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“We are free from the law.” The apostle Paul says, “…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.” Again Paul says, “But now you are released from the law…” We’ve died to that which held us captive and we are now free from the law. But what are you and I supposed to make of this? What are we supposed to do with Paul’s declaration here in Romans chapter 7? It seems like an irresponsible thing to let out into the public—“You’re free from the law.” Won’t people take advantage? Won’t people do whatever they want? Won’t life just spiral into chaos and anarchy? And what about righteousness? If we’re free from the law, then what will become of morality and public decency? Won’t people stop trying to be good? What are we to make of this? What are you and I supposed to do with Paul’s declaration here?
Well, one place to start is by taking notice of who Paul is speaking to. He’s talking “to those who know the law.” I’m sure you all know the law, but it may have been some time since you looked at. So, just to be sure everyone is on the same page, let’s have a little pop quiz—let’s review the Law.
The 1st Commandment. You shall have no other gods. The 2nd Commandment. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The 3rd Commandment. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. The 4th Commandment. Honor your father and your mother. The 5th Commandment. You shall not murder. The 6th Commandment. You Shall not commit adultery. The 7th Commandment. You shall not steal. The 8th Commandment. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. The 9th Commandment. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. The 10th Commandment. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
There it is; the law of God. God’s holy, divine will for creation. And what does Paul say about the law? Well, he does say the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. But he says more. Paul dares to say we are free from the law. That’s the whole point of his opening example of the married woman. As long as her husband was living, the law was binding. She was bound by law to her husband, so that if she went and lived with another man, she was an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law. Likewise, Paul says, you have died to the law and are free from the law. But what are we to make of this? Knowing the law doesn’t help with the problem; it only makes it worse. If we’re free from the law, then what about righteousness? What will happen to morality? Shouldn’t we put the 10 Commandments in every courthouse in America and teach them in every classroom? If we’re free from the law, who will improve oneself, who will get better?
And the answer is nobody. Nobody will improve himself or herself and nobody will get better. And the reason is because nobody can. Truth be told, we live in a world of laws. Everywhere you turn you’re confronted by a law. It’s usually not the 10 Commandments, and it’s not usually called a law—it’s usually called advice, or self-help, or motivation. There are laws, or advice, about being a parent: Don’t yell at your children; be patient with them; enjoy this time because they grow up so fast. There’s diet advice: eat this kind of food, don’t eat that kind of food. There’s laws for being a better you: Believe in yourself and all that you are. Let go and let God. Be better today than you were yesterday. Do what you love. And the list goes on and on. Whether you agree with this stuff or not, the fact of the matter is we are surrounded by laws. They may not call themselves laws and they may not be the 10 Commandments, but everywhere you turn, you’re confronted by laws. And how’s that working out? Are any of you more righteous today than you were yesterday? Is anyone? You’d think that if people were going to improve and get better, then they would have done so by now.
A couple years ago, I ran across an op-ed piece in the New York Times. The author points out that most of this advice we hear is based on the premise that we can just will ourselves into being more rational and good. This advice is essentially telling you that, by hard work and discipline, you can turn yourself into a superstar and then everything will be swell. But the author goes on to say that we are crooked timber. We are, to varying degrees, foolish, weak, and just plain inexplicable. And you know what? He’s right.
Despite all the self-help guides, and motivational advice, nobody can improve or get better—we are by nature sinful and unclean. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing ever came.” And that’s why God’s Law was given. The 10 Commandments were NOT given for righteousness. The law, as St. Paul tells us, was given “in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” That’s what the law is for and that’s what the law does: it finds us out and exposes us for what we are. That’s just what St. Paul says:
“If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Think about it this way: When you’re just going about living life, you don’t pay attention to how you do it; you just do it, you just go about living your life. But when the commandment comes in, you start to look at how you do it; you start to look at how you live. And then you can do one of two things. First, you can resent the One who gives the commandment and reject the law altogether. That goes something like this: Who is God to tell me that the way I live is wrong? Where does he get off telling me that I shouldn’t despise preaching and his Word, but should come to church to gladly hear and learn it? I don’t care what God says, if I want to withhold my forgiveness and kindness from someone and hold a grudge against them, I will. If I want to gossip about someone and drag their name through the mud, that’s my business.
Or the Second thing you can do is go to work doing the Commandments. Take Paul’s example of coveting. When the commandment comes in not to covet, you begin to see that you’re covetous, that you covet all sorts of things: better health, more money, a different car, a better preacher, worship in the sanctuary, whatever. And then what do you do? You resolve to obey the commandment, “Thou shall not covet,” and you earnestly pursue that goal. But you don’t escape, because now you only covet something else. You covet being a non-coveting person. You covet righteousness. It is precisely in trying to fulfill the law that one comes to violate it.
The law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. There’s nothing wrong with the law. But sin finds an opportunity in the law; sin finds the opportunity to gain independence from God. When the commandment comes, we sinners use it to make some space between us and God, to create some space to stand on our own two feet. Now, we can make a lot of space by using the commandments as a justification for rejecting God altogether. Or we can make a little space by going to work at the commandments and trying to be righteous in ourselves. But either way, when the law comes, it finds us out as people seeking independence from God; people who love to have things their own way,more than we love God; people who trust more in our own wisdom and strength than we do in God. When the Law come, it exposes us as sinners and delivers us up to death.
You see, the law demands righteousness, but it cannot give it. That’s God’s job. And he has revealed his righteousness entirely apart from the law. He has revealed his righteousness in Christ Jesus. Of course, it was because we used the law to make space between us and God that Jesus was crucified. We rejected him and all he came to give us in favor of our independence. But God raised Jesus from the dead. And that means that the only thing that matters now is his Word. It means that when all is said and done your righteousness—where you stand with God—is in his hands, completely apart from the law. And he has sent me here to declare it to you: All of your sins are forgiven, and you are righteous for Jesus’ sake. And just like that, you have died to the law so that you may belong to him. You are free from the law.
Does that mean you don’t have to do anything? Yes. Does it mean it’s an absolute gift? Yes. But isn’t that dangerous? Yes; after all, we killed him for it, but that only gave him the opportunity to have the last word. But won’t someone get the wrong idea? Yes, it’s likely, but shall God turn off his righteousness for the sake of those who are blinded by his goodness? Does it mean it’s not your choice? Yes, the Lord has spoken—your sins are forgiven, and you are righteous for Jesus’ sake. Does it mean it’s all God’s doing and not mine? Yes. Christ Jesus has taken you beyond the law, and freed you from it. And now the only thing that stands is his Word: You are righteous for Jesus’ sake.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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? 2 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. 3 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.
4 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. 5 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. 6 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.
7 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.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.