Text: Romans 7:1-6
Epistle Lesson for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Series A, Proper 8
✠ In the name of Jesus. Amen. ✠
On April 8th, 1945, at Noon, the US Third Army received this message: “To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.” The headquarters of the US Third Army responded: “Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.” Three days later, on April 11th, 1945, at 3:15 PM, a detachment of troops from the US Third Army, liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. They liberated over 21,000 prisoners, sent food, water and medical supplies to the camp. Can you imagine the sense of joy and relief these men had at being free at last?
If we reflect for a moment on this, we can know something of what it means to be captive, and something of what it means to be liberated. These men knew what it meant to be captive and they knew the joys of being liberated! St. Paul in our Epistle reading today talks about these two things: captivity and liberation.
The first thing Paul says in this section is that the Law is binding on us, that is, it has dominion over us. The Law is God’s will for humanity. It teaches us what he expects from us. It is an expression of who he is, and it is given to us out of his fatherly goodness. God threatens to punish all who break his Law. As the hymn puts it, “The Law of God is good and wise and sets his will before our eyes. Shows us the way of righteousness, and dooms to death when we transgress.” (LSB 579, st. 1).
As God is our Lord and Maker of heaven and earth, his will for us is not something that’s optional. This is why Paul says that the Law “has dominion over us.” This Law tells us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your soul, and all your strength” (Deut. 6:5) and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) As God himself is perfect, his Law also requires absolute perfection. All of us have the obligation to render to God absolute obedience to his Law. We are in effect chained up, and bound. The law has locked us up and thrown away the key until we are able to give God the perfect obedience which we owe him. In fact, Paul says that we are slaves, and the Law is our master.
Imagine for a moment a jar full of freshly baked cookies. The mother tells her child, “Now don’t you dare eat any of these cookies!” Now tell me, what is the immediate and overwhelming desire of this child? He suddenly wants to eat a cookie. He didn’t decide to want to eat a cookie, but the mother’s prohibition on the consumption of cookies enflamed, energized, aroused, and initiated a desire for cookies that was already there. “I wouldn’t have wanted a cookie unless Mom had said, “You shall have no cookie.”
So also, in verse 5 when Paul talks about the “the sinful passions which were through the law” he’s getting at the same idea. The Law shows us that within the depths of our being lurks a monster of iniquity. The desire and inclination to sin is so pervasive, so much a part of us, that we generally don’t even realize it. In fact, we want and desire to sin without even thinking about it. But the Law shows us what lurks deep within us. That’s what Paul said in verse 7, “For I wouldn’t have known coveting, unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.’”
This doesn’t mean that the Law is evil or bad. It isn’t. Paul makes that clear, “Is the law sin? May it never be!” (v. 7) and “Therefore the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good.” (v. 12). “The Law of God is good and wise and sets his will before our eyes.” The Law comes from God and reflects who God is. If God is good, so also is his Law.
The evil thing isn’t the Law, it’s US! We’re the problem. We find ourselves captive to Lord Law because it is us who have broken the commandments and we still want to break them. We have not loved God with all our mind, soul, and strength. We have not loved our neighbour as ourselves. We fall miserably short of the standard of perfection placed before us.
What the Law does is show us what we really are like. “The Law is but a mirror bright to bring the inbred sin to light that lurks within our nature.” (LSB 555 st. 3b). “You have this Law to see therein, that you have not been free from sin, but also that you clearly see, how pure toward God life should be.” (LSB 581 st. 11)
The result is death. Sin is breaking God’s Law and sin is a capital offence. Sin is high treason against the King of Kings. The only penalty for such thoroughgoing evil is death. We are diseased trees, and the only fruit we produce is death. The Law commands us, but gives us no power to do any of it. “The Law is good; but since the fall its holiness condemns us all; it dooms us for our sin to die and has no power to justify.” (LSB 579, st. 5)
But our captivity to Lord Law only goes so far. The dominion of the Law has a limit. That limit of course is death. Once we’re dead the Law can no longer prosecute us. Death changes our relationship to the Law. This gets to Paul’s main point in our text, “Or don’t you know, brothers, that the law has dominion over a man for as long as he lives?”
Paul uses the example of marriage to prove that death can change our relationship to the Law. “Till death do us part” is the vow taken by those who are married. The husband’s death alters the widow’s obligations. The widow’s status as a wife has been abolished, completely done away. She is no longer a wife. Paul’s point is that death, the death of either partner, dissolves the marriage. The law about husbands and wives no longer applies to her. Death changes our relationship to the Law. Liberation from the Law is not something we do. It is a liberation on the Law’s own terms, by death. Death severs legal ties, as the analogy of marriage shows.
Thus, Paul says in verse 4, “you also were made dead to the law” So Paul gets to the heart of our liberation. And it’s a liberation so much more substantial than that of a mere concentration camp. We were made dead to the Law. That is, we did not do something. God has made us dead to the Law. We have died, and thus we are free from the Law.
But how is that possible? Paul says, “through the body of Christ, that you would be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead.” Jesus Christ, the very Son of God became man. He was born under the Law and obeyed and kept it perfectly. What is more, he has suffered and died in our place on the Cross. The Third day he rose from the grave and defeated death. “Yet as the Law must be fulfilled, or we must die despairing, Christ came and has God’s anger stilled, our human nature sharing. He has for us the Law obeyed and thus the Father’s vengeance stayed, which over us impended.” (LSB 555 st. 5)
But how does Christ’s death and resurrection affect us? Back in Chapter 6 Paul told us: “Or don’t you know that all we who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4).
Through Holy Baptism we have been united to the death and resurrection of Christ. We are united to Christ, we become part of his body. His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. Our baptism into Christ’s death ends sin’s rule over us. Our baptism frees us from the demands of the Law.
The baptized are done with the Law as a way of salvation. They do not seek to be right with God by obeying some form of the law, as the adherents of almost all religions have done. There is a finality about death. Through our baptism into Christ’s death we have a complete and final break with the Law. We are liberated. We no longer need to fear death. We no longer need to fear the wrath and anger of God.
Paul does not say that the Law died, but that through baptism we have died to the Law. The law still shows us what a good work is and how we can love and serve our neighbours. “For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbour and supply the proof that faith is living.” (LSB 555, st. 9b).
Through baptism you are free. Free from the obligations of the Law. Free from the Law’s condemnation. Free from enslavement to Satan, sin, and death. You are no longer held captive to obey the Law to be saved, but are now free to love God and serve your neighbour without the fear of condemnation! Free to feel contrition, and repent of your sins and receive God’s forgiveness. Free to live before God as a justified sinner. Free to serve your neighbour in love. You are free to love God and serve your neighbour because you don’t have to pretend you are perfect. You are free to receive the blessings of God by faith and not by works. God grant us such Freedom for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
✠ And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ✠