Paul speaks of the bondage that the law produces, where he uses normal human experience to portray Israel’s’ plight after they received the law at Mount Sinai. In Romans 5, Paul said that before the law came, sin was not imputed. This means that sin was not known: sin wasn’t as clearly revealed to the human conscience. Paul repeats this in Romans 7 and added that when the law came it brought with it the knowledge of sin. It wasn’t that God put man under law, as something that God wanted or originated. Man chose law for self-justification, but then God used the law to bring both sin and salvation to public light.
The modern reader may think it unusual that Paul used the first person in Romans 7 to describe Israel’s plight under the law. When we acknowledge the text as Israel’s story fulfilled in Christ, this personification by Paul standing in for the Jews is expected. A modern exegesis doesn’t immediately see this because it reads outside Paul’s Second Temple period story line. In Lamentations, Jeremiah uses this poetic first person very strongly, when identifying himself with Israel’s fall. Paul was writing in this same tradition. When you consider the narrative of Romans as a whole, about Israel’s fall bringing the good news to the world, then reading Romans 7 as an explanation of Israel’s fall reads entirely naturally.
Paul explained that the knowledge of sin that came through the law, surprisingly made sin more powerful. (Romans 7:811, see also 1 Corinthians 15:56) The knowledge of the law brought Israel into death, by which Paul meant guilt and selfcondemnation. This gives the human an inner sense of alienation from God and from others and leaves us with a sense of emptiness.
This is the deception of sin, that Paul spoke of. Sin doesn’t really alienate us from the love of God. Sin, which becomes pride, gives us this perception of our alienation. We then try to fill our emptiness with all kinds of desires and the self becomes our focus. Paul described a guilt driven religion, in which Israel was filled with enmity towards God and towards others. We see this in Romans 2, with Israel’s judgementalism of those around them. This eventually drove them to crucify Christ, and as we see later in Romans, this is how Paul explained that the world was saved through the fall of Israel.
Paul claimed, “For I do not understand my own actions.” (Romans 7:15) The work of the law driving Israel to greater sin was more a subconscious one. Israel didn’t often possess a conscious awareness and struggle against daily sin. They didn’t have a conscious sense of guilt that they were looking for freedom from, like we often speak of in our churches today. When we see the preaching of Jesus to Israel in the Gospels, we see the stubbornness and inability of Israel in recognising their sinfulness. Paul was referring to something going on inside Israel that was hidden, which brought about the breakup of their communities, that filled their land with destruction.
Paul again described the process by which our sin used the law to deceive us. When we hear the law, we recognise that it is good. We have a desire to be righteous, just like we have a desire to emulate or acquire any other thing we see as good.
But then our sin deceives us. We could say sin here is the desire to maintain self-rule. This takes over and tells us that God won’t accept us because we have broken the law. So, we are then left with no choice but to try to establish our own freedom, with all kinds of inhospitable acts towards others.
This happens even more when the law comes, because we perceive in the law a greater threat against ourselves. This was the subconscious way that the law worked in Israel, hidden by their pride. Instead of seeing their sin, they believed they had a special status with God as custodians of his law. This is the reason religious people can be worse in their end than they were in their beginning. Paul claimed he was perfect under the law and yet he was a killer. (Philippians 3:6) The Pharisee in the temple thanked God for his righteousness. (Luke 18:11) They had succeeded to cover over their sin.
Sometimes we say that Paul wrote Romans to help the struggling conscience of the individual, and that he was speaking of faith for this reason. This is because our churches have a lot of people in them who struggle with their conscience. But this wasn’t really the case in Paul’s day. Sin was publicly indulged in as normal. It was easily justified in those cultures. Israel wasn’t struggling with their conscience.
They were proud. (Romans 2:17-21) Paul wasn’t speaking about faith and law from our point of view today, but rather from his own point of view: building a united family from divergent backgrounds. Law hindered this unity, faithfulness in love fulfilled it.
So then, what did Paul mean by saying the law came, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure?”
(Romans 7:13) Did the law reveal Israel’s sin and prepare them for faith? Well, kind of, but not really. It revealed sin on a shallow level. The law pointed out their sin, but the deception of their sin was able to cover itself and go on unnoticed. Israel largely went on with no genuine admission of sin. They rather used the law to point out the sin of others.
One of Paul’s purposes in Romans was to point out how sin was revealed. In Romans 1:17-18, he said sin was revealed by the gospel. The word in Greek is apokaluptó, which means to unveil something that was hidden by the flesh. Paul said the gospel unveiled both the faithfulness of God and also his wrath against sin. This means the gospel exposed human sin, and the contrasted righteousness of Christ judged sin in his own life for what it truly is. It is what Paul said in Romans 8, Christ condemned sin in the flesh, by exposing it, making it naked and visible to the world on the cross. (Romans 8:3, Colossians 2:15)
This is what God used Israel to do, and this was a major way in which their election was fulfilled. And the law was an important part in this process. As Paul explained in Romans 5-7, the law drove Israel into deeper sin, in which they finally revealed their enmity against God by crucifying Christ. In doing this, Israel revealed the righteousness of God and the love of God all in one act of the cross. Israel revealed the sin of humanity to the world. They also revealed the faithfulness and love of God to the world. As Paul went on to express in Romans 9-11, the fall of Israel led to the salvation of the world.
This is the process that Paul begins to describe in Romans 5-7. The law helped evil to be revealed and then also defeated on the cross. Let’s get back to Paul’s main point in this wider section of scripture. We see it again in Romans 5:20-21, “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.” It was the exchange of the reign of the law in the old Adam, with the reign of grace within the new global community. And the eternal life Paul has in view is something we will look at in the following chapters. Paul uses return from exile language from Isaiah to show that eternal life is a renewed cosmos, creation and community.
Paul continues speaking about this through Romans 6 & 7. The reign of law is put to death in the body of Christ, meaning through his blood, his death. If we are baptised into Christ, we receive God’s forgiveness through Christ when he died, which means the law no longer has condemning power over our conscience. It is forgiven by the love of Christ on the cross.And this also means the law no longer has a separating and destroying influence in our relationships. We are no longer judging others by the law, but rather seeking to restore, as God is restoring us. It doesn’t mean that sin is no longer important, but just that the church adopts Christ’s approach to healing one another.
“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6) So instead of relating to others through the law, we are now called to serve in a new way in the Spirit. When Paul speaks of the Spirit, he means the unity of the church. He is referring to Abraham’s one family, which is brought together into one by the Spirit, not by the law, not by the flesh. When Paul uses the terms “grace,” or “Spirit,” he is referring to our one table in Christ, meaning a call to serve others, rather than to use the law to foster our own personal or splinter group interests.
When Paul refers to the Spirit, he is referring to the Spirit’s ministry through the book of Acts, where the Spirit was including all people and nations into the one family of God.The tongues in the book of Acts were the sign, the receiving of all others from diverse backgrounds, without the law, was the message. This was the Spirit’s work, building the one church.
We see the similar discussion in Galatians 5. There, Paul speaks of the works of the flesh, “doing that which we do not desire to do,” in a similar way as he speaks of them in Romans 7. In Galatians, the topic is the same: a serving life towards the whole body, Jewish and gentile believers, rather than serving the interest of the self or our splinter groups. The freedom of Galatians 5 isn’t a personalised freedom in faith, but a freedom to serve each other, not hindered by separations justified by the law. This brings forth the “hope of righteousness” that the Prophets spoke of: a renewed world through renewed relationships. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
As we trace Paul through Romans we see what he is getting at by describing the way in which Israel brought salvation to the world through their fall. It wasn’t through their pride that Israel brought about this salvation, but through their humility in their fall. This is what Paul is getting at throughout his letter: destroying our boasting against one another, so we will receive and serve each other simply by faith. In the same way, Paul later says, the gentiles “who were not a people, but now are the people of God,” should not boast against the Jews.
(Romans 11:18) It was the Jew’s fall and suffering that brought salvation to us. We owe them a debt of gratitude, compassion and service, just as they served us. Election isn’t a “special privilege,” but a call to suffer, just as Jesus suffered. Now we are also elect, we are called to suffer for others. This is God’s image of love to the world.
The overall theme of Paul in Romans, and the way this theme works out in Romans 7, is very clear: Paul is calling Jews and gentiles to serve one other in love, because being baptised into Christ means the law is no longer a driving force of disunity among us.