MRI, and reveals to us the true nature of our sinfulness. It’s not just that we sin in thought, word, and deed; it’s that we are infected by Sin through and through. It’s not just that we have problems, we are the problem. That’s what Paul is talking about here in our epistle reading from Romans this morning. The Law goes to the inner recesses of the heart and reveals that we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but instead we are at the heart covetous idolaters. That sin you think is a little thing is utterly sinful beyond measure. Every gossipy word, adulterous look, covetous desire is another symptom of how deep the condition goes.
That’s why we continually need Christ, the medicine of immortality, who became our Sin, died our Death, and who took death’s stinger and disarmed it. He kept the Law and the Law killed Him in our place. And He conquered it all in His dying and rising. Being baptized into Christ is to be reborn in Him, to become something completely new. A new you. The old you in Adam is still around, but now you are a new you in Christ. God has declared the old you dead. You are no longer bound to Sin. That marriage is ended. You are free to be bound to Christ, which is true freedom. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
That brings us to the third way that God uses the Law, something we will hear about in the next couple weeks from Romans, that He puts the Law into the hands of the new you and says, “Now you mortify the old you. Drown that old Adam of yours in Baptism every time he rears his ugly head. Say no to his desires. Don’t follow his heart. It leads to death. Follow the heart of Christ, which you have, that leads to life.” In other words, now that we are free from the Law, God gives us the Law to do what He has already declared to be done in Baptism. Mortify the old you. You’re already dead in Christ. You have nothing to lose but Sin and Death. So now live as one who is widowed to Sin but living to God in Christ Jesus. More on that next week.
The take home thought for today is that rules and regulations and laws and commandments won’t make you better or less of a sinner or improve your status with God. But being baptized into Christ, you are already now a sinless saint in the eyes of God, redeemed by the Blood of Jesus, covered with His righteousness, rescued from Death and brought to life. You no longer live as far as God is concerned. And the life you now live in the flesh you live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and who gave His life to save you.
You are free in Christ. Yes. That free.
In the Name of Jesus,