‘For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. 15. What then? May we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid! 16. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants for obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness. 17. But thanks be to God, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye obeyed from the heart that form of instruction to which ye were delivered. 18. And being freed from sin, ye became servants to righteousness.’
This passage respecting the relation of believers to the law, forms part of a much longer section, in which the apostle handles the connection between justification and sanctification—shews how the doctrine of a gratuitous salvation through the faith of Christ, so far from leading to a life of sin, renders such a life impossible, makes holiness, not sin, the rule and aim of the believer’s course. The fundamental ground of this result, as the apostle states at the outset (near the beginning of the chapter) lies in the believer’s relation to Christ; he becomes, by the very faith which justifies him, vitally united to Christ, and consequently participates in that death of Christ to sin, and that life to righteousness, which characterize Him as the spiritual Head and Redeemer of His people. This, therefore, is the security of the believer, and his safe guard against the dominion of sin in his soul, that the grace which saves him has, at the same time, transplanted him into a new state, has brought him into connection with holy influences, and changed the current of his desires and purposes. Hence, the apostle exhorts those who have undergone this blessed change to realize the great truth involved in it, and give themselves in earnest to the life of faith and holiness to which it called them. Sin had no longer any right to reign over them, and they should not allow it, in fact, to do so. This is what is meant in ver. 14,; ‘For sin shall not have dominion over you’—ὑμῶν οὐ κυριεύσει, shall not domineer, or lord it over you; the power to do this was now effectually broken, and they should act under the buoyant and joyous feeling, that they did not need to be in bondage, that spiritual liberty was secured for them. Then comes the reason or ground of this freedom, ‘for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
In endeavouring to get at the precise meaning of this statement, which has been variously understood, there is no need for raising any question as to what is intended by law, whether the Mosaic, or some other form of law. The proper explication cannot turn on any difference in this respect; for it is plainly of the law as a system of requirements (no matter what these might specifically be), of the law as contradistinguished from grace, God’s system of free and unmerited benevolence, that the apostle is speaking; consequently, law is taken into account merely as the appointed rule of righteousness, which men are bound as rational creatures to keep, and which, for the subjects of revelation, would naturally be identified with that of Moses. The law so understood, and by reason of its very excellence as the revelation of God’s pure righteousness, so far from being the deliverer from sin, is the strength of sin; (1Co_15:56.) for if placed simply under it, the condition of fallen man becomes utterly hopeless; it sets before him, and binds upon his conscience, a scheme of life, which lies quite beyond his reach, and he falls like a helpless slave under the mastery of sin. But believers are otherwise situated; they stand under an administration of grace, which brings the mighty power of redeeming love to work upon the heart, and, freeing it from condemnation, inspires it with the life and liberty of the children of God. This new and better constitution of things supplants, for those who are interested in it, the ground of sin’s dominion in the soul, and opens for it the way to ultimate perfection in holiness. (The point is unfolded at much greater length in chap. 7.)
The apostle, however, was writing to those who were still but imperfectly acquainted with the operation of grace; and readily conceiving how they would startle at the thought of believers being no longer under the law, as involving a dangerous sort of licence, he turns as it were upon himself, and asks, ‘What then? May we sin (the proper reading is undoubtedly ἁμαρτήσωμεν, the subjunctive of deliberation, not the future ἁμαρτήσομεν) because we are not under the law, but under grace? The question is asked only that an indignant disclaimer may be given to it: ‘God forbid!’ The thought is not for a moment to be entertained; and the moral contradiction, which the supposed inclination and liberty to sin would involve, is exposed by presenting sin and obedience (much as our Lord presented God and mammon (Mat_6:24.)) as antagonistic powers or interests, to the one or other of which all must stand in a relation of servitude. There is no middle course, as the apostle states: one must either act as the servant of sin, and receive the wages thereof in death, or in the spirit of obedience (namely, to God), and attain to righteousness. ‘Servants of obedience’ is certainly a peculiar expression, and would probably have been put, as in ver. 18, servants of righteousness, but for the purpose of keeping up the parallel—on the one side sin unto death, on the other obedience unto righteousness. This personified obedience, however, involves the idea of God, as the One to whom it is due: the servants of obedience are those who realize and feel that they must obey God, and this by aiming at righteousness. And it is implied, that as the service of sin finds in eternity the consummation of the death to which it works, so also with the righteousness which is the result of obedience; it is consummated only in the life to come, when they who have sincerely followed after it shall receive ‘the crown of righteousness from the Lord, the righteous Judge.’ (2Ti_4:8.) Righteousness so considered is not materially different from eternal life. Further, it is clear, that as obedience implies objection to an authoritative rule, and the life of grace is here identified with obedience, the child of grace is not more freed from the prescription of a rule than those who are in the condition of nature. The life to which he is called, and after which he must ever strive, is conformity to the Divine rule of righteousness; just as, on the other side, all sin is a deviation from such a rule.
The apostle, in ver. 17, expresses his gratitude to God that those to whom he wrote had passed from the one kind of service to the other: ‘But thanks be to God that ye were the servants of sin (the stress should be on the were, thanks that this is a thing of the past, and can be spoken of as such), but ye obeyed from the heart that form (τύπον, type, rather) of instruction into which ye were delivered. The form of expression in this last member of the sentence is peculiar, εἰς ὃν παρεδόθητε τύπον διδαχῆς, literally, obeyed into what pattern of instruction ye were delivered; evidently a pregnant form of construction for obeyed the pattern of instruction into which ye were delivered (τῷ τύπῳ τῆς διδ. εἰς ὃν παρεδόθητε). The Christian instruction they had received is viewed as a kind of pattern or mould, into which their moral natures had been in a manner cast, so as to take on its proper impress, and give forth suitable manifestations of it. It is a question with commentators, whether this plastic sort of instruction is to be understood generally of the rule of faith and manners in the Gospel, or more specially of St Paul’s mode of teaching the Gospel, as contradistinguished from the Judaistic type of Christian doctrine. De Wette, Meyer, and some others, would take it in the latter sense; but apparently without any sufficient reason, as it would involve a closer relationship on the part of the Romish community to St Paul’s teaching than we have any ground for supposing. It is quite enough to understand by the expression, the Gospel of the grace of God in its grand outlines of truth and duty, through whatever precise channel it might have reached the believers at Rome; this they had riot only received, but from the heart obeyed. ‘Paul,’ to use the words of Calvin, ‘compares here the hidden power of the Spirit with the external letter of the law, as though he had said: Christ inwardly forms our souls in a better way, than when the law constrains them by threatening and terrifying us.” Thus is dissipated the following calumny, “If Christ free us from subjection to the law, He brings liberty to sin.” He does not, indeed, allow His people unbridled freedom, that they might frisk about without any restraint, like horses let loose in the fields; but He brings them to a regular course of life.’ It is the same truth substantially which is taught by our Lord when He says: ‘Ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you;’ and again, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ (Joh_15:3; Joh_8:32. See also 1Pe_1:22.) And finally, let there be noted here the beautiful combination in the apostle’s statement of the action of Divine grace and of man’s will. ‘They obeyed the doctrine heartily; in this they were active: yet they were cast into the mould of this doctrine, and thereby received the new form of faith, obedience, and holiness, from another hand and influence. So that they were active in obeying the truth; and at the very same time were passive with regard to the superior influence.’ (Fraser.)
The apostle adds, virtually repeating what had been said before, only with special application to the Christians at Rome: ‘And being freed from sin, ye became servants to righteousness.’ This is probably as fit a rendering of the words (ἐδουλώθητε τῇ δικαιοσύνῃ) as can be obtained. The rendering of Alford, ‘Ye were enslaved to righteousness,’ though apparently nearer to the original, is in reality not so; for, to speak of enslavement in the spiritual sphere can scarcely fail to convey to an English reader the idea of unwilling constraint, a sort of compulsory service, which certainly was not what the apostle meant. It is merely a thorough, life-long, undivided surrender to the cause of righteousness. And he proceeds to unfold, to the end of the chapter, the blessed nature of the service to which they had thus given themselves, as contrasted with that from which they had been withdrawn, and to press the things which belonged to it on their regard, both from consideration of the present benefits to be derived from it, and the relation in which it stands to the eternal recompenses of blessing in God’s kingdom.