Captivity Vs. Release
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. —Romans 7:6
Today God wants to talk to us about law versus grace in our lives. Moment by moment, our deepest thoughts and feelings are telling us we’re under law or we’re under grace – usually, under law. We drift into the mental environment of law, because it’s a natural drift, so natural we don’t even feel it. And when we go there in our minds, life stops working. But God is calling us today to repent of our love for the law and hurl ourselves at Christ again. He is grace. He is how we get traction for life. God wants us to live under his grace all the time, where we really live.
What is law? It’s more than the Ten Commandments. It’s a whole way of negotiating life. It translates, for us, into a mentality bristling with demands and lists and rules and cornering people and embarrassing people and threatening people and showing people how wrong they are. And it never works. It only kills. That exacting, precise, scrutinizing, draining m.o. for life doesn’t build relationships; it destroys relationships. It doesn’t increase joy but anger. Law does not make us better; it makes us worse. Take a decent, friendly unbeliever, convert him to a legalistic church, and he will get worse – tense, edgy, judgmental, picky, hypercritical. Only God’s grace makes us better. We don’t need to be afraid of God’s grace. We don’t need to worry that God’s grace might get out of hand. We should worry that we might not experience how wonderful God’s grace is. God himself has endless confidence in the dignifying power of his grace. We’ve seen that in Romans 6. God wants us to know all about his grace, because every human being on the face of the earth is legalistic and hair-splitting and trigger-happy and judgmental to the core. Are you noticing all the anger in our nation today? People go by different laws and different standards, and they fight each other over that. But what all sinners have in common is deep emotional bondage to law as a false hope for the way life works, the way society works, the way families work, even the way churches work. Only God’s grace works. He really wants us to believe it and be set free, so that we can live for him wholeheartedly.
I used to think there were basically two kinds of people in the world – the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys were easy to identify. They did the right thing. The bad guys were easy to identify. They did the wrong thing. That was the moral profiling of my mind. But it wasn’t biblical. It was deceptive. By a wonderful coincidence, I almost always ended up in the good guy category – along with everyone else like me – because doing the right thing tended to be what I was going to do anyway. The right thing was my lifestyle and my preferences and my politics and my whatever. And the people who weren’t like me, the people I had difficulty even understanding – it had to be because they were somehow wrong. I was putting myself under law and putting them under law and scoring according to my two categories, not God’s categories. That’s a good thing to repent of.
C. S. Lewis helped me to think more biblically. In his essay, “Three Kinds of Men,” he explains that the world is divided, well, into three kinds of people, not just two. First, there are playboys and goof-offs and loafers and social butterflies and jocks and party animals. They don’t care about what’s right. They care about what’s fun. The world is their playground, and other people are so much raw material for their playtime. Let the good times roll. Secondly, there are solid citizens – dutiful, ethical, responsible, self-denying, good parents, reliable neighbors, high standards, church-going, even Bible-believing. Secretly, they’re a little jealous of the goof-offs having all the fun, but they care enough about what’s right to toe that line anyway. When they obey, they feel somewhat deprived and sacrificial and proud of it. For them, doing the right thing is like paying taxes. They do pay. But they sure hope there’s enough after taxes for themselves. (We see the playboy type and the solid citizen type in the parable of the two lost sons in Luke 15.) Thirdly, there are new people called Christians. They’ve left behind the whole tiresome business of calculating how much God gets versus how much they get by simply giving themselves completely to God. The will of God no longer limits their will; the will of God is their will. Their heartbeat is, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).
Lewis is telling us something important. When God looks down on us all, he doesn’t draw the dividing line between the playboys and the solid citizens but between the solid citizens and the Christians. In the sight of God, the playboys and the solid citizens are together on the same side against him. How so? It lines up this way. The playboy doesn’t want to obey God, so he doesn’t. The solid citizen doesn’t want to obey God, but he does. Only the Christian wants to obey God and live for God and glorify God, because God’s grace has won his heart. And what God cares about primarily is not our behavior but our hearts. If our hearts are right with God, our behavior will follow along. If our hearts are not right with God, our behavior might even deceive ourselves. Has the grace of God captivated your heart?
Obviously, the world is better off for good behavior. What if people didn’t pay their bills and drive the speed limit and tuck their kids into bed at night? But what they don’t understand is that their decency, their obedience, is really a covert form of disobedience, because their obedience is a way of bargaining with God, buying his blessing, even keeping him off their backs. What they don’t feel in their hearts is that God is all about grace, and grace refuses to bargain. How can we buy what isn’t for sale? Our city needs the gospel of grace. Our city does not need churches with new methods. That’s only another form of law. Our city needs more churches with the old message of the finished work of Christ on the cross. It’s all about grace, and only grace can change us from the inside out, so that we live for God not out of fear of penalty but out of love.
If you’re the playboy type, you’re not in God’s kingdom, but you probably know it. And underneath all your laughter, you might be broken-hearted enough to be open to God’s grace. If you’re the solid citizen type, you’re not in God’s kingdom either, but you may not know it. You’re trying to obey God’s law. But God isn’t dealing in law. You’re not even on the same page with God. What you need is the shock of failure, so that you can join your playboy brother in broken-hearted openness to God’s grace. If you’re a Christian, you need endless exposure to the reviving grace of God in Christ. It’s why you’re here today. Sure, you have problems, but God has put his grace in your heart. You’re going to be fine.
In Romans 7:1-6, Paul continues his Q & A session, begun in chapter 6. We saw in chapter 6 that some people are nervous about God’s grace. So Paul helps us come to clarity about how God’s grace brings sinners of all kinds into spiritual renewal together. Do you see the purpose clause at the end of verse 6? “. . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” That is God’s purpose for you as you hear the gospel message – to lift you out of oldness, out of the tired old broken-down defunct way that never worked to begin with, up into the new way of the Spirit where your heart says to your Savior, “Whatever you want, Lord, I’m in, if you’ll just help me.” That is the new way of the Spirit. The law can’t get you there. Grace can. Here we go.
Or do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. —Romans 7:1-3
We learned in chapter 6 that we who believe have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:5). We are bound now to Christ. His grace so redefines us that our former connections go away, including our former connection to God’s own law. It’s like a marriage, Paul says. A married woman doesn’t want to be stigmatized as an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she’s free to remarry with no shame. Do you see Paul’s point? If you’ve been joined to Christ by faith, don’t be afraid to let go of law in all its forms. God will not scold you, if you let it go and throw yourself into the grace of Christ. Do not fear grace. Fear staying under the law. God’s will for you is to become deeply connected to Jesus on terms of grace. That’s how we experience him, and he is all we need.
Why did Paul write these three verses? Because in our natural moralism, we sinners love law. We don’t want to let it go, for at least two reasons. One, solid citizens secretly crave sin. They look out on the world of sin with envy. But their own fantasies scare them. They don’t believe in the power of grace. Their only hope is in law. They feel nervous trusting themselves to grace. Grace feels risky in a world filled with such delicious sins. Two, solid citizens not only secretly crave sin, they do not crave Jesus. They don’t want that much of him. But keeping the law makes obedience quantifiable. Law seems to define a limit of obedience, beyond which obedient people don’t need to go. So, after they’ve measured out the obedience required by law, they keep the rest of their lives for themselves, they kick back, they’re on downtime. The law is like wearing a corset. Remember corsets? Women used to wear them. It was a stiff piece of underclothing that a woman could lace up tight to improve her figure. It made her look good, but it didn’t change her, and she had to take it off to relax and breathe again.
Here’s what we’ve go to know from verses 1-3. God so poured out his grace in Christ that those old ways are dead and gone for us. We’re remarried now to a new husband, and he’s a heart-winner. Grace frees us from our grumpy old husband Mr. Law, who has died, so that we can dive into an exciting new marriage to merciful, lively Mr. Gospel. In chapter 6 Paul presented grace as a freeing new slavery. Now in chapter 7 he presents grace as a happy new marriage. What do the slavery and marriage metaphors tell us? They tell us grace isn’t an all-approving permissiveness, it isn’t moral neutrality. God’s grace does not mean we can do whatever we feel like doing. Grace does not mean there are no lines between right and wrong. Grace does mean that Christ enters into a new romance with us, his Bride, with no threat of divorce or rejection or shaming.
Both law and grace tell us to obey God. But what law adds is, “Obey, or else . . . .” It’s the threat of punishment that makes law scary to us. The cross is where the “or else” was inflicted – on Christ who put himself in our place. So now, God doesn’t even want the kind of obedience that’s squeezed out of us unwillingly only by threats of punishment. It’s over. It’s dead. Have the funeral. Bury it. Here’s the new arrangement: the all-holy God delights in you, for the sake of Christ. Believe it. It will change you.
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
Do you see how Paul refers to both the crucifixion of Christ (“the body of Christ”) and to the resurrection of Christ (“raised from the dead”)? It is both our Lord’s death and his resurrection that we need. Not just his death. Watching the movie The Passion of the Christ can be helpful. But if all we see at the cross is his physical sufferings, the cross becomes just another heroic example for us to live up to – in other words, more law. The deeper truth of the cross is that Jesus was taking our sins away from the presence of God. Jesus received upon himself the curse of the law. It sank him down into death. Then he was raised again, and he is at this moment coming down through the Holy Spirit into this church, so that we can bear fruit for God. He not only died for our forgiveness 2000 years ago; he makes himself real through us today as we blossom and flourish and bear fruit for God.
Verse 4 is the centerpiece of the passage. Here is the insight. Grace has given to us the Living One. He’s not dead any more. And we bear fruit as Christians by him. It’s like a marriage, Paul is saying. A wife doesn’t bear children by sleeping off by herself. How does Immanuel Church bear children? By saying Yes to our husband not only at conversion but also moment by moment. If we say No, there will be no children. If we say Yes, we’ll have a marvelous family with this Husband, because he’s alive.
For 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 released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. Romans 7:5-6
Living “in the flesh” is living without the Holy Spirit, living only with our natural moral potential, which is willing but weak. If you’ve put your trust in Christ alone, the Father has given you the Spirit within, never to leave you. But before you came into Christ, at your best, you and I were like this. When I was a little kid in New York, every Spring the snows finally melted and formed the most wonderful puddles along Birch Lane where I walked to school. Puddles, pure and clean, beckoning to me. I heeded the call. I would stop, take a stick, and stir up that water. And all the gunk and silt and muck lying at the bottom of that puddle swirled up and turned the water brown and yucky. It had looked clean, but the gunk was there. That’s me and you “in the flesh,” in our natural moral condition. We can look good. But it only takes the stick of the law to get us stirred up and defensive and angry and upset and mouthing off and so forth. Look at the way an argument at home gets going – accusations breeding counter-accusations and on and on. It’s death. There’s gunk inside us, waiting to be stirred up, isn’t there?
But God has sent the Holy Spirit. He’s not like Moses the law-giver, standing behind home plate while we’re trying to hit the fast balls coming at us in life: “Strike one, strike two, strike three, you’re out!” That is not the voice of the Spirit. That’s the old way of the written code that kills our hearts and makes us falsify ourselves with appearances. The new way of the Spirit is grace upon grace for sinners, so that our hearts are filled to serve God, live for God, honor God, enjoy God and magnify God here in our city of playboys and solid citizens both of whom have no idea how good God really is. By the power of the Holy Spirit, let’s show them.
You can walk in the new way of the Spirit. God made you for it. Christ died and was raised for it. The Holy Spirit is moving in your heart for it. Your sins are no obstacle. You’ll never bring them under control by laws and rules and threats. That’s all dead. But Christ is alive. He deals with you by grace. Place yourself deliberately under his blessing and control. Hand yourself clear over to him. Say to him, “Whatever you want, Lord, I’m in, if you’ll only help me.” And he will.