Paul's letter to the Romans
Law and sin
You will appreciate, my friends - those of you acquainted
with the law - that laws apply to people only during their
lifetime. A married woman, for instance, has legal
obligation to her husband only as long as he lives. If she gives
herself to someone else while her husband is alive she is,
legally, guilty of adultery. But if her husband is dead
she is not subject to the marriage-law and is not accounted an adulteress
when she gives herself to another. Likewise you, my
friends, have died to the law through identification with
Christ. You have found another 'husband' in the one who rose
from the dead to make us profitable for God. While we lived on
the level of our lower nature, unworthy cravings, stirred up by
the law, functioned to make us profitable only for death.
But now that we have died to what held us captive we are free of the
law. We are able to serve God in a new way - a way
of the spirit rather than the way of a written code.
Paul's analogy just scrapes home. His point is that the law does recognize a changed situation when a death intervenes, and that does not mean the law itself is invalidated.Does this mean that the law and sin are one and the same? Of course not. Yet without the law I would never have recognized sin. I would never have known what it was to covet if the law had not said: 'Thou shalt not covet'. When I first heard that, sin seized its opportunity and aroused all sorts of guilty longings in me. In the absence of law sin is paralysed. At one time, in the absence of law, I was alive. Then the commandment arrived; sin came to life; I died. The law, which might have been expected to confer life, in my actual experience led to death. It provided sin with the opportunity to ensnare me - and thus, through the commandment, to kill me. The law is sacred, and what it requires is sacred, just, and good. Should we say that this good thing was the death of me? No, it was sin that killed me, thus revealing itself for what it is. It used something good to encompass my death. Sin used the commandment to show just how evil sin is.
The law is spiritual but I am not. I am sold to sin. I don't acknowledge my actions as truly my own, since I do what I do not wish to do, things I detest. And if what I do is against my own will there must be some part of me that respects the law and agrees with it. So it's not the real me that does the thing, but sin that has invaded me. There is nothing good about the unspiritual side of me, because it prevents me from doing the good thing I want to do. I just don't do it, and instead I do the evil thing that is against my will. And if that's the situation it is no longer me in charge, but sin hiding within me.
This is how it turns out, then. When I want to do right I seem able to manage only wrong. My deepest self rejoices in the law of God, but what actually controls me works to a different law, one that fights against the law my mind approves of, and makes me captive to the law of sin. What a mess I'm in! Who is there to rescue me from this death-bound self? Only God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!
To sum up then, I am myself as a rational being answerable to God's
law. And yet, in my unspiritual nature I am slave to the
law of sin. [7-25]
The last verse seems psychologically out of place, and some commentators try to shift it to an earlier position, or simply give up on it altogether. But this is not Paul analysing his own unique inner experience. In fact the detail of it doesn't fit him. He himself was never 'alive, in the absence of law'. The situations Paul sketches throughout the letter have a hypothetical character. This one reads like a Christian (and more particularly a Gentile Christian) looking back on the road travelled, and now understanding it from a present, Christian perspective.
paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis