NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson VI)
Anglican Bible scholar Charles Ellicott notes that the new alliance we have with God through the Holy Spirit ought not be unproductive. Our alliance with the Law was certainly productive. Before our relationship with Christ and what He accomplished through His death, sin had its claim and control over our bodies both in life and eventually in death. During that time we bore fruit generated through our carnal appetites inspired by the law. So the only entities to whose honor and glory they contributed anything, was Satan, Sin, and Death. Those sins committed under the old dispensation can be regarded as a two-fold agency. On the one hand, to the law, and on the other hand, to the flesh, which was so susceptible to any influence that its sinful impulses would come out into the open on the slightest nudge. It’s those impulses that have now been neutralized by a regimen of self-denial, through union with Christ and what He brought about through His death and resurrection and the assisting power of the Holy Spirit. It’s called, Sanctification.1
John Stott sees the same distinction Paul has in mind using a neat maxim. It does not involve the so-called “letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law,” nor between the Scripture’s “literal interpretation” and its “imagined interpretation.” Rather, it is between the old covenant which was an external code written on stone tablets and the new covenant which is an internal conviction written on the tablets of the heart. It represents the Dispensation of the Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit helps interpret the law God wrote inside for our spirit to see and understand, not on the outside for only our eyes to see. Under the old regime, our lifestyles were dominated by a terrible quartet of tormentors – flesh, law, sin, and death. But in the new kingdom, we have been released from the tentacles of the Law that manipulated our fleshly instincts. The chains of sin were broken which removed the threat of eternal punishment. Now we’ve gone from being slaves to sin to servants of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The contrasts are striking. Before we lived “in the flesh,” but now we live “in the Spirit.” We were picked on by the law, and sin resulted. Now we are stimulated by the Spirit and sanctification is activated. We spent all our time doing things that ended up useless and sometimes fatal. But now we yield our time and energy doing things that are useful and beneficial, and that will last for eternity. This all happened when we were released from the old life and this introduction to a new life. It all came about by a radical double event called death and resurrection. Through Christ’s death we also died to the Law, and through Christ’s resurrection we were raised to life again, and now we forever belong to God.2
Douglas Moo notes that what stands as a backdrop to Paul’s teaching, is his salvation-historical conception. The reign of the law has come to an end with the redemptive work of Christ. To be under the law’s rule means one has remained in that old state of being subject to the law’s demands. It also indicates an outright denial that Christ brought an end to the law’s reign. So when Paul says, “to be in the flesh,” he implies living in a world bound and controlled by this life without regard for God or for the spiritual realm. The end results of such a life are obvious: “destructive, sinful passions,” “death, and “eternal punishment.” Paul made it clear that the Law of Moses brought no relief from the matrix of sin and death. In fact, it made things worse. All of those sinful passions were inflamed by the law. It’s another way of saying that God’s law arouses sin by stimulating rebellion. So it becomes clear that a person must be released from that law in order to serve God.3 And there is only One who can set us free. And whom the Son sets free, is free indeed.4
Jewish scholar David Stern suggests that Paul possessed a highly developed form of psychology. By using the word “flesh,” he did not mean the physical body alone, but all the thoughts, emotions, and physical urges that comprise human nature. Such human nature is found in all people before they are saved. Paul told the Corinthians? ”If anyone is united with the Messiah, they are a new creation.”5 That means, they now have a new spiritual nature controlled by the Holy Spirit. This does not produce schizophrenic believers because the old nature has become dormant and will remain that way as long as the power of the Holy Spirit is given full control. We owe the old nature no allegiance, so why should we obey its corrupt and misguided passions.6 Instead, since we are now united with Yeshua, we owe God our commitment to His desires and commands. The old idea that the spirit is good and the body is bad may come from Greek philosophy or Gnostic thinking, but it is neither Jewish nor Christian.7 Just as Jesus was God/man, so believers are also spiritual/natural. So with Jesus on the throne of our hearts, and God in control of our destiny, and the Holy Spirit guiding us day after day, our spiritual nature will dominate our natural nature and bring glory to God, honor to the Son, and praise to the Holy Spirit.
Verse 6: In the past, the law held us as prisoners, but our old-selves died, and we were made free from the law. So now we serve God in a new way, not in the old way, with the written rules. Now we serve God in a new way, with the Spirit’s guidance.
Paul is insistent on pointing out that all of this is in the past. It’s like talking to someone who has been healed of paralysis who keeps going back and moaning about all the disadvantages they had with their handicap. It’s time to move on to enjoy the new freedom that came through the miracle of regeneration through Jesus Christ. As Paul told the Galatians: “Let me put it another way. The Jewish laws were our teacher and guide until Christ came to give us right standing with God through our faith. But now that Christ has come, we don’t need those laws any longer to guard us and lead us to Him.”8
This idea of being raised from a dead state in order to live again should not have come as a surprise to the Jewish members of the church in Rome. This is what happened when Ezekiel was told to speak to the skeletons lying about in the valley. God even gave him the sermon to preach to the dry bones: “O dry bones, listen to the words of God, for the Lord God says, ‘See! I am going to make you live and breathe again! I will replace the flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you shall live and know I am the Lord.’”9 But in a way, the Lord had already announced what He would do: “I will give you one heart and a new spirit; I will take from you your hearts of stone and give you tender hearts of love for God.”10
Paul pointed out a similar fact to the Corinthians: “Our only power and success come from God. He is the one who has helped us tell others about His new agreement to save them. We do not tell them that they must obey every law of God or die; we tell them there is life for them from the Holy Spirit.”11 Paul goes on to say: “When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun!”12 And Paul tells the Philippians: “We Christians glory in what Christ Jesus has done for us after realizing that we were helpless to save ourselves.”13 That’s why he encouraged the Colossians: “You are living a brand new kind of life that is continually learning more and more of what is right, and trying constantly to be more and more like Christ who created this new life within you.”14
One of the earliest church scholars addressed what he felt was a misunderstanding in his day. Origen says that some people have wrongly interpreted “the new life of the Spirit,” as if it means that the “Spirit Himself was new;” that He did not previously exist or did not teach the prophets of old. Such people have no idea how blasphemous this is to the Holy Spirit! This is the same Spirit that inspired the giving of the law just as He inspired the law as it is found in the Gospel. He dwells eternally with the Father and the Son. It is not that He is new, but that He makes believers new when He leads them out of the darkness of sin into the light of the Gospel. This results in a new obedience to the teachings of Christ, turning people away from pleasing the desires of the flesh to pleasing the yearnings of the spirit15.16
Another early church scholar comments on how to understand the role of law to the role of faith. Ambrosiaster believes that although Paul regards the law as inferior to faith, he does not condemn it. That’s why the Law of Moses is not called the Old Testament because it is useless, but because it is not effective under grace. The old law was written on tablets of stone because it was temporal, but the new law of the Spirit is written on the tables of the heart because it is eternal.17 Another way of understanding how the law of the Spirit works is this: While the former law tried to reign in evil deeds, the law of the Spirit sets free to voluntarily do the work of the Master. It also reigns in evil deeds but not with the threat of eternal punishment. Instead, with the promise of everlasting life to those who are obedient and endure until the end18.19
Martin Luther lets us see his view of what Paul says here. Luther taught that we are delivered from the domination of the Law because through Christ we obey the Law by faith. In other words, we no longer submit to the Law out of obligation because with God’s grace we can freely and willingly do what the Law demands. But this is only made possible by God’s divine love that causes us to seek what is God’s will. That way, even though we may often make mistakes and sometimes prove unwilling in certain cases, because of our faith in God’s grace and mercy we are justified and rectified because of His willingness to forgive.20
1 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 John 8:36
5 2 Corinthians 5:17
6 Romans 8:1– 13
7 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Galatians 3:24-25
9 Ezekiel 37:4-5
10 Ibid. 11:19; 36:26
11 2 Corinthians 3:5-6
12 Ibid. 5:17
13 Philippians 3:3
14 Colossians 3:10
15 See 2 Corinthians 5:17
16 Origen: On Romans, loc, cit.
17 See 2 Corinthians 3:3
18 Matthew 24:13
19 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.
20 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 115-116