by Mike Ratliff
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:20-23 ESV)
I’ve been listening to a several emergents’ sermon reviews over the past several weeks. It is so interesting to listen to their reasoning for how they arrived at their theology of unbelief. Most of them are confessed refugees from some form of pietistic or American Evangelicalism that leaned heavily towards semi-pelagianism and legalism. That mix in whatever proportions is intellectually veneer thin. When the leadership within those groups move at all away from being centered on God’s Word and His grace then all that is left is the legalism that only leads those in unbelief to despair for without the preaching of the Good News according to the Free Grace of God, all that is left is simply manmade religiosity. These emergents who fled from that now look at all who they view as dogmatic in any way about their theology as simply “fundamentalist” even though there is a vast difference between what we preach and teach from what they fled from. I have always resisted that label of “fundamentalist” for that very reason. No, I am most definitely not a Christian liberal like the emergents, but neither am I mired in spiritually dead legalism. No, I work very hard at being Biblically centered. That means that it is God’s Word, which He gave us that gives us the hard answers and God’s very doctrines, which we must learn and follow. However, as we have been learning, this is not in any way legalism, but is only possible for those who have been baptized into Christ by God. They have the Holy Spirit and by God’s grace they can obey Him and live for Him. They believe and obey God. I heard Jay Bakker today in one of the sermon reviews I listened to say that the only way to grow spiritually is to get rid of belief and move into doubt. So, the theology of the “emergent church” is actually founded on the sand of unbelief. These emergents are refugees from bad theological systems, which they fled from in despair, but have created something that is probably just as bad, if not worse. In the latter part of Romans 7 Paul gives a window of what this despair can look like. We will look at that and what the right solution is to it.
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? 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. 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. 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 7:1-6 ESV)
In these six verses Paul makes it clear that the Law does not and cannot bring victory over sin and death. Why? Sin is defined and even promoted through the Law because our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. Here is v6, “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.” Here is v6 from the Greek New Testament, “νυνὶ δὲ κατηργήθημεν ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἀποθανόντες ἐν ᾧ κατειχόμεθα, ὥστε δουλεύειν ἡμᾶς ἐν καινότητι πνεύματος καὶ οὐ παλαιότητι γράμματος.” The first two words, νυνὶ δὲ, literally say, “now but.” This represents the new era of redemptive history. Even though Christians are released from the law, this is not a freedom to do what the Law forbids (Romans 6:1, 15; 8:4; 3:31). Instead, it is a freedom from the spiritual liabilities and penalties of God’s law (Galatians 3:13). Because we died in Christ when He died, the law with its condemnation and penalties no longer has jurisdiction over us.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12 ESV)
Paul’s point here is that the law reveals, arouses, and condemns sin, bringing death to the sinner, does not mean that the law is evil. Instead, the law is a perfect reflection of God’s holy character (Romans 7:14, 16, 22; Psalm 19:7-11) and the standard for believers to please Him. Do you see, however, the impossibility of trying to keep it? We can’t do it, but that is still the standard.
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:13-25 ESV)
Sin is the cause of spiritual death, not God’s law. The law serves God’s true purpose for it, which is to make us aware the true nature of sin and its deadly character. When this awareness comes thundering in on the sinner, the Holy Spirit uses this to bring him or her to see their need of salvation, the very purpose God intended the law to serve (Galatians 3:19-22).
In this passage, there is some controversy in Paul’s speaking of the “inner conflict” bordering on despair, as describing his life before Christ. However, I and many very good theologians I learn from daily hold to the view that Paul is speaking about a believer. I know it describes my own walk as a Christian very well. The person Paul describes desires to obey God’s Law and hates his sin (vv 15, 19, 21). He is humble, recognizing that nothing good dwells in his humanness (v18). He sees sin in himself, but not as all that is there (vv 17, 20-22). He serves Jesus Christ with his mind (v25). These would hardly be attitudes of the unsaved. However, I know that those very things fit me very well for many years and still do though I have matured some. The unsaved do not hold to these attitudes as Paul has already said (Romans 1:18-21, 32; 3:10-20). No, the unsaved can be religious, but are not really that concerned about these things. Also, Paul uses present tense verbs in verses 14-25, which strongly supports the idea that he is describing his life currently as a Christian. I believe that this is evidence enough to read these verses as describing a believer.
As I have shared many times, I grew up in and remained in the SBC until 2006. I actually had sanctioned classes that taught things like there were different levels of Christians like disciples and carnal Christians. Some try to say that Paul is describing in vv14-25 a carnal Christian or legalistic Christian (same thing I suppose). However, Paul uses the personal pronoun “I” all through this passage which means he was talking about himself, a standard of spiritual health and maturity. Therefore, the Christian Paul is modeling for us in vv14-25 here is all Christians, even the most spiritual and mature. I know that there are times when I start to think that I have it all “figured out” or I have reached some spiritual plateau only to be brought very low quickly as God puts me through some test and I see how far short I fall. In any case, we must all honestly evaluate ourselves against the righteous standard of God’s Law and when we do that, well, then we see the source of Paul’s four laments:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-17 ESV)
The Law reflects God’s Holy character, but we are “of the flesh,” which means earthbound, mortal, and still incarcerated in unredeemed humanness. Christians are not “in the flesh,” but the flesh is still in them. What does it mean that Christians are “sold under sin?” Christians are no longer controlled completely by sin, but it does hold their members or fleshly body captive. Sin contaminates them and frustrates their inner desire to obey the will of God. This is a cry of exasperation by Paul about this inconsistency with His desire to please God and this presence of the flesh in him that we all still have.
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:18-20 ESV)
The flesh serves as a base camp from which sin operates in the Christian’s life. The flesh is not sinful inherently, but because of its fallenness, it is still subject to sin and is thoroughly contaminated. Take heart my brethren. The flesh is unredeemed and does not go with us into eternity. Therefore, this nightmare struggle Paul is describing will be no more when the day of our reunion with our Lord comes.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23 ESV)
Here we see the point where we must not despair as we fight this war within. This is why it is so critical to be under the right Bible teachers. Those who teach the wrong way to handle sin can really mess up a believer struggling here. John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin really helped me.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 ESV)
Here we see that opening for despair, but Paul shows us that we do have our deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, this is why it is so important to sit under good Bible teachers who preach edifying sermons from God’s Word about God and His promises and proper theology. When we have this, we can deal with these battles correctly, but when we don’t we can fall into despair.
We will pick up in Romans 8 in our next post God willing.
Soli Deo Gloria!