Dead to the Law, Serving in the Spirit, Part 2

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By John Piper About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written

Romans 7:1-6

Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. 3 So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. 4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

An Ocean of Depth and Majesty

I said last week that there was an ocean of meaning under verse 6, especially the phrase, "So that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." Today I want to show you some of the shores of that ocean and take a dive into it. One of the benefits of doing this is that it gives you a taste of the depth and majesty of God's way of salvation.

What I mean by that is that if you are a believer in Jesus Christ – if he is your treasured Savior and Lord – then you are caught up in something that is not small and insignificant but deep and majestic. It began in eternity when God planned your salvation, and it was prepared for you through thousands of years of history leading up to Jesus' incarnation. God was doing things – great things – in history so that you could be saved. What happened to make you a Christian – to put away all your sins, and remove your condemnation, and make you a child of God, and give you personal fellowship with the living Christ, and lead you to everlasting life – what happened so that you could enjoy all that, is so deep and so great that it is like an ocean of depth and majesty.

And you will trust God more and love Christ more if you know something of this ocean of depth and majesty that is under your salvation. So that is why I want to linger over the last half of verse 6 and take you to some of the shores of this ocean elsewhere in the Bible. I want you to know what he has done and why he does it so that you trust him more and love him more. Trusting God hour by hour to guide our lives and meet our needs and be our treasure is what we need more than anything. Because the practical aim of life is love, and love comes from "a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5; see Galatians 5:6).

First let's clarify the immediate context.

Why Freedom Produces Love, not Lawlessness

These six verses are Paul's answer to the question of why our being under grace and not under Law produces love and not lawlessness. He's explaining his answer to the question asked back in Romans 6:15, "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!" But why not? Why does freedom from the Law not result in lawlessness, but in the sacrificial service of love?

He set's up a comparison between marriage and the Law, on the one hand, and the believer and the Law on the other. In verses 1-3 he says that if one of the partners in the marriage dies, the law that makes a second marriage wrong is nullified. So death sets free from the Law. That is the point of the comparison that is picked up in verses 4-6.

So verse 4 says, "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another." In other words, by faith we have been united with Christ (as 6:5 says) so that his death becomes our death. And therefore, Paul says, we have died to the Law. Christ bore the punishment that the Law required, and Christ fulfilled the perfect obedience that the Law demanded. So in him I am released from the Law. You see that in verse 6a: "But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound."

But verse 4 goes on and tells us God's purpose in arranging this death for us in Christ: "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another." So we are released from the Law, Paul says, like the woman in the marriage, so that we could marry again without breaking the law – and the marriage he has in mind is union with the risen, living Jesus Christ: ". . . so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead." So your salvation is a liberation from law and unification with a living Person, Jesus Christ – who, according to Romans 6:9, will never die again. Which means your salvation is eternal and secure.

And the verse goes one step further and explains not only why we died to the Law – namely, to be joined to the living Christ – but also why we are joined to the living Christ – "in order that we might bear fruit for God." This fruit is love. So now we have Paul's answer to why being freed from the Law does not produce lawlessness, but love. It's because of this new union with Jesus. We are not cut free from the Law so we can float in the air, free from all guidance and help. We are freed from the Law precisely to be joined to Jesus. Your relationship with Jesus becomes everything. Paul said, "To live is Christ." To live is not lawkeeping. To live is Christ.

Now verse 6 simply says the same thing as verse 4, but in different words, and brings us to the edge of the ocean of what the Bible calls the "new covenant." Let's look at verse 6 and then go to the shores of the "new covenant."

"But now we have been released from the Law [we've seen that in verse 4], having died to that by which we were bound [we've seen that], so that we serve [that's the same as saying, "so that we bear fruit"] . . . . But now come the words that are laden with new covenant meaning: ". . . so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter."

Notice the contrast between Spirit and letter. That is one of the differences between the old covenant and the new covenant. What does it mean? What does it mean to say that the Christian life – your life – is "in the newness of the Spirit" not "in the oldness of the letter"?

Well, let's visit a few places on the shores of the ocean of meaning in the new covenant. This is where we will find out what Paul is talking about here.

New Covenant

First let me show you why I think Paul is, in fact, talking about this thing called the new covenant. Consider 2 Corinthians 3:5-6. Paul says, "Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." So here we have the closest parallel to Romans 7:6, where it says that we "serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that the apostles are "servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." And here Paul makes it explicit that he is talking about the "new covenant."

So when he speaks of serving by the Spirit and not by the letter, he is talking about the way the new covenant works. So what is it? What is this new covenant? Let's go back to the promise in the Old Testament to find out.

In Jeremiah 31:31-34 the prophet holds out this promise:

"Behold, days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, (32) not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt [not like the Ten Commandments – the heart of the Mosaic covenant], My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the Lord. (33) "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel [and not only with them but with all who are children of Israel by faith] after those days," declares the Lord, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (34) "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the Lord, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

That is the classic text on the new covenant. The book of Hebrews quotes it several times as the basis of its new covenant teaching. What do we learn there about the terms of the new covenant? 1) We learn that in the new covenant the Law will no longer mainly be external, written on stone (that's what "letter" means), but will be mainly internal, written on the heart (verse 33). In other words, the decisive thing about the Law will no longer be that it is a demand from outside, but it will be a desire from inside. 2) Or, as verse 34 puts it, knowing God will not be an external command so much as an internal experience. 3) And the last clause of verse 34 gives the foundation for these internal experiences of grace: "For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." So in the new covenant, God provides a way to wipe all our sins away, gives us an experience of personally knowing him, and writes the Law on our heart so that we love to please him.

So you should ask, "But what about the Spirit? I see the contrast between external demand, or letter, and internal desire; but where is the "newness of the Spirit"?

Newness of the Spirit

For that we go to the prophet Ezekiel where he gives a similar promise, but in different words. First, consider 11:19-20. "And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God." Then look at Ezekiel 36:26-27. "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes,and you will be careful to observe My ordinances."

These are promises of what Jeremiah calls the "new covenant" – different from the covenant made with Israel when they came out of Egypt, that is, different from the Law, the Mosaic covenant, the one written on stone, the covenant "in oldness of letter."

Now when does this new covenant get inaugurated? The answer is: in the work of Christ – specifically in his death and resurrection and in the outpouring of the Spirit on Christ's people. Jesus spoke the decisive word in Luke 22:20 during the Lord's Supper, "And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.'"

What this means is that the death of Christ – the blood-shedding of Jesus – is the foundation of the blessings of the new covenant. When Jesus says the new covenant is "in my blood," he means that everything that the new covenant promised is provided by the blood of Christ. 1) Because of the blood of Christ, our sins are forgiven, as Jeremiah 31:34 promises. 2) Because of the blood of Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit, as Ezekiel 36:27 promises. 3) Because of the blood of Christ, we know God personally. 4) Because of the blood of Christ, the Law is written on our hearts, not just on tablets of stone.

So now we come back to Romans 7:6, "But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." Now we see that being dead to the Law – the letter – and "serving in newness of the Spirit" means serving as beneficiaries of the new covenant. God planned the inadequacy of the "old covenant" with a view to the great superiority of the new covenant in Christ – so that Christ would get greater glory. The old covenant was designed to lead us to Christ and to his Spirit and to faith. If we want to honor Christ the way we should, and enjoy him the way we should, then we need to see the greatness of the work of God in the new covenant beneath our salvation like an ocean of depth and majesty.

So let's sum it up. What does it mean now to see our life – our "serving in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter" as a blessing of the new covenant?

The Foundation under Our Lives

It means, first, that underneath our lives is the massive foundation of the blood of Christ – the "blood of the eternal covenant" (Hebrews 13:20). Oh, never forget that our life is blood-bought. Think of it often. I just read yesterday that one reason fantasy is so popular in contemporary literature is "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." But the Christian commentator said, "That ought not to be the case for people who have been to the cross." Oh, never move far from the cross. It is will be your wisdom in life and your comfort in death. All your serving is blood-bought.

Second, this means that your freedom from the Law is because of what Christ did on the cross. Christ bore the Law's penalty and fulfilled the Law's demand for all who believe. The Law's condemnation and demand for perfection have been satisfied for all who are in Christ. So, as verse 6 says, "We have been released from the Law." This is a blood-bought, new covenant blessing. Glory in it for Christ's sake!

Third, therefore all your sins have been forgiven. "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." Preach this to yourself this week when Satan assails you with accusations. Remind him and yourself of the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:34 and the all-sufficient payment of the blood of Christ.

Fourth, a new Spirit has been given to you; God has put his own Spirit within you. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of the Father.

Therefore, fifth, you know the Father not just as the first great commandment, but as a Spirit-given experience. And you have fellowship with the Son by his Spirit. You died to the Law so that you might be joined to another. You know him and you walk with him and you fellowship with him. To live is Christ.

And therefore, finally, the Law of God is being written on your heart. The will of God does not crush you from outside with its demand for unattainable perfection. That Law is satisfied in Jesus. Now the will of God rises in your heart as the Spirit transforms your desires and makes you free.

O, blood-bought Christian, know your blessings! Know your privileges! Know what it is to be the beneficiary of the new covenant. And, unbeliever, this is free for all who believe. Turn from self-reliance, and receive Christ as the treasure of your life.


[1] See also Deuteronomy 30:5-6, "The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live."

[2] Richard John Neuhaus, "While We're at It," First Things, February 2001, no. 110, p. 71.

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