Romans 7:1-3, “Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.”
Our study of Romans 6 over the past several weeks has focused on the doctrine of sanctification—the process by which the Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ in holiness. In this, we have seen that Paul sometimes speaks of sanctification as if it leads to eternal life (2:6–11; 6:22), and we must not misinterpret him on this point. Since the Apostle emphasizes our sin, our refusal to fear God apart from the Spirit’s work, the opposition of faith and works in justification, and the free gift of eternal life (3:9–18; 4:4–5; 6:23), we know that the holiness that results from our sanctification cannot be the meritorious basis for salvation. Our obedience to the Lord can in no way earn heaven for us. Eternal life is secured by Christ and granted to us in our justification, which is an act of sheer grace on God’s part.
That does not mean there is no sense in which sanctification leads to eternal life. Indeed, our obedience as the Spirit sanctifies us does not merit eternal life; however, sanctification is the path we follow from our justification to our glorification. By virtue of our union with Christ and the imputation of His perfect obedience to our accounts through faith in Him alone, our justification and eternal life cannot be lost. Consequently, all who are justified will walk—imperfectly but truly—the path of sanctification. But our walking—our obedience—does not earn eternal life; rather, sanctification is God’s process of preparing us for the eternal, sinless life of glorification that He has secured for us in Christ in our justification.
Sanctification can occur only when we are no longer under the dominion of sin, and to be free from sin’s reign is to be under grace, not the law (6:14). This is a difficult concept, for Paul asserts that while Christians are not under the law, we fulfill the law by the grace of the Holy Spirit and do not practice lawlessness (8:8–10; Gal. 5:16–26). John Calvin comments that Paul does not teach “a release from the righteousness which is taught in the law.” Still, we are not in the same relationship to the law of God as we were before we knew Jesus. Apart from Christ, the law can only serve as a tool that sin uses to gain a stronger hold on us (Rom. 7:7–13). Only if we are in Christ can we resist sin’s use of the law to increase transgression.
Sin and law are in an intricate relationship that we will explore further over the next few days. At this point, we note that the only solution to sin is for people to be freed from the law. And Paul says that just as people are no longer under the civil law once they have died, the only way we can get out from under the law is to die (vv. 1–3).
God never intended for sinners to justify themselves by keeping the law, but the law does remind us that God demands perfect obedience for justification. Because we cannot obey God perfectly, unconverted people seize the law and lower God’s standards or overestimate their goodness to convince themselves that they have done enough to earn His favor. That itself is sin, for such actions really accuse God of lying about His standards or our abilities. Only in Christ can we escape this.