The Reason for Freedom—Justification
for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (8:1b–2)
As noted at the beginning of the previous section, the therefore that introduces verse 1 refers back to the major theme of the first seven chapters of the epistle—the believer’s complete justification before God, graciously provided in response to trust in the sacrificial death and resurrection of His Son.
The divine condemnation from which believers are exonerated (8:1a) is without exception or qualification. It is bestowed on those who are in Christ Jesus, in other words, on every true Christian. Justification completely and forever releases every believer from sin’s bondage and its penalty of death (6:23) and thereby fits him to stand sinless before a holy God forever. It is that particular aspect of justification on which Paul focuses at the beginning of chapter 8.
Paul’s use of the first person singular pronouns (I and me) in 7:7–25 emphasizes the sad reality that, in this present life, no Christian, not even an apostle, is exempt from struggles with sin. In the opening verses of chapter 8, on the other hand, Paul emphasizes the marvelous reality that every believer, even the weakest and most unproductive, shares in complete and eternal freedom from sin’s condemnation. The holiest of believers are warned that, although they are no longer under sin’s slavish dominion, they will experience conflicts with it in this present life. And the weakest of believers are promised that, although they still stumble and fall into sin’s power in their flesh, they will experience ultimate victory over sin in the life to come.
The key to every aspect of salvation is in the simple but infinitely profound phrase in Christ Jesus. A Christian is a person who is in Christ Jesus. Paul has already declared that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death,” and that “therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom. 6:3–5).
Being a Christian is not simply being outwardly identified with Christ but being part of Christ, not simply of being united with Him but united in Him. Our being in Christ is one of the profoundest of mysteries, which we will not fully understand until we meet Him face-to-face in heaven. But Scripture does shed light on that marvelous truth. We know that we are in Christ spiritually, in a divine and permanent union. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive,” Paul explains (1 Cor. 15:22). Believers are also in Christ in a living, participatory sense. “Now you are Christ’s body,” Paul declares in that same epistle, “and individually members of it” (12:27). We are actually a part of Him and, in ways that are unfathomable to us now, we work when He works, grieve when He grieves, and rejoice when He rejoices. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” Paul assures us, “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). Christ’s own divine life pulses through us.
Many people are concerned about their family heritage, about who their ancestors were, where they lived, and what they did. For better or worse, we are all life-linked physically, intellectually, and culturally to our ancestors. In a similar, but infinitely more important way, we are linked to the family of God because of our relationship to His Son, Jesus Christ. It is for that reason that every Christian can say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).
God’s Word makes clear that every human being is a descendant of Adam and has inherited Adam’s fallen nature. It makes just as clear that every true believer becomes a spiritual descendant of Jesus Christ, God’s true Son, and is thereby adopted into the heavenly Father’s own divine household as a beloved child. More than just being adopted, we inherit the very life of God in Christ.
Martin Luther said,
It is impossible for a man to be a Christian without having Christ, and if he has Christ, he has at the same time all that is in Christ. What gives peace to the conscience is that by faith our sins are no more ours, but Christ’s, upon whom God hath laid them all; and that, on the other hand, all Christ’s righteousness is ours, to whom God hath given it. Christ lays His hand upon us, and we are healed. He casts His mantle upon us, and we are clothed; for He is the glorious Savior, blessed for ever. (Cited in Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans; [reprint, McLean, Va.: McDonald, 1958], p. 312)
The relationship between God and His chosen people Israel was beautifully illustrated in the garment of the high priest. Over his magnificent robes he wore a breastplate in which twelve different precious stones were embedded, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Each stone was engraved with the name of the tribe it represented. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies once each year on the Day of Atonement, he stood before God with those visual representations of all His people.
That breastplate was a rich symbolism of Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, standing before the Father making intercession on behalf of all those the Father has given Him (Heb. 7:24–25). In what is commonly called His high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed on behalf of those who belong to Him “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me” (John 17:21).
Luther also wrote,
Faith unites the soul with Christ as a spouse with her husband. Everything which Christ has becomes the property of the believing soul; everything which the soul has, becomes the property of Christ. Christ possesses all blessings and eternal life: they are thenceforward the property of the soul. The soul has all its iniquities and sins: they become thenceforward the property of Christ. It is then that a blessed exchange commences: Christ who is both God and man, Christ who has never sinned, and whose holiness is perfect, Christ the Almighty and Eternal, taking to Himself, by His nuptial ring of faith, all the sins of the believer, those sins are lost and abolished in Him; for no sins dwell before His infinite righteousness. Thus by faith the believer’s soul is delivered from sins and clothed with the eternal righteousness of her bridegroom Christ. (Cited in Haldane, Exposition of Romans, p. 313)
The phrase “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” appears at the end of verse 1 in the King James, but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts of Romans or in most modern translations. It is probable that a copyist inadvertently picked up the phrase from verse 4. Because the identical wording appears there, the meaning of the passage is not affected.
The conjunction for, which here carries the meaning of because, leads into the reason there is no condemnation for believers: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Paul does not here use the term law in reference to the Mosaic law or to other divine commandments or requirements. He uses it rather in the sense of a principle of operation, as he has done earlier in the letter, where he speaks of “a law of faith” (3:27) and as he does in Galatians, where he speaks of “the law of Christ” (6:2). Those who believe in Jesus Christ are delivered from the condemnation of a lower divine law, as it were, by submitting themselves to a higher divine law. The lower law is the divine principle in regard to sin, the penalty for which is death, and the higher law is the law of the Spirit, which bestows life in Christ Jesus.
But it should not be concluded that the law Paul is speaking of in this passage has no relationship to obedience. Obedience to God cannot save a person, because no person in his unredeemed sinfulness wants to obey God and could not obey perfectly even if he had the desire. But true salvation will always produce true obedience—never perfect in this life but nonetheless genuine and always present to some extent. When truly believed and received, the gospel of Jesus Christ always leads to the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25–26). The coming kingdom age of Christ that Jeremiah predicted and of which the writer of Hebrews refers is far from lawless. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts” (Heb. 8:10; cf. Jer. 31:33). Release from the law’s bondage and condemnation does not mean release from the law’s requirements and standards. The higher law of the Spirit produces obedience to the lower law of duties.
The freedom that Christ gives is complete and permanent deliverance from sin’s power and penalty (and ultimately from its presence). It also gives the ability to obey God. The very notion of a Christian who is free to do as he pleases is self-contradictory. A person who believes that salvation leads from law to license does not have the least understanding of the gospel of grace and can make no claim on Christ’s saviorhood and certainly no claim on His lordship.
In speaking of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, Paul makes unambiguous later in this chapter that he is referring to the Holy Spirit. The Christian’s mind is set on the things of the Spirit (v. 6) and is indwelt and given life by the Holy Spirit (vv. 9–11). Paul summarized the working of those two laws earlier in the epistle: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
When Jesus explained the way of salvation to Nicodemus, He said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). God “saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness,” Paul explains, “but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5–6). It is the Holy Spirit who bestows and energizes spiritual life in the person who places his trust in Christ Jesus. Paul could not be talking of any spirit but the Holy Spirit, because only God’s Holy Spirit can bring spiritual life to a heart that is spiritually dead.
The truths of Romans 7 are among the most depressing and heart-rending in all of Scripture, and it is largely for that reason that many interpreters believe they cannot describe a Christian. But Paul was simply being honest and candid about the frustrating and discouraging spiritual battles that every believer faces. It is, in fact, the most faithful and obedient Christian who faces the greatest spiritual struggles. Just as in physical warfare, it is those on the front lines who encounter the enemy’s most fierce attacks. But just as frontline battle can reveal courage, it can also reveal weaknesses and vulnerability. Even the most valiant soldier is subject to injury and discouragement.
During his earthly life, the Christian will always have residual weaknesses from his old humanness, the old fleshly person he used to be. No matter how closely he walks with the Lord, he is not yet completely free from sin’s power. That is the discomfiting reality of Romans 7.
But the Christian is no longer a slave to sin as he once was, no longer under sin’s total domination and control. Now he is free from sin’s bondage and its ultimate penalty. Satan, the world, and his own humanness still can cause him to stumble and falter, but they can no longer control or destroy him, because his new life in Christ is the very divine life of God’s own Spirit. That is the comforting truth of Romans 8.
The story is told of a man who operated a drawbridge. At a certain time each afternoon, he had to raise the bridge for a ferry boat and then lower it quickly for a passenger train that crossed at high speed a few minutes later. One day the man’s young son was visiting his father at work and decided to go down below to get a better look at the ferry as it passed. Fascinated by the sight, he did not watch carefully where he was going and fell into the giant gears. One foot became caught and the boy was helpless to free himself. The father saw what happened but knew that if he took time to extricate his son, the train would plunge into to the river before the bridge could be lowered. But if he lowered the bridge to save the hundreds of passengers and crew members on the train, his son would be crushed to death. When he heard the trains whistle, indicating it would soon reach the river, he knew what he had to do. His son was very dear to him, whereas all the people on the train were total strangers. The sacrifice of his son for the sake of the other people was an act of pure grace and mercy.
That story portrays something of the infinitely greater sacrifice God the Father made when He sent His only beloved Son to earth to die for the sins of mankind—to whom He owed nothing but condemnation.
2 Verse 2 immediately picks up this practical, dynamic aspect by concentrating on freedom from the imperious rule of sin (cf. 6:18) and death (cf. 6:22–23), the two archenemies of humanity. This new freedom is now available to and made possible for the believer through the operation of the Spirit. The word “law” is again probably to be understood figuratively here (cf. 7:21, 23). It seems improbable (though not impossible) that Paul would refer to the law of Moses as “the law of sin and of death,” even though it provokes sin (7:7–8) and produces death (7:9–11; 2 Co 3:6, 7). For Paul, the law in itself remains holy (7:12). In the present passage, therefore, “law” is used in the sense of a “principle” to indicate the certainty and regularity of operation that characterizes sin (which leads to death) on the one hand and the work of the Spirit on the other. Whereas the word “law” (nomos, GK 3795) emphasizes regularity, “life” (zōē, GK 2437) emphasizes both supernaturalness and spontaneity—hence the superiority of the Spirit’s operation over that of sin (cf. L. E. Keck, “The Law and ‘the Law of Sin and Death’ [Romans 8:1–4]: Reflections on the Spirit and Ethics in Paul,” in The Divine Helmsman, ed. J. L. Crenshaw and S. Sandmel [New York: KTAV, 1980], 41–57).
The syntax leaves unclear whether the words “through Christ Jesus” are to be taken with the words “the Spirit of life” or with “set me free.” Probably the latter is to be preferred. “The Spirit of life through Christ Jesus set me free” points to the Spirit as the life-giver (cf. 2 Co 3:6) but only as mediating that which is in, or through, Christ (cf. Col 3:4). Paul has already noted the enslaving power of sin and the freedom from it achieved by Christ (6:18, 22; cf. Jn 8:34–36).
8:2 / Paul now resumes the thought of 7:6 concerning the “new way of the Spirit.” Paul’s Jewish contemporaries were familiar with the belief that the day of the Messiah would be accompanied by an outpouring of the Spirit. Keying off the theme of law, Paul says, in effect, that a higher law of the Spirit supersedes the law of sin and death. We know of instances in nature where the effects of one law are cancelled by another. When an airplane wing provides the necessary “lift” to raise a plane upwards, one law (that nature abhors a vacuum) prevails over another (the law of gravity). In like manner, the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. This is a development of 5:20–21, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” The Spirit now stands where the law formerly stood. It is the Spirit of life through Jesus Christ which set me free. The past tense, set me free, refers to a decisive point, most probably Christ’s crucifixion, but possibly the believer’s conversion. At any rate, it is no vague, undefined spirit which stands there for me. Paul expressly links the Spirit with the redemptive and liberating work of Jesus Christ. What God did through the historical Jesus on Golgotha, he now applies and extends to believers through the Spirit in the community of faith. The emphasis again falls on God’s initiative. Christ’s work, and its ongoing effect as applied by the Spirit, brings peace and freedom. “Grace renders that most easy, which seems difficult to man under the law, or rather does it itself,” said Bengel (Gnomon, vol. 3, p. 98).
There is, to be sure, a bristling tension between being a “prisoner of the law of sin” (7:23) and being free from the law of sin. But the inherent intellectual contradiction does not cancel the fact that both represent the experience of believers (see also 2 Cor. 4:7–12). In their earthly frames Christians are never free from the hold of sin, yet there is a marked difference between their response to that grip and that of non-Christians. Augustine said prior to conversion, “My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner” (Confessions 5.10). Christians are alerted to the ways of sin and are no longer ignorant and unresisting accomplices to its work. They recognize the power and deception of its tyranny and fight against it in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit.
Christians may still live with the effects of sin, but they do not live under its authority. When Paris was liberated in 1944 the Allies declared France free, even though a large portion of the country still lay under Nazi control. With the loss of the capital, however, the Nazi power base was broken, and it was only a matter of time until the remaining forces were driven from the land. The Christian experience is similar. The cross of Christ has once and for all broken the claim and power of evil over the lives of believers. The capital belongs to Christ, so to speak, even if mopping-up operations are still in effect. The liberating edict of the Spirit is now effecting Christ’s victory throughout creation. The future is assured even if the present is still uncertain. “He must win the battle” proclaimed Luther in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
2. For through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and of death.
Paul speaks about “the law of the Spirit of life.” That the Holy Spirit is life in his very essence and also imparts life, both physical and spiritual, is clear from ever so many passages of Scripture. The basis for this doctrine is probably found already in Gen. 1:1; Ps. 51:11; 104:30. For closer references see John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 6:8; and do not forget Rom. 8:11. The law of the Spirit of life is the forceful and effective operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of God’s children. It is the very opposite of “the law of sin and death,” for which see on 7:23, 25. Just as the law of sin produces death, so also the law, or ruling factor, of the Spirit of life brings about life. Cf. Rom. 6:23. It does this “through Christ Jesus,” that is, on the basis of the merits of his atonement, and by means of the vitalizing power of union with him.
The question arises, “If in Rom. 7:14–8:2 Paul throughout speaks about himself as a believer, how can he say not only, “I am carnal, sold as a slave to sin … a prisoner” (7:14, 23); but also, “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death”? How can a slave and prisoner also be a free person? Does not this very contradiction show that we have erroneously interpreted Rom. 7:14, 23?
The answer is, “Not at all.” On the contrary, when we read these passages—both 7:14, 23 and 8:1, 2, we say, “How wonderful is the Word of God! What a true picture it draws of the person I really am! On the one hand I am a slave, a prisoner, for sin has such control over me that I cannot lead a sinless life (Jer. 17:9; Matt. 6:12; 1 John 1:8, 10). Yet, on the other hand, I am a free person, for though Satan tries with all his might and trickery to keep me from doing what is right—such as trusting God for my salvation, invoking him in prayer, rejoicing in him, working for his causes, etc., he cannot throughout stop me from doing so. He cannot completely prevent me from experiencing the peace of God that transcends all understanding. The sense of victory, which I possess in principle even now and will possess in perfection in the future, sustains me in all my struggles. I rejoice in the freedom which Christ has earned for me!” (cf. Gal. 5:1).
When an interpreter of 7:21–8:2 limits Christian experience to what is found in 7:22, 25a, 8:1, 2, leaving out 7:21, 23, 24, 25b, does he not resemble the musician who tries to play an elaborate piece on an organ with a very restricted number of octaves, or on a harp with many broken strings?
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 400–405). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 128–129). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 199–200). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 245–246). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.