The main difficulty in this passage is what Paul means by life and death here. Clearly, he does not mean the life and death of the body. However, he also does not mean the life and death of the spirit in the way that Christians usually describe these things. They mean whether the person is truly one of God’s people. That is because they are thinking mainly about the future state of that person, in heaven or hell.
In Deuteronomy 30:19-20, Moses urged Israel’s people to ‘choose life’. He was not referring mainly to the life of their bodies or to the future life of their spirits. Rather, he was urging them to live for God in the land that God had promised to them. In their daily decisions, they would either allow God to direct their lives, or they would selfishly live for their own benefit. If we allow God’s Spirit to guide us, that is called life (see John 7:37-39; Galatians 5:16). However, if we live for our own pleasure, desires and feelings, that is like death (1 Timothy 5:6).
People have a natural desire to live for their own benefit. They want to be in control of their own lives. People even try to use God’s law for their own benefit. They try to obey God’s law in order to satisfy him, when they do not really love him (see Mark 12:30-31).
Paul could see that people with such attitudes were not really in control of their own lives. They were not allowing God’s Spirit to direct their lives. Therefore, they were allowing sin (their own wrong attitudes and behaviour) to direct their lives. That is not the kind of life that God wants people to have (John 10:10). In fact, Paul did not even want to describe it as ‘life’ - so he chose the opposite word, ‘death’ to describe it.
Next part: God's perfect law (Romans 7:12)
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© 2018, Keith Simons.