Monthly Archives: March 2016

Romans 7:7-12 – Reclaiming the Law


Last week we learned some important background info concerning Paul’s law-talk in Romans.

  • Jew’s, and so Jewish Christians, had a variety of views on the “works of the law”.


Apparently, the two most prevalent views were:

  • Ethical/Works View – Law was the way to salvation.
  • Ethnic/Badge View – Law, like circumcision and Sabbath keeping, was one of the badges that designated membership of the people of God – a people God already saved.


Jewish Christians of either view had problems with the implications of the Gospel for the law.

  • In their eyes, Paul was throwing the law under the bus.
  • They charged Paul (Acts 21) with rebelling against Moses and Jewish customs like circumcision.
  • Romans 7:7 and following is Paul’s hashing out a response to these charges.


To get us started we need to review what Paul has said about the law thus far:

  • Romans 2:13 (ESV) — 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous [ethnic Jews] before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
    • Attack on Ethnic/Badge View
  • Romans 3:20 (ESV) — 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
    • Attack on both views?
  • Romans 3:28 (ESV) — 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
    • Attack on both views?
  • Galatians 3:21 (ESV) — 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
    • Attack on both views?


If these attacks weren’t bad enough, Paul also taught the following about the law:

  • the law brings wrath” (4:15)
  • law came to increase the trespass” (5:20)
  • sinful passions, aroused by the law…bear fruit for death” (7:5)


Paul, acutely aware of how he was being heard, addresses his critics in our text.

  • That Paul addresses the charges shows us a couple of things…
  • Paul listened to and understood the charges of his critics.
  • Paul provided a reasoned response to their objections.
  • Paul knew the Gospel, if true, could/would withstand its critics.



Our Text:

Romans 7:7–12 (ESV) — 7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.


The way Paul deals with his critics is to explain that he hasn’t thrown the law under the bus.

  • What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!


Everything revolves around Paul’s Gospel view of the law — “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (vs. 10).

  • Paul fleshes out his defense of this proposition with a contrast between sin and its power with…
  • The law and the 10th commandment specifically – “You shall not covet”.


What is fascinating about Paul’s argument is how it can be understood visually.

  • If one parses out the law and its commandment (green) and sin (red) and what each does (bold verbs), it becomes really clear what Paul is doing.


Romans 7 7-12 Pic


Paul does not ascribe any evil to the law/commandment.

  • He is not questioning the wisdom of God’s giving the law.
  • The law is not the problem.


As evident by the visual picture of the text, Paul shows that the law was neutral.

  • The law “came” and the law “said”.
  • It made known the will of God.
  • It was an expression of the wisdom of God.


By contrast, sin is not neutral at all.

  • What does Paul mean by sin here?
  • This is the “under sin” dominion he has been referring to since Romans 3.

“A force, which is essentially opposed to God’s creation. It is bent on spoiling the world God made, the humans who reflect his image, and the chosen people called to be the agents of redemption” – N.T. Wright.


Paul says sin has an agenda and it takes advantage of the law/commandment to achieve its aims.

  • Seizing” the commandment.
  • Produced” the very thing the commandment condemned – coveting.
  • Sin “came alive” in the presence of the law.
  • Paul’s words do not mean that before the law, sin was non-existent.
  • Romans 5 obviously makes clear that it was – “in Adam”.
  • Paul means that “it was not as ‘active’ or ‘powerful’ before the law as after” – Douglas Moo.
  • Deceived” God’s people.
  • Killed” God’s people.


Sin’s action is why his main point is, The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (vs. 10).

  • This is the thing the Jew’s found so offensive.


After all, Moses said the complete opposite.

  • Leviticus 18:5 (ESV) — 5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.


But the reason, Paul says, the law doesn’t accomplish “life” is because the context in which the law was given.

  • The law was given to a people in Garden Exile because of Adam’s sin.
  • A people born into the dominion and power of sin.
  • And, “human beings are not freed from sin’s dominion while living under the domain of the law” – Tom Schreiner.


And under the dominion of sin…

  • “The power of sin made it impossible for any human being to fulfill the law and so attain the promised life” – Douglas Moo.


So, the law doesn’t grant life!

  • The law is “the occasion or operating base that sin has used to accomplish its evil and deadly purpose” – Douglas Moo.


This means that, “Those who believe that the answer to human evil is to teach the Torah are deeply mistaken, according to Paul” – Schreiner.

  • The law is not “the antidote to human evil” – Schreiner.


Whether by the “law” we mean the ethical/works view or the ethnic/badge view…

  • It does nothing to bring about dominion transfer – from “under sin” to “under grace”.


So Paul is not throwing Moses and Sinai under the bus.

  • He is revealing just how severe the problem of being “under sin” actually is.


This is why Romans 3:21-22 continues to be the most important verses in Romans.

  • Romans 3:21–22 (ESV) — 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.



Purpose of Law:

So if the law didn’t/doesn’t bring life, what was its purpose?

  • Paul says the law served to teach Jews about sin – the act and the power of sin.
  • He says the commandment brought sin to life and made it know – intellectually and experientially.
  • The law made sin evident.


Douglas Moo puts it this way:

  • The law helped the Jew “to understand the real ‘sinfulness’ of sin” – Douglas Moo.
  • This itself is an act of grace!


This is the reason that Paul can finish out our text today with:

  • Romans 7:12 (ESV) — 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.


Paul’s Gospel View of the law highlights the question:

  • If the law doesn’t give life and domain transfer, what does?
  • His answer is, of course, Jesus – not any ethnic/ethical relationship to the law.


Given this view of the law – Paul’s Gospel View – how should David be read in Psalm 19?

  • Psalm 19:7–10 (ESV) — 7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.


David’s words about the law seem only to make sense in light of Jesus Christ and Paul’s Gospel View of the law.

  • If David sees the law here as his means to salvation, he is deluded isn’t he?




The power and appetite of sin is something even the believer must remember.

  • “When we, too, are faced with sin, whether in our own lives or in the wider world, we should not underestimate it. Evil is real and powerful. It is opposed to God, his world, his human creatures, and not least those who are called to follow his son. We dare not trifle with it. It is deceitful. It is deadly” – N.T. Wright.
  • “The experience of Israel with the law should also remind Christians never to return to the law—whether the Mosaic or any other list of “rules”—as a source of spiritual vigor and growth” – Douglas Moo.



Romans Law – Obedience or Badges

When we dealt with Romans 7:1-4 we learned the following:

  • We have been freed from the demands of the law.
  • This happened because we died to the law.
  • We died to the law by virtue of our participation in the death of Christ.
  • But, importantly, we are also united to His life and resurrection.
  • And so because we have gone through this death-resurrection-life process, we can now “bear fruit for God”.


Simple enough.

  • But then we saw that Paul made a rather startling claim about the law, in verse 5.
  • Romans 7:5 (ESV) — 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.

Paul is saying that though God gave the law to the Jews it did not lead to righteousness.

  • In fact, it didn’t even bear fruit “for God”.
  • It lead to the bearing of fruit for the master of the dominion of sin – what Paul calls here “death”.


Or to put in the language of Romans 5’s Adam and Christ:

“Paul is making the striking and controversial claim that the law, when given to Israel, formed a bond between Israel and … not God, as one might have supposed, but rather Adam” – N.T. Wright.


The rest of Romans 7 follows on the heels of this controversial claim.

  • But today I want to back up a bit.
  • We need a bigger picture of what is going on in Paul’s ministry.



Paul’s Law Context:

We can piece together the story with the Bible’s help.

  • Paul is on his way to Jerusalem to deliver aid to Jewish Christians.
  • Acts 19:21 (ESV) — 21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”


Apparently, there was a severe grain shortage in Jerusalem brought on by failed crops in Egypt.

  • This shortage brought on a huge increase in the price of grain.


Ben Witherington III says this:

  • “There is considerable evidence that poverty and food shortages were ongoing problems the early church in Jerusalem had to cope with…”
  • The grain shortage made things worse.


Paul tells us the same thing.

  • Romans 15:25–26 (ESV) — 25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.


Paul goes on to say:

  • It is right that Gentiles, who have been privileged to share in the Jew’s spiritual blessings, are right to share their physical blessings with those in need in Jerusalem.


But, Paul has a concern about the reception he and his Gentile aid will get in Jerusalem.

  • Romans 15:30–31 (ESV) — 30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints,


So Paul has two concerns:

  • (1) Unbelieving Jews who “see him as a traitor, a blasphemer, someone who has led Jewish people astray and destroyed the grip of the law of Moses on their lives” – N.T. Wright.
  • (2) Believing Jews who “may well find it difficult to accept money raised from non-Jewish sources” – N.T. Wright.

Upon Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, Luke gives us more detail – he also blurs the lines between the two distinctions above.

  • Acts 21:17–22 (ESV) — 17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.


So what?

  • Most believe that the Jewish Christians at Rome were part of the “zealous for the law” crowd.
  • So Paul, especially in Romans 7, is addressing their concerns.
  • Namely, that he is teaching that Jews should “forsake Moses”.
  • Interestingly, it is possible that in addressing the Jews’ concerns in Romans 7, Paul is fleshing out his response to his critics in Jerusalem.


BTW – The issues raised here are HUGE!

  • It involves the clash between the “New Perspectives on Paul” crowd with the “Traditional Martin Luther Reformation” crowd.
  • I will be greatly over simplifying…sorry.



Jews and the Law:

So to get behind what Paul is teaching about the law in Romans 7 we need to know more about the law.

  • What does it mean to be “zealous for the law”?


On paper, “zealous for the law” is easy enough to understand.

  • It means to be a loyal adherent to the law – BDAG.
  • And to forsake this would mean Paul is an apostate – he is a heretic.


But, attempts to understand this get complicated real fast.

  • What Luke means to say depends entirely on how the law related to salvation.
  • We can simplify two approaches that unpack this.


Ethical Obedience and Law:

It is quite possible that the traditional take on Jews’ “law talk” is correct.

  • That is to say, Paul’s law-talk (“works of the law”) referred to obedience as the way “in” to salvation.
  • Obedience to the law was the way to obtain right standing (righteousness) before God.


And since the law was given to the Jews, it was easy to lay on top of this a sense of ethnic superiority.

  • Jews were the gatekeepers to any access one had to be right with God.
  • To get to the law you had to go through Judaism.


Ethnic Badges and Law:

But there is a second idea of how all this “law talk” played out.

  • Essentially, to speak of the law was to speak of, not obedience…
  • But of the badges of membership in the people of God.
  • The badges of membership were circumcision, Sabbath keeping, ritual observance (like food laws), etc.


The badges, not obedience, made you right with God.

  • Why? Because they demonstrated whom the members of the Abrahamic covenant were.
  • And to be saved was to be a member of the covenant.
  • “Salvation came not through achieving a certain number of meritorious works but through belonging to the covenant people of God” – DPL (EP Sanders).


On this view…

  • Obedience did not secure salvation.
  • Obedience was the natural offshoot of “belonging to the covenant people of God”.


Ben Witherington III sums this view up well:

“The obedience one reads about in the OT and early Jewish religion was not obedience in order to obtain right-standing with God, but obedience in response to the divine initiative which was prior”.


This view, even more than the first, was susceptible to ethnic superiority.

  • After all, the badges of membership were all Jewish.



So when Luke speaks of the law in Acts 21 and Paul speaks of the law in Romans 7…

  • To which versions of the law are they referring?


If the first…

  • Then Paul is only fending off a works based salvation.


If the second…

  • His polemic, “is not directed against gaining salvation by doing good works but against believing that salvation was, at least in part, contingent upon belonging to national Israel and observing the Law as a badge of that status” – DPL (Dunn).



Common Sense Time:

Why should we restrict the range of Paul’s beliefs as a Jew (before Christ)?

  • Like all of us, his views surely evolved, changed, slide around, changed emphasis, etc., as he grew and learned.
  • To think that Paul or any other Jew believed the same thing and only the same thing throughout their life is a bit unrealistic.


In fact, a huge critique of Paul is that he seems to be inconsistent when speaking about the law.

  • If he were speaking always and only on one view of the law, this is a fair charge.
  • But I don’t think he is.


Which view – obedience or badges – of “works of the law” is this verse attacking?

  • Romans 2:28–29 (ESV) — 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
  • Doesn’t this verse attack the ethnic dimensions of Judaism – the badges?


And this one:

  • Romans 2:21–23 (ESV) — 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.
  • Obedience?


How about this one – which view works here?

  • Galatians 2:16 (ESV) — 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law [obedience or badges?] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
  • Don’t both views work here?


And this one?

  • Romans 2:25 (ESV) — 25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.


What about our text from Acts?

  • you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs” – Acts 21:21.
  • Badges?



Big Picture:

The main point for Paul in all of his law-talk is this…“But now, the righteousness of God…

  • However Jews thought, including himself, Paul is redefining the whole story around Christ.
  • In Christ, we can say so much for ethnic (badges) or ethical (obedience) roads to God!
  • Only in Christ is the righteousness of God to be found and appropriated.