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The seventh chapter takes up another phase of things that would be particularly hard for the Jewish believer to comprehend. It raises and answers the question, “What is the rule of life for the yielded believer?” The Jew would naturally say, “The law given at Sinai.” The apostle’s answer is “Christ risen!” Alas, how many Gentile believers have missed the point here as well as those who came out of Judaism.
That it is his Jewish-Christian brethren who are primarily before him is clear from the opening verse. “Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law), how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth.” Now it is unthinkable that he is using the term “the law” here in any different sense to that which he has had in mind as he has used it over and over again in the former chapters. The law, here, means the law of Moses, and it means nothing else. It means that which was the heart of the law of Moses, the ten words given on Sinai. And his argument here is that the law has dominion over men until death ends its authority or ends their relationship to it. But he has just been showing us in the clearest possible way that we have died with Christ; therefore we died not only unto sin, but we have died to the law as a rule of life. Is this then to leave us lawless? Not at all: for we are now, as he shows elsewhere (1 Corinthians 9:21), “under law to Christ”, or “en-lawed”, that is, “legitimately subject” to Christ our new Head. He is Husband as well as Head, even as Ephesians Chapter 5 so clearly shows.
This truth is illustrated in a very convincing way in verses Romans 7:2-3, and the application is made in verse Romans 7:4. A woman married to a husband is legally bound to him in that relationship until death severs the tie. If she marries another while her husband is living she becomes an adulteress. But when the first husband is dead she is free to marry another with no blame attaching to her for so doing.
Even so, death has ended the relationship of the believer to the law, not the death of the law but our death with Christ, which has brought the old order to an end. We are now free to be married to another, even to the risen Christ in order that we might bring forth fruit unto God.
The somewhat weird and amazing conception has been drawn from the apostle’s illustration that the first husband is not the law at all but “our old man.” This is utterly illogical and untenable, for, as we have seen, the old man is myself as a man in the flesh. I was not married to myself! Such a suggestion is the very height of absurdity. The Jewish believer was once linked with the legal covenant. It was proposed as a means of producing fruit for God. It only stirred up all that was evil in the heart. Death has dissolved the former relationship, and the one who once looked to the law for fruit now looks to Christ risen and, as the heart is occupied with Him, that is produced in the life in which God can delight.
He says, “When we were in the flesh (that is, in the natural state, as unsaved men) the motions of sins which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” This clearly establishes the position taken above. The law was the husband, the active agent through whom we hoped to bring forth fruit unto God. But instead of that, we brought forth fruit unto death, all our travail and suffering in the hope of producing righteousness ended in disappointment, the child was still-born.
“But now we are delivered from the law, having died to that (relationship) wherein we were held (note the marginal reading) that we might serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (vs. Romans 7:6). In the illustration the first husband dies and the woman is free to be married to another. In the application he does not say the law has died, but the point he makes is that death (and for us it is Christ’s death) has ended the relationship in which we stood toward it. So there is after all no real disagreement; in either case the former condition is ended by death. The law, as we have seen, was addressed to man in the flesh, and this was our former state, but now all is changed. We are no longer in the flesh, but (as the next chapter will show us) in the Spirit, and so in a new state to which the law in no sense applies. Again the old question comes to the fore: If all this be true shall we sin then? Are we to be lawless because not under law? By no means. The law must simply be recognized as having a special ministry but not as the rule of the new life. It is a great detector of sin. Paul could say, “I had not known sin but by the law.” That is, he had not detected the evil nature within-so correct was his outward deportment-had not the law said, “Thou shalt not covet.” The sin-nature rebelled against this and wrought in him all manner of covetousness, or unsatisfied desire. Observe carefully how conclusively this proves that it was the ten commandments he has had in view throughout. To say it is the ceremonial law alone to which we have died is absurd in view of this statement. Where is the word found that forbids covetousness? In the ten commandments. Therefore “the law” means the divine ordinances engraved on tables of stone.
Apart from the law sin was dead, that is, inert and unrecognized. Sins there were even before the law was given, but sin-the nature-was not recognized till the law provoked it.
He says, “I was alive once without the law; but when the commandment came, which was ordained (or proposed) to life, I found it to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me and by it slew me” (vers. Romans 7:9-11). In other words it is as though he said, “I was blissfully unconscious of my true moral condition before God as a sinner until the force of the commandment forbidding covetousness came home to me. I had not realized that evil desire was in itself sinful, providing the desire was not carried out. But the law made this manifest. I struggled to keep down all unlawful desire; but sin-an evil principle within-was too strong for repression. It circumvented me, deceived me, and so by violation of the commandment brought me consciously under sentence of death.” This is exactly what the law was intended to do, as he shows in the epistle to the Galatians as well as here. “The law was added because of (or, with a view to) transgressions.” That is, the law served to give to sin the specific character of transgression, thus deepening the sense of guilt and unworthiness.
Therefore, he concludes, “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” The fault is not in the law but in me.
Well, then, he asks, was this holy law made death to me? Not at all, but it detected that in him which could only result in death-namely, sin, which in order that it might be made manifest in all its hideousness was brought fully to light by the law, thus “working death” in him by that which he owns to be in itself good. And so sin, by means of the legal enactment, is made exceeding sinful.
Verses Romans 7:14-25 have been taken by many as the legitimate experience of a Christian throughout all his life. Others have thought that it could not be the conflict of a real Christian at all, but that Paul was describing the conflict between the higher and lower desires of the natural man, particularly of an unconverted Jew under law. But both views are clearly contrary to the argument of this part of the epistle.
As to the latter interpretation, it should be remembered that in this entire section of the epistle the question is the deliverance of a believer from the power of sin, and not of an unbeliever from his sins. Moreover no unsaved man can honestly say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” It is only those who possess the new nature who can so speak. And as to this being the normal experience of one already saved I shall attempt to show as we go on with the study of the 7th and 8th chapters that there is an orderly progression from the bewilderment of chapter 7 to the intelligence and walk in the Spirit of chapter 8. All Christians doubtless know something of the state depicted in verses Romans 7:14-25 of this 7th chapter, but once out of it no one need ever go through it again. It is not merely the conflict between the two natures. If it were, one might indeed be back in the same unhappy experience again and again. It gives us the exercises of a quickened soul under law who has not yet learned the way of deliverance. This once learned, one is free from the law forever. I have said earlier in the address that primarily here we have a believing Jew struggling to obtain holiness by using the law as a rule of life and resolutely attempting to compel his old nature to be subject to it. In Christendom now the average Gentile believer goes through the same experience; for legality is commonly taught almost everywhere.
Therefore when one is converted it is but natural to reason that now one has been born of God it is only a matter of determination and persistent endeavor to subject oneself to the law, and one will achieve a life of holiness. And God Himself permits the test to be made in order that His people may learn experimentally that the flesh in the believer is no better than the flesh in an unbeliever. When he ceases from self-effort he finds deliverance through the Spirit by occupation with the risen Christ.
Paul writes in the first person singular, not necessarily as depicting a lengthy experience of his own (though he may have gone through it), but in order that each reader may enter into it sympathetically and understanding for himself.
The law is spiritual, that is, it is of God, it is holy and supernatural. But I am carnal, even though a believer; I am more or less dominated by the flesh. In 1Corinthians Chapters 2 and 3 we have distinguished for us the natural man, that is, the unsaved man; the carnal man, who is a child of God undelivered; and the spiritual man, the Christian who lives and walks in the Spirit.
Here the carnal man is sold under sin, that is he is subject to the power of the evil nature to which he has died in Christ, a blessed truth indeed, but one which has not yet been apprehended in faith. Consequently he continually finds himself going contrary to the deepest desires of his divinely-implanted new nature. He practises things he does not want to do. He fails to carry out his determinations for good. The sins he commits he hates. The good he loves he has not the strength to perform. But this proves to him that there is a something within him which is to be distinguished from his real self as a child of God. He has the fleshly nature still, though born of God. He knows the law is good. He wants to keep it, and slowly the consciousness dawns upon him that it is not really himself as united to Christ who fails. It is sin, dwelling in him, which is exercising control (vers. Romans 7:14-17).
So he learns the weakness and unprofitableness of the flesh. “I know,” he says, “that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.” He wants to do good but he lacks the power to perform aright. Still he gives up slowly the effort to force the flesh to behave itself and to be subject to the law.
But the good he would do, he does not, and the evil he would not do, he does. This but establishes him in the conclusion already come to, that, “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” A law, or principle of action, then, has been discovered. He goes with the good and does the evil. According to the inward man he delights in the law of God, but this does not produce the holiness he expected. He must learn to delight in Christ risen to reach the goal of his desires! This he reaches later, but meantime he is occupied with the discovery of the two natures with their different desires and activities. He detects “another law,” a principle, in his members (that is, the members of the body through which the carnal mind works) which wars against the law of his renewed mind taking him captive to the sin-principle which is inseparable from his physical members so long as he is in this life. This principle he calls “the law of sin and death.” Were it not for this principle or controlling power there would be no danger of perverting or misusing any human desire, or propensity. Almost convinced that the struggle must go on during the entire course of his earthly existence he cries in anguish, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death!” He is like a living man chained to a polluted, because corrupt, corpse, and unable to snap the chains. He cannot make the corpse clean and subject, no matter how he tries. It is the cry of hopelessness so far as self-effort is concerned. He is brought to the end of human resources. In a moment he gets a vision by faith of the risen Christ. He alone is the Deliverer from Sin’s power, as well as the Saviour from the penalty of guilt. “I thank God,” he cries, “through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He has found the way out. Not the law but Christ in glory is the rule of life for the Christian.
But the actual entering into this is reserved for the next section. Meantime he confesses “So then with the mind (that is, the renewed mind) I myself (the real man as God sees him) serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” Such an experience cannot be the Christian ideal. The next chapter which we take up separately shows the way out of this perplexing and unsatisfactory state.
If I am addressing any believer who is even now in the agonizing throes of this terrific struggle, endeavoring to subject the flesh to the holy law of God, let me urge you to accept God’s own verdict on the flesh and acknowledge the impossibility of ever making it behave itself. Do not fight with it. It will overthrow you every time. Turn away from it; cease from it altogether; and look away from self and law to Christ risen.
Israel of old wanted to find a short cut through Edom, type of the flesh, but the children of Esau came out armed to contest their way. The command of God was to turn away and “compass the land of Edom.” And so with us; it is as we turn altogether from self-occupation we find deliverance and victory in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Romans 7". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany