Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)
Romans 7:5–6—Signposts to the weakness of the law and the new way of the Spirit.

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.

These verses review what Paul has said and preview what he will say on two major subjects. Verse 5 points ahead in this chapter to Paul’s dramatic illustration of the law’s inability to deal with sin. Verse 6 anticipates chapter 8’s joyful proclamation of life and freedom for those who live by the Spirit.

Sin’s unrelenting energy
In verse 5, Paul characterizes the pre-Christian state as “living in the flesh,” a condition under the control of sinful passions that work (Greek energeo) to produce death. Using similar language in his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul reminded believers there that they were formerly dead in their sins. But there it was Satan working (energeo) to incite the passions of the flesh in rebellion against God (2:1–3).

“Flesh” can mean a person or human nature, but here it is equivalent to being “in Adam,” the “old man” (6:6–7). This is the meaning of the word as Paul uses it later in this chapter and in the first part of chapter 8. Flesh and sin jointly rule as despotic kings. They reign over the human heart with the power to convince people of the rightness of their values, their choices, and their ways, but only to deceive them on a path to death.

Law as vassal king
We could conclude from the phrase “aroused by the law” that the law is to blame for unbelievers’ sinful passions, but this would be a serious mistake. So let’s probe deeper into the connection between flesh/sin and the law. Young’s Literal Translation renders verse 5 as follows: “for when we were in the flesh, the passions of the sins, that are through the law, were working in our members, to bear fruit to the death.” You can see that the word “aroused” is not in the text. So what is Paul saying, and why do the ESV and other translations use this word?

After Germany’s panzer divisions overran France at the beginning of World War II, the Nazis installed the Vichy government to do much of Hitler’s bidding. We can liken King Flesh/Sin to Hitler and King Law to France’s puppet government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain. Just as Hitler worked through Marshall Pétain to round up Jews, collect tribute in gold, and further the Nazi cause, our sinful passions worked through the law to bring about death.

It’s a good analogy in regard to the power of flesh/sin over law, but it breaks down when we compare Marshal Pétain with the law on the moral dimension. Pétain was eventually found guilty of treason, whereas the law is guiltless, more like a well-intentioned but weak ruler that sin and Satan use to foist guilt and shame on the human race.

Colin Kruse states that Paul “is not blaming the law but showing that it was, as it were, the unwilling means through which sinful passions were at work.” Rather than being a deterrent to sin, the law “was actually laid under tribute by sinful passions prior to our conversion to bring us into greater bondage.”

Paul will go on in 7:7–11 to explain that sin uses the law (“commandment”) to stimulate people’s rebellious nature and produce death. This is how the law “arouses” the sinful passions. Then Paul will illustrate by means of his sorrowful soliloquy how sin produces death through what is good. For more about the law’s inadequacy, see 4:20 and 5:20.

Victory at last
We saw in the previous message that God released us from the law through the death of Christ, as verse 6 reminds. Now we are “under grace” (see 6:12–14), by God’s gift set free from the straitjacket of the law against which we rebelled. The old law that was the unwitting tool of sin and death has given way to a new law: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (8:2). We are free to live and free to serve God, and for this we thank him!

Heavenly Father rich in mercy, please wake the dead, open the eyes of the deceived, convict us of our violations of your holy law, draw to yourself those content with the trifles of this world—by revealing your Son’s magnificent beauty.
Oh, how you love us!