David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
Romans 7:1-25 - THE WEAKNESS OF THE LAW EXPOSED
A. Dead to the Law.
1. (Romans 7:1-3) The law has authority only over the living.
Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.
a. In Romans 6:14, Paul told us that sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. After the discussion in Romans 6:15-23 regarding practical implications of this, he now explains more completely how it is that we are no longer under the dominion of the law.
b. That the law has dominion over a man: The ancient Greek wording here has no the before law. This means that Paul speaks of a principle broader than the Mosaic Law. The law that has dominion over us includes the Law of Moses, but there is a broader principle of law communicated by creation and conscience, and these also have dominion over a man.
c. The law has dominion over a man as long as he lives: Paul makes the point that death ends all obligations and contracts. A wife is no longer bound to her husband if he dies because death ends that contract. If her husband dies, she is free from that law.
2. (Romans 7:4) Our death with Jesus sets us free from the law.
Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another; to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.
a. You also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ: In Romans 6:3-8, Paul carefully explained that we died with Jesus and we also rose with Him, although Paul there only spoke of our death to sin. Now he explains that we also died to the law.
i. Some might think, “Yes, we were saved by grace, but we must live by law to please God.” Here Paul makes it plain that believers are dead to the law as far as it represents a principle of living or a place of right standing before God.
ii. “Believers are through with the law. It is not for them an option as a way of salvation. They do not seek to be right with God by obeying some form of law, as the adherents of almost all religions have done.” (Morris)
b. That you may be married to another: However, we are not free from the law so we can live unto ourselves; we are free so that we can be “married” to Jesus and so that we can bear fruit to God.
3. (Romans 7:5) The problem with the law.
For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.
a. When we were in the flesh: Under the law, we did not bear fruit to God. Instead we bore fruit to death, because the law aroused the passions of sins within us.
b. Paul will explain this problem of the law more fully in Romans 7:7-14. But now we see his point - that we only come fully to the place of bearing fruit for God when we are free from the law.
4. (Romans 7:6) Delivered from the law.
But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.
a. But now we have been delivered from the law: The theme of Romans 7:1-5 is summarized. Because we died with Jesus at Calvary, we are dead to the law and delivered from its dominion over us as a principle of justification or of sanctification.
i. The law does not justify us; it does not make us right with God. The law does not sanctify us; it does not take us deeper with God and make us more holy before Him.
b. So that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit: Our freedom is given not so we can stop serving God; but so that we can serve Him better, under the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.
c. How well do you serve in the newness of the Spirit? It is a shame that many serve sin or legalism with more devotion than those who should serve God out of the newness of the Spirit. It’s too bad when fear motivates us more than love.
B. Our problem with God’s perfect law.
1. (Romans 7:7 a) Paul asks: Is the law (equal to) sin?
What shall we say then? Is the law sin?
a. Is the law sin? If we follow his train of thought we can understand how someone could infer this. Paul insisted that we must die to the law if we will bear fruit to God. Someone must think, “Surely there is something wrong with the law!”
2. (Romans 7:7 b) No, the law is good because it reveals sin to us.
Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”
a. I would not have known sin except through the law: The law is like an x-ray machine; it reveals plainly what might have always been there, but was hidden before. You can’t blame an x-ray for what it exposes.
b. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” The law sets the “speed limit” so we know exactly if we are going too fast. We might never know that we are sinning in many areas (such as covetousness) if the law did not spell this out to us specifically.
3. (Romans 7:8) Sin corrupts the commandment (law).
But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.
a. But sin, taking opportunity by the commandments: Paul describes the dynamic where the warning “don’t do that” may become a call to action because of our sinful, rebellious hearts. It isn’t the fault of the commandment, but it is our fault.
i. In his book Confessions, the great theologian of the ancient church Augustine described how this dynamic worked in his life as a young man: “There was a pear tree near our vineyard, laden with fruit. One stormy night we rascally youths set out to rob it and carry our spoils away. We took off a huge load of pears - not to feast upon ourselves, but to throw them to the pigs, though we ate just enough to have the pleasure of forbidden fruit. They were nice pears, but it was not the pears that my wretched soul coveted, for I had plenty better at home. I picked them simply in order to become a thief. The only feast I got was a feast of iniquity, and that I enjoyed to the full. What was it that I loved in the theft? Was it the pleasure of acting against the law? The desire to steal was awakened simply by the prohibition of stealing.”
ii. In American history, we know that the Prohibition Act didn’t stop drinking. In many ways it made drinking more attractive to people, because of our desire to break boundaries set by the commandment.
iii. Once God draws a boundary for us, we are immediately enticed to cross that boundary - which is no fault of God or His boundary, but the fault of our sinful hearts.
b. Sin, taking opportunity by the commandment: The weakness of the law isn’t in the law - it is in us. Our hearts are so wicked that they can find opportunity for all manner of evil desire from something good like the law of God.
i. “The word opportunity in the original is a military term meaning a base of operations. Prohibition furnishes a springboard from which sin is all too ready to take off.” (Harrison)
ii. A waterfront hotel in Florida was concerned that people might try to fish from the balconies, so they put up signs saying, “NO FISHING FROM THE BALCONY.” They had constant problems with people fishing from the balconies, with lines and sinker weights breaking windows and bothering people in rooms below. They finally solved the problem by simply taking down the signs - and no one thought to fish from the balconies. Because of our hearts, the law can actually work like an invitation to sin.
c. Apart from the law, sin was dead: This shows how great the evil of sin is - it can take something good and holy like the law and twist it to promote evil. Sin warps love into lust, an honest desire to provide into greed, and law into a promoter of sin.
4. (Romans 7:9) Paul’s state of innocence before he knew the law.
I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.
a. I was alive once without the law: Children can be innocent before they know or understand what law requires. This is what Paul refers to when he says I was alive once without the law.
i. “He is not alive with the life that the New Testament writers so often speak about. He is alive in the sense that he has never been put to death as a result of confrontation with the law.” (Morris)
i. “He was quite secure amid all his sin and sinfulness. He lived in the sense that the deathblow had not yet killed him. He sat secure in the house of his ignorance like a man living on a volcano and thought that all was well.” (Lenski)
b. But when the commandment came, sin revived and I died: But when we do know the law, the law shows us our guilt and it excites our rebellion, bringing forth more sin and death.
5. (Romans 7:10-12) Sin corrupts the law and defeats its purpose of giving life; once law is corrupted by sin, it brings death.
And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
a. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death: Sin does this by deception. Sin deceives us:
b. For sin . . . deceived me: It isn’t the law that deceives us, but it is sin that uses the law as an occasion for rebellion. This is why Jesus said you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32) The truth makes us free from the deceptions of sin.
c. And by it killed me: Sin, when followed, leads to death - not life. One of Satan’s greatest deceptions is to get us to think of sin as something good that an unpleasant God wants to deprive us of. When God warns us away from sin, He warns us away from something that will kill us.
d. Therefore the law is holy: Paul understands how someone might take him as saying that he is against the law - but he isn’t at all. It is true that we must die to sin (Romans 6:2) and we must die to the law (Romans 7:4). But that should not be taken to say that Paul believes that sin and law are in the same basket. The problem is in us, not in the law. Nevertheless, sin corrupts the work or effect of the law, so we must die to both.
C. The purpose and character of the law.
1. (Romans 7:13) The law exposes and magnifies sin.
Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.
a. Sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good: Though the law provokes our sin nature, this can be used for good because it more dramatically exposes our deep sinfulness. After all, if sin can use something as good as the law to its advantage in promoting evil, it shows how evil sin is.
i. We need sin to appear sin, because it always wants to hide in us and conceal its true depths and strength. “This is one of the most deplorable results of sin. It injures us most by taking from us the capacity to know how much we are injured. It undermines the man’s constitution, and yet leads him to boast of unfailing health; it beggars him, and tells him he is rich; it strips him, and makes him glory in his fancied robes.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Those who preach only the Gospel to sinners, at best only heal the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly. The law, therefore, is the grand instrument in the hands of a faithful minister, to alarm and awaken sinners.” (Clarke)
b. So that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful: Sin “becomes more sinful” in light of the law in two ways. First, sin becomes exceedingly sinful through contrast with the law. Second, sin becomes exceedingly sinful because the law provokes its evil nature.
i. “Instead of being a dynamo that gives us power to overcome, the Law is a magnet that draws out of us all kinds of sin and corruption.” (Wiersbe)
ii. Exceedingly sinful: “Why didn’t he say, ‘exceeding black,’ or ‘exceeding horrible,’ or ‘exceedingly deadly’? Why, because there is nothing in the world so bad as sin. When he wanted to use the very worst word he could find: to call sin by, he called it by its own name, and reiterated it: ‘sin,’ ‘exceeding sinful.’” (Spurgeon)
2. (Romans 7:14) The spiritual law cannot restrain a carnal man.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.
a. But I am carnal: The word carnal simply means “of the flesh.” Paul recognizes that a spiritual law cannot help a carnal man.
i. Carnal uses the ancient Greek word sarkikos, which means, “characterized by the flesh.” It speaks of the person who can and should do differently but does not. Paul sees this carnality in himself, and knows that the law, though it is spiritual, has no answer for his carnal nature.
b. Sold under sin: Paul is in bondage under sin and the law can’t help him out. He is like a man arrested for a crime and thrown in jail. The law will only help him if he is innocent, but Paul knows that he is guilty and that the law argues against him, not for him.
c. Even though Paul says that he is carnal, it doesn’t mean that he is not a Christian. His awareness of his carnality is evidence that God has done a work in him.
i. Luther on but I am carnal, sold under sin: “That is the proof of the spiritual and wise man. He knows that he is carnal, and he is displeased with himself; indeed, he hates himself and praises the Law of God, which he recognizes because he is spiritual. But the proof of a foolish, carnal man is this, that he regards himself as spiritual and is pleased with himself.”
D. The struggle of obedience in our own strength.
1. (Romans 7:15-19) Paul describes his sense of helplessness.
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.
a. For what I am doing, I do not understand: Paul’s problem isn’t desire - he wants to do what is right (what I will to do, that I do not practice). His problem isn’t knowledge - he knows what the right thing is. His problem is a lack of power: how to perform what is good I do not find. He lacks power because the law gives no power.
i. The law says: “Here are the rules and you had better keep them.” But it gives us no power for keeping the law.
b. It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me: Is Paul denying his responsibility as a sinner? No. He recognizes that as he sins, he acts against his nature as a new man in Jesus Christ. A Christian must own up to his sin, yet realize that the impulse to sin does not come from who we really are in Jesus Christ.
i. “To be saved from sin, a man must at the same time own it and disown it; it is this practical paradox which is reflected in this verse. A true saint may say it in a moment of passion, but a sinner had better not make it a principle.” (Wuest)
2. (Romans 7:20-23) The battle between two selves.
Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
a. I find then a law, that evil is present with me: Anyone who has tried to do good is aware of this struggle. We never know how hard it is to stop sinning until we try. “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good.” (C.S. Lewis)
b. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man: Paul knows that his real inward man has a delight in the law of God. He understands that the impulse to sin comes from another law in my members. Paul knows that the “real self” is the one who does delight in the law of God.
i. The old man is not the real Paul; the old man is dead. The flesh is not the real Paul; the flesh is destined to pass away and be resurrected. The new man is the real Paul; now Paul’s challenge is to live like God has made him.
ii. There is a debate among Christians as to if Paul was a Christian during the experience he describes. Some look at his struggle with sin and believe that it must have been before he was born again. Others believe that he is just a Christian struggling with sin. In a sense this is an irrelevant question, for this is the struggle of anyone who tries to obey God in their own strength. This is something that a Christian may do, but something that a non-Christian can only do.
iii. Morris quoting Griffith Thomas: “The one point of the passages is that it describes a man who is trying to be good and holy by his own efforts and is beaten back every time by the power of indwelling sin; it thus refers to anyone, regenerate or unregenerate.”
c. Warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin: Sin is able to war within Paul and win because there is no power within himself, other than himself, to stop sinning. Paul is caught in the desperate powerlessness of trying to battle sin in the power of self.
E. The victory found in Jesus Christ.
1. (Romans 7:24) Paul’s desperation and perspective.
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
a. O wretched man that I am! The ancient Greek word wretched is more literally, “Wretched through the exhaustion of hard labor.” Paul is completely worn out and wretched because of his unsuccessful effort to please God under the principle of Law.
i. “It is worth bearing in mind that the great saints through the ages do not commonly say, ‘How good I am!’ Rather, they are apt to bewail their sinfulness.” (Morris)
ii. Legalism always brings a person face to face with their own wretchedness, and if they continue in legalism, they will react in one of two ways. Either they will deny their wretchedness and become self-righteous Pharisees, or they will despair because of their wretchedness and give up following after God.
b. O wretched man that I am! The entire tone of the statement shows that Paul is desperate for deliverance. He is overwhelmed with a sense of his own powerlessness and sinfulness. We must come to the same place of desperation to find victory.
i. Your desire must go beyond a vague hope to be better. You must cry out against yourself and cry out unto God with the same desperation Paul did.
c. Who will deliver me: Paul’s perspective finally turns to something (actually, someone) outside of himself. Paul has referred to himself some 40 times since Romans 7:13. In the pit of Paul’s unsuccessful struggle against sin, he became entirely self-focused and self-obsessed. This is the place of any believer living under law, who looks to self and personal performance rather than looking first to Jesus.
i. The words “Who will deliver me” show that Paul has given up on himself, and asks “Who will deliver me?” Instead of “How will I deliver myself?”
ii. “It is not the voice of one desponding or doubting, but of one breathing and panting after deliverance.” (Poole)
d. Who will deliver me from this body of death? When Paul describes this body of death, some commentators see a reference to ancient kings who tormented their prisoners by shackling them to decomposing corpses. Paul longs to be cut free from the wretched body of death clinging to him.
i. “It was the custom of ancient tyrants, when they wished to put men to the most fearful punishments, to tie a dead body to them, placing the two back to back; and there was the living man, with a dead body closely strapped to him, rotting, putrid, corrupting, and this he must drag with him wherever he went. Now, this is just what the Christian has to do. He has within him the new life; he has a living and undying principle, which the Holy Spirit has put within him, but he feels that every day he has to drag about with him this dead body, this body of death, a thing as loathsome, as hideous, as abominable to his new life, as a dead stinking carcass would be to a living man.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Others see a reference to sin in general, such as Murray: “Body has been taken to means mass and body of death the whole mass of sin. Hence what Paul longs to be delivered from is sin in all its aspects and consequences.”
iii. “By the body of death he means the whole mass of sin, or those ingredients of which the whole man is composed; except that in him there remained only relics, by the captive bonds of which he was held.” (Calvin)
2. (Romans 7:25) Paul finally looks outside of himself to Jesus.
I thank God; through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
a. I thank God; through Jesus Christ our Lord! Finally, Paul looks outside of himself and unto Jesus. As soon as he looks to Jesus, he has something to thank God for - and he thanks God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
i. Through means that Paul sees Jesus standing between himself and God, bridging the gap and providing the way to God. Lord means that Paul has put Jesus in the right place - as Lord and master of his life.
b. So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin: He acknowledges the state of struggle, but thanks God for the victory in Jesus. Paul doesn’t pretend that looking to Jesus takes away the struggle - Jesus works through us, not instead of us in the battle against sin.
i. The glorious truth remains: there is victory in Jesus! Jesus didn’t come and die just to give us more or better rules, but to live out victory through those who believe. The message of the gospel is that there is victory over sin, hate, death, and all evil as we surrender out lives to Jesus and let Him live out victory through us.
ii. Calvin calls Romans 7:25 : “A short epilogue, in which he teaches us, that the faithful never reach the goal of righteousness as long as they dwell in the flesh, but that they are running their course, until they put off the body.”
c. Paul shows that even though the law is glorious and good, it can’t save us - and we need a Savior. Paul never found any peace, any praising God until he looked outside of himself and beyond the law to his Savior, Jesus Christ.
i. You thought the problem was that you didn’t know what to do to save yourself - but the came as a teacher, taught you all what to do and you couldn’t do it. You don’t need a teacher, you need a Savior.
ii. You thought the problem was that you weren’t motivated enough, but the law came in like a coach to encourage you on to do what you need to do and you still didn’t do it. You don’t need a coach or a motivational speaker, you need a Savior.
iii. You thought the problem was that you didn’t know yourself enough - but the law came in like a doctor and perfectly diagnosed your sin problem - but it couldn’t heal you. You don’t need a doctor, you need a Savior.
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