We must count ourselves dead to sin. That’s well known. The church is ultimately the bride of Christ. That’s well known, too. Less well known is that we must also count ourselves dead to the law. In fact, my Sunday school class had trouble wrapping their minds around that concept. They couldn’t conceive of eliminating the moral principles of the law from the Christian life. That’s not quite what Paul meant.
Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). Indeed, in two different chapters (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), the Mosaic covenant lays out exactly the blessings that come from obeying the law and then takes about three times as much space laying out all the evil that comes from breaking it. And what if the people violate the covenant and later repent? There is no provision in the law for restoring anyone. Leviticus 26:40-42 explicitly say that in that case, they need to appeal to the older covenant with Abraham.
In Romans 7:1-6, Paul introduces the concept of death to the law and illustrates it from marriage. According to the law, a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If she takes up with someone else, it is adultery. If he dies, his legal claim on her fidelity dies with him and she can marry again. The church’s relationship with the law is similar.
That illustration doesn’t quite work, though. Scripturally, the wife is always the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament. God is the husband against whom Israel committed adultery and harlotry. Christ is the bridegroom who will have a wedding feast for his bride, the church. In other words, the husband will never die.
To get at what Paul means about the law, we need to imagine the church married to Mr. Law, another imperishable husband. Mr. Law is a fine, upstanding citizen of heaven. Unfortunately, every time he proclaims what a person ought to do, his wife refuses to do it. Every time he proclaims what a person ought not do, his wife goes ahead and does it. Every time Mr. Law speaks, sin speaks louder to Mrs. Law. He can neither compel nor encourage obedience. He can only reward or punish. Since she is incapable of obedience, that means Mr. Law can only punish.
The entire human race listened to sin from its very first day of existence. Instead of obeying God in the garden, we collectively decided to work for sin and receive its wages. In fact, Romans 5:20 says the only reason God introduced Israel to Mr. Law in the first place was to increase wrongdoing! Mr. Law meant well, but he was utterly powerless to prevent sin and, through his curse, wound up making Israel’s condition worse than it was before.
Meanwhile, Jesus intends the church to be his spotless bride. If she would remain married to Mr. Law, becoming the bride of Christ would be adultery against him. The husband will never die, but the wife has been working for sin and accepting its wages. In Romans 6, Paul showed that the church and its individual members must be dead to sin in order to be alive to righteousness. After all, dead people don’t hate, envy, lust, kill, or any of the other things people who work for sin do. Jesus certainly never encouraged anyone he raised from the dead to go back to their former lives. He explicitly told people not to sin any more.
A church that’s dead to sin and still alive to Mr. Law is in a bad state. Mr. Law has no way to forgive her or take her back. All he can do is keep his wife from accepting the suit of her new husband, Jesus. But she only remains married to him until, like Jesus, she dies! Only then can she become the lawful bride of Christ.
When Mr. Law says not to sin, he insists that we have to do things his way, but we don’t want to. The grace offered by Jesus’ death no longer tells us we have to do anything. Instead, it enables us to want to do all the same things Mr. Law always insisted on. Jesus died, and God promised him the church as his radiant and spotless bride. Only when the church and its members die to Mr. Law as well as to sin will she be possible to be prepared as that bride. Only then is she even capable of wanting to live for him.