As I was reading Romans 7 today, I was reminded of a pivotal scene in one of my favorite movies, As Good As it Gets. The main character, Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, is beginning to experience the hope that things can be different for him. This feeling is new and provokes fear. In a panic, he rushes to his psychiatrist and, barging past everyone in the waiting room, he bursts into the office. The psychiatrist, setting boundaries, refuses to see him unless he makes an appointment and ushers him back into the waiting area. Melvin looks around at all of the people there and, in a knife thrust to the heart of everyone in the room, expresses what he knows to be their, and his own, deepest fear, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
The middle of Romans, chapter 7 feels like that to me. In verses 15-24, Paul describes the dilemma. On the one hand, we have the Law, which is indisputably holy, righteous and good, as he has already told us in verse 12. What God’s law asks of us is to do what is right. Our minds know that. We want to do what the law directs us to do. However, on the other hand, we have the reality of our sin. We are acutely aware of having tried repeatedly and failed miserably at doing what is right. We know that any fleeting ground we seem to gain in one area of law-keeping is completely offset by our failure in so many others. He concludes his description with the compelling question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
In order to understand what Paul is saying here and why he is saying it, we have to look at the context. What comes just before and after? Because the book of Romans is such a methodical presentation of the Gospel, we would have to go back to the beginning of Romans to get the full context. For our purposes, however, we will go back to the last verse of the discourse in the preceding chapter, about being set free from sin to live for God, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
In the next verse, Romans 7:1, Paul asks his readers whether or not they are aware of something potentially startling about our relationship to the law in light of that fact:
“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. 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.
“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. 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. 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.” Romans 7:1-6
Paul says here that it is not possible for a Christian to be married to both the law and to Christ. We would be adulterers. The problem is that we are bound to the law, as if we are married to it, for as long as we live. The only way for us to belong to Christ, then, is to die.
We do not divorce the law. Rather, by dying with Christ, we fulfill our vows of ‘Til death do us part.’ Only when that is accomplished are we free to be married to Christ. When we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, through baptism, we are released from the law that held us captive, with its demands that we could never meet, and are now freed to “serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.”
While we are married to the law, we are only entitled to the wages of sin. It is only in Christ that we are freed to receive God’s free gift of eternal life.
Paul, realizing that what he said might make the law sound like an abusive spouse, immediately takes great pains to explain that the law is not the bad guy. He carefully shows that the true culprit is sin, in that it can take something as holy and good as the law and use it to deceive and kill us.
This defense of God’s holy law and condemnation of sin itself is the context for Paul’s anguished description of the struggle to obey that we all know so well. Paul wants everyone to understand why we must be set free from something as good as the law—our utter inability to keep it, which entitles us only to the wages of sin, which is death.
This leads us back to the agonized cry that, like a knife thrust to the heart, expresses our deepest fear, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The answer immediately follows, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 7:25-8:2)
Paul reassures us that those who have died with Christ to the law are no longer stuck in the endless cycle of trying and failing to obey that “spouse”, earning only death for our efforts. The promise is that, because we only have the ability to desire to serve the law of God but can never completely pull it off, serving instead the law of sin, Christ, our new husband, has rescued us, therefore ensuring that all condemnation for our failures has been removed.
Will we still desire to obey God? Yes. Will we still fail? Also, yes. Now, however, instead of cowering under the threat of death, we are released from fear to live in the freedom found only in Christ Jesus. And that, dear friends, is as good as it can possibly get!