A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7:5-6, d). The fundamental antithesis.
In the further contrast which Paul now paints between our old and our new lives (*when we were…But now*, reminiscent of 6:20, 22), he is particularly careful to point out the place of the law in each. In our old life, *when we were controlled by the sinful nature* (literally, ‘when we were in the flesh’), our *sinful passions aroused by the law* (provoked to rebellion, as Paul will elaborate in verses 8-12) *were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death (5), But now, by dying to what once bound us*, that is, the law, *we have been released from the law so that* in consequence, far from being free to sin, we are free to serve (as slaves). And our slavery to Christ is *in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code* (6). Or literally and more briefly, it is ‘in newness of Spirit and not in oldness of letter’.
The distinction Paul has in mind in this neat aphorism is neither between the so-called ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of the law, nor between the literal and the allegorical interpretations of Scripture, but between the old covenant which was one of ‘letter’ (*gramma*), an external code written on stone tables, and the new covenant which is one of ‘Spirit’ (*pneuma*), for the new age is essentially the age of the Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit writes God’s law in our hearts (cf. Rom. 2:29; 2 Cor. 3:6).
We are now in a position to sum up the contrast contained in verses 5-6. It is an antithesis between the two ages, the two covenants or the two dispensations, and so, since we have been personally transferred from the old to the new, between our pre- and post-conversion lives. In our old life we were dominated by that terrible quartet – flesh, law, sin and death (5). But in our new life, we have been released from the law, we are slaves of God through the power of the Spirit (6). The contrasts are striking. We were ‘in the flesh’, but we are now ‘in the Spirit’. We were aroused by the law, but are now released from it. We bore fruit for death (5), but now bear fruit for God (4). And what has caused this release from the old life and this introduction to the new? Answer: it is that radical double event called death and resurrection. We *died to the law* through the death of Christ (4a); now we belong to Christ, having been *raised from the dead* with him (4b).
So we return to the question whether the law is still binding on Christians, and whether we are expected still to obey it. Yes and no! Yes, in the sense that Christian freedom is freedom to serve, not freedom to sin. We are still slaves (6), slaves of God and of righteousness (6:18, 22). But also no, because the motives and means of our service have completely changed. Why do we serve? Not because the law is our master and we have to, but because Christ is our husband and we want to. Not because obedience leads to salvation, but because salvation leads to obedience. And how do we serve? *We serve in the new way of the Spirit* (6). For the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the distinguishing characteristic of the new age, and so of the new life in Christ.
For our justification, then, we are ‘not under the law, but under grace’ (6:14f.), and for our sanctification we serve ‘not in oldness of letter but in newness of Spirit’ (6, literally). We are still slaves, but the master we serve is Christ, not the law, and the power by which we serve is the Spirit, not the letter. The Christian life is serving the risen Christ in the power of the Spirit.
Having reached this point, Paul could have gone straight to Romans 8, which elaborates the meaning of life in the Spirit. But he knew that his insistence on liberation from the law would have been so provocative to his Jewish readers that he must take time to anticipate and answer their objections. This he does in verses 7-25, which really are a parenthesis between Romans 7:6 and 8:1. He does not mention the Holy Spirit again throughout the rest of chapter 7.
Tomorrow: Romans 7:7-13. 2). A defence of the law; a past experience.
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.