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Not Under Law: What the “Struggle Verses” of Romans 7 Really Mean

By Mark VanOuse

[Note: a podcast of this article is available by clicking here]

Bring up Romans chapter 7 and most Christians immediately think of the “struggling with sin” discussion of verses 14 through 24. They therefore conclude that the chief subject of Romans 7 is about struggling with sin. Worse, they buy into a false theology, based on an improper reading of this chapter, that Christians are stuck “struggling with sin till the day they die”.

Nothing could further from the truth. Romans 7 is one of the clearest statements in all the scripture that those in Christ are not under law. That thesis is found in the first 6 verses of Romans 7. It is a natural continuation of the thought developed in Romans 6 that those in Christ are united with Him in His death at Calvary and therefore dead to sin. Romans 7 picks the same theme up and makes the revolutionary point that we are also dead to the law.Romans 7 brings out 3 elements:

  • The bondage of sin
  • law
  • Deliverance from the law and sin through the body of Jesus Christ (grace)

The theme of the bondage of sin, law and grace first comes up in Romans 6:14

For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

Notice several things here:

  • Sin not having dominion, which speaks of authority over, something being in subjection to, as under a king or being in bondage to, as is the case of a slave.
  • Not under – speaking of the subservient position of one under a ruler’s or Master’s authority.
  • Not under law – speaking of the Old Covenant law (including the Ten Commandments) of God and NOT being under the authority of the law.
  • But under grace – but being now under God’ authority of grace, the unmerited favor of God.

Let me point out here that when some Christians hear that we are “not under law” they object, because they mistakenly imagine that we are not under anything. The scripture plainly teaches otherwise. It declares that we have been removed from one very limited realm of authority and placed under an infinitely superior realm of authority, Jesus Christ and His all-sufficient grace.

Romans 6:14 marvelously launches this theme which is more fully developed in Romans 7 and 8. This article will point out the fact that Romans 7 makes it abundantly clear that those in Christ are NOT under law. It also shows the precise reason for the law: to overwhelmingly convince the sinner that they are dreadfully and mortally entrapped by a cruel master, sin. It does this by provoking sin out of hiding in the sinner’s life.

Now, let’s dig into Romans 7 to see how it unfolds the amazing truth that those in Christ are not under law and therefore not under the dominion and bondage of sin:

The case is made that the law has dominion (lords over, rules over) as long as a man lives.

[1] Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives?

The covenant of marriage is used as an example of this, in which the wife is “bound by the law to her husband” (verse 2).

[2] For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she isreleased from the law of her husband.

From this notice two things:

  1. Being bound by the law to someone. This speaks of a relation, a legal one, which cannot be severed.
  2. Being released from the law.

This twofold theme is developed in Romans 7. It is important to note that a very important thesis theme is “being bound by the law” versus “being released from the law”. This should raise the important questions: who is bound to the law? And who is released from the law?

These first verses in Romans 7 draw a parallel of our relationship with the law (and then to Christ) in marital terms. Scripturally, marriage is considered a covenant. This is extraordinarily important, as the Bible speaks chiefly in terms of covenants, the most important being the Old and New Covenants. Further, in verse 3, it is pointed out that if the woman, while still married, marries another she is called an adulteress. In other words, you must be married to one or the other, but not both:

[3] So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.

Notice that the second part of verse 3 shows the way to be released from the law of the husband: death. Death itself annuls the marriage covenant and releases both parties from the exclusive claim that they have upon each other in the covenant of marriage.

The allusion to marriage here is meant to point to the covenant relationship that a person has with the law. We know that the law does not die. Jesus Himself said:

For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18).

Therefore, if we are to be released from the law, we must die. But how does that happen so that we yet live? Romans 7:4a gives the amazing answer:

Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ

What incredible news! We have become dead to the law. That death has released us from the law. We are no longer bound to the law any more than a dead wife is bound to the law of her husband. How did we become dead to the law? Through the body of Christ. Romans 6 more fully developed this idea by saying that we:

  • Have been baptized into His death (6:3) and buried (6:4)
  • Have been united together with Christ in the likeness of His death (6:5a)
  • Our old man therefore was crucified with Him. Crucifixion means death. Christ was crucified and we were crucified with Him and died (see also Gal 2:20, Col 3:3).

In Romans 6, we discover that our death through union with Christ and His death means death to sin. That death to sin means release from the bondage of sin. Now, in Romans 7 we discover that that same death also means death to the law. That same death with Christ means release from the law. It means we are delivered from the law (verse 6).

I cannot think of a more striking picture of the absolute end of something than the matter of death. Yet that is exactly what the Bible declares. Those in Christ are “dead indeed to sin” (Romans 6:11) and “dead to the law” (Romand 7:4)!  Romans 7:2 says that if we are dead to the law, then we are released from the law. We are no longer in bondage to it. It no longer has any authority or rule over us.

Do get a hold of this. This is not my teaching, this is the crystal clear teaching of the Bible.

Praise God, the story doesn’t end in death!  Romans 6:4 declares:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Fathereven so we also should walk in newness of life.

Romans 7:4 gives us the reason why our death with Christ and therefore death (release) from the law was necessary:

that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.

So this death with Christ makes possible two wonderful things:

  1. Marriage to another, the One who was raised from death, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are now brought into a covenant of love with Jesus. This speaks of Jesus entering into relationship with us.
  2. Fruitfulness to God. And what greater fruitfulness than that of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This speaks of the “output” of the Christian life, full of the rich fruit of God: His character, His effectiveness. Fruitfulness always speaks of productivity in the Bible.

Romans 7 is a striking study in contrasts:

  • Being married to the law versus being married to Jesus (v. 4)
  • Being in bondage to the law versus being released from the law (v.1-4)
  • Serving in the oldness of the letter (law) versus serving in the newness of the Spirit (v. 6)
  • Bearing fruit to death versus bearing fruit to God (v. 5-6)
  • Being killed by the law versus being alive in Christ (v. 9)
  • Being in bondage to sin, under law, as a sinner (v. 7-24) versus being released by Jesus Christ (v. 25)
  • The life of the sinner in bondage to the law and sin versus the life of the saint walking in freedom and fruitfulness to God (Rom 7:4, 8:2)

Viva the difference! The difference between the sinner’s bondage to the law, sin and death versus the saint’s freedom from the law, sin and death to be married to Jesus and bear fruit to God!

Now we get to the matter of the great controversy of Romans 7: do the “struggling with sin” verses (14-24) depict the experience of a Christian or a person before salvation (a sinner) or both?

Most Christians agree that verses 7 through 12 speak of a person before salvation. The controversy exists over verses 14 through 24. Probably most Christians would say that these “struggle” verses speak of a Christian’s experience (or at least the experience of both the sinner and the Christian. The reason for this position may not necessarily be theological, but rather one founded on their own struggling with sinning. Notice I used the verb “sinning” there and not the noun “sin”. More on this later.

Let me say that the focus of this debate, however, is completely wrong. Romans 7 is not about “struggling with sin”. You may say, “Wait a minute, what about all those ‘struggle verses’!” Yes, there are a lot of those, but that is not the principle thing that Romans 7 teaches.

What does Romans 7 teach? I just taught you a little earlier. Remember? The thesis verses of Romans 7 are not found in verses 14-24, but in verses 1-13, particularly verses 4 through 6:

[4] Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christthat you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.[5] For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.[6] But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held byso that we should serve in the newness of the Spiritand not in the oldness of the letter.

Take a moment and read those three verses again. Pay close attention to what I’ve emphasized.

Dear friend, may I challenge you? Would you allow the inerrant, inspired Word of God to correct your thinking? Would you repent? The Greek word for “repent” is “metanoia”, which literally means “change the mind”. Would you change your mind about what you think about your relationship with law and sin so that it lines up with what the Bible teaches here about these things? Would you forsake and renounce your own personal theologies and be willing and humble to allow God, by His Word, to correct your thinking and theology in accordance with His holy Word?

Oh, I’ve had to do that many times in my own life! I still do. But what freedom we discover, what riches of God’s grace are found when we allow God’s word to teach us and lead us where God wants us to go! If you struggle with this ask God, by His Spirit, to open your mind (Eph 1:17-23) so that you may see and understand it.

Now, with fresh eyes, an open mind and the Spirit’s help would you read verses 4 through 6 again?

[4] Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christthat you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.[5] For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.[6] But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held byso that we should serve in the newness of theSpirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

Observe the following great truths from this passage:

  • You have become dead to the law. What kind of relationship does a dead person have? None. Is a dead person under anyone’s authority? No. We are dead to the law. Therefore, we have no relationship to it. We are not under its authority.
  • This has happened through the body of Christ. Romans 6 declares that we are united with Christ in His death (verses 3-5) and by virtue of that same union Romans 7 tells us that we are dead to the law.
    This means that the law has absolutely no claim, no authority, no jurisdiction whatsoever over one in Christ ever again.
  • As mentioned earlier, the reason for this death through Christ to the law is so that we may be married to another, the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 4b).
  • Another reason for this death through Christ to the law is so that we may bear fruit to God (verse 4c).
  • We have now been delivered from the law (verse 6a).
  • Now that we are delivered from the law we can now serve in the newness of the Spirit (verse 6b).
  • Now that we are delivered from the law we should not serve in the oldness of the letter (the law) (verse 6c).

Remember, you are dead to the law and released from its authority, so that you may be under something else: grace. We are under a far greater authority than the law: Jesus Christ and His grace. We serve in the newness of the Spirit, not in the oldness of the letter (law).

God gives us a far greater and better way to serve Him. Hallelujah!

What about the “struggle” verses of Romans 7:14-24?

The answer is found in verses 7 through 13. After having clearly established in verses 1-6 that those in Christ are dead to the law, an important question is raised and answered in verse 7:

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

Now the discussion moves from the plain declaration that those in Christ have been released from the law through death to the purpose of the law to make known sin. Up until this point it can sound like Paul thinks that the law is not a good thing. He anticipates this objection and tells us what the relationship is between law and sin:

I would have not known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

First, it is important to understand that two very different Greek words are used for the “known” of “known sin” and that of “known covetousness.” It is extremely important understand these two words, as the English “known” in both cases comes off as a “know about”, sort of head knowledge, whereas the Greek words speak of a far greater thing.

The “known” of the phrase “known sin” is the Greek word “ginosko” which means “to come to know”.  Then the verse says “FOR”.  Whenever you see “for” at the beginning of a clause it gives the reason for the first clause. So, the reason why I come to know sin, the problem of sin in me is the “FOR” of Romans 7:7b:

For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

The Greek word for this second “known” is far different and far deeper. It is the Greek word “eido”, which means, literally, “to see” or “see full well”. The best way that I can describe this is as “I see it!” knowledge. It’s a lot like what happens when a light is turned on in a dark room. Now you can see what’s there, as opposed to not being able to see just moments before.

Putting this together in Romans 7:7, apart from the law the sinner doesn’t clearly see and fully understand how serious their sin problem is. They have no idea of the furious strength of the bondage of sin. To them, sin is a problem “out there” and not a problem with me. The law lets the sinner SEE that he is hopelessly in bondage to sin, that the very nature of himself makes him an object of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3). How does the law do that?

This is precisely what Romans 7:7-24 is all about! Romans 7:7 describes the process succinctly:

On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

We see the following:

First: The law steps in to the life of a sinner and says “Do not covet!” The Greek for “covet” means “an inordinate desire”. The law describes this as an inordinate desire for someone else, someone else’s spouse, someone else’s possessions.

Second: What is this law supposed to do? Stop sin? To the contrary! The sin nature within the sinner is actually aroused and awakened by the law (verse 9). In other words the law provokes the sinful nature of the sinner out of hiding and sinning increases (Romans 5:20).

Third: The sinner’s hopeless bondage to sin becomes as obvious as the horror of a person trapped in quicksand. The more he struggles, the more he is hopelessly entangled in the mire and sucked deeper into the vortex of death. In a shocking moment, he realizes he will never escape and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. Unless someone else rescues him.

The real nature of the beast–sin in the sinnerrouses to life when the sinner encounters the law! Let’s clarify: the noun “sin” is used repeatedly in Romans, as opposed to the verb “sin” (as in “sinning”). “Sin” used here and throughout Romans is a far more comprehensive word here. It refers to a dread condition, like cancer. The problem isn’t merely the individual “sins” committed, but the fact that they happen as the result of the condition of sin in the sinner. The sinner has a nature that is sinful. It is the antithesis of all that is good in God. Therefore, that sinful nature makes them an object of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3).

God uses a divinely appointed instrument — the law — to prove to the sinner just how bad they are and how shockingly dreadful is this condition of sin in them. It does this by agitating the sinner, so that his real nature — a sin nature — is provoked and comes out of hiding. The purpose of this isn’t to prove anything to God (He knows all things), but to prove to the sinner that he is a sinner, hopelessly in bondage to sin, with a sinful nature that is so bad, it’s a target for the wrath of God.

This is similar to a man who starts having headaches all the time. His wife insists that he go to the doctor and get it checked out. For weeks he says, “Oh, it’s no big deal, it’s just a headache” and doesn’t go to the doctor. Finally, after weeks without relief he agrees to go to the doctor. After medical examinations and diagnostic tests, the doctor sits the patient down to tell him the horrible news that he has cancer. The doctor shows the patient the images of his brain — and the large tumor in his brain. Finally, the patient is convinced that he himself has cancer. Not someone else, not his co-worker, not his neighbor, not even his wife — he is the one with the dread condition of cancer. Now that the patient is convinced that he has this awful, deadly condition he agrees to radical measures to be rid of the cancer: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Now, imagine if the doctor didn’t try to convince the patient that he had cancer. He doesn’t tell the patient the results of the tests. He doesn’t show the patient the scans of his brain. Instead, he skips over all that and tells the patient (who has no idea that he has cancer), “I’ll tell you what, I know a great brain surgeon who would be glad to drill into your skull and cut out part of your brain. What do you say we schedule you for surgery tomorrow morning at 7:30?”

That patient would run away fast from such a crazy doctor! And who would blame him? Why in the world would anyone agree to such a radical procedure unless he was thoroughly convinced that it was he himself who was the cancer patient?

That is precisely what the law is for. It is meant to chase down the sinner and relentlessly prove that he has the cancer of sin which drives the sinner to cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Now this sinner is fully convinced (convicted) that he is indeed a sinner, with a hopeless, awful sinful nature that does nothing but draw the righteous and holy wrath of God. He is now ready and willing to receive God’s glorious answer:

I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! (verse 25)

Romans 7:14-24 graphically shows just how the law convinces and convicts the sinner of his dread condition of hopeless bondage to sin. Verse 14 says, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.” This definitely cannot describe a Christian, for in the very next chapter it says, “But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you…” (Rom 8:9). Verses 14-24 use the first person narrative form to vividly describe what this collision of law, sin and the sinner looks like. It’s so striking, that everyone can relate with it very well, saying, “That’s me!”

The problem, however, is that we can so easily get lost in the dramatic use of the present tense and highly personal force of verses 14-24 and completely forget the clear theological truths established in verses 1-13. When we focus on verses 14-24 and neglect the theological verses of 1-13 (as well as the wider body of truth presented heretofore in Romans) we end up with wrong theology. A theology that says that Romans 7:14-24 is about Christians struggling with sin. Even worse is the positively false theology that claims that Christians will hopelessly struggle with sin until the day they die. Such dreadful theology keeps Christians needlessly locked up in a dungeon of sin, with no hope of getting out until their last heartbeat.

No wonder so many Christians are living lives of needless bondage to sin!

They’ve been taught they are sinners. That’s patently unbiblical.

They’ve been taught they have a sinful nature. That’s patently unbiblical.

They’ve been taught that “there is a continual war” going on inside of them, the “new man” (new nature) at war with the “old man” (the sinful nature). That’s patently unbiblical.

They’ve been taught that they have corruption throughout themselves. That’s patently unbiblical.

They’ve been taught that they will be in this hopeless condition of bondage until the day they die. That’s patently unbiblical.

Away with these awful, carnal doctrines of men that subvert the clear teaching of the Word of God! All it does is dishonor the finished work of Jesus Christ and leave Christians thinking they are in a hopeless bondage to sin, thus depriving them of the only real opportunity for victory over sin.

Praise God for the glorious truth of all of Romans, not just a few verses taken out of context. The entire epistle rings with great clarity the simple and powerful message:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

What could be clearer? All true righteousness is from God alone. Any other “righteousness” is an abomination. This is not by works, but by faith. It is “of faith that it may be according to grace” (Rom 4:16).

In summary, here is the real message of Romans 7:

  1. The law has dominion over a man as long as he lives (verse 1)
  2. We are dead to the law through the body of Christ (verse 4).
  3. The reason for this is so that we could be married to another, Jesus, and bear fruit to God (verse 4b)
  4. The sinful passions of a sinner are aroused by the law, with the result of bearing fruit unto death (verse 5).
  5. NOW that we are dead to the law in Christ, we serve in a new way: in the Spirit and NOT in the old way of the letter (the law, verse 6).
  6. Someone may object, claiming that we’re saying the law is sin. NO WAY (verse 7)!
  7. The reason why the law arouses sin in the sinner is that the very command that says “thou shalt not” awakens and arouses the latent sinful nature of the sinner and sin springs to life, producing death (verses 7-12).
  8. This is how a sinner comes into intimate, first hand experience and knowledge of the dread problem of sin and his sinful nature (verse 13).
  9. Verses 14 through 24 uses graphic, firsthand experience language to make it abundantly clear just how the law’s interaction with a sinner results in that sinner being completely convinced and convicted of the fact they are indeed a guilty sinner, hopelessly mired in a dreadful sinful nature, that rightly evokes the wrath of God.
  10. The result all this is that the sinner now says, “I SEE IT!”
  11. Finally, the sinner cries out for rescue from someone else and finds his savior, his rescue, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ!

Here’s the wonderful truth of what Christ has accomplished in the believer (Romans 8:1-4):

[1] Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [2] For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. [3] For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, [4] so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

CC by-nc-nd 2010 Mark D. VanOuse