Just as a woman, by means of a death (that of her husband) is released from her marriage bond and allowed to marry another man, so also by a death (the believers’ death with Christ) God’s children are released from indebtedness to the law, the latter’s “bill” having been fully paid by Christ’s voluntary and vicarious sacrifice. Believers have, accordingly, obtained liberty. This liberty is a freedom from and a freedom for. It is a freedom from the obligation to keep the law in order to be saved, and is therefore also a freedom from the curse which the law pronounces upon the disobedient. But it is at the same time a freedom for or with a view to, a freedom in order to render service to God “in newness of the Spirit, not in oldness of the letter” (verses 1-6).
Release from the law, in the sense indicated, does not imply that the law is sinful. On the contrary, the law is good and useful, for it lays bare our sinfulness. It puts to death our sinful pride and vaunted self-sufficiency. “I would not have come to know sin, had it not been through the law. For I would not have known what it meant to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ ” Therefore, “In itself the law is holy, and the commandment holy and righteous and good.”
Paul has stated that the commandment slays us. But how can something that is good bring death? The apostle answers that it is not the commandment, operating by itself, that slays us; it is our transgression of the commandment that does this. Hence, the real cause of death is sin. It remains true, however, that the very whiteness (moral-spiritual purity) of God’s commandment causes the blackness of our sin to stand out all the more sharply.
By saying such things as “Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died … the commandment killed me …,” Paul gives us a glimpse into his own experience prior to, during, and shortly after his conversion (verses 7-13).
In verses 14-25, which section follows logically upon verses 7-13, Paul, the believer, reflecting on his own situation and that of others like him, discusses The Wretched Man’s Struggle and Victory. He does not find fault with God’s holy law when it exposes him, even Paul, and others like him, as being still polluted with sin. He clearly and openly confesses, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold as a slave to sin.” He admits, therefore, that although absolute goodness can be ascribed to God’s law, it cannot be predicated of himself, Paul. He knows that as long as he is on this sinful earth, he is carnal, that is, unspiritual, worldly, far from perfect. Being a true child of God, the apostle genuinely deplores the fact that he had been sold as a slave to sin. He confesses, “Indeed, that which I am accomplishing I do not approve of. For not what I want (to do), that do I practice, but what I loathe, that I do … For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, it is the evil I do not want to do, this I practice.”
Is not this the very conflict which is also mentioned in Gal. 5:17, where the same apostle states, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: for these are opposed to each other, so that those very things you may wish to be doing, those you are not doing”? And is not this realization of imperfection similar to that expressed in Phil. 3:12, 13, “Not that I have already gotten hold or have already been made perfect … I do not count myself yet to have laid hold”?
However, the very fact that in his inner being Paul does not really want to do what is contrary to God’s will but loathes this situation, fills him with courage, so that he is able to exclaim,
“For according to my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see in my (bodily) members a different law, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The fact, frankly admitted by him in a summarizing statement, namely, “So then, I myself with my mind serve the law of God, but with my flesh the law of sin,” does not cancel the essence of the assurance of victory expressed in those memorable words, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verses 14-25).