Dead to the Law, Serving in the Spirit, Part 3
From Gospel Translations
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.
Known by Our Christ-like, Christ-exalting Love
Paul is absolutely passionate that we Christians be known by our Christ-like, Christ-exalting love – love for each other, love for our neighbors, love for our enemies, love for the unreached peoples of the world, love for the weak, love for the suffering. And that we not devote ourselves to maximizing our material ease and our physical comforts or our religious reputation, but that we devote ourselves to doing as much good for others as we can, both for time and eternity. And because that love is his passion for us, he is equally passionate that we be dead to the law.
That is what I want to talk about this morning and next week in a more focused way. I want us to think about the Law of God. What is it? What role does it have in relation to sin and to love? What is the role of the Law in relation to justification and sanctification? Why do we need to die to this Law in order be loving people? After we die to it, does it have any authority and usefulness in our lives? Those are the questions I want us to take up today and next week.
First, why do I say that Paul's passion is that we be known by our Christ-like, Christ-exalting love? For this reason: notice at the end of verse 4 that his aim is "in order that we might bear fruit for God." That's the aim of the Christian life. "Bearing fruit for God." What is this "bearing fruit?" Well, the first and main fruit of the Spirit is love. Paul says in Galatians 5:22, "The fruit of the Spirit is love."
But does Paul have in mind here the fruit of the Spirit? Yes. Because look at the end of verse 6 where he states the same aim as verse 4, only in different words: "so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." The aim of our life is to "serve in newness of the Spirit." Now "bearing fruit for God" in verse 4 is parallel to "serving in newness of the Spirit" in verse 6. So the fruit Paul has in mind is the fruit of the Spirit, namely, love.
We could go to Galatians 5 and find this powerfully confirmed. In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery," meaning slavery to the Law (see Galatians 5:2-4). So he is talking there about the same release from the Law that he is talking about here in Romans 7:4-6. Then in Galatians 5:13 he writes about the relationship between love and this freedom from the law. "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." Don't say, "Because we are not under Law but under sin, let's sin." Freedom from the Law is for the sake of love. Then he says in Galatians 5:18, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law," just as he says here (in Romans 7:6) that we "serve in newness of the Spirit not in oldness of the letter." Then he gives a list of the fruit of the Spirit, especially love, and adds in verse 23, "against such things there is no law."
So I conclude that the passion of Paul's heart for us Christians is that our lives be marked by love. That is what happens when we "bear fruit for God" (verse 4) and when we "serve in the newness of the Spirit" (verse 6).
But now why do I say that because of this passion for love, Paul is therefore passionate that we die to the Law? The reason is absolutely amazing. The reason is that the Law, which itself can be summed up in love, becomes the instrument of defeating love. The Law winds up defeating the very thing it demands. We know the Law is summed up in love because in Romans 13:8b Paul says, "He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law." And Romans 13:10 says, "Love is the fulfillment of the law."
Love Requires Death to the Law
But why do I say that we must die to the Law in order for love to flourish in our lives? I say it because this is what verses 4, 5, and 6 say!
Verse 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." Dying to the Law is the means of bearing fruit for God – we must die to the Law that demands love in order to bear the fruit of love for God.
Verse 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." We die to the Law, Paul says, "so that" – this is the means – we can serve in newness of the Spirit – that is, serve one another in love! Death to Law is essential to love.
So the deeper question is Why? Not just, why do I say so, but why must it be so?
We've seen that Paul's passion is that Christians live lives of love. We have seen that for this to happen we must die to the Law. Now the question is Why? Why must we be "united to Christ in the likeness of his death," as Romans 6:5 says, and thus die to the Law?
Romans 7:5 gives the answer. It's because until we are united to Christ in his death, and rise with him to newness of life, we don't have the Spirit of God and are merely "flesh." That is, we have only a fallen, sinful human nature without the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And what does the Law become when it meets this "flesh," or this fallen, unredeemed human nature? It becomes, in the power of sin, an actual instrument in defeating its own demands.
Verse 5: "For while we were in the flesh [=mere fallen, unredeemed human nature], the sinful passions, which were [aroused] by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." The Law itself is "holy, righteous, and good," Paul says in verse 12. But when we meet the Law while we are "in the flesh," our sin joins forces with the Law to "bear fruit for death." The Law itself becomes an instrument to multiply the very sins that the Law itself condemns (see 7:8, 13; compare 13:9-10).
That's why Paul says we must die to the Law if we are going to bear fruit for love.
The Good Law a Partner to Sin?
But to understand what this death to Law is, we need ask: How does the Law (which is good) become a partner with sin in bringing about the very things that the Law condemns?
The key to that question is in the meaning of the word "flesh." Verse 5 says that this happens when we are "in the flesh." "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." There's the key: "in the flesh."
What does that mean? Look at Romans 8:7-9. Here we have a description of what it means to be "in the flesh" and what the opposite is. "The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, (8) and those who are in the flesh [there's our phrase from 7:5] cannot please God. (9) However, you are not in the flesh [there it is again] but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him."
Here we have the person of Romans 7:5 described. To be "in the flesh" is described in four ways: 1) verse 7a, "the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God;" 2) verse 7b, "it does not subject itself to the law of God;" 3) verse 7c, "it is not even able to do so [to subject itself to God's law];" 4) verse 8, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God." And the opposite of being in the flesh is being "in the Spirit" (verse 9a); or to have the Spirit of God dwelling in you – to be a Christian, to belong to Christ (verse 9b).
Now think about this with me. The essence of our sinful condition before our conversion – before we die with Christ and receive the Holy Spirit – is not that we break specific laws. The essence of our condition is that we are hostile to God (verse 7), and so we do not and cannot submit to God's will – God's law (verse 7b). The essence of our sinful condition is the unwillingness to be told what to do. The essence of sin is a passion for self-rule. We will decide for ourselves where joy is to be found. We will not admit any final, decisive power or authority above self. In short, the essence of sin is self-deification – the passion to be our own god. That is what it means to be "in the flesh."
So sin is not first lawbreaking; it is first law-hating. And even before that, it is self-rule-loving. Being "in the flesh" means we will not be told what to do. We will be our own god.
Now we are in a position to understand Romans 7:5 and how law itself becomes a partner with this sinful nature in bringing about the very things that the Law condemns. Take an example. Suppose that you are a fairly unflappable, easygoing, thick-skinned person "in the flesh" – an unbeliever without the Spirit of Christ. And suppose the Law says, "Bless those who curse you." You don't know this law and nobody says it to you, and so in general, you seem to act like that. You're not quick to fight back. You like to make peace and don't easily get upset.
Then comes the Law. Somebody, or some book (like the Bible) says, "Bless that person who cursed you." And suddenly the you that was seemingly peace-loving and compliant (as long as you were in control and calling the shots) bristles with resistance at being told what to do. And the very thing that you might have done outwardly – smooth things over to make peace, say something nice – you now refuse to do. You were doing it outwardly as long as you were in charge. But as soon as someone or some book was elevated above you with the right to tell you what is right and what is good for you, your sinful nature wakens (comes to life as it were, verse 8), and you do not bless.
So the Law came, and sin partnered with the Law – took occasion in the Law, was aroused by the Law – to do the very thing which the Law condemned. The Law itself stirred up active disobedience to what the Law demanded. This is what is happening in Romans 7:5, "For while we were in the flesh [while we loved being god and hated being told what to do], the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death."
So now we have seen how the Law (which is good) becomes a partner with our self-deifying, insubordinate, sinful nature to bring about the very things that the Law condemns, and to hinder the very thing that the Law commands, namely love.
The Newness of the Spirit
So, Paul says, for love's sake you must die to the Law (Romans 7:4, 6), which itself is summed up in love (13:8, 10). You go out of existence with reference to the Law. That's Paul's solution to the catastrophic conspiracy of flesh and Law coming together to multiply sins. We must die "through the body of Christ" (7:4; 6:5). By faith in Christ we die with Christ. Galatians 5:24, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." Our old, insubordinate, rebellious, self-deifying, law-hating self dies with Christ. And we rise to walk in newness of life (6:4). And this newness is "the newness of the Spirit, not the oldness of the letter (the Law)" (7:6).
Now we are in a position to love, Paul says. And love fulfills the whole Law (13:8, 10).
So what I want to do next week is get very practical and ask: All right, how then do we live the Christian life? Do we read the Law anymore? What about commandments in the New Testament? Does the Law have any place in the life of a believer who is "dead to the Law"?
But for now, how shall we apply today's message?
Three brief applications:
1. Realize how willful and rebellious we are by nature apart from Christ and the work of his Spirit. Be aware of the remaining corruption within you. Oh how we should be humbled by the remnants of our bristling rebellion and resistance to being told what is good for us. Have you not tasted this even this past week? I have. I see it in the world, in my family, and most painfully, in myself. See it. Know it. And be humbled by it.
2. Reckon yourself dead to this old nature. Yes, we have died to sin. But we must also reckon ourselves dead. In Christ we are dead with him to sin. But now we are to put on the new nature. We are to become in practice what we are in reality in him. Become what you are in Christ – dead to proud sin and alive to humble love.
3. When you stumble and fail in the path of love, do not look to the Law as the remedy of your failure. The Law is not designed by God to provide the righteousness for your justification or the power of your sanctification. Verse 4 says that you died to the Law "so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead." The Law is not the answer to our failures to love. Christ is the answer. The risen, living, powerful, present Christ – he is the key to love. Know him. Trust him. Love him. Treasure him. Amen.