“Since I am speaking to those who understand law, brothers, are you unaware that the law has authority over someone as long as he lives? For example, a married woman is legally bound to her husband while he lives. But if her husband dies, she is released from the law regarding the husband. So then, if she gives herself to another man while her husband is living, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law. Then, if she gives herself to another man, she is not an adulteress. Therefore, my brothers, you also were put to death in relation to the law through the crucified body of the Messiah, so that you may belong to another — to Him who was raised from the dead — that we may bear fruit for God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions operated through the law in every part of us and bore fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.” (Romans 7:1-6 HCSB)
During the course of my forty plus years of ministry and pastoring, I have performed my share of weddings. Most were beautiful and joyous occasions but a few seemed troubled from the very start. While every couple and every marriage is unique in its own ways, those that survive and thrive tend to share some basic characteristics. You might notice that I said, survive and thrive. It is quite possible to survive a troubled marriage with sheer determination and absolute refusal to quit or concede failure. But for a marriage relationship to thrive, it takes more than just personal determination and stubbornness. To thrive in a marriage, it takes mutual trust, love, grace, adaptation, compromise with a hefty dose of determination and stubbornness, thrown in.
My wife and I will celebrate forty three years of marriage this summer. While it is tempting to brag and take personal credit for that longevity, there are many factors that contribute to a healthy and lasting marriage relationship. We both had good examples to follow, though we obviously brought our own challenges to the situation. To be honest, it is interesting to watch our modern culture marvel at marriages that, not only, last but also flourish. I’ve witnessed numerous news reports on elderly couples who are celebrating lengthy marriages and the question is almost always the same, “How did you do it? What’s the secret to a long, happy marriage?” We are so accustomed to seeing marriages fail that we are astonished when they last more than just a few years. Even if a couple makes it to 25 or 30 years, we are not often surprised when they finally admit they can’t continue and file for a divorce. I’ve often heard them say, “We stayed together for the kids sake but now that they’re grown we just can’t keep doing this.”
While I have no intention of focusing this message on marriage or how to make yours succeed, Paul does use the analogy of a struggling marriage to illustrate our relationship with God, sin and grace. To be honest, those two ideas (a healthy relationship with God and a thriving marriage) are not very different and I will draw in some of those comparisons and give you some practical tips for marriage, later. For now, let’s focus on Paul’s primary point regarding sin, law, death, grace, faith, and new life in Christ and how a struggling marriage illustrates that hope for a relationship that will not only survive, but also thrive.
He begins by telling the Roman church that since he’s speaking to those who know and understand the Law, surely they recognize that the law only has authority over them only as long as they live. Once they die, the law ceases to have any authority over them. For example, a woman is legally bound to her husband only as long as he is alive. If he’s still alive and she were to disregard marriage laws or her marriage vows and be unfaithful, then she will be “called” or “known as” an adulteress. However, if her husband dies, then she is legally released from any marriage laws, vows or obligations and is free to marry again and wouldn’t be known as an unfaithful wife. Paul then says, in the very same way you have now died in your binding relationship to the law through Christ, the Messiah, so that you may belong to another – Him who was raised from the dead.
Some of you are asking, “So, what? I just don’t get it! What does marriage, death of a spouse or an unfaithful wife have to do with the Law or relationship with God?” So, I’ll state it clearly. Paul’s point should be obvious through the analogy, but your relationship with the law, your attempts at following the rules, being morally good and earning God’s forgiveness, favor, blessings and love are similar to a troubled marriage, full of strife, discord and absent any real passion or expressions of love. You try and try to make it work, but in the end you’re left feeling empty, hurt, frustrated and wondering just how long you can keep this up. You go to church, give some money, try and pray and be a good person but in the end it all just feels empty, like nobody is listening and your efforts are meaningless. Sound familiar? If so, listen up…
Paul says that is why we must put to death our relationship with the law and discover a new life relationship – eternal life/life as it was meant to be – in a new relationship with Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus took our failures, our inability to be fully obedient to God’s law and demands – our sin – and He died as our substitute. Notice how Paul states this, “you also were put to death in relation to the law through the crucified body of the Messiah.” Because Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands and He died as our substitute, we can “consider ourselves” (see Rom. 6:11) dead to the law and alive to God in Jesus. We are no longer “married” or bound to the law and its demands because we have died in that relationship and are now free to enter a new relationship with Him.
In some ways, it feels a bit backward to use the analogy of a marriage relationship to help us understand the Gospel and God’s grace. Most modern marriages – I started to say many modern marriages, but I think most is really more accurate – do not really give us much hope for the overall success of such a relationship, even among Christians. We’ve seen the effects failed marriages and divorce have on our culture and the results are obvious, at least they are to me, in our full prisons and our struggling schools. To be honest, Paul’s culture was no better. So, why does Paul use marriage as an analogy? Because while we know what failed marriages look like, we also know what they SHOULD look like and that’s HIS point! We so desperately want this relationship with the law to work, to bring us happiness and joy but it just leaves us empty and exhausted. We try, and try, and try but it never gets any better. But deep down in our heart, we know that our relationship with God shouldn’t look like this. There HAS to be a better way – fortunately, there is. CHRIST!
So, rather than talk about faith in esoteric or spiritual terms that seem more like smoke and mirrors, Paul tells us that our relationship with God through the law and the pursuit of moral goodness is much like a troubled marriage – doomed to failure, devoid of passion, maintained only for what we hope we can get out of it. Isn’t that really how and why most folks practice their religious rituals? I’m not really getting much out of it, but I hope that in the end it will give me what I’m hoping for – God’s blessings here and now and, ultimately, a safe place in Heaven for eternity. Fire insurance – a tenuous and strained relationship with God that I only hope will keep me from spending an eternity in the fires of Hell and, hopefully, enjoying some semblance of a good life, forever. Right? See what I mean? A troubled marriage.
But when that relationship is right, marriage is truly enjoyable, satisfying and a deep, rich blessing. That’s it! Die to the old, difficult relationship so that we are free to marry into this new, enjoyable relationship that gives deep satisfaction, joy-filled living and pure, satisfying love. While our human marriages are capable and intended to give us a glimpse into this kind of relationship, they really are but a glimpse, a dim glimmer of what God desires in a relationship with us.
“For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 HCSB)
Paul alludes to this idea as he says in our focal passage, “when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions operated through the law in every part of us and bore fruit… but now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit.” A marriage that is built on our “sinful passions” and selfish needs and desires will inevitably bear fruit – a painful and broken marriage relationship. When your marriage focuses solely on your own needs, desires and passions then it only serves yourself and it will bear that selfish fruit. Your marriage will be focused solely on your desires, your needs, your passions and it will be devoid of joy God intends.
But, this passage isn’t really about your marriage – it is about your relationship with God. When your relationship with Him focuses solely on your desires, your needs, your passions then it will also be devoid of the JOY God intends for it to have. When you put to death these desires, needs and passions – when you die to self and are alive, to Christ or in Christ – then a new way opens up, the way of the Spirit. This new way is one you’re familiar with, but you may often overlook. For the moment, I’m going to return to our analogy of human marriage to illustrate.
When Tina and I first married, almost 43 years ago, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about love. I was young, passionate and wholly devoted to my beautiful bride. Boy, was I wrong. I didn’t know ANYTHING about love. It seems that my view of love for her was entirely focused on me – which is exactly backward. I discovered that love for her was not about having my personal needs met, it was about meeting her needs. I learned that passion wasn’t really passion if it was focused back on myself. In other words, love wasn’t truly love until it was focused on someone else. Now, let me translate that into what we’re discussing in our focal passage.
When you die with Christ then the old self is gone and a new one is born. This new self is now alive unto God and a new passionate love begins to develop and mature. In reality, I think most of us begin our love relationship with God much like the young, dumb new husband, I mentioned above, had with his beautiful bride. Self focused and headed for trouble, if it continued that way. However, if we will recognize this tendency and learn to “serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law” then we can get this relationship headed in the right direction. When we “love God” in the way He calls us to love Him, then we cease doing things by the “letter of the law” and we begin to do them in the new way of the Spirit. What’s the difference? The difference between being in a self-centered marriage relationship and one that is mutually focused on loving, serving and caring for one another.
My beautiful bride loves flowers. I tend to view flowers as a waste. Don’t get me wrong, I think they are pretty but the pretty fades fast and leaves me thinking I spent too much on them. So, I have had a tendency to not buy flowers for that beautiful lady nearly as much as I should because I felt like they cost more than they were worth because of how quickly they wilted. Selfish, right? Stupid, really. Not very loving. Why? Because my focus was on me and the money and not on her and the joy I saw on her face when she received them.
Have you ever done something similar in your relationship with God? What does God desire of us? To love Him more than anything else in life, and to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves. (By the way, do you know who your closest neighbor is? Might be your spouse, if you’re married. Might be your sibling, if you still live at home. Might be your parents, if your an only child or if you’re caring for elderly parents. Might be the guy who lives next door.) Living according to the “letter of the law” is doing only what you have to do because that’s what is required. Serving in the way of the Spirit is loving and serving like God does, with mercy, grace and forgiveness. Consider these words:
“Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8 HCSB)
So, let me end this week by challenging you to love God in an unselfish way. Love Him the way He loves you, in a very giving, selfless way. Don’t give Him what He desires from you begrudgingly – like I have given flowers to my wife in the past – give it willingly, joyfully and full of love. I promise, you’ll be surprised at the results. Maybe you still need to die to your old self, and find new life in Christ. Trust Him, just tell Him that and then pursue Him with that same passion.