The apostle Paul refers to the law of sin and death in Romans 8:1–2: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” What is the “law of sin and death”?
In these verses, Paul contrasts two laws: the law of the Spirit and the law of sin and death. The law of the Spirit is the gospel or good news of Jesus, the message of new life through faith in the resurrected Christ. The law of sin and death is the Old Testament Law of God. The Law is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12), but, because we cannot keep God’s Law on our own, the result is only sin and death for those under the Law.
Romans 7:5 explains Paul’s focus on the Law as leading to sin and death: “For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.” In contrast, the “way” or law of the Spirit is noted in Romans 7:6: “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” The Law itself is not sinful (Romans 7:7). However, the Law defined sin and stirred up our natural rebellion against God’s rules, resulting in sin and death.
Romans 7:10–11 speaks of how sin, death, and the Law are connected: “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.” This death refers to spiritual separation from God. Shackled by our depraved nature, we naturally opposed the Law, and we found that God’s life-giving Word served only to sentence us to death. It is because of this that Paul can refer to the Law as the “law of sin and death.”
The conclusion of Romans 7 shows the need of the gospel to deliver us from the consequences of sin under the Law: “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22–25).
The next chapter, Romans 8, begins by declaring there is no longer any condemnation or judgment for those who are in Christ. We have been released from the law of sin and death. Paul’s argument from Romans 7 transitions in Romans 8 to a rejoicing over the change the gospel makes in the lives of those who believe in Jesus. The chapter concludes by confirming, in the strongest terms possible, that believers can never be separated from God’s love: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).