Romans 7:1-13, The Law and The Unbeliever

The Law Stimulates Sin In The UnbelieverIntroduction

In Paul’s systematic presentation of the Gospel recorded for us in the book of Romans, Paul shows from this own experience the power of the law in the unbeliever. Initially he revealed that all of humanity are guilty before God and needs salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the sobering message of Romans chapters 1 – 3. In Romans chapters 4 -5 the apostle Paul then shows that faith in Christ saves us from sin’s penalty. Chapter 4 reveals that salvation from the coming wrath of God’s judgment upon man’s sin has always through faith.  Chapter 5 reveals that through faith in Christ we have peace with God and eternal life, escaping the judgment to come.

As we come to Romans 6 – 8, we see that faith in Christ also breaks sins power over us. Chapter 6 shows how the believer’s spiritual union with the Lord Jesus Christ sanctifies us. Being united to Christ in His death on the cross breaks the power of sin over the believer. Being united to Christ in His resurrected life infuses a life of holiness into the believer. The Gospel is our only chance of living a holy life before God.  But there’s more to it.  Paul now works out, in chapter 7, that the Gospel also brings freedom from bondage to the law.  The unbeliever is under both the power and the penalty of the law, whereas the believer has been freed from these things.  What is the power of the law?  The unbeliever has the sinful nature as the dominant power in their lives.  When they come to God’s law, the sinful nature realizes what sin is – and hence sin is aroused and sinful passions are stirred up.  Unbelievers are excited to sin.  That is the power of the law to the unbeliever.

The Liberty of the Believer and the Slavery of the Unbeliever

The Believer Has Died To The Law

“Or do you not know brethren, (for I speak to those who know the law) that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives?” Romans 7:1

Paul has affection towards his audience.  He can thunder.  He can remonstrate and chide people, discipline them for allowing all sorts of ungodly things in the church. But equally he can have tenderness towards his hearers – “Do you not know brethren”.  Paul is tenderly pleading with them to accept his teaching and he treats his audience with respect – “for I speak to those who know the law”.  It is highly likely that some in the church at Rome were Jews; they would have known something of God’s law.  If they know God’s law, it should help them to understand the truth.  The law has a jurisdiction over you.  It has it’s authority over you as long as you’re alive.

“The severest laws could but kill the body, and after that there was no more they can do. Thus while we were alive to the law, we were under the power of it.  While we were in our Old Testament state, before the Gospel came in to the world and before it came with power into our hearts.”
Matthew Henry

The severest laws could but kill the body and after that, there was no more they can do.  The police enforce force the law, but when people die the law has no more jurisdiction over them.  So the central point here is that death brings freedom from the law and Paul illustrates that for marriage.

“For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband.  So then if while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulterous, but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress even though she has married another man.” Romans 7:2,3

Marriage is a bond for life.  That’s how God established it.  It should be a bond for life.  But that bond is rendered void, it is invalidated by death.  If, while your marriage partner is alive, (Paul is using this illustration) you seek to take another partner in marriage then you have broken the law. It has a power over you.  But if your partner dies, then you are freed from that power of the law.  As an aside, we shouldn’t form our views on divorce purely and solely from this illustration here.  There are other chapters which bring other aspects into consideration.  But the main point of this illustration here is that an individual is bound to their partner in marriage, as long as our partner lives, but death brings freedom from the power of the law.  The marriage bond is ended at the point of death.

The marriage relationship is not only an illustration that death might bring freedom from the law, but it also illustrates the relationship the believer has with the Lord Jesus Christ.  The church is called the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ.  There should be love between the believer and Christ.  There should be a willingness to submit to the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ.  There should be a warmth of affection between the believer and their head.

The Believer Has Died To The Law So That They Can Bear Fruit To God

“Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.” Romans 7:4

We have died to the law and have become married to another, to Christ, to Him who was raised from the dead.  Once we came to God’s law, that which was good, right and holy and we found our sinful natures stimulated, inspired, encouraged to sin the more.  The law ceased to have this effect on us when we were united to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit.  We are united to Him in His death upon the cross, and that act breaks the power of sin over us.  Once, the law had a power over us, stimulating us to sin.  But now we have died to the law, and are united with the Lord Jesus Christ by faith.

The power of the believer’s sinful nature has been broken by God with a purpose in mind.  Christ ended sin’s domination, sin’s reign in our lives as the sole occupier of our hearts and minds.  Why?  The purpose is this, that we might be married to another, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we should bear fruit to God.  The illustration is this: the law is the Christian’s first husband whom they have died to, and Christ is their second husband whom they now please.

“But the apostle goes farther, and says, that the bond of the law was destroyed; not that we may live according to our own will, like a widow, who lives as she pleases while single; but that we may now be bound to another husband; nay, that we may pass from hand to hand as they say, that is from the law to Christ.” John Calvin

Sin has been dethroned.  We no longer, when we come to God’s law, find our sinful natures are excited the way they once were, to sin and sin more. But we have died to that and are now married to the Lord Jesus Christ that we might live holy lives, pure, fruitful to him. And again, marriage is an excellent illustration of this point.  Why did God ordain human marriage, between a man and a woman?

“But did he not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one?  He seeks godly offspring.” Malachi 2:15

God seeks fruit from the union of physical marriage. He desires godly children be brought forth from marriage.  Elsewhere the wife is compared to the fruitful vine (Psalm 128:3), and children are called the fruit of the womb (Ps 127:3).  God’s intention for marriage is that Godly offspring should be produced.  This is the environment that God wants fir the nurturing of children.  A man and a woman married, committed to each other until death separates them. God says that’s the environment He wants us to be fruitful in, that’s the environment He wants children to be brought up in.

As we are to be fruitful in our human marriage we are to be fruitful in our walk with God, the illustration works well.  The believer is married to the Lord Jesus Christ.  We are to be fruitful in our marriage to Him, to bear that fruit of holy living.  Living that is pleasing to the Lord, seeking to use our gifts and abilities for Him.  The believer has died to the law in Christ.  But we died for a purpose that we live for the Lord Jesus Christ.  We live for Him.

Previously The Believer Was Under The Power of The Law Bearing Fruit to Death

“For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.” Romans 7:5

As unconverted individuals, the law had a power over our sinful natures which stirred up even more sinfulness when we came into contact with the law.  Consider the phrase, “The grass is greener on the other side“.  The very act of barring you from doing something makes you want to do it, or as the Bible puts it, “Stolen water is sweet“ (Proverbs 9:17).  Again the very act of banning something makes it attractive to those that cannot have it.  By nature, we want to break God’s law.  I recently came across a free paper which has a section called “Guilty Pleasures“.  We want to do something, it’s a pleasure, yet we know it is wrong.  We know that we should not be doing it.  This is what binds the human heart, “the grass is greener on the other side“, “stolen water is sweet“, “guilty pleasures“, we want these things.

But this bondage of the law is a bondage that results in death.  Sin in our hearts, souls and bodily members results in death.  Anger and jealousy are expressed through harsh words or violent actions.  The heart can be filled with bitterness refusing to forgive the offences of another.  All of these sinful passions, along with the sinful words and actions that flow from these passions merit spiritual death, separation from God.  We cannot come to a holy God and appeal to Him.  Our sinfulness merits physical death, part of God’s judgment on our sinfulness, and a means of limiting what sinful man can achieve. But further to this, when we break the law of an infinite God who is infinitely holy, it brings forth an infinite response of anger and wrath from God, hell for all eternity, eternal death.  People are enslaved to sinful passions, and this bondage of the law that ends in death, ultimately hell for all eternity.

The Believer Has Been Delivered From The Law To Serve In The Spirit

“but now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by,  so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” Romans 7:6

Now that the power of sin is broken over us, the spirit unites us with our glorious head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is holy, perfect and pure, and through our spiritual union with Him, He infuses holiness into His people.  We are not bound by the power of the law, we serve in the newness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dominating influence in our lives.  We still have sinful natures.  We will always have a battle with sin and temptation right to the day that we die.  There are other areas of scripture that clearly describe that.  But the dominant power in our lives is the Holy Spirit working within us, and He (the Spirit) enables us to serve in Holiness before God.

“Believers then are freed from the law, by the death of Christ.  They are no longer under the old covenant, which said, “Do this and live”; but are introduced into a new a gracious state, in which they are accepted, not for what they do but for what has been done for them. Instead of having the legal and slavish spirit which arose from their condition under the law, they have the feelings of children. “ Charles Hodge

No longer is the believer conscious of their own sin continually and repeatedly as the dominating factor in their lives.  Before, when there was only a consciousness of sin’s power in our lives, there was fear – if there was any recognition of a Holy God. But now we have been freed from sin’s power and we can be brought as children into the family of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We have been freed to serve in the newness of the spirit, married to the Lord Jesus Christ, being fruitful to him.

Paul’s Experience and His Defense of the Law

The Law Revealed Sin in Paul’s Life

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin?  Certainly not!  On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.‘”
Romans 7:7

The fact that the law reveals sin, and stimulates the sinful nature to further sin, may lead some to think that the law is unholy.  The law is not unholy. The law is not wrong or bad.  Paul immediately refutes this, “Certainly not!”  Paul points out that the law is good, but the sinful nature is exceptionally evil in taking something which is holy and good and pure and meant to bring life, and using it instead to produce sin and death.

The Law Revealed and Stimulated Sin in Paul’s Life

“But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire.  For apart from the law, sin was dead.” Romans 7:8

The apostle did not truly know what coveting was (desiring that which is not ours) until the law showed him what it was.  The knowledge the law brings is not just an intellectual one, i.e. knowing, “coveting is desiring what I don’t have“.  It’s a spiritual and moral one as well, it is a feeling of guilt, “I should not be doing this, this is wrong before God, I feel guilty before Him.” It was only when Paul came to the law that the full realization of what coveting was became clear to him.  He had been self righteous, complacent, unaware of the danger until he was confronted with God’s law.  Once he knew what coveting was, his sinful nature then produced every kind of covetous desire.

The vast majority of people in our country think, “If there is a God, He will be good to me.”  They think, “I’m a good person really.”  They are complacent.  They don’t know the danger that hell waits them, where they will be under God’s wrath for all eternity because they have sinned against the Holy God.  They have not placed Him at the centre of their lives.  He has not been included in every decision they have made. Decisions such as, What job they should take?  Whom they should marry?  He has not been included in every decision in their lives. They have not put God, His ways and His concerns at the centre of their lives.  They have not worshipped Him, nor praised Him.  They do not hold His name in reverence, treating it as holy because He is holy.  They have not thanked Him for the life, strength and health He has given them.

Why can people, who have sinned so much like this, and as a result be in danger of hell itself for all eternity when they die, think that they are okay before God?  Because they haven’t come to God’s word.  Paul said I did not know what coveting was until I came to God’s word.  It is a willful self ignorance that leads people to hell.  They don’t know what’s in the Bible.  They don’t want to get to know the Bible.  So what’s the result?  They never truly understand what sin is.  They never feel the power of sin in their lives.

We should take them to the Lord Jesus Christ in prayer and ask for their forgiveness. Paul had once had such complacency.  We know from Philippians Chapter 3 that Paul had been a self-righteous Pharisee who thought he was faultless and blameless before God.  You could imagine Paul thinking that God would declare “If you want to see somebody who really has earned my respect, look at Paul.” That was what he thought he was like.  But then he came to God’s law.  Apart from the law, sin is dead but the law stimulated sin in his life.

“To say that a thing is dead is to say that it is inactive, unproductive, unobserved.  All this maybe said of sin prior to the operation of the law. It is comparatively inoperative and unknown, until aroused and brought to light by the law.  There are two effects of the law included in this declaration – the excitement of evil passions and the discovery of them.” Charles Hodge

The Law Shook Paul from His Complacency

“I was once alive without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” Romans 7:9

Paul in effect says, I was complacent; I did not know what danger of hell awaited me.  I was deceived.  I thought I was okay before God but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.  Though his outward actions as a Pharisee may have been exemplary and in accordance with what he believed was in God’s teaching, the moment he came to the tenth commandment, “Do not covet“, he realized he coveted all the more, and that his coveting deserved punishment in hell for all eternity.

That tenth commandment, “Do not covet, do not desire what is not yours” runs through all the other nine commandments.  If you don’t desire someone else’s wife, you won’t commit adultery.  If you don’t desire someone else’s possessions, you won’t steal.  If you don’t desire someone else’s reputation or status, you won’t kill them.  If you do not desire happiness in material gain you won’t necessarily lie, cheat or steal to get it.  That desire to covet is so fundamental to keeping the rest of the commandments of God.  When Paul came to the law, he realized his own personal guilt before our Holy God and he realized how self righteous and complacent he had been.  He was in fact in danger of hell itself.

“And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me” Romans 7:10,11

Sin in Paul, led him to think that eternal life could be found by obedience to the law.  But the law brought death and not life.  Sin deceives us.  We think we are okay.  We think if there is a God out there, he will accept us, I’ve got nothing to worry about.  We deceive ourselves – to the ruin of our eternal souls.

Paul’s Defense of the Law

“Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.”
Romans 7:12,13

“The law is holy, and therefore is to be regarded with the highest reverence – that it is just, and cannot therefore be charged with anything wrong, – that it is good, and hence pure and free from anything that can do harm.” John Calvin

After all the law is an expression of God’s nature.

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Leviticus 19:2

How are the Israelites to be holy?  To follow God’s law.  The law is an expression of God’s nature.  It is holy, good, just and true in and of itself.  The problem is we are exceedingly sinful.  The sinful nature is exceedingly evil.

“Sin … dwells in us, and not the law.” John Calvin

Are We Under The Power of The Law Or The Spirit?

The question for us all is, are we seeking to live out what God wants us to do?  If we are a believer the power of sin is broken over us.  That means we can come to God’s law and we can seek to follow it.  We’re married to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Are we bearing fruit in that marriage?  Are we seeking to follow him, to worship him, to serve him?

But there is a great message of hope for the unbeliever, as Paul find out for himself.  If you have not yet made peace with the Lord Jesus Christ, if all you find when you come to God’s law is that you want to sin all the more, then know that God can help you.  If all you think is, “I want to break these commandments“,  I feel utterly hopeless and helpless before God because I see in my nature the only thing I can do is go farther away from God, then God can help you.  If you find that when God says, “Don’t desire that which is not yours” that you want those things all the more, then God can help.  If when God says don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, you find that you do these things all the more, then God can help you.

If you see how utterly hopeless your body is in trying to follow and obey God’s ways, there is hope.  Paul was there.  That’s what he felt.  That’s what he experienced and it led him to the Lord Jesus Christ that he might find forgiveness for all the sin in his life.  He realized that Christ died on the cross taking God’s punishment for his wrong doing.  Paul found a perfect life transferred to himself from the Lord Jesus Christ by faith, and a new power to live a holy life through the Gospel.  That is the hope that God gives us.

The challenge for us all is to die to the law through Christ, and to be fruitful and to live for him. May God help us to do this!


All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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