Romans 7:1-12

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at

In this episode, we see how Paul’s argument in Romans holds together the important place of law and justice, alongside the necessity for forgiveness and a fresh start.

An exposition of this passage can be found at 18. The Law and Sin.

The next episode in this series is The Fight. The previous episode is Free to be Slaves.


What happens when the law meets people like us?

Tony Payne: Phillip, this podcast is not the only thing we work on together. I’ve been helping you recently with your next book, which is about the place of the Ten Commandments in the Christian life.

Phillip Jensen: Yes, it’s been great fun working on it. The Ten Commandments is a very important part of God’s Word. But what place does this great centrepiece of the law hold in a grace community like the Christian church? 

TP: We tend to think of the Ten Commandments as something we’ve been liberated from, as we are not under law but under grace. And so the Ten Commandments as the climax or ultimate summary of Old Testament law has dropped out of our Christian cultural understanding and framing of the Christian life. And it’s very important to come back to it. 

PJ: And you can talk about loving God and loving your neighbour. But how do you go about loving your neighbour? What will that involve in actions? ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ is a summary of the law. But if you don’t know the law, you don’t understand the summary. 

TP: And as we come to this next part of Romans, we’ll be facing the question of how we should think about the law, given that we are so focused on grace and forgiveness.

PJ: The opening few chapters of Romans do talk about the law, for example in chapter 3 how we are not justified by the law and chapter 4 which talks about the law in terms of Abraham. But F. F. Bruce, in his commentary on Romans, says the word ‘law’ is used five or six different ways within the same letter. But ‘the Law’ is referring to the Old Testament law, the Mosaic law, and it drops out of the argument until you get to Romans 5:20 where it says,

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

The law comes in again when we were least expecting it in chapter 5:20. But the following chapter Romans 6 talks about grace and sin rather than the law. Halfway through Romans 6:14, the question of law comes up again:

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

But again he answers this in terms of grace and sin, without reference to the law. So he has dangled the law subject twice without reference to it until you come to today’s passage in chapter 7.

TP: Yes, there’s a lot about grace in these chapters. In fact, that’s been our focus in the last several weeks. And before we talk more about law and where law does fit in, there was a lovely illustration that you drew my attention to, about the whole subject of grace that just came out in the media and the papers just this week about the Abdallahs, the family who so tragically lost their children in Oatlands in Sydney in the car accident. 

PJ: Yes, three children and a cousin, four kids who were just killed by a drunk driver as they walked along on the footpath. 

TP: Quite close to where I live. It’s a suburban Sydney street. It could have been any family in our street, it could have been anyone.

PJ: Yes, it was a shocking killing of those poor children. 

TP: But they’ve been prominent and very much admired. I think it came out again in publicity around Scott Morrison’s recent biography in his regard for them, his place in that whole thing. In the process of that whole terrible tragedy, they exhibited a most remarkable degree of graciousness and forgiveness towards the offender.

PJ: Yes, and from a very explicitly Christian background, that I couldn’t do anything else but forgive him because Jesus has forgiven me. Forgiveness is what we believe in. And so they’re putting forgiveness into practice rather than just accepting my own forgiveness and holding judgment against everybody else. I’ve accepted forgiveness from the Lord Jesus, and I must extend forgiveness to other people. And it was startling because it’s hard to think of anything much more tragic, much more arousing of outrage than having three of your children killed like that by a senseless, drunken driver, a reckless, stupid act. Anybody else you think will be crying out for the death penalty. But they were concerned for forgiveness for the man.

TP: They still were satisfied that he was convicted of the crime. And in the sense, they were satisfied that justice was done.

PJ: Yes, justice is required. But forgiveness can still happen too. And so I understand from the newspaper that the father of the children has visited the perpetrator in jail and shared with him the gospel of the Lord Jesus. The newspaper article speaks about the man now becoming a Christian as a result of the grace and forgiveness that the father has, mixed with justice. And so how does law and justice hold together with grace and forgiveness? This is a live example of someone confusing our world by doing something so strange as forgiving the person who’s justly in prison. 

TP: It’s hard for our world to cope with. There’s a comment on this article that you’ve highlighted here about this extraordinary phenomenon of forgiveness. The commenter says: “Forgiving is for fools. It’s how we have this huge DV [domestic violence] crisis. Repeated understanding and soft treatment for the perpetrator. No bail.”

PJ: We’ve got a lot of domestic violence problems at the moment; this is a hot issue at the moment. But if forgiving is for fools, that’s a terrible view of life, isn’t it? It’s such a self-righteous, priggish view of life that there is no forgiveness. If you’re a high moralist, there is no forgiveness. We’re supposed to be an inclusive, tolerant society, but actually, there are very strong, exclusive, intolerant aspects of society that come out of morality. Christians are very strong in morality because we’re very strong on forgiveness. But you see quite clearly that the person who wrote that comment can’t put the two together. 

TP: As if it’s got to be one or the other. It has got to be complete tolerance and permissiveness or judgmentalism and vengeance. The two cannot coexist. And this is the extraordinary thing about Romans, of course. All the way through, Romans tells a story about how God can be just and the one who justifies the ungodly. And in much the same way, in these chapters in Romans, Paul is wanting to say: how does the reality and goodness of the law–the Ten Commandments and all Old Testament law–relate to all this grace? Are we saying that the law was just like a bad first attempt on God’s behalf? That it was actually terrible? How do we think about law if we’re so strong on grace?

PJ: Before we pass on from that comment about ‘forgiveness is for fools’—the great failure of people is to think you can have forgiveness without atonement. Forgiveness without atonement, ultimately, is permissiveness. That’s what that person in the comments is reacting to, because they don’t understand the kind of disjunction that happens by Jesus coming into the world, dying for our sins, rising again, and therefore fundamentally changing the landscape. Before the coming of the Lord Jesus, we are under sin, we are under law, and we’re in slavery to sin, which is the second half of Romans 6. And we continue to bear fruit for death when we are slaves to sin, and all the law does is condemn us. 

And the law does more than that, doesn’t it? It teaches us about our sin, it increases our sin. We’ll come back to that because you’re going to explain that to me in a few minutes. 

But the law does not save me at all. And so what we need is death, death to sin. Death frees us from slavery. And that’s what Jesus’ death does. And that’s what our baptism into his death does. So we not only need atonement, we also need repentance. And so forgiveness comes with this combination of atonement and repentance, not just a blanket, “Oh, it’s alright. Children are children, they make things bad. Humans just do that.” No, you need someone to pay the price, and you need a fresh start. And you need to accept that price in repentance, and accept the fresh start, which will give you new birth. There are so many things here, aren’t there? 

TP: There are indeed and we could probably spend the rest of this episode just teasing out how those themes are not only illustrated in the story of the Abdallahs, but really throughout Romans. I’m thinking of that book that was called Where Justice and Mercy Meet—that’s a great summary of what happens at the cross, where these two things that we find irreconcilable are reconciled together. It’s why the Abdallahs can forgive, because they believe in justice and they believe in atonement. But without those things, we are utterly baffled by it. 

But back to Romans 7, what functional role does the law have? Or is the fact that the law condemns us, is that somehow a knock on the law? Is that saying that law is somehow to be disparaged?

PJ: Well, that’s the second section of chapter 7. The first part of it is this parallel he uses with marriage, and the need for the disjunction, the change, the death. 

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.

You see, the only way to be free from the law and its condemnation is death. The illustration of marriage shows the only way you can break the marriage law is death. But we have died with Christ and come to new life. And so there is now a different way of living than we had previously. But Tony, you notice that phrase is there again which comes from the end of chapter five, about the law in some ways increasing our sinfulness.

TP: You’re referring to Romans 7:5 

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. 

PJ: Yes. How are our sinful passions aroused by the law?

TP: Well, in one sense, I want to answer that question by saying, I think we need to keep reading because that’s what he goes on to talk about.

PJ: All right, read on. 

TP: Romans 7:7-12

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.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 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. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

PJ: How was he alive before the law came? Or how does the law “You shall not covet” stimulate the desire to covet?

TP: Does it do it by defining and outlining what God’s requirement is? Since the essence of sin is my rejection of God and of God’s way, then as soon as I hear what God’s requirement is and what he wants me not to do quite specifically, my first reaction is, well, I want to do it, because I’m a rebel against God. 

PJ: So that sense of rebellion. I remember Bishop John Reid, speaking on this passage and speaking about his youth. He was riding in a tram in Melbourne during the 1940-1950s, and there was a great campaign against public spitting at the time. And there’s a big sign in the tram saying “No spitting”. And he said, no-one else was in the tram at the time and he was just looking at this sign. And as he travelled, he kept on looking at the sign and getting more and more annoyed. And so before he left the tram ride, he fulfilled his rebellious desire, and he said it had never occurred to him in his life to spit before. But now he was told not to, he did. It’s a strange one, isn’t it?

TP: It is, but it’s certainly human nature. We identify with that. The more that someone tries to stop me from doing something, the more I’m inclined to think. Why are you stopping me from doing that?

PJ: I suppose it’s what we call the forbidden fruit syndrome, isn’t it? When something is forbidden, it makes it that much more intriguing, fascinating, interesting to do.

TP: But there’s something of an educational element to this as well. It’s not just that I’ve been told not to do something so I just feel like rebelling. It’s that I didn’t really know what covetousness was if the law hadn’t defined it for me.

PJ: And I was covetous all along. But now that I have it defined for me, that doesn’t stop me doing it. That actually educates me to do it better.

TP: It fills out for me what it is that I should not do and dares me not to do. 

PJ: Yes. We keep educating a generation of people in our schools not to use drugs, which means we have a very highly educated generation of drug users. It hasn’t actually stopped the drug users. It’s titillated them with the possibility of using drugs, and the thought of the thing that they don’t want me to enjoy leads people to using it. 

TP: Yes, quite so. So this picks up the sentence you mentioned earlier from Romans 5 that when the law came, it just increased the trespass. It magnified and clarified and educated people in sin, in how to break the law, because before that, there was no law.

PJ: So what we need is something to break the cycle–the cycle of sin, law, death–because law is increasing that sense of sinfulness and driving me more and more to death. And what will break it comes in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, comes in him paying the penalty for our condemnation, and more so by his resurrection, by pouring out his Spirit. So there’s that very important verse, Romans 7:6,

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.

And this is because the Old Testament promised us in Ezekiel 36-37 that in the new age and the new kingdom, the law of God is going to be written not on tablets of stone, but on the hearts of God’s people, and that the Spirit is going to be within them, moving them to follow and obey the law. So it’s not the throwing away of Israel’s law, but rather the spiritual embracing of a new life, a new birth, a new way of living by the Spirit.

TP: You know, this is very like what you were saying earlier with the Abdallahs. That is, you must have atonement, you must have a payment that is done objectively by God for our sin. But you must also have our connection with that atonement. You must have repentance, you must have faith. There must be an embracing of what God has done for us on our behalf for there to be a real change to happen. And from the point of view of God’s work, he does that in us by his Spirit. It’s the Spirit that connects us to the work of atonement, that therefore makes a new life and a whole new way of holding together mercy and justice possible.

PJ: Yes. And I think that’s where Paul is heading in Romans. This is only the third reference to the Spirit in Romans, but after this Romans 8 is all about the Holy Spirit. In fact, I think chapter 8 has more references to the Holy Spirit than any other chapter in the Bible. And so Paul is preparing the way for what he is going to say about this Spirit-led new life in Christ Jesus. 

TP: But in the meantime, he’s saying that on its own, without the work of God’s Spirit in us to liberate us for a whole new life, if you just put people like us and the law together, you just get an increase of sin.

PJ: Yes, that’s all that happens. Condemnation, death. That’s all that happens. And so trying to renovate society by teaching the law is a lost cause. It will not work because we are sinful. We can’t blame the law, though. There’s nothing wrong with the law. It’s just that it doesn’t work for the purpose of renovating the human heart.

TP: And that’s what he also goes on to talk about in the second half of Romans 7, which we’ll talk about next week. He says that the law is good. That’s kind of the first big point he’s making. We’ve been released from the law in the same way we’ve been released from a marriage when we’ve died. The marriage law is good. And the law itself is good. It had the terrible effect of increasing sin because of who we are, but the law itself is good.

Next week in the second half of Romans 7, he’ll dig more into this facet of the fact that we’re not good, that there’s something wrong with us in our flesh, in the very way that we are, that renders us incapable of doing the good thing that we recognize in the law. 

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