A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7: 1-25. God’s law and Christian discipleship (continued).
Whenever we come across a negative statement, however, we cannot interpret it until we discern with what it is being contrasted. For example, if you were to say to me, ‘You’re not a man’ without adding any positive counterpart, you could be insulting me (meaning ‘but you’re a baby or a pig or a demon’), or you could be flattering me (meaning ‘but you’re an angel’). Similarly, on my return from a recent visit to the United States, I remarked to a friend. ‘I haven’t had a bath for a month.’ Before he had time to express his disgust at my lack of personal hygiene, however, I added, ‘But I have had a shower every day’.
What, then, did Paul intend when he described Christians as being ‘not under law’? He used this expression in two different letters and contexts, and so in two different senses. He also clarified the meaning of each by the contrasting phrases he added. In Romans 6:14f. he wrote that ‘you are not under law, but under grace’. Here the antithesis between law and grace indicates that he is referring to the way of *justification*, which is not by our obedience to the law, but by God’s sheer mercy alone. In Galatians 5:18, however, he wrote that ‘if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law’. Here the antithesis between law and Spirit indicates that he is referring to the way of *sanctification*, which is not by our struggling to keep the law, but by the power of the indwelling Spirit. So for justification we are not under the law but under grace; for sanctification we are not under law but led by the Spirit.
It is in these two senses that we have been ‘freed or ‘released’ from the law. But this does not mean that we have been divorced from it altogether, in the sense that it has no more claims on us of any kind, or that we have no more obligations to it. On the contrary, the moral law remains a revelation of God’s will which he still expects his people to ‘fulfil’ by living lives of righteousness and love (8:4; 13:8, 10). This is what the reformers called ‘the third use of the law’.
We are now ready to summarise three possible attitudes to the law, the first two of which Paul rejects, and the third of which he commends. We might call them ‘legalism’, ‘antinomians’ and ‘law-fulfilling freedom’. *Legalists* are ‘under the law’ and in bondage to it. They imagine that their relationship to God depends on their obedience to the law, and they are seeking to be both justified and sanctified by it. But they are crushed by the law’s inability to save them. *Antinomians* (or libertines) go to the opposite extreme. Blaming the law for their problems, they reject it altogether, and claim to be rid of all obligation to its demands. They have turned liberty into licence. *Law-fulfilling free people* preserve the balance. They rejoice both in their freedom from the law for justification and sanctification, and in their freedom to fulfil it. They delight in the law as the revelation of God’s will (7:22), but recognise that the power to fulfil it is not in the law but in the Spirit. Thus legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it. Law-abiding free people love the law and fulfil it.
Directly or indirectly Paul alludes to these three types in Romans 7. He does not portray or address them directly one by one, but their shadowy forms are discernible throughout. In verses 1-6 he asserts that the law no longer has ‘authority’ over us. By dying to it with Christ we have been released from it, and we now belong to Christ instead. This is the massage for legalists. In verses 7-13 he defends the law against the unjust criticism that it causes both sin and death. He attributes these instead to our fallen nature. The law itself is good (12-13). This is his message to antinomians. In verses 7:14-25 Paul describes the inner conflict of those who are still living under the regime of the law. If left to ourselves in our fallenness we cannot keep God’s law, even though we delight in it. Nor can the law rescue us. But God has done what the law could not do, by giving us his Spirit (8:3-4). This is the experience of those who find their freedom in fulfilling the law.
These three paragraphs of Romans 7 may appropriately be entitled ‘Release from the Law’ (1-6), in order to serve God in the Spirit, ‘A defence of the law’ (7-13), against the calumny that it causes sin and death, and ‘The Weakness of the Law’ (14-25), because it can neither justify nor sanctify sinners.
Tomorrow: Romans 7:1-6. 1). Release from the law: a marriage metaphor.