By J. Angus Harley

14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under the Law but under grace. 15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the Law but under grace?

The sole purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the phrase “under the Law” in Romans 6:14-15 does not mean, or entail, that those Christians who were formerly Jewish were under the Law of Moses in order to obey its commandments perfectly to obtain righteousness. They could not have come under the Law to that end because, contextually, due to their union with Christ Jesus their Lord, this was impossible; for, according to the context, he himself did not come under the Law to obey its commandments perfectly in order to obtain perfect righteousness, but he bore its curse in the form of death, and then rose from the dead unto resurrection life.[1]

Enslavement to sin’s lordship via the Mosaic Law

Broadly speaking, the context in Romans 6 is concerned with the enthralling power and lordship of sin that controls all men, in contrast to the assembly’s death and resurrection with Christ Jesus their Lord. Through union with him, the assembly is dead to sin, and is spiritually resurrected unto life and service to God. It is within this setting of a contrast of powers that, Paul places vv14-15 that refer to being “under the Law”.

The first thing we can say about these verses is that they exclude any potential for understanding “under the Law” as indicating ‘under the Mosaic Law’s authority and commandments in order to keep them perfectly to obtain righteousness’, or even the more restricted concept of, ‘under the authority of the Mosaic Law expressed in its commandments.’ Too readily, it is assumed that one of these definitions dominates the phrase “under the Law” in Galatians (Gal.3:23; 4:4, 5, 21; 5:18), and this is then sometimes extended to include Romans 6:14-15 and its use of “under the Law”. Paul himself does teach that the Jews, and some Gentiles (i.e., some Galatians), did try to obtain a righteousness from the Law, a righteousness requiring perfect, exacting obedience to all its commandments (Lev.18:5; Neh.9:29; Eze.20:11, 12, 21; Gal.3:1-5, 12; Rom.10:5). Yet, this teaching is not present here in Romans 6.

The proper meaning of vv14-15 is found in the concrete setting of a theology of contrast. For Paul contrasts sin’s lordship and mastery (kurieuō) (v14) (see 6:9; 7:1; 14:9) to grace. The sinner under the Law is ruled by sin, that is, he is “under sin” (3:9; Gal.3:22). The Christian, by contrast, is “under grace”, and under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (v23). In vv16-19, Paul then follows through on this radical divide, filling out the imagery of mastery and enslavement:

16 Do you not know that the one to whom you present yourselves as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of that same one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and after being freed from sin, you became slaves to righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented the parts of your body as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your body’s parts as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.

The Christian is indeed a slave, he is “under”, not to sin, however, but under grace unto God through Christ Jesus the Lord. As such, the Christian is free from sin and its power, and now must demonstrate his new enslavement by obedience resulting in a righteousness that leads to sanctification. There are no ‘ifs, ands, buts, or maybes’ about this new enslavement: the Christian as a slave under grace will reveal his service to God by obeying unto righteousness and sanctification

Moreover, if Paul had thought that the Christian’s former obedience was to the Mosaic Law’s commandments, this would have been the place to point it out. Instead, we are told that formerly the Jews and Gentiles obeyed sin, and not that the Jews obeyed the Law’s commandments, or that the Gentiles were meant to obey a so-called internal law or commandments. Paul’s use of “under the Law”, in other words, is entirely controlled by the greater presence and lordship of sin.

Nomos as Mosaic Law

Based on what has been said, some think that nomos (‘law’) in 6:14-15 does not convey the Mosaic Law, but law as a principle, or quality, or power. It is pointed out that the context of Romans 6 is concerned with the power of sin and of nomos to enslave mankind. Moreover, Paul would never conclude that the Gentile Christians were formerly under the Mosaic Law (2:12; 1 Cor.9:21; Gal.2:1-21; 3:2). Added to this, there are various times in Romans when nomos is not used of the Mosaic Law, for it can be identified with: the OT Scriptures (3:19), the Pentateuch (3:21), and a principle, or quality, or power, or even the New Covenant ‘law’ (3:27, 31; 13:8, 10). Not only so, the Gentiles are described as a “law unto themselves” (2:14).

This is a strong argument, with much in its favor; yet, the difficulty with it is not found in what it says, but in what it does not convey. In Romans 6, Paul is using personification to depict the roles of sin, grace, death, the Law, righteousness, and life. Those abstract concepts are given a personal ‘feel’ as powers. This is why, in Romans 6, the terms are normally accompanied by the definite article to personify them. However, Paul breaks this pattern in vv14, 15, 16, for he does not give the article to “grace”, “Law”, or “sin”. This is because he is describing these personified forces in action. Law qua law: ‘the Mosaic Law’ personified acting as law; sin qua sin: ‘the sin’ personified acting as sin; grace qua grace: ‘the grace’ personified acting as grace.

Nor does Paul’s account of nomos neatly divide into the categories that the anarthrous use of nomos means ‘law’ and the arthrous indicates ‘the Mosaic Law’. For, it is readily recognized that in Romans, nomos is used without the article to describe the Mosaic Law on numerous occasions, and at those times the Mosaic Law is, most likely, acting as law (2:12, 13, 14, 17, 23, 25, 27; 3:20, 21, 28; 4:13, 14, 15; 5:13, 20; 7:1, 7, 8, 9; 9:31; 10:4). Here in 6:14-15, the anarthrous use merely confirms the Mosaic Law as an enslaving power works under the greater authority of sin (7:12-13; cf., 2:12;1 Tim.1:9). 

Who is Paul addressing?

Perhaps the biggest issue is that of reconciling the above view of nomos with the fact that the Gentiles were not under the Law. If they were not under the Law, why does Paul address the whole assembly- Jew and Gentile- when referring to “under the Law”

To answer that question, we must take a step back to look at the bigger picture of Romans.

Throughout Romans, there is a fundamental and keen awareness of both the differences between Jew and Gentile as to the flesh (chs.1-3), but also of their equality in Christ Jesus. The assembly in Rome is predominantly Gentile, but with a solid Jewish core. For that reason, the status and use of the Mosaic Law comes to the fore time and again throughout chapters 2-10. It is not inserted here and there, in other words. Due to the confusion that can easily exist around knowing what to do with the Mosaic Law, Paul explains in chapters 5-7 just how the Mosaic Law has functioned to expose sin in Israel, and the relevance of this for the Gentiles, in fact for the body of Christ Jesus as one.

In that light, to understand how Paul could address the whole assembly in Rome and say it was not “under the Law”, we must particularly appreciate the role of Romans 5:12-21. Romans 5:12 tells us that sin entered the world, and from one man, sin and death passed on to all, for all sinned. The Law served one role: to magnify the presence of sin, so that God could judge the sin of mankind (3:20; 5:13, 20; 7:7-13; Gal.3:19). Sin and death were present and reigning before the Law came, but when Moses came with his Law, sin was exposed formally to mankind, not merely to the Jews. For, the Jew did not exist until Abraham and the fathers; they were, therefore, merely part of the fallen mass of humanity, its extension. Thus, if the Jew was guilty due to his sin being exposed by the Mosaic Law, then because Israel was a part of mankind, the world became guilty of sin- not of breaking the Mosaic Law as such, but the world is condemned for sinning. The condemnation of the Jews throws a spotlight on the whole of humanity and its sinful condition, in other words. Not the whole of humanity under the Law, mind you, but mankind affected by Israel being exposed in sin under the Law. Thus, the Gentiles are said to be, along with the Jews, “under sin” (Rom.3:9; Gal.3:22)

It is with this theology in mind, that Paul addresses the whole assembly in Rome, for the entirety of the congregation was impacted by the Law of Moses; but, more specifically, it is because mankind- Jew and Gentile- is “under sin” that Paul is addressing the whole assembly at this stage when using “under the Law. For as previously argued, the Law of Moses is merely a servant of sin in context. That is why Paul, in Romans 7, has to go on to explain in greater detail that the Law in itself was not evil. But that is an argument for another day. Paul addresses the congregation not in part therefore- the Jews- but in whole, as an undifferentiated mass of believers who are identified by their union with Christ and not by whether they are Jew or Gentile (Gal.3:28; Col.3:11; see 3:9, 29; 10:12). Yet, in a redemptive-historical sense, it was only the Jews who were under the Law. When Paul wishes to address a particular ethnic group, he merely mentions their name. Thus, in Romans 7, Paul is explicitly dealing with the Jews and their relationship to the Law (7:1).

Union with Christ Jesus

To get behind what Paul is doing here in Romans 6, we must dig deeper yet into the theology of union with Christ Jesus.  The underlying fabric of Romans 6 is that the assembly is united with Christ Jesus in his death and resurrection. There is a pattern woven into this union:

Christ Jesus died                    we died with him

He rose from the dead          we have been raised/will be raised with him[2]

This pattern is important to us in a different way, for it informs us that, what happens to us, first happened to Jesus: we died to sin because he died to sin; we were/will be made alive, for he was made alive.

Now, if one places this pattern at the forefront when interpreting “under the law”, this is what happens:

we were under the Law because Jesus Christ was under the Law

Certainly, we know from Galatians 4:4 that Jesus was “under the Law”. In both settings- Galatians 4 and Romans 6- Jesus is not specifically tied to obedience to the Mosaic Law and its commandments, but to crucifixion for the sake of his beloved:

knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin (Rom.6:6); 4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons and daughters. (Gal.4:4-5)

Paul earlier in Galatians drew our attention to the same theology, where Jesus’ relationship to the curse of the Law is unequivocally stated:

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal.3:14-15)

I do not wish to say too much more about Galatians at this juncture, for I will come to “under the Law” in Galatians in future articles. It is suffice for us to notice the two themes of death and redemption, with the latter indicating mankind’s enslavement (see Gal.4:1, 7, 8, 21, 22, 23, 24, 30, 31; 5:1) to sin and its accompanying powers, and not to the Mosaic Law as such, for the deliverance of Jewish Christians from under the Law signalled the deliverance of mankind from under sin.

By coming “under the Law”, albeit by implication in Romans 6, Jesus was crucified for our sake, to free us from slavery to sin (see 7:1-6). Put another way, Jesus’ relationship to the Law in Romans 6 is solely to come under its enslaving, condemning power unto death in the hands of sin. Not that Jesus himself was at any time controlled by sin; but that he brings himself under its condemning power to kill. It is for that reason alone, that those who were “under the Law” were, according to Romans 6, delivered from it is an enslaving power that itself was controlled by sin. That is, the Law was not a ‘body of commandments’ that they failed to keep- however true that may be for the Jews- but the Law, in the hands of sin was an enslaver, and enforced the curse. In this way, the ‘true’ lord, sin, was revealed as having lordship over all men, Jew and Gentile.


In describing Jesus in Romans 6, Paul uses “Christ”, “Christ Jesus “, and “Lord”. These names are, properly speaking, titles (titular). They represent, in other words, the exalted status of the Son. They are not conveying a personal name as such, but are like royal titles. Paul is looking back on redemptive history and recalibrating its entirety from the vantage point of the risen and exalted Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Paul’s thought, from the vantage point of the exalted Son as Lord, redemptive history is then divided into two times, or aeons, as theologians say: the time of the flesh (sarx), and that of the S(s)pirit (pneuma) (1:3-4; 7:5-6; 8:1-16). The flesh is part of a group of powers that oppose God and his Son. It was therefore necessary for the Father to send his Son into this world to defeat the flesh and its allies. To tackle these forces, Jesus had to come under the Law, for only by it was sin and its curse identified, and its ally, death, exposed. By his death in the flesh, Jesus ended the dominion of those forces over the assembly. This brought the era, or aeon, of the flesh to an end as far as Jesus was concerned, and also for his assembly, for it was united with him. It began the heavenly era, or aeon, of the risen Lord. He then gave the Spirit to his assembly. In confirmation of this teaching, Paul writes in Romans 8:1-3:

1 Therefore there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh…. 

Here we read that “Christ Jesus” has set us “free from the Law of sin and death”, the unholy triumvirate of 1 Corinthians 15:56. Thus, it says in 8:3 that “what the Law could not do” was achieved by Christ Jesus through him becoming an offering for sin. More to the point, he was sent as “Son in the likeness of sinful flesh”. He was not a sinner, but from the first moment of his incarnation, he was sent to be one who was like a sinner, up unto the death of the cross (2 Cor.5).

The implication of this Lordship theology for “under the Law” entails that, yet again, by coming under the Law as our representative, Christ Jesus conquered sin as such, of which the Law was a mere servant or tool. And it is because Christ Jesus was our representative, the Second Man and Last Adam, that our new humanity is one that is not developed from earth, for it bypasses Jew and Gentile, to focus on an exclusively Christological, heavenly ‘man’ that the assembly images, a ‘man’ endowed with the heavenly Spirit and not controlled by earthly flesh (Rom.1:3-4; 8; 1 Cor.12; 15; Gal.3-6). In simple terms, the assembly, in union with Christ Jesus, images him as the exalted Lord and victor over sin and death.


It is readily apparent that in Romans 6:14-15, “under the Law” is not in any way referring to the Mosaic Law as a body of commandments that the Jews were obliged to keep to obtain perfect righteousness. That Paul brings up that teaching elsewhere is not his concern here in Romans 6. In this passage, his aim is to circumscribe the Mosaic Law’s role, in the hands of sin, in enslaving mankind, and not just Jews. The Mosaic Law is like a slaver obeying its own master, sin. Properly speaking, it is sin, not the Mosaic Law, that is the lord of humanity, enslaving it in disobedience to God. By sharp contrast, Christ Jesus is Lord over the assembly. By union with him, they have died with him to sin, and have been/will be raised with him to resurrection life. The Christian is now enslaved to God through Christ Jesus and under grace alone.  This is an absolute divide, with one power pitted against another, and with the power of grace succeeding through Christ Jesus. Two worlds have collided, two sets of powers have fought. The one world does not ‘bleed’ into the other, as if the world of the Law, sin, death, and the flesh can overcome the Lordship of the risen Christ Jesus. It is therefore his Lordship that is the anchor of the text, for from this vantage point Paul looks back on redemptive history to divide mankind into flesh and spirit, those under sin and those under grace. Yet, in order for that divide to be formally accomplished in Christ Jesus, he had to become flesh, enter into the ‘lion’s den’, and go to the cross to die. By his death he defeated the flesh, sin, death, and the Law. In particular, the Law is targeted because it was ‘the’ means by which God put the spotlight on humanity’s sinful and condemned condition through Israel. The Mosaic Law enslaved Jews under its power; but by extension, the Gentiles and the Jews were all, and together, shown to be under the lordship of sin, for the Jews were part of humanity. That is why Paul can address the redeemed body of saints- Jews and Gentiles- as “under the Law”, not because the Gentiles were ever under the Law, but because the Law exposed mankind’s sin through Israel.

[1] This, hopefully, will be the first of two articles on Romans 6:14-15, the second of which will critique part of Douglas J. Moo’s take on this text.

[2] Vv4, 8 are to be read as conveying an already-not yet model of resurrection life.