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Power of the Law – Romans 7

Read the Passage: Romans 7

General Illustration (7:1–6)

In Romans 6, Paul began his explanation about sanctification by addressing those who might object to his teaching on justification by faith alone. In sum, Paul taught that salvation by faith alone is not a license to sin; rather, the one who has been saved solely by Christ, apart from good works, will want to engage in good works because of: (1) their gratitude for Jesus’ atonement, (2) their new nature and experience of death to sin, and (3) their being made a bond-servant of God. Next, in Rom. 7:1–6 Paul appeals to the general illustration of marriage to explain the essential change that Christians experience in salvation. In appealing to the convictional function of the moral law, Paul’s argument in this passage is this: Just as the death of a husband frees a wife from the bonds of marriage, so the death of Jesus frees a believer from the bonds of the law’s judicial power over sin.

In this passage it is important to remember that when Paul mentions the law, he is referring to the moral law—not to the civil or the ceremonial law. Furthermore, in citing the moral law here, Paul is referencing the judicial or convictional function of the moral law. In Rom. 7:5, Paul observes that in our lost estate “the sinful passions . . . were aroused by the law.” The idea here is that when a lost person understands the essence of the moral law, it will highlight their own sinfulness, awaken their sin nature, and even incite them to sin. Later, Paul applies this principle to himself, saying, the moral law “which was designed to bring life, I found to bring death” (Rom. 7:9). For Christians, however, we have been delivered from this judicial function of the moral law. Because of this essential change, including the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we can now truly serve God.

Personal Testimony (7:7–12)

At Rom. 7:7 Paul anticipates an objection, as he asks and answers the rhetorical question, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!” Note that this is the sixth time Paul has given this same response in the book of Romans. The idea here is that since the law reveals and incites sin in the hearts of unbelievers, some might errantly conclude that the law itself is sinful. Yet, by appealing to his own conversion experience, in this passage Paul demonstrates that the opposite is true, “I would not have known sin apart from the law” (Rom. 7:7). Details of Paul’s conversion are recorded in several biblical texts, including Acts 9:3–8; 22:6–11; 26:13–19; Gal. 1:13–17. However, Rom. 7:7–12 is important for only here do we learn the details about the preparatory judicial work of the moral law in Paul’s heart before he professed faith in Jesus Christ.

Common Experience (7:13–25)

In Rom. 7:13, Paul begins to discuss what is called the pedagogical or didactic use of the moral law. The idea here is that after someone has been redeemed by faith alone, as a believer the moral law now instructs them in sanctification. In this passage Paul is showing that the moral law has an important place in the Christian life, for as he had written earlier, “The law is . . . holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). We can summarize the relationship between the law and gospel as follows: for the lost man, the law drives him to the gospel; for the redeemed man the gospel leads him to the law. It is important to note, however, that just because believers have received a new nature, and benefit from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, does not mean that they will keep the moral law perfectly. Indeed, Christians will sin, but not because the law is deficient; rather, because—among other reasons—they still possess as-yet unglorified bodies.

One of the tell-tale signs that differentiates true and false brethren is that authentic Christians will grieve over their sin. In Rom. 7:15–20 Paul expresses self-disappointment and frustration, as he mourns over his own sins committed while being a believer. In this passage Paul teaches that one reason why believers continue to sin is the flesh and the sinful appetites contained therein (cf. Rom. 7:17–18, 20, 23). This does not absolve Christians from the responsibility for their sin, for they still freely choose to sin. However, it does help to explain why believers continue to be tempted to sin—that is, while Christians presently have a new nature, they still await resurrected glorified bodies. In Rom. 8:23 Paul writes, “We also who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”

Application Questions:

  1. Is sanctification a work of man or a work of God (cf. Phil. 1:6; Heb. 2:11; 1 Thess. 5:23)? How can we encourage spiritual growth in ourselves and in the lives of others?
  2. What are some dangers in viewing salvation as simply a spiritual accounting maneuver, rather than as an essential change in one’s nature?
  3. In the experience of your salvation, how did becoming a Christian change the way in which you think about and interact with the world?
  4. How, if at all, did the moral law work in your life to lead you towards conversion? How can we use the moral law as we share the gospel with others?
  5. Since believers and unbelievers commit sins, how can we distinguish between authentic and inauthentic professions of faith?
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