A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 7:1-6. 1). Release from the law: a marriage metaphor.
Paul begins this paragraph by addressing his readers affectionately as *brothers* and by asking them for the third time: *Do you not know*? Having questioned their understanding both of the meaning of baptism (6:3) and of the implication of slavery (6:16), he now asks if they know the limited jurisdiction of the law. There can be no doubt that the dominant theme of the paragraph concerns ‘release from the law’, since he uses this expression three times (2, 3, 6), and refers to the law in every verse. He assumes that they do know, since he adds in parenthesis that he is *speaking to men who know the law*, the Jewish law certainly and the Roman law probably as well.
a), The legal principle (1).
Paul lays down the principle which he assumes his readers know: *the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives* (1). Or better, ‘the law is binding on a person only during his life’ (RSV). The word for ‘is binding on’ or ‘has authority over’ is *kyrieuo*, which is rendered ‘lord it over’ in Mark 10:42, RSV. It expresses the imperious authority of law over those who are subject to it. But this authority is limited to our lifetime. The one thing which invalidates it is death. Death brings release from all contractual obligations involving the dead person. If death supervenes, relationships established and protected by law are *ipso facto* terminated. So law is for life; death annuls it. Paul states this as a legal axiom, universally accepted and unchallengeable.
b). The domestic illustration (2-3).
As an example of this general principle Paul chooses marriage, and in applying it extends it. Death changes not only the obligations of the dead person (it is obvious that these are cancelled), but also the obligations of those survivors who had a contract with the dead person. *For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive* (or ‘until death parts them’), *but if her husband dies, she is released* (‘discharged’, RSV, NEB) from her marriage vows, indeed *from the law of marriage* itself (2). literally, from the law of her husband’ (AV), that is, from the law relating to him and her contract with him. The contract is clear: the law binds her, but his death frees her. Moreover, her release is complete. The strong verb used (*katargeo*) can mean to ‘annul’ or ‘destroy’. ‘The apostle is saying that the woman’s status as a wife has been abolished, completely done away. She is no longer a wife.
*So then*, Paul now draws a conclusion, *if she (sc. a married woman) marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress* (she ‘incurs the stigma of adultery’, JBP). *But if her husband dies*, and she remarries, *she is not an adulteress* (3), because she has been *released from that law* which had previously bound her. What has made the difference? How is it that one remarriage would make her an adulteress, while the other would not? The answer lies of course in her husbands death. The second marriage is morally legitimate because death has terminated the first. Only death can secure freedom from the marriage law and therefore the right to remarry. These references to death, freedom from law and remarriage already hint at the application which Paul is about to make.
Tomorrow: Romans 7:4. c). The theological application.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.