Why the Law Cannot Sanctify Us
A proper understanding of Romans 6 is critical to maintaining the biblical view of sanctification. If we are to grow in God’s goal of conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29), we must consider our old sin nature as dead since “we have died with Christ” (v. 8). Therefore, we must continually count, or reckon, this to be so by embracing the reality of our position in Christ by faith. We must reject the flesh. We must not welcome it into our homes. We must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies in order to obey its lusts (v. 12). We must stop presenting the members of our bodies to sin, and instead present ourselves “to God as those alive from the dead” (v. 13). The old man must be dead to us! Likewise, we must consider ourselves alive to God. Since believers have been made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), our new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, has the capacity to live free from sin’s enslavement. “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22).
So, then, what we need is more law right? Wrong!
God’s law drives us to Christ – The apostle anticipated our immediate desire to create more rules in our quest to become holy. That’s why he wrote the next chapter, Romans 7. Because we are naturally tempted to view the restrictions of the Law as the cure for our ongoing battle against sin, Paul moves on to deal with that misconception (Rom. 7:1–6). His main point is that the Law can only govern the living. Therefore, since the believer is dead to sin, the Law is not the answer. The Law is powerless to convert the soul (v. 4), control sinful passions (v. 5), or change the inner person (v. 6). However, this does not mean that the Law is bad. On the contrary, God’s Law is good because it exposes our sinfulness, which is our core problem (v. 7). It is sin that uses the Law to its advantage and seeks to kill spiritual life by cursing us when we fail to live up to its standard (vv. 8–12). The purpose of the Law is to drive us to Jesus Christ where we find perfect righteousness by faith. That is Paul’s point in Philippians 3:8–9:
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
The Law is not evil—it is good and holy—but it is inadequate to deal with the heart problem of man. That is why Jesus came. The Law confronts sin, but it cannot change the sinner. That is the work of the gospel!
The source of spiritual struggle – In case we still don’t get it, Paul makes it even clearer that the Law is not the problem; rather the source of spiritual struggle is the principle of sin that lives within the human heart (vv. 14–24). Here he states three facts, offers proof that each is true, and then draws a conclusion about each one. First, the fact remains that the Law is spiritual, but man is fleshly, “sold into bondage to sin” (v. 14). The flesh is the principle of sin that expresses itself through the mind and body. The proof Paul offers is that, at times, he still does what he does not want to do, and does not do what he does want to do (vv. 15–16). His conclusion is that indwelling sin is the root problem: “no longer am I [the new man] the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (v. 17).
Second, the fact remains “that nothing good dwells in me,” that is, the flesh (v. 18). Paul understands total depravity—that sin has permeated every part of his being, from his head to his toe. The proof he offers is that he desires to do good, but does not do it. Instead, “I practice the very evil that I do not want” (v. 19). His conclusion is the same: sin “which dwells in me” (v. 20) is the root problem.
Third, the fact remains “that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (v. 21). The proof Paul offers is the war that is raging in the members of his body (vv. 22–23). His conclusion is that indwelling sin is the root problem: “the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23).
Three times Paul presents the reality of the believer’s ongoing struggle to become holy. All three times, his conclusion is the same: indwelling sin is the root problem. Schreiner writes, “Conflict with sin continues even though the lordship of sin has been shattered.” But that is not the end of the story.
The source of spiritual victory – The glorious news of the gospel is that, although we continue to fight a difficult battle against sin and, with the apostle, may often cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (v. 24), the final victory of redemption is on its way. With Paul we can confidently shout, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25). The final victory will come through Christ when He delivers us from our body of sin and death. Sin, which works through the human body, bringing it to death, will eventually be defeated at the resurrection. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:56–58).
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