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? 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. 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. 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. 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. – Romans 7:1-6 ESV
Paul seems to be addressing his words in this section to believing Jews, to “those who know the law.” In order to drive home his point regarding our freedom from sin and the law because of our death with Christ, he appealed to their understanding of how the law worked. According to the law, if a woman attempted to marry another man while her husband was alive, she would be in violation of the law, and would be guilty of committing adultery according to the law. But if her husband were to die and she remarried, she would not be committing adultery. Her husband’s death would have freed her from the condemnation of the law. That particular law would no longer apply in her case.
So it is with those of us who have died with Christ. As Paul stated earlier, “our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6 ESV). Not only has our old self been crucified and put to death, but the condemnation of the law has died as well. That does not mean that when we sin, we are not breaking the law of God. When you lie, you are in violation of God’s command not to lie. When you covet, you are breaking God’s command not to do so. But there is no longer any condemnation. Paul makes that perfectly clear in the very next section of his letter. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 ESV). For those Jews to whom Paul is speaking, their life, prior to coming to know Christ, was marked by a constant need to keep the law of God, perfectly. To not obey His law was to bring the condemnation of the law and with it, death. That is why Paul refers to it as “the law of sin and death.” The law could not save. It could only expose and condemn. It could not sanctify anyone or make them more holy. All it could do was show them their sin. In fact, Paul states that very fact in verse seven of this chapter. “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7 ESV). And as he wrote in chapter six, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). That was the whole purpose behind the sacrificial system. The blood of innocent lambs and bulls had to be shed in order to pay for the sins of men. Breaking of the law brought condemnation and, with it, the sentence of death. And as the author of Hebrews writes, “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).
And speaking to his Jewish brothers again, Paul reminds them that they “have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4 ESV). And like the woman in Paul’s illustration, they have been freed from the law to belong to another – Jesus Christ. They are no longer obligated by the law. They are no longer condemned by the law. They can no longer be sentenced to death as violators of the law, because through their death with Christ, they have been set free from the law. Why? So that “we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4 ESV). Prior to their salvation, Paul’s Jewish brothers found themselves doing battle with the law. While they knew perfectly well what the law demanded of them, their sin natures were “aroused by the law” (Romans 7:5 ESV) and they ended up violating God’s commands. And they ended up producing “fruit for death.” So Paul reminds them of the good news of the gospel: “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” (Romans 7:6 ESV). Now we have the Spirit of God to convict us when we sin. But rather than simply condemning us, He provides us with a new way of responding to our sin. He also provides us with a new capacity to refrain from sinning in the first place. St. Augustine wrote, “The doctrine through which we receive the commandment to lead an abstinent, virtuous life, is the letter. This kills unless there is with it the Spirit, which makes alive” (St. Augustine, Concerning the Spirit and the Letter). Without the help of the indwelling Spirit of God, the law (the letter) can only condemn us to death. But with the Spirit’s help, we can live according to the law, not out of a fear of condemnation or the threat of death, but out of love and gratitude for the grace of God as expressed through the gift of His Son.