How many of you are dog owners? Perhaps you’ve seen someone walking a dog on a leash when the dog doesn’t want to go where its owner is going? The owner is constantly tugging on the leash pulling the dog back from here and there and telling it to stop and start. That’s the way a lot of Christians live. They’re on a “Law leash.” Their lives consist of, “stop that; come back here; don’t do that,” only it’s in terms of, “read your Bible; pray; witness; go to church; serve; be Christ-like.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with these things. They are all biblical. But God never meant us to do them at the end of a leash! What a difference it is when you see a dog and its owner that have a strong relationship. The dog doesn’t need the leash to go for a walk. Its owner can just speak a word and the dog responds. I’m not comparing you to a dog. Rather, I’m comparing performance to relationship.
For years I’ve been on a “Law leash.” I’ve tried to perform spiritually by reading my Bible, praying, witnessing, serving, and being Christ-like. I’ve always assumed that I’ve been driven by my love for God. Yet, over the years I’ve sensed the failure and frustration of trying to measure up to my own expectations. It’s not the expectations of others as much as it is my own quest for excellence. Like a recovering alcoholic, I could say, “Hi, my name is John and I’m a legalist” (hopefully a recovering legalist). Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the term legalism? Legalism is “that fleshly attitude which conforms to a code in order to glorify self.” It is anything done in self-effort and human ability apart from the enablement of the Holy Spirit. This includes the spiritual disciplines and Christian qualities like kindness and gentleness done in our own power. It can even be controlling our anger in self-effort. Yet, anything done apart from the Spirit is displeasing to God. What a sobering reality for those of us who do so many “Christian” things without really drawing on strength from the Lord. Like the words of Christ – this kind of strength only comes by Prayer and Fasting (Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21).
In Romans 7:7-25 Paul shares his experience as a recovering legalist. Admittedly, this is one of the most disputed passages in the Bible. Various suggestions for the “I” in question have been proposed: an unbeliever, a mature believer, or a hypothetical believer, Israel, Adam, or even humankind in general. Every view has strengths and weaknesses, but I believe the least problematic view is that Paul is sharing his former struggle to mix grace and Law. The challenge Paul issues is: Throw off your Law leash! In this text, Paul explains two biblical fundamentals to live the Christian life.
Before we get into this – I believe the biggest reason we get into the Legalism rut is because we have lost vision (Hab. 2:3, James 1:5):
Where there is no vision, the people perish… - Proverbs 29:18.
We have lost sight of what our purpose is. Zechariah 14 and Revelation 20 tell us that when Christ comes back, the rest of the world (those who weren’t in the battle in Jerusalem) will have to be led by his First Fruits to come up to worship him for a 1,000 years during his reign on the earth. That means we are in boot camp – that every day we are begin developed for our job as priests during his reign. If you are in Christ Jesus – sealed with the Holy Spirit, then you have a gift and a job to do. My job (our job) is to train you up in that gift (Ephesians 4) for the work of ministry. Then you will refine your gift(s) and be in training for your current job and your 1,000 year assignment. You think you can’t do it – like “I am not a priest, Pastor John” – then you have the right frame of mind. You can’t do it. But in Christ Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, you can (Romans 8 will elaborate on this).
Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jonah – none of them could do it and they didn’t want to but the Holy Spirit used them for God’s glory just as He is doing in us. We have the amazing privilege of being in the part of history where the Holy Spirit is unleashed (2,000 years (or the later 3rd). For 2/3rds of human history, there was the Noahide 7, then the Torah (613 laws) and now the Holy Spirit and we get the privilege of being freed from the law, bonded in Christ Jesus and trained up for an amazing job.
This life is your boot camp for the “real world” – this life isn’t even close to what will be coming but we can’t fathom what tomorrow brings let alone a 1,000 years with Jesus Christ and that is before the New Jerusalem even comes.
Colossians 1:15-18 – He holds it all together so that means everything in your life is for a purpose – the good, the bad and the ugly – to refine us unto His likeness that when that day comes, we will be ready.
See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. – Isaiah 48:10
KEEPING OUR EYES ON JESUS
Last week – I concluded with the reality that by keeping our eyes on Jesus (the ruler – not the rules) we will find our horizon in the storm. The reason is that keeping your eyes on the rules will never give peace, hope or comfort in the storm. Only a cultivated relationship with God through Jesus will. It will also give you great power.
A LIFE AND DEATH SITUATION
I remember when my cousin, only a few days old, was fighting for his life in the hospital at the NICU in Denver. The family called me in because I was in ministry so they hoped I could say some kind of prayer that God would hear. Here is the truth – I was so consumed with the religion I was serving that I hadn’t cultivated a mature relationship with Christ and wasn’t a man of prayer – did you catch that – I was in ministry but wasn’t a man of prayer. That doesn’t even seem possible. But the reality is that I felt powerless because I knew what the Bible said, but I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with God through prayer. We weren’t close. Thus I felt helpless in the storm. All my head knowledge was for not at the moment when I needed a miracle. I was focused on the rules and not the ruler…and my cousin died a few days later – just a baby. Now, I know that little boy is with Jesus. But, it was a serious wake-up call that the next time my family calls on me to pray, I am going to go to prayer like never before because now I know the source of the power not just the ink on the paper. Are you hearing me? This is a pearl of wisdom I am giving to you right now. Listen to me – this is life and death stuff we are talking about here. Don’t find yourself in a storm having only a good attendance record at church to be your strength.
1. We Can’t Please God By Serving The Law (7:7-12)
Even though the Law is a wonderful tool, it is not a means of pleasing God. In 7:7-8 Paul corrects a possible misunderstanding about the Law and then reveals one of its purposes. He writes: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COVET.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.”
Right from the get-go, Paul wants to make sure we understand that the Law is not sin. In fact in 7:7 he gives one of the benefits of the Law: The Law reveals sin. Without the Law, Paul would not have known (intellectually and experientially) how sinful he was.
Interestingly, the apostle refers specifically to the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet.” Coveting is simply craving more of what you have enough of already. Why did Paul choose this particular commandment? Most likely because it convicts the heart! The first nine commandments can be publicly verified. One can demonstrate that he or she has kept the first nine commands because they are external commands. But the tenth and final commandment cannot be verified because it is an internal matter of the heart. So in an external sense, it is hypothetically possible to keep the first nine commandments, but we all must acknowledge that our inner desires are often very wrong. Paul concurs and acknowledges that when he came to understand the true meaning of coveting he went on a sin shopping spree (7:8b).
Let’s face it, the Law compels us to sin. This is just how we are wired. Think about the following signs: “Keep off the grass!” “Wet paint!” “Don’t touch!” “No trespassing!” “No Fishing!” “No U-Turn!” What do you immediately want to do? Break the law! We love to sin and any law meant to keep us from sin drives us to sin all the more. This is also true biblically speaking. A law such as, “You shall not covet” increases our coveting. Apart from this explicit law the motivation to covet lessens. Without something to rebel against there could be no rebels.
In 7:9-11 Paul shares how attempting to obey the Law led to his demise: “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
Verse 9 is the first time in Romans that Paul uses the emphatic “I” (ego). He is most likely referring to his own experience as typical of every person. The personal pronouns “I,” “my,” or “me” appear in the context of 7:7-25 over forty times suggesting an intensely personal struggle.
--Yet one of the great mysteries and debates of this passage is: When was Paul “once alive apart from the Law?” I think the best answer is: Paul was alive in fellowship with God apart from the Law early in his conversion (6:8, 11, 13). However, shortly thereafter, he traveled to Arabia to work through his understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures and to minister (Gal 1:17). During this time Paul may have begun to combine grace and Law. By incorporating the Law into his Christian life, sin revived, and he died. That is, he died experientially when his fallen nature aroused sin to a greater degree severing his fellowship with God. Maybe you remember that classic line from the movie Sandlot, “You’re killing me, Smalls!” Well, Paul was likely saying, “You’re killing me, Sin!” The death Paul has in mind is despair, agony of defeat, opposite of the abundant life (cf. John 10:10b). As Paul says in 2 Cor 3:6b: “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Paul summarizes this section in 7:12: “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” This is quite an endorsement from a man who has spent much of Romans critiquing the Law. We must, therefore, understand God’s purpose for the Law.
The purpose of the Law from an Old Testament perspective was twofold: (1) to manifest the glory of God and (2) to provide for the good of Israel.
The purpose of the Law from a New Testament perspective was threefold: (1) to reveal sin, (2) to drive sinful man to Christ, and (3) to foreshadow Christ.
It is not that the Law is evil; rather, it is sin that is evil. Congress may enact some bad laws, but not God! The Law is “holy and righteous and good”; we’re the ones who pervert it and thereby ruin our walk with Christ. Today will you throw away your Law leash and fall in love with Jesus? Will you ask Him to help you overcome your legalistic independence? Will you seek not to incorporate Law and grace into your Christian life? Will you remind yourself daily that the Law was not intended for you to keep? Throw away your Law leash.
[We can’t please God by serving the Law because we are sinners by nature and by choice. We desperately need divine intervention. Now we will learn a second biblical fundamental . . .]
2. We Can’t Please God By Serving The Flesh (7:13-25).
Paul now depicts the resulting condition of attempting to please God by keeping the Law. This section chronicles what we could label “the miserable Christian life.”
In Rom 6 the problem was, “How can I stop doing bad things?”
The problem here in Rom 7 is, “How can I ever do anything good?”
In 7:13 Paul writes: “Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” Paul again reiterates: The problem is not the Law—it is sin! In other words, the Law has not caused Paul’s death; the Law simply identified sin as being sinful. Without the Law, we would never understand how God views sin. You could say that the Law has opened our eyes to just how utterly sinful we are.
In 7:14-16 Paul explains further why sin is so sinful: “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.” Paul explains that the Law is spiritual (cf. 7:12); however, he is “of flesh” (sarkinos). The phrase “of flesh” is not the same as being “in the flesh,” which Paul refers to as the pre-conversion state (7:5; 8:8). Paul is simply saying that even as a believer he is capable of thinking and responding as a mere man (cf. sarkinos, 1 Cor 3:3). The phrase “sold into bondage to sin” appears to contradict 6:1-11; however, here in 7:14, Paul is not referring to his position but to his former condition. The apostle uses the present tense to vividly portray his former struggle in using the Law for sanctification. In Greek grammar, the present tense with “I” can denote a condition without reference to time. The tense form does not communicate time as much as they do a kind of action. The shift (in Greek) from past tense to present tense signals a shift from narrative (7:7-12) to a description of a condition (7:13-25).
Paul continues his explanation on the sinfulness of sin in 7:17-23. In 7:17 he writes, “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” It’s interesting how Paul distinguishes between himself and indwelling sin. This is an indication that Paul is writing from a saved person’s perspective. The sinful self is not his real self. Paul is a new man in Christ, but the old Paul (i.e., the flesh) is responsible for the sin. Paul is not trying to get out of personal responsibility for his actions. He’s not pulling a Flip Wilson and exclaiming, “The devil (or the flesh) made me do it!” He is distinguishing between the old and new man (cf. 7:20). The implication is that he doesn’t have to sin because of who he has become. So, throw off your Law leash!
Paul elaborates further in Ephesians where he describes the progressive transformation of the mind and body to become a temple of God – that it doesn’t happen overnight but we are a work in progress. At the moment of conversion, we wait for a tingly feeling that something has changed. The race begins. But like loosing weight, it is day one of detoxification. You then have to change your lifestyle, what you take in, the way you sleep, the way you eat, the way you work out – even the way you sweat. The Holy Spirit begins this new work in us to change us from Wild Stallions to Clydesdales.
Paul shares a tremendous principle in 7:18: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” The problem is very straightforward: Our flesh is contaminated with sin.
Our flesh is like the structure of a house that’s been eaten up by termites. You can paint the inside, put down new carpet, and buy new furniture, but you have not fixed the structural problem. Tony Evans says, “The flesh is like a bad in-law; you can’t get rid of it! It just keeps hanging around!” This will continue to be the case for the rest of our earthly lives. The flesh is with us until God gives us a new body that is free from any of the contamination of sin.
The sinfulness of sin results in spiritual schizophrenia. In 7:19-23 Paul writes, “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” The new Paul yearns to obey God; the old Paul rebels against God. The Greek word translated “joyfully concur” (7:22) or “delight” (sunedomai) is quite strong; from its root we derive our word hedonism. As believers, we delight in God’s Word. Paul would say, “Delight trumps duty.” The phrase “inner man” (eso anthropon) refers to the new nature we received at conversion. This phrase is only used of believers in the New Testament (2 Cor 4:16; Eph 3:16). The problem is there is a spiritual war going on within us. The term rendered “waging war” (antistrateuomai) is only used here in the New Testament (7:23). It is a military term indicating the severity of the battle between the law of God and the law of sin. The believer wages an agonizing war. Did you ever stop to realize that there was no war that raged within you before you became a Christian? Prior to trusting in Jesus, you were shackled in sin. You were a prisoner of the devil. But once you trusted in Christ, you became an enemy of hell! In your unsaved state, you were absolutely no threat to Satan, but now you are a real threat, and he is going to do everything he can to render you ineffective and unfruitful.
What is Paul’s conclusion? Look at 7:24a. Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am!” Paul is in utter anguish! He has reached the place of both self-disgust and self-despair because he has failed to keep the Law due to his sin. The word “wretched” (talaiporos) is used only one other place in the New Testament. In Rev 3:17 where Jesus says to the church of Laodicea, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” This is a hard verse, isn’t it? In a similar vein, Paul calls himself a “Wretched man,” for in his quest to keep the Law he has recognized just how messed up he is. C. S. Lewis said it well, “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good.” This is why God has to break us in order to remake us. He needs to turns the “have to’s” into “want to’s.” As we learn to fall in love with Christ and walk with Him, the Law takes care of itself.
In 7:24b Paul goes on to ask, “Who will set me free from the body of this death [or better, “this body of death]?” Notice Paul says, “Who will set me free?” not “What will set me free?” He isn’t looking to rules, rituals, or regulations; He is looking to a person—the Lord Jesus! Always remember that victory doesn’t come in a “what” but a “who!” We must recognize that we aren’t too weak to overcome temptation; we aren’t weak enough. Paul admitted that he was powerless to resolve this problem. You, too, must come to the absolute end of your spiritual rope. You must not make the mistake of assuming that you can live the Christian life by yourself. Your body of sin will drag you down.
The imagery Paul uses here is very interesting. In his day, if you killed someone, one of the ways you might be punished was by having the dead body of your victim tied to your body. You would be face-to-face with the person you killed. When that dead body was tied to you, that cadaver signed your death warrant because as decay set in on the cadaver, it would begin to penetrate the pores of your skin, poisoning your blood, and ultimately killing you. So you were looking death in the face as you dragged a dead body around with you. What you wanted more than anything was to be released from that body. That’s a gruesome image, but it pictures well what Paul is saying here. He was dragging around the dead carcass of his sinful flesh. It was dead because it had been put to death by Paul’s death with Christ, but it was still weighing him down. You are trapped in your flesh until Christ releases you.
In 7:25 Paul wraps up this passage with some good news and some bad news. He gives the good news first: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul starts to preach here! He gets excited! He proclaims that we can have victory through “Jesus Christ our Lord!”
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
This brief note of victory is a preview of coming attractions. Chapter 8 will tell us more. However, there will forever be battle on this side of eternity. Paul reminds us of this in the last sentence of Chapter 7: “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” Paul cannot overcome sin by his own strength through the Law. He needs a supernatural power. Take a moment and count up how many times the Holy Spirit is mentioned in 7:14-25. How many times is He mentioned? Zero! This is the key to this section. Paul is whetting our appetites for Chapter 8 where the Holy Spirit is mentioned over twenty times!
In the meantime, the Lord wants you to throw off your Law leash! You were created and called to experience freedom! Don’t succumb to four specific lies that your flesh uses to trap you into a life of legalism, which ultimately leads to despair:
- Performance—I must perform up to a certain standard in order to feel good about myself.
- Approval—I must be approved by certain people in order to feel good about myself.
- Blame—someone or something outside myself is the cause of my failures and rejections.
- Shame—there is something wrong with me that can’t be repaired; I was born this way and can’t change.
God wants to transform you by grace. He wants to set you free from legalism. He wants to move you from an “I ought” or “I should” Christian to an “I want to” Christian. Grace-based Christians obey because it’s their delight. Law-based Christians obey because it’s their duty. Obedience is certainly our duty as Christians, but duty alone without love behind it can degenerate into routine. Law-based Christians obey and come to resent it. Grace-based Christians obey and love it. God wants to overwhelm you with grace, so throw off your Law leash!
Ladies – if you were to write out a list of everything you want your husband to do – kiss me once each morning, take out the trash, rub my feet – would you really be happy? Probably not – because he was following a list. What you really want is for him to want to do these things. So, the only way for him to really want to do these things is for him to know you – to know your heart.
The Scribes: Which Is the First Commandment of All?
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’[d] 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’[e] 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Thus, for us to really want to do the things of God – we must know the heart of God and to walk in His ways. Thus, Dos and Don’ts will never produce transformed hearts – only the Holy Spirit in us to know the mind of God I Corinthians 6, Ephesians 2 and II Corinthians 6.
Let me end with this reading of the Word. Earlier, you recall that I said the word “wretched” (talaiporos) was used by Christ when addressing the church in Laodicea in Revelation? Well, Paul also addressed the church in Laodicea with power words that elaborate on what he has written here in Romans 7:
Read Colossians 2:1-23 and Colossians 3:1-11.
1 Corinthians 2:9-10
2 Corinthians 5:17
1 Peter 2:11-12
1. How has the Old Testament Law helped me recognize my own sin (Rom 7:7-8)? In what way(s) have I struggled with the sin of coveting? Why is this particular sin so inescapable? How does the sin of coveting summarize the Ten Commandments?
2. As a Christian, how have I struggled with legalism or a desire to obey the Law (Rom 7:9-11)? When has this been most apparent in my Christian life? How can I explain Paul’s seemingly schizophrenic view of the Law (7:12-13)? How can I balance the positive and negative aspects of the Law?
3. How can I relate to Paul’s battle in Rom 7:14-25? Do I still continue to experience similar behavior in relationship to the Old Testament Law or to rules in general? Why has this been such a battle? What has been the outcome in my personal walk with Christ? How can I focus on living by grace?
4. How are Romans 7:14-25 and Galatians 5:16-25 similar? How are they different? Which passage mentions the Holy Spirit? Which passage announces the fulfillment of the Law? What do both texts teach us about living the Christian life?
5. Is there any mention of the Holy Spirit for empowerment in the struggle described in Rom 7:7-25? If not, why? What is the good news of this passage (7:25)? How does this help me in my daily pilgrimage? How does Romans 8 provide a solution to the performance treadmill? How can I articulate God’s grace to the believer who is ensnared by legalism?