(Rom. 7:6) In what sense are Christians “released from the Law”?

Some interpreters believe that the Law is helpful for spiritual growth for Christians. For instance, Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof writes, “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large… The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians.”[1]

They believe that the Law is a “means of grace,” which helps us to grow spiritually. Therefore, they interpret Paul’s statement about being “released from the Law” in a multitude of ways.

  1. “Released from the Law” = Justification? Paul cannot be saying that we are freed from the Law for our justification, because he already addressed this subject exhaustively in Romans chapters 1-5. The context of Romans 7 is clearly sanctification. Verse 5 states that we used to “bear fruit for death” and verse 6 states, “we serve in newness of the Spirit.” This is the language of sanctification—not justification. Moreover, Old Testament saints were always justified by faith—apart from the works of the Law, so this cannot be the change that Paul is talking about here.
  2. “Released from the Law” = Ceremonial or Civil Law? Paul cannot be referring to the Old Testament ceremonial or civil Law, either. We know that he has the moral law in mind, because he mentions the 10th commandment (“You shall not covet…”) in verse 7.
  3. “Released from the Law” = Sanctification? Paul must be saying that Christian believers are released from the Law in regards to sanctification.

After Christ came, it is clear that something changed in our ability to grow with God (Jn. 1:17; Gal. 3:24-25). The Bible teaches that Christians are no longer punished for breaking God’s Law (i.e. justification), but in addition to this, it also teaches that focusing on the Law is detrimental to our spiritual growth with God (i.e. sanctification). Paul writes that Christians are “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). In Galatians, Paul asks if “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). In context, he is referring to focusing on the Law (Gal. 2:18-3:2). The author of Hebrews writes of the “weakness and uselessness” of the Law, which “made nothing perfect” (Heb. 7:18-19). Paul refers to the Law as the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7).

The NT authors would never refer to the other means of growth in this way. Could we ever imagine someone referring to prayer or Bible study as “weak” or “useless” or “the ministry of death”? Clearly, a focus on the Law is not healthy for spiritual growth. In fact, the law produces more sin in the life of the believer and non-believer alike (Rom. 5:20; 7:5, 8; 1 Cor. 15:56).

On the other hand, the Law isn’t evil or bad. Paul would shutter at the thought that the Law was somehow sinful. In fact, he says, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (Rom. 7:7 ESV) The Law is similar to pure oxygen. By itself, oxygen isn’t bad. In fact, it’s good! But, when combined with a spark, it can be hazardous. In the same way, the Law is good, but when it combines with our flesh, it produces a sinful effect. While the Law does not aid spiritual growth, it still serves a number of purposes now that Jesus has come:

First, the Law leads us to be justified by faith in Christ. The Law reveals sin, and it teaches us that we are in need of grace (Gal. 3:24-25; Rom. 3:19-20).

Second, the Law exposes and defines sin. While this cannot help us to break these sin habits, the Law can teach us right from wrong. It can expose our problem (Rom. 7:7).

Third, the Law breaks self-reliance. This is the final reason that God gives us the Law. It helps to break us of our own self-reliance and helps us focus on the power of God (Gal. 2:19-20).

[1] Emphasis mine. Louis Berkhof Systematic Theology (p.614-615).