What Does It Mean to be Free from the Law?
"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. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code." - Romans 7:5-6, ESV
Freed from the law, O blessed condition!
I can sin all I want and still have remission!
These lyrics are a satire, a jab at an old hymn called, "Free From the Law," by the great American hymn writer, Philip P. Bliss, which actually says:
Free from the law—oh, happy condition!
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission.
This hymn and the satirical jab taken at it are a good piece of evidence of the controversies that can arise from today's text. When Paul says, "But now we are released from the law," what does he mean? Does he mean that we can sin all we want now?
As always, the context is key to comprehension. He says "we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive." So the question we should ask is, "What is it that held us captive, from which we have been freed?" Paul has already addressed this in Romans: We have been set free from sin by our union with Christ in His death. Sin once held us captive, but it is no longer our master.
Even in this immediate context here in Romans 7, Paul has enslaving power of sin in view when he talks about our freedom. It is our sinful passions, aroused by the law, that bear fruit for death and hold us captive. So "released from the law" has to do with being free from sin, not being free to sin!
But how is being free from sin's slavery the same as being released from the law? Is the law sinful? No! Paul will make that very clear later in Romans 7, as he unpacks the dynamic interaction between the law and our sin.
The difference Paul emphasizes here is between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Another way to express this is the difference between the law as a list of rules we keep to earn salvation and the law as a pattern of life reflecting the character of God for the redeemed who are free in Christ. The letter kills and the Spirit gives life.
If you approach the 10 Commandments as a to-do list for earning heaven, you are lost, condemned. Sin will never let you fulfill the law's demands. But if you come to Jesus for salvation and are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then you are free from the demands of law. You are free from a "letter of the law" mindset because a perfect righteousness has already been given to you as a gift. Instead, you are free to serve in the Spirit, walking in the patterns of love laid down in the law, in gratitude and joy and in the free imitation of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Free from the law? Yes! As a way of salvation, as a pathway to righteousness, the law no longer binds us nor condemns us. But we are free to serve, not our sinful passions, but the Lord, in love and in true righteousness.