New circumstances

We’ve been learning about what God does within us when we put our trust in Him. Changes take place that are far reaching: the sin nature is disconnected and we are connected to a new life force. In chapter 6, Paul was keen that we fully understood these new conditions, he was keen that we lived reckoning this new disposition to be true and he was keen that we offered our lives to God rather than to the sin nature. But things can get in the way such as attempts to live merely by a set of rules and the law. For many Christians a life under law seems right and attractive but chapter 7 explains why this approach leads to failure.

  1. Two husbands

There always seems to be more to do that the time available. For that reason it’s good to have a list. A list keeps us focused on the work that needs to be done –  and there’s something satisfying about ticking off the tasks as they go from ‘to do’ to ‘done.’ There is a natural tendency for us to follow a similar pattern in the way that we live as Christians, we have a list of right things to do and we like to follow the list. Paul is anxious to break this habit in the lives of believers because it leads to failure and is not the way God intends us to live. There are two options, we can live ‘under the law’ or we can live ‘under grace.’ If we are living under the law we must do something for God, but if we live under God’s grace, God does something for us! Sadly, attempts to live under a set of rules ends only one way: failure. In fact Jesus demands more than adherence to the law. You may recall that in the sermon on the mount he said that external obedience to the law was not sufficient, internalization was needed too. Matthew 5: 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Here’s the problem: the law is perfect and reasonable but we are incapable of living up to its high and exacting standards. Imagine for a moment a woman married to a man. The man is upright, correct and scrupulous and he not at all unreasonably expects his wife to be the same. The problem is that she is not like that at all. She is haphazard and does not live up to the exacting standards of her husband. There is nothing wrong with the husband at all but his wife constantly fails to live up to his high standards – she is the wrong sort of wife to carry out his high demands! It seems as though the husband’s correctness is a constant reminder of the wife’s failures. But there is another man! He is no less righteous and his standards are no less high but he is sympathetic and helpful and could help the woman live up to his high standards. If only the woman could marry the second man! But she is bound to her exacting husband by marriage law and there is no escape! Unless the husband dies, she is bound to him and his impossibly high standards. The trouble is that there is no sign of the husband dying, he is in perfect and robust health!  The law is just like the husband – it makes exacting demands (rightly so) but leaves us without help to comply. In contrast Christ makes the same exacting demands, but he provides his righteousness to fulfill the requirements he makes. The law makes impossible demands and offers no help, Jesus’ demands are no less but he works in us to fulfill them. It’s not at all surprising that the woman would wish to marry the other man, but there is no prospect of release! He is in perfect health and likewise the law will never die, it is eternal. What a conundrum! But if the man representing the law will not die, we represented by the woman could die! and if we die, the marriage relationship is dissolved and we are free to be united with Christ. That’s exactly what Paul wants us to get hold of:  he says in verse 4: ‘So my brothers and sisters, you died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that you might bear fruit for God.’ The principle here seems to be that we are no longer under law and its demands – we could never live up to its standards, but we are united to Christ. This does not remove from us the obligation to live right lives, but it is the life of Christ which is the life we live. Note this change is for a purpose; that we might bear fruit for God. We will see in the next chapter that the Holy Spirit within us will produce this fruit and as we learn to order our lives according to the him, so we will become fruitful Christians.

When we live our lives in the realm of the old nature (or ‘flesh’ as Paul puts it) we produce fruit too, it is the fruit of death – of separation from God. Strange as it may seem, the old nature is actually energised by the law (more of this later) but remember that as believers we have died, we have been released from that exacting husband. We now serve in a new way, – the way of the Spirit and not the old way of a written code. The American hymn writer of the 19th century, Daniel Whittle wrote a hymn that captures this new way of living, he wrote:

Dying with Jesus by death reckoned mine;
Living with Jesus, a new life divine;
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine,
Moment by moment, O Lord I am Thine.

Moment by moment I’m kept in his love;
Moment by moment I’ve life from above;
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine;
Moment by moment, O Lord I am Thine.

This transforms our walk of faith from a rule-bound struggle of failure to a loving moment by moment relationship with one who cares.  As Paul puts it, ‘by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.’

  • Two discoveries

All this talk about the law would make you think that the law was a bad thing! Paul wants us first to discover is that the law is not a bad thing at all: ‘Shall we say that the law is sinful? Certainly not!’ (verse 7).  But if the law is such an exacting, demanding thing that we die to, what good could it ever do for us?

The law is the means that enables us to detect deviation from the standard: Paul says, ‘I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.’ If there was no law there would be no appreciation of sin. In William Golding’s novel, the Lord of the Flies, a group of boys are stranded on an island without any adult supervision. They quickly descend into chaos and brutality as they forget and jettison any sense of law and order. It is only when the Naval Officer (with his uniform and rule-bound authority) arrives on the island that the boys realise how far they have fallen from their starting point. Likewise the law provides the standard for us that exposes sin for what it is. Sadly as our Christian heritage in the UK becomes an ever distant memory, we see the effects of lawlessness in our society – the law serves a useful purpose in making us aware of sin. People now say that there is no law, there is no right and there is no wrong – we can largely do as we please (at least in terms of personal morality) – this thinking puts our society in significant danger. When we take a bottle of poison and replace the warning labels with ‘golden syrup’ we are in big trouble! The law thus serves a useful, important and vital purpose.

So, the law is good – it informs us of right and wrong. But the law creates a problem for us. When we try to live according to the law it seems we fail all the more spectacularly! Paul says that ‘when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.’  This is a surprising thing, but the more we focus on living by the law the more we fail, the law somehow puts a spring in the step of our sinful nature.

The second discovery Paul wants us to make is that whilst the law is spiritual and makes spiritual demands our nature is sinful and unspiritual. We saw in chapter 6 that God has permanently separated us from the old sin nature and has, as our normal way of functioning, connected us to a new nature which may be energised by the Holy Spirit. You may remember that chapter 6 was all about us knowing about this new arrangement, about counting it to be true and about offering ourselves to God rather than the old nature.  The problem is that we often forget about this and try to live by the law. I remember once installing a new light fitting at the bottom of our stairs. The wiring was such that the light could be switched on from a switch at the bottom of the stairs and a second switch at the top of the stairs. I was pretty sure I had the wiring correctly in place and when the power was reconnected I was pleased to see that I could switch the  light on successfully. The odd thing was, that when I tried to switch the light off, the fuse would blow! Through trial and error (not recommended!) I eventually worked out the correct wiring configuration. When we become Christians God rewires us to live right lives but if we mess about with the wiring by trying to live according to the law we will fail. This is not about good intentions. It is about wrong understanding. Paul says ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I that do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.’ I believe that what Paul is saying is that if we try to live up to the law, even with the best of intentions, we will fail. We’re simply not wired to live according to a set of rules, we’ve been rewired to serve in a new way.

  • Two principles

There are two principles that Paul derives from this discussion on reliance on the law and the first one is this: ’evil is right there beside me.’ We bear within us the presence of the sin nature, and when we try to live lives that are right by trying to comply with the law we discover all too soon that evil is within us – right there beside us. There is a second principle and it also concerns this evil nature:  ‘but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.’ The evil nature is actually engaged in a war within us. As a result, Paul says that he wants to do good, but when he tries to live according to the law it simply doesn’t work – ‘although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.’ This is really frustrating is it not! We want to do the right thing, we know what the right thing is, we try our best to live up to the right thing but when we do, we find we simply cannot. The wiring is wrong! Paul says – ‘what a wretched man I am.’  Too true! If we want to do what is right and cannot do it we are failures and with that failure comes frustration and self loathing. In some Christian traditions well meaning people have attempted to overcome this conundrum by literally beating themselves up! In the Da Vinci code (a truly dreadful book!) Silas wears a ‘cilice’ which is a spiked chain worn around his thigh – he inflects pain as some sort of way to deal with his sinful thoughts. Does this help to live up to the law? Absolutely not!

So what’s the answer? Paul simply says ‘who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!’  The answer is not rules but relationship, not a list of dos and don’ts but love, not following a procedure but a person.  More of this in chapter 8.