Remember that the apostle has laid out the gospel for us, and he is now answering objections. The universal problem is set forth in the first three chapters, and then the glorious gospel in chapters four and five. Beginning in chapter six, he starts anticipating and answering objections. The first is that if we are justified apart from the law, won’t that result in moral chaos? No, Paul says, for we have died with Christ in our baptisms. Now we come to the objection that about the length of the Torah’s dominion. Wasn’t the law supposed to be permanent?
“Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? . . . ” (Rom. 7:1-6).
Summary of the Text
Paul starts here by identifying who he is addressing—those who know and care about the Torah (v. 1). If we are justified by faith alone, then what is the role of the law? The first question here has to do with the extent of the Torah’s authority. The second question, addressed in the rest of chapter seven, has to do with the point of the Torah. If it did not justify, then what was it for then? Now Paul’s point here is that the Torah does not have authority over men who have died (v. 1). We have to follow him closely here because his illustration is a complex one. A woman is bound to her husband by the Torah as long as he is alive, but his death releases her (v. 2). She is guilty of adultery if she marries another man with her first husband still alive, but if he has died, she is free to remarry (v. 3). In a similar way, we are dead to the Torah because of the body of Christ (v. 4). This frees us to marry another—that one being Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. This was done so that we could be fruitful before God (v. 4). When we were “in the flesh,” married to the old man, the Torah stirred up the “motions of sins,” and the result was “fruit unto death” (v. 5). So now that we have remarried, we are delivered from that Torah, that condition in which we bore fruit to death (v. 6). The result is that we may now serve in the newness of the Spirit (v. 6), and not in the oldness of the letter (v. 6).
Who Is Who?
In order to grasp Paul’s point here, we have to be careful to correctly identify the characters in his illustration. Who is who exactly? We are the woman, and our husband was the old Adam. He was the federal head of the entire human race (Rom. 5: ), and his sin meant that we, married to him, bore fruit to death. The Torah is not the husband in this illustration—the law is holy, righteousness and good (Rom. 7:12). But a good law can bind a woman to a bad man. The law holds people to their covenants, even when those covenants are destructive. A good law can insist that death must beget death (v. 5). Note that in this illustration, the woman cannot just walk away from Adam, even to marry Christ. Adam must die in order for her to be free (Rom. 6:5). Adam died in the new Adam, so that the human race could be married in the new resurrected Adam, walking in newness of life, while remaining truly human. The Torah faithfully required us to beget according to our marriage vows, and God in His grace enabled us to bear fruit in another way. So this means that humanity is the woman, her first husband is Adam, and her new husband is Christ. The Torah held us fast to our first husband, which is not the same thing as approving of our first husband.
Note carefully how Paul discusses the issues of death here. Who dies? The first husband dies (v. 2). If the first husband dies, his wife is free to remarry (v. 3). Christ died, which is implied by the fact that He rose from the dead (v. 4). Because Christ died and rose, we are dead to the law (v. 4). A wife whose husband has died is not a dead woman, but as far as the laws of marriage are concerned, she is dead to the law, and the law is dead to her. The law that held us to our first husband is dead in that respect (v. 6).
As will become apparent shortly, Paul is not saying that the standards of righteousness are now waived or abrogated (Rom. 6:14; 13: 8-10). He is talking about a particular aspect of Torah, that which regulates marriage unions and the issue born from such marriage unions.
The Jews who were still in Adam were bound to him by the Torah. The Gentiles who were in Adam were bound to him by the law of the heavens, seen in every clear night sky. The Jews were bound by Torah, the Gentiles by natural revelation, and the two of them together bore fruit to death. Now of course, the Jews of the Old Testament who walked by faith (Heb. 11) did not bear fruit to death—they were looking forward to Christ. And in the same way, the many Gentiles of the Old Testament who walked by faith did not bear fruit to death either. Men like Melchizedek, Jethro, or Namaan walked before God.
It is too easy for us to caricature the “old” man. The fact that our first marriage resulted in so much death and despair should not make us think that it was cartoon evil. Our first husband did not rampage through brothels and taverns talking like a pirate. This kind of thing of course happens in a fallen world, but the really serious temptations came from our first husband at his respectable best. The kingdoms that came from him were glorious enough to present a significant temptation to the second Adam (Matt. 4:8), and the angelic being who led him astray appears as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Recall t hat Paul is making this point over the objections of those who “knew the law.” They were better than the unwashed Gentiles; that was a given. They were chosen. They were religious. They were respectable. And they were just as married to Adam as anybody else.
Fruitful or Fussy?
Notice that in this passage, Paul contrasts two husbands, death and life, fruit to death and fruit to life, and, right at the end, Spirit and letter (v. 6). He does this elsewhere, and we do well to understand it. He is not condemning letters as such because he wrote the contrast of Spirit and letter with letters. But those who have those letters only are still married to the first Adam—and the fruit to death they consistently bear proves it.
But those who receive the letters of the New Testament (and the Old) in the power of the Spirit are not bibliolaters (Jn. 5:39). When the Spirit is at work in you, you bear fruit organically. If when you try to grow your apples, the trunk shakes and the branches clank and smoke, something is obviously wrong. We serve, that is true (v. 6), but we serve in newness of Spirit. This is life. This is regeneration. This is grace and mercy, and peace. This is righteousness hanging heavy on the branches, given to you. We are talking about the fruit of the Spirit; we are not talking about crawling over the broken glass of rules for the Spirit. Our first marriage was full of turmoil. But now we are invited to be at peace.