I must admit that I’ve wrestled with this passage more than almost any other I have come across. The reason? The illustrations and the words that Paul uses are almost impossible at first glance (and second, and third, and fourth) to reconcile.
The first part he says is pretty clear. He says,
Do you not know, brothers–for I am speaking to men who know the law–that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? (1)
That’s common sense. I have to pay taxes as long as I live under Japan law. But the day I die, it no longer has authority over me. Now, the Japan government will still want my money, but they can’t walk up to my dead body and say, “Pay up!” They’ll have to bother my wife. The law has authority over her at that point, not me.
And so Paul says later,
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (6)
What does it mean, “by dying to what once bound us?” Is this in reference to the law? Or our dying to sin? I kind of guess both. In chapter 6 verse 2, Paul specifically tells us, “We died to sin.”
What does that mean?
When the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, the Egyptians had no power to control the Israelites any more, separated as they were by the Red Sea. The Israelites were effectively dead to the Egyptians and their old lives as slaves were over. In a sense, their old selves that had been slaves were left in that sea and they came out entirely new people, free to serve God and walk in relationship with him.
In the same way, when we become Christians, and pass through the water of baptism into Christ (I mean this spiritually, although we act it out in the physical rite of baptism), sin lost its power to control us. We are effectively dead to sin, and our lives as its slaves is over. Our old selves are left in that water of baptism, and we come out totally new people, free to serve God and walk in relationship with him.
But when that happens, the law no longer serves any use to us. It was our “tutor,” as Galatians puts it, that was meant to lead us to faith in Christ. (Galatians 3:24) But when we came to believe in Christ, its work was done and so we “died” to it as well. So we no longer live our lives focusing on keeping God’s law. Rather we walk each day, focused on on our relationship with God, and letting him lead us each day through the Holy Spirit. More on that when we hit Romans 8.
At any rate, I think this dual idea of us dying to sin and our dying to the law as a result is where a lot of this confusion in Romans chapter 7 comes from. Because Paul talks about dying to the law and people naturally connect that to verses 2-3. But that totally messes up the picture when you try to see it that way. Here were my thoughts (literally) as I sorted through this.
“So, we died to the law. That means we are the husband and the law is the wife, right? No, that can’t be right. Because Paul says with the husband gone, the wife is free to marry Christ. The Law marries Christ? No, Paul says we marry Christ.”
“So is the law the husband, and we are the wife? No, because the law doesn’t die, we die.”
And so on and so forth.
In short, we have an inveritable mess. So how do we interpret this?
More on this next time.