SPIRIT RATHER THAN LETTER

So that, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the Law through the body of the Christ, for your becoming another’s, who out of the dead was raised up, that we might bear fruit to God; 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; and now we have ceased from the Law, that being dead in which we were held, so that we may serve in newness of spirit, and not in oldness of letter. What, then, shall we say? the Law [is] sin? let it not be! but the sin I did not know except through Law, for also the covetousness I had not known if the Law had not said: `Thou shalt not covet;’ and the sin having received an opportunity, through the command, did work in me all covetousness — for apart from law sin is dead. And I was alive apart from law once, and the command having come, the sin revived, and I died; 10 and the command that [is] for life, this was found by me for death; 11 for the sin, having received an opportunity, through the command, did deceive me, and through it did slay [me];12 so that the Law, indeed, [is] holy, and the command holy, and righteous, and good. 13 That which is good then, to me hath it become death? let it not be! but the sin, that it might appear sin, through the good, working death to me, that the sin might become exceeding sinful through the command. [Rom7:4-13 Young’s Literal Translation]

It doesn’t get any easier, does it? Every Christian has their favourite passage of Scripture, but this is not one of mine. That is not because it challenges what I believe the Spirit has shown me to be the truth, but because it has the potential to be misrepresented as supporting a form of antinomianism. My heart, as I believe was the case with Paul, continues to be with the psalmist who wrote:

Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,
And I shall observe it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law
And keep it with all my heart
.
35 Make me walk in the path of Your commandments,
For I delight in it. (Ps119:33-35)

Truly, anyone who does not delight in God’s Law in his heart and does not wish to keep it in spirit is not a disciple of Christ. As we have previously observed “The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14). The letter of the Law is impossible to keep but not the spirit, and as James affirms the CHRISTIAN IS EXPECTED TO FULFIL IT (James2:8). But still more to the point Jesus taught the same and He cannot be contradicted, even by an Apostle.

Paul, even in this passage affirms that the Law itself is “holy, righteous and good”. The problem is that it exposes human sin, indeed brings it to life – for where there is no law sin is not imputed (Rom4:15 & 5:13), or as he says here, “apart from the law, sin is dead” (v8). As you see, he is adamant about the matter, which is why I now understand him to be referring to his early childhood in verse nine when he says that he was alive without the law once, but when the law (in the sense of a knowledge of right and wrong) came, “sin revived and I died”. For I say again with Paul, sin is never imputed to those ignorant that they have done wrong, still less to those who earnestly believe themselves to be doing right. This simple truth has profound providential implications to historical cultural and ethnic realities and of course to those who die in infancy. But as I explain in my book**, God’s broader benign providence is not primarily based on the fact of ignorance but to the way in which Christ’s atonement avails at the forensic level for all who respond in faith to God’s law in their heart, being their conscience (Rom2:15) – deferring to it and so seeking to do what they sense to be right. As Matthew 25 “sheep”, they show compassion towards their fellow human beings, which as we have also shown from the teaching of Paul fulfils the intentions of God’s Law.

Yet this gracious and historically eluded provision of common grace via natural precepts is quite inadequate for those chosen to be God’s Royal Priesthood on Earth and the future corporate bride of His Son. As Paul has recently affirmed, that requires participation in the life of Christ and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. And it is why special revelation in the form the of the Law and Prophets was first provided to the seed of Isaac. But as the Apostle was also aware, there was a problem with how this Torah had been utilized, especially by certain religious leaders that Jesus had also taken to task. They were obsessed with the minutiae of rules, regulation and liturgy and indeed had added to it, laying impossible burdens upon their fellows, whilst entirely neglecting the weightier matters of social justice, mercy and love, that both Jesus and Paul had emphasized is really what the Law was intended to be about.

That is why Jesus went on to “abolish in his flesh the enmity, even the Law of commandments contained in ordinances”. Forthat also acted as something that divided Jew from Gentile. A distinctive feature of Paul’s Good News was that God in  Christ now wishedto make in Himself of two, one new man that He might reconcile both (Jew and Gentile) to God in one body” (Eph2:15-16). And of course, compliance with the letter of the Law was not and never had been the grounds of justification within the Covenants of promise as some of Paul’s detractors were insisting. They, he said, had “turned again to the weak and beggarly elements (of the Torah), desiring again to be in bondage, observing days and months and seasons and years (Gal4:9-10)“.

For all these reasons the Law (Torah) had to go. But, says Paul, that was so that those chosen for Christ might bear fruit unto God (v4). Such could never have been achieved by slavishly observing rules and regulations that in view of the weakness of the flesh we continually failed to keep. Instead it would be by obeying from the heart the spirit of God’s Law focussed on service to God and love for neighbor. Regrettably, this meaning has been lost in many translations of verse 6 that take Paul to be referring to the work of the Holy Spirit and virtually placing that in opposition to observing the Law. As is clearer from the Young’s Literal Translation I have utilized (above) Paul is simply contrasting the letter of the law with the spirit of the law. Whilst the Holy Spirit does indeed enable the believer to love and serve in a way he could not previously, as pointed out in the previous post, the third person of the Trinity is not a human faculty, it is still the individual who has to produce the fruit. And, surely, that cannot be achieved if one continues to idolize, kill, hate, steal, cheat and lie – in other words if one fails to observe God’s law, not in slavish observance to the letter resulting in failure and guilt, but from the heart in spirit and in truth resulting in eternal life.  

** Free PDF HERE