A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7:4. c). The theological application.
Paul turns from human laws to the law of God. It too claims lordship over us while we live. Indeed, although without explicitly saying so, the apostle implies that we were previously married to the law and so under its authority. But as death terminates a marriage contract and permits remarriage, so we *also died to the law through the body of Christ*, so that we might remarry or *belong to another* (4a).
Two questions confront us about this death which we are said to have died. First, how did it happen? It took place *through the body of Christ*. It is impossible to believe that there is any allusion here to the church as Christ’s body. No, It was his physical body which died on the cross. But through our personal union with Christ we have shared in his death (as the apostle has argued in Romans 6), and we may therefore be said to have died ‘through’ his body. Secondly, what does it mean that we *died to the law?* The expression reminds us of the similar statement that we ‘died to sin’ (6:2). Indeed, they appear to mean the same thing. For if to die to sin means to bear its penalty, which is death, it is the law which prescribes this penalty. Therefore to die to sin and to die to the law are identical. Both signify that through participation in the death of Christ the law’s curse or condemnation on sin has been taken away (cf. Gal. 2:19; 3:10, 13). The ‘death to sin…is necessarily also a death to the law’s condemnation.’
There are, in fact, many parallels between Romans 6 (freedom from sin) and Romans 7 (freedom from the law). As we died to sin (6;2), so we died to the law (7:4). As we died to sin by union with Christ’s death (6:3), so we died to the law through the body of Christ (7:4). As we have been justified and freed from sin (6:7, 18), so we have been released from the law (7:6). As we have also shared in Christ’s resurrection (6:4-5), so we belong to him who was raised from the dead (7:4). As we now live in newness of life (6:4), so we now serve in newness of Spirit (7:6). As the fruit we reap leads to holiness (6:22), so we bear fruit to God (7:4).
The purposes of our dying with Christ to the law are now spelled out. The immediate purpose is that *we might belong to another*, namely, *to him who was raised from the dead* (4b). Every reader notices that with this statement Paul’s metaphor has undergone a shift. In the marriage metaphor the husband dies and the wife remarries; in the reality it is the wife (formally married to the law) who does both the dying and the remarrying. Some commentators appear to enjoy poking fun at Paul for his supposed literary ineptitude. Nobody is more scathing than C.H.Dodd; ‘The illustration…is confused from the outset…Paul…lacks the gift for the sustained illustration of ideas through concrete images… It is probably a defect of imagination. We cannot help contrasting his laboured and blundering allegories with the masterly parables of Jesus…Paul flounders among the images he has tried to evoke…We are relieved when he tires of his unmanageable puppets, and talks about real things.’ But this kind of sarcasm is unfair, as is also the comparison with Jesus. We must allow Paul to be himself and to do what he is intending to do. He is not writing a parable. But neither is he developing an allegory in which every detail of the picture corresponds exactly to something in the reality. His purpose is admirably served by the essence of the illustration, which is that death has secured our release from the law and our remarriage to Christ.
If the immediate purpose of our dying with Christ to the law is that we may now belong to Christ, the ultimate purpose is *that we might bear fruit to God* (4c). Some commentators believe that Paul is continuing his marriage metaphor, and that ‘fruit’ refers to the children of the marriage. ‘It can hardly be doubted (sc. because of the context)’, writes C.K.Barrett, ‘that he (Paul) has in mind the birth of children’. By it Paul ‘unmistakably’ compares his metaphor, says Godet, and he accuses those who reject it as being guilty of ‘prudery’. Martyn Lloyd-Jones goes further and elaborates the parallel. He refers to Ephesians 5:25ff. and to the union of the Church with Christ, which he portrays as mysterious, submissive, permanent, privileged and intimate. He goes on : ‘”Fruit” means children, the fruit of the marriage, the offspring…that are to be born’. What is meant? It is ‘the fruit of holiness’, the fruit of the Spirit. He concludes that the law was impotent to do this. ‘But we are now married to One who has the strength and the virility and the potency to produce children even out of us’, that is to say, a life which is lived ‘to God’s glory and to God’s praise’.
Other commentators have been very dismissive of this construction. James Denny and Charles Cranfield have both used the epithet ‘grotesque’ in relation to it, and James Dunn declares that it is ‘neither necessary nor appropriate’. Although I do not personally feel quite so negative, I do want to register some criticisms. First, it pushes Paul’s metaphor into an allegory, which his explicit development of it does not encourage. Secondly, it gives a forced interpretation of ‘fruit’ (*karpos*) when the word is not used in this sense in the New Testament (in spite of God’s original command to be ‘fruitful’) (Gn. 1:28), when other words for ‘children’ could have been used, and when already in the context ‘fruit’ has been used for ‘outcome’ or ‘benefit’ (6:21f.). Thirdly, it depicts the individual Christian as married to Christ, whereas it is the church which is Christ’s bride, as Israel was Yahweh’s.
At all events, whether ‘fruit’ means ‘children’ or not, all are agreed that the result of being released from the law and joined to Christ is holy living, not antinomian licence. For becoming a Christian involves a radical change of allegiance. At the end of chapter 6 our two slaveries were contrasted. At the beginning of chapter 7 it is our two marriages, death dissolving the first and so permitting the second. Both metaphors speak of our new freedom to serve, which is the topic to which Paul now comes.
Tomorrow: Romans 7:5-6. d). The fundamental antithesis.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.