NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SEVEN (Lesson VII)
For Reformer John Calvin, what Paul means here by saying, “we have died to the Law,” is that we have been set free. The law no longer has any hold or sway over us. That is the reason we no longer feel pressed down by its intolerable burden and the relentless condemnation of death held over our heads like a curse. And by indicating that this comes as a result of our newness of spirit, Paul is setting the spirit of the Law in opposition to the letter of the Law. Calvin suggests that before our will was transformed to the will of God by the Holy Spirit, there is nothing in the law but words on paper or etchings on a stone tablet. While it restricted our actions, it did nothing to restrain the fury of our passions. Paul attributes this to the newness of life and our joy in the Holy Spirit. No longer do we rehearse the law to memorize and practice it by repeating it over and over. It has been replaced by our spiritual nature rejoicing in being regenerated in Christ.1
John Bengel makes the point that those who live by the letter of the law, take each word literally and try to do as the word says. But Christ came so that we can live by the spirit of the law, which Bengel calls, “a spiritual and living instinct with life.” In other words, when the law says to love your neighbor, it doesn’t mean to fawn over them and try to become intimate with them, but to show them respect and be kind and gracious to them; doing to them what you would want them to do to you. He goes on to say that the letter of the law does not give life. In fact, after condemning the sinner, it leaves him or her to die in their sins. On his own, the sinner cannot break or overcome this power of sin. As far as Bengel is concerned, that can only happen through the Spirit as a result of hearing the Gospel and then having enough faith to believe and be changed into a new creation in Christ.2
About the Letter of the Law, Adam Clarke sees as applying to the Old Testament rites, ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices have been done away with. This is because, by the newness of the spirit and the true intent and meaning of what all these rites, rituals, etc., implied, they can now be fully disclosed to us. In so doing, the Spirit is able to move believers from a state of constant failure into a state of growth and maturity in Christ. Many sought justification and sanctification, pardon and holiness, by way of the law, but found that the law could not provide any of them. On the other hand, those who sought them in the Gospel found that they were all available. We now serve God, not according to the old literal sense, but in the new spiritual sense.3 This echoes what Jesus told the woman in Samaria.4
With regard to serving God in the newness of the spirit and not by the outdated law, Robert Haldane sees it as one of the greatest benefits in being delivered from the law. To make it clear, Paul refers to the difference in attitudes and actions between those who were married to Christ, and those who were still married to the law. Those married to Christ serve God using such principles, dispositions, and views, as the Spirit of God implants in their hearts upon renewal. Serving in the spirit is more than what one would expect of an employee, it is that which one would anticipate from a spouse. After all, the one we serve is the One who gave His life for us. We are not bound to do so by some law, but out of response to His love. This is what brings us such joy contained in the privileges of grace under the new covenant. Just as the privileges of marriage can be discerned as opposed to what one did not have when they were single, so can the privileges of being united with Christ be compared to what a person lacked when they were sinners. This makes believers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, capable of serving God with a new and Divine nature created in Christ. As His children, with cordial affection and gratitude, it is more than the service of a maid or butler, but of a son or daughter; not as a slave but of the friend; not with the view of being saved by the keeping the law, but saved by an almighty Deliverer to whom we give all obedience, commitment, and allegiance.5
In looking at this text, Albert Barnes came to the conclusion that in order to understand what Paul is saying, it is necessary to remember that the law prescribed the forms of worship among the Jews. In Paul’s mind, such worship was lacking the effectiveness and power in renewing the heart which he attributed to the Gospel. Jewish worship consisted of external forms and ceremonies; the offering of sacrifices and of incense. This was all done according to the literal requirements of the law rather than the sincere offering of the heart.6 That’s why it is said: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” 7 We cannot deny that there were many holy servants of God during the time the Law reigned supreme. There were also many offerings presented to God in an atmosphere of the Spirit.8 But for the most part, the majority of Israelites saw it as mere form and ceremony. As such, the worship was conducted in response to the letter of the law, not from the spirit of the heart. The main idea is that the worship rendered to God may have certain external forms and rites, but they are of no value unless they are performed from the heart in an atmosphere of spiritual worship9.10
As Charles Spurgeon preached it, no longer do we receive this message: “Do this or do that and you will live.” So, my friend! We are much more than slaves toiling under the threat of being punished; we have been promoted to a new status. We are now free to rejoice in the glorious liberty of the children of God. What we do now is done out of a spirit of love, and not out of fear. We are not trying to be holy for the sake of being saved by it, neither do we look for a way to escape from sin because we are afraid of going to hell. We have a totally different spirit driving us forward now. The Spirit of the Living God.11
Karl Barth describes this in an interesting way by saying that it’s not what we are, but what we are not. And this is not by virtue of our own freedom but by the freedom of God. We have been set free from the inner contradictions of religion that tells us to do this or that whether or not our heart is in it, and liberates us from the questionable involvement of the flesh, no matter how good it is supposed to make us feel. The universe that wraps around this world of ours is shattered in one great eternal “Moment of enlightenment,” bathed in the light of the resurrection, in the light of God, and in the light of His Word, in order that we may be able to see what cannot be seen by the eyes of man but only by the eyes of faith. And it is not what men say we should think, will, and do, but what God thinks and wills and wants us to do. Those who continue standing in the shadow of the law, cannot perceive the brilliance of this vision by the candle of the law. Man’s philosophy is weak in the light of God’s wisdom.12
Then John Stott feels we must look back at the question whether Christians are still bound to obeying the law. This can be answered as “Yes,” and “No!” Yes, in the sense that Christian’s freedom is freedom to serve, not freedom to sin. It was God who wrote the Law and inspired the writing of the laws, so as servants of God we are expected to keep those things still valid in guiding and guarding our conduct as children of God. No, we are not free to worship another god, bow to idols, lie, steal, commit adultery, perjure ourselves, and lust for things that do not belong to us. But also, “No,” because the motives and means of our service have completely changed. Why do we serve? Not because the law is still our master and demands it of us, but because we are united to Christ and as our Lord and Master we want to please Him to the glory of God the Father. Also, it’s not because obedience leads to salvation, but because salvation leads to obedience. So, how do we serve? We no longer serve just in the flesh but also in the spirit. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit that makes all the difference. What we do for God is not imitating the things we did for the law in the flesh, but what we are free to do in the newness of life given to us by our risen Savior.13
One Jewish scholar adds his thoughts by pointing out that this verse clarifies what Paul was saying with his analogy (verse 1-4) and looks ahead to what will be said in chapter 8. In letting the influence of sin die to us, we make room to let God in to influence our will and life. A regenerated person is now governed by the positive side of the commandments, not the negative. That’s because we no longer walk according to the dictates of the flesh, but according to the yearnings of the Spirit.14 So Paul makes it clear that we still serve God by doing what is right according to the Law, but that is no longer our master. That’s because a person cannot serve two masters. In this case, they are either still “bound” to fulfilling the letter of the law, or as the Jews would say, serve their Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), or have been freed to serve the living God because that is our spiritual inclination. This doesn’t mean that believers never make mistakes or sometimes disobey God’s leading or Word, but it does mean that the same one who condemns us for our sin is the same one who can forgive us of our sins and make us clean from all those things that displease Him.
Verse 7: You might think I am saying that sin and the law are the same. That is not true. But the law was the only way I could learn what sin means. I would never have known it is wrong to want something that is not mine. But the law said, “You must not desire what belongs to someone else.”15
Paul now picks up on what he thinks may be a false conclusion the Roman Jewish believers may come to in reading this letter. He has tried to make this point several times: The Law is not sin. The Law only exposes conduct that is sinful. The Law is right in pointing out the wrong they are committing. That’s why Paul told the Corinthians that the fatal sting that causes death is sin, and that the validity of something being sinful came from the power of the Law to declare it so.16 This is considered so valid that Paul says had it not been for the Law, sin would not exist. So, was it wrong for God to issue the Law? No! For only by examining the Law could a lost person discover how lost they were, and how desperately they needed someone to save their life. God did not want them to die in such ignorance.