“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? 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.” (Rom. 7:1-2)
What is the role of the law in the life of the Christian? Is the Christian under the law? If I am free from the law why doesn’t it feel like it?
I wrote this story to help answer these questions and illustrate the above words of Paul from Romans 7.
Sally and Larry married young...they had a tumultuous marriage filled with the ups and downs of most marriages. Sally felt she could never live up to Larry’s demands and no matter how hard she tried she failed to fulfill his expectations. Larry, a former Marine, was a very matter of fact person. Everything for him was black and white...do this, don’t do that. Everything was regimented and you didn’t dare deviate from his guidelines. Sally lived more in the gray, and always felt that Larry was displeased with her. Despite her efforts to please Larry she always fell short of his heavy-handed approach. Sally desperately wanted Larry to love and accept her but it seemed he was only pleased with her when she was doing what he wanted and when she failed he quickly removed his acceptance. Sally, who was raised in a very strict religious home, was not unaccustomed to this kind of paradigm. Her father too raised her to believe that if she did the right things then she would be loved...if she failed then she was forced to try to make amends.
After 25 years of marriage, Larry was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after. Not long after Larry’s death, Sally met Glen...Glen unlike any person Sally had ever been around seemed to accept Sally just the way she was. He seemed less concerned with changing her as he was with simply loving her and giving himself to her. His approval of her seemed less about what she did and more about his commitment and love for her. Sally, however, had a hard time accepting this kind of love from Glen. She almost preferred Larry’s ways because she didn’t have to feel bad for his acceptance...she earned everything she got from Larry, whereas with Glen she didn’t have to strive or work that hard for his approval. In fact, he never criticized her or even had a harsh word for her. He just loved her... and unlike Larry, this love didn’t seem connected to anything Sally did or didn’t do, and this kind of bothered Sally. She remembered the times with Larry when she really nailed it...the sense of satisfaction was exhilarating. She never felt this with Glen, it was almost as if her behavior was not that important to him. He just loved being around her. He would constantly tell her how beautiful she was...even in the morning before she had a chance to fix herself up. “He must be lying she thought...he can’t really mean these things. Larry only told me I looked good when I actually did and so I believed him.” Despite years of marriage to Glen, Sally continued to live under the demands of Larry. When Glen would ask Sally why she felt the need to please someone who was dead, Sally would respond, “he doesn’t feel dead, I hear his voice in my head and what he says makes sense... in fact, it makes more sense than what you say because it gives me control of the outcome. With you the outcome is always the same...in fact it seems you’re the one in control, you don’t seem to be phased by my behavior one bit.” Glen would lovingly pull Sally into his embrace and encourage her to trust his love but it was very difficult for Sally. In fact, she would often visit Larry’s grave and reminisce about their years together.
Larry’s impact upon Sally never left her and despite the amazing marriage she had with Glen...far better than anything she ever had with Larry, she still felt drawn to Larry. He felt very alive to her...his words of harsh condemnation were constantly reverberating in her ears. Try as she might to receive Glen’s words of comfort and grace she had the hardest time allowing them to make any true impact upon her, she seemed to always gravitate toward Larry and the high expectations he placed upon her. She loved those insurmountable requirements he placed upon her...it gave her goals to shoot for...it made progress tangible and something she could easily see the results. With Glen it was almost as if progress, goals, and results were taken off the table...and this made understanding how to please him very difficult. “What do I need to do? Nothing, he would respond but she rarely believed him.” The freedom Glen gave to Sally was so foreign to her that it was scary...she didn’t feel free, she felt bound to everything she’d always known. Everything in her life was built on this performance paradigm and as much as she wanted to be set free from its power she kept running back to it like an old comfortable shoe that despite its stench and tattered appearance was easy and familiar. Glen wasn’t either of those things...his approach was completely foreign to her...he spoke words that no one else ever had and this made Sally question whether any of what he said was really true. “Where’s the catch she thought?” So she lived out her days married to Glen but simultaneously feeling pulled to the ever-present words of Larry that seemed to challenge everything Glen ever had to say.
This is the Christian experience...simultaneously being accused by the law and set free by the gospel. The Christian lives in a place of being simultaneously sinner and saint. We are fully sinner in and of ourselves, outside of Christ. And we are fully saint in Christ, outside of ourselves. Herein, the Christian is both the dead husband and the freed wife of Romans 7. We are both under the law (in our old man) and free from the law (in our new man in Christ).
So how should the Christian hear the law? When the old Adam hears the command he hears a prescription. Like a coach drawing up a play so you can win the game; the old man hears God’s commands as something to do, a prescription for a holy life, a prescription for earning God’s blessings, a prescription for growth. But this isn’t how the law functions. The law, the Bible tells us, actually exposes and magnifies our sin (Rom. 3:20) it doesn’t help us obey it. As Luther said in the Heidelberg Disputation:
"The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” (Theses 1)
We are incapable of doing the law which is why Jesus came to do it for us (Matt. 5:17). Jesus is not only a Savior who takes away our sins, he is a Savior who gives us his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). This is what theologians call “double imputation”... we are justified, which means we’re not only pardoned from the consequences of our sin but actually declared righteous on account of Christ and his perfect obedience. Therefore when the new man (in Christ) hears the commands of God he hears a description, a description of what Jesus has done for us. This is the gospel in a nutshell...what Christ has done “for you”. Therefore we are free from the law because Christ has freed us from it... he has put our old man (the dead husband) in the grave with him in baptism and raised us up as his bride (the freed wife). This new life we’re given in Christ now frees us to love and serve our neighbor and to fight sin because we know where selfishness and sin comes from, our old dead husband who has no power over us any longer. Of course like Sally in our story, we struggle to recognize this and we continue to allow the powerful voice of our old man to dictate how we live. This is the simul, the civil war within. Only the voice of our Shepherd, the very Word of God can vanquish this foe and set us free with his word of promise. May his Word (Jesus), the final word, grip our hearts and minds today, and may it set us free as Christ intended us to be.