Bob Godfrey preached from Romans 6 recently and his message inspired me to look again at the relationship between chapters 6, 7, and 8. As I reconsider those chapters (focusing on ch. 7 as the nexus between them) I am impressed with the paradox of the Christian life. First, remember the outline of Romans. It is in three parts: Guilt (1:18–3:20), Grace (3:21–11:36), and Gratitude (12:1–16:27). We could just as well, if perhaps less memorably, say: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification. In chapters 3–5 he lays out his doctrine of justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). In chapter 6 he begins to explain in detail the consequences of our justification, that it necessarily leads to gracious, gradual, sanctification. Believers are united to Christ. That union is represented by our identification with Christ’s death in our baptism. Contra the Federal Visionists et al., the sacrament does not effect that union. The Spirit of Christ, who graciously grants new life and true faith, through faith, unites us to Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that union not the instrument. This is a great difference between Reformed theology and sacerdotalism, which turns the sacrament into the thing signified.
Sin No Longer Has Dominion (Romans 6:14)
Sola gratia, sola fide, believers are united to Christ. We have died to sin and we have been made alive to Christ. This is, as Bob reminded us yesterday, who we are. We seek to put to death the old man because of our identity. So, it is true, “…sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The second clause is cryptic and Paul spends most of chapter 7 explaining what he meant.
Thus, chapters 6 and 7 are organically linked. They are a unit. He has not changed his audience nor has he changed topics exactly. Remember, the over-arching topic of the better part of Romans and of this section of the book is the gospel, the good news for sinners. In Romans 6:14 he has declared two great truths. In reverse order:
- We are no longer under the law for our standing before God
- Therefore sin no longer has dominion over us
As long as we were under the covenant of works, whereby the law says to us (as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:13): “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous but the doers,” then sin has dominion over us because, in Adam, after the fall, we can never meet that test. Now, however, the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) has come and fulfilled the covenant of works for us. He has set us free from the law of sin and death. Believers have been delivered from condemnation (Rom 8:1).
The Struggle Is Not Over (Romans 7:14)
Nevertheless, the Christian pilgrimage remains and so does sin. So, Paul turns to explain what he meant in Romans 6:14, when he said that sin no longer has dominion over us because we are not under the covenant of works but under the covenant of grace. The law as a covenant of works is like a marriage. The two spouses are bound to each other so long as both are alive but when one dies the other is free. By virtue of our union with Christ and his death, we have died to the law as a covenant of works. It no longer says to us: “do this and live.” Christ has done it for us, in our place. His obedience and righteousness have been credited to us. It is as if we ourselves had done all that Jesus did for us (Heidelberg Catechism 60).
Because we are not yet in glory we still struggle with sin. There is a terrible chemistry that exists as the result of the mixture of the law and our sinful nature. Before we were Christians (Rom 7:5), our sinful passions bore the fruit of death. Now, however, that we are united to Christ, we bear fruit for life. We no longer serve in the old way of the written code but in the new way of the Holy Spirit. Romans 7 was written to believers, about the Christian life, by Paul who was describing his Christian life and ours.
The law is not sin. That is impossible. The law is holy, righteous, and good. We are sinful and the law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery. We call that the pedagogical use of the law. The terrible chemistry of the law and our sin means that sin seizes the opportunity of the law to arouse in us sinful passions (e.g., covetousness). The law, which promised eternal life under the covenant of works, proves to be death to us (Rom 7:11–12). The law itself did not produce death but sin did it through the law. Here is the agony, the struggle of the Christian life. We have been renewed by grace alone. We have been granted true faith and through it we have been united to Christ. We have died with him to the law and sin. We have been raised with him to new life and to justification. The old “I” is dead and yet he lives and so we struggle with him. The law is spiritual but insofar as the old “I” still lives, “I am of the flesh sold under sin” (Rom 7:14). That which, insofar as we are a new people, we would not do, we continue to do. When we do what we do not want to do, we are confirming the law (Rom 7:15–16). In truth, when we sin, it is not who we truly are in Christ. It is sin in us (Rom 7:20).
Sometimes the struggle with sin is so great that we come close to despair. We have this “inner man” (Rom 7:23), who delights in the law of God. That is who we are in Christ: renewed, united to Christ, loving Christ and his law. Yet, there is within us, as it were, “another law,” i.e., “the law of sin” (Rom 7:24). Because we are believers there is a war occurring within us. Before we were in Christ, there was no war. We were in total slavery to sin and death. Now that we have been renewed and justified sola gratia, sola fide, now that we are united to Christ, there is a war and it is a terrible struggle. We cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).
The Gospel Again (Rom 7:25–8:39)
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do (Rom 7:25–8:3a; ESV).
Throughout chapter 7 Paul has been writing as a Christian, to Christians, about the Christian life just as he had been writing as a Christian, to Christians, about the Christian’s identity in chapter 6 and his justification in chapters 3 through 5. Now, in chapter 8, Paul resolves some of the tensions that have existed since Romans 6:14.
He does that first, beginning in 7:25 by re-asserting what is true of the Christian. He breaks out into doxology: “Thanks be to God!” The paradox is that even though there is this great tension between “my mind” (the new man) and “my flesh” (the old man) our justification, our righteousness, our free acceptance with God is an objective fact. Despite our struggle with sin, because we are “in Christ” sola gratia, sola fide through the work of the Spirit, we are not condemned. Despite our struggle with the law and the law of sin, the “law of the Spirit of life” has set us free from the law of sin and death. This is the paradox of the Christian life. These laws are all operating simultaneously.
In Christ, God has done what, after the fall, the law was unable to do. After the fall the law is weakened by “the flesh,” i.e., our fallen nature. The law, i.e., the covenant of works, does not change. It continues to demand perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. Christ has performed that for us and sola gratia, sola fide we have Christ and all his benefits (justification, sanctification, glorification). Now, in Christ, we are no longer under the covenant of works for acceptance with God and sin no longer has us, as it were, in a headlock. Sin has been defeated. Yes, we still struggle with sin but because God has sent his Son to become incarnate, to condemn sin in his human nature (on the cross), we are being gradually and graciously sanctified in this life. Paul does not say that we can be perfectly or completely sanctified but Christ came “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom 8:3b). We, who are united to Christ, are those who now live not according to the sinful nature but according to the Holy Spirit. By God’s free favor toward us, in Christ, we set our minds not on sin but the things of the Holy Spirit. We have been renewed. We have been united to Christ. Sin leads to death. Christ and his Spirit lead to life and peace. The sinful nature is at war with God and cannot submit to him. We, however, who are united to Christ, are no longer controlled by the sinful nature (Rom 8:9). We are, in that sense, “in the [Holy] Spirit.”
There is no such thing as a “carnal Christian.” Either one is in Christ or he is not. Likewise, there are not two kinds of Christians, those who are “in the Spirit” and those who are not. Anyone who is in Christ is “in the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is not a second blessing. Being “in the Spirit” is not about an ecstatic experience nor has it anything to do with falling over. It has everything to do with a new life. Even though the “body is dead,” as it were, through sin, the Holy Spirit has made us alive in regeneration and is making us alive actually in progressive sanctification. The same Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is at work in us who believe (Rom 8:11). As he raised us spiritually in regeneration he will raise our corrupted bodies at the resurrection.
It is in light of those realities that we live, not as “debtors to the sinful nature” (Rom 8:12) but as those “who are led by the Spirit of God.” We are adopted sons of God sola gratia, sola fide (Rom 8:14). We are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. We have been set free. The truth is that we sin and sometimes grievously but we are no longer slaves to sin. The Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s adopted sons. We have the highest status possible. Our sin does not change that fact. Because of our union with Christ, we suffer with him and because of our union with Christ we shall be glorified with him (Rom 8:12–16). As we struggle with sin we groan inwardly awaiting the consummation (Rom 8:23). Our struggle is so great that we do not even know how to pray so the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (Rom 8:26). We are in Christ because God elected us and even though we struggle with sin we know that we cannot be lost because our salvation does not belong to us but to God (Rom 8:28–30). We are secured by a golden chain of salvation.
This is the good news. God is for us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ, who justifies sinners (Rom 8:33). Christ has been raised. He was shown to be righteous and we are righteous in him. He is interceding for us. We are more than conquerors (Rom 8:37). Our struggle with sin does not define us. The gospel does: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
Romans chapters 6 through 8 are a unit, written by a Christian, for Christians, about Christians. We are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. We are sinners. We have been freely saved and justified and we are, therefore, being sanctified. It is all true at the same time. We should not set these truths against each other but affirm them all in their paradoxical wonder.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- The Christian’s Continual Struggle With Sin (Romans 7)
- The Reformed Churches Do Not Confess Baptismal Union With Christ
- How Did Christ Fulfill The Covenant Of Works As The Last Adam?
- Gillespie: Christ Fulfilled The Covenant Of Works And Earned Condign Merit
- Hodge: Christ Fulfilled The Conditions Of The Covenant Of Works For Believers
- Heidegger And Turretin: Adam’s Covenant Of Works Fulfilled By Christ
- Witsius: Christ Condignly Merited A Reward By Fulfilling The Covenant Of Works
- Berkhof: Christ Met The Condition Of The Covenant Of Works
- Sanctification Is A Work Of God’s Grace: Resources On Sanctification
- Resources On Keeping Justification And Sanctification Together Without Confusing Them
- Resources On the Doctrine of Sanctification And The Third Use Of The Law
- The Reformed Churches Do Not Confess Baptismal Union With Christ
- Resources On Union With Christ
Thanks to Steve White and Linda Grauberger for their editorial help with this essay. Any remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the author.