When the people of Israel returned from their captivity in Babylon, significant challenges awaited them. They had small numbers and resources, but big obstacles and enemies. To rebuild Jerusalem and its temple were huge projects. The surrounding people groups did not want them to succeed. The pressure to quit was immense.
For a while, they did. They quit. For fifteen years the rebuilding effort was paused. The temple foundation sat neglected, while they refurbished their homes. So God sent His prophets. Haggai and Zechariah broke the silence and prodded the people to rebuild the house of God, to set God as their priority. Haggai was rather straightforward in his prophecies, while Zechariah used compelling imagery and visions.
One of Zechariah’s prophecies aimed at the governor of Jerusalem, a man named Zerubbabel, who must have been overwhelmed, discouraged at the enormity of the task. So Zechariah told Zerubbabel a vision of two olive trees out of which pipes connected to a golden lampstand. Those pipes carried the oil of the trees straight to the lampstand, enabling the candlesticks to burn brightly. Perpetual fire. No changing out of the oil. The light would always burn.
This image set up God’s word to Zerubbabel: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). It was God’s way of telling Zerubbabel the overwhelming task would be possible by the strength of His Spirit working in and through them.
Perhaps, after thinking about the truth of Romans 6, you feel similar to Zerubbabel. Maybe you are overwhelmed with the enormity of the sanctification process. We need the Lord to remind us of His help, His enabling. In Romans 8 we will learn of the power of God’s Spirit to bolster us in this journey. He will aid us and grow us. We cannot sanctify alone.
But we often believe we must — or can — sanctify by our power. We begin to grow a little and pride takes over. Alternatively, we fail a little and despair creeps in. We think the burden is on us. The words of Jesus that His yoke is easy and His burden is light, sound like a distant dream, not reality. In our hearts, the Spirit’s help is replaced with legalism. However, “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Galatians 3:3)? It was by faith we were saved. It is by faith we are sanctified. We need God.
Romans 6 dealt with the license question: now that I am saved by grace, do have a license to sin? Romans 7 deals with the legalism question: now that I see God’s will is my sanctification, do I get this done by setting legal codes to restrict and guide me? But God is not interested in license or legalism; He wants liberty. He wants a life free from the folly of sin and the pride of self-effort. He wants us to depend on Him for our continued transformation.
LEGAL AND WEAK — Released from the law (1-3)
“Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?” (Romans 7:1 ESV).
Paul had already told us we are no longer under the law but are now under grace (see Romans 6:15). Here, Paul tells us the law is only binding on a person as long as they live. But what is the law?
He wrote to the Roman church, of course, and, by extension to the universal church. Since he talked to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, it seems improbable that he meant only the Mosaic law. God gave commands in the Mosaic Law, of course, but we also have the moral law in general revelation. In other words, my conscience reveals a code in me. There are various things I know I should and should not do. When I see someone behave kindly, it resonates. I know it to be good. When I heard of a murder, I know it to be wrong. When I’ve stolen, guilt is present. A person or society can sear their conscience, but generally, there is a law revealed to humankind. We are under the law as long as we live.
How does it bind living people? Paul used a word - bind - which indicates mastery, power, or control. The law has jurisdiction over us, like a master over a servant. It exerts this mastery by increasing our sin, both by revealing our error and producing a sinful desire within us (Romans 5:20). It brought about the fruit of death (Romans 6:5), which is ultimate mastery. The law is the only way for humanity to relate to God while still alive. Everyone born has a legal relationship with God. Because of sin, the law is a master over us.
Is there any way to escape our legal relationship with God? Can I be set free from it? We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). For our justification, our legal relationship with God was replaced by a substitutionary one. Jesus took our place. Is the same possible for our sanctification? Can we shift from a legal connection to something other?
“For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.” (Romans 7:2–3 ESV).
Here, Paul uses an illustration every culture would understand. Marriage. He isn’t giving us a marriage manual at this point, nor is he giving a teaching on marriage and divorce. No, he is illustrating how we have been set free from a legal relationship with God.
First, soak in the illustration. See the married woman. Legally, she is married. She is bound by law to her husband. He is hers. She is his. Then, in the illustration, he died. Paul does not say why; it doesn’t matter. What matters is simple: the wife is released from the law of marriage. Death did that.
Imagine the next part of the illustration. Imagine her husband has not died but is very much alive. Imagine her going to live with another man. She receives the label of an adulteress. You cannot live this way. The law has bound her to her husband. She commits adultery to ignore the law that restricts her.
Finally, imagine again her husband has died. He is no longer alive. Since she is free from the legal bounds of marriage, she is free to remarry. If she does, she does not receive the adulteress label. Her freedom from the law makes remarriage acceptable.
In this illustration, Paul highlights the power of the law. Like the marriage law did to the wife, so the law binds us. The only way for its power to be released over us is through death. That is the point. Only death sets us free from a legal relationship with God.
STRONGER LOVE — Married to Christ (4)
“Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4 ESV).
Paul turns the tables. In his illustration, the husband died. In his application, we died. The law is very much alive, binding everyone still alive to it, but we died to it. How so? Through the body of Christ. We died with Jesus.
We have been released from a legal standing with God. The timing of Paul’s argument is crucial. He has moved past the subject of justification at this point in his letter. He now addresses sanctification. Do we grow through restrictions and legal codes? No. The law does not have power over us. The law cannot produce in us. We died to the law. We are set free from it, but this is how we often attempt to grow.
The gospels tell us of a man who was severely demon possessed. The townspeople didn’t know what to do with him. They tried chaining him up, but with demonic strength, he broke the chains. Finally, he lived out in the wilderness, in a cave, amongst the tombs. He cut himself. He was a man destroyed. Then Jesus came, delivering the man, returning him to his right mind. Jesus did what chains could not. Jesus did more than chains ever could.
I see myself in that man. I often attempt to attach outward chains to my sanctification or growth. I think vows and commitments will get progress for me. I believe accountability systems and relationships spur growth. I think filling up my calendar with God-things will automatically grow me. I easily drift right back into law.
The truth is, many of those elements are good and right, but they are not primary. For the primary, I must realize no chain can bind me. I need Jesus to grow me, to set me free.
At this point, we must ask ourselves, do I believe I have supernaturally and mystically died to the law? Do I believe this is no longer the way for me to relate to God?
In Galatians 4:28-5:1 Paul made a similar argument by using the story of Ishmael and Hagar, Isaac and Sarah, from the Old Testament. A baby boy had been promised to Abraham and Sarah. It would be a miraculous birth. But when the miracle baby delayed in coming, Abraham went into Hagar to produce a baby by natural means. Ishmael, the product of human scheming, a fleshly plan, was born. Paul pointed out that the slave woman and her son (Hagar and Ishmael) had to be cast out. He told us: “You are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (Galatians 4:31). His conclusion? “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
However, we often go back to a yoke of slavery. We often look for that original marriage to the law. We try to resurrect ourselves to the law and rejoin it. Think of how this usually works.
Perhaps, as you grow, you come under conviction from the Spirit to remove your television from your home. Later, pride begins to fill your heart as you hear of others who have not done so. You become angry and embittered. You start to tell every one of the time they are wasting through television watching. You are sour, not joyful. Relationship with your Father, one where He can deal with you individually, has been replaced again with the mastery of the law. Remember Paul’s word to the Galatians: “Stand firm! Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”
Maybe a well-meaning bible teacher introduces a personal conviction to the larger assembly. Soon, the personal conviction turns into a movement. Everyone must follow. The followers of that teacher herald the opinions of that teacher as legitimate Christianity. The legal code has crept in. Stand firm! Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!
You wake up early each day for prayer and Bible reading. There, you meet with your Father in heaven. He teaches you, reminds you, instructs you. One day, you begin to think of this time as a legal transaction. You showed up, now God owes you. Or you owe Him, so you better show up. You’ve moved past relationship and into law. Stand firm! Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!
This can happen to us in a million ways. A critical spirit might come over us about how another believer lives their lives. Stand firm! Self-control in your spending turns into pride about your financial prowess. Stand firm! You feel pressured to be something great, to exude greatness. Stand firm! You become paralyzed into inaction because of a pursuit of perfection. Stand firm! Discouragement overwhelms you, for your performance has not measured up to your expectations. Stand firm!
All this is so natural for us. We were married to the law, after all, so we often trend in that direction. It might take years for us to realize we died to it, to see we’ve been set free from it. We so quickly move back into the marriage with the law. It isn’t the law that died, after all, it feels very much alive. But we have changed. Radically. We have died with Christ. We are free from that legal bond.
By nature, I am an achiever. I like to tackle big projects and see them through. I like to get a long-range vision and chip away at it over time. This can be good, something God uses. This can be bad, something the enemy uses. I can easily fall into condemnation about my performance on any given day. My lofty expectations weren’t met. I failed again. I need God’s grace at that moment. I need to realize I cannot meet the holy requirement of the law. My unification with Christ removed me from all that. I am new in Him. I belong to Him. I must stand firm in the freedom I have received from Christ. I must stand firm in grace. I must not submit to a yoke of slavery.
We might wonder at this point if we are called to live lawlessly. This was answered in Romans 6. Our identity has changed, for one. We are unified with Christ. Why go on living in license? But, additionally, our motivation has changed. Our enabling power has shifted as well. The Spirit has been given to us.
During the American Civil War, the North is commonly thought to have had the advantage. They had advantages in military strength, organization, and finances. However, the South had home turf. If the North never attacked, if the North did nothing, the South would win. All they had done was claim independence, seceding from the union. Had the North not attacked, the South would have had their union.
The law is that way. It lays claim on us. It beckons us to a legal relationship with God. If we do nothing, it will win. We must war against its notions. Legalism stirs within us. This is no small problem. For centuries, only small pockets of believers clung to grace, law and outward form dominated.
Paul would not stop at our death to the law. He went on. We are married now to another. We belong to another. To Him who has been raised from the dead. We are raised from the dead like Jesus in order to marry another.
In other words, we are now out of a legal relationship with God, but in a loving relationship with Jesus. God had prophesied of this day: “In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband’ (Hosea 2:16). God looked forward to the moment Israel would enter into a love relationship with Him. The same is true with us today. Love, not law, is what God looks for. He invites us into it through the pathway of the cross.
This is a theme in Scripture. To the Corinthian church, Paul spoke of Christ as our husband. His goal was to present the Corinthian church as a pure virgin to Christ. He wanted to prepare the bride for Jesus. John wrote of the return of Jesus, a time when we’ll celebrate at the marriage supper of the Lamb. John said, “The bride has made herself ready.”
What does it look like to be in a love relationship with the Lord, rather than a legal one?
In a marital relationship with Jesus, you enter into love, not law.
In a healthy marriage, a law has tied husband and wife together, but law is the last resort motivation for marital faithfulness. When a marriage is healthy, love is preeminent. We do what we do because we love. Love drives us to converse, to discover the other’s will, to serve one another. Love prefers the other.
In a marital relationship with Jesus, you are now together, not apart.
In a healthy marriage, a couple will build their entire lives together. They will join their finances, and make financial decisions together. They will make major life decisions together. They will enjoy and prioritize one another. We've joined to Jesus. He has invited us into a wonderful relationship with Him. We are together, not apart.
In a marital relationship with Jesus, we care and are not apathetic.
In a healthy marriage, a couple will not focus solely on their legal responsibilities, but on pleasing their spouse. They want to bless each other. So, for us with Christ, we want to bless Him.
Paul continues. We used to bear fruit to death. But now we have an opportunity to bear fruit to God. For the believer, the possibility is beautiful. We want to bear fruit to God. The fruit of death, the destruction and misery, we’ve had enough of that. We are ready to move on into making disciples, loving the lost, making a difference in this world. We want to bear fruit to God.
Many believe Paul is merely continuing the marriage analogy here. We died. Our marriage to the law was cancelled. We resurrected with Jesus. Our marriage to him began. Now, we bear children as a result of this union to Christ, fruit to God. Obedience, transformation, sanctification — they flow from our relationship and union to Christ. Married to Him, in step with Him, we bear fruit for God.
Jesus spoke of this in John 15. He is the true vine, His father is the vinedresser, and we are the branches. His life must come pumping into our life, our branches. When we remain and continue in Him, we bear fruit. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
The Lord looks for us to press into our walks with Him. The fruit of converts, attitudes, and actions is possible, but we must enjoy our relationship with Jesus. You might be temperamentally geared towards a devotionally natured relationship with Christ. You might not. Either way, there is hope of fruit for God as we enjoy Jesus.
BETTER HELP — We serve in the new and fruitful way of the Spirit (5-6)
“For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:5–6 ESV).
We’ve already seen that our previous relationship with the law couldn’t bear fruit unto God. It wasn’t possible. But now we have a new hope. Paul says it like this: “We serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.”
We serve a new master. We have a new husband. The old way of human effort is gone. We now enter into the new way of the Spirit.
Prophets like Ezekiel declared this day would come. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Paul will describe this new way of the Spirit in Romans 8.
The Holy Spirit is now at work in us. “Do this and live, the law demands but gives me neither feet nor hands. A better word the gospel brings, it bids me fly and gives me wings.” What are the wings of this poem? The supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. We need the massive energy of the Spirit to live a life that honors God.
Which way will you walk in? A relational walk with Christ, or by the cold letter of the law? Conviction from the Spirit or the general condemnation of the law?
Let’s think of how this could impact a few areas of life:
The thought life:
We all spend more time in our own heads than with anyone else’s thoughts. Our thoughts are constant. Some thoughts will run contrary to Christ, while others will be the thoughts of God. The new way of the Spirit enables us to take errant thoughts captive, to replace them with the mind of Christ.
We might be able to obtain moments of self-control in our spending, but the new way of the Spirit makes real transformation possible. Contentment is only possible by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit working through us (Philippians 4:13).
Perhaps we are plagued with an over-consumption of media, or we know we should cut back. Under the old way of the law we’ll want it, but try not to engage as much as we used to. The new way of the Spirit will enable us to want it less.
The new way of the Spirit can turn you into a hard worker, while the old way of the letter will only provide you with bursts of hard work. Laziness will creep back in. The new way of the Spirit can turn you into a world changer, while the old way of the law will only make you momentarily passionate for a cause. The new way of the Spirit can turn you into a forgiving person, while the old way of the law will only give you moments of bitterness suppression. The new way of the Spirit can make your words life-giving, while the old way of the law will give you rare moments where you bite your tongue.
In fact, the new way of the Spirit puts the law in a healthy place. Married to it, attempting to be sanctified by it, was improper and impossible. But now that we are united to Christ we aren’t married to the law. The Spirit, however, makes us now love the law. “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). The law is the target the Holy Spirit is taking me to. By looking at the law I see what the Spirit can do in me. He can transform me and write those laws on my heart, changing me from the inside out.
In the book Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim visited the house of Interpreter. Dust covered the house. It was everywhere. A servant entered and began to sweep, but sweeping only worsened the problem. The dust flew everywhere. The servant then poured water on the dust, washing it away. Soon, the house was clean.
The dust is sin. It is everywhere. The law is the broom, the sweeping. The law only kicks up the dust, the sin. The gospel is the water. It washes our sin away. In this gospel relationship with Jesus, we are brought into a new way of the Spirit where we are actually cleansed. Only He can wash us. Only He can grow us.