“Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.” (Romans 7:1-3 ESV)
The title of this post is, First Marriage Horror and Second Marriage Glory. Before you see the title and think this is some kind of sick marriage post, the title comes from an illustration in Romans 7 that is not mine; it is the Apostle Paul’s, and through inspiration, the Holy Spirit’s. So, don’t be mad at me. I’d say be mad at Paul and the Holy Spirit, but then I don’t think that’s a good idea either. Do I have you all interested now?
This is a long doctrinal letter to a specific audience. We know Paul would contextualize his message depending on the audience. At Mars Hill with the Greek philosophy crowd of Athens listening, he didn’t quote the Old Testament or refer to the law at all. He sought to persuade them from their religious curiosity and natural theology.
But in the Roman Church there were, what he calls in verse 1, “those who know the law.” These are Jewish converts and God-fearing Gentiles who also studied the Old Testament law. His proposition is that the law of God only applies as long as one is alive. Dead people don’t pay taxes. Their only remaining responsibility is voting in Chicago elections.
Where he is going here is that obedience to the law of God as a condition for right standing before God doesn’t apply because we died with Jesus when he died on the cross. Death annuls our responsibility to the law. How he illustrates this is with marriage. He begins with what everybody knows and agrees on, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives.” (Romans 7:2) As long as her husband is alive, she remains a wife—his wife. Marriage binds them together.
“But if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.” (Romans 7:2) Again, all would agree. If a husband dies, the wife is released from that covenantal vow and relationship. Her identity is no longer as a wife to that husband. She keeps his name and certainly keeps her love. But from the perspective of the law, the law is no longer binding.
“Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.” (Romans 7:3) Once a husband dies, from that moment she is free from responsibility to that marriage.
I had lunch with a pastor recently. For whatever reason, we got talking about what happens to our churches should we die. Then it went to marriage and he said that he tells his wife, “My only requirement is that you grieve for three days; any moment after that; marry jolly well who you want to.”
Three days? If a wife married another man the day after the funeral, we could call it unseemly. We could call it ill-mannered. We could call it bad taste. But what you can’t call it is adultery. Why? The law binding the wife no longer applies. Her identity has changed. Her relationship to the first marriage is fundamentally altered and ended.
“Likewise, my brothers, you also have 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 we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4) In the marriage illustration, we are the wife. The law was our first husband. Death ended that relationship to the law. Jesus’ death ended it. We are no longer bound to the law.
Why? Death ends the relationship. Here’s Paul’s point: when Jesus died, through union with Christ, we died with him. The cross and our unity by faith to Jesus ended our relationship to the law. It is no longer is binding both for death (6:23) and obedience to the law as the basis for right standing before God. We died to our first marriage to Mr. Law. In this case, we didn’t wait three days; the ending of the first marriage immediately began the second. Faith in Christ unites us with the death that ended the law’s condemnation and we immediately walked the aisle and were married/united with Jesus in our second marriage. The old marriage was shame and death. The new marriage is new life and eternal life.
See both the cross and the resurrection in verse 4. We died to the law through the body of Christ. That is, the literal body of Christ which died on Calvary, so that we belong to another, “to him who has been raised from the dead.” Resurrection. “In order that,” purpose statement, “we may bear fruit for God.” Our first marriage bore fruit, not for God, but for self, sin, and Satan. It was a terrible marriage and it bore terrible fruit.
But the second marriage is glorious, eternal, and bears fruit for God. My first marriage fell short of the glory of God; my second spiritual marriage glorifies God. Through Christ, our spiritual residency is the home of a new and far better husband, and through this new relationship to God, apart from the law, we can bear fruit in our lives that pleases and glorifies God.
“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.” (Romans 7:5) What was so bad about the old marriage to the law? Rather than bearing fruit for God or goodness, we bore fruit for sin and death. This little paradigm in verse 5 will be greatly expanded on in chapter 7. Basically, it’s how sinners sin. Notice, “while we were living in the flesh.” That is not flesh-bodies, but our carnal selves. Our sinful selves. The spiritual me prior to God’s grace. These sinful passions were constantly tormenting and tempting me to sin. My nature was to sin. You add the law and these sinful desires are “aroused.” The law makes us want to sin.
What do we feel inside when someone tells us NOT to do something? It makes us want to do it even more. Sin nature combined with moral law arouses desire to do the thing we are not to do. Without God’s grace we are in bondage to this way of living – God’s law showing the path of goodness, but our sin nature wants the opposite.
“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) Hear the marriage illustration here? We are released from our first marriage to the law.
How? “Having died to that which held us captive.” Our first marriage was captivity, bondage, a prison. But now we are released from all that by union with Jesus on the cross. “Released” is used in verse 2 for the wife free from her first marriage and used again here for the Christian released from fulfilling the law as the condition for salvation. That’s a powerful picture and one that I want to urge joy in every Christian’s heart today. You have been released. You have been set free. God’s grace is not freedom to sin, it is freedom NOT to sin and freedom to please God with our lives.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2018 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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