Paul is continuing in his explanation of our salvation, and he wants to make extra clear what our relationship with the Mosaic Law should be. To the Jews in his audience, the notion that the Lord’s people are no longer obligated to keep the Law of Moses was difficult—if not impossible--to swallow. Keep in mind that the very first major controversy in the Church, which led to the first official Church Council, was over the issue of whether or not Gentiles should be expected to keep the Law.
The book of Romans is Paul’s magnum opus on the issue of our salvation. Paul didn’t start the church in Romans, so he needed to make certain that its members were clear about the essentials of salvation with a minimum of misunderstanding. This is why it reads more like a theological treatise than a letter written to close friends. And in order to truly comprehend our salvation, we need to deal with our relationship to the Law as believers this side of the Cross.
Today’s passage addresses it. He compares it to a marriage. Under the Law (and in most cultures and societies) a woman is bound to her husband only as long as they’re both alive. That’s why when I took Joy as my wife, my vows were officially in effect “as long as we both shall live.” Other say “until death parts us.” When Joy and I have gone through tough times in our marriage, we reaffirm our commitment to each other by saying “Nothing but the grave, baby!”
Of course there have been exceptions, but in most circumstances women are expected to only be faithful to their husband as long he lives. Once he’s dead, she’s free to marry another, and most people wouldn’t think any less of her, much less condemn her.
Under the Old Covenant (instituted and formalized under Moses at Mount Sinai), God’s people were “married” to the Law. They were obligated to be obedient to it, and this was the only way they could express commitment to the Lord. If someone in Israel said, “I believe in the Lord and I'm dedicated to serving him faithfully, but I don’t think I’m obligated to keep the Sabbath or abstain from pork,” that wouldn’t make any sense. To reiterate: The only way an Israelite could be counted as faithful to the Lord was by obeying the Torah. If they disobeyed the Torah, the Lord counted that as being unfaithful to himself, and as we saw in the book of Hosea, he considered it spiritual adultery, and made his servant marry into heartbreak just to show Israel how serious he (the Lord) took this.
But (there’s that small but beautiful word again) something changed. Christ came, and what we could never do in relation to the Law, he did. He fulfilled all its requirements in perfect obedience, and the “marriage” to the Law was severed. The interesting thing here is that in Paul’s example, it’s not the Law that died, but us. We died to the Law when we received Christ. But the principle applies: Marriage only is binding as long as both parties are still alive.
But we need to be careful here, as always. As discussed before, the particular applications of the Law were specific to the Old Covenant, such as circumcision, the dietary laws, the laws that caused physical separation, the animal sacrifices, the Sabbath, etc. The principles behind the applications (e.g., love the Lord and hate sin with everything you have, people are made in God’s image and are more important than things, etc.) are timeless. They don’t change any more than God does.
This is what Paul is talking about in vs. 6: “[By] dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” We aren’t law-less, people without the law. God wrote down his laws on stone, and the people disobeyed (to put it mildly). Under the New Covenant, he writes his law (the principles, not necessarily the same applications) on our hearts. We’re no longer “married” to the Law. We died to it, and now we belong to Another.
Lord Jesus, I belong to you. In your love, you’ve sought me out, paid for me with your own blood, and have claimed me forever as your own. By your grace, I want to show that.