The preacher enters troubled waters in today’s pericope. Interpreters on one side argue Romans 7 reflects on Paul’s pre-conversion experience with the Law. Interpreters on the other side say its post-conversion. It may not be that simple. In fact, it is not so simple. Romans 7 possesses an inherent complexity because its main point, about the Law, asserts that the Law stands as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Apostle stages his doctrine saying, “The Law is binding on a person only as long as he lives” (7:1). Then, he proceeds with an illustration from marriage (7:2-3). When death occurs, an individual undergoes release from obligation to the Law in the same way that the covenant of marriage no longer binds the living spouse when the spouse dies. But the illustration, while helpful, has its limits. Paul, mindful of those limitations, proceeds in versus 4-6 to apply this doctrine to the baptized; that is, to those who have experienced the resurrection of their spirits. His point asserts the baptized have died in Christ but this death then makes them free to live unto Christ. Complicated? Yes, a little. Let us try to clarify things a bit.
The Law of Moses has clung to Paul’s entire argument in Romans. It grips chapter 7, too. The Apostle believes the Law comes from God and bears witness to the Gospel (3:21). Notwithstanding these verities, the Law plays a negative role in God’s overall purposes; “Now the Law came in to increase the trespass” (5:20), with the upshot that, in Christ Jesus, the baptized are, “…not under the Law but under grace” (6:14-15). Why? Why are the baptized not under the Law but under grace? Chapter 7 holds the answer to this and associated questions. Yet, there is more!
These verses explain:
(1) What the Law does, that is, to what end it was given.
(2) How it actually achieved exactly what God intended in the giving of the Law.
(3) Moreover, the Law finds fulfillment through the work of Christ Jesus (and, in chapter 8, the Holy Spirit).
(4) Further still, the Law could never and did never give the life it promised (except in one case — Jesus).
(5) Finally, the Law only brought about death. Neither Christians nor Jews can claim the Law brings life. It does not. It did not. Instead, it exposed sin and, in doing so, the wages of sin.
Paul’s complicated back-and-forth reflection on the Law and his status vis-á-vis the Law contributes to his overall explanatory strategy to the Roman Christians (many of whom where formerly law-immersed Jews). He is telling them about the fundamental transition made through the Gospel: From the covenant people defined by the Law of Moses, to covenant people defined by the righteousness of Christ and fruit of the Holy Spirit. Therein, Paul’s readers find the strengthening of faith, true Christian hope, and a share in resurrection life in the here and now.
Paul’s readers find the strengthening of faith, true Christian hope, and a share in resurrection life in the here and now.
Preachers should keep the aforementioned impact of the Gospel in mind and as the focus of their sermon. Too easy a distraction for the preacher will be a myopic view of Paul’s life, the temptation to read this text merely as Paul’s autobiography. Entire schools of thought have swerved off the road one way only to have others overcorrect into the other ditch with their interpretive bias. Indeed, reading the text as autobiographical may be altogether wrongheaded. There is good reason to believe Paul may be employing a compositional devise, common in his day, to write in the first person singular (“I” and “me”) to make a general assertion. He has done it before in Galatians 2:15-21. A growing body of literature sees Paul’s use of “I” as referring to Israel, with himself included therein. The point of the passage becomes more poignant: When Israel received the Law of God like Adam (for Israel is Adam at the national level), then Israel proved itself to be of Adam and in Adam by breaking the Law! Sin was with Israel all along. The Law, “…is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). The problem does not reside in the Law and, therefore by extension, the lawgiver, God. Even though the Law promised life, the problem from the time of Adam and continuing through Israel rests with mankind’s sin. Consequently, the Law could only deliver death (7:8-11): “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:10-11).
Where do the Law and Commandments from the time of Adam through the history of Israel bring things? Here is the surprise! When the commandment makes sin sinful, “beyond measure,” then a person is at the end of their rope and must look to God to save, look to God for grace, look to God for mercy… agreeable to the covenant with Abraham who was justified by faith in God’s covenant promise to accomplish all. It leads to the Gospel of God’s fulfillment of the Law and redemption from the Law that delivered death through Christ Jesus. Believe it. Justification is by faith alone and not the works of the Law (7:13).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 7:1-13.
God’s Greater Story-Check out this wonderful sermon series on Romans 6-14 by our own David Schmitt.