For Christians, the new birth is our spiritual Independence Day. In union with Christ, we “die to sin” and are “set free from sin” Romans 6:4, 18), and we have been “released from the law” (Romans 7:6). Why does God set us free? “So that we may serve in the newness of the Spirit.” Our independence from sin and the law are found in dependence on the Spirit and in union with Jesus Christ.
Happy In/Dependence Day!
In recognition of this, I want to share three things about Christian liberty that I’ve learned from Romans 7.
Romans 7 is Paul’s encouragement to Christians to set aside their slavery to legalistic moralism in favor of the promises of perfection in holiness by depending on the Spirit.
(Note: Parts of Paul’s letters are “confusing and hard to understand”, as the Bible itself tells us (2 Peter 3:16). Paul shifts back and forth in dialogues with imaginary personas, sometimes adopting the persona himself! The early church universally understood Romans 7 to be one of the instances when Paul adopts the persona of someone other than himself [or of himself in the past], using a first-person, present-tense speaking voice to create drama.)
ONE: Romans 7’s slavery isn’t talking about a healthy Christian life
Romans 7 describes a person who is in an unhealthy, legalistic struggle with sin that continuously ends in failure.
It can’t be describing a healthy Christian life. Why? A) Christians aren’t “sold under sin” (7:14). We have come under Jesus’ redemption, and we belong to Him. We are no longer slaves to sin. However, unbelievers are certainly “sold under sin.” B) Christians certainly have bodies, but we are not defined as being “of the flesh” like the persona in Romans 7. Indeed, Romans 8:9 explicitly says that we are not “in the flesh” if the Spirit of Christ dwells in us. However, unbelievers are, by definition, “in the flesh.” C) Christians are not people defined as being “captive to the law of sin.” Jesus promised, “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” Yet unbelievers certainly are, according the Scripture.
Before he was saved, Paul “delights in the law of God” (Romans 7:22). Paul said when he was a Pharisee he was “blameless concerning the law” (Phil. 3:6). Similarly, the unsaved Israelites “pursued a law [yet] did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:31-32). Legalism tempts us to “establish our own righteousness” yet it leads us away from Jesus (Rom. 10:3-4), who IS righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). It is this very legalism which Paul is confronting.
The purpose of Romans 7 isn’t to comfort us with the commonness of our failure, nor is it to condemn us with an exhortation to try harder, the purpose is to confront us with the cause of our failure: we fail when we put faith in our own ability to keep a moral code, rather than putting our faith in the power of the Spirit to be producing a moment-by-moment change of heart in us through union with Christ.
TWO: Romans 7 confronts us with the effects of focusing on “Me trying to keep the law.”
In Romans 1-5, Paul emphasizes our inability to justify ourselves through the Law – it is only by trusting Jesus that we can be saved. In Romans 6-8, Paul emphasizes our inability to sanctify ourselves through the Law – it is only by depending on the Holy Spirit that we can live a truly holy life.
Paul writes in Romans 6 that because of our baptized union with Christ, we can now “walk in newness of life,” so that the “body of sin might be brought to nothing.” The effect of this union is that we might “no longer be slaves of sin,” because we have truly “been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:4-7). In light of this beautiful reality, “you must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). That’s a command to embrace the beautiful truth and not wallow in the enemy’s lies. There is never a sin which we must commit, for God will always make the way of escape and supply everything needed for godliness (1 Cor. 10:13, 2 Pet. 1:3), and “Sin will have no dominion over you,” Paul writes, “since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
“Sin will not have dominion over you because you are not under law, but under grace.”
But what if we put ourselves back under the law? Then what?
The despair of Romans 7:15-24 provides a moment of contrast to Romans 6 and 8. Romans 6 and 8 give the promises of victory and rest for Christians who “walk in the Spirit” and pursue intimacy with God Himself. Romans 7:15-24 provides a biopic of what life is like when we focus on keeping God’s laws and depend on our own strength to do it.
Many Christians relate to Romans 7 because they DO see Christianity as a list of rules to be kept: that it is up to us – out of gratitude to God – to live in ways that please Him… and they find themselves failing consistently just like the person in Romans 7:15-24. This mindset of trying hard to keep moral rules to please God is as foolish as saying that we should make a car go uphill by pushing it from behind – the progress we make will only serve to crush us when it inevitably becomes too hard. Cars are made to “drink” gas. And the Christian is to “drink” from the Holy Spirit. Trying to push ourselves uphill on our own rule-centered efforts is ultimately self destructive.
“Are you so foolish?” Paul asks elsewhere. “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect in the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
In Romans 7:14-25, Paul dramatically shifts into telling his past story in the present tense. “Let me tell you about living life under the law. Here I am, sinning and sinning, even though I try my hardest to keep God’s rules.” Ultimately, he is describing the life of a person who is trying to sanctify themselves through self-effort. The “Try harder” and “Fake the miracle” methodology only leaves people feeling like Paul’s persona in Romans 7:24: “Wretched man that I am!”, or like the self-righteous Pharisee: “God, I thank you I am not like other men!”
This is why Paul begins by emphasizing that you “have died to the Law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another” (Rom. 7:4). You used to be “living in the flesh,” and your “sinful passions were aroused by the law” (Rom 7:5). But now, it’s different. Now, “we are no longer in the flesh” (obviously not a reference to our bodies but to our mindset – see 8:5-6), “we are released from the law” (Rom 7:6), this happens through union with Christ’s death and resurrection, and the larger reason God has made us relationally dead to the law is so we can serve God through a personal, moment-by-moment connection of dependence on the Holy Spirit. “We serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6).
THREE: Romans 7’s despair is the backdrop to the victory of Romans 8
Perhaps the promises of freedom from sin don’t match up with the despair you can relate to in Romans 7:14-25. You don’t feel very dead to sin? The harder you try to keep God’s rules for you, the more it seems your sin is turbocharged? The harder you try to keep the moral law, the more the battle seems to rage?
Romans 8 drops like a thunderbolt: “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (v.2). Now, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (v.12). As the fearful cry “Wretched man!” echoes, Paul exhorts: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). “If you walk in the Spirit, you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
Believer – can you believe this promise? Hear God speak it to you! If you will walk in the Spirit, satisfied in Him, then your heart will be flooded with love, joy, peace, and all the other fruits the Spirit will produce, and thus you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. It is not rule-keeping that will bring you into union with God, it is union with God that will lead to love, joy, and peace that will flow out naturally into fulfilling all the law.
This “cure” is not automatic. Being regenerated doesn’t automatically make you depend on the Holy Spirit all the time. “You are not in the flesh,” Paul tells us, “but in the Spirit,” and that same Holy Spirit “will give life to your mortal bodies” (8:9,11). Yet we experience this life fully by consciously and freely choosing to give ourselves over to Him moment-by moment, “like a branch in the vine” (John 15:4). “Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:5-6). Our goal is not to try harder to keep rules, but to strive to surrender more fully, to rest more fully in Christ (Matt. 11:28-30, Heb 4:11) as the Holy Spirit shines Jesus Himself into our hearts in those moments (2 Cor. 3:18, 4:6).
The law and self-effort turbocharge sin; grace and the Holy Spirit deflate it. When you are tempted, if you tell yourself, “You can’t do that,” (law) you eliminate the psychological ability to respond with anything other than “But I want to.” Instead, if you tell yourself, “You can do it, but it will hurt your relationship with God,” (grace) you are freed to respond with, “Well, I guess I don’t really want to.” Just as Paul teaches: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
“The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus.”
Christian: Happy In/Dependence Day!
(A big thank you to Tim S., a spiritual mentor of mine, for introducing me to what I later found was indeed the Christian consensus view of Romans 7).