Romans 7:6 – “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.”
This is understood by many to mean that we are released from any requirement to obey God’s law. Along with this interpretation, it is sometimes said that it was the law of God that held us captive. Let’s test this.
Does God’s law hold people captive? James and John didn’t come away with that impression after living with Jesus.
“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:25)
“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (James 2:12)
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
Later in the same chapter, Paul states that he delights in the law of God but it is the law of sin that holds captive.
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:22-23)
The law of sin says, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Death is the just consequence of law breaking that Paul refers to elsewhere as the law of sin and death, being under the law and the curse of the law. Sin produces death.
“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…” (Romans 7:5-6)
“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” (Romans 7:12-14)
I recommend also reading the section called ‘Meaning #6 of “Law”: The just consequence of rule-breaking’.
Through faith in Jesus, a believer is released from the law of sin and death. The believer is released from the eternal death penalty. (Romans 8:1)
Finally, what is meant by serving in the old way of the written code? We can get a sense of meaning by looking at other translations.
“…that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” (Romans 7:6b KJV)
“…so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” ((Romans 7:6b NAS)
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says, “Since the Jews so clave to the letter of the law that it not only became to them a mere letter but also a hindrance to true religion, Paul calls it γράμμα in a disparaging sense, and contrasts it with τό πνεῦμα i. e. the divine Spirit, whether operative in the Mosaic law, Romans 2:29, or in the gospel, by which Christians are governed, Romans 7:6; 2 Corinthians 3:6f”
The New Covenant language of Ezekiel further suggests that serving in the old way of the written code or in the oldness of the letter means to obey mechanically and from a sense of obligation. There’s little interest in the intent behind it. This kind of obedience is from a heart that could be described as hard like a stone. By contrast, to serve in the new way of the Spirit is to obey God from the heart.
This interpretation is consistent with the words of Ezekiel.
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
The first several verses of Romans 7 stand out in the overall story of Israel. For much more context, please see my work Abraham’s Offspring – Heirs According to Promise and the sections The Legal Mystery and How Could the House of Israel Come Back?