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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Whole-Book Context (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

6. Under the Law in Romans 7

Earlier we noted the importance of the entire structure of Romans, which teaches us about ethnic reconciliation. In this context, the specific function of Romans 7 is significant: Paul notes that believers are no longer “under the law” (7:1-6). But he also notes that the problem is not with the law itself (7:7, 12, 14), but with humans as creatures of “flesh.” Many people take this chapter as also depicting Paul’s present enslavement to sin, and some even use it to justify living sinfully, saying, “If Paul could not keep from living in sin, how can we?” Is that really Paul’s point?

In 7:14, Paul declares that he is “fleshly, sold into slavery to sin.” In surrounding chapters, however, he declares that all believers in Jesus have been freed from sin and made slaves to God and righteousness (6:18-22). In 7:18, Paul complains that “nothing good dwells” in him, but in 8:9 he explains that the Spirit of Christ dwells in all true believers. In 7:25 he confesses that he serves with his body the “law of sin”; but in 8:2 he declares that Jesus has freed believers from “the law of sin and death.”

Why this apparent confusion? Probably only because we have missed the primary issue. Although Paul speaks graphically about life under the law in Romans 7, he is not implying that this is his typical daily Christian life. He says that when believers “were” in the flesh (probably meaning, ruled by their own desires), their sinful passions stirred by the law were producing death in them. By contrast, Paul says, “But now” believers have been “freed from the law,” serving instead by the Spirit (7:5-6). That is, most of Romans 7 depicts the frustration of trying to achieve righteousness by the works of the law, that is, by human effort (Rom 7 speaks of “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” over forty times). When we accept the righteousness of God as a free gift in Jesus Christ, however, we become able to walk in newness of life, and the rest of the Christian life is daring to trust the finished work of Christ enough to live like it is so (6:11). To the extent that our lives resemble Romans 7 at all, it is because we are trying to make ourselves good enough for God instead of accepting His gracious love for us.

7. Reproving Loveless Christians in 1 Corinthians 13

We often quote 1 Corinthians 13 as if it is an all-purpose description of love, for weddings, marriage counseling, friendships, and so forth. The principles in this chapter are in fact universal enough to apply to those situations, but Paul originally wrote them to address a specific situation which many of us today miss. Paul was addressing the appropriate use of spiritual gifts.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2004

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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