So what happened to the law? - Romans 7

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 20th July 2008.

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Hypocrisy!  It’s one of the ugliest and most damaging things you can see in a Christian isn’t it?  Someone who says they believe one thing, but behaves in a completely different way.  Hypocrisy.  And it’s especially bad when it comes to Christian leaders.    Over the past fortnight, I’ve learnt about 2 vicars who’ve had affairs which have lead to the break-up of their marriages.  One has resigned, but the other is trying to carry on in parish ministry with his new partner having moved into the vicarage.  But in both cases, there’s been huge damage to the Christians in those churches;  and no doubt, huge damage to Gospel witness for many years to come in both parishes.     


And that’s exactly the kind of thing that would have made Paul’s opponents in Rome say:  I told you so!    If you go around preaching justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, well what d’you expect?  Yes we’re all sinners.  That’s the point Paul’s been spelling out up to 3:20.   We’re all guilty and justly facing God’s wrath.  But Jesus died in the place of God’s people, taking the punishment they deserved.  Or as 3:25 puts it:  “God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement”.    And so anyone who trusts in Jesus is forgiven or justified.  Even murders and Nazis.

But for Paul’s critics, that was outrageous.    If you can just fire off a couple of Hail Mary’s or some other rote prayer and have your sins wiped out, well isn’t that a green light to more sin and depravity?    How can the doctrine of justification by faith alone lead to morally transformed lives if it just let’s us off the hook for our sins?    And that was precisely the issues Paul addressed in chapter 6.  Look back with me if you would to 6:1:

 1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

And down to 6:15 from last week:

 15What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?

And the answer in both cases was “by no means” or more literally as the same phrase is translated in 7:7:  “certainly not”.    But why not?  How does it work in practice then?   Well if you remember, back in 6:2 Paul told us that we’d died to sin; and if you’ve died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?    And at the end of last week’s passage in v22, we saw that the Christian had been freed from the law of sin and death.   

1.      Christians are free from the bondage of the law (1-6)

And the first 6 verses of chapter 7 carry on those thoughts.  Because in v1-6, we see that Christians are not only free from the bondage of sin; no Christians are also free from the bondage of the law.  Christians are free from the bondage of the law.  Look with me at verse 1: 

V1 - ‘Do you know, brothers – for I am speaking to men who know the law – that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?’

And down to v4:

V4: “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.’ 5For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. 6But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

What did the law say must happen as a just punishment of sin?  Well 6:23 told us that the wages of sin were death.   We’re back to the garden of Eden.  If you disobey God’s law, then you will surely die;  not just physical death, but spiritual death in hell.  But if you’re a Christian, if you’re in Christ, then you’ve already died;  in Christ, you’ve already paid the penalty the law demands for your sin;  because Christ paid it for you as he died in your place.    So you’re free from the penalty or the bondage of the law.    A death, in this case, J's death, has ended our legal obligation. 

And that’s the point of the illustration in v2&3.  It’s not there as an interesting digression on the divorce and remarriage issue.  No it’s an illustration that would have made sense to Jews steeped in the Law.  Because the OT made it clear that marriage creates a legal obligation for the rest of your life.    But when either the husband of the wife dies, then their spouse is released from the obligation of marriage;  when one party to a marriage dies, the other is free to marry another person.  And the simply point is that death ends the legal obligation.  And that’s exactly the point of v1-6:  Christians are free from the bondage of the law;  they’re free from the penalty of the law, because in Christ, it’s already been paid.  The problem of the law’s been sorted. 

When Daniel gets out of the bath, he insists on looking at the bathwater gurgling down the plughole and saying:  ‘bye-bye bubbles’.  And as Christians, that us with the OT law:  bye bye law;  bye bye penalty demanded by the law;  I’m free from the penalty of spending eternity in hell;  not because of me;  but because I’m in X;  Jesus has paid the penalty for me.  Christians are free from the bondage of the law.

2.      So is the Law bad?  (v7-12)


But waving goodbye to the law immediately raises the next question in v7:

 7What shall we say, then? Is the law sin?

Or as we might put it:   Is the law bad – which is the point in v7-12  So is the Law bad.   Or to put it another way, is the Bible bad for your health like some many other things these days?    And the simple answer’s in the rest of v7:   “certainly not”;  no the law isn’t bad;  Indeed, 7:12 tells us that, on the contrary, the law is holy, righteous and good.  And you can’t get more ‘not bad’ than that can you?   

But how come the law isn’t bad then?   If the penalty of the law leads to death and hell;  if it’s a good thing to be free from the bondage of the law, how can the law itself be a good thing? 

And the answer is because of the law’s effect on people.    Look again at v7: 

7What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet."[d] 8But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 

And the climax of the argument is in v 13:

13Did that which is good, then, become death to me? [certainly not!] But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Because we’re born in Adam, as we learnt back in chapter 5, we’re born with the sin disease; from the moment of birth our inbuilt sin disease leads to specific sins.  But we might not realise how bad the disease is;  we might not even realise we’ve got the disease at all.  Not until we read the Law;  the 10 commandments and the rest of the moral law that is.  Because when we understand God’s perfect moral commandments, then the game’s up;  we can’t pretend any more.  Compared to God’s perfect moral standards, we’re all dirty rotten scoundrels. 

We’re back to Nathan’s dirt behind the cooker again;  apparently there’s always a load of dirt and filth behind Nathan’s cooker he was telling us a few weeks ago.  Ours is spotlessly clean of course, but Nathan’s is filthily.  But normally you can’t see the dirt.  That is, until you shine a torch behind the cooker.  And then the light exposes the dirt.

And that’s what v7 is saying is the law’s function:  to expose the dirt and filth of our sin which was always there, even if we’d never noticed it before.  We might even have a cleaner cooker than the bloke next door.  We might’ve thought we were all right, but compared with the perfect moral standards in God’s law, our sin is exposed.   

But it gets worse.  Because v8 is saying that the law not only exposes our sin;  not the law actually increases it;  knowing the law actually encourages sinful people to breaks laws they wouldn’t have broken beforehand.  Let me bring you back to the Peters’ dinner table.  Now when I say to Daniel:  don’t throw your cup on the floor:  what’s the common response:  [actions]  he throws his cup on the floor in deliberate defiance.  But it’s not just kids. 

 [As you know/ Up at SF’s] we’ve had the newly seeded lawn roped off to stop people walking on it.  The rope is like a giant sign saying ‘keep of the grass’;  but I’m pretty sure that at least one person who’s seen the rope has thought:  well I’d jolly well like to walk on that grass thank you very much.  Before they’d seen the rope, they probably had no intention of walking on the grass.  But because they’ve been told not to, they want to do it.   

And so that’s the second function of God's law.  The law not only exposes our sin, it actually provokes more of it, so that we’re even more sinful.    Or as the conclusion in v13 puts it:  the function of the law is to make sin utterly sinful;  to make us aware beyond any reasonable doubt that we’re utterly sinful;  to make us feel the weight of our sin and fear the just judgement it deserves; to drive us to our knees asking for mercy from the God whose standards we can never hope to live up to.  To drive us to our knees in search of a saviour.   As Paul puts it in v24:

24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Law isn't bad.  Why?  Because the law shows us our sin and leads us to the foot of the cross where we find forgiveness in Christ.  To where we can find freedom from the bondage of the law;  from the penalty of the law.    Which brings us back to the beginning of chapter 7.    In v7-13, notice Paul’s been using the past tense;  he’s been talking about before he became a Christian.      But back in v1-6, Paul was talking about our status as Christians.  About the freedom we have as Christians from the bondage of the law;  from the penalty of the law.    A freedom that’s intended at the end of v4 to bear fruit in our lives;   a freedom that v 6 tells us should led to our serving in the new way of the spirit;  or as 6:22 put it:  as Christians we’re now slaves to God; 

As forgiven justified Christians, we’re not free to carry on sinning;  as Christians, we were bought for a price;  bought for a purpose:  to lead new lives of righteous in growing conformity with God’s perfect law.  To bear fruit to God. 

That’s the plan, but what about the reality?   What about the hypocrisy we see in Christians?  And what about ourselves?   What about you?    If you regard yourself as a Christian, would you say that you’ve already reached the moral perfection God is seeking from you?  Yes you’re forgiven, but are you perfect yet?  And the answer is: of course not.    Even if we can successfully hid our ongoing sins from others, God sees and knows everything.    

And so the point is that, in some ways, we’re all hypocrites;  every Christian should be striving for the perfect standards revealed in God’s holy law, and yet we’re not there yet;  we’re still work in progress;  and so we still mess up;  and other Christians still mess up and end up messing us up; and so we’re tempted to mess up even more as we respond to the mess of other Christians.  What a mess.

3.      Christians have an ongoing struggle with sin (v14-25)

And that’s the point of v14-25, where we see that Christians have an ongoing struggle with sin.  Christians have an on-going struggle with sin.    Am I ringing any bells here?  Does the battle against sin in your life seem never ending?   Have you got a particular besetting sin that you try to fight, but then you come to say your prayers, and you’ve done it again.    And you feel deflated;  you’ve let your Lord down – again.  And because you feel so bad about it, maybe you skip your prayers that day, because, well, you feel that you can’t engage with the Lord Jesus in prayer when you know you’ve let him down  - again.  And if that’s you, then what Paul is saying in these verses is that’s normal.  Because Christians have an ongoing struggle with sin.  In v7-12, Paul was talking in the past tenses about his pre-Christian experience. Now in v14 notice he switches to the present tense again to describe his present experience as a Christian.

Let’s come back to v14 to pick up Paul; train of thought. 

14We know that the law is spiritual [or good as we’ve just seen in v7-13] ; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

As a Christian, Paul knows that the Law is good.  The law exposed his sin and led him to the saviour.  The law helped him to become a Christian.  So the law was good because of what it achieved.  But the Law’s also good because it reflects the perfect moral character of the law-giver.  And so it shows him the good life:  how to live to please God.  And so like the Psalmist in Psalm 1, Paul the Christian delights in God’s law.  He reflects on it day and night and longs to obey it more fully.  He increasingly knows the good he should be doing in his life.  He wants to do good.    He knows where he wants to be heading, but he’s a bit like a supermarket trolley. 

You know, you’re picking up speed down isle No 3 at Tesco, and suddenly the trolley veers off to one side as if it’s got a mind of its own.  And Paul's saying it’s the same in the Christian life;  we increasingly know where were should be heading:  God’s law shows us the way: but we we’re constantly veering off one way of the other.  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

So if you’re sitting there thinking:  yep that’s me, then be encouraged.  It happened to Paul, it happens to me it happens to all Christians this side of heaven;  because Christians have an ongoing struggle with sin.    And it’s important to reflect on that, because taken out of context, the teaching of chapter 6 could leave us discouraged.  If we died to sin and if we’ve been set free from sin as we learnt back in chapter 6, then shouldn’t we be living in some super-spiritual sinless state.    Well actually yes, but not until we get to heaven.   Because back in this world, we’ve been set free from the penalty of sin, but not yet from the power of sin.  In some sense, v14 reminds us, we’re still slaves of sin.  Which might seem shocking after chapter 6.  But that’s the reality of the Christian life this side of heaven.  We live in a now and not yet world.  We have a foretaste of heaven and the experience of sins forgiven, and yet we continue to struggle with sin and always will do until we reach that celestial city.    Yes we should be making progress in our battle again sin, and we’ll be looking at the details of that battle more next week.

But the point for this week is this:  Christians have an ongoing struggle with sin;  and that battle is normal.  So maybe you’re weary;  weary with your own sin;  weary fighting against the same old sins and weaknesses in your life;  maybe like me, you’ve broken down recently with the sense of your own failure and sin;  or maybe you’re worn down by the sins of others- and even other Christians;  those hypocrites that say and teach one thing and live a different way;  those who are just monumentally insensitive without even knowing it;  maybe you’re tired of battling ungodly thoughts and words when you’re constantly dealing with difficult people;  maybe you even feel like you’re going backwards in your Christian life;  or maybe you’re feeling so tired and worn down you’re thinking about giving up;  you just haven’t got the strength. 

And if that’s you then God’s word to you this morning is this: be encouraged;  what you’re going through is normal;  we’re living in the last days;  the time of the now and not yet;  the in-between zone;  and until that final day, until we reach heaven, Christians will always have an ongoing struggle with sin; both their own sin, the sins of others and the general consequences of living in a sinful world.    So if that struggle is your struggle, be encouraged.   There is end point that’s guaranteed because the victory’s already been won.  Look again at v24:

24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

But maybe you haven’t experienced that kind of struggle?  You think you’ve been a Christian for some time, maybe all your life, but for you, all this talk of a struggle against sin seems a bit alien.  And if that’s you then there’s a danger that you might not be a Christian after all.  Because if there’s no struggle against sin in your life, then you might be like Paul was back in v9:

“Once I was alive apart from law”.    Before the law exposed the depths of his sin, Paul had thought he was OK.   O I know I’m not perfect, but I’m alright;  I’m not that bad.  We don’t need to take sin all that seriously;    what’s for dinner love?    Paul had though he was alive apart from the law, but the reality was very different.  He was in great danger, only he didn’t know it yet.  And so God loved him so much he shone the light on his sin through the law.  And maybe God’s been doing that to you this morning;  shining his light in the filth of your sin  showing you your need not for religion, but for the saviour;  and if that’s you, then you need to fall before him and ask him to cleanse you before it’s too late.    Because just as 8:1 reassures Christians that there is no condemnation for those in Christ, the opposite’s also true;  we’re all sinners, so if you’re not in Christ, then you haven’t died to the law;  the penalty for yours sins hasn’t been paid, and you’ll have to pay it yourself, forever in hell.

So what happened to the law;  that was the title of this morning’s sermon;  well the law will either lead us to Christ as we acknowledge our sin, or the law will condemn us on the last day.  And so if you’re a Christian, then be encouraged in your struggle against sin;  it’s worth it and the end’s in sight.  But if you're not a Christian, then repent before it’s too late.  Come to Jesus in repentance and faith before you meet him as your judge.  Well let’s have a moment to reflect on what God’s been saying to us. Let’s pray.

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