April 13, 2010

The Long Arm of the Law

Romans chapter 7 is largely a treatise on what it means to be dead to the Law (i.e. the Old Testament moral commandments, particularly the Ten Commandments). Paul argues in verse 4 that, if you are a believer in Jesus, “you were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ”. So, somehow, we Christians are dead to the Law; dead to the Ten Commandments. But what does that mean? And what does it not mean? Notice a few things from the first thirteen verses of Romans 7.

First, deadness to the Law refers to the way in which we are saved. We are saved, not because we are faithfully married to the Law; not because we can perfectly say ‘I do’ at every point along the way. Rather, we are saved because we have been “joined to another” (v.4), namely to Christ. We are dead to the Law, in other words, as a means of salvation. We do not have to keep the Law in order to be right with God. We must simply say ‘I do’ to Jesus, who has perfectly kept the Law for us.

That is what is most essential in Romans 7 … we are dead to the Law as a means of salvation. And that is exceedingly good news – especially since none of us has kept even the Ten Commandments perfectly, much less the various other moral instruction God has laid down!

But notice, then, that Paul does not argue that the Law can simply be thrown out. On the contrary, he says in verse 7: “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said ‘You shall not covet.’” In other words, Paul says, ‘I wouldn’t have realized I was a sinner (and consequently, I wouldn’t have realized I needed a Savior) had not the Law shown me my sin. I wouldn’t have realized the coveting was bad and contrary to God’s mind and heart without the Law to tell me so!’

Now that is an important point! The Law, though we are dead to it as a means of justifying ourselves before God, still has work to do in our lives. It shows us that we have a problem. It is a mirror, Alistair Begg has said, in which we see our sin. And thus the Law is like a spur in our side, driving us to seek forgiveness; driving us to seek a Savior; driving us to Jesus! So then, Paul says, “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (v.12).

So the law cannot save us, but it does show us our need for a Savior. And here is a third point that I think may be drawn from Romans 7 – the Law is still the pattern after which God expects His people to live. That is to say that, while we do not need to keep the law to be saved, we do need to keep the Law … because we love God and want to do what is right.

Now I know that a quick reading of Romans 6, and the first few verses of chapter 7 appears to teach the opposite. Paul’s statements about our being dead to the Law (Romans 7.4) and being, “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6.15) seem, at first glance, to mean that the Old Testament Law places no continuing duty on the New Testament believer. So, we might then deduce, if we want to teach someone not to covet, we should turn to the New Testament, not the Old. For the Old Testament Law, as this line of thinking goes, is no longer binding on the believer. But that is not exactly what Paul goes on to say in verses 7-13, is it?

Yes, we are – in one very important way – dead to the Law. But the Law is not dead itself! Remember what Paul said in verse 7: “I would not have known sin except through the Law.” Paul argued that the Law is good because it showed him his sin. And he passed that line of thinking along as relevant for his readers, who were living in the New Testament era. The Law shows us our sin and, consequently, our need for a Savior, too! But (and here is the kicker) for the Law to do that, it must still have some moral authority over our lives!

How can the Old Testament Law show us our sin if the Law is no longer ours to keep? If the Old Testament moral Law is no longer a rule of life for the believer … then it might show us the sins of Old Testament people, but it cannot show us our own. No, the only way the Law can show us our own sins is if it is still our own responsibility to keep it!

So again, the commandment is holy and righteous and good. No it cannot save us. But it does teach us the best and the right way to live our lives. And, even more fantastically, it shows us how far we fall short … and thus, drives us to Jesus! So study the Old Testament! Take serious its ethical instructions! And find yourself, again and again, nudged toward (and sometimes flung down at) the feet of Jesus!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Once again, thank you for giving me real help in thinking about those difficult chapters there in Romans. The Law must still be a big part of God's plan for His people...I hope you continue to have many thoughts you want to share from this important part of scripture. M.Kathy