It’s been a while since I put up the last post in this series, on Romans 1 – 7. So let me remind you of a few things.
First, up to this point, Paul’s discussion of the Spirit in Romans has been built heavily on the Old Testament prophecies related to the Spirit, especially Deuteronomy 30:6 —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
This passage refers back to the beginning of the second giving of the Law in chapter 10 of Deuteronomy — just before the Israelites were to cross the Jordan River and begin the campaign to conquer the Promised Land —
(Deu 10:12-20 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.
At the beginning of the Law, God tells the Israelites to “circumcise therefore the foreskin[s] of your heart[s]” and to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul.” There then follow many particular commands, followed by a series of curses that will befall Israel should they fail to do this. Finally, in chapter 30, God through Moses states that even if Israel were to rebel, God would save a remnant for himself, for this remnant, he’ll circumcise their hearts himself — rather than expecting them to do it for themselves — and as a result, “you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Thus, the commands of chapter 10 would be honored by God’s remnant because of God’s operation on their hearts.
Paul tells us that God has now fulfilled this promise through his Spirit —
(Rom 2:25-29 ESV) 25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 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.
V. 29 is a plain allusion to Deu 30:6. Notice the flow of Paul’s thought. To be a true Jew, one must keep the “precepts of the law.” And the only circumcision that matters is Deu 30:6 circumcision: circumcision of the heart by the Spirit. Thus, Paul considers keeping the law and having the Spirit as parallels, indeed, two sides of the same coin. But they are not, of course, the same thing. They are two different things that correspond.
In chapter 5, we see that, through the Spirit, the love of God — the central command of Deuteronomy found in 10:12 — has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit.
(Rom 5:3-5 ESV) 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Again, you can’t help but hear echoes of Deuteronomy here.
We next turn to chapter 7.
(Rom 7:4 ESV) 4 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.
Paul declares that we died to the law through the crucifixion of Jesus, so that we may “bear fruit for God.” It’s not just bearing fruit — it’s also for whom we bear fruit. We bear fruit for God because we now love God.
But there’s a problem. We are still sinners —
(Rom 7:22-24 ESV) 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
If God were to judge us strictly by how we live, no one could make it! Our weakness as broken, flawed humans makes it impossible to obey even what we understand of God’s will. Thus, our bodies become “bodies of death” because we just can’t escape our fallen natures.
(Rom 8:1-2 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Now, if words mean anything at all, v. 1 says that there are no damned Christians. I’ve heard many a person say something like, “He is my brother in Christ but I’m not sure whether he’s saved.” Can’t be. All Christians are saved, all the time. Rom 8:1 says so. (Other verses, too.)
But I reject the doctrine “once saved, always saved” and the Perserverance of the Saints. Rather, Christians can fall away. I’ve seen it happen. But once they so fall as to become damned, they are no longer Christians or brothers. Rather, they’ve become enemies of God and his kingdom because they are in rebellion against the gospel.
V. 2 speaks of freedom from “the law of sin and death.” These words appear repeatedly in chapter 7 and refer to the damnation that we deserve because of our inability to actually merit God’s salvation. But this means that the “law of sin and death” is, in fact, the “law of God” combined with our fallen nature. It’s not the Old Testament, now repealed. The law of sin and death is the law of God in which we delight — but which we fail to obey.
Harken back to 7:22-24. Paul first mentions the “law of God” — which is God’s revealed will for how we should live. Then he refers to “another law” or a “law of sin” that dwells in our bodies. This is our fallen nature — our inability to obey sufficiently. Thus, in 8:2, the “law of sin and death” is our fallen nature, but it only damns us because God’s law damns us if we don’t obey. It’s God’s law plus our fallen nature, working together to damn.
(Rom 8:3-4 ESV) 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
V. 3 confirms this conclusion. The law of God — in which we delight — cannot save us, because it is “weakened by the flesh.” The only cure is not a better law. After all, Paul had said —
(Rom 7:12-14 ESV) 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
— the law is holy, righteous, and good. The law isn’t the problem. The problem is “sin, producing death in me through what is good” because “I am of the flesh.”
So we cannot obey so as to deserve salvation. It cannot be done. What’s the cure? Well, it’s Jesus, because he condemned sin in the flesh. He condemned the “law of sin and death” by defeating it through the cross and his perfect obedience.
The result is that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” because we are in Christ and so in his perfection. And for those who are in Christ — and therefore have no condemnation — we “walk not according the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Now, Paul will have more to say on what this means as he goes, but it’s clearly not the same as exact obedience to God’s laws — because that’s not possible. Paul is not promising us perfect obedience or perfect knowledge of God’s will. Rather, he says those in Christ Jesus “walk … according to the Spirit,” which id plainly not the same thought as “walk according to all God’s laws.”
Paul invites us into a different way of thinking — and if we miss the turn, we turn into legalists and find ourselves back in chapter 7, which is quite plainly not where God wants us to be.
To this point, Paul has told us that the Spirit circumcises our hearts, having the same sense as in Deuteronomy. That means, per Deu 10:16, we will no longer be “stubborn,” but will instead “walk in all [God’s] ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” Notice the parallel use of “walk” in Rom 8:4 and Deu 10:12. And notice that the emphasis in this passage, alluded to by Paul back in Rom 5:5, is the state of our hearts. Indeed, the entire discussion centers on having circumcised hearts, which is a metaphor for hearts dedicated to God. It all about our hearts.
Now, there’s a popular bulletin article that talks about how terrible it is that some denominations focus on the state of our hearts. Well, unlearn that lesson! Jesus teaches that the greatest command is —
(Mar 12:29-30 ESV) 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'”
And this is all about our hearts. That’s the most important thing, Jesus says, and it makes sense. And, therefore, to “walk … according to the Spirit” is first and foremost to have our hearts changed by God — through the Spirit — to love God this much.
Paul, of course, mentions the “law of the Spirit,” which defeats the law of sin and death. Plainly, this third law is neither “the law of God” in which we delight nor the “law of sin and death” but is rather a new way of being — that is, a way of living in relationship with God where God lives in us through his Spirit, changing our hearts to be more pleasing to him.
It’s standard cant among the 20th Century Churches of Christ to teach that the “law of the Spirit” is simply new laws found in the New Testament that replace the Law of Moses found in the Old Testament. That conclusion can only be reached by ignoring a very large portion of the the Bible, especially all of Romans that has preceded this verse. I mean, that argument is to replace one “law of sin and death” with another — because we can’t obey either one.
Ask any preacher for the conservative Churches to list the laws we must obey, and he’ll refuse. He’ll likely refer you to the entire New Testament! At least the rabbis could list the 613 commands of the Law of Moses. There was a stopping point! But the new “law of the Spirit” (falsely called) is an even more unbearable burden than the Law of Moses.
This is profoundly bad exegesis. Indeed, it’s not exegesis at all because it ignores all the rest of the book, and leads to conclusions such as —
Now, friends, should we be legalists? If you mean should we keep the law of Moses or follow human creeds or traditions, or can we earn our salvation, the answer is a resounding “No!” If you mean are we under divine law, the law of Christ, that we must keep it, in fact all of it, to be saved, the answer is emphatically “Yes!”
Don’t worry about people calling you derisive names. Just obey Jesus in all things.
Limestone Church of Christ. This is not an unusual interpretation at all. And it puts us right back into the desperate state described in Romans 7 — the condition Jesus died to rescue us from!