Dead to the Law, Serving in the Spirit, Part 4
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written
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.
Not a List of Rules, but a Person
What we saw from verse 5, the last time we were together, was that when the Law meets the flesh it becomes in the hands of the flesh the instrument of defeating its own demands. Let's read that verse again and get that truth before us. Verse 5: "For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law [or literally: "the passions of sins through the law"], were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." So sin took God's "holy, just and good" law (Romans 7:12) and made it an instrument of fruit unto death.
We argued that the reason this happens is that the essence of sin – or the essence of the flesh – is self-deification. We prefer being our own god. We do not like to be told what to do. We are not just lawbreakers; we are law-haters. We love autonomy and hate submission. This is what we are by nature ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, who preferred their own wisdom to God's. So when the "law of commandments" (Ephesians 2:15) comes to us in our flesh (without the Holy Spirit and without faith) it produces not the fruit of love – which Paul teaches is the fulfilling of the whole law (Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14) – but fruit for death (Romans 7:5).
Therefore, Paul argues, if we are going to bear fruit for God (verse 4) – if we are going to be transformed, Christ-like persons – we must die to the law. Not just have stronger willpower to obey it better, but die to it. 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."
So the key to living the Christian life – the key to bearing fruit for God – the key to a Christ-exalting life of love and sacrifice – is to die to the law and be joined not to a list of rules, but to a Person, to the risen Christ. The pathway to love is the path of a personal, Spirit-dependent, all-satisfying relationship with the risen Christ, not the resolve to keep the commandments.
Freed from Sin, Dead to the Law
Now let me illustrate this way of life – this new, non-law-oriented way of holiness and love – by comparing Romans 7:4 and Romans 6:22. The parallels are very illuminating. Romans 6:22 says, "But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit [literally: "you have your fruit"], resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." Now let's compare this with Romans 7:4.
Corresponding to "having been freed from sin" in 6:22 is "you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ" in 7:4.
Corresponding to "and [you were] enslaved to God" in 6:22 is "so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead" in 7:4.
Corresponding to "you derive your benefit [literally: "you have your fruit"], resulting in sanctification" in 6:22, is "in order that we might bear fruit for God" in 7:4.
· Freed from sin – dead to the law.
· Enslaved to God – belong to Christ.
· Bear fruit unto holiness – bear fruit for God.
Why do I think "freed from sin" in 6:22 corresponds to "dead to the law" in 7:4? Because in 7:5 it is "through the law" that sin worked in our members to bear fruit for death. "The sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." In other words, law and sin are partners to ruin our lives. If we are going to be free from sin (6:22), we must be free from law (7:4). If we are going to die to sin, we must die to law.
But Isn't God's Law Good?
How can I say that about God's good and holy law? I say it because Paul says it. He not only says it here in verse 5; he also says it in 1 Corinthians 15:56, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law." The power of sin is the law. That is true of the Law's ability to condemn (Romans 3:19-20), and it is true of the Law's ability to hold in practical bondage (Romans 7:5). Law and sin are partners in ruining life and killing people.
I say this also because Paul said it in Galatians 3:22-23, "But the Scripture [and the context makes it plain that he means "the law"] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed." In other words, God gave the holy, just, and good law to have a temporary imprisoning effect. It imprisons to sin. It "increases the transgression" (Romans 5:20; see Galatians 3:19) and causes sin to become "utterly sinful" (7:13).
So here's the crucial point: Freedom from sin into a life of fruit-bearing for God does not come through the law, it comes by dying to the law and its partner sin, so that you can belong to another – not to sin [the first husband in Romans 7:1-3], but to a new living, powerful Person, Jesus Christ, the risen Son of God, or to God the Father, as 6:22 says; or to the Spirit of God, as Romans 8:9 says. Whether it is the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit – the key to the fruit-bearing Christian life is not the written law, it is the living God defining us, shaping us, guiding us, satisfying us.
And Isn't Our Aim Love, the Fulfillment of the Law?
Now let's try to get as practical as we can here to see if we understand what this really means for our daily lives. And here's the test to see if we understand: Why is it that we must die to the law if our aim is the fruit of love, and love is the fulfillment of the law? If the law is summed up in love, and love is the fruit God wants, then why must we die to the law? Romans 13:8, 10: "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. . . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Galatians 5:14 says, "The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.'" So why die to the very thing you want to fulfill?
Because God has ordained that the goal of the law be fulfilled in us through Christ-loving, not law-keeping.
Let try to say it with a picture. And I will tell you at the outset that the picture has a truth in it and a falsehood in it. I'll use it for the truth and then I will scrap it because of the error.
Suppose the law is like a house with a front door and a back door. And in the house is the treasure of love, the fulfillment of the law. We want to be there. We want to become radical, loving, sacrificial, Christlike people. On the locked front door are written the laws for getting into the house. They are the combination to the great padlock on the door. Right turn, don't kill; left turn, don't steal; right turn, don't lie; left turn, don't commit adultery; right turn, don't covet; and so on.
Paul says, if you want to get into that house – if you want the treasure of love – you must die to the front door as a way in. And when you die to the law as the door to the house, you are joined to Christ who picks you up, takes you to the back door and carries you in. He alone has the power to do it. You can only get in by trusting him and riding in him. You must be united to him if you would get into the treasure of love. In him and by him you bear the fruit of love and fulfil the law.
In other words, to fulfill the law you must die to lawkeeping as a way in, and replace it with Christ-loving. Attachment to the living Christ, not the written law, is the key to life and love. That is the truth in the picture: If you want to fulfill the law, you don't approach it through the front door of lawkeeping, but through the back door of Christ-loving.
Now what's wrong with this picture?
The Law Is the Servant of Christ
What's wrong with it is that it puts the law at the center and makes Christ the servant of the law, instead of putting Christ at the center and making the law a servant of Christ. Or to say it another way, it makes the law the goal of our being in Christ, instead of making our being in Christ the goal of the law. The danger is that what we may want is to get into this house of law; and to that end Christ becomes useful as a key, a doorkeeper.
Oh how easy for us to come so close to getting the Christian life right (the newness of the Spirit – Christ! – instead of the oldness of the letter – law!) and then fall right back into the old legal way of living by making Christ a new list-giver and a new means of finally getting the old list "right." And so we wind up going from room to room in the house turning all the combinations that we got from Christ. And we think that is the aim of the Christian life.
I don't think this what Paul means when he says in Romans 7:4 that we "die to the law so that we can belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead," Jesus Christ. He didn't mean: Die to the law so that you can belong to the one who can really help you to belong to the law. He was saying: The law is not the goal of history; Christ is the goal of history. The law is not the goal of your life; Christ is the goal of your life. Christ did not come into history to lead us to the law; the law came into history to lead us to Christ. The law is not the goal of Christ; Christ is the goal of the law. Marriage is not for the sake of wedding vows; wedding vows are for the sake of marriage.
What Do Christians Do with the Law of God?
What then shall we, as Christians, do with the holy, just and good law of God? Answer: we will look into this law for two purposes. 1) We will look into the law to see Christ so that we can know him and trust him and love him more. 2) We will look into this law to test ourselves to see if we do know and trust and love Christ as we ought. God's law reveals Christ in many ways, and we may use it to know him and stir up our love for him. And the law is a litmus paper to test the genuineness of our love to Christ. Christ is the key to unlocking the meaning of the law; and then the law displays Christ for our heart's satisfaction – and transformation (see John 5:39; Luke 24:27).
Let me illustrate this by taking you to 2 Corinthians 3. Notice first that the issue of living by law or living by the Spirit is what is at stake here. Verse 6: "[God] made us adequate servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
Now having said that, he describes the old covenant – the Law of Moses – as having come with great glory on Mount Sinai. Then he says that Moses' face shone with a reflection of this glory when he came to the people, and he put a veil on so that the people would not see this glory as it faded away. And then he treats this veil as a symbol of how the true glory and goal of the old covenant was concealed from most of Israel. Then, starting in verse 2 Corinthians 3:14-17 he relates this to Christ:
But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. [Seeing the goal and glory of the old covenant happens in Christ.] But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; But whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, thereis liberty.
This is what happens to us Christians in the fulfillment of the new covenant: the veil that concealed the glory and goal of the law is removed, and we see what it was all about. And in seeing that, we experience its rightful aim. What is that? Verse 18: "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord [the goal and glory of the old covenant!], are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit."
What we see when the veil is lifted is the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ: "We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord." This is the way to look at the law – in order to see Christ. We have died to the law as a means of lawkeeping that the veil might be lifted and we might use the law as a means of Christ-seeing and Christ-loving.
And what happens when we do? How does the Christian life work to produce love, if we have died to lawkeeping and turned to Christ-seeing? "Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." This is the Christian life. A life of seeing and savoring Jesus Christ and being changed by that sight and that savoring from one degree of glory to the next into his image.
Therefore, for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of your own soul: give yourself utterly to knowing Christ and to trusting Christ and to loving Christ and you will be changed from one degree to the next into the image of Christ. You will bear fruit for God, not in the oldness of the letter but in the newness of the Spirit.