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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Romans 8 — Part One

With chapter 8 we have turned a corner in the argument: there is no more diatribe, impersonation, or imaginary interlocutors. From this point on Paul speaks directly to his Roman hearers, sometimes in the plural (“you [all]”) and at other times in the singular (“thou” = “you” [sg.]). If you have a copy of the King James Version/Authorized Version, it may help you to see when the "you" is singular ("thou/thee") and when not.

What Paul describes here will be experienced in the End Time kingdom of God by everyone, but it is now experienced in the microcosm of individual believers’ lives. As born-from-above believers in Jesus we are already living in the eschatological age in terms of the power of the Spirit.

Chapter 7, in my view, is all about how believers can frustrate God's purpose that they live victorious over sin. They do so when—like the Galatian Christians—they try to live it in the old way using the law. We are a new creation in Christ. And as a new creation, designed to live righteously in the power of the Spirit, we do not live "normally" if we try to fuel our lives with the old fuel of the law. Like trying to run a 2009 computer on a 1980 operating system. Or to run an Alfa Romeo sports car on low-octane regular gas. We are designed to run on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. When instead we seek to live righteous lives by obeying laws, we are like someone who hitches his new sports car up to a team of mules.

In Paul's mind, the victory over sin was accomplished by Christ's death, and believers plug into that death as their own to sin. What remains for the Christian is to "reckon" on that reality (Romans 6) and "walk by the Spirit" (Romans 8). We are to "put to death" the old sins as they pop up in the form of temptations. We are to "put on" like new garments the virtues of Jesus (Rom 13:12, 14; Eph 4:24; Col 3:12, 14; 1Pet 5:5). It is like going to an extremely expensive clothing shop after a successful diet and being told that you can try on and take with you any beautiful garment that strikes your fancy.
The old foe is still hanging around, but he is now defanged. It is only a matter of saying "no" to his temptations. The tempter is clever and deceptive, but he has no power to coerce. He may try to plant doubts in your mind, saying: “You never were able to stop doing that before. What makes you think you can now?” But the words of James: "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7) envisages no real struggle or exertion: merely a firm rebuke. Satan may be “like a roaring lion going about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8-9) but his roar is bigger than his bite.

(a) 8:1-2

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set you (singular) free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2, NIV adapted).

There seems to be a subtle change in the nature of Paul's use of the word "therefore", beginning in ch. 8. No longer is it the logical compelling of assent, but the ethical compelling of behavior—the "ought" of the Christian conscience. You can see it clearly in v. 12 below.

What is meant here by "condemnation"? Paul has mentioned a condemnation in the opening chapters of the letter which has to do with a person's not being made right with God and therefore being in his sins (see 5:16, 18). But judging from what follows in this chapter Paul is now redefining "condemnation" in terms of the enslavement to sin experientially that is the lot of unbelievers, but which does not exist for believers.

Paul’s use of the singular form of “you” (Greek σε) in v. 2 may be his way of answering the imaginary individual whom he was impersonating in the last verses of chapter 7. He is making a gradual transition from his impersonation to a direct conversation with the Roman church.

A new "law" ("the ‘law’ of the Spirit of Life") has "condemned" the old "‘law’ of sin and death," which is the "other law" that the "I" person in ch. 7:23 saw at work in his inner being. This "law" is the same as what Paul calls "sin in the flesh" in v. 3. As sin produced death through its ruling principle (= law), so the Spirit produces life through the new ruling principle ("law").

(b) 8:3-4

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature (literally, “flesh’), God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man (literally, in the ‘flesh’), 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

The law of Moses could not condemn sin in the sinful nature (‘flesh’). It was impossible, because of the law would have to be implemented by persons with all the weakness of their sinful natures. So how did God accomplish this condemning of sin in our sinful natures? By sending Christ in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sacrifice "for sin."

How did that work? First, let’s be clear that “the likeness of sinful humanity” does not mean that Jesus’ humanity was unreal. What was unreal was just the fact that Jesus' humanity would lead anyone who had not known him for long to assume that he also fell into sin at times like all other mortals. In other words, it was not the humanity that Jesus did not share with us, but the sinful humanity.

Still, that was enough common ground to enable him to substitute for us in conquering sin and—as a “sacrifice for sin”—in bearing the condemnation and guilt that was due to us. This is what Paul means by saying that in this way God was able to “condemn sin in the human nature.”

That “condemning”—which means destroying the enslaveing power of the sinful nature—is valid only for those who accept Jesus as their Substitute. Non-believers have no access to this liberation from sin’s power resident in their human natures.

Now the enslavement is on the other foot: instead of sin enslaving us through the law and our own sinful natures, united to Jesus in his death and resurrection we participate in God's victory over sin, and live in the realization that he has condemned sin and the sin nature to utter powerlessness.

The goal of salvation is not just a right standing that gives entry to Heaven, but a new creation that includes a new humanity walking in God's ways. The word "walk" (Hebrew הָלַך halakh, translated here by Paul into Greek περιπατέω) was the usual way in ancient Israel and Judaism of referring to following the commandments of God. The Jewish ethical-legal term halakha derives from this convention, and we see it most clearly in the poetry of the Psalms, especially Psalm 1:1-2
Blessed is the man who does not walk (halakh) following the advice of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

There are so many allusions in Romans 8 to Psalm 1 that one is tempted to think that Paul was writing his own commentary (what is called a midrash) on that psalm.

There are two ways of "walking" in Psalm 1, just as there are two in Romans 8—according to the sinful nature ("flesh"), and according to God's Holy Spirit. Believers who live ("walk") according to the Spirit fulfill the ethical requirements of God's law. The same truth is beautifully conveyed by verse 3 of Psalm 1
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
By "yielding fruit in the proper season" the psalmist doesn't mean to imply that there are fruitless seasons, but rather that every season of a person's life has its proper "fruit" to delight the heart of God by his/her behavior.

Paul wrote in Colossians 1:10 that believers should "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work (i.e., in every kind of good work) and increasing in the knowledge of God."

(c) 8:5-8
Those who live (lit., 'are') according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

Just as Paul insists that the key to "walking" by the Spirit lies in "setting one's mind on" what the Spirit approves and desires, so the psalmist identifies the key to walking the right path in delighting in the Torah and meditating on it day and night (Psa. 1:2).

The Holy Spirit and the New Testament revelation supplement and interpret—they don’t eliminate!—the Torah of the Old Testament. In both eras the key to avoiding sin is setting one’s mind on what God approves, as expressed in his written word. The verse “I have hidden your word in my heart, so that I will not sin against you” in Psalm 119:11 is as valid today as it was then.

"Setting one's mind on" something means wanting it. What is it that you and I want most each moment of the day? Popularity? Delicious food? Fine clothes? A beautiful or handsome body? A beautiful house? A promotion at work? A big house? Sexual gratification? Athletic prowess?

Not all these things are necessarily wrong. But if our 'minds' are set on such things, we will not live the life that the Holy Spirit wishes to give us. To have that life, we must want the right things: to help others, to give rather than to receive, to suffer ostracism, if need be, in order to share Christ with others, to live simply in order to be able to give more. It isn't enough just to pray "O God! I want to be filled with the Spirit and live victoriously." Because in this chapter of Romans God has told us how we are to do that. One of the necessary steps is to "set our minds on" pleasing him and wanting that more than anything else.

The desires that spring from our old natures lead to spiritual death, but the desires that spring from the Spirit lead to life and peace. We see here that the goals of the two groups of people are different: death for the wicked, but life and peace for the godly. Similarly in v. 13 below. Malachi 2:5-7 tells us that God made a covenant with the priestly tribe of Levi:
My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.

When you remember that all believers in this age are priests of God (1Pet 2:5, 9), this suddenly takes on a relevance to you and to me that it might not otherwise have. Like the Levitical priests, we too can live like this, in a covenant of life and peace. True instruction can be in our mouths. We too can walk with God in peace and righteousness, and turn many to righteousness.

The unbeliever’s mind is “controlled by the sinful nature” and cannot submit to God’s law and therefore please God in all respects. A believer’s mind can and should be “controlled by the Spirit of God” and thus submit totally to God’s law and please him in everything. For us who believe the option is still open not to submit to God nor to allow the Spirit to control our minds. But at least we have a real choice, and it is a serious sin for believers not to care about obedience to their Lord.

The non-believer lives according to the sinful nature (what Paul calls the "flesh") — its wishes and preferences, and consequently cannot please God. In the same way, the psalmist wrote (Psa. 1:4-6):
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Of the startling sentence "those who are in the old sinful nature (i.e., unbelievers) cannot please God" (v. 8) George Eldon Ladd, (Theology of the New Testament, 511) writes:
This statement surely does not mean that [unsaved persons] can do no deed that pleases God. Romans 2:15 affirms that even Gentiles have the Law of God in some way written in their hearts; and so far as they obey the inner Law, they must be pleasing to God. Romans 8:8 means that unregenerate humanity cannot please Gdd by loving him and serving him as God desires.

And—I would add—they cannot please God by doing what he most wants of them: trusting in his beloved Son as Lord and Savior. Failure to do this is a continuing insult to God that cannot be "made up" by doing him the favor of an occasional kind act.

(d) 8:12-13
Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Godly living is not an optional matter for those redeemed from slavery to sin. There is an obligation to serve the Redeemer.

(e) 8:14-17
Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

The Redeemer is also the Father, so that obedience is rendered out of tender love, not hard compulsion.
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

And since this makes us co-heirs with Christ, the text turns to the question of suffering in the present eschatological age, the "already" phase of the kingdom is not a "bed of roses" (v. 18-27), but it will lead inexorably to glory (v. 28-39). This will be the subject of our next posting.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Romans 7 - Part Two

7:7-25 A Frustrating Struggle with the Sinful Nature

The two principal decisions that have to be made in interpreting the last two-thirds of Romans 7 (vv. 7-25) are: 

  • who is Paul speaking for here: a non-believing gentile, a non-believing Jew, a believer, or Adam as representative of all humans?  
  • what "law" does he have in mind each time he uses that word: the law of Moses, the 'law' of gentile conscience, both of the above, or the Roman civil law? 

"Who is the 'I'?" If we grant that Paul uses impersonation here, whom is he impersonating?

The wide spectrum of views represented by the commentaries and articles combine all of these possibilities. Not all choices can be eliminated simply as "liberal" (i.e., not committed to the truthfulness of scripture) or "inconsistent with the rest of the NT". So our choices are not easy. 

Some claim that Paul speaks in the character of Adam, and that the "law" spoken of in the chapter includes both the law of the gentile conscience and the law of Moses.

Others have proposed that the "I" refers to Israel's reception of the Law at Mount Sinai (with vv. 7-8 reflecting Israel’s pre-Sinai state and vv. 9-11 the state at Mount Sinai), Israel's violation of the Law, and their subsequent experience of death. Although sin existed in the world before the Law, with the Law sin becomes transgression, a willful violation (Rom 4:15). The Law incited transgression (Rom 5:20). According to this view, Romans 7:7-12 therefore describes the increase of sin after Mount Sinai (so also 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19-22). But this view of the depressed and guilt-ridden Jew under the law (v. 13-24) does not fit with Paul's impersonation of a typical self-confident and self-righteous Jew in Rom. 2:17-29, nor with the extra-biblical evidence of Jews in Paul's day. 

Another scholar has suggested that the character being impersonated could be any gentile "God-fearer" coming in contact with the law of Moses through Diaspora synagogues:

 The gentile God-fearer experiences God's wrath (Rom 4:15), imprisonment (Rom 7:6; Gal 3:22-23), and death (2 Cor 3:7) as the indwelling sin expresses itself with power through the Law. A God-fearer's experience would match the experience of a unified 'I' throughout Rom 7:7-25. [Das, Solving the Romans Debate, p. 221]

The slavery to the passions and desire, as experienced by the "I", is a characteristic of Paul's description of gentile existence. In 1 Thess 4:4-5 he wrote: "Each one of you must know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles who do not know God" (NRSV, mod.).

A final view is that Paul speaks in the character of a believer who has not yet discovered the secret of claiming union with Christ in his death to sin and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  If you experiment by reading the entire chapter, always identifying with one of these suggested candidates, you may find a view (or several) that satisfies you. I personally find several work for me. 

In terms of devotional application, the final view can be helpful if you find yourself struggling with lingering sinful habits.


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.”  8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead.  9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.  12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.  (Romans 7:7-12 NIV)

One of the more difficult tasks in understanding Paul is determining how he defines terms. On the one hand, “transgression” always requires a law or command. “sin”, on the other hand, can exist without a specific law or command, but it is not “counted” by God when there is no such law (Rom 5:13). But in verses 8-9 he speaks of “sin” as being “dead” apart from the law, and coming to life, when the commandment (the law of Moses?) came. In what sense is Paul using the terms “sin” and “dead” here? Apart from the law, “sin” in the sense of guilt or responsibility is “not counted” according to 5:13. 


13 “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. 

How do we know that something is wrong? It is because God’s law—either the written scriptures or the inner ‘law’ written in our hearts tells us so. But Paul introduces here another criterion by which the world was supposed to understand how wrong it is to disobey God. That criterion is what happens as a result of disobedience. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, it brought upon them death—both spiritual death the very instant they disobeyed, and physical death which was delayed but inevitable. Using this as an illustration, we can see how God’s prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a symbol of God’s law which today rules humanity. That law is perfectly good, but the powers of evil use the law to incite rebellion in the hearts of humans, the desire to assert their independence of God, to show that they know better than he what is good for them. So that sin produces spiritual death in human beings through their rejection of God’s law, which is always good. And by the fact that sin produces such a result, we can know it in its true nature, as something utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 

Whereas sin is “sinful” (v. 13), God’s law is “spiritual”. In the preceding verse Paul has called the law “that which is good”—what does he mean now by describing it as “spiritual”? How is this different from being “good”? In today’s English we can many different things by the word “spiritual”. In fact, the word has come to have a wide use among followers of various “spiritual” cults today. In the Bible, however, the word normally means “that through which God’s Holy Spirit works.“ Persons are “spiritual”, if they have been given life through faith in Jesus and show in their words and actions the signs of being controlled by God’s Holy Spirit. These are called the “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). And the one whom Paul impersonates here contrasts himself with that “spiritual” law as “fleshly” (i.e., ‘unspiritual’), which he further defines as “sold as a slave to sin.” In what follows it is clear that this representative person knows what is right and wishes—at least at times—to do what is right, yet finds himself unable to do so. Once again, illustrating what Paul has said in vv. 13-14, this person knows that the law of God (i.e., his will, however conveyed to his knowledge) is good. Yet “sin” works through the knowledge of that good will and in rebellion against it to  produce disobedience and spiritual death, “death” being defined as separation from fellowship with God. 

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  18 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.  19 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.  20 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.  21  So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  23 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.  24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 

It is a picture of intense frustration. Generations of Bible students have struggled to find a solution to what kind of person this is that Paul impersonates. Today relatively few would insist that it is no impersonation, and that Paul speaks autobiographically here. Nowhere else in Paul’s references to his pre-Christian mental attitude does he even hint that he was tormented by frustration and guilt, as this description would imply. But what kind of person is he impersonating? Other Jews of Paul’s contemporaries show no hint either that they are tormented by such frustrations. If the person being portrayed is not yet a believer in Jesus, he must be someone who knows the ethical laws of God, most likely those of the Hebrew Bible, must want to fulfill them and yet feel that he always falls short. Some think that gentile “God-fearers” attached to the roman synagogues, would be a good possibility. If the character Paul projects is indeed not yet a believer, the solution to his problem—expressed in the following verse—is indeed being rescued by Jesus, our Lord.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! 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.” (Romans 7:13-25 NIV)

But we cannot completely exclude the possibility that Paul here impersonates a believer, who because of firmly entrenched sinful habits of his pre-conversion life still struggles as a Christian to allow Jesus through the indwelling Holy Spirit to make real in his life the death to sin and resurrection to spiritual victory that Paul described in chapter 6. It is hard to envisage any non-believer, unless he is a real “seeker” such as the gentile “God-fearers” were, delighting in God’s law (v. 22). A believer, on the other hand, might be so described.  And this second view makes better sense of the flow of the argument from chapter 6 (the believer’s union with Jesus in death and resurrection) through chapter 7 (frustration in applying that truth of union) to chapter 8 (the results of successful application of the truth of union with Jesus). 

Whichever view one adopts—frustrated moral unbeliever or frustrated and defeated believer— it is clear that Paul in v. 25 gives two opposing principles—”mind” and “sinful nature”—of which the latter has the upper hand in the experience of this frustrated person. In the opening verses of chapter 8 Paul introduces the third principle—the indwelling Holy Spirit—who, when yielded to by a believer, will always triumph over the sinful nature, which remains in us all until we die (“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” [1John 1:8 NIV] ). 

If you prefer to understand this figure as an unbeliever, seeking God, then take away the lesson that we should be always aware that God may be working in the consciences of our non-Christian friends, creating a thirst that only the gospel can quench. You may be God’s instrument to give your friend the “water of life” to drink!

If you prefer to see the character Paul portrays as a frustrated believer, understand that you too may be struggling with old habits that die very hard. Maybe it is envy. Maybe it is lustful thoughts. Maybe it is covetousness. Maybe it is an overly critical attitude and tongue. Maybe it is stinginess in giving of your money and your time. Whatever your spiritual problem, the Holy Spirit of God lives in you and is there to produce in you Jesus’ death to sin’s hold on us, and Jesus’ resurrection to a life that is beyond the reach and control of the powers of sin. Will you let him make that real in you on a daily basis? Will you let him produce in you the “fruits of the Spirit”? 

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Romans 7: Part One

Romans 7
7:1-6 Analogy of marriage 

Do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to men who know law—that law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?  2 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.  3 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. 4  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.  5 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.  6 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. 

Jesus was born a Jew. That is one of the few facts about him that even the most skeptical people today would agree with. His mother, Mary of Nazareth, was a Jewish woman. And his foster father, Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth, was also a Jew. Jesus was raised in a law-observant family. He attended synagogue. He went with his parents on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals. And during the three years of his public ministry, although he was often falsely criticized by opponents for violating the Sabbath, he always affirmed the supreme importance of believing and obey the laws of God given through Moses. 

How was it then that St. Paul received revelation from God to the effect that believers had “died to the law” (Romans 7:4)? First, let us be clear that Jesus as the Jewish Messiah was himself the very embodiment of God’s will, and that it is said often in the New Testament that he “fulfilled the law.” Fulfilling meant not just completely obeying it, but also bringing its task to completion. In a sense—and I wish to say this carefully, so that you will not misunderstand—Jesus superseded the law. Since his teachings were the only true interpretation of that law, they included all that needs to be binding and obligatory for his followers. 

Building on this basic observation, Paul uses here an analogy from marriage. Since he has explained in chapter 6 that all of us who believe in him have been united with him in his death and resurrection, it is clear that our Lord by his life of sinless obedience to the law was able to take our sins upon himself at the cross and die on our behalf to all of the law’s claims on us. And by rising triumphant from the dead, he brought us with him into a “post-law” life of perfect obedience to God through the Spirit. Following Paul’s metaphor, we died to one husband (the law of Moses) and have risen again alive to be married to a new husband, Jesus the Messiah. 

One of the interesting things about Paul’s assertions in this passage is that not only have we believers died to sin through our union with Christ, but we have also died to the law (v. 4), meaning here the law of Moses, presumably because of the powerlessness of the fallen human nature to fulfill the law. Using Paul’s analogy of the dissolution of marriage by the death of one of the spouses, through our union of Jesus in his death the “marriage” we had with the law has been dissolved, leaving us free to be married to the risen Christ, who has become our new “law”, as it were (again, v. 4). We now “serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (v. 6). 

It isn’t that there are not still ethical principles from the law of Moses that can be useful to us. But all of what was permanently relevant in the law of Moses has been subsumed in Christ and his teachings. And while “ the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death” (v. 5), the “law” of the indwelling Holy Spirit arouses no such sinful passions in us, but instead “bears fruit unto God” (v. 4).  

You and I can and should read the books of Moses, for they are “scripture” to us as well as the Gospel accounts and the Pauline letters. But the “way of the Spirit” involves allowing the indwelling Holy Spirit to reproduce in us the “fruits” of the Spirit, which are at the same time the very characteristics of Jesus: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness (Gal 5:22; Eph 5:9).  

A widowed person who remarries but then keeps a picture of the dead spouse on the bedside and moons over that dead spouse will ruin his new marriage. The new marriage remains valid so long as neither spouse decides on a divorce, but the happiness and “fruitfulness” of that new marriage can be spoiled. 

If Paul writes here primarily to gentile believers who were once associated as “God-fearers” with the Jewish synagogues in Rome, as I believe, he wants them to forget their once primary allegiance to the Torah and to focus on their marriage to the resurrected and exalted Jesus. They now have the Holy Spirit living in them, to do what the Torah alone could never accomplish. This should be their new focus. He will balance this exhortation in chapters 9-11 by an equally strong reminder that they must not despise the Jewish roots of their faith. 

Today’s believers in Jesus do not find themselves in the same situation as these gentile converts in Rome. But there are obvious applications to us in these words of Paul.

There are two extremes that we should be careful to observe: (1) Antinomianism, and (2) legalism. Legalism is the modern attempt to impose rules that go beyond the teachings of the New Testament in order to please God and to impose discipline upon ourselves and our fellow believers. This rarely accomplishes what its practitioners hope to accomplish when they adopt it. All too often adding rules only increases a spirit of judgmentalism in our midst: “I am better than you, because I do this or that,” or “because I don’t do this or that.” Furthermore, since these added rules were never given by God in scripture, he will not guarantee to us that by his Spirit we will be able to keep them. This is not to say, however, that we cannot learn from experience to avoid certain practices that we have found tend to lead us into sin. 

During the almost 50 years of being a believer, I went through several stages in my thinking in regard to the advisability of watching movies. As a new Christian in college—before TV existed—I was legalistic and told all my friends that going to movies was sinful. As I grew in Christ, I came to realize that this was legalistic and over-simplifying. I realized that there were movies that I could learn from and that did not lead me into unhealthy thinking or acting. The same was true of TV. 

Then in the last twenty-five years has come the Internet, with all its potentially helpful web sites as well as its dangerous ones and its time-wasting ones. Now the decisions have become much more complex. It is no longer just a question of what should be watched or read because it is helpful, as opposed to what is dangerous. Now it is a question of avoiding obsessive behavior. I know men even in their 60s and 70s, who just sit all day at the computer and surf the Internet. This has become an obsession which robs them of the needed human social contacts. 

This is merely one example of how a rigid legalism is not useful to us as believers in guiding our lives. We must learn by experience and by prayer what areas of living not explicitly regulated by the Bible are profitable to our spiritual growth and which are not. Which ones help us to get to know other people and witness to them through our love and generosity, and which ones shut us up in our own private world. Such decisions may be guided by principles from scripture, but no one legalistic framework will be the right one.

The second extreme to avoid is Antinomianism, which means the rejection of any form of law. In Christ we have been set free from the impossible feat of keeping God’s laws perfectly. But we live by a new “law” which is the fulfilled law in Jesus, which we can find fulfilled in us by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul will speak of this new “law” in chapter 8.

Neither you nor I want to live careless and undisciplined lives for God. But neither do we want to be entrapped in legalism. The solution is to live by the law of love. Everything we do or think should be an outgrowth of love for God and for our neighbor (Luke 10:26-28). And if that love leads us into cultivating good habits and consciously avoiding habits and practices that tend to lead us into unloving behavior, that is part of the law of the Spirit. Paul himself often gave such guidelines, as in:  

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).