By Wayne S. Walker
A false concept that is very prevalent in the religious world today is that we are in some way still amenable to the Old Testament law. Many people believe that all one has to do to be saved is to keep the Ten Commandments, or that we can use instrumental music in worship because David did. These folks have never learned that there is a distinct and vital difference between the Old and New Testaments. During the period when men were beginning to restore the first century church in this country, one of Alexander Campbell’s early discourses, his “Sermon on the Law” in 1816, caused a great deal of controversy when he sought to delineate the proper division of the Bible, whereas most other groups insisted upon equal authority for both covenants in the life of the Christian. One passage which deals with the subject is Romans 7:1-25 where Paul says we are discharged from the law.
In verses 1-6, Paul draws an analogy from the husband-wife relationship. Speaking to those who know the concept of law, he says that a man is under the principles and precepts of a law as long as that man lives (verse 1). He then illustrates the idea by stating that if a woman is married to a man and the man dies, she is free from the law of her husband to marry another. However, if her husband is still alive and she marries another she is an adulteress (with the exception of a divorce for fornication, Matt. 19:9). Yet, if her first husband is dead, she is not an adulteress if she remarries because she is loosed from the law of that husband (vv. 2-3).
This analogy may help some who are confused and wonder why we “keep parts of the Old Testament” but not other parts (when in fact we keep none of it). The law of the first husband, to which the woman agreed, might have been to darn his underwear, fix gravy with rice, and starch his socks. After his death and her remarriage, the law of the second husband might have been to dam his underwear, fix gravy with potatoes, and no starching socks. She does not continue to starch socks as her first husband wanted, because she has been loosed completely from that law, even though she still does things in it as her second husband wants. She darns his underwear, not because it was the law of the first husband but because it is the law of the second. In like manner, we obey certain principles found in the Old Testament, not because they are in the Old Testament but because they are in the New.
Therefore, Paul concludes that we are dead to the law (vv. 4-6). To what law is he referring? He specifies the law that contained the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” (see Ex. 20:17). How are we dead to the law? It is by the body of Christ when He hung at Calvary, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). Why are we dead to the law? In order that we might be joined to another, to Christ and His law, and bring forth fruit unto God, thus serving in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6-11).
In verse 7, an imaginary question is raised about the nature of the law. Is the law then sinful? Did God cause us to sin by giving the law? Paul says certainly not. The purpose of the law was to define sin and condemn it. “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” The law contained “the commandment, which was ordained to life” (v. 10). The design of the law was to teach the Jews how to live so as to please God and receive His favor. “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord” (Lev. 18:5).
We are told, “Wherefore the law is holy” because it prescribed a commandment that was “holy, and just, and good” (v. 12). Paul continues, “For we know that the law is spiritual” (v. 14) since its purpose was spiritual in nature. It pointed the Israelites to the Messiah. “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Finally he says, “I consent unto the law that it is good” (v. 16) in that it served the purpose for which God instituted it. Thus, the law was not evil in and of itself. Yet, at the same time it was not perfect because it made no provisions for remission of sins (Heb. 10:3-4). Therefore, all under the law were under only condemnation if they disobeyed, for there was no avenue of release. God never gave the old covenant to be a final method of bringing men into perfection. It was given for a specific purpose: to prepare men for the coming of Christ who would bring into existence a complete means for perfecting man.
In verses 8-24, Paul talks about the effect of the law. Because of what has been previously said, the law was one of condemnation and death (vv. 8-14). Sin took advantage or occasion of the law. Since the law required perfect obedience, it gave sin force by subjecting every transgression to the penalty of death. Yet, it supplied neither help nor hope to the transgressor (v. 8). When a man does not know the law, sin is “dead” (i.e., “dormant”) to him; he feels alive. But when he comes in contact with the law, sin comes alive and the commandment which was meant to tell a person how to live becomes a means of death. Paul says sin deceived and slew me. I died, or saw myself as dead through the law and its penalty (vv. 9-11). Did the law cause the death? No, sin caused the death, working through the law (that is, the law prescribed the penalty of death) which was given that sin might appear sinful (vv. 12-14).
There follows a description of one under the law without Christ (vv. 15-24). Paul projects himself into this situation and says that which I do (sin spurred on by rebellion at the command) I allow not (I do not endorse it to be good). What I want to do (keep the command) I do not, and what I hate (breaking the command) I do. But even though I do that which I do not want to do (break the law), I still recognize the law to be good (w. 15-16). In me, my flesh, dwells no good thing. (This is not a statement of total hereditary depravity but of the result of sin through the law). I want to do good, but I do not find the means to do it, either in myself or the law. For the law provided the knowledge of, not the cure for, sin. And in order to do good, we must first be freed from evil (vv. 17-20).
There is a law, Paul goes on, that when I want to do good, evil is there tempting me (vv. 21-24). 1 delight in the law of God in that I want to do what is right. But there is a different kind of law in my members, warring against the law of my mind (the desire to do good) and it brings me into captivity to the law of sin (cf. Gal. 5:16-17). This is the effect of trying to keep the old law, of seeking justification on the basis of law. It is complete dominion and captivity to sin resulting in a wretched state. “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death,” this miserable condition? Not the law!
In verse 25 Paul tells us that the answer to the question is Jesus Christ our Lord who was sent by the grace of God. Jesus promised that, when all was fulfilled, the law would pass away (Matt. 5:17-18). Since Christ is the “end of the law” (its fulfillment, Rom. 10:4), the law has served its purpose and was taken out of the way. Christ came to “redeem them that were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). He did this by abolishing “in his flesh and the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15).
The old covenant itself prophesied its own replacement (Heb. 8:6-13). When Jesus came to do the will of God, He took away the first covenant so that He could establish the second, “by the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” ((Heb. 10:7-10). Jesus paid the penalty, thus providing perfect pardon. Having done this, He took that old law, which did not offer perfect pardon but only the penalty of death for sin, out of the way. As a result, Paul concludes in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
This is why we say that we are justified by grace and not the law. That is not to say that we are not under law to Christ
(1 Cor. 9:21) but that the law is not the grounds of our justification (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:11). Even if Christ did come and take our place as an atonement for sin, the law made no provision for such a substitution as long as it was in force. He had to take it out of the way, giving His own law which provided for His sacrifice to be valid (note Heb. 7:11-14). If we are still under that old law, Christ’s death on the cross avails nothing. If we seek justification by that law, Paul warns us, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 7, pp. 211-212
April 4, 1985