Paul already proclaimed Christians’ freedom from bondage to the law, having told his readers we “are not under law but under grace” (6:14). How we gained this freedom from the law is the subject of these four verses. It should come as no surprise that our deliverance from the law came from the same source that also released us from death (see chapter 5) and from sin (see chapter 6)—the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and our union with him in death and resurrection. In dying with Christ, we died to both sin and the law.
These four verses contain a statement of a principle (verse 1), an illustration of the principle (verses 2 and 3), and the conclusion of the passage (verse 4).What law?
This is the same law Paul referenced in 6:14–15, which is clearly the Mosaic law. He addresses “those who know the law,” and in the Roman church they included, at the very least, Jews who had converted to Christ. In addition, some Gentiles may have been God-fearers who were taught the Mosaic law in the synagogue. Other Gentiles may have been aware of the OT marriage laws through contact with their fellow believers in the first groups.
Regardless, Paul’s conclusion in verse 4 applies to all believers, because Israel’s experience with the Mosaic law is emblematic of humanity’s subjection to natural law (see 5:13–14).Untangling the illustration
Paul assumes his readers are aware of the general principle that any law, and specifically the Mosaic law, ceases to apply to a person upon his or her death. This is particularly the case with marriage. If a married man dies, his wife is released from the law of marriage and is free to marry another man (see 1 Corinthians 7:39). The point is simple enough to understand, but Paul’s use of this illustration gets complicated, so some explanation is helpful.
The illustration will be easier to understand by keeping in mind the truth from chapter 6 that we died through our union with Christ. Now the apostle will show how this truth changed our relationship with the law. And here are three further clues:
- The woman represents us (believers in Christ).
- What the first husband represents can be easily misunderstood.
- The other man (the woman’s second husband) represents Christ.
Not all the details of Paul’s illustration in verses 2 and 3 are relevant to the conclusion in verse 4, and it is especially important to note what the multiple deaths represent. That the woman represents Christians is clear. She doesn’t die, but we in a sense did.
But what, if anything, does the first husband’s death signify?
The illustration is not so simple as to suggest a mere transfer of the woman’s relationship from one husband, who would represent the law, to another husband, who is Christ. The first husband cannot represent the law, because the law does not die. So we must conclude that the first husband’s death is relevant only as an illustration of the general principle that a death releases a person from the authority of the law. Paul was not bothered by a lack of correspondence between the details of his illustration and some facts of his conclusion.Released from the law by death
The point of all this is obvious. Verse 4 establishes the key theological point that we died to the law through our death with Christ so that through his resurrection we may now belong to him. The “another” we are now married to is Jesus Christ. The law’s authority over unbelievers remains intact, but for believers it has been broken. Some qualifications must be made, however.
New covenant law
The authority of the law to condemn us has ended, but there is much about the Old Testament law that remains to instruct us. For this reason, Douglas Moo concludes that to be dead to the law means to be delivered from the “power-sphere” of the Mosaic law as a system. But our obligation to obey the law’s ethical teachings continues.
Moo points to Paul’s teaching that we are “still ‘under law’ in the broader sense—still obligated to certain commandments.” For example, Moo refers to Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:19 and 9:20–22, and he points to particular commandments of the Mosaic law now reapplied as “new covenant law” (Romans 8:4 and 13:8–10).
Now freed from the law that condemned us, we “bear fruit for God.” This is the fruit we bear as “slaves of God” that leads to our sanctification (6:22). As Jesus taught his disciples, if we are to bear fruit we must abide in him. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). We live for Christ by the power of the Spirit to bring glory to our Father.