Romans chapter 7 is a cold, wet rag of reality for anyone who thinks that being a Christian means you are free from sin. Those who speak of being a Christian in terms of the “victorious life” and living a sin-free existence while following “biblical principles” need to sit down and read Romans chapter 7.
Paul begins with an illustration from the marriage courts. A married woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. You know that. “Till death us do part.” That’s how it works. The marriage covenant holds until one or the other of you drops dead. Now Paul doesn’t mention divorce here, so don’t read it in. He’s dealing with marriage the way it ordinarily is supposed to go. Now if a married woman goes off and lives with another man while her husband is still alive and kicking, we call that “adultery.” We still do, last time I checked. But if her husband is dead, she’s free as bird to feather someone else’s nest, so to speak.
The point: Death is the end of the law when it comes to marriage.
Now the kicker. You also died to the law. We worked that last week, but in case you missed it or forgot, here’s a quick recap. You died in Christ. You were buried with Him in Baptism. God declared you forensically dead to the Law in your Baptism. Sin no longer reigns over you. Christ does. And you are to consider yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ. That’s the gift given you Baptism.
Paul says, you died to the Law though the body of Christ. Your as dead as dead Jesus hanging on a cross, when it comes to the Law. So you’re like that woman whose husband kicked the bucket. Free. Free to belong to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Free to live a new life. Free to bear fruit to God as branches joined to the Vine.
There are two realities in our lives: our flesh and the Holy Spirit. Our flesh, which we inherited from Adam, is riddled with sin. Sin is a condition. It’s like cancer. It invades your body, takes over your cells, and wreaks havoc and death. And the flesh, riddled with sin, cannot cure itself. Sin in our flesh produces all that rebellion and misery we call “sins” – murder, theft, lying, immorality, greed, idolatry, you name it. Even if we were very good and innocent, like a newborn baby, we’d still have this condition called Sin that lords over our Adamic flesh and makes us captive to death. That is the reality of being a child of Adam.
But there is a second reality laid over that by God, namely, the “new life of the Spirit.” Since we have been declared legally, forensically dead in our Baptism into Christ, we are now free from the Law to live a new life of freedom in the Spirit, the fruit of which Paul describes elsewhere: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There’s no Law about those, they simply blossom like fruit on the good tree of faith in Jesus.
Now here’s the tricky part. The life we now life, the life we live by faith in Christ, is a life held in tension between these two realities – flesh and spirit. The spirit, that is, that life that is worked in us by the Holy Spirit to conform us to the mind of Christ, is certainly willing, but our flesh, which is remains riddled with Sin until it dies, is weak and ever sinful.
And it’s even worse than that. When Sin gets a hold of the Law, things go from bad to worse. That’s why the Law alone never makes anyone better. You can beat people over the head with commandments from dawn til dusk and they’ll never cease to be sinners. In fact, they’ll find new ways to express themselves as sinners! Paul recalls his childhood as he learned the Law at the feet of his teachers. His teachers taught him how to keep the Law, all the 613 dos and donts to please God. And he was doing fine, or so he thought. And then he learned the commandment about coveting, that funny commandment that deals with the heart so that no one even knows when you’re coveting. It’s just between you and God.
Paul says he heard the commandment, “You shall not covet,” and it was like the commandment “You shall not yawn.” The minute you hear it, you can’t stop yawning. (Maybe I shouldn’t have used that example.) He couldn’t stop coveting, became a veritable coveting machine. And this was from a Jewish kid who didn’t have a clue about coveting five minutes before!
So here’s the deal. Sin, that foreign thing that inheres in our flesh, seizes the opportunity of all those “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” and it deceives us to death. We think we can keep the commandment, and the harder we try, the worse it gets. The net effect is the opposite of what we expect: sin becomes utterly sinful under the Law. Sinful beyond measure. So sinful, you despair of ever saving yourself, which is precisely the point.
Paul goes on. The lectionary didn’t, but we need to. He says, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Notice he doesn’t say, “I was unspiritual before I became a Christian and got straightened out,” but “I am unspiritual.” In your flesh, you are completely unspiritual, so you may as well forget about all that silly spirituality talk you hear that tells you the answer lies within you. It doesn’t. The problem lies within you. Paul says, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good lives.”
It’s as though there was a war going on inside himself. Paul says, “I want to do good. His mind is set on doing good. He has the will to do good. But he can’t pull it off. The good he wants to do, he doesn’t do. And the evil he hates, that’s what he does. And he the apostle Paul! His explanation: It’s not me. I’m dead. It’s Sin dwelling in me. He disowns his sin. He doesn’t identify with it. It’s a foreign element. You do that too. You’re baptized, dead to sin but alive to God in Christ. It’s not you, it’s Sin in you that’s the problem. And that’s not something you can deal with.
Paul says he finds the principle at work: two laws – the law of his renewed mind that delights in God’s law, and the law of Sin that’s at work in his flesh holding him captive. Talk about tension! Mind and members; Spirit and flesh. It’s a war going on inside the baptized believer. You think it’s easy being a Christian? Guess again. Never mind the phony prophets and televangelists who say “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. Jesus said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” And that sword cuts right through the heart of each and every one of us. It means literally losing your life, dropping dead to your self, in order to find your life in Christ.
Paul concludes, “What a wretched man I am.” Paul, a wretched man. This isn’t some kind of inferiority complex or lack of self-esteem. “Hey, don’t be down on yourself, Paul. You’re the apostle Paul. You’re doing great things – spreading the Gospel, starting churches. Look at all the great stuff you’re doing. You’re not a wretched man, Paul. Cheer up, look on the bright side.”
No, Paul says, “I am a wretched man. And I live in a body of death.” And so do you. And so do I. We live in a body of death, steeped in Sin, destined to die and rot in a grave somewhere. And the million dollar question: Who will rescue me? Who will save me from this body of death?” I can’t save myself. Someone else has to. And the answer: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
There’s your answer. Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the One who saves us from this body of death in His Body given into death on a cross. He saves us from this body of death by baptizing our bodies into His death and grave. He saves us from this body of death by putting into our bodies His own Body as living Bread, and His own Blood, sacred Wine poured out for the world.
And don’t stop when you get to the end of chapter 7, lest you miss that stellar first verse of chapter 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of Sin. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature (that is, Sin inhering in our flesh), God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man (that is in our flesh without Sin) to be a sin offering.”
For now it’s a struggle. With our minds renewed by the Spirit, we serve the Law of God; with our flesh, corrupted by Sin, we serve the Law of Sin. That’s how it is – the life of Christ in a body of death. That’s why it must be by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.