On yesterday’s post we looked at the fact that Romans 7 was addressed to those who know the Law. In other words the Romans 7 man, were the Jews prior to the cross who were enslaved to the Mosaic Law. This chapter didn’t apply to Gentiles, and it doesn’t apply to anyone born after the cross. Paul is talking to a specific group of people, a specific generation, helping them transition from Moses to Christ in understanding their identity.
And so, in chapter 5, he told them their inclusion (their co-death and co-resurrection) in Christ severed their association with sin! And now, here in chapter 7, he begins by telling them that their inclusion (their co-death and co-resurrection) IN Christ ALSO severed their association with the law! He is telling them here in Romans that it’s a done deal! A FINISHED act! They had nothing to do with it! Christ did it all, and they now have NEW lives. New lives that have ZERO association with SIN (chapter 5) AND ZERO association with the Mosaic law (chapter 7)!
So, if their lives have completely changed in Christ, if it’s past tense, FINISHED tense, then WHY does Paul switch from past tense to present tense verbs in the rest of this chapter?
Greek verb tenses are different from English tenses. Primarily context determines the Greek tenses. In English, we think of a verb’s tense as denoting the time of the action (when it takes place). But time is not the primary significance of Greek tenses. Greek verbs involve two elements: aspect and time. Aspect is the central focus, and time the secondary.
And in Greek, there is a present-tense context called the historical present.
Its use is to help the listener see what was happening; it transports them into the past. It intensifies the verb and makes the reader feel as if they were there when it happened.
An example of another present tense Scripture that doesn’t describe Paul’s current state is Philippians 3. Here in Philippians, he refers to himself as having confidence in the flesh, a Pharisee of Pharisees that is persecuting the church – all in the present tense. But we know that he couldn’t possibly be talking about his current state. He definitely wasn’t a Pharisee any longer. And we know from other Scriptures that he didn’t put his confidence in his flesh. And he absolutely was not persecuting the church; in fact, he was the one now persecuted. So, we have to conclude that he is talking about himself as Saul of Tarsus before awakening to Christ in him; BEFORE he became Apostle Paul.
And then in Acts 22:3-4 and Galatians 1:13, he gives that same description of himself (as in Philippians 3). But here, he uses the verbs in the past tense – talking about who he once was as Saul. So, could he be using the present tense here in Romans 7 as he did in Philippians 3, as a historical present to draw the listener in? I think so!
But why would he feel the need to draw the listener into his own experience?
He’s told them they had been severed from the law, and in chapter eight, he is going to describe this beautiful life of freedom in the Spirit! BUT before he can get there, he senses a question on everyone’s heart! In chapter five, he had just told them that they are severed from sin, and in chapter six, that they are dead to sin. Now, here in chapter 7, he says they are also severed from the law.
The natural connection they would make would be, “Does that mean the law is sin?”
After all, the law had been given to them by God. It was the central focus of their lives; EVERYTHING revolved around it! Six hundred thirteen commandments directed their lives! In their eyes, it kept them safe. And it safeguarded them and set them apart, making them not “sinners” like the Gentiles. And NOW Paul is saying they have been released from it. So, Paul needs to show them the futility of living life bound or enslaved to the law.
So he uses his own experience and does it in a present tense (or historical present) manner to draw them in and cause them to realize that what they had revered had actually held them in bondage just like sin had!
What Paul has told them so far concerning the law in this letter has probably shocked them. He’s told them that the law couldn’t justify them (Romans 3:20-21), the promise doesn’t come through the law (Romans 4:13-14), and the law came in so that transgression would increase (Romans 5:20). And he’s told them that it’s because of grace they are not under law (Romans 6:14). They are now dead to the law (Romans 7:4), and the law is what arouses sin and links up with sin to bring death (Romans 7:5). And finally, the law is what hinders life in the Spirit (Romans 7:6).
To these Jews, it sounds like Paul thinks the law is sin! But he tells them no, the law is not sin; it reveals sin.
And in verse 14, he tells them that it’s spiritual! One meaning of spiritual is to reveal Christ. Galatians 3:24 tells us that the law was their tutor to bring them to Christ so that they might be justified by faith (speaking of Jesus’ faith, NOT their own). They were NOW justified by faith (Jesus’ faith, not their own)! They are NOW released (or severed) from the law, AND they are free to serve in the newness of spirit.
They are FREE, and now they NEVER again have to serve in the old way of the law!
How did they serve in the old way of the law? By doing works to become righteous and yet always failing. And NOW, Paul is telling them that they are simply free to BE who they were created to be IN Christ. I can imagine they are wondering, “What does that even look like? We have always lived our lives by doing what the law told us to do.”
Don’t forget while you’re reading these verses that we’re still in chapter 7, meaning Paul is talking to them, NOT us!
He’s talking to those who were bound by the law! He’s telling them that those who lived their life subject to the Mosaic law (himself included) are NOW released from the law AND freed from sin! He is not writing this TO us.
But what we are to grasp from reading this is that EVERYONE born after the cross was born FREE from sin AND law!
We were never enslaved to sin! And we were never bound to the law (or self-righteous works of any kind)!
Tomorrow we’ll do our final blog post on the Romans 7 man.