The Most Basic Freedom (Romans 7.14-25)

Have you ever felt powerless to overcome your long-time sins? Join the club! According to Romans 7.14-25, the Apostle Paul felt the same way.

In verse 14, Paul contrasts God’s law and our sinfulness: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Sin is a ruthless master.

How ruthless? According to verses 15-20, sin drives a wedge between our desires and our deeds:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

How masterful is sin? For Paul, the fact that sin drives a wedge between desire and deed shows that it is in full control of us. Verses 17 and 20 repeat the same idea: “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” Our good intentions are helpless bystanders to the crimes sin commits through us.

Or rather, not bystanders but prisoners of war and slaves. In verses 21-23, Paul writes:

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

And in verse 25, he adds: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

Sin is in control of us. It drives a wedge between our desires and our deeds. It makes us helpless bystanders of our own crimes. It holds us as prisoners of war and as slaves. No wonder Paul exclaims in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” In other words, who will integrate my thoughts and actions? Who will arrest the criminal in me? Who will liberate me?

Verse 24 gives the answer: “Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Through faith in Christ, who died and rose again for us, we begin to experience the integrity and freedom our soul desires.

As we head into the July 4th weekend to celebrate our nation’s freedom, we ought to keep this most basic freedom uppermost in our minds.

Is the Law Sinful? (Romans 7.7-13)

Is the law of God sinful?

Paul asks this question in Romans 7.7-13. It’s a very strange question. After all, since God is not sinful, nothing he says is sinful. The law is one of the things God says, so obviously, it cannot be sinful. Why, then, does Paul ask the question in the first place? Because the logic of his argument in Romans requires him to do so.

Remember, the theme of Paul’s letter is justification by faith. In Romans 1.17, Paul puts it this way: “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” It is by faith rather than works because we are inveterate sinners. As Paul puts it in Romans 3.20: “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The law, in other words, has a negative function: it defines our sin and highlights our guilt.

So, when Jesus Christ saves us, he simultaneously releases us from the power of sin and the power of the law. Just as “we died to sin” (Romans 6.1), so we “also died to the law” (Romans 7.2). Because of Christ’s death, according to Romans 7.6, “we have been released from the law,” which Paul further describes as “the old way of the written code.”

I cite all these passages to make a simple point: For Paul, sin and the law have a symbiotic existence. If Christ does away with one, he necessarily does away with the other. But doing away with the law might lead some people to the false conclusion that the law, like sin (which is also done away with), is sinful. So, Paul writes in Romans 7.7-13:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

In other words, the law is good, but it highlights our badness. It is a diagnosis of spiritual cancer, but not the cancer itself, and certainly not the cure. For a cure for the sin that ails you, you must look beyond the diagnosis to the healing hands of the Great Physician. And when he heals you, the diagnosis no longer makes you afraid.

“Explaining Hitler” by Ron Rosenbaum

explaininghitler.jpgI just finished re-reading Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. Originally published in 1998, the book is a meditation on “the search for the origins of [Hitler’s] evil,” as the subtitle puts it. As the book unfolds, Rosenbaum interviews in person or interacts with the writings of nearly every prominent Hitler explainer of the post-war period, from Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock to Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen. As he does so, he critically interacts with the major explanations of Hitler’s evil: that it was the byproduct of genital malformation, sexual perversion, psychological projection, abstract historical forces, or Hitler’s own intention and agency. The last five chapters, in this regard, have revealing titles. Too many Hitler explainers, it seems, are apt to blame God, the Jews themselves, Christians, or Germans for Hitler’s evil–rather than Hitler himself. Here are Rosenbaum’s concluding paragraphs:

[Milton] Himmelfarb almost seems to be saying that it is, in fact, the culmination of a truer sophistication to be able to hate Hitler, a sophistication that doesn’t fall prey to the pseudosophisticated snares of explanation as exculpation, of explanation as abstraction away from Hitler’s personal agency. Hatred as not that which one starts with, rather as something one ends up with: the product of a deeper understanding. A less inflammatory word than “hatred” might be “resistance.” It’s the world Emil Fackenheim used when he described the “double move” one must make in attempting to explain Hitler: to seek explanation but also to resist explanation.

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist the misleading exculpatory corollaries of explanation. To resist the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate, by shifting responsibility from him to faceless abstractions, inexorable forces, or irresistible compulsions that gave him no choice or made his choice irrelevant. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of a last laugh.

Alexander Chase said, “To understand is to forgive.” Perhaps this is sometimes true. (Chase added “even oneself” to his apercus.) But not in the case of Hitler. Not in the face of such evil.

Dead to the Law (Romans 7.1-6)

In Romans 6.2, Paul writes, â..We died to sin.â. In Romans 7.4, he goes on to say, â also died to the law.â. I think we all understand what it means to die to sin, for the second half of Romans 6.2 asks, â can we live in it any longer?â. But what does it mean to die to the law? Does it mean we no longer have to obey the commandments? Was Paul an antinomian after all?

To answer these questions, letâ..s take a closer look at Romans 7.1-6. Paul begins with a statement of legal principle in verse 1: â..Do you not know, brothersâ..for I am speaking to men who know the lawâ..that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?â.

In verses 2-3, he offers an illustration of that legal principle at work: â..For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.â.

Finally, in verses 4-6, he draws out the application of that principle to Christian faith and practice: â..So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.â.

Now, it is clear from verses 4-6 that being dead to the law does not mean being free to sin. Paul is not an antinomian in terms of moral behavior. Rather, as Christians, we died to the law â..that [we] might belong to [Christ]â. and â..that we might bear fruit to God.â. The result of dying to the law is that â..we serve in the new way of the Spirit.â. As I said, the opposite of being dead to the law is not being free to sin. Rather, it is being alive to God so that we take on the moral character and activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So, then, what exactly does it mean to be dead to the law? Notice three key words: â..controlled,â. â..bound,â. and â..released.â. Before Christ, we were controlled by our â..sinful nature,â. literally, â..flesh.â. We were natural born sinners, so to speak. The law indicted us and â..boundâ. us over for judgment before God. But Christâ..s death for our sins and in our place â..releasedâ. us from the judgment we deserved. To be dead to the law in this way is the only way to be truly and eternally alive.

The World Championship of Wife Carrying

This weekend, Finland will host the 11th annual World Championship of Wife Carrying. For a description of this championship and a meditation on its possible meaning, check out William R. Mattox Jr.’s essay in today’s Opinion Journal. Here’s his conclusion:

Over the past half-century, our official gender debate has often forced people to choose between gender equality and gender-specific roles. You could be against misogyny. Or against androgyny. But you couldn’t be against both. At least not in the official debate.

But in our private lives–especially in those leisure pursuits that often (unconsciously) reveal our deepest hopes and aspirations–I get the impression that most couples somewhat paradoxically want both gender equality and gender-specific roles.

Perhaps this is why a high-powered lawyer friend of mine insists that her husband do the often-grimy “blue” jobs around the house (like grilling burgers on the Fourth of July) while she opts for the traditional “pink” household chores. Or why a recent University of Virginia study of more than 5,000 couples found that the happiest wives are those whose husbands earn at least two-thirds of the household income.

“Women today expect more help around the home and more emotional engagement from their husbands,” observes W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the study’s authors. “But they still want their husbands to be providers who give them financial security and freedom.”

In fact, curiously, this preference for husbands to carry the primary responsibility for providing household income could be found even among the most feminist-minded wives, according to the University of Virginia study.

Now, I realize that it is foolish to treat a wife-carrying competition with a great deal of seriousness. And I recognize that over-analyzing frivolous diversion can potentially threaten the carefree spirit that makes leisure play so enjoyable in the first place.

Nevertheless, I think the couples who annually gather in officially androgynous Finland for the World Championship of Wife-Carrying may be unintentionally making an important statement.

They may be expressing–in an admittedly peculiar manner–that they want to live in a world where husbands and wives are equals, but their roles aren’t completely interchangeable.

The Law and the Believer (Romans 7.1-25)

What role does the Old Testament law play in the life of the believer?Â

The church has argued about its answer to this question since the first century. Basically, three positions have emerged: legalism, antinomianism, and the orthodox consensus. Letâ..s briefly consider each one in turn.Â

Legalism is the notion that our salvation is wrapped up with our obedience to the Old Testament law. We read about early Christian legalists in Acts 15.1: â..Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: â..Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.â..â. Also in Acts 15.5: â..Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, â..The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.â..â.Â

The context of theses verses is important. The earliest Christians all were Jews. They believed that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament law and prophecy, as Christ himself had taught (Matthew 5.17-20). Consequently, when Peter and Paul began to make converts among Gentiles, some of these well-meaning Jewish believers argued that the converts should get circumcised, keep kosher, and otherwise obey the commandments of the Old Testament. Their conclusions precipitated the first church council in Jerusalem, which decided, in essence, that Gentiles did not in fact have to become Jews in order to become Christians (Acts 15.22-29).Â

Now, from this decision, some of these Gentile believers drew the wrong conclusion. Since they were not obligated to keep the Old Testament law, they were not obligated to keep any moral law. This conclusion is known as antinomianismâ..literally, against-the-law-ism. You can find echoes of this position throughout the New Testament. For example, in Romans 6.1-2a, Paul asks and answers a rhetorical question: â..Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!â. Also in Romans 6.15: â..Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!â. Grace does not legitimize a moral free-for-all. Instead, it promotes holiness.Â

And that brings us to what Iâ..m calling the orthodox consensus. In orthodox Christianity, the Old Testament law is fundamentally good because it is the self-revelation of God. As Paul writes in Romans 7.12: â..the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.â. In revealing Godâ..s character, the law shows us how we ought to live. However, in and of itself, the law does not have the power to make us live that way. It cannot make us righteous; it can only point out our unrighteousness. In Romans 7.13, Paul writes that the law was given â order that sin might be recognized as sinâ. and â that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.â. When we realize how utterly sinful we are, we throw ourselves upon Godâ..s mercy through Jesus Christ. As Paul asks in Romans 7.24-25a: â..Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to Godâ..through Jesus Christ our Lord!â.Â

In summary, the law is good but the law cannot save. Only Jesus can do that. As we begin our study of Romans 7, which deals with the role of the law in the life of the believer, it is helpful to keep these things in mind.

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