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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. (Romans 7:5-6)

Today I want you to see the vast difference between the first and the second marriage.  That is, the difference between being bound to the law and being bound to Jesus Christ.

The First Marriage

Bound to the Law (Life in the Flesh)

What does Paul mean when he says, “while we were living in the flesh”?  What is this “living in the flesh” which was once true of us, but is true of us no longer?

The word ‘flesh’ is used in different ways in the Bible.

1. Sometimes ‘flesh’ simply means ‘the body.’

When Paul says, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), he is referring to the life that we live in the body.

That cannot be the meaning here because Christians still live in the body!  When Paul says, “while we were living in the flesh,” he is describing something that once was true of us but is true of us no longer.

2. Sometimes ‘flesh’ refers to sensual desire.

For example, in Galatians 5:17 when Paul says, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.”

Again, this cannot be the meaning here because Christians still experience the impulse to sin.  We are tempted.  The impulse to sin remains in us.  But here “living in the flesh,” is something that was once true of us but is true of us no longer!

3. But here the word ‘flesh’ refers simply to the life we were born with. 

Our Lord used the word ‘flesh’ in the same way when he spoke to Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” and then Jesus drew the same contrast that we have here, “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).  For this reason, Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).

Life “in the flesh” is simply the life we were born with.  This is our position by nature.  We are born to life in the flesh.  As long as we are in the flesh, we are bound to the law.  This is not a very happy position for sinners like us to be in.

When we get to Romans 8, Paul continues with the same theme of this great contrast between the first and second marriage.  He draws out the radical difference between what we all were by nature and what we are now, if we are in Jesus Christ.

Notice how Paul continues the contrast: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7).  Then he says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

This is what all of us were.  We all started there.  The natural condition of all men and women born into the world is that we are in the flesh, bound to the law, with sin working in us producing, deceiving, and killing (Rom. 7:8-11).  We were by nature hostile to God, unwilling to submit to God’s law, and unable to please him (Rom. 8:7-8).  This is the human condition.  This is what we need saving from.

Notice the outcome of being in this position: “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” (Rom. 7:5).  The Apostle later says the same thing: “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Rom. 8:6).

That’s life in the flesh.  That is life in this miserable marriage to the law.  Clearly, he is not describing a Christian!  If you are in Christ, this is no longer your position.

The Second Marriage

Bound to Christ (Life in the Spirit)

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. (Romans 7:6)

We died to that which held us captive — that is the law.  We got out of the miserable marriage.  We have been brought into this new and living union in which we are bound to Christ.  This union is like a marriage in which we are loved and in which we can flourish.

The result of this union is that we “serve in the new way of the Spirit” (7:6).  Again, Paul takes up this contrast in Romans 8:9-11, where he describes the position of the Christian believer.

Three times in these verses he uses the word ‘if’ to communicate that he is speaking about things that are only true of Christian believers.  The sense of these verses is: This is not true of everyone, but assuming that you are a Christian, this is what is true of you.

To be a Christian means that the Spirit of God dwells in you. 

You…are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Rom. 8:9)

To be a Christian means that Christ lives in you.

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:10)

To be a Christian means that by the Spirit, the Father lives in you (see John 14:23).

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8:11)

This puts you in an entirely different position from the life you were born with in that old miserable marriage to the law!  And notice the outcome!  When we were in the flesh and bound to the law, Paul says that we were “bearing fruit for death.”  But now he says to believers, “You 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 you may bear fruit for God.”

 In Romans 8, he describes the fruit of being in Christ again: “To set the mind on the spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6).  There is a huge difference between ‘life in the flesh’ and ‘life in the Spirit.’  To the Christian believers, Paul can say, “You…are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9).

There’s only one way to move from the miserable marriage to the law into this new and living union, and that is to die and rise in Christ.  Death is a journey that takes you forward.  It is irreversible.  When you have died, you never go back.

That’s important because Paul’s words about living in the flesh and living in the Spirit have sometimes been understood to mean that when Christians are at our worst we are living in the flesh, and when we are at our best we are living in the Spirit.  As if somehow we slipped back and forth between the two: “Today, I really felt that I was in the spirit.  But yesterday, I think I was pretty much in the flesh.”

I’m convinced that this is a complete misunderstanding of Romans 7 and 8.  When Paul speaks here about living in the flesh, he is speaking about something that once was true of us, but is true of us no longer.  “While we were living in the flesh” (Rom. 7:5).  “But now…. having died to that which held us captive” (Rom. 7:6).

Romans 7 is not about Christians at our best and Christians at our worst.  It is about the contrast between the first and second marriage.  It is about the radical difference between being bound to the law and being bound to Jesus Christ in this new and living union.

So get this contrast settled in your mind.  Life in the flesh means that all you have is the life you were born with.  Life in the Spirit means that you have a new life in Jesus Christ.  You died and rose with Christ, and the Spirit of God lives in you.

There are two kinds of people in the world: People who are living in the flesh and people who are living in the Spirit.  All of us are either one of the other.  You can’t be both at the same time.  We don’t go back and forward between the two.  The way in which you move from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit is through union with Jesus Christ.  To the Christian believers Paul says, “You… are not in the flesh but [you are] in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9).

This takes us to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  A Christian is a person who is no longer ‘in the flesh’ but ‘in the Spirit.’  A Christian is a person who is no longer bound to the law but bound to Jesus Christ.  A Christian is a person who is no longer bearing fruit for death but serving in the new way of the Spirit.

Why We Need Romans 7 

Romans 7 is the cure for perfectionism. 

Some of you live under a crushing burden.  Let me try to describe what it is like, and then to show you how what we have been learning here is the truth that will set you free.

You say to yourself, I am a new creation in Jesus Christ.  I died and I rose with him.  I have a new life in Christ.  The Holy Spirit of God lives in me.  Therefore I should be able to live a truly holy life.

So you set your mind to that task.  You say, I am going to get it right as a wife and as a mother.  I am going to get it right as a husband, father, leader.  I am going to live as Christ calls me to live and as the Holy Spirit empowers me to live.

And yet somehow you never do.  What actually happens is that you spend a great deal of time worrying when you should be trusting, and you find that you are constantly frustrated with yourself for not being a better Christian.

All over the congregation, there will be women and men who recognize that description.  The problem for the perfectionist is that she takes seriously the power of Christ, but does not adequately consider the ongoing presence of sin.

There’s more to sin than wrong actions that you can put behind you when they have been confessed and forgiven.  There’s more to it than that.  We have been learning from Romans 7 that sin is a power.  It is an impulse that resides in you, and even though you are a Christian, this impulse remains in you.

As long as you are in this life, you will never become the perfect Christian.  You will never be able to say, “I did it!  I lived the life that God has called me to live!”  Thank God for that, because if you did, you would have lost sight of your need for a Savior!

However far you progress in the Christian life, you will be, till your last breath in this life, a sinner who depends wholly on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to save you.  You need him as much on your best day as you do on your worst.  When you see that, you will be delivered from the crushing burden of perfectionism. 

Romans 7 is the answer to defeatism.

Let me describe the opposite problem, and again try to show you how what we have been learning in Romans 7 is the truth that will set you free.

You say to yourself, I am profoundly aware of the power of sin within me.  I know what it is to be drawn back to the same sin that made me miserable before.  I know only too well about this impulse of sin that rises up in me.  I have lost count of the times I have fallen into temptation, and I live with a constant sense of frustration and defeat.

Again, all over the congregation, there will be men and women who recognize this description.  The problem for the defeatist is that he takes seriously the power of sin but does not adequately consider the ongoing presence of Christ.

Your battle with the impulse to sin will continue as long as you live.  We all fall and fail in many ways, but Jesus Christ lives in you!  You are in the second marriage.  You have union with Christ.  His presence, his power, and his Spirit are in you!  Sin will always be your enemy, but it is no longer your master.  Your battle will not end in defeat.  By the grace of God you can, and you will, make progress.

However often you have fallen into sin, you have, and you will always have, a Savior who stands with you, binds himself to you, and whose Spirit is able to help you.  When you see that, you will be delivered from being crushed by your own defeats.

So don’t go through your Christian life saying, “O wretched man that I am” (Rom. 7:24)!  You are made one with Christ and because of that union you have a deliverer!  So even in the face of failure, even when you see and feel your own wretchedness, you can say with the apostle Paul, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25)!

Here we have the two opposite errors that stalk the lives of Christian believers: Perfectionism and defeatism.  Both come from going back to measuring ourselves by the law and both are addressed by the great truths of Romans 7.

Jerry Bridges captures the truth we have been learning with wonderful clarity: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace.  And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” [1]

The truths of Romans 7 are our source of freedom and joy in Jesus Christ.

My prayer for this series has been that we will taste and savor more of the freedom and joy of an authentic Christian life: “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).

There is a diminished version of Christianity that is often found among people who have not grasped this great truth of union with Christ: Jesus forgives you when you mess up in order that you will be a good person who keeps the law. 

That produces a wooden, joyless attempt at discipleship that often lacks any real intimacy with God.  And all the time, you live with the feeling that God ‘has it in for you’ if you don’t get it right.

Union with Christ moves you from duty to delight.  It moves you from that wooden, joyless attempt at discipleship to a new freedom and joy that flows from loving Christ.

Someone in the congregation said to me recently, “I used to come to church because I thought it was something I needed to do to be a good person.”

I said, “So why do you come now?”

He said, “Because I love Jesus.”

There’s all the difference in the world between these two things!  Why do you pray?  Why do you give and serve, and tell the truth, and stay loyal when being faithful isn’t easy?  Is it because you think this is something you should do in order to be a good person or is it because you love Jesus?  That’s the difference between the first and second marriage.  In the second marriage there’s love and life and freedom and peace and joy!

Jesus Christ says something better to you than “I forgive you.  Now go and do better next time.”  He says, “I forgive you and I bind myself to you.  I give you my Spirit and I will dwell with you.”

The law cannot love you and the law cannot give you strength.  And the law will never let you rest.  You will never find peace by measuring yourself against the law.  But in Jesus Christ there is strength, there is joy, there is life, and there is peace.  There’s all the difference in the world between the first and the second marriage.

William Still, whose writing first got me thinking about this series says, “Christ puts himself in the place of the law.  He smiles at us and says, ‘Look, you will never be good by following that finger pointing of the law, but look at me smiling at you, loving you, caring for you, forgiving you.  I will save you.’” [2]

This Lord Jesus Christ says, “Come to me all you who are weary, all who are heavy laden, all you who have been beating yourself up trying to be a better person.  Come to me and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you.  Bind yourself to me, and I will bind myself to you, and you will find rest for your souls.”

© Colin S. Smith

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Please include this statement on every copy distributed:

By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org

[1] Jerry Bridges, Who Am I?, p. 92, Cruciform Press, 2012.

[2] William Still, The World of Grace, p. 88, Christian Focus, 1999.



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