The Law Binds Sin to the Sinner

Law only binds while in effect (Romans 7:1-3)

Speaking to the members of the church who came out of Judaism, Paul appeals to their knowledge of law. A prevalent problem in the early church was the insistence among Jewish teachers that the Law of Moses remained in effect, that it was never-ending. A law is only binding while the parties are alive. Death releases a person from the law.

The example given is that of marriage. A marriage is created by a covenant (Malachi 2:14). Though we don’t often think of it this way, “covenant” is a synonym for “law” (Deuteronomy 4:13-14; Psalms 78:10). Entering into a marriage covenant binds two people together by law as long as both live. The death of one frees the other to enter into a new covenant with someone else (I Corinthians 7:39).

Trying to enter into a relationship with someone else before the death of a spouse causes adultery to be committed.

We died to the Law to be joined to Christ (Romans 7:4-6)

Entering into the death of Christ through baptism (Romans 6:3-7) not only freed a person from sin, but it also freed the person from the law that defined sin (Galatians 2:19). The Law of Moses ended with the death of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18; Colossians 2:13-15). This does not mean we are without any law. The purpose of dying to the Old Law was so that we might be able to join the New Law of Christ (Ephesians 5:23-30; Revelation 19:7; 21:9).

God’s purpose in doing this was so that we would bring fruit to Him (Romans 6:13; Philippians 1:10-11; Titus 3:14; Matthew 5:16; Colossians 1:5-6). Before becoming Christians we were bound to sins as defined by the Law. The Law awoke a desire for sin and we produced fruit that benefitted sin (Romans 6:21). The fruit of sin lead to our death (Romans 6:23; James 1:13-15).

We cannot under two laws at the same time, just as a woman cannot be married to two husbands at the same time (Romans 8:2; Galatians 5:1-4, 18). We were delivered from the law by the same death that we died to sin so that we might serve the new law and not the old (Hebrews 8:13). The word “delivered” or “released” here in Romans 7:6 is the same word translated as “destroyed” or “done away with” in Romans 6:6. The new law is described as one of the spirit (John 4:24; Hebrews 8:10; II Corinthians 3:5-6; Romans 2:29). “Letter” well describes the Old Testament because it was introduced to men by being engraved on stone (Exodus 31:18). “Spirit” well describes the New Testament because it was introduced by Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles (Acts 2:1-4). It was written on the hearts of men (II Corinthians 3:3).

Sin uses the Law to condemn us (Romans 7:7-12)

The law was not taken away because it was in some way sinful. The law, after all, is the product of God. Such a thought that Paul thought the law to be sinful could arise because Paul had charged in Romans 7:5 that the law aroused sinful passions. The law cannot be sinful because it teaches us what sin is (Romans 3:20).

As an example, Paul states that he would not have known about covetousness if it wasn’t for the fact that the law mentioned that it was wrong. In other words, by his nature, Paul was not a lustful or greedy person. On his own, he would not have coveted what another person had. However, once the fact that there was a sin called coveting came to Paul’s attention, he was then tempted by it. It should be noted that the word that is translated as “coveting” is a form of the Greek words epithumeo and epithumia, which means a strong desire or lust. It is the sad consequence of law. Eve would not have desired the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil except for the fact that God forbade it and in doing so brought it to her attention.

Paul takes it one step further. Sin needs the law to stir us up. It is relatively dead without the law. Sin here is personified to make it easier to talk about even though sin is actually a concept and a state of being. Through the law, sin awakened in Paul, not just a greedy desire for one particular thing, but lust for all sorts of things competed for his attention. Like a rebellious teenager, sin becomes a temptation for us simply because we are told not to do something. “We always endeavor to obtain that which is forbidden, and desire that which is denied."[Ovid, Amor, III.4] (Proverbs 9:17).

There was a time when Paul was alive without the law. By this, he is referring to his childhood. The law existed, but Paul was too young to be aware of it. Therefore, as a child he was alive or sinless (Deuteronomy 1:39). But it did not last. Paul grew up and became aware of the law and his responsibilities to it. He gained the knowledge of good and evil, and with that awareness came his spiritual death as he realized could not keep the law (Romans 5:12, 14-15).

The law should have brought life if a man could keep them (Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 18:9, 21; 20:11; Galatians 3:12). But no one does keep them (Romans 3:9-16). Thus death came by the law given to bring life.

It wasn’t because the law was sinful or that it forced people to sin. Sin used the law and through deceit caused each person to violate the law and die (Hebrews 3:13; James 1:14; II Corinthians 11:3). The law itself, however, is holy; that is, set apart, pure, and without the corruption of sin. Each command of the law is holy, just (righteous in what it requires and the penalties it prescribes), and good (producing benefits and well-being) (Psalms 19:7-11; 119:137).

Class Discussion:

  1. Where did the law forbid coveting or lust? Therefore, what law is under consideration?
  2. Some want to say that the law taken away by Christ was only the civil laws, not the moral laws. Thus, the claim is that the Ten Commandments are still in effect. How do Paul’s statements disprove this?

The Law clearly defined sin (Romans 7:13)

So how is it that something which is good cause people to die? The answer to the question is found not by looking at the law but at the law keeper. The law makes sin clear, making the distinction between righteousness and sinfulness dramatic. People can make excuses for their sins and ignore the fact that they are sinning up until they see their sins are spelled out as wrong in the law. The law, by its nature, makes the enormity of the problem of sin clear (Romans 3:20). Sin is the source of death, not the law. Sin merely makes use of the law to achieve its ends.

Though agreeing with the Law, we aren’t able to keep the law (Romans 7:14-20)

Understanding of this section strongly depends on whether you think Paul is talking about life before becoming a Christian, while he was a Jew living under the Law of Moses, or life after being a Christian while living under the law of Christ. Those who see it as Paul living under the law of Christ put emphasis on the fact that Paul changed from the past tense to the present tense beginning at verse 14. However, it could be that since Paul is using himself as an example, his use of the present tense is simply a way of emphasizing his need. Paul had already argued that Christians are not under bondage to sin (Romans 6:15-23) and that they are not under the Law of Moses (Romans 7:1-6). On the other hand, we understand that a Christian’s struggle against sin doesn’t stop with baptism (I John 1:8-2:1). Paul’s description does describe how a Christian, knowing what he ought to do, battles against his desires to sin.

Class Discussion:

  1. List out the statements of Paul that indicate he is talking about being a Jew under the Law of Moses.
  2. List out the statements of Paul that indicate he is talking about being a Christian under the Law of Christ.
  3. Which seems to be the more reasonable position?

I believe that Paul is continuing to talk about the Law of Moses, but by using the present tense he is indicating that the struggle between sin and law continues even to the Christian age.

The Law is from God and, thus, spiritual. However, we are in this physical world and we have voluntarily sold ourselves to the taskmaster, sin (I Kings 21:20, 25; II Kings 17:17). We get pleasure in exchange for doing sin, but the price of bondage is not worth what we gain. Even as Christians, the world can and does sometimes influences us (I Corinthians 3:1).

There is a war going on within Paul, as there is in every person striving to live a godly life. We can talk about what a person desires to do in theory, but too often different from what a person does in practice. When a person rejects the sin in his life, then he demonstrates his agreement with the law (Romans 7:12, 14). The reason he sins is because he got caught up in it, not because it is what he really wants to do. He doesn’t really understand sin, even his own (Psalms 101:4). To his shame, he doesn’t always live up to his own standards (Galatians 5:16-17).

The thought isn’t unique to Christians. One ancient Persian writer, Xenophon, said, “Certainly I must have two souls; for plainly it is not one and the same which is both evil and good; and at the same time wishes to do a thing and not to do it. Plainly, then, there are two souls; and when the good one prevails, then it does good; and when the evil one predominates, then it does evil." [Cyrop. VI:1].

Because Paul does contrary to what he wants, he places the blame on the strong influence of sin in his life (in contrast to the influence of the Spirit in Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 3:16). He isn’t claiming to be possessed or not responsible by this statement. He is stating that he is being led astray.

If a person allowed his body to control all his actions and decisions, he would never live a godly life (James 1:14-15). Our physical desires have no moral code, so we must constantly battle what we instinctively desire (I John 2:15-17). Paul knows what he wants to do. He can resolve to do better, but the implementation of his will fails too often.

Despite good intentions, Paul, as does the rest of us, follows not our desires but allows sin to influence us and we give in to sin.

Christ solves the dilemma (Romans 7:21-25)

As a result, we discover a law we cannot avoid: we sin, even those who wish to do good (Romans 3:9-16; James 1:8, 10). Inwardly we can want to live righteously, but sin is warring against us (II Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 4:22-24; I Peter 3:4). “Delight” or “joyfully concur” translates the Greek word sunedomai which means both an intellectual agreement and an emotional joy at the same time (Psalms 1:2; 19:7-11; 119:77, 97, 111; Job 23:12).

In a sense, it is a war of two laws: a law of God commanding righteous living and a law of sin commanding wickedness (James 4:1; I Peter 2:11). The law of God is what Paul’s mind wants to serve, but the law of sin is what the body too often ends up serving. The result is that he is held captive by his sins (Psalms 142:7; Romans 6:13, 19).

If we stopped there, we would all be in misery (Psalms 77:3-9). Law condemns, but it cannot justify. Our fleshly desires end up ensuring that we are condemned.

But it doesn’t end there. Jesus brought us salvation. We initially reach it with baptism (Romans 6:3-7) and as we continue to battle we continue to have access (I John 1:9; 2:1). Thus Paul can serve God in his mind, even though at times his body causes him to fall to sin. Paul is not saying he is serving God and sin at the same time (Romans 6:1-2; Matthew 6:24). That is not possible. What he is saying is that he can consider himself righteous even though he fails occasionally. His run-ins with sin do not lock him into a sinful state as was the case before Christ came (Galatians 5:16-18).

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