On the Epistle to the Romans 7

Romans 7  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 6
The apostle treats a new question in this chapter: What is the effect of the law in relation to our new position? The principle is simple. We have died with Christ; but law has dominion over a man only so long as he lives. If a murderer is condemned to death, and suffers death according to the sentence, the judicial authority has nothing more to do with him. Now we have died; yet if it were only by the law that we were put to death, we should be not only dead but condemned also. But now we have died with Christ, and He has borne for us the consequences of sin, as guilt. Thus we are dead, and the law, therefore, exercises no more authority over us. Christ has taken the place of the law. Instead of a law which forbade sins and lusts, and must of necessity condemn us (because the flesh, to which the law addressed its claims, was not subject to it, nor could be), we possess a new life in Christ; while by faith we reckon the flesh dead, which is disposed to sin. The apostle makes use of marriage as an illustration; death dissolves the tie between husband and wife. Thus we are dead with respect to the law, and are connected with another husband; namely, the risen Christ. The figure is employed here inversely. Not the law, but we, as having had our life in the flesh, have died. Such is the doctrine. In what follows, the apostle speaks of experience. This in no wise annuls the important principle, but rather confirms the deliverance of the soul from the law by having died with Christ, who is now become our new life. According to the figure of marriage employed by the apostle, we are connected as by marriage with Christ, and thereby are brought into an entirely new position- that of relationship. Therefore it says, " When we were in the flesh." Being " in the flesh " means standing on the ground or in the position of the first Adam before God, and being responsible to Him according to this position. It is not a question here of guilt, but of the deliverance of the soul from the yoke of sin. When one is lawless, and seeking nothing but pleasure, the conscience can indeed be awakened for a time, but the power of sin is not felt. He goes with the stream, and is not aware that he is under the dominion of sin. When one is converted one is first occupied with guilt, with the burden of sins. Even when one has learned to know the forgiveness of sins, and to believe that one is a child of God, the form of experience may indeed be changed because it is no longer a question of justification; but the soul is none the less troubled so long as, in the path of experience, it is not delivered from the power of indwelling sin. The question ever afresh arises, " How can God accept me, or how can He delight in me, when sin, which I cannot overcome, is still present? " As long as forgiveness is not known, the question is, " How can I obtain forgiveness? " If it has been found, the question still remains, " What am I before God? How can such an one as I be accepted? May I not really have deceived myself? " In a word, the eye is solely directed to that which we are in ourselves before God. We see that sin is still there, and yet a Christian ought to obtain the victory over sin. Such an one is in fact, or in the condition of his mind and thoughts, still in the flesh.
We have already remarked that the position is found in the first four verses. The fifth and sixth verses lead us on to experience. In the flesh we were connected as by marriage with the law. This gave neither life, nor strength, nor confidence in God; it forbade sins, and imputed them to me. Not only that, but it gave occasion to sin in the flesh to become active so as to bring forth fruit unto death. It brought sins and lusts before the heart by forbidding them. If a heap of money lie on the table, and I am told not to take any of it, immediately the desire to do so is awakened in me. Or if I say, " I have something here in this drawer, but no one must know what it is," instantly every one, small and great, feels a desire to open it. The passions of sins are in no way of the law, but by it. It supposes, however, the existence of the flesh, and that we do not possess the strength of Christ. But now (in Christ) we are delivered from the law, being dead to that wherein we were held. In the flesh we were under the yoke of the law; the flesh was the source of sins, and now for faith it is dead, that we may serve in newness of spirit. The death of the flesh, of the old man, forms the basis of the transition from bondage in the flesh to liberty in the Spirit. At the same time this death stands in connection with redemption.
But how is this end to be attained? This is quite another thing from desiring it. The doctrine is presented very clearly and simply in the word of God. But there are many who, according to this doctrine, know that the Christian is dead with Christ, and even raised with Him; who believe also that they have died with Him, because the word of God so plainly declares it; who do not doubt that they are children of God, and that such a position belongs to the child of God, and who, in spite of all this, are not delivered. There are even upright souls, who, seeing that they do not walk as they would wish, begin to doubt, and to ask if they are not hypocrites, if they have not deceived themselves. They believe, and rightly, that God looks for something in them other than He sees. They make everything depend on what they are in themselves before God. But that is law, and not grace. The answer to the question, how the condition of liberty is reached, is developed from verse 7 onwards.
In order to be truly delivered, one must learn, and that by experience, that one is captive to the power of sin, and has no power to deliver oneself, even when desiring to be free. To this end God makes use of the law, and the desire of the new man to be free from the yoke of sin that he hates. Thus the Christian learns, not that he has sinned-this is not here the subject under consideration-but that while he would like to attain to holiness, a principle of sin is at work in his flesh. The law teaches him that God cannot permit this; his renewed mind recognizes that God could not allow it; neither does he himself desire it. And yet this principle of sin exists, powerfully active, too strong for him to be able to free himself from it.
On this account the law has not only established with divine authority, the duties for all human relationships, but has also added, " Thou shalt not lust." That is a touchstone for man, bringing clearly to light what his state is, even if he has not outwardly sinned, even when through conversion his will is directed to holiness. This holiness after which he seeks he cannot attain. When he was without law, the sentence of death was not felt, if he had not done anything against the voice of his conscience. He lived on at ease, not carrying about with him the sense of condemnation. But the law came, and pronounced condemnation on lust. Experience teaches that this lust exists in the heart, and now conscience feels the sentence of condemnation; lust itself is awakened, and all comes to light. Conscience feels the sentence. One would like to do good, but finds that evil is constantly present.
The law says, " This do and thou shalt live." The converted man, over whose conscience the law exercises its power, regards it as the law of God. The fear of God is in his heart, and he would fain do what the law says. We speak here of the condition of one who is converted, not of a delivered soul. Since the law promised life to the one who kept it, it was accordingly given for life; but since the flesh is not subject to the law, it was found to be in reality for man unto death. The upright converted soul makes experience of this. It is well to remark here the difference between a natural man who has only conscience, and the condition of a man as here presented to us. The conscience discerns between good and evil. God has taken care that man, become a sinner, should bring conscience with him into the world. It condemns according to its nature what is evil; man none the less practices evil. A heathen, whose will is not changed, might say, ' I approve indeed what is better, but I do not desire what is good, and follow what is evil.' But it is not thus with the man of whom the apostle here speaks. His will is renewed; he delights in the law of God. That is the mind of Christ Himself, and proves that the man in whom this mind is found is converted, and in the bottom of his heart has received a new life. Conscience in the unconverted man leads him to acknowledge what is good; but the will of the flesh remains ever the same. He lives even in the flesh, has indeed a conscience, but not a new will. The will, on the contrary, is not lacking in the man described in Rom. 7, but the power to do what he would. It is the condition of a soul which desires good which is in question here.
In verse 13, the apostle goes on to describe the effect of the law on the experience of the soul who thus desires what is good. In the previous verse it is recognized that the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. The question now naturally arises, " Was then that which is good made death unto me? " In nowise. But sin worked death by that which is good (the law) in order that sin might be fully manifested, might assume its true character, and become exceeding sinful, in that it has made use of what is good to bring about death. The evil does not manifest itself only as evil in itself, but also as disobedience, because it is forbidden, and thus through the prohibition becomes exceeding sinful. Sin in man has a strong will; in that he wills to do what is evil, even when God has forbidden it. If my child runs out to amuse himself instead of doing his tasks, it is a bad habit; but if I forbid him to run out, and he still goes on with the bad habit, it is disobedience besides. By the commandment sin has become exceeding sinful. It shows that in me not only were there evil lusts, but that self-will which commits the evil, in spite of God's prohibition, is also there; God and His word are despised.
But we learn yet more from the law; namely, our weakness, even when we would do good. The converted but undelivered man does not find it in him to do what he desires to do; he lacks the power. He finds that he is carnal, sold under sin; that is to say, a slave to it. He knows that the law is spiritual; but he is in the flesh, carnal, under the yoke of sin, to which he is sold as a slave. Conscience is active in so far as by the law he knows the will of God, and he sees indeed in the law not only external precepts, but something which condemns the springs of evil in the heart. He may be outwardly blameless; Saul and many others were; but they were thereby full of self-righteousness. But the law in forbidding lust might as well forbid us to be men; therefore God has added the commandment, " Thou shalt not covet."
It is not here, then, a question of what I have done, but of what I am, and thus for the first time I discover that in me there is no good thing. I would do good, but I do it not. I am under the yoke of sin in the flesh. I acknowledge that the law is good; I hate sin, and yet I do it. But what I hate, I am not myself; I do, indeed, hate it. Thus taught of God, I learn to distinguish between myself and what I do. As the apostle says, " Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me." Yet this is not liberty; that requires power. But it is none the less a very real comfort, by the way, to have learned not only that in me dwells no good thing, but also to distinguish between me and the sin that dwells in me. I delight in the law after the inward man; the conscience is in activity, and the will is controlled. What is still wanting is power, and that is not there because of redemption not being fully known. We learn, experimentally, not only that we do nothing good, but also that we are unable to do it; the yoke of sin is ever there. And this is precisely what has to be learned; viz., that one has " no strength " to do the will of God.
Up to this, then, three truths have been spoken of, which have to be learned experimentally:
1. In the flesh dwells no good thing.
2. We have to distinguish between the self, that would do good, and the sin that dwells in us.
3. There is no power in us to overcome sin in the flesh as long as we are not delivered; we are rather overcome by it.
We cannot then deliver ourselves; on the contrary, we have to be delivered; and the soul must be brought to the knowledge of this. " Who shall deliver me? " is the expression of the consciousness that we cannot do it ourselves; we look round for another. That is what we have to learn, not our guilt, but our weakness-our utter powerlessness, our dependence upon God. But here there are several things for us to notice.
Only one who has been in this condition, and has come out of it, can describe it. It is impossible for a man, who has got into a bog, quietly to describe his situation as long as he is in it. He only feels that he is sinking and perishing, so that he can do nothing but call for help. But after he is delivered, he can calmly describe it all. One who has never been in such a situation might perhaps say to him, " Why did you not go on until you found a firm footing? " " Well," may the other reply, " that is easily said,' but in the bog when I lifted up one foot the other sank in all the deeper." That is just the state of the soul in Rom. 7, described, it is true, by a Christian who had himself been in it, but is now delivered. I say, " by a Christian "; for when the apostle says " we know " (ver. 14), this is Christian knowledge. But the experience is that of individual consciousness. Thus, when he says, " I am," it is experience and not doctrine. Everything in the experiences communicated to us here is legal throughout. The person concerned consents to the law that it is good; yea, he delights in the law. The conscience and the will are right in divine things; but both have the law as object and measure. We do not hear a word of Christ or of the Spirit; the law is the only object before the soul. But in verse 25 true liberty is reached, and the delivered Christian thanks God. Conflict, it is true, continues; we find this in Gal. 5:16-1816This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. (Galatians 5:16‑18). But there it is said that the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, but the Spirit against the flesh. If, however, we are led by the Spirit we are not under the law; that is, not in the state described in Rom. 7