A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7:7-13. 2). A defence of the law: a past experience.
We have seen how negative most of Paul’s references to the law have been in the letter’s early chapters. Further, verses 1-6 of Romans 7 celebrate our release from the law. These verses contain three outspoken expressions of this theme. First, we died to the law through Christ’s body in order that we might belong to him (4). That is, it is impossible to give our allegiance to the law and to Christ simultaneously. Just as a first marriage must be terminated by death before a remarriage is permissible, so death to the law must precede commitment to Christ. Secondly, the law aroused our sinful passions, so that we ‘bore fruit for death’ (5). And this sequence of law-sin-death will have given Paul’s readers the distinct impression that he thought the law responsible for both. Thirdly, we have now been released from the law in order to serve in the newness which the Holy Spirit brings (6). And this new Spirit-controlled life was impossible until we had received our discharge from the law.
All this is strong meat and strong language. The law is apparently characterised as barring marriage to Christ, arousing sin, causing death, and impeding life in the Spirit, so that the sooner we gain freedom from it, the better. It must have sounded to some like full-blown antinomianism. Indeed, the Romans’ anticipated reaction prompts Paul to ask the ultimate antinomian questions: *Is the law sin?* (7), and *Did that which is good (sc. the law)….become death to me?* (13). That is, is the law responsible for both sin and death, and therefore so deleterious in its influence that we should repudiate it altogether? Is that what Paul is teaching? To both questions Paul immediately responds with his violent negative: *Certainly not! (7). By no means!* (13).
We note that this is the second objection to his teaching to which Paul responds. The first was ‘Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?…Shall we sin because we are…under grace?’ (6:1. 15). The second is ‘Is the law sin?…Did the law become death to me?’ (7:7, 13). The first is a question about grace, whether it encourages people to sin. The second is a question about law, whether it is the origin of sin and death. So the apostle defends both grace and law against his detractors. In Romans 6 he has argued that grace does not encourage sin; on the contrary, it renders sin inadmissible, even inconceivable. In Romans 7 he now argues that the law does not create sin and death; on the contrary, it is our fallen human nature which is to blame for them.
More fully, in his treatment of the law (to which he has at last come) he performs a skilful balancing act. For he is neither wholly positive towards the law, nor wholly negative, but ambivalent. On the one hand the law is indeed the law of God, the revelation of his righteous will. In itself it is *holy, righteous, good* and spiritual (12, 14). On the other hand, it is unable to save sinners, and its impotence is a major reason for every continuing inner conflict. This, then, is his double theme in the rest of the chapter: first our present section, ‘A Defence of the Law’ (7-13), followed by ‘The Weakness of the Law’ (14-25).
Tomorrow: Romans 7:7-13. a). The identity of the ‘I’.
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.