NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson I)
Verses 1: Brothers and sisters, all of you understand the Law of Moses. So surely you know that the law has jurisdiction over people only while they are alive.
Paul has just finished declaring the freedom from sin, and now he starts his discourse on how believers have freedom from the Law. By no means is this to be understood as lawless conduct without any moral compass, but freedom from having to meet all the self-righteous requirements of the Mosaic Law in a futile attempt at salvation by works.
For the Jews, they remember what God said to the scribe Ezra: “Whoever refuses to obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed on them swiftly, whether it be death, banishment, confiscation of goods or imprisonment.”1 In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul shows what respect he still expected believers to have for the Law, especially in areas of doing the right thing for each other: “I’m not merely quoting the opinions of men as to what is right. I’m telling you what God’s law says.”2 But when it came to those laws that governed a right relationship with God, Paul let the Galatians know this: “Listen to me, you friends who think you have to obey the Jewish laws to be saved: Why don’t you find out what those laws really mean?”3 Paul was trying to combat a system within Judaism that had perverted the teachings of the Torah into legalism, which, when the law was examined, did not demand such legalistic adherence and conformity.
But Paul was also making another point. Dead people were no longer expected to obey the Law. In their own rabbinical teachings we read: “Let a man always engage in Torah and good deeds before he dies, for as soon as he dies he is inhibited from [the practice of] Torah and good deeds, and the Holy One, blessed be He, finds nothing to praise him for.”4 And in another Tractate we read: “For Rabbi Johanan stated: ‘What is the intent of the Scriptural text, “Free among the dead?”5 As soon as a man dies, he is free from the commandments’.”6 This was repeated from earlier Jewish writings and verbal teachings.7
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster offers his comments by saying that in order to enlighten the Roman believers with this teaching, Paul decides to use an example drawn from an earthly, human condition in order make heavenly things clearer. He begins with what they already know and will then take them several steps further.8 As long as a person is alive, then and only then are they subject to the Law. The same is true of those who have been born again. The Law they lived under before they were converted no longer has any effect on their salvation since the Law is now a dead thing to them. There are alive in Christ, not in the Law. So in effect, since their old man is dead in Christ, then they are no longer obligated to the law for salvation, but grateful for the mercy and grace of God alone through Christ. But like any good speaker, Paul wants to illustrate his point, so he uses marriage as an example.
Reformer Martin Luther points out that no one can die to the law until they first die to sin. We might say it this way: you cannot be taken to the mortuary until first, you die. Then, once they die to sin, then the law becomes a dead thing to them. However, Luther also makes it clear that even though we no longer follow the law, sin still remains a possibility when we disobey the law. Luther was disturbed by those who acted as though they were living as monks but had no concern about their spiritual status. Luther writes that for this reason, we must continually ask God for divine grace, so that we may grow in the Spirit. That way, we will be more willing to do the things He will have us do, and do them with a joyful, willing heart and a free and made-up mind. That way, we won’t be moved by some slavish fear or some childish desire. But this can only be done by having the Holy Spirit living and working in us.9
Wesleyan scholar Adam Clarke points out that Paul is writing to those who know the Law, therefore, he was speaking to the Jewish Christians in Rome. Clarke then says Paul points out the obvious: The law does not extend its influence to the dead, nor need those laws that have expired be followed any longer. Clarke says it works on both ends. In other words, whether it an abolished law or a person who is dead, they have no effect on each other.10 Let me illustrate. There is a growing number of middle east immigrants settling in the USA. Before, as Muslims, they lived under what is called “Sharia Law.” This is the body of Islamic law that provides the legal framework within which the public and some private aspects of life are regulated for those living in a legal system based on Islam. But by becoming an American citizen, Sharia Law should become a dead thing to them. They are no longer forced to abide by those laws. Yet, believe it or not, some still do!
Frédéric Godet makes the point that the law only has power over an individual as long as they continue to be guided by their sinful nature. But from the moment they renounce it to enter into union with Christ, they are set free from the law. And what better way to illustrate this than in making the new spiritual nature’s relationship with sin like that of a woman whose husband has died. She is no longer under his control. If someone were to bring up something that her husband demanded of her, she could say she no longer does that. And when asked why, she could say, “Because he’s dead.”11
John Stott says that Paul is building on a principle he takes for granted his readers already know. That is: the law has authority over a person only as long as they are alive. Another way of putting it is that the law is only binding on a person during their lifetime.12 Also, in the Greek the word for “is binding on” or “has authority over” is kyrieuō, which is rendered “lord it over.”13 It expresses the domineering authority of law over those who are subject to it. But this authority is only in effect while they are living. The one thing that takes away its power and authority over a person is death. Death ends all contractual obligations, including marriage. When death intervenes, all relationships established and protected by law are ipso facto terminated. That is, except one’s last will and testament. That still allows the deceased person to rule from the grave. However, it cannot do so in reverse. So the law is during life; death annuls it. Paul states this legal axiom is universally accepted and unchallengeable.14
Verses 2-3: It’s like what the law says about marriage: A woman must stay married to her husband as long as he is alive. But if her husband dies, she is made free from the law of marriage. But if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, the law says she is guilty of adultery. But if her husband dies, she is made free from the law of marriage. So if she marries another man after her husband dies, she is not guilty of adultery.
The Apostle Paul is not using this illustration as a confirmation of the Law, but only to point out what constitutes freedom from the Law. So, just as a woman is no longer required to remain married to a dead man after he dies, so believers are no longer required to adhere to the Law since the law is now dead to them. It could be that he pointed out this same principle to the Corinthians: “The wife is part of her husband as long as he lives; if her husband dies, then she may marry again.”15 In the same way, since through their new birth they no longer live tied to the Law, they are free to be joined to Christ. What may have inspired Paul to use marriage as a symbol of our relationship with God may have come from Isaiah: “For your Creator will be your ‘husband.’ The Lord Almighty is His name.”16
It might be noted that with the analogy of marriage as a symbol of our relationship to the Law and to Christ, the spousal relationship of the former could be called a “common law” union. That means it was never formalized; it simply became a way of living with its intrinsic rules of relationships. But try as we might, we never satisfied the Law on every point; we were good in some things and terrible in others. It all depended on us. The Law did not reach out to help us, it only reminded us of our obligations and duties in order to reap the benefits of the union. But in Christ, we are freely joined together in body, soul, mind, and spirit. Not only that, but Christ helps us and teaches us and encourages us in doing those things that please God.
Early church theologian Augustine gives his interpretation by telling the reader Paul’s purpose in using this analogy of marriage to explain how the Law loses its power over the believer. Paul uses the woman to represent the soul, and the husband the body, and together they produce the offspring of sin’s passions which are offspring expected in such a marriage. The law was given not to take away sin nor to deliver us from it but to reveal what sin is so that when grace comes, we realize how tied and bound we were. As a result of the Law being given, those who were placed under it were seized by even stronger desires to sin. But the Law stood helplessly because it could do nothing to save the sinner.
In this, we can see a triple analogy – the soul as the woman, the law as the husband, and sin’s passions as the fruit of their marriage. Yet Paul does not conclude that the soul (woman) is set free from having to care for and feed her mate’s passions (sin) when the Law (husband) are separated by death. Augustine believes that in this case the soul (woman) dies to sin and is set free from the law in order that it might belong to another husband, who is Christ. Although the soul has died to sin, in a sense sin is still alive. Augustine says: “When this happens, although desires and certain encouragements to sin remain in us, we do not obey or give in to them because we have died to sin and now serve the law of God.”17
This analogy of Paul is not that complicated, but it can be if people take it too literally. The main point Paul wants to drive home is that a believer in Christ is no longer tied to the law as a way of gaining salvation. The law is a dead thing to them. They now look to Jesus the Author and Finisher of their faith.18 He is alive forevermore. And because He lives we who believe in him will live also.
1 Ezra 7:26 – Complete Jewish Bible
2 1 Corinthians 9:8
3 Galatians 4:21
4 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 30a
5 Psalm 88:4-5
6 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Tohoroth, Masekhet Niddah, folio 61b
7 See Jerusalem Talmud: Ch. 9:3, Jacob Neusner Edition
8 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
9 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 108-109
10 Adam Clarke, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit, p. 115
11 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, loc. cit.
12 See Revised Standard Version of this verse
13 See Mark 10:42 – Revised Standard Version
14 John Stott: On Romans, loc. cit., op. cit.
15 1 Corinthians 7:39
16 Isaiah 54:5
17 Augustine: On Romans 36
18 Hebrews 12:2