Jesus said, "Whosoever practices sin is the slave of sin." John 8:34. Sin has a lot of slaves. Not one is happy. They are all miserable. There are the willing slaves, who serve sin with both hands greedily. There are the unwilling slaves, who weary themselves to commit iniquity, who detest their bondage but who are slaves just the same.
Some fool themselves in thinking that they can leave off sin as soon as they choose. Only those who have really tried to break from its service know that they are held by a mysterious power that no man can master.
A mysterious power ... What is it? Is sin itself very powerful? Most of us would answer, "Yes." We glorify sin by imputing to it some wonderful power which it never did have. But sin has no intrinsic power of its own.
Sin's power to enslave men is derived – derived from the law of God. Says the apostle Paul, "The strength of sin is the law." 1 Cor. 15:56. Apart from the law of God, there would be no sin (Rom. 4:15; 5:13), and sin would have no power to hold men in its service. The greatest part of Romans 7 is spent in explaining this great truth.
First the apostle uses an illustration to show that it is the law which binds us to the service of sin:
For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to Another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. Rom. 7:2-4.
Here is a woman who has a husband. She may hate him and prefer to be married to a better man. But she is held – bound – not by the husband but by the law. It is the law which binds her to the husband.
So we by nature are "married" to sin. It is much more desirable to be "married to Another, even to Him who is raised from the dead." The power that holds us in that first union is not sin but the law. In Romans 7 Paul is talking about becoming "dead to the law" and being "delivered from the law." vv. 4, 6. The point must be clear: We cannot escape the clutches of sin as long as the law binds us. We need to be "delivered from the law."
Then, in verse 5, Paul goes a step further. "While we were living in the flesh [our unregenerate state], our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death." Sinful passions aroused by the law! How could one brought up to respect and honor the law tolerate such a thought as this! But now further: "But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive." v. 6. The law holds us captive! How could those who make their boast in the law endure the apostle's message! But further: "But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead." v. 8. That is to say, sin has no power apart from the law; but (if we may personify sin) sin goes to the law and says, "Will you grant me permission to take possession of this man?" "Yes," says the law, "you have my permission." Sin goes off with this authority, takes possession of the man and works in him all manner of evil desires.
The apostle anticipates our question, "Is the law sin?" "God forbid," he replies. "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." vv. 7, 12.
But now the question arises, How can a holy, just and good law bind us to the service of sin, hold us captive and actually give to sin power to work in us all manner of evil desires? Is this the real purpose of the law? Did God give man a law to shut him up in the jail house of sin?
The Purpose of the Law
And the commandment, which was ordained unto life, found to be unto death. Rom. 7:10.
Originally the law was ordained to life. God made man perfect and gave him a perfect law. It was a "royal law," "the law of liberty." God promised Adam life on condition of perfect obedience. Adam was qualified to render perfect obedience by the very perfection of his nature. As long as he obeyed, the law justified him. The law was his friend and protector.
Then man rebelled against the law. With all the fury and power of divine authority, the law sentenced him to death, became his jailer and threw him into prison.
Let me illustrate: You have good laws in this great land. As long as you respect, honor and obey these laws, the law is your friend and protector. But suppose you rebel and become an enemy of the law. What then? The law will become your adversary. It will take hold of you and cast you into prison.
So it is that the law of God was originally ordained to life. But fallen, rebel man finds it unto death! The law has become his jailer. He has chosen the service of sin, and now the justice of God's law demands that he serve the master of his choice. Justice has bound him over to the miserable service of sin.
Suppose a criminal is thrown into jail and sentenced to the hard labor of crushing rocks till the day he dies. He may not have any particular love for crushing rocks. He may prefer doing something else. By what power is he kept at the miserable task? By the power of the law. The law put him into prison, and the law keeps him in prison. The only way he can be delivered from his miserable vocation is to be delivered from the power of the law.
PrisonersPrisoners of Hope
Those who remember the world of Charles Dickens could vividly bring to mind the debtor's prison. If a man owed a debt, his creditor could get an injunction against him and have him thrown into prison. He could not come out until he paid the last penny.
We are in debt to the law of God in a twofold sense:
1. We owe it fulfillment by a life of perfect obedience.
2. We owe it satisfaction by the kind of death that will meet its penalty.
Justice demands that we stay in our debtor's prison, with no hope of coming out until we pay our debt to the law. We are shut in by an omnipotent power. The man who thinks he can break away from the service of sin by anything he can do, is trying to make himself greater than the law, which is as great as God Himself. There is no human power or devising that can deliver us from that just law, which has sentenced us to serve sin.
Yet all of the human race are "prisoners of hope."
But the Scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. Gal. 3:22-24, R.S.V.
Justification, which comes by faith, makes the prisoner free. Not that there is any virtue in faith itself, but there is redemption in the object of faith—Jesus Christ Himself. The gospel is about Jesus Christ and what He has done for us. He so loved us that He considered heaven not a place to be desired while we were prisoners without hope. Seeing that we were hopelessly in debt to the law and that we could never be delivered by our own power, He stepped down and took our place.
But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. Gal. 4:4-5.
In our name and on our behalf, Jesus paid our debt to the law. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree." Gal. 3:13. Our debt was twofold, and He paid it twofold:
1. By a life of perfect obedience, He fulfilled the law for us.
2. By His death on the cross, He satisfied the law for us.
The old Scottish theologians called these the active and passive obedience of Christ. He was our Representative, and what He did was for us—so that it was just the same as if we had personally done it. We were lost in Adam but restored in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17-19). Just as we sinned in Adam, so we lived sinlessly and died to the penalty of the law in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:14). The good news is that we paid our debt in the doing and dying of Jesus Christ.
Although Christ has signed our emancipation papers with His own blood, His redemption is effective only when we "repent ... and believe the gospel."
Repentance is sorrow for sin, a change of attitude to the law of God. We were shut up because we were rebels; and just as long as we remain hostile to God's law, we will remain in prison.
I once visited the old convict settlement in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Still exhibited is the "dark room," where were placed incorrigible prisoners. It was an underground room so dark that the blackness was terrifying. An hour in it would subdue most men. But there was one defiant fellow who was shut up in the "dark room" for a whole day. At the end of the day, the jailer opened the door to see if the poor wretch had had enough. But the prisoner spat in the jailer's face. You can guess what happened. He was locked in again!
The law is our jailer, and we may be sure that no one will get out if he is bent on despising the law of God. No one comes out without repentance.
It is faith, however, that frees us from the jail house of sin. Faith lays hold of what Christ has done, and God puts the obedience of Christ to the sinner's account. Therefore he who believes on Jesus Christ has fulfilled the whole law (Rom. 10:4). He is no longer a debtor. Before justice he stands as one who has borne the penalty of sin. He has died to the law in his Substitute, Jesus Christ. And in Jesus Christ he stands before it with a sinless life.
Therefore the law no longer binds the believer in Jesus to the prison house of sin. The jailer, seeing that the debt is paid, opens the jail, and the child of faith is free to pass out. He is no longer bound by the law to that miserable first husband. No longer can sin take occasion from the commandment to work in him all manner of evil desires. Justification makes the believer legally free from the old service of sin.
Faith that Works
Bondage is the result of a wrong relationship to the law. A rebel who hates the law has a wrong relationship to the law. Naturally the law will bind him as a slave to serve sin. The legalist also has a wrong relationship to the law. The doctrine of salvation by means of sincere obedience to the law is the worst kind of antinomianism. The man who holds this doctrine is a debtor, and sin will get permission from the law to stir up all kinds of evil passions in him.
Justification means to be set right before the law. And those who are set right before the law are not bound in prison. What joy to know that when we believe in Jesus Christ, sin has lost all its legal rights over us! We do not have to serve it any more. We have no need to tremble at its power. Faith is not just a nod of assent. It works! Unless it works, it is not faith at all but a counterfeit.
To believe the gospel is to believe that our debt to the law is paid, the law is no longer our jailer and sin has no more power to keep us in its service. How may we prove that we believe this gospel? By our works — by walking out of the prison house, by rising up in faith and going out of the house of bondage.
The time to exercise faith is not when we feel that sin has lost its power. No indeed! When our sinful nature clamors for indulgence, then is the time to prove the power in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then it is time for faith to say, "Sin, you have lost all your power to hold me, for I am a believer in Jesus Christ." He who then steps forward in the faith of God's Word, will find the truth a living reality, for the same omnipotent power that bound him in prison is now on his side to keep him free.
Faith makes the Christian free, and by faith he maintains his freedom. This is freedom not to sin. With faith goes obedience, for the Christian has a new relationship to the law. It is no longer his enemy but his friend. It has become again "the royal law," "the law of liberty" (James 2:8, 12). He serves it "in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter" (Rom. 7:6). With Paul he says: "I delight in the law of God after the inward man." Rom. 7:22. "With the mind I myself serve the law of God." Rom. 7:25. "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law." Rom. 3:31.