The New Way of the Spirit

November 21, 2021 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Romans: Real Hope for the Righteousness of God

Scripture: Romans 7:1–7:6

1 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Over dinner last night, we discussed with some friends where each of us would choose to live if we could live anywhere. It was fun to imagine living in some other part of the country, some beautiful place with a perfect climate. But I think most people would agree that what would really matter most is not the destination you call home but the relationships you have there. Relationships are what bring the most meaning to life.

When the Apostle Paul began his letter to the Romans, he started by declaring that he was not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). This word salvation is, in our day, often considered to be just a religious word, a word that talks about one’s destination after they die. But we know this is not the way we should think about it, and if we keep giving that impression, we should not be surprised if many people just don’t seem that interested in this salvation. In the last chapter of Romans that we studied, chapter 6, we were helped to see some of the practical effects of our justification by union with Christ. What does it mean for us that we are united to Christ who has himself been justified, proven to be righteous? It means that God does not intend to leave us enslaved to sin and to the death it brings. This is a moral concern to be sure; God’s justification of sinners is not isolated from God’s transforming of sinners. But it is more than that, and we are not seeing the gospel in all its glory if all we see is God’s forgiveness for our moral wrongs.

I don’t want to diminish that truth. I just want us to see more than this. So, when you read Romans 6:23, “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” I don’t want you to think mainly of the option between an impersonal place like hell and heaven. I want you to think of the option between being married to a spouse that gives you grief and misery and a spouse that gives you joy and endless delight. To be justified is not simply to have a new destination. It is to have a new relationship, a relationship that makes all the difference for the everyday realities of life.

The gospel of Jesus is the good news that in Christ we have been granted the end of a relationship, the beginning of a new relationship, and the promise of life, the life we truly want. 

The End of a Relationship

First, before we can have the life God intends for us, we need to go through the breakup of a relationship that has enslaved us. This we have been given in the gospel of Jesus.

The Binding Power of the Law

“Do you not know,” verse 1 says, “that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives.” Now “the law” he is referring to is not laws in general but the Mosaic law. It is this law in particular which Paul has said only occasioned the increase of sin (Rom 5:20). It is this law which Paul has said is on the side of sin and death, providing no access to righteousness and life.[1]

In the previous chapter, Paul dealt with the problem of sin in the Christian life, but the only thing he said about the law is that the Christian is not “under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). He comes back to the law here to further explain what that means. We can guess that much of what he has said about our relationship to sin is what he will say about our relationship to the law. We have “died to sin” (Rom 6:2), so doesn’t this mean we have died to the law? We have been “set free from sin” (Rom 6:22), so aren’t we now set free from the law? The problem here is that if this is what we think, this would simply lead us right back to Romans 6:1. Rejecting the law of God like we ought to reject the power of sin will only make us lawless, enslaved to sin. The relationship we have to the law needs more nuance than simply to resist it in the same way we are supposed to resist sin.

To see the nuance, Paul gives an easy to grasp illustration in verses 2-3. We need to interpret the illustration from the perspective of the Jewish law, from the Torah, not from any modern sensibilities or foibles. Old Testament law is quite clear that “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives.” So, if she goes and lives with another man while her husband is still alive, she is rightly called an adulteress. I say, “rightly,” because this is what the Torah teaches. A woman married to a man belongs to the man as long as he lived. The phrase “the law of marriage” at the end of verse 2 is literally “the law of the husband.” The law is on the husband’s side in a marriage. According to the Torah, only he had rights to divorce (Deut 20:4).

The Possibility of Death

It seems that Paul is using this illustration to make us feel the weight of being under the law. It’s like feeling you are trapped and have no way out. The law increased sin and could never relieve it. As a married Jewish woman, giving in to your longing to be with someone else would only make you an even more shameful sinner, a scarlet “A” emblazoned on your chest.

The only way out is death. If your husband were to die, his power over you would be gone in an instant, and you would be free to marry someone else. With no shame.

The reason Paul has given this illustration is to heighten the sense of expectation he wishes us to have from the simple statement in verse 1: “the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives.” if you are bound to a wonderful spouse, the binding is a blessing. But if not, this binding is indeed bondage. And news of your spouse’s death turns out to be a day of great relief and anticipation of new life. In other words, Paul wants us to consider what death does. It breaks even the strongest of bonds, the marriage bond. But if the bond it breaks has been a burden to you, then death also opens a world of possibilities you probably thought would never come.

Just think of it like this: losing your job could be quite unsettling, but it may be your first step toward a far more satisfying job. I’ve lost a job twice. It is scary, but it also led to something far better. It’s that sense that your longings and fantasies for something better now have a legitimate way to come to fruition. Death holds that kind of tragic but also anticipatory power. It creates a whole new situation for those who go through it.

The Start of a New Relationship

Paul now draws his punch line in verse 4. He tells us the good news that in our union with Christ, the binding power of the law over us has been broken! A new day has dawned! A day filled with anticipation and hope, as well as mystery and curiosity. It’s the start of a new relationship, and it is exciting. Paul uses the personal address “my brothers” for the second time in this short paragraph as he seeks to impress home this present reality and its implications and possibilities.

Our Death by Substitution

How has the new day dawned? By the fact that we have “died to the law through the body of Christ.” A real death has occurred, and it has set in motion a whole new reality for us. Who was it that died? It was Christ who died, but his death has enormous ramifications for us and our relationship to the law. For one thing, because of our union with Christ, his literal death is a death for us as well: “you also have died.” To be identified with Christ in his death means not only that the condemnation of the law has been vanquished but that the law itself as a power, as an authority over us, has been relinquished as well. We are no longer “under the law” not because we divorced it or declared ourselves emancipated from it—you can’t do that, you know—but because you died to it in Christ death. You need to die, and in Christ, you have!

How shall we explain the idea that we have died when, in fact, it was Christ who died? The only explanation is substitution. Christ died in my place. He died “for” us. The fact that his death counts as ours is explainable only as a matter of God’s mercy and grace.[2] It can only be explained by love and by the free, sovereign will of God who gave his Son to die for us while we were his enemies.

The Commitment of Love

But why did he do this? We said it was love, but love itself is not enough of an explanation. We must ask, what did this love aim at? Why did he love us like this? And here we recall that he died for us not only when we were his enemies but also when we were enslaved to a different spouse whose oppressive power over us is known all too keenly. He died for us “so that you may belong to another.” We were not independent when we were hostile to him, and his love for us in that condition was not to make us independent of him. He died for us in order to free us to be rightfully, shamelessly united to someone else.

So, his love for us could not simply be a love of compassion and sympathy, like the maid of honor who is at the wedding to show how happy she is that her best friend has found “the one” for her. For what could God’s love for us be if he stood by while we married again into an abusive relationship?

So why did he die for us? He did it, yes, to set us free from an abusive relationship, but he did it all so in order to unite us to someone with whom we could enjoy a wonderful, exhilarating relationship. He died for us in order that we could be married to another. His love for you and me is the love of committing himself to us. He did not die to make you single. He died to bring you into a union with someone that is better than any marriage relationship has ever been. He died in order to bring you into a covenant relationship with himself.

United Forever

But, notice how he is described. The one to whom we are meant to belong is to “him who has been raised from the dead.” To be raised from the dead is not simply to come back to life after having previously died. That is simply not what resurrection in the Bible means. It means that one has come back to life having conquered death. It means that one has become now unable to die because death has been defeated. It is to be alive and a way that we cannot understand, but it is to be very much alive, alive in a body that is now immortal.

So, what then is the implication of being married to one who can no longer die? It means that this new relationship into which we have now come is eternal. It means we can never get out from under this union. It means that one who has been united to Christ by faith can never become ununited. It means that we are secure in him.

The Promise of Life

The last phrase of verse 4 goes on to tell us that the whole purpose in our dying to the law and being united to the resurrected Christ is “in order that we may bear fruit for God.” This purpose or goal is the same goal that was intended when the Law was originally given, but it was a goal that could not be realized because of the corrupting power of sin. As long as we were bound to sin by the Law, there could be no fruit for God. There could be no life, only death. But now the door is opened to the life we truly desire, the life we were made for.

The Fruit of the Flesh

What is this fruit? Back in Romans 6:21, Paul asked his readers to reflect on the kind of fruit they were getting from living as slaves of sin, and then he stated that to be a slave of God means that “the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:22). So “fruit” is a way of speaking about the products of one’s life. Again we see here that God is not interested in merely saving souls but in restoring our very lives so that, as Paul says elsewhere, we may be “fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10).

This we simply cannot do so long as we are united to sin by the law. Verse 5 points this out. Until we are united to Christ, we are only “living in the flesh.” Now here is a phrase that can easily be misunderstood. Clearly Paul does not mean the time in which we are physically alive. To be “in the flesh” here is the time before we are “released from the law” through union with Christ. It refers to the time prior to becoming a Christian.[3] But it’s probably better to think of it more properly as the time prior to the coming of Christ. Paul is wanting to contrast, in verses 5-6, two different eras in history, two different covenants in redemptive history.[4]

So Paul invites his readers to reflect back on Israel’s history. It is common, of course, for many people to remember the “good ol’ days” of the past, to idealize life in a previous generation and to wish to reclaim life the way it was back then. In this case, Paul is urging his readers to move onward—this is real progressivism—and not to hold on to the past. The law of Moses only aroused “our sinful passions,” and energized them to produce in us “fruit for death.” Far from being the hope of the world, life lived as a faithful Jew, in strict obedience to God’s law, was not bringing about the promise of God to bring peace to earth, to bring restoration to the world.

A New Exodus

This is an astonishing and controversial thing for a Jew to say, especially in the first century. It is the claim that life “under the law,” far from safeguarding people from the corruption that is in the world, actually brings people deeper into its deathly decay. Paul’s gospel claims that one can no more find life in relationship to the Mosaic Law than one could have found life had they stayed in Egypt and not participated in the Exodus.

In other words, a new exodus has come, one which has released us from the law, verse 6 says. We have now “died to that which held us captive.” We have left Egypt and our old life of slavery there, “so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” This reminds us of what Paul said earlier, at the end of chapter 2. He said that ‘a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:29). Paul is not advocating that we live by the “spirit of the law” rather than by the “letter of the law,” giving us the freedom to interpret for ourselves God’s will. The word Spirit is a reference to the Holy Spirit, not to intentionality. It is not the “spirit of the law” but the “Spirit instead of the Law” that the gospel sets us free to live by. Once again, this is not in contradiction to the Law of God but rather its promised fulfillment. It is what the Old Testament had said would come, the arrival of the New Covenant, and the end of Israel’s true captivity and exile.

The End of Exile for All

It is also, therefore, the end of exile for all of creation, and for you and me today. For the promise of the Bible is that once Israel is restored, once their captivity has finally ended, so also will salvation come to all the nations of the world, to people from every tribe and language and people. This salvation is now on offer to everyone who will participate in the new exodus, releasing us from that which held us captive, and giving us the promised Holy Spirit. And now, if you keep in step with the Spirit, Paul says, “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Because “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). Set free from the “works of the flesh” you will produce “the fruit of the Spirit” and the promise of a new society of people who “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 5:22-23; 6:2).

This is what is now on offer to all in Israel’s Messiah, in Jesus Christ. Here is the hope of the world! Here is the real answer to the power of sin which wreaks havoc on all society. Here is the answer to our polarized politics, to our bickering and backstabbing, to our intolerance of one another, to our need to always be right. Salvation does not come by everyone being conformed to us and to our way of living. We do not need a new law, but neither do we need to abolish the one that God has already given. What we need instead is to be united to the one who has been raised from the dead. In him we find the fulfillment of the law and so the freedom from that which held us captive to sin. In him we find hope for the world.

Jesus did not come to offer to the world a new religion. Religion, so long as it is only a set of rules to follow, can offer us no life at all. Instead, Jesus came to offer to the world life, the life that the law simply has no power to create. In Jesus you will find the one you are looking for, indeed, the one you were made for.

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[1] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Word Biblical Commentary 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 357.

[2] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols., The International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark International, 2003), 1:336.

[3] Dunn, Romans 1–8, 363.

[4] Ibid., 363–64.

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