Notes on Romans 7

Romans 7  •  32 min. read  •  grade level: 6
Chapter 7
You will remember what we have been treating of up to the end of chapter 3, all under sin, and propitiation made for our sins by the precious blood of Christ. All our actual guilt dealt with; so that we cannot overrate the importance of the subject. So in Romans 4 we have seen the apostle developing the grand doctrine of the resurrection—the believing in God as the One who raised the dead. It is not merely putting away sin from the guilty person, but it is God acting on the very Person who was delivered for our offenses, and for a little moment under death.
The power of this raising the dead was first exercised on the Person of Christ, here looked at as delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification—that is, the application does not go beyond the justifying effect of resurrection, the new position of Christ as delivered for our offenses, and so raised again by God, a witness of the efficacy of His work, and the new place He has thus entered into as Man. Elsewhere we learn what the exercise of the same power of God is in us who believe, so that we are viewed as risen with Him, but this is Ephesian teaching. There we see the saints quickened by the Spirit of God, in the exercise of the very same divine power that raised Christ from the dead and quickened together with Christ, the same being thus associated with Christ in resurrection.
From verse 12 to end of chapter, we get our connection with the first Adam, and the Last, so that not merely individual sins are in question, but a single head involving those connected with it in the consequences of his act, and in the partaking of a life or nature derived from that head—the one constituting his family, sinners; the other, righteous. The flesh says, if one man’s obedience makes me righteous, I may continue in the sin of my old nature! No: you are dead to sin, and what you are dead to, you cannot live in.
In Romans 6 the objections of the natural man to the obedience of Christ constituting us righteous are all met, as the apostle connects practical righteousness and a holy life with being dead with Christ, and the reception of a new life to God through Him as a necessary result. This important point we must pursue a little more fully. The Christ in whom we have part, as thus interested in His obedience, is Christ who has died and is risen; and if we are associated with Him, we are associated with Him in death. The public profession of Christianity was baptism to His death. We have been planted in the likeness of His death, we cannot live in what we have died to.
This treats of our continuance in sin, the principle and condition of our Adam nature. But more, if planted in the likeness of His death, we shall be of His resurrection; that is, the power of His life will show itself in us.
He does not say we are risen with Him; which would in itself suppose full redemption, with life, and a place and condition before God. Here it is practical, a new character of life—we are to walk in newness of life. I am, then, to reckon myself dead, and alive unto God, through, or in, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet it is not as raised with Him, but quickened by Him or in the power of His life. When quickened together with Him, He is looked at as dead, and union is involved in it; not “with” here, but we have the new life through Him. Hence, I am free, for I reckon the old nature dead.
Here comes in the second point of the chapter. To whom am I going to yield myself, if thus free in life—to sin again? God forbid. I am a slave, to use a human figure, says the apostle, to Him to whom I give myself up, not therefore surely to sin, but to God; and my members as instruments of righteousness to God. The law I am not under; that comes requiring, and really addresses itself to me as alive in the flesh. But the absence of legal requirement does not lead me to sin, my freedom is to serve God, to be obedient. Such is life through Christ.
But there is more: what fruit had we in the things we are now ashamed of? None; and they end in death. But now we have, in the path of obedience, fruit—fruit unto holiness. “Show me thy way,” says Moses, “that I may know thee” (Ex. 33:1313Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. (Exodus 33:13)). In the path of obedience will is not at work, lusts are not at work; we are with God, we have His mind, our hearts are separate to Him, we know Him better. Hence, in increased spiritual discernment of good and evil, and conscious knowledge of God, there is fruit unto holiness, intelligent separation of heart to Him, ever better known.
The beginning of the chapter raises the question of continuance in sin, when another’s obedience makes us righteous; the end, when set free, to what we yield ourselves, and its blessed fruit, yet bringing out all as grace. The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And let us remark, that while it is for righteousness and for obedience—for the new nature loves both—it is to God, we yield ourselves to God. What a blessed freedom of heart and position, to be able to give ourselves up, and up to God Himself, in the knowledge of Him! In the chapter which follows he shows how, as dead, we are not under law, which claims, and is not freedom, nor delivers at all, so as to be free to yield ourselves thus to God.
Romans 7, then, applies this doctrine of being dead to our position in respect of the law. The practical effect of the new nature in me, if not freed from the law, is to give me such a sense of what God is, and what self is, as to make me perfectly miserable. It gives me the sense of good and evil, but good unattained, and evil to which I am a slave. But this Romans 7 shows the effect of my being dead, on my relationship with law: I am delivered from it. It is not merely that we are justified, nor yet merely that we have a new nature, but that we are delivered from the law. The apostle takes care to show that there is no fault in the law, but that we are delivered from it.
As many as pretend to take their stand with God, as being under the law, are under the curse, “for as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse” (Gal. 3:1010For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. (Galatians 3:10)). It is not that the works are bad, but the effect of our being under the law puts us under the curse. It is useless for you to talk of using the law, not for justification, but for sanctification, or as a rule of life: you cannot use the law for this or that according to your own fancies. It will use its rights over you as it pleases. God is saying by the law to those who are under it, “You have not obeyed Me, and I am going to curse you.” You cannot deal with God’s law as you like; for if you will have God’s law, you must take it with all the consequences God has attached to it.
There is no power whatever in the law to sanctify. It is not in the capacity of the law to sanctify a sinner. It is holy, just, and good, but when applied it must condemn the sinner. It must condemn all under it. It requires from themselves obedience to it. Nothing ever so fully established the claims of the law as God’s Son dying under it. Of course, the positive effect of our being under the law is, that it of itself puts us under the curse. But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.
Assuredly, the law is good; it would be blasphemy to think otherwise. But the question is, what is the lawful use of it? It is never said that it is good to be under the law, though the law is good in itself. The law is good to detect the state of the heart. Who is there that has not broken the law? Who has not lusted? Who loves God with all his heart? No; you love yourselves better; and who loves his neighbor really quite as well as himself? Not one of us; then we are all under the curse, if we are under the law. The law is good, if a man use it lawfully; knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient.
The law is useful as a weapon, but it is one that has no handle; for if I, a man in the flesh take it to use against others, it pierces me through quite as much as those against whom I wield it. It is as sharp for me as for them. See John 8, where the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman taken in adultery; their wicked hearts thought to prove Jesus to be in the wrong, whether in condemning or saving her. If He condemned, He was no Savior—the law could do as much; if He let off, He had set aside the law—profound wickedness! They quote the law; very well; but it is as much a law to themselves as for her; for Jesus said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” “and they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one.” Christ having thus condemned them all by the law, He then takes up the woman in grace, and says to her, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.” The law was made for unrighteous persons. Why do I say to you, that you must not lust? If lust were not there, where would be the use of it? But if lust is there, what can the law do but condemn it? As a system, the law was given 2,600 years after sin came in, and what could it do but condemn? It was never meant to do anything but to condemn, to prove the heart, and to give the knowledge of sin: we should thoroughly understand what deliverance from it is, if we would be truly free in Christ—children of the free woman. It is surely useful always, as God’s weapon to convince.
In Romans 7, the apostle applies the doctrine of death to the law, and he opens it in this way, “Know ye not that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?” It is true even of human law, and physical death. He proceeds with the analogy of husband and wife. You cannot have two husbands at one and the same time—we cannot have Christ and the law both at once. We are bound up with one or the other, as a principle, to God. The woman cannot have two husbands. “Wherefore ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ.” It is not that the law has died, we are dead; the image, so far, changes, but the bond is broken; and this difference is blessed, because I hold also my old evil nature for dead, and this is by the body of Christ. In His death, as we have seen, I reckon myself dead. The law was never abrogated, and the principle of it was sanctioned as of God, and those that have sinned under it will be judged by it. Verse 6 correctly reads: “but now we are clear from the law, having died in that in which we were held.” It is not then, that the law is dead, but we are dead to that by which we were held. Hence, note, death to sin goes with it. Therefore, the apostle says, we are dead to the law by the body of Christ, because Christ was made a curse for us, and died under it, as bearing the curse. But how? Why the law applied its full curse to Him, as willingly offering Himself, and He died under it.
The law as a weapon took its full effect on Christ. It did everything it possibly could, by way of its curse coming on Christ. The curse of the law was the death of the sinner, and Christ in grace was made sin for us; therefore, what could the law do more than spend its full curse on the head of Him, who was made sin for us, who died under the law? Christ was born under the law and kept it. He puts Himself under its curse, and goes through it all, and rises entirely out of it. And faith applies Christ’s position to the believer. But alas! to how many Christians law is Christianity. But Christ comes as a Mediator, and takes my place, my whole cause: and faith has received all that. He thus was in my place, bringing all the good of it to myself, as if I were in His place. He is not speaking of union with Him now, as in Ephesians 1 come and have my place actually and livingly in Christ, for He is the quickening Spirit, the last Adam, who comes and gives me a portion with Himself in His present position. All question of the claims of the law upon the believer has passed away in Christ, for in Christ he has died to the life and position in which he could be under it; and now I have a life in Christ after the whole question of law is settled before God. I am married to another husband, to Him who is raised from the dead.
The Jew is still fully under the law. The believer has died to it in Christ. Does this weaken the power of the law? No, not at all, it has all its power. See Galatians 2:19-2019For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. 20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19‑20). I through the law am dead to the law. But it cannot put forth its killing power on me, if I am dead. It has killed me, and that is what delivers me, for I am in Christ, and it killed Him. The law found sin in me, and executed all its full curse upon Him, who was made sin for me; and now I can reason about it in peace, because its curse is gone, which has been fully borne by Christ.
The law was formerly the religious tie with God, but now another is our tie with God. For it is not now the law, but my new husband, Christ in resurrection; we are dead to the law by the body of Christ, that we should be married to another, even to Him that is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. And because of this new graft in the heart of the believer, God is looking for new fruit; for God has ceased to look for fruit from man’s nature, it has only brought forth wild evil fruit. This was fully brought out in the cross of Christ; but now there is the new thing, on which God’s mind is set. Well, then, as we cannot have the two husbands at once, so if in any wise we are under the law, we are under its curse; and what is more, you cannot get from under its curse, for you have sin in your flesh, and the law can never allow the working of sin in the flesh, it must necessarily bring out its curse. You talk of sanctification, but you are not sanctified enough for the law, for it will not let you off in any wise. You may have the desire to be good, but you have not yet owned how thoroughly bad you are. God is not looking for any good in you, for He says, “There is none that understandeth, none that seeketh, none righteous, no, not one.” Now this you do not believe, for you are thinking there is some good in you, or hoping for it; you do not believe yourself to be thoroughly bad, as God says you are. And the very way God brings to our consciences what we really are, is that He often leaves us under the condemnation of the law, that it may prove to us what our true state by nature is; and when we have learned this, we shall be glad enough to be delivered from the law.
Do you say, that being taken from under the law leads to licentiousness? What! do you mean to say, then, that Christ’s life in us leads to licentiousness? It is true that the flesh will abuse everything; but the living power of grace, the reality, what there is in the life of Christ, cannot be believed in by those who say, that if we are not kept under the law we shall sin.
If you use the law for sanctification, you do not know yourselves; and if you think you will be holier by living under the law, it is plain you do not know what it is. I dare any one of you to be under it in God’s presence. No; not one of you could stand under it in God’s presence for one single moment: “In thy sight shall no man living be justified.” This is the ground the law will take with you; it can take no other, for the law knows nothing of grace—it would not be law if it did. Again, I say, you are not really reduced to the sense of what it is to be brought under the law, if you present yourself to God to be judged by it, and the law always brings into judgment, and then all is over, all is lost. The law allows of no excuse. It will have a perfect righteousness in use.
But farther, when we were in the flesh, the motions of sin, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death; that was not the fault of the law, for while there is will in man, man can never produce what God desires. The law is applied to man as he is, it does not speak of the new nature. The law says, I must have obedience to God. You say, Oh! but I have flesh in me. I know ‘nothing of that, says the law. I hate these lusts, you reply to it. So do I, says the law, and that is the reason I am cursing you, for you have them. The law allows of no excuses, and this is its value; it would not be a perfect law if it did, for it would be a bad law if it allowed any evil or failure. Do you love God with all your heart? No; you know you do not. Then you are under the curse. Do you love your neighbor as yourself? No; I do not deny there may be much kindness of feeling, sympathy, and the like; but if your neighbor loses his fortune, do you feel it just as much as if you had lost your own? No, you do not. Then you are under the curse. The effect of a law where there is a will is that it brings out the will; for it makes a man strive against that which checks his will, but that is not the fault of the law, but the fault of sin that there is in him. It is in fallen human nature to will to do a thing that is forbidden; for instance, if a cup were turned over on the table, and at the same time it was declared that no one must know what was under it, all in the room would desire to know it immediately. Thus sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.
Now, we are delivered from the law. But do you really believe that it is deliverance? If not, you do not know what flesh is, neither do you know what holiness is. Still, the law is good of itself: that must ever be guarded. It would be blasphemy to speak ill of it as God’s law. But now we are delivered from the law, having died in that wherein we were held, that we should serve in the newness of the spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. The law is not dead. It is still in full force against the unrighteousness of the man who is under it; but I have died under it. The law has condemned me, and spent its full curse on me in Christ.
The moment I get life in Christ, I am in partnership with Him, and partnership involves participation in all the advantages of the one with whom we are admitted partners. All my debts having been discharged withal, I am brought into the position in which Christ is. I brought nothing in. His kindness brought me in. But then I speak as a partner would of his capital, customers, and the like; so we, of being dead, alive, and the like. And now I can serve in the newness of the spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. We do not blame the law. God forbid! But I had not known sin, but by the law, “for when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” Thus death was brought into my soul by the knowledge of sin; but will that bring to God? Never! It shows my need of grace and a deliverer. The law says, Thou shalt not lust; then it is all over with me, for I am one with Adam, and I am full of lust. “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence”; that is, the law suggested it, by forbidding it.
Suppose a person to say, “I am going to do such and such a thing,” and I say, “Oh, don’t do that,” when self-will is at work, he desires the more to do it immediately. It is useless to try and combat with sin in this way. Yet the awakened conscience and the prohibition combine to make one know that it is wrong, and put me consciously guilty before God. The commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. This was not the fault of the commandment, but being a sinner, the commandment which should have been the ministration of life, which said, “Do this and live,” necessarily became the ministration of death.
Let me return now to verse 5, which contains an important principle, from which all this sorrow flows. “When we were in the flesh”: compare this with verse 9 of Romans 8, “But ye are not in the flesh” (though the flesh may be in you). Now this is the key to all that has been said, and gives it its full power. If you are dead with Christ, and have life through Him, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. The natural man, we know, is in the flesh, nor does the law quicken him. But there is a further case. Suppose him quickened and under the law: still the law takes up man in the flesh, in principle, as to his position and conscience, and condemns him in the very thing in which he stands, as to his own consciousness before God, that is, his own personal responsibilities, but according to God’s intention.
Now, as regards my conscious position, I am always in the flesh, that is, as a child of Adam, on my own responsibility, till I know myself to be dead with Christ, and redeemed out of it. The being born again only makes me apprehend the spirituality of the law, the force of “Thou shalt not lust.” It does not show me sin in nature, but it gives me the knowledge of it by its first movements, and the painful discovery that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. I still do what I hate, and do not do what I would. It does not give the Spirit, which does give power, as it is the witness of liberty, but leaves a man just where he was in his responsibility, according to the first Adam’s place, and says, “Keep the law, and there is life; do this, and live”; and if there be life communicated, it does not hinder the working of the flesh, which yet it still condemns, and our conscience says, rightly. Thus the fact of being quickened by God does not give deliverance, while the conscience is under the law, though such have really a part in it; but it gives through the law the deep sense of the need of deliverance, because we cannot succeed in what we really desire. The law and flesh, and sin and death, go together, they are correlative. But if I have died, the other three have lost their power over me. If dead I am clearly no longer in the flesh. I say, When we were in the flesh, the motions of sin which were by the law wrought in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But as to our conscious place, we all are in the flesh, unless the Spirit of God by virtue of redemption dwell in us. Redemption, therefore, and the knowledge of redemption (of our having died, moreover, with Christ), is what we need for this deliverance. The apostle, while ascribing the effect to the law, yet carefully guards the law: “Was, then, that which is good made death unto me? God forbid! But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.”
This brings us to the main point of the chapter, not only flesh, of which we have spoken, but the operation of the law, and its effect, and that even on those who can delight in it spiritually. It works death; for we, Christians, know it is spiritual, but I as a child of Adam, am carnal, sold, that is a slave, under sin; and sin only becomes exceeding sinful by the law, working in me all manner of concupiscence. It has not, then, as such, sanctifying power. It cannot make me holy. Is not the law good then? Yes! it is holy, just, and good. But I, as in the flesh, am not subject to it.
The apostle asks two questions here: Is the law sin? No, he says; but he would not have known sin, nor had sin on his conscience, but for it. Secondly, was it made death to him? No doubt sin wrought death in him by it. And this is its use. There is the knowledge of sin, and sin becomes exceeding sinful. Note here, it is all along sin, not sins. Paul had nothing externally on his conscience; but when the law became spiritual to him, then he found lusts and sin. That is what is discovered here, it is not what we have done, but what we are, that is, in the flesh.
There are three things in this chapter. In the first six verses, we have the doctrine—we have died to the law by the body of Christ, and we are married to another, even Christ risen from the dead; then verses 7-13, the conclusion, with the inquiry, is it sin? does it work death? and verses 14 to the end, experience, before being delivered from the law. And here it is of importance to mark how the apostle says “I” and “we.” When he says “I,” he is taking us in our individual state; but when he says “we,” then it is as Christians, as believers in Christ, that he is speaking of us. If he says “I,” then he is beginning to deal with individual members; for if I begin to talk of myself, then I find sin in myself every day. It is a personal, practical consciousness of what is working in my heart. But that is not my place in Christ, and there is the difference. And this gives us the key to the passage. It is one who has Christian knowledge, judging what flesh is, but what it is in its effect on me in the presence of, and under the law. It is what I am in myself, that is, in the flesh. I am carnal; in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing. In this part of the chapter, all is “I” and “me” therefore, which are used some thirty times; but he never speaks of Christ or of the Spirit at all until the close of the chapter. It is the experience of what the flesh is, viewed in the light of the requirements of a spiritual law, deliverance being yet unknown, and not the knowledge by faith of what I am in Christ. It is the personal experience of myself in flesh, but mixed with the clear knowledge of a Christian, who looks back at it; but not the state of a man in Christ, whom the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made free.
What is in Romans 7, then, is a man under the law. It is not simply the effect of conflict between the new and the old nature, but the effect of being under the law when both are there. It does not say that Christ is good, but takes much lower ground, and says that the law is holy, just, and good. Romans 7 is the discussion of the law applied to the practical experience of a man, struggling to live righteously under it. A natural man cannot delight in the law of God with his heart, the new nature does; but then, according to that nature, we see he always wills what is right, yet he never does it, because he has no power. Now, do you not find that, in a vast majority of cases, what you want is power to do what is right? Well, then, the law will never give it you; for the law is as weak to give you power to do right, as it is strong to condemn you when you do wrong. The secret of it all is, that when in the flesh there is no power, and it is all self till we see that; and till Christ is known as the Deliverer from the law, it is always I, I, I, and we shall be floundering about, and only getting deeper and deeper into it, like a man in a morass, who attempting to lift one leg out, only sinks the other deeper in the mire; there may be a desire to get out, but he must have a deliverer; there is ever the desire to be this or that, or to do this or that, being thus occupied with self instead of Christ. It is true you ought to desire holiness, but how are you to get power to be holy?
Suppose you were, what will never be, a great deal more holy than you are, would that give you peace, when you have not been brought to a righteous standing before God in Christ? If you think your own holiness could give you peace, you are not even depending on His blood, and certainly you do not know yourselves. What then is all this struggling meant for? Just to let you know you cannot have peace in this way, nor righteousness and holiness in the flesh and by the law, that you may know yourselves, and what flesh is.
There is such a tendency in us to be thinking of these I’s and me’s, thus to set up self in God’s place, that God says, Well, you shall have so much of self, that you shall be thoroughly glad to have done with yourself, and to this end, God often suffers us to be brought through all this, to be put under the law, with a new nature and a good will, which only leads to “O wretched man that I am,” for it is only man. There is the love of good, but no power to do it, for man is as powerless as he is wicked. He is, through laboring to do, brought to cry out, “Who shall deliver?” He is looking for another to deliver him; he gives it up as a hopeless thing, yet cannot, dare not, do without it. It is not that man is to get a better self, but a deliverance from self. This may be the work of a day or years, according to circumstances; man is brought to his own level, and then God in grace can come in. Then comes thanksgiving, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The only way by which man gets power is by being shown that he has none of himself, and then he is not delivered by getting victory, and so peace, but by finding he is in Christ, has died to and is out of the flesh, and only in Christ, through whom he lives before God. Then God can give him power. “When we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Man must know God as his Savior, before he knows Him as his strength. There must be salvation; then comes peace, and progress.
The doctrine, then, in Romans 7, is that we cannot have Christ and the law, or the two husbands at once; but, that we are dead to the law, and bound to Christ risen. The motions of sin which were by the law did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But it is not the fault of the law, yet it brings death into our consciences; the law, moreover, is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin; and it serves to the renewed man to teach him by practical experience what sin really is, and makes it exceeding sinful. The fruit of the experience gained under it is, first, to know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing—not what I have done, but what I am, that is my flesh; next, to distinguish between self and sin, for I hate it, its very pressure makes me know it, thus taught of God; but, thirdly, that if I do hate it, it is too strong for me, has still power over me; a law in my members bringing me into captivity. But this powerlessness, thus learned, when I feel the evil and the burden, leads me to have done with self, and look for a deliverer; a deep and weighty lesson; but having been crucified with Christ, I am delivered; hence, here he thanks God. The doctrine he had taught already; he is now come to the point where the effect is realized. The law has spent its full curse on the person of Christ, and so on us also, as reckoned to our favor, as associated with Christ in death; now we are married to Him risen.
The law is often applied by God to bring home to the soul a sense of its powerlessness, for it is easier to learn we are sinful, than to learn that we have no power. Conscience will soon tell us we are sinful, as regards acts, but it requires this divine teaching to know the sin in our nature. We often need to be brought through struggle after struggle, before we acknowledge that in our flesh dwells no good thing, that we have no power; we may assent to it as a doctrine, but we must also experience the truth of it in the secrecy of our own souls.
It is a humbling, but most profitable lesson; the difference is evident always to every experienced eye, indeed, to oneself, as to confidence in self, besides turning to the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free.
The Lord give you to weigh well this important principle, that there is no forgiveness of sins but of grace, through Christ’s death. For an evil nature, for sin—Christ having died for us, as “for sin,”—is condemned in His death, and we are set free, for we have died with Him. Also remember this, that it is the discovery of what we really are, that settles the question of the law. Then we shall be glad to get rid of what only can and ought to bring a curse upon us, and to be brought into fellowship with Christ the Lord.