Dan Popp
Very cold feet
Romans: The most important book ever written
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By Dan Popp
February 9, 2011

    "I Have Lost My Clay," said the golem.
    YES, said Death, THAT IS STANDARD. YOU ARE DEAD. SMASHED. EXPLODED INTO A MILLION PIECES.
    "Then Who Is This Doing The Listening?"
    EVERYTHING THERE WAS ABOUT YOU THAT ISN'T CLAY.
    "Do You Have A Command For Me?" said the remains of Anghammarad, standing up.
    NOT NOW. YOU HAVE REACHED THE PLACE WHERE THERE ARE NO MORE ORDERS.
    "What Shall I Do?"
    I BELIEVE YOU HAVE FAILED TO UNDERSTAND MY LAST COMMENT. —
    Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

Paul began Romans 6 talking about the believer's death with Jesus. Then he explained that this death has ended our slavery to sin, and started a new life of voluntary servitude to what is right. Now he returns to the topic of our demise.

Chapter 7

Do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to men who know the law — that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. [NIV]

The trouble with dead people is that they simply have no respect for the law.

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. [ESV]

A lot of people want to be part of the Bride of Christ — as long as they can remain married to Moses. That's just creepy.

While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. [RSV]

When we were spiritually dead, the Law was doing the only thing it could do for us: multiplying sin — The law was added so that the trespass might increase (5:20). But now, that job is done. Note again Paul's focus on fruit, as in 6:21,22. We will spiritually "be fruitful and multiply" with one spouse or the Other. If we leave our new Husband standing at the altar and run back to the Law (Gal. 1:6), we must again bear fruit for death.

Objection: If being bound to the Law breeds sin, doesn't that mean that the Law is evil?

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. [ESV]

The commandment designed to bring me life, brought me death. [Wey]

For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. [KJV] ...The command gave an impulse to sin, sin beguiled me and used the command to kill me. [Mof]


This sounds familiar, doesn't it? The snake wanted to kill Eve, and he found his murder weapon in the one command God had given. You and I have performed that same play many times, with many more commands. Christians who want to live by the Law are imagining the impossible. No one can live by the Law; we can only die by the Law.

If I'm reading the first part of Romans 7 correctly — and plenty of smart people would say that I'm not — Paul is preaching that believers no longer have any responsibility to the Law. That's almost as shocking today as it was in AD 58. How could any conscientious pastor teach his flock that they are dead to, released from, and not under — well, the Ten Commandments, at least? We imagine parishioners "gone wild," forsaking the after-church buffet for bars, bookies and brothels. This, despite Paul's repeated exclamations that grace cannot produce sinful offspring — May it never be! Certainly not! God forbid!

The opposing view was summarized by Martin Luther: "In this way we die to the condemnation and dominion of the Law, though not to the Law itself, or absolutely, for we have the law, even when we are no longer under the Law." (Commentary on Romans) Yet I can't mesh that view with Paul's metaphor. If her husband is not "absolutely" dead when the wife remarries, there is no sense in which she is discharged or delivered or released from her vows to him!

But if Christians are literally and truly dead to the Law, what is to be our standard for living? We're like the defunct clay man in Pratchett's tale — we can more easily accept the fact that we're dead, than the baffling news that there are no checklists in the afterlife. Who or what will guide us now? Without skipping ahead to Romans 8, here's a passage from another of Paul's letters directly on point:

    For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.

    But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.

    Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissentions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of Christ.

    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-25, NASB)

Whenever Paul talks about the Law, the flesh is nearby. The Law applied while we were living in the flesh. He contrasts that condition to the person living in the new resources of the Holy Spirit. Here, I believe, is the missing puzzle piece. Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.

If you've ever worked in an office you know about "company policy." Management tries to evoke desirable behavior by writing down the rules. But this doesn't work perfectly, to say the least. Even if everyone reads and tries to follow the manual, situations come up that aren't covered by the written guidelines.

The usual remedy is to write more rules.

But what if, instead of regulating external behavior, we could get all the employees to think like the CEO thinks? "What Would Steve Do?" This would be better, but sometimes workers would guess wrong.

So what if — now this is real sci-fi territory here — what if the Big Boss could be connected in real time to the very thoughts, observations, and even the will of every employee? What if he could somehow "live inside" them? This would be the ultimate solution, right? There would be no need for shelves full of Corporate Policy Binders — if the master indwelt the servant!

That's why it's perfectly safe to tell Christians that they are not under the Law. A Christian is, by definition, someone led by the Holy Spirit (8:14). When the Author of the Law guides us directly, personally, internally, instantly — then the parchment scrolls seem clumsy, and almost "in the way."

This is not to say that we can throw away the Bible, or even the Old Testament — exactly the opposite! Many Christians will tell you that God guides them most often by "quickening" a scripture to them; that is, by bringing it to mind and helping them apply it to the situation. This method of communication cannot function unless we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures.

Some fear that a Christian without Commandments will act like a pagan. I fear that those who want an "open marriage" with both Christ and Moses may find out too late that they are alive to the Law (and thus still living in the flesh), and dead to God. Not metaphorically, but "absolutely."

© Dan Popp

 

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