Completed by the Spirit Part 5: We Serve In The Spirit

June 6, 2011 — Leave a comment

This is the fifth part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

In our pre­vi­ous post in this series, we showed that Paul does not call us to use the law to mea­sure or pro­mote our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, though there are many who assert that he does.

But there also those in the “reformed camp” who would even counter Paul’s repeated entreaties to rely on the Spirit. Willem VanGe­meren denies Paul’s asser­tion that the Spirit replaces the law in the New Covenant:

The law is not replaced by the Spirit in the escha­to­log­i­cal age. The Spirit opens peo­ple up to the law and trans­forms them to live by a higher ethics [sic]. We may even speak of escha­to­log­i­cal ethics as an appli­ca­tion of the moral law, by which believ­ers live in the present age with their eyes focused on the com­ing of the king­dom. While all peo­ple belong to the present age and are made respon­si­ble for keep­ing its mores, Chris­tians live by the higher ethics of the king­dom. Paul speaks of this ten­sion in his min­istry: “To those not hav­ing the law I became like one not hav­ing the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law [ennomos Chris­tou]), so as to win those not hav­ing the law” (1 Cor. 9:21). The law is God’s instru­ment in trans­form­ing the Chris­t­ian into a ser­vant of the king­dom of God. …[1]

Paul, how­ever, could not be more direct that the law is no longer bind­ing on the Chris­t­ian. The apos­tle begins this in chap­ter 7 of Romans:

[7:1] Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speak­ing to those who know the law—that the law is bind­ing on a per­son only as long as he lives? [2] For a mar­ried woman is bound by law to her hus­band while he lives, but if her hus­band dies she is released from the law of mar­riage. [3] Accordingly, she will be called an adul­ter­ess if she lives with another man while her hus­band is alive. But if her hus­band dies, she is free from that law, and if she mar­ries another man she is not an adulteress.

[4] Likewise, my broth­ers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. [5] For while we were liv­ing in the flesh, our sin­ful pas­sions, aroused by the law, were at work in our mem­bers to bear fruit for death. [6] But now we are released from the law, hav­ing died to that which held us cap­tive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the writ­ten code (or “of the let­ter” – ESV foot­note). (Romans 7:1–6)

There are some who argue that Paul is only argu­ing against the civil and “cer­e­mo­nial” laws of Israel. But nowhere in this argu­ment do we see Paul draw dis­tinc­tions among moral, cer­e­mo­nial and civil aspects of the Mosaic law.

Paul does not say that we’ve died to Jew­ish cul­tic rit­u­als and Jew­ish civil law as some might argue – although many of the eth­i­cal norms expressed by Paul do con­tain the same or sim­i­lar con­tent as the Deca­logue. Many will argue that this means that the Ten Com­mand­ments are exempt  and that Romans 7 is only argu­ing for the end of the civil and cer­e­mo­nial aspects of the law.

Note: In a future post, I hope to address the three-part dis­tinc­tions in the Mosaic law that are cen­tral to Reformed the­ol­ogy. It is my con­tention that refer­ring to the laws per­tain­ing to sac­ri­fices, holy days, sab­baths and tem­ple rit­ual as “cer­e­mo­nial” demeans the rich typol­ogy of their mean­ing to the faith­ful rem­nant of Israel. To the faith­ful, they were more than mere cul­tic rit­ual but things seen and greeted from afar (Hebrews 11:13) and were actions pleas­ing to God, unlike those per­formed as rit­ual by the unfaith­ful (cf. Isa­iah 1).

But can one really argue that Paul means that dietary laws, laws about repay­ing those whose ani­mal you’ve harmed, or ordi­nances about sac­ri­fices aroused sin­ful pas­sions, rather than admo­ni­tions against adul­tery, lying and theft?

A sep­a­ra­tion of the law in such a way does not hold water in this argument.

There does remain, how­ever, a par­al­lel between the Deca­logue and Paul’s teach­ing, but Stephen West­er­holm explains why there is a difference:

The ethic deter­mined by God’s Holy Spirit can­not, for Paul, be capri­cious. Paul points out areas of pos­si­ble human behav­ior which are incom­pat­i­ble with the lead­ing of the Holy Spirit of God and other moral char­ac­ter­is­tics which the Spirit inevitably pro­duces. In fact, of course, Paul’s under­stand­ing of the moral behav­ior which the Spirit induces cor­re­sponds nicely with the moral demands of the Mosaic law. But this … does not mean that Paul derives Chris­t­ian duty from the law. The eth­i­cal instruc­tion of the epis­tles would have looked very dif­fer­ent had Paul con­tin­ued to find the will of God in the way he did as a Phar­isee, by inter­pret­ing and apply­ing the rel­e­vant statutes from Torah.[2]

Paul’s antithe­sis is between writ­ten code – the code of the Old Covenant – and the Spirit. We have died to that which aroused sin in us.

Nor does Paul say merely that we are not to rely on the law for our jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, as some would argue from Romans 7.

Paul clearly speaks of the law in its present tense for the believer. He speaks against using the law for our walk, for our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion. In verse 6, he writes “we serve” (δουλεύειν ἡμᾶς) in the present tense. We serve in the Spirit because we are released from the law.

The law bears fruit for death, arouses sin­ful pas­sions and holds men cap­tive. How then, can we turn to the law to grow in or to mea­sure our holiness?

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 6: Who Is The Man of Romans 7?


[1] Willem A. VanGe­meren, “The Law Is the Per­fec­tion of Right­eous­ness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Per­spec­tive” Five Views on Law and gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zon­der­van, 1996), 58.

[2] Stephen West­er­holm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Inter­preters (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerd­mans, 1988), 214.