Romans Bible Study (The Righteousness of God Revealed)

Romans 7:1-6, The Triumph of Grace

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In our last lesson Paul ended with the teaching, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin pays its wage over and over again to those who are under its power: separation from God. In chapter 7 Paul is continuing to discuss the implications of not being under the Law of Moses. Paul is now going to illustrate their relationship to the Law of Moses. Verse 1 sets forward the key point: one’s relationship to the law is changed when death occurs.

Illustration (7:2-3)

First, we need to properly understand the illustration before we can apply it to the point Paul is making concerning the Law of Moses. This illustration is not a hypothetical idea. Paul is using a true illustration from God’s marriage law to show how this relates to the Law of Moses. Paul begins that a married woman is bound to the law of her husband as long as he lives. When he dies she is released from that law. Verse 2 is a simple idea. You are married to one another as long as each on lives. When one dies, each spouse is no longer bound to each other. They are no longer bound to the law of marriage. Upon death, a person is released from the law. Verse 3 continues the illustration. If she lives with another man while her husband is alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and marrying another man is not adultery. Paul brings adultery into the picture. It is adultery if you live with another person while your spouse is still alive. The implied reason is that they are still bound to each other. That bond of marriage only breaks at death (Jesus would also teach that the bond of marriage is also broken if your spouse cheats on you). I think it is useful to observe that just because she cheated on him does not make them free. According to Jesus, he would have the right to divorce her for infidelity. But she is an adulteress, though she is married to another. When her first husband dies, she is no longer bound to him and that marriage, and, therefore, cannot be called an adulteress any longer. It is a fairly straightforward presentation of God’s universal marriage law.

Now, the important question is: What does this have to do with Paul’s message and the context of Romans? Paul is not breaking into a study of marriage and divorce right here. Further, it is important to consider that Paul is teaching more than the simple point that a person is free from the law at death. That point was made in verse 1. There is no need for this illustration of adultery if all Paul wants to teach is that we are set free from the law at death. Many scholars have a difficult time understanding how this illustration relates to Paul’s audience concerning the Law of Moses. Some have so boldly suggested that this illustration is incoherent. I believe the reason so many have difficulty with this illustration is because they try to understand the law to be all moral law rather than the Law of Moses. This does cause all sorts of problems. But the problems are erased if we understand Paul to be using this figure to illustrate where these Christians stand concerning the Law of Moses.

Here is the meaning of the illustration.

  1. Jews (and by extension Jewish Christians) were bound to the Law of Moses = “A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives”
  2. But the Jews were found to be adulterous to God = “She will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive”
  3. Now free from the Law of Moses because we are not under the Law of Moses but under grace = “But if her husband dies, she is released from the law”
  4. Now they are in a new relationship, bound to Christ = “if she marries another”
  5. In Christ they are no longer found adulterous to God = “she is not an adulteress”

So the key point is this: freedom from one relationship allows a person to establish a new one. This is the very point that verse 4 is making and why I think the above explanation of the illustration is accurate. “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” (Romans 7:4; ESV). They have died to the Law of Moses through the body of Christ so that they can belong to Jesus, the law of Christ, so that they can bear fruit for God. Paul is teaching that we are under a new law, a better covenant. The Law of Moses is not the law for that law shows we are enslaved to sin. We are under the covenant of Christ, the new testament, that sets us free from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Bearing Fruit

God’s purpose for our lives is to bear fruit. God has set us free from sin not to live how we want to live or to plunge ourselves into a life of sin. God does not want to free so that we turn right around and enslave ourselves into sin again. We have been set free. Don’t use your freedom to go back into that which enslaved you. Instead, we are to be fruitful for God. In other words, we must show ourselves to not be under the power of sin or allegiance to sinfulness. Rather, we must show ourselves to be under God’s control, fully serving Jesus.

Living In The Flesh

Paul speaks of “living in the flesh.” This is the first time that we have come across this phrase. We need to understand this phrase because Paul is going to use it a lot in chapters 7-8. The NIV, TNIV, and NLT uses “sinful nature” rather than “flesh.” “Flesh” is the literal translation of the Greek word sarx. Paul, however, is not referring the physical body when he speaks of “living in the flesh” because we have to live in our physical bodies. We have no other choice. However, I am not a fan of using “sinful nature” because it can easily be misconstrued. Paul is not talking about being born in sin, which is what “sinful nature” seems to imply. Rather than spending time speaking about what this is not, let us examine what Paul means when he says, “living in the flesh.” I believe Paul is using “the flesh” as shorthand for all that he has already described in chapter 6. “Flesh” describes being under the rule and power of sin. “The flesh” refers to being slaves to sin, to obeying our passions, and being united in Adam rather than united in Christ. Paul is not talking about our nature, but where we stand and where our allegiance is. Do we belong to the country of sin, subjected to sin’s rule and power or do we belong to Jesus, subjected to Jesus’ rule and power?

I think we can see how this works in verse 5. While we were living in the flesh (that is, while we were dominated by the power of sin and were hostile to God), our sinful passions were at work in the members of our body. Those passions being at work in the members of our body bears fruit. It bears the fruit of death, that is, separation from God.

There are two issues at work here. First, Paul is still answering the question in Romans 6:15, “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Paul is still pressing into us that just because we are not under the Law of Moses does not mean that there is no law and does not mean that we can live however we want. Living in the flesh produces the fruit of separation from God. We cannot think that we can remain in the power and grip of sin, living as slaves to sin, and have God’s grace abounding toward us, declaring us justified. We are not free from sin so that we can live for self. Paul points this out in verse 4, “so that you may belong to another.” We are not to sin because we are under grace. We belong to the one who has been raised from the dead. We do not belong to ourselves. When we belong to ourselves, then we are separated from God because our sinful passions are at work in us.

We cannot love the world more than we love him. Imagine telling your spouse that you love something else more than him or her. Yet we often show God that we love the things of this world more than we love God.

The second issue at work is revealed in the subtle phrase, “aroused by the law.” Paul continues to combat the thought that the Law of Moses justified people from their sins. Paul has already told us that the Law of Moses revealed sin (3:20) and increased sin (5:20). Rather than justifying people from their sins, the Law of Moses condemns. Sinfulness is aroused by the Law of Moses and proof of this is the history of Israel. Think about the history of Israel from the moment God gives Israel the covenant, the ten commandments. The people are not justified by this law, but are found in to be in deep sin. The people complain in the wilderness. The people refuse to enter the land and conquer Canaan. The people complain again in the wilderness. The people forsake God and are subjected to the surrounding nations during the days of the judges. The rulers of Israel were all sinful. The people were sinful during those days also. When the nation divides, the northern nation never has a good king and kill the prophets of God. The southern nation was not much better so that both were exiled into captivity. Where is the holiness and justification that came once the Law of Moses was given? The Law did not curb sin. The people sinned all the more, which is Paul’s point. Paul is going to speak more about this in verse 9, so we will leave the rest of our discussion of this until that point.

Released From the Law

The first two words are important, powerful, and beautiful. “But now….” I love these conjunctions. But now we are released from the law. The law condemns. The law does not save. But Jesus has released us from the law. But there are requirements on our part. We are not just simply set free. We cannot think that there is nothing demanded of us. We can see this in verse 6, “having died to that which held us captive.” I hope we can see that this has been the point of the sixth chapter. We have died to the former way of living. We have died to the power of sin. We have died to being slaves to sin. Paul has added one more piece to which we are dead. We are dead to the Law of Moses. The law held us captive, condemning us and not justifying us. We have died to that law so that we can serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.

There is a contrast of covenants being expressed. We do not live in the old way of the written code. Paul previously used “the written code” in Romans 2:27 and he was referring to the Law of Moses. “Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law” (Romans 2:27; ESV). In verse 29 of Romans 2, Paul used the same contrast between the Spirit and the written code (or letter). “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” (Romans 2:29; ESV). Paul is expressing that the new way of life which is not of the old covenant (the Law of Moses) but is the new covenant, which is what the Holy Spirit prophesied.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. (Ezekiel 36:26-27; NLT)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34; ESV)

The coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises. God is being faithful to his covenant and to his promises, revealed through the Spirit. We serve from the heart of knowledge that Jesus has died for us, setting us free from sin and the law. We do not live how we want to live, but present our bodies in holiness to God, bearing fruit for him. Paul wrote something similar to the Corinthians also.

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5–6; ESV)

Paul is not only contrasting the old law with the new law (the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ, or the Law of the Spirit), but also contrasting the end result. The Law of Moses brought death because the Law of Moses does not justify. It only shows us that we are enslaved to sin. But the new law of Christ brings us life, not condemnation. Christ brought justification. Grace has triumphed over our sins.


  1. “You belong to another” (7:4)
  2. “Bear fruit for God” (7:4)
  3. “We serve in the new way of the Spirit” (7:6)
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