What Does it Mean to be “Dead to the Law”?

By Elder Enoch Ofori Jnr

“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” (Rom. 7:4 ESV).

Using the analogy of marriage, Paul argues that just as death releases a wife from being legally bound to her dead husband, so believers have died to the law so that we will be joined to Christ.  The plain meaning, of course, is that believers are no longer under the power or control of the law, just as a spouse is not bound to her husband or wife upon the natural cessation of marriage by death.

But is Christ against the law? Is His nature contrary to the law of God which forbids divorce as long as both spouses are alive? (See Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 7:12). The analogy itself argues against such possibility. In Christ and in life, a wife is indeed bound to her husband as long as he lives (1 Cor. 7:39)–something the analogy, taken at face value, argues against, if we are to conclude from the text that the law of God is no longer binding on the Christian. Thus we see that the analogy only serves illustrative purposes and not a fact of life in Christ nor meant to advance a doctrinal position that believers are free to disobey God’s law, including committing adultery. Read more

Indeed, right from verse 1, Paul takes it for granted that the brethren in Rome are familiar with the Law of God and that they know it to have “dominion over a man [or ‘person’ which they were] as long as he liveth” (KJV).  He then goes on to cite the seventh commandment of God’s Ten Commandment Law forbidding adultery as one example of how the Law is binding on a person as long as he or she lives (vv. 1-2).  Far from being abolished, the breaking of this commandment still invites God’s severe judgment and condemnation: “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled, but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).

In fact, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom the Father has committed all judgment (John 5:22), makes the very sensual desire (lust) leading to adultery equally condemnable: “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28 RV).

So then, the whole point of Rom. 7:4 is that, instead of trying to be under the law in a vain attempt to keep it by our own efforts through the flesh (v. 5), we are to be controlled by Christ who used His body as a sin-offering to pay for our transgressions and also empowers us to obey the Law (8:3-4). This way, we are able to “serve” God (which is never through disobedience but through obedience to His law) “in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (v. 6 ESV).

Left on our own, in the strength of our flesh (which is how all live before coming to Christ), it’s simply impossible to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law. This is because the Law, instead of stirring obedience, rather meets an uncooperative attitude in the flesh–indeed a stubborn opposition–provoking “sinful passions” in our bodies as a manifestation of the rebellion of the flesh against the Law of God (Rom. 8:7). That is why the Apostle notes in verse 5: “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” (ESV).

But then, we have been freed from the flesh as believers (8:8-9) and thence released from the condemnation of the Law arising from our inability to use our vain human (fleshly) strength to keep the Law. The result is that we now “serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter” (v. 6). Lest anyone mistakes him for condemning the Law, Paul states in verse 7, correcting any such impression: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet”.

Expressed differently, Paul says ‘may it never be’ that God’s Law is evil worthy of condemnation. So then, it’s the mode of keeping the Law that has been changed from one of keeping it by the flesh, which invariably results in disobedience and death, to one of keeping it by the Spirit, which results in obedience and life (see 2 Cor. 3:3-17). This is the salient theme the Apostle addresses in the rest of the chapter: the Law arousing in the flesh the negative reaction of  gross disobedience leading to death (vv. 7-11, 13-15, 17-21) but in the “inner being” or spirit, willingness to obey (vv. 16, 18, 22, 25).

Thus, overall, “the Law [even under ‘the Dispensation of Grace’] is holy and righteous and good” (v. 12) as well as “spiritual”, but the problem is that man is of the flesh (carnal) enslaved to sin (v. 14; cp Gal. 5:16-17). The solution is to be born or led by the Spirit of God, which puts to death the deeds of the flesh (8:13-14; cp John 1:12-13) producing in us the God-like fruit of holiness and righteousness (Heb. 12:9-11; Rom. 6:5-13).  It’s at this point that the believer is said to be “dead to the Law” in the sense of its power to condemn, because he now serves God in the new way of the Spirit which ALWAYS produces obedience, not in the old way of the flesh which ALWAYS produces disobedience, even though one fully knows the demands of the written Law!

This understanding fits in with the general plan of Paul’s Letter to the Romans which has “Justification by Faith” as its broad theme and divided as follows:

1. Chapters 1-2, the depravity of fallen man, Jew and Gentile alike.

2. Chapters 3-5, God by His grace makes justification available to all through faith

3. Chapters 6-8, Justification demands/leads to sanctification

4. Chapters 9-11, Israel, God’s chosen people and their temporary fall and restoration

5. Chapter 12, Christian service

6. Chapter 13, Civil duty

7. Chapter 14, Christian ‘modus vivendi’ in the face of controversy and contrary opinions

8. Chapters 15-16, Epilogue.

Prepared for Leaders’ Seminar Bible Class

Date: October 8, 2011

Seventh Day Pentecostal Assemblies, Esreso, Kumasi, Ghana, W/A