Romans 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
Legal righteousness—a standing before God that says we have kept His covenant—is granted to us when we believe the gospel, when we trust in Jesus alone for salvation (Rom. 3:21–5:21). With this positional change before the Lord’s heavenly court also comes an existential change: we receive a new heart that can obey God truly, if imperfectly. Having first justified us, the Lord sanctifies us, burying us with Christ so that sin no longer has rightful dominion over us and raising us with Jesus so that we are bound to live out the holiness our Creator has granted us in the Savior (6:1–13). Sin has no legal rule over those who truly believe in Jesus, and we give in to transgression only because we have forgotten that we are under grace in Christ, not law in Adam (v. 14).
What does it mean that we are not under law but under grace? It most certainly does not mean that anything goes and that the revealed law of God has no role in the Christian life. Throughout his epistles, Paul expects believers to fulfill the moral norms of the Mosaic law, which are really nothing other than the eternal moral law of God in inscripturated form (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; Eph. 6:1–4). Christians must obey the Lord’s commandments, though this obedience is not the means by which are justified before Him.
Paul is speaking in salvation-historical terms when he says that we are not under law but under grace. Essentially, the Apostle separates the history of God’s salvation into two eras: from Adam to Christ and from Christ onward. The era from Adam to Christ was under law. Grace was available to people during that time, for many people knew the Lord then, including Abraham, Ruth, Moses, David, and so on. Still, the era before Christ was dominated by the Mosaic law’s function to increase sin (Rom. 5:20). The aforementioned saints were exceptions to the rule, for in the main, the old covenant community was aroused to sin, encouraged to break God’s law. This, we shall see, was not the fault of the law, because the law is inherently good. The fault lay in sin’s appropriation of the law (Rom. 7:7–25).
To be outside of Christ and under the law is to participate in the realities of the pre- Christ era’s subjection to sin and death. So, even though all people now live after the coming of Christ, they live under sin’s dominion through the law if they do not know Him and all they can do is sin. But if we know Jesus, we live under the dominion of righteousness through grace. Thus, we’d better start acting like it.
John Calvin notes that we are no longer under the law for justification: “We are no longer subject to the law, as requiring perfect righteousness, and pronouncing death on all who deviate from it in any part.” While old covenant saints were not saved by keeping the law, it nonetheless was a heavy burden that reminded them of God’s demands while giving no power to fulfill them. This is the burden we all feel before grace, but Christ releases us from the burden to serve Him in freedom.