St Paul returns to the law of Moses, but not to reinforce the concept of the law. Rather, he does so to illustrate a point. In the law of Moses, a wife was freed from her husband only through death. Divorce or seperation were never enough to free her from her bonds to her husband. Were a woman, divorced in the eyes of the law, to remarry, she would still be an adulteress in the eyes of God. Likewise, Jesus Himself taught us that were a man to marry a woman who was divorced, he would be guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:32). And Paul draws on this interesting parallel here. If a person were to divorce themselves from sin through the law, then they would still remain a sinner in the eyes of God. The law can not free one from the bonds of that marriage, be it to a man or a woman, or to our sinful nature itself. It is only through death that one is freed from the bonds of marriage, and likewise, it is only through the death of Christ and our communion with Him that we ourselves can be freed from those bonds, from the bonds of the law; and thereby become free to marry ourselves to another, Who is Christ the Bridegroom. Through our death and rising up with Christ in Holy Baptism, we are freed truly from our bondage.
Paul states that we, “having died to what we were held by,” should now serve in this newness of Spirit. His reference to being “in the flesh” refers to unredeemed man still under the power of sin and death. Without Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, sinful passions are aroused when confronted by the law. In our fallen nature, we seek to use our own willpower to overcome these passions. And yet, I’ve often said that if willpower alone were sufficient, then the gyms would be just as busy on March 13th as they are on January 3rd. And this leads to this constant rebellion, this internal civil war, where we place our willpower on one side to stand against our passions on the other, and most often, the will loses. The alcoholic who seeks to stop drinking using his own willpower may temporarily overcome this passion, only to have it return sevenfold. The glutton may briefly overcome his passions, only to eventually return to his ways, oftentimes more strongly than it ever was. The adulterer may remain chaste for a month or more, but eventually return to the devil’s iconography with greater zeal than ever before. This is what happens when we seek to overcome these passions and vices with our own will, with no reliance on the Spirit of God. The demons are cast out, and returns to find the house cleaned and swept, but empty. And he goes out and finds seven friends to return with him, and the man is worse than when he first began. An empty space is still a space, and we must fill that space with something, otherwise the world and the spirits of the world will fill it with everything.
So, Paul then poses the question, “Is the law sin?” Since he had not known that covetousness was sin before the law, and sin multiplied because of his knowledge of the law, was the law itself the source of the sin? Of course not. The law was given to us for the purpose of revealing to us the depth of our sin and to help us seek salvation. To seek Christ’s strength, His guidance, His healing. Murder is wrong, and we know that because of the law of God. If the law of God had never been given to us, would that have made murder acceptable in God’s eyes, or would it have still been wrong? Obviously, it would still be wrong, we just wouldn’t have had the knowledge of the fact that it was wrong and thus sought His strength and absolution for our guilt of it. It is not the law that creates sin, it is our fallen nature. And it is not the law that causes sin to multiply in the face of the law, it is our rebellious nature. The law itself is not wicked, but it is humanity’s desire for that which is forbidden. Anyone who has ever been around a two year old can attest to this fact, the best way to guarantee that a child will do something is to tell them not to.
And this becomes the unfortunate side effect of the law where humans are concerned. When we hear “don’t covet,” our rebellious nature, the sin within us, seeks more and more to covet. When we hear don’t commit adultery, the demons within immediately link us to pornographic imagery and seek to water the seeds of that rebellious nature. The more strongly we are told that something is wrong, the more the flesh desires it, and it is only through the strength of the Holy Spirit that we are able to overcome those cravings for any length of time. Again, our personal willpower will suffice for a temporary time, but only for that temporary time. It is through the power of Holy Baptism that we are freed from those bonds, and through constantly seeking after God, seeking to fill that space with godly and holy things, that we are able to continue to resist these temptations.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of hearing a sermon, or reading a blog post, and becoming “convicted” on a Sunday, but where do we stand on Monday morning, on a Friday or Saturday night? Or, God forbid, suppose the baby was sick on Sunday and we couldn’t attend our service, where do we stand that Monday, eight days since that “conviction” hit us?
In Acts, we read how the Church in obedience to the Church, was able to change the world. Most of us don’t trust the Church, and, if we’re honest, don’t trust Christ, so rather than trying to change the world, we can’t even change ourselves. We get so caught up in the day to day that we don’t read the Scripture, we don’t take the time to say our prayers, we don’t fast, and we never seek His help to resist temptation. We just hope that His forgiveness will be bigger than our sin. And that, my brethern, is an indictment on all of us. Not because we’re not holy and perfect, but because we choose to rely on ourselves, rather than turning to Him. And to be fully honest and transparent, that is something that I personally struggle with so much. I constantly try to fix things on my own. I constantly rely on my own willpower and conviction, rather than on Him.
My brethern, we are not called to be perfect. We are not asked to be sinless. We are not asked to externally obey the law. We are told to turn to Christ our God in all things and trust in Him. I will never forget my spiritual father telling me that my salvation is fully reliant on my ability to be comfortable with the fact that I will sin. Not to be comfortable with my sin, but to be comfortable with the fact that I will sin. And when I find myself so doing, to repent, take it to confession, and move on. Not to get angry with myself for having fallen into sin, nor to revisit the sin, nor to parade that sin. To repent, to confess, and to move on. To get up, knock the dust off, and say Lord have mercy. And to turn in prayer to God each time that temptation arrives, until eventually, I don’t even realize how long I’ve gone without doing it. And how do I know when I need to do that? How am I even aware of the fact that I have sinned? That’s the purpose of the law. Not that I can never covet or else I won’t enter the kingdom, but to make me aware of the fact that coveting is an offense to God, something for which I must repent and turn to God for. St Mark the Ascetic teaches us that there is one sin which is unto death, and that is the unrepentant one, for which even the greatest saint’s prayers will not be heard if they are guilty of.
My brethern, let us look to the law, not as a means of salvation, but as a guide to lead us into repentance. Let us each learn the law of God to find what is an offense to Him, and let us truly turn to Him in repentance. Seeking His forgiveness, His power, His guidance in turning away from those sins. I once heard a monk asked what they do in the monastery everyday, and his answer was, “we fall, we get back up, we fall, we get back up.” May we look to that as a guide for our lives as well. Learn the law, but learn it for the purpose of finding our own need for Him, not as something for us to attempt to achieve on our own.
Christ is in our midst.