Broken Contracts: Romans 7:1-6

Thoughts from Passage

We sign contracts all the time. I have signed contracts to purchase a home, a marriage certificate, a cell phone contract, and even a contract for cable/satellite television! It seems much of life is contractual. The interesting thing about what Jesus wants to do in and through us is to erase the contracts. He wants to change the relationship from a relationship built upon fear and death and shift the relationship to one built upon love. The contract that God wants us to break away from is the contract that we all have entered into, it is sin that leads to death. In Jesus, we can not only die to the old contract, but we can find new life in a covenantal relationship with Jesus. Through a relationship with Jesus we move from a written contract of death and move to a relationship defined by love and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh,[a] the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

These words from William Barclay are helpful as in trying to understand this passage. “Seldom did Paul write so difficult and so complicated a passage as this. C.H. Dodd has said of this passage that when we are studying it we should try to forget what Paul says and to try and find out what he means. The basic thought of the passage is founded on the legal maxim that death cancels all contracts.”[1]

Paul consistently shifts the focus in his writings by asking questions. The questions are usually written in a way to move toward another thought or idea. His movement here is from talking of the gift that comes in knowing Jesus and how it changes the person’s relationship to the Law.

The Law was the all-encompassing set of rules that all that were Jewish were to follow to be in right relationship with God. The problem became that much like us today following rules does not change one’s heart. In fact, one can follow all the rules and be a person who has never embraced the spirit behind the rules. This is much like how children can obey their parents, but not really have any respect or love for their parents.

The idea of bearing fruit is not a new analogy. If we remember it was Jesus that talks about bearing fruit. In fact, Paul will come back to this idea a little bit later in this letter. In the meantime, it is worth noting that Paul wants to be clear that we bear fruit by how we live. We either are reflections of the life giving grace of Jesus or we are reflections of death bound up in the law.

It wasn’t that long ago that I drove by a church and on the bottom of its sign it used two words to describe itself, “Independent and Fundamental.” I thought as I drove by, “Well there is not much mistaking what they believe and how they live. They are on their own and no one else will tell them how to live and they will follow the rules as they set them. Sounds a lot like the issues with the Pharisees to me.”

The Law was not and is not inherently bad, but in the Law we find that we are powerless to be freed from sin. We can know what not to do, but find ourselves drawn to sin anyway. “Since God’s plan from the beginning was to send his Son to liberate His people from sin (8:3), the Law’s purpose was to prepare the way for the grace that God would, in the fullness of time, provide through Christ (see Galatians 4:4-7). In the divine drama of salvation, Sin took possession of the Law and perverted it into “the law of sin and death.” It is this “perverted” form of the Law that Christ came to deliver us.”[2]

The Law only has authority as long as we are alive. Paul’s words here don’t seem to make a lot of sense until we begin to think about them in spiritual terms. Until we find new life in a relationship with Jesus we are unable to be anything, but bound to “the law of sin and death.” But when we enter into relationship with Jesus we die to the old life and find our new selves under grace. This transition is what makes the act of baptism so symbolic, death to the old life and new life in the grace of God.

Paul uses marriage as a way of expressing the shift that takes place in a disciple of Jesus. In the Jewish world a woman was married to her husband and had no authority while her husband was alive. However, if her husband died then the woman was released from all the binds of marriage and was free to live as she saw fit outside the original marriage contract. While married a woman could not enter into another marriage, but if her husband passes away then she is free to marry someone else.

Although, I did read about a woman in New York state just this week who attempted to get married for the tenth time. She used her actual name and social security number for each of the weddings and was in fact legally married to nine people. Needless to say I am not sure how many of the husbands will attend her trial!

Maybe a business model would help. Many people enter into professional contracts that have non-compete clauses. Typically the non-compete clause states something to the effect that the employee cannot leave the company and work in the same industry for a pre-determined amount of time. However, if the employer terminates the contract the employee is not bound to the non-compete clause. The employee is then free to work wherever they want.

As with the marriage analogy this one only goes so far. However, with marriage there is supposed to be the picture of two becoming one, of an intertwining relationship that cannot be broken except for death. What Paul wants his readers to desperately know is that if they have been put to death with Christ in the old life and find themselves in the new life that comes with Jesus then there are things that mark them into the new life. We call them sacraments or “means of grace.” In baptism and The Lord’s Supper we are reminded that we too died with Christ and that the old life is gone and we are to live as Jesus is, those of the resurrected life.

Verse 4 is one that So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. Our lives reflect whether we are alive in Christ or dead in sin and the law. Or as William Barclay argues there is something in us that is attracted to sin, it is the forbidden fruit. This forbidden fruit is something we become aware of because of the Law and then are drawn to it due to our sinful nature. However, when we die in Christ and find new life it is the desire to be like Christ that kills the sinful nature and the desire for the forbidden fruit, we see it for what it really is…a shell of what God has for us.

We can stick to the idea of sex in this analogy. The reality is that sex is always good. However, sex in the context of marriage provides freedom, safety, intimacy, and deep connection. Sex outside of marriage inevitably leads to a shell of what it could be. It doesn’t live up to the promises that we bought into.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. This last line of Paul in this section of verses is one worth taking a look at. If I was to summarize it in a line it would be this, “When we know Jesus we are not defined by rules (the Law), but we are defined by love and all of our life is a response to that love.”

[1] Barclay, 94.

[2] Greathouse, 200.

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