Chapter 7: Under Grace, not Law
Don’t misunderstand the subtitle here, as it is not saying that we have a cheap-grace scenario. I intend those words as they were originally intended. How were they intended? Let’s answer that by looking at the analogy Paul gives at the beginning of chapter seven, which again, flows directly from what Paul was just talking about in chapter six: freedom from the curse of sin, bound by grace to Christ through the Spirit, granting us repentance and faith in God our Savior.
The analogy here is that of a woman to her husband. We are the woman, the law is as a husband. If we, being the wife of the husband lie with another man, we are in adultery against our husband! The same with God’s law. We are bound, therefore, to the law of God, but the law of God, as Paul is going to show, only reveals our curse to us. It doesn’t, in and of itself, give us peace. When we die to the curse of the law and are united to Christ in marriage, as it were, we are under a new law, and what law is this? Paul gave it to us in Romans 1:5, speaking of “the obedience of faith”. Meaning, this is not an obedience brought about by duty to the law, but obedience brought by faith in the gospel. It is a new look upon the law, a new perspective, one that can only be seen when one stands firmly in the bosom of Christ!
Again, notice what we are saying by what we are not saying. We are not saying that the law is void and utterly done away with. We are saying that we are no longer judged according to it, and the burden of our sin brought by God’s law has been lifted. In his allegorical story, Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan uses Moses whipping Christian as analogous to the law striking him for his sin, and how the old covenant could not, apart from the work of the Spirit, lift Christian’s blight. It was when Christ came that the blows ceased. The law’s importance did not cease, but Christian’s burden and debt to the law was done away with. This is what we mean by grace. God’s grace has lifted our curse, and with His Spirit in us, has granted us the power to overcome our sin, which takes us right into chapter 8.
Chapter 8: No Condemnation for God’s Elect
Paul now moves into the closing of his argument, you might say. What has he done so far? He has given mankind’s great problem, and that all are equally under judgment from a holy and righteous God, and then he gives the gospel as the cure, and that only when we run to Christ are we saved from the wrath of God that comes against the curse of Adam. If we are in Adam, we perish; if we are in Christ, we live. After that, Paul moves on to explain that it’s because of justification now we repent and grow in holiness, never to get justification. Again, you must notice how the justification comes first, and then the life of holiness.
This is putting Paul in a position of further and further contrasting the regenerate from the natural man. You see that contrast really light up in verses 5-9. Those “who walk according to the flesh” are those outside the grace of God in Christ. They have no power over their flesh, and it shows plainly in their lives. Then comes Paul’s contrast to the elect, and how does he distinguish them from the natural man? By the Spirit of God (verse 9). Notice Paul is not saying that the elect are given the Spirit of God if they believe; he simply says, “you are not in the flesh if the Spirit of God dwells in you”. If Paul had said that in your flesh you must first make a decision for God and then His Spirit comes into you, that would contradict what he just said about the natural man, whose entire mind is set on the flesh. Therefore, there can be no point in which he desires to set his mind on the Spirit to receive the Spirit.
Salvation becomes, therefore, purely an act of grace by God Himself upon a sinner that enables that sinner the strength to come to Christ in faith. This is what defines the elect, that is, the chosen of God for His grace. The elect are not condemned, not because they made a decision, but because God has, in His sovereign grace, made a decision towards them, for His purposes. You see further proof of this in verses 12 and 13. If by the flesh we live, we are destroyed, but by the Spirit, we are putting to death the deeds of the body, we will live. Again, if I cannot please God in the flesh, and choosing God, according to most evangelicalism, must necessarily begin with you in the flesh, then I have in fact, pleased God while in the flesh. I cannot put to death the deeds of the body while in the flesh, I must be born again, and as Jesus himself said to Nicodemus, what must happen first before any of that can take place? I must be born of the Spirit. You see that the flesh has no power, whatsoever.
The Golden Chain
This takes us to what we often call in reformed circles The Golden Chain of Redemption. We are entering a point that many will find uncomfortable, but it is important to discuss, and the reality is, this is what Paul is telling us when we follow his argument through and through. This is the climax of Paul’s gospel (not the end of the letter however). This is how we know we have victory in the gospel, not because of our doing, but because of Christ. Again you may ask, if it’s not based on me, why must I do anything? How can there be victory for me, not based on what I do, but if I don’t do, I don’t receive the victory?
The reality is that these are questions that spawn out of the presupposition that the gospel, and God’s entire purpose in everything is for us. A gospel that centers around us will end up in one of two holes: It will end up making salvation up to us, or it will make salvation cheap grace. In both errors, what do they have in common? Autonomy, really–the idea that the human will is in and of itself sufficient for the human being to flourish.
What is legalism, but an exaltation of man’s will to attain to the promises given by God? What is antinomianism (cheap grace) but the exaltation of free will in such a degree that God cannot make sinners stop being sinners? And hence He just gives them a ticket if they would take it? Both of these errors are predicated on the same fundamental error, and that is a misplaced view of man’s will, and unfortunately, much of even serious-minded evangelicalism has some form of each of these mixed in their theology.
The human will is real, make no mistake. But the human will exists underneath the sovereign will of God, and God makes humans, not because He was lonely, not because He was bored, but for the sole purpose of glorifying Himself in their creation. The world does not orbit mankind; mankind and the world orbit God and all His purposes.
All of this to help us understand that God saves, not because He must, not because He is obligated, or that humans can pull His arm, but solely and completely by an act of grace by Him towards undeserving sinners. Once we understand this important point, we have reached a point of understanding the gospel like never before. It is a humbling truth in realizing that God is God, thrice holy and I am dust before Him.
And so we realize that we are saved by a sheer act of grace of God in the gospel in what we call the Golden Chain. How does it work? It’s no coincidence in the slightest that it is in a particular order. Let’s follow the order then to see how we are ultimately saved:
- Foreknown. We are foreknown. This is not foreknowledge in the sense that God looked into time to see what we would do and elected us based on that. The Greek simply does not allow it. The word “foreknew” in the Greek is in the third person verb form, which means “foreknown” is an action by a third party. Since we are the object of the chain, who could this be referring to? God. God does the act of foreknowledge, and therefore this is not passive knowledge. It would utterly disrupt the other verbs in the Golden Chain not only in chronology, but also in consistency. They are all in the exact same verb form as foreknown.
- Predestined. Once again, this is in the third person verb form. God is the one who predestines. Who does He predestine? Those whom He foreknows–that is, those whom He has entered into relationship in eternity past, before they were even born, even a forethought in their parents’ mind. What are they predestined to? Conformity to the image of His Son.
- Called. The elect are then called, in time, on God’s timing to their divine appointment. Do you think Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was accidental? Incidental? Did Jesus tell Ananias who cared for Paul in this time, “I really hope he’ll come around to what I want him to do”? May it never be! That was predestined of God, and Paul was always one of Christ’s elect. That moment on the Damascus road was when Paul was called. And once again, the word “called” is in the exact same verb form as predestined and foreknew; it is something God does to an object.
- Justified. The next part of the chain is justification; the doctrine of which we looked at in chapter 4. After being called, the elect are justified. This is always interesting; remember in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian wasn’t justified as soon as he was made aware of his sin. He still carried the burden of his sin for some time until he finally came to the cross. I believe that is much the same with almost every believers’ experience, and most surely mine. I was called by the gospel well before I was justified.
- Glorified. Because of all of this, and all these things that God does by His sheer will, not by the elect’s own strength to decide to believe, they are glorified. Why? For His glory, of course, as we have just said. The elect of God are chosen by God, for God and for His glory alone, and it is because it is through and through a work of God it cannot fail, and that’s why Paul can finish the rest of Romans 8, which so many Christians love to quote to give themselves encouragement. And most surely they ought! But how many are willing to read why they can say this?