Completed by the Spirit Part 9: ‘It Cannot Justify, It Cannot Sanctify’

Ed Trefzger

Ed Trefzger

This is the ninth 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.

As we saw in our pre­vi­ous three installments, there are three ways the man of Romans 7 may be identified.

1. Paul describes his expe­ri­ence as an uncon­verted Jew under the law, a view we saw explained in the pre­vi­ous installment.

2. Paul describes his expe­ri­ence, per­haps shortly after his con­ver­sion, as he sought sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion through the law.

3. Paul describes his expe­ri­ence as a mature Christian.

But as we closed part 8, we asked, “Does it mat­ter to us as an appli­ca­tion of Romans 7 which of the three men Paul is describing?”

Whichever of the three views one might hold, two of the same con­clu­sions can be drawn from Romans 7.

First: the law can­not save us or sanc­tify us.

Sec­ond: the regen­er­ate man is not, and must not live as, a slave to the law.

Given those two propo­si­tions, how can it fol­low that the regen­er­ate man should use what enslaved him and what caused him to sin as some­thing to sanc­tify him? As Lloyd-Jones writes:

The Apos­tle is not describ­ing his own expe­ri­ence here; but, as I have con­tin­ued to repeat, he is con­cerned to tell us a num­ber of things about the Law, and to show us that the Law can­not save in any respect; it can­not jus­tify, it can­not sanc­tify. That is his one object in the whole of the pas­sage. His inter­est is in the Law. In verse 5 he says that the Law makes us sin more than ever; in verse 13 he says “the law kills me.” He knew he would be crit­i­cized and mis­un­der­stood over this, so he answers the objec­tions. That is all he is doing; and he puts it in this dra­matic form.[1]

Paul does not speak of the law as some­thing that pro­duces holi­ness; that func­tion is reserved for the Holy Spirit.

Instead, Paul shows us that while the Spirit of Christ may indwell us, sin still lurks in our mem­bers. To use the law to sanc­tify the regen­er­ate man — the very same law that fos­tered sin in his unre­gen­er­ate state — is to be foolish.

Thomas Schreiner writes:

Paul con­trasts liv­ing under the law, where the flesh uses the law to pro­duce sin, with life under the Spirit, where believ­ers are freed from slav­ery. The Spirit works in their hearts to give them a desire to do the will of God. Life under the law leads to death because sin has free reign. Those who have died to the law through the death of Christ have been freed by the Spirit so that they will do the will of God because they are united with Christ. Return­ing to the law, then is to rebuild what has been torn down with the com­ing of Christ (Gal. 2:18). Hence, rever­sion to the law can only mean the return of sin and trans­gres­sion. Believ­ers died to the law by dying with Christ (Gal. 2:19–20). They live new lives by trust­ing in Jesus as God’s Son, and to return to the law would be a denial of God’s grace in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:21).[2]

What, then, is the answer? Paul pro­vides the answer in Romans chap­ter 8.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 10: The Law of the Spirit of Life Has Set You Free


[1] Lloyd-Jones, “The Law: Its Func­tion and Lim­its,”, accessed July 19, 2010.
[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Tes­ta­ment The­ol­ogy: Mag­ni­fy­ing God in Christ. (Grand Rapids: Baker Aca­d­e­mic, 2008), 649.