For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
Is the experience of this divided man in Romans 7:14-25 the experience of Paul, the born again, Christian man – and therefore a picture of part of our own Christian experience – or is this divided man a description of Paul before he was converted? We have answered: It is Christian experience. And therefore there is much to learn here about who we are as Christians. And oh, how crucial it is that we know ourselves realistically lest we become proud with the presumption of perfection in this life, or become hopeless with the impossibility of perfection in this life. Pastorally, the great aim of these messages on Romans 7 is to draw you away from presumption to humility and away from despair to hope.
I have given you seven reasons, so far, for seeing the passage this way. Today I will give you two more, and then wrap up Romans 7 on the following Sunday – at least that's my plan. And, as always, the point is not merely to argue for the view that this passage is about Christian experience, but to explain the view and show its relevance to all of us. Reasons for believing something usually explain better what you are believing. That is what I hope happens today – with the effect of humble hope and hopeful humility in our lives.
8. The Body of This Death
Some would ask, "Can a real Christian cry out with the words of verse 24b, 'Who will set me free from the body of this death?' Is a Christian trapped or enslaved or imprisoned in a 'body of death'"? My answer to this is: "Can a real Christian NOT cry out, 'Who will set me free from the body of this death?'"
Of course the cry is accompanied by the answer to the cry in the following words in verse 25, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" In other words, God will set me free from the body of this death. And he will do it through Jesus Christ our Lord.
But we must ask, "What does it mean not to be set free now from the body of this death?" That is what gives some people pause – to think that a believer should think of himself as unfree, or imprisoned in a "body of death." What does that mean? And what does Paul mean by being set free from this body of death?
First, let's make sure we clarify what he does not mean. Someone might hear Paul talk about being set free from the body of death and think that he regards the body itself as evil and the spirit as good, and that salvation consists in the spirit flying free from the carcass of the body. There are philosophies and religions that think that way about body and spirit, the material world and the immaterial world. Spirit is good. Body is bad. The material stuff of the universe is unreal and burdensome. But the immaterial stuff – the spirit – is real and good. Salvation means shedding the material and being caught up in and united to the universal Spirit.
That is emphatically not what Christianity teaches. Paul faced that kind of teaching about the material world and about the body. He was emphatic in denying it. For example, when some people in Corinth said that certain foods were unclean, he said in 1 Corinthians 10:25-26, "Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience' sake; for the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains." In other words, God made it, God owns it, and it is good. You are free to eat it.
But what about the body? In 1 Corinthians 6:13 he said, "The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body." The body is not a piece of throw-away junk that we are glad to get rid of at death. It is designed by the Lord for the Lord: "The body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body." In 1 Corinthians 6:19b-20, Paul says, "You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body." Christ died to buy your body. For what? It does not belong to you. You have it as a trust for one ultimate purpose: to use it in ways that make God look like an all-satisfying treasure – to glorify God. That is what the body is for. (See Philippians 1:20; Romans 6:13, 19.)
Resurrection, not Throw-away Junk
That is why the Christian hope is resurrection of the body, not trashing of the body. You will have a body forever and ever. If being set free from the curse of a material body were the Christian hope, then Paul would not have taught us that our bodies will be raised from the dead. In Philippians 3:21 he says, "[Christ] will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory." You will have a body in the resurrection forever and ever – either a glorious, satisfied one in the kingdom of God, or a horrible, suffering one in hell.
So when Paul says in Romans 7:24b "Who will set me free from the body of this death?" he does not mean that the body is evil and that salvation is to shed the body the way a butterfly sheds a cocoon. What then does he mean? What does "body of this death" refer to?
He means two things, at least: First, the body is going to die because we all inherit the curse of Adam (Romans 5:12); and second, the body joins forces with sin and bears fruit for death (Romans 7:5). The body is going to die because we are all fallen creatures; and the body is going to die because it is a traitor. It partners with sin to bring us into bondage over and over again (Romans 6:13). So the body is a "body of death" not because it is intrinsically evil, but because it is fallen and sells out to evil.
Paul explains the term "body of this death" a few verses later in Romans 8:10. He says, "If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness." This body is as good as dead. It is going to die. That's the effect of the curse.
So what is Paul crying out for when he says in Romans 7:24, "Who will set me free from the body of this death?" He is not crying out for separation of body and spirit. He could accomplish that with suicide. He is crying out for deliverance from the body's temptations now and finally for the redemption of his body at the resurrection. Romans 8:11 goes on to say, "But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." Your body is going to be raised. That's what he yearns for – a redeemed resurrection body.
In other words, the redemption – the liberation – that Christ purchased on the cross is applied to us in stages, not all at once. We saw it in Romans 8:10, that your spirit is alive and will never die but your body is doomed to die. Or look how Romans 8:23 says it: "We ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body." Our redemption comes to us in stages: Already, now we have the Holy Spirit. And already now our spirits are alive because of Christ's righteousness. But we still groan. Why? Because we must wait for our bodies to be redeemed. When will that happen? At the resurrection.
"Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" That is the real cry of a Christian saint. Not because we are not redeemed, but because the redemption Christ bought for us comes to us in stages. First, life in the Spirit and justification and progressive sanctification; then at the resurrection, the redemption of the body. Till then it is a body of death, and we groan. We groan because of its diseases and we groan because of its treasonous complicity with sin. Romans 7:24 is a Christian cry.
9. The Law of Sin and Death
How shall we answer the counter-argument that Romans 8:1-2 seems to signal that in Christ the failures of Romans 7 are left behind? Paul begins Romans 8 with these words: "Therefore there is now [!] no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." Many commentators take this to mean that the experience of Romans 7 is past and done with.
Note especially the term "law of sin and death" in verse 2 and compare it to Romans 7:22-23, "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members." There you see the term, "law of sin." It is a principle or power or rule of sin working through the body (just as we have seen – making the body a "body of death"), and taking Paul captive so that he does what he doesn't want to do.
But in Romans 8:2 it says, "Now . . . the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin." So those on the other side of this debate say, "You see, Romans 7 is describing the experience of a person before they are in Christ – before they are Christian. Before you are a Christian and have the Holy Spirit, the 'law of sin' takes you captive. And after you become a Christian and have the Holy Spirit, you are free from the law of sin."
But is it that simple? Does Romans 8:2 have to mean that after you become a Christian this principle or rule or authority of sin never gets the upper hand? I have tried to show for several sermons now that this is not what Paul teaches. In fact, he teaches just the opposite. Sin does threaten –all the time – to get the upper hand in the Christian life and we must fight against it. Verse 13 of chapter 8 says, we must "put to death the deeds of the body." Romans 6:13 says, "Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness." The battle is real. Temporary defeat is possible.
So what does the freedom of Romans 8:2 mean then when it says, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin"? I think it means exactly what Romans 6:14 means when it says, "Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace." Virtually nobody takes that to mean that at the moment you are justified you become sinlessly perfect. Most people agree that it means: the decisive, final power of sin to dominate and destroy your life is broken. You enter a new freedom. With the power of the Spirit you can defeat sin.
So when Paul says in Romans 7:23 that the "law of sin" takes him captive, and then says in Romans 8:2 that the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set him free from the law of sin, I think he means that the defeat and captivity of Romans 7:23 is not his chief or final condition. The Spirit has set him free from the "law of sin" as the decisive, final power to defeat and destroy him. The Spirit often gives him the victory. And increasingly gives him the victory. And in the end will give him the final victory. And he cannot be destroyed by the "law of sin" because the back of the enemy has been broken. His head has been severed from his body. We fight him as we fight a defeated foe. And in Christ Jesus who has bought the victory we will win.
Let me close with this application. In view of the Bible's description of our human condition – that there is a "law of sin and death," and that the body is under a curse and becomes the base of operations for this law of sin, and is therefore a body of death, and in view of the fact that our redemption in Christ Jesus from the "law of sin" and the body of death comes progressively and in stages – all this should prepare us not to be surprised or unduly shaken when we meet in ourselves and in others excessive and distorted bodily desires that tempt us to sin.
Excessive and Distorted Desires
We see excessive desires for leisure tempting us to laziness. We see excessive desires for food tempting us to gluttony. We see excessive desires for drink tempting us to alcoholism. We see excessive desires for sex tempting us to lustfulness. And on top of that the law of sin not only stirs up excessive desires, it produces distorted desires. We see distorted desires for food tempting people to eat gray river clay in some southern states or binge on bags of cookies. We see distorted desires for sex tempting people to go after satisfaction with people of the same sex. We see people with distorted desires for pleasure tempting people to use marijuana or speed or cocaine or LSD.
And what I want to do, as always, is point you to a Biblical realism in Jesus Christ. By faith in Christ we are united to him. He becomes our pardon and our righteousness. And his Spirit is given to us. And the issue now is not: Do you have excessive desires or distorted desires? The issue is: Will you continue to cry out with Paul: "O wretched man that I am" and look away from yourself to Christ as your only hope, and fight in the power that he supplies and put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13)? Or will you surrender and sell out finally to an alien slave-master and make peace with the body of death and the law of sin?
Jesus Christ, who died to purchase your body for his glory, is worthy of your fullest allegiance. Christ can save. No one else. Don't forsake him for the fleeting pleasures of the law of sin and the body of death.