Chapter 13 (The Book of Romans: A Universal Gospel)

Chapter 13:Slaves to the Law of Sin and Death


Paul introduces this chapter with a question that opens the discussion back up explicitly to his underlying focus upon the law:

Or do you not know, brothers, for I speak to those who know the law, that the law is a man’s master upon such time as he lives? (7:1)

The law has again been brought to the fore of the discussion and is about to resume center stage for the whole of this chapter. One important point of Paul’s language here that reveals his manner of thinking is his statement that the law is a man’s master. Paul has been busy taking about this matter of mastery, and the other side of that relationship, slavery, but it has been in terms of slavery to sin as a master or slavery to God as a master. Now, where does slavery to law as a master come into play? How does this fit into these two categories that Paul has laid before us as the only real options that exist?

This question will help us understand Paul’s purpose in this chapter. The Jew would be very ready to answer that question, considering it very obvious that submission to the law was submission to God. And they would not be without some semblance of reason, would they? Who gave them their law? God Himself did, of course. Is it not God’s very word and His commands? Paul himself certainly would be willing to recognize (and has done so already in this book) the great value of the law as the oracles of God entrusted to the Jewish nation.

The Jew would be ready to defend the law as the means of God’s lordship over them. They trusted in the law as the means by which they would escape the corruption of sin and the slavery to it that is to be found in all this world. They would look upon those without the law as in a pitiable condition of hopelessness and despair, and they would offer to the Gentiles a salvation and deliverance from a vain way of life through the means of the law. Paul, though, is going to attack this idea head on and demonstrate instead that to submit oneself to the law in hopes of escaping sin and corruption will only be to guarantee a yet greater bondage to sin.

This will be very difficult for the Jew to accept because he has placed such confidence in the law as the divinely given means of escape from bondage to sin. However, it will be absolutely essential for the Jew as well, for there is only one way to escape the bondage of sin, and it is not, in actuality, through the law. As backwards as it might at first sound to those who have respect for God’s word, to have the law as your master actually means to have sin as your master, Paul asserts. Until the Jew sees this, he will not stop trusting in the law and turn to the one true means of salvation from bondage to sin. Let’s see how Paul proves this argument to the Jew.

First of all, in the opening six verses of the chapter, Paul makes use again of some of the same points of argument that he has already presented, though in a form more directly relating to the law:

Or do you not know, brothers, for I speak to those who know the law, that the law is a man’s master upon such time as he lives? For the woman who is under a man has been bound by law to the man while he lives. But if the man should die, she is removed from the law of the man. So then, the man living, she takes the title adulteress if she should become to another man. But if the man should die, she is free from the law in order for her not to be an adulteress, becoming to another man. Therefore, my brothers, you also were put to death to the law through the body of Christ in order for you to become to another, to the one who arose from the dead, so that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins which were through the law were working in our members in order to bear fruit to death. But now, we have been removed from the law, dying to that by which we were oppressed, in order for us to serve in the newness of the spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. (7:1-6)

Paul has stated much in these verses. Most of the basic ideas we have already seen, but now Paul has put them in the form and context of the law, and this will cause a serious reaction by the Jew and call for some definite explanation from Paul.

He opens with the concept which he has already used concerning death as marking the end of obligation. He has already shown us how a death is necessary in order to put an end to the claim of sin upon us and make possible a new start. This time, however, the law is used as the basis to demonstrate this fact (thus indicating the direction of the argument toward the Jew), and the very meaningful analogy of marriage is the example case of the matter.

Paul reminds us of the fact that a woman who is married to a man is bound to that man until death. Only when one of the parties dies is the marriage ended. But then it truly is ended. Paul describes the relationship of man to the law as that of a marriage. We are bound under it until death separates us from that bond.

Just as in a marriage, there is fruit that comes from the union. But Paul will assume a point that has not yet been proven (he will have to do so soon to convince the Jew, and he does), which is that the fruit of marriage to the law is not good; it is fruit to death. Paul has slid seamlessly into this manner of speech where the law takes the place in the argument where sin did before. It was our obedience to sin before that bore fruit unto death; now it is our union with the law. That is a big step to make, and Paul will take time to explain and defend it very soon.

For now, though, Paul assumes this point in his argument and continues by stating that we need to find a death to put an end to this union that can only bear the fruit of death. It is death, we recall, that alone has the authority to end such a union, and Paul asserts that death is the very thing that we experience through the body of Christ. We died with Christ on the cross, Paul has already established, and this means that we can be free from the fruitless union to the law. Now we are free to be joined in union with another.

This again is the same basic pattern of thought as we saw in chapter 6, where our freedom from slavery to sin paved the way for slavery to God and His righteousness. Here, the added element of fruitfulness through union makes the argument even that much more effective. We need to bear fruit. We cannot bear fruit alone; we need a union with another to do so. Our union with the law did not bear the fruit of righteousness, so where will we find a partner for union that will bear the fruit of righteousness that we seek? It can only be through union with Christ Himself, with whom we will bear the fruit unto God that we need.

Paul asserts that we need the newness of the spirit, not the oldness of the letter. The old pattern of seeking righteousness through the letter of the law was ineffective, and worse: It bore fruit to death. Now, however, through a spiritual reality and principle, we can hope to find true fruitfulness.

The picture of union and fruitfulness is explained slightly further here in connection with the law. Just as the seed of a man works in the body of a woman to bear fruit, so the law was at work in our members within us to bear fruit. However, the law interacted with our members of flesh and found and produced only passions unto sin; such was the fruit of that union. Paul will explain much more of that just below. This union must be replaced by a spiritual newness that has power to bear different fruit.

Paul now turns to explain and defend these truths that he is assuming and asserting. The Jew will have some strong arguments in mind against what Paul is saying. It sure sounds, once again, like he is degrading the law of God: “Is he saying that the law is evil and produces only sin in our lives? Is he finding fault with the law that God has given us?” If such really is the case, then we all rightly ought to reject what Paul is saying, for the Jew would be right in defending God’s law against such attacks. But Paul is not actually finding any fault at all with the law itself, as he will now explain.

Just as Paul did when he demonstrated to the Jew way back in chapters 2-3 that their receiving of the law did not exempt them from the general condemnation of man, he here now turns to defend the law. Though he has asserted that the law is not able to save a man, he has not asserted that the law is somehow bad, evil, or even flawed:

What, then, will we say? Is the law sin? May it never be! (7:7)

Paul wants to be clear: All that he has been saying does not properly lead to the conclusion that the law itself is sinful. That would be a wrong conclusion to make. This is very important to make clear in order to convince the Jew, and, indeed, in order to justify God’s dealings with the Jew to whom He gave the law.

The law is not sin, Paul says, but rather teaches us what sin is:

But rather, I would not have known sin, except through the law. For indeed, I had not known lust except the law was saying, “You shall not lust.” (7:7)

So, the law is not sin, but it does have a close and important connection with sin that we should understand. The law teaches us about sin. Is this a bad thing? Of course not; it is good and necessary. We need to know what sin is in order to stay away from it. However, the result of the law’s speaking to us about sin is not what we could wish:

But sin, taking a foothold through the law, worked in me all lust. For apart from the law, sin is dead. (7.8)

So then, it was not the law itself that resulted in sin and lust, but rather, sin used the law to work lust in us. By talking to us about sin, the law provided an opportunity for sin to work in us. The law was not to blame, but it was used as an instrument of sin and the practical outcome was lust, sin, and death. The law remains good, though, Paul is very careful to maintain:

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. That which is good, then, did it become to me death? May it never be! But rather, sin, so that it might appear sin, through that which is good, to me was working death, so that sin might become sinful according to excess through the commandment. (7:12-13)

The law, then, is defended as good and holy. The problem lies in the fact that sin is at work and is able to use the good law to work its corrupt effect upon us. Paul does not mean to say, and never will say, that the holy law of God is at fault or sinful. He upholds the goodness of the law. At the same time, though, he finds it absolutely necessary to demonstrate the reality of the law’s effect upon us practically, which is not to work righteousness but to bear the fruit of sin and death because of sin’s corruption of the commandment in us.

But we remember that Paul is looking at this whole matter in terms of a union between two parties. He has shown that the one side of the union, the law, is actually good and holy, but it is corrupted by the presence of sin which uses it for its perverse ends. What of the the other party of the union, though? What about us? Paul is going to treat of our part in this whole process and relationship now. That, too, is vitally important to understand, and probably is that which holds the whole key to the picture for us:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I myself am fleshly, sold under sin. For I do not know that which I work. For it is not as if that which I wish, this I do, but rather, that which I hate, this I do. But if that which I do not wish, this I do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, no longer I myself am working it, but rather, the sin dwelling in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For to will is present with me, but to work the good is not. For it is not that I do the good that I wish, but rather, that evil which I do not wish, this I practice. But if that which I do not wish, this I do, no longer I myself work it, but rather the sin dwelling in me. I find, then, the law, to me who wills to do the good, that to me, the evil is present alongside. (7:14-21)

So what is the condition on our side of the union? Paul gives a less than hopeful picture. He says that the law is not at fault, for it is spiritual. I, on the other hand, am fleshly and sold under sin. Even when I want to do what is good and right, I am not able to do so. Why? Because within me, in the members of my flesh, there is a terrible corruption: Sin dwells within me. There is no good in me at all. So when sin seeks to use the law to work its ways in me, it finds a ready and receptive partner. I myself am full of sin and thus very susceptible to its ploys in using God’s good and holy law. No wonder that the union we, full of sin, have with the law is not sufficient to bear worthy fruit! With sin filling our members, what can the law hope to do?

The law has done a good work. It has accomplished all that it possibly can. It has even taught me to agree with it about what is sinful and what is good. Moreover, it has even worked in me, amazingly, a desire for that which is good. I see the good, I agree with the good, and I will to do and accomplish that desirable good that the law presents:

For I delight together with the law of God according to the inner man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and making me captive in the law of sin which is in my members. I am a miserable man! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (7:22-24)

Look at the condition of this man. He calls himself a miserable man. Why? Because of his inner man’s inescapable captivity to the law of sin that is in his members. Once again, Paul distinguishes fairly sharply between the inner heart, or mind, as he calls it here, and the outworking of the actual members of the fleshly body. Once the mind has been changed and renewed to desire that which is good, still there is a great struggle and conflict between that renewed mind and the flesh that is captive to sin. And the testimony of the experience of every man who has truly sought righteousness must confirm what Paul here describes: The law of sin and death in the flesh is too strong. The mind that desires the good cannot win.

And so we are in a miserable condition: Though our mind might desire what is good, we are trapped as slaves in fleshly bodies that will not permit us to work that which is good and right. The law has helped us to learn righteousness in our minds and to desire it, but the end result has only been that we are more miserable than ever and more ensnared by sin. And so such a man cries out for help and aid, seeking a deliverer to free him and save him. And so the answer of hope comes into the picture:

Grace be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (7:25)

There is a salvation for such a miserable man as this. It is not in the law, as hopefully even the Jew will now confess. It cannot be found in any device of man, either. No outward force can overcome this inner corruption. We are so depraved within. We are our own worst enemy. I need deliverance from my very self. Who will help me? God will accomplish salvation for me through Jesus Christ. The following chapter will teach us how.

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