What does it mean to be dead to the law? – Romans 7:1-6

At the beginning of chapter 7, the apostle launching into an argument that those who belong to Christ have died to the law.  He starts off with a general principle in verse 1 followed by an analogy in verses 2-3.  The general principle is that “the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives.”  The analogy is how the law operates with respect to the marriage bond.  The law of marriage is binding for the wife as long as the husband lives; it is only dissolved by death.  Though we shouldn’t press every detail in the analogy, the overall idea is clear: just as a wife cannot begin a new relationship with another man unless a death takes place (in this case, the husband’s), we cannot enter into a new relationship with God through Christ unless a death takes place (in this case, ours).  This is exactly what the apostle says has happened to his readers: “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” (7:4).  One of the things Christ accomplished on the cross (this is the reference to “the body of Christ”) is that we have died to the law “in order that we may bear fruit to God.”  The believer is dead to the law.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in Romans 6 the apostle makes this tremendous case that the Christian is dead to sin through Christ.  Indeed, he has insisted that this is a necessary component of what it means to be a Christian.  If you belong to Christ, if you are united to him and his redemptive accomplishment, then you have died to sin through him.  Now, in the very next chapter, the apostle insists that the Christian is dead to the law.  This at first sight might seem contradictory – how is it that we are dead and sin and dead to the law at the same time?  Isn’t holiness defined by God’s law, and if so, how could we be dead to sin unless we are also alive to the law of God?

This brings us face to face with the question of how we as followers of Christ ought to relate to the law of God.  If we are dead to the law, is there any sense in which we are to relate to God’s law?  In this message, I am going to make the case that being dead to the law means that we no longer obey God through the meager resources of the flesh but through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, given to us in Christ.  A corollary of this fact is that we should never think that being a Christian means that there is no place for law in our life.  It is law apart from the Spirit of God that Paul is inveighing against here, not law absolutely.

One of the reasons it is so important to make this point is that throughout the ages, many have gotten it into their heads that being dead to the law means that the Christian is to be guided solely by means of the influence of the Spirit apart from any external authority, like the written word of God.  One thinks of the Quakers, for instance.  But there are variations of this in every part of the Christian world.  Christians can easily down-play the importance of God’s word speaking into their life in favor of the view that they need only be guided by the whispers of the Spirit in their heart.

The problem with such a view, of course, is how one in that position can infallibly recognize the whispers of the Spirit over the deceptions of the flesh.  The fact of the matter is that we need someone else speaking into our lives, arguing with us and correcting us when we go wrong.  Because we will inevitably go wrong.  And the primary voice we need speaking into our lives is that of the word of God, which we know is infallibly given to us in the pages of Scripture.

Another problem with this view is that it inevitably sinks very quickly to a lowest common denominator type of holiness.  It is always easy to justify questionable and downright sinful behaviors in the name of being against legalism.  It is hard not the get the impression that when people say they don’t want to be legalistic, what they really mean is that they want to be the final arbiters of what is right or wrong for them.  Anything else, they say, is legalism.  And aren’t we dead to the law?  So the argument goes.  Again, this is a problem, because the Bible gets very specific about how we are to live, not just in the Mosaic Law, but also pages of the New Testament.  We will speak more to this in a moment, but for now I register the observation in order to point out the danger with such a view.

When we use God’s law wrongly: legalism.

Now there are types of legalism that are dangerous.  One type of legalism is requiring people to live in certain ways that are not either explicitly or implicitly prescribed by God’s word to us.  In the times of the early church, there were some in the church who wanted everyone to live according to the Jewish dietary laws laid down in the Law of Moses and to observe the holy days prescribed in the Mosaic Law.  Paul deals with this in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9.  He argues that these laws no longer apply to the Christian and that it is a matter of liberty whether or not to incorporate these restrictions into their lives.  Now he also makes the important point, which I want to briefly point out in passing, that Christian liberty is never to be used as an excuse to cause someone else to stumble.  Our liberty becomes sin when our liberty causes someone else to sin.

So, for example, though I don’t believe it is wrong to drink alcohol – though it is clearly wrong to become drunk or to drink to excess – yet I would never drink around someone who struggles with alcoholism.  This is the reason, by the way, why here at Shiloh we recently switched from alcoholic wine to non-alcoholic grape juice.  I don’t want other believers who have and are currently struggling with alcoholism to be led into sin because of an ordinance which is meant to encourage faith, not destroy it.

So that is one kind of legalism.  Now some interpreters of this text think that this is what the apostle is referring to here.  They think that Paul is saying that we are no longer under the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law, or, as it is more popular to put it today, that we are no longer subject to those aspects of the Law which were boundary markers, which separated Jew from Gentile, like the rite of circumcision.  That is what Paul means, they argue, when he says that we have died to the law.  

But this is not what Paul is referring to here.  We can see that he is not, because in verse 7 he refers to the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet.”  That is clearly not one of those boundary markers, but rather is a part of what is sometimes called the moral law of God, which is unchanging and unrestricted to just one nation.  Clearly, coveting is wrong no matter who is guilty of it or when they were guilty of it.  

To sum up, Paul is not referring to that type of legalism which adds burdens to people which God never intended them to bear.  We know this because the law to which he is referring to here is not something which has gone away.  It was wrong to covet before Jesus came and it is still wrong to covet.

But there is another type of legalism.  We have stumbled into legalism when we seek to be saved by our observance of God’s law.  It is important, by the way, to note the difference between these two different types of legalism.  The former takes away liberty.  This form takes away grace and is far more deadly and dangerous.  And though they often go together (as they did in the Galatian churches), they don’t necessarily do so (for example, in the Roman or Corinthian churches which seem to have struggled with the first but not the second kind of legalism that I have described here).

Now I think this is closer to what Paul is referring to here.  We noted, when we looked at Romans 6:14, that to be “under the law” means – at least in part – to be the kind of person who is seeking to be justified  by the law.  We noted that this is the way the apostle uses the phrase in Galatians 4 and 5, for example.  Therefore, to be dead to the law, means – at least in part – to be dead to seeking to be justified by the law of God.  It means that we are not like those Paul mentions in Romans 10:3, of those who “being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own . . . did not submit to God’s righteousness.”  

Now some dispute this, because of what Paul writes in verses 4-6.  In these verses, he links being dead to the law with bearing fruit for God and serving God.  In other words, Paul links being dead to the law with sanctification, not justification.  However, as we pointed out in our message on Rom. 6:14, we have to be in a right relationship with God before we can live the kind of life he expects of us.  Justification must precede sanctification.  Being right with God is necessary for living right before God.  Christianity is not first and foremost a program for cleaning your life up.  It is first and foremost about reestablishing a relationship with your Creator and living in harmony with him.  But even if we want to clean our life up, that is impossible apart from a relationship with God through Christ, who by his power delivers us from the power of sin over our life.  We cannot proceed with sanctification without the power of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit will never abide in those who are under condemnation by God, so we must be justified before we can be sanctified.  To be dead to the law, therefore, at least means that we no longer stand condemned by the law and are in a right relationship with God and thus enabled to bring forth fruit unto God.

Why we must be delivered from the law.

However, what I claimed at the beginning is that being dead to law means primarily that we no longer obey God in the power of the flesh but through the enabling of the Spirit of God.  Why do I say that?  I do so because of at least two contrasts which apostle makes in these verses.

The first contrast is the contrast between the old and new covenants.  You see, the law that Paul is referring to in these verses, is not law in general, but to a particular law, to the law that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, the first covenant.  We know this because Paul refers explicitly, as we have already pointed out, to the tenth commandment.  He also has referred to the Mosaic Law repeatedly in the previous chapters (2:12-13; 2:17-3:8; 3:31; 4:13-15; 5:20-21; 6:14).  This is an important point to make because the Bible makes it very clear that this covenant did not have the power to enable obedience to its commands (cf. Jer. 31:31,ff).  Paul is referring to this aspect of the law in verses 5 and 6 when he says, “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.  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.”  We have noted this before: the law as such could command, and though its commands were good, they were powerless to create the obedience that they demanded.  When the apostle says that were are delivered or released from the law, therefore, what he means is that we are no longer living under a covenant that could only stir up the sins that it forbad.

In other words, when we read the word “law” in Paul, we shouldn’t think that Paul was against law as such.  He is not saying that we are delivered to live in any way that we please.  He is not saying that it is unspiritual to obey commandments.  He is not even saying that it is spiritually immature to live in obedience to a written code.  Rather, he is referring to the Law of Moses as that covenant which established conditions under which the Israelites entered into a relationship with God.  This covenant did not establish a necessarily saving relationship with God, but it did create Israel as the people of God on earth.  Though the law pointed to the gospel, it did not create a gospel-community, but a people who related to God on the basis of written rules and regulations.  It was an external covenant in the sense that God was speaking to people though the law without creating within them that heart of flesh that would willingly obey him.  It is in this sense that Paul is saying we are delivered from the law.

We also know that Paul is not referring to law as such because he says that being delivered from the law means that we are free to serve God (ver. 6).  But what does it mean to serve God?  God does not stand beside you as your buddy.  He certainly does not stand beneath you as your inferior.  He stands above you as your King.  To serve God, therefore, doesn’t simply mean to do things for him.  In any case, we don’t serve God as if he needed anything (Acts 17:25) since he is God-All-Sufficient (Gen. 17:1).  The only way a creature can serve his Creator is by living in worshipful submission to him.  And that necessarily means living in obedience to his commands.  But you can’t have commands without law.

Therefore, since we have died to the law in order to serve God, freedom from the law cannot mean freedom from law in every sense.  It cannot mean that commandments have no place in the life of the Christian.  Rather, it means that we no longer serve and relate to God in a covenant which gives us a law but no power to obey that law.

This is most clearly seen in the words, “so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code [literally, ‘letter’].”  Again, here Paul is not setting being spiritual against obedience to written commands.  Rather, he is setting in contrast the Old with the New Covenants.  The apostle makes this explicit in 2 Cor. 3:5-6, when he writes that “our sufficiency is of God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  We are made members of the new covenant by the Spirit of God who takes God’s law and writes it in our hearts so that we love the One we are commanded to obey.  The old covenant kills because it can only condemn.  The Spirit, on the other hand, raises us from a spiritual death and makes us alive in Christ Jesus so that we are enabled to pursue obedience to God’s commands with alacrity and joy.

This is confirmed by another very important contrast in verse 5: “For while we were in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”  We not only have the contrast between Spirit and law, between old and new covenants, but also between being dead to the law and being in the flesh.  Though “flesh” can have a neutral meaning, it mostly in Paul carries a very negative connotation.  Flesh plus law, in Paul’s mind, equals rebellion (cf. Rom. 8:7-8).  Being dead to the law means that we are no longer in the flesh.  The point Paul is making is not that we have somehow become free to live apart from law, but that we no longer live in the flesh.  What does that mean?

Paul will explain more fully in chapter 8, but being “in the flesh” is the opposite of being “in the Spirit.”  It is a reference to those who are still dead in sins, who are controlled by sinful passions.  

This shows that what Paul is driving at has little to do with freedom from law in the sense of freedom from commandments.  Rather it has to do with freedom from the dominating power of sin in the life.  We have died to the law so that we might be enabled to truly do God’s will in our lives.

It is important that we keep in mind how this has happened.  It has happened “through the body of Christ.”  He is the one who delivers us from the miserable existence of slavery to sin, of being in the position of hearing God’s commandments and having no power to keep them – indeed, having no desire or will to keep them.  Christ has not just brought us to the place where we have the opportunity to respond to his will, but he brings us to the place where we want to respond to his will.  

How law functions for our good.

What this means is that law functions for our good when we have been made alive by God’s Spirit and made new by the grace of God.  Paul will say in verse 22, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.”  In 8:4, he tells us that Christ died for our sins “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”  In other words, one of the very reasons why our Lord died is so that God’s law might function in our lives as it ought.  The law is not something bad – it is something very good.  It is God’s will for our life; and when that will is incorporated into our lives, it brings about fruit for God.

There is the idea in our society that law is just bad.  I read a book once in which the author came perilously close to saying that government is inherently bad.  That is not what God’s word has to say.  In fact, the very thing we as believers hope and long for is not freedom from government but that God’s government might encompass the entire earth: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever” (Rev. 11:15).  “Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns” (Rev. 19:6).  But this is just another way of saying that we want our lives more and more to reflect God’s law.

Part of the reason why people think law is bad is that we think of laws as limiting us and restricting our freedom.  But the reality is that without some boundaries we cannot be truly free.  A fish might think that it is being restricted unnecessarily by being required to live in the sea.  But it is the sea in which a fish finds true freedom.  Plop it up on land and it dies.  In the same way, God’s law gives us the boundaries within which we will truly find life.  Freedom is not found outside of God’s law but by obedience to it: “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!” (Ps. 112:1).

When we look in the wider context of the New Testament as a whole, we see that law does indeed play a part in the life of Christian obedience.  Paul will explain to the Corinthians, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)” (1 Cor. 9:21).  Here Paul makes it explicit that though the Christian is no longer under the law of Moses (and is therefore free to engage Gentiles in their own context), that does not mean that the Christian is not under law in any sense.  He is under the law of Christ.

Another way to see this is that everyone, Christian or not, is obligated to do the will of God.  The Lord’s Prayer did not somehow become obsolete once the gospel started being preached.  In that prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  And then, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord put it this way: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21).  But how do we know the will of God?  Is it not in his law?  Is it not in the commandments which come to us through the word of God?  

In 1 Cor. 14:37, Paul makes this observation: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.”  Here we are shown that being spiritual and obeying written commands of God, far from being in opposition to each other are concomitants of each other.  The bottom line is that you simply can’t be spiritual if you are fundamentally unwilling to bend your heart to the written word of God, which operates as his law in our life.

The apostle John will say, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.  And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).  Here again we see put together what many people tend to hold in opposition.  People will argue that love is incompatible with law.  But here John argues the very opposite: if you love God then you will also love his commandments.  You will not find them to be grievous but the delight and desire of your soul and heart.

The problem is that we too often see God’s law in the way the devil wants us to see it.  When we see God’s law as restrictive (as in, isn’t God being evil for not letting you eat this very good Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?), then we are looking at it in exactly the wrong way.  God’s law is not there to make us miserable; it is there to make us truly happy.  God’s law is God’s word of wisdom and love to show us the way in which we will find true freedom and peace.  It’s not there to keep from things that would make us happy; rather, it is there to deliver us from those things which would deceive us into making us believe they are good for us when in reality they lead to death.

The apostle James has this delightful description of God’s law: he calls it the “law of liberty” (Jam. 2:12).  That’s what it is: God’s law is a law of liberty because it shows us how free men and women live.  To stray from its path is not to find freedom but to wander into a prison of our own making.

How then do we relate to the law of God?  We relate to the law through Christ – not as a list to gain merit but as a way to express my love to him.  Not by obeying in the strength of depraved flesh, but by the help of the Spirit of Christ.  And certainly not by refusing to let the law of God have any place in my life.  Let it have its good and proper place – as that perfect law of liberty, the law of Christ.


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