Romans 7:1-6 “Do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to men who know the law – that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? 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. 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.”
So we begin this fascinating and helpful chapter – maybe the most helpful chapter in the entire letter full of encouragement
TO WHOM WAS THIS CHAPTER WRITTEN?
To understand this chapter we have to remind ourselves of those to whom it was written. Was it written to the whole population of Rome, or the religious, or too the pagan as well? I think it’s obvious that it was written to people who’d been converted, to people who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are a couple of reasons why we can be sure of that. First of all, Paul addresses them as his ‘brothers.’ In other words to people like me and you who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, who are in the family of God and the household of faith. I consider myself to be Paul’s brother and you also are my brethren. Then, again, this chapter occurs in a section of the letter that is dealing with the subject of sanctification, that is, about changing those who are already Christians – justified men and women – into holy people, transforming their hearts and daily living. So you’d be pretty sure that this chapter, set right here in a section of this letter dealing with the making holy of justified believers, would primarily be addressing Christians.
2. WHAT IS THE OVERALL THEME OF THE SIX VERSES OF OUR TEXT?
Let me give you an outline of this passage. It is very simple. Verse 1 is Paul’s statement of a principle. Verses 2 and 3 are Paul’s illustration of that principle. And verses 4 through 6 are his application of that principle to us especially with regard to our relation to the law. So verse 1 is the principle, verses 2 and 3 are the illustration, verses 4 through 6 are the application. So the outline of what Paul is saying is easy to grasp.
i] Paul gives us a principle in verse 1. Let me scale down Paul’s principle to just a few words. He says, “Now you are my brothers and we are familiar in the family of faith with the law of God – especially if we are converted Jews – that the law is an abiding and immovable law. The law has jurisdiction over a person for as long he lives. Yes?” Of course, we all agree with that. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not worship idols. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” and so on. These moral principles apply for ever. There will never come a time when it is right to worship idols of stone, or bow down in front of totem poles.
What is Paul getting at? Paul’s principle is simply this. Paul is telling us that you are under the law as long as you live. All mankind is under its Creator’s law, and our conscience bears witness to the law’s perfection. It has a permanent jurisdiction over us all. And, so, when it is violated, it condemns us. When we have not loved God with all our hearts or our neighbours as ourselves we are guilty men. We are law-breakers, and so possessing the law is not the solution to our problems. In fact, the law becomes a part of the problem, not because there’s anything wrong with the law, but because it measures our lives and finds us guilty. (I got a lot of help in this sermon from a lively, vital message of Ray Pritchard).
Let me put it like this. The law is not our star player, the man we give the ball to when we are being beaten and we need a score. You know, in rugby, often when the chips are down, and the time is ticking off the clock, there is somebody on the team, like a wizard fly-half, into whose hands you want to get the ball. Well, the apostle is saying, “When the chips are down, and the seconds are ticking off the clock, and salvation is in the balance, the law is not the one you think of to get you the victory.” That is not where you set your hope. It is not where you go for triumph. If you are under the law as long as you live then you are under not only its wise precepts but you are also under its condemnation.
So Paul begins by stating the non-negotiable nature of the law of God: you are under the law as long as you live. In other words, he’s reminding you that the law, any law, is not the solution, it’s actually part of your problem because of two things. You’ve already violated it, and there’s never going to be a time in the future when it gets easier and quieter and weaker and less demanding. So the apostle is making it clear that there is no deliverance, or rescue, or a way of escape for sinners as they consider God’s rule book. Moses’ two tablets of stone are not the way back to a restored relationship with the righteous, holy and heavenly Father.
Now, he steps back, and he says, “Let me make this as vivid as I can. Let me illustrate this with a relationship that you know very well.” And that’s the second thing I’d like you to see in this passage.
ii] Paul gives us this comparison of marriage, in the second and third verses. “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.”
We all know that marriage involves a huge personal commitment. In fact, you could say that marriage involves at least five major commitments:
A Personal Commitment— “I, Mair, take you, Alwyn”
An Unconditional Commitment— “For better or for worse”
An Exclusive Commitment— “Forsaking all others”
A Life-long Commitment— “As long as we both shall live”
A Fruitful Commitment— “The children God may give us”
When you take those five commitments and bring them over into the spiritual realm, you find that each one fits perfectly. Coming to Christ involves a commitment that is personal, unconditional, exclusive, life-long and fruitful. The bride doesn’t answer my questions concerning the vows with a shrug, or a ‘maybe’, or an ‘I’ll see’. She says, “I do!” You come to Jesus; you don’t come bargaining; you don’t come laying down the conditions of having him as Saviour. There are no negotiations. You come unconditionally, you come to the Lord alone, you come pledging your life to him, you come expecting that your life will be different from being joined to him.
It all fits. That’s why the Bible writers so often used marriage to illustrate spiritual truth. And that’s why, when the Bible writers were stretching out to illustrate a difficult truth and nail it to their hearers or readers, they often reached for the illustration of marriage. Marriage is the pre-eminent example of what it means to have a living, vital relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Now that’s what is happening in Romans 7:1-6. Paul uses the marriage relationship – especially the truths surrounding remarriage – to illustrate the power of Jesus Christ alone to change the human heart. So we could say that the general theme for this text is this, that coming to Jesus Christ is like getting married all over again. In fact it’s like leaving a bad and difficult marriage for the best possible husband..
Please note this, that here Paul is not giving a complete theology of marriage. In order to understand the full biblical teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage, we’d have to consider Matthew 5, Matthew 19, I Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, and some other passages. There are two grounds for remarriage in the Bible, sexual sin and the unbeliever abandoning the believing spouse, but that is not part of Paul’s consideration here. There is just one important truth here, that marriage is for life. Any other commitment is not a Christian commitment. In other words, you don’t go into marriage thinking that if it doesn’t work out, there’s a back door; “I can always get a divorce.” That “back door” mentality often leads to the break-up of the marriage. The only way to enter marriage is for both parties to believe that divorce is not an option.
Then also you know this, that death cancels all contracts. Paul says, “Don’t you know, brothers – for I am speaking to men who know the law – that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?” That’s all; until death, not after. This is not difficult to understand. Let’s say you hire a man to be the photographer in your wedding. If he dies before the wedding day, you can’t force him to be there with his camera. Once he’s dead, his obligation to you has ended. Someone else will have to take the photographs. Or let’s say you hire a taxi driver to drive you to the station to get the early morning London train. If he dies that night he won’t be there in the morning. His work is done the moment he dies.
Or suppose a policeman is in a car chase pursuing a stolen car. If the car thief hits a tree and kills himself then the case for robbery is closed. The policeman does not address the corpse and say to him, “I am arresting you for theft and dangerous driving. Anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence against you. There will be a lawyer or solicitor provided for you at the police station.” There’s no prosecution of dead people. You can’t enforce a contract on a dead man. Once he’s dead, the corpse is freed from all personal obligation to you. You can’t make a dead man do anything. If he owes you 10,000 pounds, you won’t get a penny from him personally. Dead men don’t pay off their debts.
So Paul lays down a principle that remarriage is permitted after the death of the spouse. He no longer exists, and she is not buried with him, or expected to thrown herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. That is Hinduism, not Christianity. God’s law states, “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 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.”
In order to simplify this text, let’s arrange it in a series of statements:
A wife is bound by law to stay married as long as her husband is alive.
If her husband dies, she’s no longer married to him.
If she remarries Bill and Ted and Jack and Fred while her husband is alive, she is an adulteress and a polygamist.
If she remarries one man after her husband’s death, she is not an adulteress.
So here are the principles . . . Remarriage is not permitted while the husband is alive.
Remarriage is permitted after her husband is dead. A man and a woman get married, intending to spend their lives together, but he dies. Since she is no longer married, she is free to remarry if she chooses. But if she walks out on him and remarries while married to him she is an adulteress.
As I said, this is not the full biblical teaching on marriage and divorce, but the one clear principle at work here is the principle of verse 1: death cancels all contracts. In this case, death cancels the marriage contract. Most wedding vows include the words “till death us do part” or “as long as we both shall live.” Those phrases recognize the fact that marriage ends at the moment one partner dies.
That’s why we say things like the following in a wedding ceremony: “Osian, do you take Gwennan, whose hand you hold, to be your lawful wedded wife? And do you promise before God and these witnesses that you will love, honor and cherish her, and that forsaking all others for her alone, you will be a true and faithful husband, so long as you both shall live?” He says, “I do.” Or even, “I certainly do!” Or, “By God’s grace I do.”
That’s a Christian approach to marriage. When you get married, it’s for life. But our text is pointing out that remarriage is permitted after the death of the spouse precisely because “marriage is for life.” Once your spouse is dead, you are free before God to marry again if you so choose. There is a big ‘what if’ question hovering around here isn’t there? What if . . . my spouse died? What would I do if I found myself single again? Would I get married again, or would I decide that once was enough, or that I couldn’t be happier with anyone else, or that I show how much I loved being married by marrying again? Maybe your wife once coyly asked you, “Cariad, if I died, would you marry again?” I’ll tell you men now the answer to that question. You say to her, “We’ll talk about it when it happens!”
iii] Paul applies the illustration of remarriage after death by saying two things, that we have died to the demands of the law over us, and that Christians are married to Christ – joined to him and in union with him.
Paul’s point in this passage is not merely that we traded husbands, that we got a new husband Jesus Christ for our old husband, the law. Paul’s real point is that we have traded a bad marriage for a good one. When we were under the law, we were in a relationship that was utterly unsatisfactory. Being married to Mr. Law was like being married to the most demanding husband in the world. Nothing you did could please him. There were rules and only rules from sun up to sun down, in the kitchen, in the parlour, in the bedroom, in the house, in the garden and in the car. “Do this, do that, don’t wear that and don’t go there.” Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever clean enough, tidy enough, tasty enough. He wanted perfection. You worked hard to buy and cook a delicious meal, but because it wasn’t perfect, he didn’t like it. You iron his shirts, but because he finds a wrinkle in the collar, he gets mad at you. You lose weight to make him happy, but when you gain part of it back, he’s on your case day and night. He wakes up every morning with a list of things you need to do that day. And no matter how hard you work, you can never finish the list to his satisfaction. He’s picky, he’s demanding, he’s a perfectionist, he’s critical, and to top it all off, he’s right – all the time! And he knows it and doesn’t mind telling you about it.
That’s what it was like being married to Mr. Law. You know God’s law is perfect. It’s “right all the time.” You do your best to live up to the Ten Commandments, but “nobody’s perfect.” But absolute righteousness is what the law demands. It knows nothing of mercy or pity or compassion. Do this and you shall live, says the law. It’s not good enough simply to keep most of the commandments most of the time. That will condemn you. It can never, never save you. The point is that living under the law is like living with a “perfect” husband. You end up broken, discouraged, frustrated, feeling like a failure all the time. You can never be good enough no matter how much you try if you are married to Mr. Law.
But now Paul says the Christian has died once and for all to the law. What happened to the car thief being pursued by the cop, hitting a tree and dying, has happened to you. You died, and so none of the Ten Commandments has anything to say by way of condemning you. You no longer exist. You are six feet under. You are unreachable. But most of all there is this, that the condemnation for your breaking God’s law was visited upon the Lord Jesus on the cross. In your place condemned he stood for all your failures. An also in your place he obeyed all that the law required. He did perfectly what you had failed to do. So Christ has secured your discharge. So your “marriage” to Mr. Law is over, because death ends all contracts. Having died to the law, we are now “married” to the Lord. That’s like trading in a demanding husband for one who while being as straight and righteous as your first husband, is also merciful, always loving, always forgiving, always encouraging, always accepting. He has much more to give you than your first husband. He’s got everything the first man didn’t have. The amazing thing is that he’s also perfect. In fact, he’s the Son of God. But he never makes you feel bad about your lack of perfection. He takes you just the way you are and yokes himself to you so that as you spend time with him. Hi yoke is easy; his burden is light and he actually turns you into a better and sweeter person.
Before you came to Christ, you were in a losing relationship to the law. But now you have entered into a winning relationship with the law. The law had made you a loser. It actually aroused sinful passions within you. It was like some a control freak saying to you every moment, “Do this, do this, do this, do this, do this” incessantly, and in the end you exploded and did the exact opposite. It said “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” and finally you were utterly frustrated. Sinful passions were aroused by the law. You said, “I’m not taking this any more,” and you went ahead and defied it, and then there was bitter fruit. It was a Catch 22 situation, a no win scenario and the result was a kind of inner spiritual death. You were dying a little bit more every day. That is what Paul says in verse 5 isn’t it? “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.” By nature we instinctively rebel against a constant diet of rules and regulations. You understand how provocative a diet of rules can be? The sign says, “Wet Paint. Do Not Touch.” We touch. The Highway Code says 40 miles per hour and we go 42 – just to prove that we can do it even with speed cameras. Your parents said, “Be home by 11” and you walk through the front door at 11.08. Just late enough to send a message – “I am 16” but not too late to have a big row. The law always draws lines and sets limits but the natural man under the law wants to push the limit and marginally go over the line to see how far he can go and what he can get away with. And even when we don’t cross the line we deliberately go as near to it as we can because there is something inside us, the power of the flesh, that urges us to challenge the law instead of keeping it.
But now through Jesus, you have entered a relationship where you actually want to do right. You are really joined to Jesus (“married” to him), the two have become one. You now have a vital, living relationship with him, he now lives his life through you – and the places in your life that were once marked with failure are now the scenes of great personal triumph. He helps us keep the laws of God.
Becoming a Christian is terrific progress. You belong to another, to the loving Son of god, the giver of the law to Moses on Sinai. An old friend hasn’t seen you for quite a few years. She hardly recognizes you. “You’ve changed,” she says. “You are looking so well. How is your husband these days? Are things . . . better?” “Ah,” you say, “You haven’t heard . . . he died a few years ago. I’ve remarried. Now I’ve got a wonderful husband.” And then as the conversation continues you share with your old friend. You tell her about him, how he helps you in the home. You seem yoked together and now the burden of house-keeping is easy and light. He doesn’t remind you of your failures; he’s not criticizing you all the time. He is always encouraging and always supporting. God has been so good to you in giving you this loving man. Demanding husbands make unhappy wives. A man who puts his wife on performance level is expecting her to do things to win his approval. But this woman had been won by a husband who loves her just the way she is.
I am saying that being joined by faith and trust to Jesus Christ your husband and brother and best friend is like that. It is a moving on, from one “marriage” to another, from being married to the law to being married to the Lord. It is going from death to life, from defeat to victory, from being criticized to being forgiven, from being alienated to being accepted, from feeling a failure to feeling, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” From guilt to being a more than conqueror, from being married to Mr. Ten Commandments to being married to Mr. Everlasting Love, the one who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come to me and you will have rest.” The law is no longer condemning us to hell; we are declared righteous through Jesus Christ.
What is Paul saying here? You can’t be saved by the rule book of the law. You can’t be kept at peace and contented by being reminded of the law. You cannot be sanctified by the law. What the law does is stir the mud at the bottom of the pool and prove how foul the waters are. So too, Paul is saying by this analogy of marriage, you cannot build a happy marriage by some legal pre-nuptial agreement about how you are going to spend your money and your days and weeks. A marriage based on law is like living your life in a court of justice. A marriage based on love is like living in a happy home, a community of affection. Any blessed marriage has to be grounded on love because you know what love is, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cors. 13:4-8). Oh, be married to Jesus Christ! Take him as your husband and lover and friend for life. He is proposing to you now. He will make such promises to you if you receive him. “I, Jesus, take you, sinner, to become a member of my forever family. I do promise to love, keep and protect you for ever and ever, and to take you to heaven when you die.” And then you respond; you make your promises to serve him to the end; “I, Sinner, take thee, Jesus Christ, to be my Lamb, my Saviour, my Teacher, my Lord, and my eternal companion. I trust thee to protect me, and work all things for my good, and supply all my needs, and forgive all my sins. I promise to be loyal to thee till the end of my life. And I trust thee to take me to heaven when I die.” That is what a Christian says. He lives a fruitful life. You see the Christian ambition at the end of verse 4, “that we might bear fruit to God.” You have entered a very fruitful relationship; there are true offspring that comes from being united to the Lord Jesus each day.
There’s the fruit of a life reflecting the qualities of that influential Person whom you live with 24/7. The fruit would moral qualities like integrity, patience, love, compassion, honour, dignity, fidelity, kindness and forgiveness. Then there is the fruit of conduct—a life that is changed from the inside out. This touches your speech, your relationships, your habits, your work, your associations, your hobbies, your way of handling problems, your marriage, your children, your commitment to your job. All that changes once you are married to the Lord Jesus. Then there is the fruit of your witness to the unconverted world, your family, your children, your friends, the other mothers you hang around with outside the school at 3.30, your fellow students at school or university. Some may be saved because of your witness. That also will be the fruit of your walk with Christ not the consequence of your being under the law.
You have died to what once you were bound to (v.6), a sterile morality, and the guilt and the pride that that produced in you. Your spiritual death – the old man you once were who made a fetish of the law is no more. He is dead. You can’t find him anywhere. He is no longer in his old haunts hanging around with the other Pharisees. He is gone. He is buried. He has disappeared from sight. So you have been released from the forbidding judgmental countenance of a frowning threatening law. You serve God. Yes. But now you serve “in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (v.6). You have a new inward energy that the indwelling Holy Spirit produces.
The “old way” was the way of the law – “Do, do, do. Work harder, keep on trying, push harder.” That is all the law can say. That has never worked because no one could ever do enough, work enough or push enough. Everyone married to the law was bound to fail. The written code guaranteed the sinner’s failure. But the “new way” is the way of an inner change wrought in your heart by the Holy Spirit by which you love God’s law. God has “poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” The new way is a new delight in the law and a new power to do it. Our duty has become our delight. We serve God now out of love and gratitude and by the energy that God renews in us day by day. When now we hear the law it sends us again to Christ’s blood and righteousness for peace with God. And then Christ will send us to the law as he expounds it for us in Mathew 5 to regulate us, to find out what our duty is now that we’re justified by grace. We don’t despise the good law of God. That law reflects the nature and character of God – as surely as the gospel does. But the glory of God’s law is like the glory of the moon and stars. Their light all vanishes when the sun rises. So the law of Moses and all its glory vanishes when the gospel of Christ, the incarnate Son of God rises. The one is starlight; the other is noonday brightness. The law came by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
Man’s problem is this, that without Jesus Christ, although we know what is right and true, either we don’t want to do it or we want to do it but we can’t. Either way we end up frustrated. But God has overcome our problem by sending his Son as our head and representative and husband to keep the law of God and to fulfill all righteousness in our place, and then by writing his law in our heart when we are regenerated. We have been freed from the manner of our obedience, but not from the matter of our obedience. God’s law and God’s love have no quarrel with one another. The quarrel is between law and grace as a way of salvation. The law is a hammer to break us. The gospel is God’s oil to heal us. Law is needed as love’s eyes; love is needed a law’s heart beat. Law without love is like being married to a Pharisee; love without law is like being married to a libertine.
If you want a performance-based religion, you can have it in Islam. But you won’t have a great religion in Islam. If you want a great marriage, then it can’t be a performance-based marriage. It has to be based on love, that love that continues to do what the law alone could never do – changing people from the inside out. Where does this love come from? Where do you find it? In Christ. Christ holding husband and wife together. Christ forgiving and giving grace to forgive. Christ teaching about loving and Christ giving power to love. We Christians do have a performance-based marriage, but it is the performance of Christ that saves our marriage not our performances.
Do you realise what the apostle is saying to you today, if you’re trying to commend yourself to God by your own efforts, your own works, your goodness? That will end in failure – if you are being honest with yourself. Turn immediately from your works, and trust in Christ. That’s why David Dickson could say, “I’ve made two heaps of all my deeds, my bad deeds and my good deeds, my keeping the law and my breaking the law, and I have set them all on fire and fled from them both to Jesus Christ.”
Do you understand what this passage is saying? If today you think you can commend yourself to God by your goodness, by your law-keeping, then the apostle Paul has some bad news for you, which I hope will lead to some good news for you. The bad news is if you want to commend yourself to God by the law, that’s fine. All you’re required to do is do it perfectly. You show up on judgment day, you’ve kept the law blamelessly, you’ve done everything that God commands, you’ve done nothing that he has forbidden, and everything that he desire. You have loved him with all your heart and you’ve loved your neighbour just as you love yourself. But the apostle Paul says, “If you take that tack, then there is no hope for you. You’ll be condemned, because you are under the law as long as you live. But here’s the good news. There are a lot of people who have gone down that road and they’ve realized the futility of it. By the grace of God, they’ve realized they need to be saved. They turn back, and they’ve realized that “I can’t commend myself to God that way.” And when they do, when they repent, when they turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, he is the cover for their sins. His law keeping and his satisfaction of the broken law is their only hope. And they find the freedom from the burden of the law that the apostle Paul has been speaking about here. They find a new dynamic, a newness of life. It’s my prayer that you’ll find that freedom too, by his grace. “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” (v.6).
31st May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS