Paul wants his readers to grasp the radical nature of their personal salvation through God’s grace, of what they have become in Jesus, and of how they can live for him day by day. We can see the strength of the apostle’s desire in the way that he repeats his teaching here in 7:1-6, much of which he has already explained in Romans 6.
Paul uses the example of how the law regarded a widow who was free to remarry. In the illustration, it was the living person who was free to have another relationship. But in the application, it is the dead person, that is the believer who died when Jesus died because of being united to him, who is free to have another relationship. The point of the illustration is that death must disband the previous relationship before a new relationship can be formed.
Paul describes the old life, the way we lived before we died, in verse 5: ‘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.’ Somehow the law contributed to our bad behaviour in the sense that it aroused our passions and desires to work in certain ways. How could the law do this? I think Paul means that the law, when it told us an attitude or an action was wrong, did not have the power to prevent the wrong desire to disobey what God forbade. It was like a speed limit sign that does not affect how fast we are driving the car.
Paul affirms that Christians ‘have died to the law through the body of Christ’. When Jesus died, he did something to the previous relationship that his people had to the law. The previous relationship is stated in verse 6 when the apostle writes that believers ‘are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive.’ Paul means that the law, which was powerless to make us obey its demands, also imprisoned us for failing to keep it. In other words, it condemned us and ensured that we could not be free as long as we were under its authority. His words depict a terrible situation to be in, a situation from which we needed to be delivered.
Jesus, when he died, paid the penalty our sins deserved. But Paul says more took place then, for he also states that we died in the sense that we are no longer under the control of the law as an ineffective power. Paul writes in verse 6 that having died we are released from being under the law, although this release, as he says in verse 4, was not one in which we were liberated to be autonomous and under our own control. Instead of being under the condemning power of the law as our master we now belong to the risen Jesus as our Master.