Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What is the meaning of the phrase “under the law” in Romans 6:14, 15?*
The phrase is used by Paul in the two verses you mention to establish a connection between a particular understanding of the law in relation to sin and grace, and to qualify the negative meaning of the phrase “not under the law.” We should keep in mind that the discussion of the law occurs in the context of his controversy with false teachers who promoted the observance of the law for their own specific purpose.
1. Sin, Law, and Grace. In Romans Paul clarifies that all humans are under the rule of sin, and that the only way to experience freedom is through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:19-24). In this condition of enslavement to sin the law plays a negative role (Rom. 7:7-12). But for those who place their faith in Christ, sin is no longer their master because they “are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Contextually, to be “under the law” is to be under the dominion of sin and not under the dominion of grace. Grace and law are contrasted in a negative way. If being under grace means to be under the redemptive power of God through the death of His Son, then to be under the law is to seek acceptance before God through submission to the law. This, by itself, means that the person is under the power of sin and not of grace because, for Paul, every human being has violated the law of God and is under its curse or condemnation (Gal. 3:10). The observance of the law has no atoning power; it cannot deliver from the power of sin because it is incapable of restoring life to sinners (verse 21). In fact, because of humanity’s sinful condition, the law, misused by sin, stimulates them to sin (Rom. 7:8, 9), even though the law itself is good (verse 12). What humans need is God’s grace through faith in Christ. To be under the law—seeking acceptance through it before God—is to exist under its condemnation and consequently under the power of sin (Rom. 3:21, 28).
2. Not Under the Law. Paul raises a question and answers it: “Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom. 6:15). He now sets limits to the possible implications of the phrase “we are not under the law.” It does not mean that Christian life is characterized by lawlessness. Believers are certainly under no obligation to obey the law in order to be justified, but they willingly “obey from your heart [from the depth of their being and sincerely] the pattern of teaching [the teaching that molds the Christian life] that has now claimed your allegiance” (verse 17). The Christian life does not exclude obedience to the will of God, but places it in its proper perspective with respect to grace. Faith in Christ does not “nullify the law” but “[upholds] the law” (Rom. 3:31) because now through the power of God’s grace “the righteous requirements of the law” can “be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3, 4, NKJV). The law is no longer a means of acceptance before God, but a sanctifying guide to the Christian life.