Can we save ourselves by keeping God’s law?

Paul was probably looked up to as a good man before he became a Christian, because he was “a slave to God’s law,” Romans 7:25. His obedience to God’s law was immaculate, not a thread out of place, which made him a paragon of virtue among his peers.

But that was only the outward image of himself that he presented to others. Inside his head, meanwhile, a battle raged, because for all his dedication to God’s law he also had to admit that “in the sinful nature I’m a slave to the law of sin.” Outwardly, he knew he looked good, and sounded good too. But the effort it took to maintain that image was excruciatingly painful, because he knew it was all a sham, a fake image of himself that told nothing of the real thoughts going on in his head.   

From a distance he probably looked fine, though. He wasn’t reeling like a drunk or waving his arms around and yelling obscenities. He could walk and talk quite normally, which gave the appearance of a man under complete control of himself. But he knew he wasn’t in control of himself at all. His law-keeping kept his outward actions under control, but it couldn’t control his thoughts. He was having a terrible battle, therefore, keeping up his public image.

But the battle taught him that “what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his Son,” Romans 8:3. Paul now knew by hard experience that keeping God’s law wasn’t the means to making a man good through and through. It required more, and that’s when Paul came to realize it was never in God’s plan for his law to save us, because we humans have a nature far too powerful for any law to contain.

It was never up to us, then, to reel in this monster in our heads, wrestle it to the ground and stab it to death. God sent Jesus to do that for us. But HOW could Jesus do that for us? By coming “in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering,” verse 3. Jesus would come to this planet as one of us, take upon himself and into himself the awful raging mess of thoughts that we humans are, and kill it on the cross, so that no longer would we have to be slaves to the law of sin or have our sinful nature messing up our thoughts again.

The law could never do that for us, but Jesus could.  


The old way of the Law (part 4)

Why are people you meet constantly moaning about their lot in life, judging other people for how they dress or how they talk, or worrying themselves to death about their family, their health, their finances and the future of the Free World? None of their complaining, judging or worrying helps them, and it doesn’t help anyone who has to listen to them prattling on either. So why do it? 

Paul has a shocking surprise for them. It’s because of this “other law at work, waging war against the law of my (their) mind,” Romans 7:23. And this law is so powerful you can’t just shove the wretched creature out into the street because, unfortunately, it’s part of us. Wherever we go, it’s always there in the passenger seat, babbling its insanity into our heads.

And before Paul became a Christian, that was life for him too. And it came to boiling point eventually. He couldn’t stand it any longer, and he burst out in verse 24 with, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” 

And that’s the question, isn’t it? – when we discover, to our horror, that we’ve never actually been in control of our lives at all, and human beings are really nothing more than robots in the hands of this other creature, who can manoeuvre us in whatever direction it wishes. We can totally hate the thoughts this other creature makes us think, but its thoughts just keep popping into our heads – and there’s never a day we can stop them. And if we try to think right thoughts instead, it only stirs up the wretched creature even more.

It is horrible realizing, as Paul eventually realized as well, that we live in a “body of death.” What a horrible situation to be in, living inside a body that isn’t the least bit interested in preserving us, or in any way making life turn out for the best for us. it’s mad. It’s completely insane, nuts from top to bottom, because all it wants to do is make life miserable for us, make us critical, negative and ready for a fight at the slightest provocation, and it doesn’t care one bit if we come off worse in a scrap or destroy a relationship by saying something stupid. It hates us! No wonder Paul cried out, “Help, please, anyone, get me out of this body that’s out to kill me!”

And at that point, when he knew there was nothing he could do to help himself, he found the help he was looking for ….. (continues in “The new way of the Spirit”) 

The old way of the Law (part 3)

For all his great knowledge of God’s law, and despite his great desire to keep it, Paul realized he was nothing but a puppet on a string. He was constantly being manipulated by forces within him that he had no control over. The shock of it was horrible. Wherever he went, he said, “I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” Romans 7:21

And the more he tried to obey God’s law, the worse it got. He’d try to think good thoughts, try to keep his emotions under control, try to do the right thing, but it was hopeless. Up would pop these evil thoughts in his head, appearing out of nowhere, messing up his relationships and messing up his day. And there was no escaping them either, verses 22-23, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work….waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.”  

A law at work? That worked every time like gravity? Yes. He’d set out in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, determined to put in a good day full of good thoughts and good actions – all in obedience to God’s law – and what would happen? By the end of the day, if he was able to play back on screen his every thought and action, it would be embarrassing. Up would come scene after scene of this other law at work in his mind, constantly taking him prisoner to its thoughts instead.   

And it never let up, either. He couldn’t view other people without comparing himself to them, and he only felt good if he came off looking good in every encounter. it was disheartening. It was all self, self, self. Self-interest, self-gratification, self-esteem, self-confidence – the focus was so on himself. And he hated it. But he couldn’t do anything about it. The incessant selfish babble in his head never stopped.  

It was like being stuck in a car with a passenger who never stops talking, never stops pointing out other people’s faults, never stops thinking the world revolves around him, and never for a moment wants to know what you’re thinking. You look grimly ahead, desperately hoping for the journey to end, but on and on it goes. So now what? If dedicated obedience to God’s law hadn’t given Paul the power to subdue this creature inside his head, what on earth would instead? …. (continues in Part 4) 

The old way of the Law (part 2)

Paul talked of sin as if it was a real, live creature. Sin was actually living inside him. It had its own personality. It could act independently, do whatever it pleased, and it was very clever, as well. It could somehow twist God’s law – which is holy, righteous and good – into all kinds of rotten, awful desires in Paul’s head instead. And worse still, there was nothing Paul could do about it. 

He wanted to do something about it, desperately, because to him the law was very good. He wanted to obey it. But there was this other “something” in his head preventing him from obeying it. So what on earth was it? Well, to Paul it was like having an alien creature living inside him, Romans 7:17 – “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”

But at least he knew it wasn’t him, or the law, that was creating these wrong desires in him. It was this awful, squirming, cancerous mass of sin living inside him. It had infiltrated his mind with its own mind and ripped the good right out of him, and so much so that Paul realized in verse 18 that “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” There was nothing good about this alien creature inside him. It was all bad. 

Paul was in a terrible state, because in his own mind, verse 18, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” His own mind was still working, he could see that, and he was still capable of thinking his own thoughts. And he knew what his own thoughts were too, and they were good, but could he carry them out as he wanted to? No, because this other creature had its hand on the controls.

Paul had simply become a robot. He did whatever his sinful nature demanded. But what made this so awful for Paul was that he still had his own mind, and his own mind didn’t want to be controlled, verse 19, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” It didn’t matter what he did or didn’t want to do, because there was this alien creature inside him pulling the strings, and if it wanted to do evil, then evil was what Paul did, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. 

So if the law couldn’t stop this happening, what else was there that could help him? …. (continues in Part 3)

The old way of the Law (part 1)

Paul tells us in Romans 7:6 that “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.” Does that make the “old way” of the law bad, then?

No, because the law was perfect for bringing sin out into the open, verse 9 – “when the commandment came, sin sprang to life, and I died.” The law identified the sins that consume and control us. It brings them to life “so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful,” verse 13. In other words, we can see sin for what it is. But that’s all the law does. It can only expose the sins within us, it can’t stop them. 

Paul brings this out in vivid detail in his own life. “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin,” verse 14. The law was still “holy, righteous and good,” verse 12, but it couldn’t stop Paul sinning. To Paul’s great dismay, sin still held him firmly by the nose, rendering him absolutely powerless against it, despite all his law-keeping.

It was hugely confusing for him. “I do not understand what I do,” he cries out in verse 15. This wasn’t what he expected from the law. He thought the law would enable him to “bear fruit to God,” but instead he found himself totally under sin’s command still. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” verse 15

On the positive side, Paul realized that “If I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good,” verse 16. His desire to keep the law meant he agreed with it at least. He knew when he broke the law it was wrong, and it bothered him. So sin had never stopped Paul wanting to obey the law. But for all Paul’s desire to obey the law it couldn’t stop him sinning. And that’s what confused him, because he thought that obeying the law would stop him sinning.  

Instead, his attempts at obeying the law as best he could only exposed more sin in Paul, not made it less. What on earth, then, was causing this to happen? It wasn’t Paul’s fault, surely, because he wanted to obey God. His shocking conclusion was – verse 17 – “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” There was this other creature living inside him that had total control over him…(continues in Part 2)

Is the 10th commandment impossible to keep?

If we didn’t have to make a living, wouldn’t life be so much easier? We wouldn’t have to worry about making enough money to survive, or be tempted into shady practices when money is tight. We wouldn’t have to take any job available to get by, or be saddled with huge debt from the cost of a competitive education. Dads wouldn’t have to spend so much time on the road away from home, and Moms wouldn’t have the conflict between home and job. We could relax more, spend more time with each other and do what we really enjoy doing.

But the story of Israel in the Old Testament shows us that even when God provides everything and there are no money worries at all, it doesn’t stop people coveting. Israel always wanted more. They coveted what the gods of other nations had to offer. They wanted their own king. They wanted to be free to do as they pleased, while expecting God to keep providing for them. And they complained bitterly when he didn’t come through as expected. No matter what God did for them, or how much he blessed them, they could never keep the 10th commandment.

But what’s wrong with coveting? Surely our desire for more, bigger and better is what makes our economies grow and living conditions improve. Take away coveting and what would get us up in the mornings to work hard and improve ourselves? Where would our world be without the incentives of self-interest, self-worth and self-gratification driving people to put their creative minds and talents to work?

Imagine people’s reaction today, therefore, to what Jesus told the young man in Matthew 19 – to give up all his hard-won wealth and give it to the poor. “Are you mad?” is one likely response, because what’s a life without gain to oneself? Life, even for Christians, is about the reward we get for our works, isn’t it? Why do anything if there isn’t some sort of reward in the doing, or reward at the end of it? – like leaving a legacy that tells of all the good we’ve done or what wonderful people we were, or the “feel good” sensation we get from serving, or the promise of the best seats in heaven. Take away the chance for a bigger and better reward and why be a Christian?

No wonder Jesus zoomed in on coveting in verses 16-24, because it’s the 10th commandment in particular that’s so impossible to keep. “But with God all things are possible,” verse 26, meaning life becomes so much easier with God – because the endless drive to want more is gone.

The law is “fully met in us” – meaning?

The law being fully met in us means we can obey God’s law like we’d love to, because God put it in us to love his law. “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law,” Paul wrote in Romans 7:22. At heart and core, Paul loved doing what God wished done.

Adam and Eve had no trouble tuning into God’s wishes and doing what God asked of them, either. But along came a serpent and turned them against God. And how easily it happened too. The serpent only makes one negative comment about God and they believe it. And suddenly, Adam and Eve can’t obey God anymore. Their minds are irreparably poisoned against God.

There was nothing they could do about it either. Neither could Paul. When he tried to do the good he so desperately wanted to do, he found he couldn’t do it, Romans 7:18 – “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” He discovered to his horror and embarrassment that “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” verse 21. So Paul wanted to do good – that was where his heart was – but there was this other power in his head twisting his mind to doing what he least wanted to do instead.

So there was one section of Paul’s mind that wanted to fully meet “the righteous requirements of the law,” Romans 8:4, but there was this other section of his mind that wouldn’t let him. It was war between the two (verse 23), and Paul hated it. He didn’t want a war between good and evil in his head. Instead he knew God’s law made sense, so that’s what he wanted to do.

And at heart and core so does every human being. We aren’t evil. God made us good. He gave us a nature that could love and trust him, and minds that love to do good. But there’s this other power out there that’s ever-present, and how easily it exerts its influence on us. It’s horrible. It makes us “hostile to God,” Romans 8:7, and creates a nature in us that “does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” But when Paul cried out for help to rid his mind of this evil influence, God answered (Romans 7:25). So God’s right there, ever-present too, ready at any time to “rescue” us, Romans 7:24, so that we are free at last to do what at heart and core we really want to do – which is live God’s law to the full.