The Christian and the Moral Law
The seventh chapter of Romans, as suggested in the quotation from Denney, divides naturally into three sections.
1. The law and its authority: its dominion and fruit: its relations to the sinner (1-6).
2. The law and its ministry: its relation to sin (7-13).
3. The law and its inability: the law and the saints (14-25).
1. The Law and its Authority (1-6).
Following the same method as in 6:2 and 6:15, the Apostle first gives a direct and definite answer (v. 1), and then proceeds to illustrate it and explain it. The illustration is given in verses 2-3 and the explanation in verses 4-6.
“The law has dominion over a man as long as he liveth.” The explanation in verses 4-6 makes it evident that these words are not to be interpreted as referring to a person’s physical death, but as long as he is unregenerate, or “in the flesh” (V.5). During that time he stands before God on the ground of his association with the first man Adam, on the ground of creature merit, or the ground of responsibility. While a person is in that state the law has power over him. It has power to accuse, to condemn, to curse, and to execute him. The law knows no mercy (cf. vv 9, 11, I died; it slew me). It cannot be law and show grace; it must insist on its demands being met fully and perfectly. The union of the law and the sinner, under the simile of marriage, produced fruit, for the desires of sin, the affections of sin were called into activity by the law. They became operative and malignant. The fruit was death. But the believer is dead to the law by the Body of Christ. He is said to have died to that whereby he was held in bondage and under condemnation. He is viewed as having died to the law in the death of Christ, and thereby as having been delivered or loosed from its authority. The consequence is two-fold. He is thereby free to be joined to Christ in resurrection.
This union is to produce fruit unto God, just as the branch in the vine is to produce grapes (John 15). And his service will be in the energy of the Spirit, a new kind of power, rather than in accordance with the letter of the law. The words “Spirit” and “leter” being set over against each other antithetically indicate that the word “Spirit” is to be understood as referring to the Holy Spirit, just as the word “letter” refers to the law. It is the fact that the believer is delivered from the law by virtue of death that is the point of the illustration in verses 2-3. The woman is free to marry another when death has dissolved the first union. Apart from the dissolution of the first marriage by death there can be no union with Christ, and it is only with the risen Christ that we can be thus joined. Whereas it cannot be said that the law, the first husband according to the illustration, has died, yet it is true that in the death of Christ its authority to condemn has ceased, for in that death its penalty and its curse were fully borne and removed. That the first husband is to be understood as the law is evident from the language of verse 5 as also from the point under discussion, that the believer is not under the law but under grace. The service of the believer as one who is thus “joined” to the Lord” is illustrated in that of the tribe of Levi. The name given him at his birth proved to be prophetic, for the tribe was later joined to Aaron to minister unto him and to keep the charge of all the Tabernacle (Gen. 29. 40. Num. 18. 2-4).
2. The Law and its Ministry (7-13).
These verses give a vivid picture of the Apostle when he was unregenerate, when he was still the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus. They show how the Lord had been working effectually in him, preparing him for the revolutionary change he was to experience on the Damascus road, which was to completely re-orientate his life. In the language of the Lord he had found it hard to kick against the pricks. Some members of his family, he says, were in Christ before him (Rom. 16. 7). Their witness and that of the martyr Stephen, as well as that of those whom he had so bitterly persecuted, had doubtless pricked his conscience at times. Along with them was the ever present voice of the law, loud as thunder, accusing him. The words, “Thou shalt not covet.” revealed to him his sinful nature, even though he could claim that outwardly he was blamelss (Phil. 13:3-6).
Implicit in the words, “Is the law sin?” is the insinuating charge that he considered the law to be bad or evil, because he had said that by it the sinful passions had borne deadly fruit (v. 5). This the Apostle strongly denies. In his brief rebuttal he submits four strong arguments which prove the contrary.
a) By or through the law his sin of covetousness had been detected (v. 7). The commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” was what had made him conscious of sin, and had convicted him of the fact that his nature was sinful. Just as the X-ray film reveals the hidden and deadly internal cancer, or as the surgeon’s knife lays it bare, so the law had uncovered to him this unoperable condition. It had penetrated every organ of his being. The surgeon’s knife had, as it were, activitated it, had angered it and brought on immediate death.
b). Until the law sin was dead or inactive, but when the law came it became very active. It used the law as a fulcrum or leverage to activate and multiply sinful desires (vv. 8-9). Up until the law had come he had lived in a false Utopia, in a fool’s paradise. He was like the rich young ruler of whom we read in Matthew 19:16. He thought he had kept the commandments from his youth up, but the words of the Lord revealed his covetous nature. He went away sorrowful.
c). By the commandment sin had deceived him (v. 11). As a beast of prey hides behind an ambush ready to pounce upon its victim, so sin had taken the commandment as a base of operations from which to attack him, and to deceive him as a traitor. The marginal reference to the temptation and beguiling of Eve is suggestive of a similarity between the two. As a traitor sin had handed him over to the officers of the law. Once in their hands escape was impossible. No reprieve could be allowed. The law demanded the extreme penalty. He says: “I died”; “I found it to be unto death”; “It slew me.”
d). By or through the commandment sin was manifested in its true character (v. 13). The law was as a magnifying glass. By it sin’s exceeding sinfulness was made manifest. A study of the law and the offerings reveals the holiness of God and the leprotic condition of the human heart. It brings to light and condemns, not only the overt act, but the hidden spring, the source of all the defilement, as emphasized by the Lord in the words: “From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries… covetousness…pride …” Thirteen things are tabulated in this incriminating list, and they all come from within.
Wherefore the law is holy as to its character, perfectly just in its demands, and good as to its purpose. It was ordained to life. It promised life to the obedient. It said: “This do and thou shalt live.” But because of man’s inherent sinfulness, his incorrigible covetousness nature, the Apostle found it to be a “ministration of condemnation.” “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” In Romans the Apostle meets the objections or problems of an honest enquirer regarding the gospel of the grace of God, whereas in Galatians he anathematizes the exponents of systematized error, the teachings of Judaizing teachers mentioned in Acts 15:1. Nevertheless, he shows clearly in this chapter that the law is not a means of salvation, either of justification or of sanctification. Four times over in the compass of a very few verses he emphasizes that it is a “ministration of death.” “I died”; “I found it to be unto death”; “by it slew me”; “working death in me by that which is good” (vv. 9, 10, 11, 13).
In the preceding paragraph he shows that the believer has died to the law, and is thereby delivered from it. In this paragraph he teaches that the believer has been executed by the law because of the sin it revealed, and convicted him of, charged him with, and condemned him for. The same truth is stated in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ” (RV). The extreme penalty of the law, its curse had been meted out to him.