Romans 7:1–6 (ESV)✞: Released from the Law
In the last passage Paul wrote that those of us who have been saved by faith in Christ are no longer “slaves to sin,” but are now instead “slaves to righteousness.” He knows, however, that this is a big shift in thinking for some of his Jewish readers; for thousands of years they’ve been equating righteousness with the Law, so even if they get what he’s saying about faith intellectually there’s still a visceral reaction to being told that things are now so different.
Paul is a Jew himself, and I’m sure he spent years wrestling with questions exactly like this, so he gets it. He gives an example that’s as visceral as the question itself:
1 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Quick note on the word “brothers” Paul is using here: it actually means something more like “brothers and sisters.” It’s not a word in Greek that specifically means males. Same applies anywhere else the word “brothers” appears in this passage.
It’s a pretty straightforward example: if you get married you’re bound by law to that person for as long as you’re both alive, but once either of you dies the other is no longer bound. If I die and my wife gets remarried she’s not committing adultery; she’s no longer married to me if I’m dead.
Paul will extend that metaphor to faith in Christ – quite literally:
4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.
Just like a woman is free to marry another if her husband dies, we have died to the Law and now belong to Christ. Notice, however, that it’s not a perfect comparison; for it to really be one-to-one with the divorce analogy it would have to be the Law that dies, to free me up to be able to be “married” to Christ, but Paul switches it: it’s actually me who dies! Or at least, the part of me that was bound to the Law.
Now, in this part of the letter Paul is writing specifically to his Jewish siblings, so they have literally died to “the Law” – the rules and regulations laid out in the Old Testament, by which they tried to please God. I was never Jewish, and so I was never “bound” to those specific laws, but I was bound to a life in which I was trying to get by on my own works, regardless of what those works were based in (the Law or something else). I’d still apply the point to myself, even if the nuances are different from Paul’s original Jewish readers.
At the end of verse 4 Paul also sneaks in the result of all of this: we will bear fruit for God. Paul isn’t clear what he means by “fruit,” so some will assume he means the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–26✞), others will take this to mean sharing the Gospel to grow the Church, and some would just say that this means living a good life. Whatever it means, it’s another example of Paul seeing no contradiction in proclaiming that we’re saved by faith, not by works, but that we’re saved to do good works.
But that’s an aside; Paul continues in his main point to talk about the fact that we couldn’t have belonged to Christ while we were still living in the flesh:
5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.
It feels overly obvious but I’ll state it again: some of Paul’s original readers would have been equating obedience to the Law with righteousness, and Paul is saying—has been saying for a few passages now—that not only is this not the case, those who were “slaves” to God’s Law were actually guilty of specific sins in addition to the general sinfulness we all exhibit (see 4:13–25 for a more fulsome discussion about this from Paul).
So he’s rephrasing a point he’s already made, but, again, everything in this passage feels more visceral to me: when we were “living in the flesh”—when we were “bound” to the Law—we were “bearing fruit for death.” (See the last passage for more on the wages of sin being death.)
And, again, I’m sure a number of Paul’s Jewish readers would have been taken aback when he describes their zeal for the Law as “sinful passions!” But I think modern Christians should examine our own hearts and see where we have our own “sinful passions” – where there are parts of our hearts that are trying to please God by doing things for Him instead of trusting in Him in faith. It’s the very point Paul has been making over the last six or so chapters: don’t ever “do things” and expect that the result will be salvation or righteousness or to be “good enough” for God. Have faith in God. Then you will “do things” that really are pleasing to Him, because you’re not trying to do it to “buy” salvation, you’re doing it because you love Him and want to be like Him.
Which is exactly what he says next:
6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
I think we understand the concept of being “slaves to sin” much more easily than we understand the concept of being “bound to the Law,” because we view the Law as being a good thing, not a bad thing. (Which it is! In the next passage Paul will talk about the fact that the Law really is a good thing – but because it’s not enough, on its own, to save us, and we’re therefore still sinful, we make it into a bad thing.)
However, if we do come to understand what Paul means by being “bound to the Law,” then we also start to understand that we therefore need to be released from it. If it’s been holding us captive, then we need to “serve in the new way of the Spirit” to have that proper relationship with God.
I mentioned a couple of times that I think of this passage as being more “visceral” than “intellectual.” I could have used the word “emotional,” but in the Western world in which I live we sometimes read that word as being somehow less than “intellectual;” as if immature Christians read the Bible emotionally while mature Christians read it intellectually.
The Bible itself doesn’t make that distinction, however, it makes the case that the whole person needs to follow God, heart and mind and soul and body. So I could have said “emotional” and been quite justified in doing so, but I chose to go with “visceral” instead.
So when I say it’s more visceral than intellectual, does that mean I think it’s better than the intellectual stuff Paul has been writing so far? No! That’s the same problem, just from the opposite perspective! There are people who will read a passage that speaks to the heart and feel it speaking to them more, and there are people who will read a passage that speaks to the mind and feel that speaking to them more, but we all need both kinds of passages to be well-rounded Christians.
Modern Christians and the Law
It’s not Paul’s point, but it’s interesting that so many 21st Century Western Christians want to take up the Law, especially in light of this particular passage! Paul’s point, to his Jewish siblings, is that they’ve died to the law so that they can have a right relationship with God and bear fruit for Him, but a number of modern Christians, who never had the Law in the first place—who started out with faith in Christ—want to add the Law to their faith.
There are other places where Paul speaks to this mindset more directly—not to mention the entire book of Hebrews—but here in this passage where it’s less intellectual and more visceral, it hits home for me very directly.
If they are focused on the Law as a means of trying to get to know God better, to better follow Him, I take no issue with it at all. But we very often try to sneak in a bit of “works righteousness,” too, whereby you can’t be a real Christian unless you have faith and obey the Law, which is not theologically sound.