Teaching series from Romans

Sanctification Under Law

Romans 7:1-25

Teaching t07943


We need to begin by reviewing some crucial terms.

The most important terms are "under law" and "under grace." You can see Paul contrasting these in 6:14b (read). These two terms summarize two totally different ways of approaching God. In general, "under law" means that you do something for God; "under grace" means that you trust Christ to do something for you (charis). Religion instructs us to approach God under law; Christianity invites us to approach God under grace. (Religion appeals to our intuitive sense about how to approach God; grace is counter-intuitive--we have to be convinced of and get used to it.)

When it comes to getting God's acceptance (justification), you can pursue this in on of two very different ways.

You can pursue it "under law," which means you try to earn God's acceptance as a wage for your good works. Paul spends the first three chapters of Romans refuting this by showing that God's standard is so high that no one could ever attain it (3:23).

On the other hand, you can pursue God's acceptance "under grace." This means depending not on your works for God, but on Christ's work for you--letting him earn your acceptance through his perfect life and atoning death. If you approach God in this way, he gives his acceptance to you as a free and permanent gift (3:24). (GOSPEL)

But what about serving God and pursuing his will for your life (sanctification)? Isn't this important after you have been accepted by God? Indeed it is--but you'll need to choose how you will serve God--in one of two very different ways.

"Under law" says you should serve God by your own moral will-power. Perhaps because you fear God will reject you if you don't, perhaps out of gratitude for his acceptance--your job is now to focus on God's commands and try as hard as you can to obey them.

This seems obvious--but it is the wrong way! As long as we try to serve God in this way, we will never understand or benefit from serving God under grace. This is why before Paul explains how to serve under grace, he spend a whole chapter arguing why serving God under law is a blind alley. He gives two reasons . . . 

God has already delivered Christians from the Law (7:1-6)

The first reason is that God himself has delivered us from it! Read 7:1. The principle is that death delivers us from law's authority. How many traffic cops do you see at the cemetery trying to collect unpaid tickets?

This same principle applies to marriage (read 7:2,3). Imagine a woman who is married to a demanding husband. He is righteous, but never helps her. She is nevertheless obligated (under Jewish civil law) to remain married to him, even if she has met a wonderful, loving man. Only if her husband dies is she free to remarry the second man.

What does this have to do with sanctification? Lots--read 7:4-6. Prior to meeting Christ, we are "married" to the Law--obligated to try to keep it by our own power. This is what Paul calls serving God "in the oldness of the letter." But God delivers us from this obligation--not by having the Law die (it is eternal as the expression of God's moral character)--but by having us die to the Law (through our identification with Christ) so that we are now "married" to him and can have his power work through us to bear fruit for God. This is what Paul calls serving "in the newness of the Spirit."

This is radical! Paul knows some of his readers are objecting at this point (as some of us may be):"What's so bad about trying to serve God by the oldness of the letter? Why do we need to be delivered from it? Are you implying that the Law is actually evil?" Paul answers these questions in 7:7-24 by describing his own experience trying to serve God under the law. I'm sure glad he included this, because it helps me to understand some of my own deepest spiritual struggles. I wonder if you can relate to what he describes. At any rate, he relates three painful lessons he learned in "Law School". . . 

3 painful lessons from "Law School" (7:7-24)

Read 7:7. The first thing Paul does is to sweep aside any suggestion that God's law is sin. To the contrary, the Law defines what sin is and exposes its presence in our hearts.

Over against fluctuating cultural standards and consciences that can become seared, God's moral law provides objective, absolute moral standards that define how he has designed us to live. We can look to it for unchanging direction on our sexuality, treatment of other people's property, etc. This is a wonderful provision!

But the Law also personally exposes sin within our own hearts. Like an MRI, it has the power to look beneath the surface and reveal more deep-seated, attitudinal sins. This is what Paul is emphasizing in 7:7. It is significant that he does not mention something external like murder or adultery or theft. As a Christian, he is pursuing the very heart of God--and he runs up against a terrible realization. His heart is full of coveting (Ex. 20:17). Coveting is an internal attitude that gives birth to the external behaviors. This prohibition is the negative counterpart to what Jesus says is the heart of God's Law--to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-40).

God wants more from us than merely to not murder or steal or blaspheme him, etc. He wants us to love him enough that we trust his care of our lives and thank him for all things in our lives instead of internally resenting him because he has burned us. He wants us to love others enough to pursue their good and rejoice over their blessings--not to envy what they have and rejoice inwardly when they fall or lose what we wanted. As long as my heart covets like this, I am fundamentally at odds with God's heart.

God's Law will expose this kind of wickedness in your heart--but it cannot fix it. In fact, if you try to fix it by yourself, you'll discover another problem . . . 

Read 7:8-13. The Law not only can't help you overcome internal sins like coveting; it actually aggravates the problem by stimulating your sin-nature into more devious activity.

When I simply try to stop coveting a friend's situation, my mind becomes more focused on all that they have that I don't have--and I find more and more reasons to covet their situation! I also find that my sin-nature is remarkably adaptive; it is glad to become religious, as long as it can still in control. It will stop coveting crass things like someone's car or salary--but I will begin to covet other Christians' spiritual gifts, leadership position, the way others praise and respect them, etc. It will become much more subtle--not pouting when I don't get enough praise, but learning how to extract attention and praise from others.

Merely becoming aware of it and trying to stop it is a hopeless project. Listen to C. S. Lewis' experience in this area: "I have found out ludicrous and terrible things abut my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sort of thoughts that do come. And, will you believe it, one out of every three is a thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up comes the thought 'What an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!' I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I'm going to be and how he will admire me . . . When you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It's like fighting the hydra . . . There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration . . ."1

This leads Paul to a painful but crucially important realization, which he relates in 7:14-23 (read). Did you notice the conspicuous absence of any reference to dependence on God or the power of the Holy Spirit? This is Paul's account of trying to obey God's law by his own moral will-power.

The key lesson is 7:18. As a Christian, I have the desire to obey God's will, but I don’t have the power to do this in any deep-seated way. Instead, my desire to do God's will is always thwarted by the cleverness and power of my sin-nature. Even though my life is in many ways less overtly wicked than it was before, I realize that my sin-nature is so wily and powerful that I will never be able to defeat it. I am never going to be able to truly love God and others by my own strength.

Where do you do from here?

Have you ever come to this realization about your own life? If you have, then you know that you can't remain here very long because of the cognitive dissonance it produces. You have to respond in one of three ways.

You can be honest about your moral impotence, and just give yourself over to sin. This is how many people who grew up in legalistic forms of Christianity respond. This is a tragic response, because it will lead to greater damage in your life, and because God has a solution to this, as we'll see.

Or you can dilute God's law so that it consists only in relatively easy, superficial things (EXAMPLES). Then you can compare yourself to others and convince yourself that you are righteous. This is the self-righteous response, and I think that many of us here (including myself) tend to do this. This will never attract others to Christ, nor will it bring true freedom and fulfillment into our own lives.

Or you can realize that you are on the verge of a great break-through and respond the way Paul does. Read 7:24,25a. Instead of diving into sin in despair, instead of becoming superficially self-righteous, Paul acknowledges his bondage--then looks outside of himself and the Law for help from Jesus to set him free.

Just as we must come to the point where we admit it is impossible to earn God's acceptance by our good works, and turn to Christ to earn it for us--we must come to the point where we admit it is impossible to serve God by our own power, and turn to Christ for his power to do this.

When we do this, we discover that he will empower us to gradually fulfill God's will for our lives through the Holy Spirit (8:4ff.). This is serving God "under grace/in the newness of the Spirit," and we will spend all of NEXT WEEK studying how to do this.

In the meantime, I've asked my friend Ed Burgett to share his own experiences in this area . . . 


1 Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography. p. 105.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt