"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
For this section we will define law in the wider sense of the rules that are set out in any culture to express how that society thinks we ought to be. In the law of Moses the key categories of moral judgment were set out in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). And all over the world we can see how nations and tribes develop their own particular norms under each of these categories.
For the Jewish people the law of Moses included an additional set of ritual, property, marriage, and food laws. Based on these the Pharisees had developed a whole series of rules (some have counted 613 of these) to order every area of life. People of other countries and cultures are also born into rules and expectations which they take for granted, and may or may not do their best to obey.
Paul now explains that no amount of law can save us. In Romans 13 we will see how there is a place for criminal and civil law in each country. But moral laws, rules, regulations, and exhortations cannot empower our heart. They only serve to point out our inability to meet even ordinary moral expectations. That is the bad news. In Romans 8 the good news is that God can change us by the intervention or agency or power of the Spirit.
7:1-3 To reinforce the imagery of a slave being transferred from one master to another (6:15-23) Paul now adds that a widow is freed from any obligations to her previous husband. After his death she is free to marry another. Once we have seen that our marriage to law as a means of perfecting us is dead, we are free to live by the power of the Spirit.
7:4 Here there is a change from the image of law having died, to our dying to law. As members of the church as the body of Christ (based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-13) we are no longer individuals enslaved to the law. Then Paul changes the image again to fruit bearing. It is as if we die to one tree that made us bear bad fruit, and connect ourselves with a new tree that enables us to produce fruit for God. The fruit we can bear on our branch will in the next chapter turn out to be multi-faceted. It is as if a branch is now going to bring forth grapes, apples, oranges, bananas, and every other kind of fruit as needed by the farmer.
7:5 While we lived in the flesh (in Adam) law had the strange effect (as in wilful children) of making us want to disobey it. And the fruit of that kind of living was an empty, spiritual death.
7:6 Again Paul changes back to the image to being freed from a slave owner (as in 6:16-17). We are now dead to the previous owner, and we are freed for our new life in the Spirit. In Galatians Paul had used image of being freed us from "the curse of the law" so that "we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Galatians 3:13-14).
In a previous epistle Paul had asked three powerful rhetorical questions: "Did you receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or by believing what you heard?" (Galatians 3:2). "Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3). "Does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by you believing what you heard?" The answer was obvious, and the Galatians only needed to turn again to go on the way they had begun in their life in the Spirit.
7:7 Does that mean that any kind of moral law is bad? Not at all. It is only by accepting some standards of right and wrong that we discover what is wrong with us. We might compare someone who has discovered from a book of family medicine that he has a dread disease. But once he is in the hands of a doctor who has promised to heal him, he is discharged from the book of health rules and can trust her prescription to heal him.
7:8 Admittedly the pervasive sin that infects us (6:12-14) will tend to make us want to do the opposite of what we know is right. It is only where taking God's name in vain is known to be forbidden that people swear like troopers. The last of the ten commandments forbids coveting "anything that belongs to your neighbour," and children could be raised in a community where nothing 'belongs' to anyone, in which case the commandment would not be relevant. But as soon as they are told not to covet what 'belongs' to another they immediately want to grab what 'belongs' to others.
7:9-11 Paul may be referring to the fact that, when he began studying the Torah in his rabbi training, the very laws which had seemed to so life giving suddenly aroused all sorts of desires. These soon filled him with the deadly guilt which he refers to later in the chapter (7:21-24). In that sense he was deceived by the law. Which may be one reason why after his conversion Paul became the apostle of freedom from the law to live in the Spirit.
7:12 When a farmer accepts standards of size, quality, and taste for the fruits in the orchard, those standards are good although they cannot produce a single fruit. Moral standards are therefore good, even though we know they cannot produce the beautiful fruits of the Spirit.
We now wonder how Paul's use of the words "flesh" and "fleshly" function as a component in our model. The word "flesh" or "of the flesh" only comes three times in this section, but the word continues to do its work nine times more as a contrast to Spirit in chapter 8.
To define the word "flesh" a lexicon does not help us. But the model we are using suggests it is all the natural inclinations of our body - mind apart from the power of the Spirit. In the light of modern psychology we might begin with the instinctive drives which we receive through the genes of our parents. Like the other animals, we need food and drink, rest, comfort, self-protection, and our own space. When these basic instincts are satisfied, we are also moved by curiosity, gregariousness, sex, mothering and child rearing instincts, and we need a place in the pecking order of our species.
Obviously there is nothing wrong with these instincts since they are given to us by God through our earthly parents. That is one reason why the fifth of the ten commandments is that we should honour our father and mother. It seems that Jesus must have had exactly our range of natural instincts since he had to become like us "in every respect" and "in every respect has been tested as we are yet without sin" (Hebrews 2:7; 4:15).
If our model is correct we might guess that Jesus was not without sin in the sense of having no trouble with his unruly instincts. What made him perfect was a continual looking to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul's point is that although our natural instincts are God-given they do not naturally incline us to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, love enemies, pray for the needs of others, love the way God loves, or produce any of the other beautiful fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This suggests that functioning as a child of God is not a natural animal instinct. And in Romans 8 Paul will show how all that we need to live as children of God can only produced by the power of the Spirit.
But first we should complicate the picture to include Paul's sense of being "captive to the law (power) of sin that dwells in my members" (7:23). After birth our set of natural, and already warped instincts, are further twisted by our early childhood experiences and education. There can also be further traumas during puberty and in our family and work experience. This suggests that some and perhaps most of our later obsessions, inhibitions, perversions, anger, fears, lusts, envy, jealousy, and other besetting sins have emerged from the pervasive sin of the culture into which we are born. Paul will go on to describe the universal human experience of all except the smugly self-righteous. "I do not understand my own actions . . . I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (7:15- 24).
So it seems that our "flesh" is a shorthand word for all that our natural and warped mind, body, strength, will-power, instincts, and emotions can do apart from the agency of the Holy Spirit (as in Galatians 4:23 and 29). That is not to excuse our personal responsibility for the aberrations of our fleshly behavior. But it suggests that there is no point in trying to decide how much sin we are personally guilty of, and what is influenced by the world around us. And although God does assign consequences for our behavior (see under wrath Romans 1:18-21), he is never interested in assigning guilt or excluding us from his love (see 8:37-39).
7:14 Here it seems that the law is not just the set of Jewish Old Testament laws, but the best expectations of the society we live in. Our problem is that we are "of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin." Our warped human drives and instincts enslave us so we cannot even attain our own standard of perfection.
7:15 A sure sign of the pervasive sin that has permeated our body and mind is that we cannot understand our own behavior, and again and again we do just the opposite of what we would approve (see 7:8-11).
7:16-20 That enables us to make a distinction between our heart longings and the actual performance of our flesh as it has been warped by the pervasive sin that envelops us.
7:21-23 Here the word "law" is a law in the sense of Murphy's law: "If anything can go wrong it will." Both in the political world and in our own moral efforts, we find that our best aspirations go very badly wrong. What we need is saving, delivering, or ransoming from the grip of the tangle of our twisted bodily instincts.
7:24 This means that if we have any aspirations beyond living according to our natural instincts we soon become wretched. And the higher the standards we set for ourselves the worst we will feel. Apart from the power of the Holy Spirit we are spiritually dead.
Spiritual death was the condition of our first parents when they turned away from God (see 5:12; based on Genesis 2:17). Death is the wages of sin, and until we are made alive by the power of the Spirit we cannot enjoy the life God has in mind (6:23) for his children. In Ephesians it is assumed that a Christian is someone who has been freed and made alive from spiritual death in this way (Ephesians 2:1-3).
7:25 Before proceeding to show how the transformation is effected by the Spirit, Paul already thanks God that this miracle has already happened to him as a result of faith in Jesus Christ. He has set his mind on the Spirit (as in 8:5-6), but he is still conscious of the fact that apart from what the Spirit does in him his flesh is still gripped by the pervasive sin that surrounds us.