Scripture: Romans 7:1-12
Key verse: (4) “In the same way, my friends, you 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.”
Reflection: Today’s reading is within a section of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome where he deals with the law as it relates to Christians. In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul has made a persuasive argument that we are justified by the grace of God through the faith of Jesus Christ. That is, we are brought into right relationship with God not by works of law, not by anything we do, but rather by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This assertion created a problem for Paul—what about the law? Chapter 6 begins, “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” In other words, if we are justified by grace, then what difference does it make if we sin? Paul answers his own question, “By no means! How can we who have died to sin continue living in it?”
Here at the beginning of chapter 7, Paul carries forward the metaphor of death, relating it not to sin, but to the law. He identifies the church as, “you who have died to the law through the body of Christ.” So in Paul’s logic, we are dead to sin, and now dead to the law. This creates another problem for Paul—linking sin with the law. He asks, “What then should we say? That the law is sin?” Once again, Paul answers his own question: “By no means!” He goes on to say that sin uses even a good thing, like the law, to distort us and harm us.
How exactly does that work? Traditionally, Christian theology has asserted that one of the functions of the law is to convict us of our sin, and our need for grace. Using some of Paul’s own words it is asserted that no one can live by the law, and so we are convicted of our sin. But I’m not sure that’s what Paul was saying. In fact, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul asserts that “as to righteousness under the law,” he was, “blameless.” (Phil. 3:4b-6) In other words, he followed the law perfectly. Paul’s challenge was not whether we could live by the law—he believed we absolutely could—but rather whether living by the law justified us to God. Could living by the law bring us into right relationship with God and with one another?
Therein lies the problem. In Paul’s own life, as to righteousness under the law, he was blameless. Where did it get him? It led him to persecute the church, to supervise the stoning of Stephen. It led him to that moment on the Damascus Road where he was confronted by the Risen Christ who asked him, “Why do you persecute me?” He thought he was defending God by bringing justice to heretics. But in reality, he was persecuting God by killing God’s servants. Living by the law did not make him right with God and with his neighbor. It led him to be self-righteous, which was in fact sin. His zeal to follow the law became its own sin.
And so, as Paul will conclude at the end of tomorrow’s reading from Romans (7:25), only the grace of God in Jesus Christ can make us right with God. Paul’s ethic grows from this conviction—If by grace, God has made things right with us through the faith of Jesus Christ, then that grace calls us to live in right relationship with one another. That’s the overarching ethical command of all of Paul’s letters. Or as Paul writes to the Romans, “you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another.”
Prayer: Thank you for making things right with us, O God. Free us from the self-righteousness that too often divides us from one another that we might live into the new reality you have created in Christ. In Him, we belong not to ourselves, but to you. May we bear the fruit of love, justice, and mercy for your sake. Amen.
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].