And thus we enter what is, for me, perhaps my favorite two chapters of the entire Scripture.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
The first concern Paul addresses is a great question for the mathematician in me. Clearly, he sees that many will read the first few chapters as an equation: sin + faith = grace. Therefore, if you increase sin, you will increase grace, right? Many Christians today—even if they will not admit it—use grace in this way. They abuse grace to become an excuse to engage in whatever sin they wish. Oh, sure, they may go to confession afterward, or fast, or pray. But in the back of their minds, deep down, they are using grace as an excuse to live however they desire to live.
Paul says that this belief is false. Paul says that our baptism into Christ was also a baptism into His death. (Note that this implies that all who would read his letter—that is, all who claim to be Christians—were definitely baptized. There is no such thing in the New Testament as “saved but not baptized.” Baptism is the sign of our faith, like the signature on the bottom of the wedding contract. There is no way to avoid it.) Paul points out that our baptism is reminiscent of Christ’s death—we go into the water just as He went into the grave, and we come out of the water as He came out of the grave.
Our baptism is a death to our old lives. It is our willpower and statement that we are not who we used to be. Does God forgive us for sin? Yes. Will we remain sinners? Yes, as you shall soon see in Paul’s letter. But God’s forgiveness is not a blank check to forget our need for personal piety. In fact, Paul argues, your new life as a Christian will give you more power to resist sin than you ever had before, when you tried to succeed all by yourself. So he cautions us not to use grace as an excuse to just ‘give up’ on trying not to sin.
Paul concludes with an amazingly powerful statement—“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” How amazing, for the Jews who had spent lifetimes trying their best to adhere to the Law! Paul is saying that sin has dominion over people because they are under the law. In other words, it is the presence of the Law—the statutes by which we can please God—that sin can reign over us. Consequently, as long as a person chooses to remain under the law—that is, as long as they refuse to accept Christ as a gift of grace—then the longer that their sin will rule them.
Note that Paul does not say that being under grace causes us not to sin. Not at all! But something substantial and significant does change. For those under grace—though they do sin—their sin does not have dominion over them. It does not dominate their lives. It does not direct them. It does not have dominion over you, you have dominion over it.
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul immediately clarifies, though, that just because we are under grace (and therefore receive forgiveness for sin) we should not sin. He points out that we are slaves to those whom we obey: if we do what sin tempts us to do, then we are slaves to sin; if we obey the law, then we are slaves of righteousness.
I absolutely love the statement he makes here. You can almost sense Paul’s frustration at trying to pick the right words: “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.” It is hard to describe his heavenly revelation to us mere mortals! But in the end he comes up with a great method of saying it: when you were slaves to sin, you were free to righteousness. But no good fruit comes from that life. Being slaves to righteousness (and therefore, free to sin) gives you good fruit.
And what is the good fruit? Not sinlessness—not immediate perfection. No, you become sanctified—that is, made pure. And that in its end leads to eternal life. (Sometime soon I will do an article on ritual purity. It is a wholly fascinating topic, which shines much light on Christianity.)
He closes by pointing out that the payment we get when we are slaves to sin is death, but God freely gives us eternal life in Christ Jesus. Notice the literary juxtapositions that Paul made here. Sin has a wage, or payment, of death—that is, death is what you earned and are paid in return for your work of sin. But eternal life is a free gift—that is, not based upon your work—from God.
As Martin Luther once said: “The law commands you and requires you to do certain things. …The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, ‘This is what God has done for you’.”
As we move now into Romans 7, Paul speaks to the Law:
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Here, Paul says that the law binds us only while we are alive. He points out that a woman is free to remarry once her husband dies and, by the same logic, once you have died to the law through baptism you are freed from it. He then says something which would have been quite distasteful to many of his readers (let it never be said Paul was not bold!). He says that the Law—which they have honored for generation upon generation—actually serves to inspire passions for sin, not quench them. Like water on a grease fire, the Law simply kindles and spreads sin throughout the body. It introduces the concept of sin.
This may sound odd, but not so odd to parents. I think parents can comprehend this quite well. My youngest son, Ryan, is three years old. He is (generally speaking) a wonderful little boy. Now I could have an open can of soda sitting next to him for an hour and he would not care a bit. But the minute that I tell him, “Ryan, you are not to have that soda,” he is aware of this law. And invariably, he will be tempted—and probably fail to resist the temptation—within a matter of minutes. The same is true a hundred times a day. Our natural innocence is corrupted as soon as we are told that we cannot have something. This sinful nature goes all the way back to the Garden, with Adam and Eve. No matter how much we humans have, the moment we are told “Do not touch”, we are consumed with a desire to touch. (Why do we all suffer from this basic sin of disobedience? For the same reason Adam and Eve were tempted. For the same reason Lucifer rebelled. We do not like having to have a God. We want to be our own Gods. We do not want to be in ultimate power. And if someone or something tells us “No”, and we listen to it, then we are acknowledging that he or it has authority over us.)
So, Paul says, the more we understand the Law, the greater our temptation and the more likely we will fail. But not because of the law itself—the law is holy and pure and righteous. But our sinful natures, once we are told “no” by the Law, seize upon the opportunity and corrupt us.
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
This passage is one of the most important in all of Scripture. Nowhere is the Christian condition so clearly stated. All Christians should read this passage monthly, just so that they do not forget it. The Law was good, and it is not what brought us death. Paul is very clear here. Sin is what produced death. It is not the Law which was evil; indeed, the Law is not even what tempted us. No, it was the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of the Law, which gave our sinful flesh the opportunity to wage war against our holy spirits.
And because that war is going on within us, Paul says, our flesh sometimes does not do what our spirit tells it to do. The part of us which delights in the Law and wants to be pure before God is confused and how poorly we perform. As he says, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” If there is a better description for the Christian life than that statement, I have not yet found it. As Paul says, we serve God with our minds and souls, while our bodies continue to serve the laws of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but 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. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
There is no condemnation for sin if we are in Christ. We are set free from the law, and therefore from sin and death. The law—because of our weak flesh—condemned us; our actions could not save us. But God did, by sending us Christ. One of the attitudes that Paul points out here is that the serious Christian sets his mind on things of the Spirit, instead of the flesh.
Now this does not mean that you do not listen to secular music, or that you only read certain books, or that you do not sometimes struggle to have a good prayer life or quiet times with God. It says that the Spirit in you wants to see spiritual things all around. For me, I felt that a great step toward maturity as a Christian happened in the past year or so, when I was able to set politics aside and focus on spirituality instead. Politics is an easy thing to lose your passion in—it is important (insofar as it affects our lives greatly), it is philosophically engaging, and it is interesting. But do you know what else politics is? It is wholly earthly. Oh, sure, I claimed that I was interested in order to see God’s kingdom here on earth; but in reality, God didn’t have much to do with it. I used the Bible and church history as needed to support my political positions. But now I am past all that – and much happier, to boot. Now, I realize that this world is but a shadow of what truly awaits…and the soul of the person across the aisle on the bus from me is far more valuable than the entire American civilization.
Also notice that Paul reinforces here that the condemnation-free, accepted life is not simply for everyone. That is, Paul is not preaching a universal salvation. No, it is only for those who “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” So the lack of condemnation comes only after one becomes justified through their faith in Christ.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For 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!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Paul here says that we are called and set apart, and we should be putting to death the fleshly sins of our bodies. Why? Well, because we are the sons of God, as the Holy Spirit Himself bears witness. We are the heirs of God with Christ. And the sufferings that may come with being set apart and different are nothing compared to the glory that we will receive in the future.
Paul speaks beautifully and longingly about the desire to be “born” into our adoption with God. He says that creation itself is in the pains of childbirth, and is ready to give birth to our new, spiritual, redeemed life.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now we come to two of the most frequently-misunderstood verses in the entire New Testament: Romans 8:28 and Romans 8:31. In Romans 8:28, Paul says, “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose”. This is generally applied to physical suffering. When you have a lost loved one, a lost job, a difficult time in life, you will invariably hear a well-intentioned Christian say, “Don’t worry—all things work together for good for those who love God”…as though God needed to give an eight-year old leukemia in order to create ‘the best of all worlds’. And Romans 8:31 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”—a phrase typically used in an American-bravado style, and frequently quoted after 9/11 to imply that God ‘had our back’ and would crush our opponents.
But in context, of course, neither of these has any such meaning. No, their meaning is far, far more important and valuable.
First of all, notice the theme of this entire passage—Paul states it right there at the beginning: “the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses.” From a structural standpoint, everything in this passage has connection words (for, and, therefore)—words indicating that the entire passage is meant to be read as one thought. So we may be certain that this entire passage is talking about the same theme, that of weakness among justified Christians.
We are spiritually weak in our sins, and so much so that we do not even know what we should be praying about to fix the situation! But Paul says not to worry. And listen to how amazing, how bold, the claims are that he makes. Paul says that the Holy Spirit Himself will pray on our behalf to God. He says that God will make sure that your weaknesses and struggles are used to make you a better Christian (“all things work together for good for those who love God”). He says that those whom God justified, He intends to change them into the image of Christ. He says that God sees His justified as filled with Christ’s glory. He says that there cannot be an accuser against us, for God is our defense attorney (“if God be with us, who can be against us?”). He says that there is no one in the world capable of bringing a charge against us with Christ as our savior. He says that no one therefore can separate us from the love of God—not angels or demons, not past or future, not government, not creation.
What an amazing, powerful statement! How sad that we rip some of these verses out of context and miss their true power. This is what Paul is saying, in paraphrase:
“Do not worry about your weaknesses. God knows that you are weak, and even if you don’t pray like you should, the Spirit is praying on your behalf. God will make your sins and weaknesses work out for the good for you, because He saved you and is transforming you into the image of Christ. Because before time God predestined you for this, and glorified you. And so why do you worry about your weaknesses? If God has chosen to forgive and accept you, who are you worried about? If He was willing to give His own son to justify you, do you think He will change His plans now and withhold the grace of forgiveness? Are you worried about people accusing you? Who can bring an accusation against you, when God Himself defends you? Jesus—who died and was resurrected—defends you at the right hand of God. So who can separate you from His love? No person or thing, no matter how powerful, can steal away from you the fact that God accepts you.”
That is what it says, guys. Go back and re-read the passage in Paul’s words. Is it not the most amazing portion of Scripture in the world? It is freedom – grace – rest – peace. Paul just finished telling us that we do need to be serious about our faith and trying hard to better ourselves and improve our piety. But here he removes the pressure from the trying for righteousness. He removes the "achievement-based" portion of Christianity.
That is the key focus of this section of Paul’s letter—how do we walk the Christian walk? Or more properly, how do we survive as simultaneously sinner and saint? In these few chapters, Paul has outlined it clearly. You are God’s firstborn, and He is working on you to make you more pure and more holy and eventually to give you birth into Perfection. You should be diligent about trying not to sin, trying to grow closer to Him, trying to focus on Him as the center of your life. But do not put pressure on yourself in the process; do not expect that your work is going to somehow make you better in His eyes. Because He has already accepted you—warts and all—and nothing can separate you from that. So do not seek out righteousness in some vain attempt to impress Him or repay Him. Try to be righteous because He is righteous; try to be righteous to practice who you will become sometime in the future. But remember—He accepts you. Fail or succeed, it doesn’t matter. He wants to make you better and closer to Him, and He wants to love you. And nobody (including you and your own sin!) can separate that love from you.