A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7 is well known to most Christian people because of the debate it has provoked about holiness. Who is the ‘wretched man’ or ‘miserable creature’ (NEB) of verse 24, who gives us a graphic account of his inner moral turmoil (15ff.), cries out for deliverance, and then immediately appears to thank God for it? (25)? Is this person regenerate or unregenerate? And if the former, is he or she normal or abnormal, mature, immature or backsliding? The different schools of holiness teaching are obliged to come to terms with this chapter.
But it is never wise to bring to a passage of Scripture our own ready-made agenda, insisting that it answers our questions and addresses our concerns. For that is to dictate to Scripture instead of listening to it. We have to lay aside our presuppositions, so that we can conscientiously think ourselves back into the historical and cultural setting of the text. Then we shall be in a better position to let the author say what he does say and not force him to say what we want him to say. It is of course legitimate to seek secondary applications to contemporary questions, but only after the primary task of ‘grammatico-historical exegesis’ has been diligently done.
If we come to Romans 7 in such a mood of meekness and receptivity, it becomes evident at once that Paul’s preoccupation is more historical than personal. He is not answering questions put to him in a Christian holiness convention, but rather struggling with the place of the law in God’s purpose. For the ‘law’ or the ‘commandment’ or the ‘written code’ is mentioned in every one of the chapter’s first fourteen verses, and some thirty-five times in the whole passage which runs from 7:1 to 8:4. What is the place of the law in Christian discipleship, now that Christ has come and inaugurated the new era?
Before coming to Romans 7, however, we need to ask what Paul has written thus far about God’s purpose in giving the law. Paul’s reply is couched in almost entirely uncomplimentary terms. To be sure, in theory the person ‘who does these things will live by them’ (Rom. 10:5, quoting Lv. 18:5). But in practice no human being has ever succeeded in obeying the law. Therefore it can never be the way of salvation (Gal.3:10f.; 21f.). Instead the law reveals sin (3:20), condemns the sinner (3:19), defines sin as transgression (4:15; 5:13; cf. Gal. 3:19), ‘brings wrath’ (4:15), and was even ‘added so that the trespass might increase’ (5:20). In consequence, God’s righteousness has been revealed in the gospel altogether ‘apart from the law’ (1:17; 3:21a), although the law helped to bear witness to it (1:2; 3:21b). And sinners are justified by God, not through obeying the law but through faith in Christ (3:27). Such faith upholds the law (3:31) by assigning to it its proper function. Abraham himself illustrated this principle, since the way he received God’s promise was ‘not through law… but through the righteousness that comes by faith’ (4:13f.). This antithesis shows that the whole gospel vocabulary of promise, grace and faith is incompatible with law.
So far then, almost all Paul’s allusions to the law have been pejorative. The law reveals sin , not salvation; it brings wrath, not grace. And these negative references culminate in what to Jewish ears must have appeared his shocking epigram that Christian believers are ‘not under law, but under grace’ (6:14f.). It is the springboard into Romans 7, which begins with similar statements that we have ‘died to the law’ (4) and so have been ‘released from the law’ (6). How dare the apostle be so dismissive of God’s law? One has only to read Psalm 19 and 119 to sense the enormous pleasure which godly Jews derived from the law. It was to them ‘more precious than gold, than much pure gold’ and ‘sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb’ (Ps.19:10). How then can the apostle denigrate it as promoting sin rather than righteousness, and death rather than life? How could he proclaim freedom from it? What did he mean that we are ‘no longer under the law’? Was he declaring it to be abrogated? His words must have sounded like a clarion call to antinomianism.
Moreover, Paul’s teaching is by no means of purely antiquarian interest today. For the advocates of the so-called ‘new morality’, which was first proclaimed in the 1960s but is still popular today, appear to be twentieth-century antinomians. They maintain that the category of ‘law’ has been abolished for Christians and that the only absolute left is the commandment of love. There are also contemporary holiness teachers who declare similarly that the law has no place in the Christian life. In support of their position they quote both ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (10:4) and ‘you are not under law’ (6:14f,), as if these statements meant that the moral law has been annulled. What Paul writes in Romans has direct relevance to this debate.