Commentary on Romans 7:1-6

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Or do you not know, brothers and sisters (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law is lord over a person as long as he lives?

The phrase “do you not know” introduces teaching which Paul assumes his readers are familiar with. He is elaborating on his assertion that Christians are not “under law” (6:14). “Those who know the law” could refer to Jews or Gentiles who know the Law of Moses. The principle that his audience knows is that “the law is lord over a person as long as he lives”. Interestingly, this principle is similar to a maxim of the rabbis: “if a person is dead, he is free from the Torah and the fulfilling of the commandments” (b. Shabb. 30a, Shabb. 151b bar.).

Significantly, the verb κυριεύειν (kyrieuein, to rule) used in Rom. 6:9 and 14 of the lordship of death and sin is related here to the law. Paul is not referring merely to the rule of the law in an abstract sense but to its connection with the lordship of death and sin. This observation is supported by 6:14–15, which conjoins being under the law with being under the rule of sin. The lordship of law envisioned here, therefore, is “a baneful thing, a mark of man’s state of bondage within the present age” (Dunn 1988a: 359). Paul is probably thinking particularly of the history of Israel in which the rule of law and the dominion of sin were coordinate.1

2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage. 3 So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress.

Verses 2-3 serve as an illustration of the principle from verse 1: “the law is lord over a person as long as he lives”. This illustration is not an allegory for the Christian. It merely illustrates that death frees one from the law and enables one to enter into a new relationship.

4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God.

Like the woman in verses 2-3, a death has severed the Christian from the Law’s authority and enabled him to be joined to another, Jesus Christ. The believer is transferred from the old realm to the new. To “die to the law” means to no longer live under its authority or power (cf. Gal 2:19).

But how could it be said of Gentile converts that they would need to “die to the law”? In order to evade this problem, some expositors suggest that the “law” in 7:4 is moral law generally or that the “brothers” whom Paul addresses in this passage are exclusively Jewish Christians. But neither solution is acceptable. While Paul never makes the matter clear, we suggest that Paul views the Jewish experience with the Mosaic law as paradigmatic for the experience of all people with “law.” Israel stands in redemptive history as a kind of “test case,” and its relationship with the law is ipso facto applicable to the relationship of all people with that “law” which God has revealed to them (cf. 2:14–15). In 7:4, then, while being “put to death to the law” is strictly applicable only to Jewish Christians, Paul can affirm the same thing of the whole Roman community because the experience of Israel with the Mosaic law is, in a transferred sense, also their experience. And, of course, Paul also wants to make clear that, in the new era, in which righteousness is revealed “apart from the law” (cf. 3:21), Gentiles have no need to come under the law to become full-fledged members of the people of God.2

The body of Christ on the cross is the instrument through which the believer dies to the law (cf. Eph 2:13-15; Col 1:22; 2:14). To “bear fruit to God” is to live a life of righteousness and obedience.

5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.

In this verse, “in the flesh” refers to one’s pre-Christian life (cf. Gal 5:13-24). The “flesh” (sarx) is viewed as a power of the old age.

The NIV’s ‘the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us’, when translated literally, is ‘the sinful passions that were at work through the law in our members’. What Paul is saying is not that the sinful passions were aroused by the law but that they were at work through the law. He is not blaming the law but showing that it was, as it were, the unwilling means through which sinful passions were at work. This is something that Paul will spell out in 7:7ff. Suffice it to say here that for Paul the law, far from being an effective deterrent to sin, was actually laid under tribute by sinful passions prior to our conversion to bring us into greater bondage.3

6 But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.

Christ’s death is the agent of liberation from the law. As before, the law is seen as a power.

There have been many misinterpretations of Paul’s meaning here and in Rom. 2.29 and 2 Cor. 3.6. In all three places, “the contrast between ‘Spirit’ and ‘letter’ has nothing to do with several popularizations of this language, e.g., between the ‘spirit and the letter’ of the law, or between ‘literal and spiritual’! This is eschatological and covenantal language. ‘Letter’ has to do with the old covenant, that came to an end through Christ and the Spirit. As 2 Cor. 3.6 makes clear, the new covenant is a covenant characterized by the effective presence of the Spirit.” The issue here then is not hermeneutics but salvation history. The era of the Torah covenant is over. The era of the new covenant, characterized by the full endowment of the Spirit, has dawned. The contrast between old and new could hardly be more clearly drawn, and this prepares for what follows in chs. 7-8.4

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 7063-7067 
  2. Moo 1996, 417 
  3. Kruse 2012, 295 
  4. Witherington III 2004, 177 
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