But is that what the verse means? We need only to read the next two verses to see that the apostle Paul ridicules that idea! He writes: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:15-16, NIV).
Some people had assumed that grace meant they could continue in a sinful lifestyle. Paul scorns that idea, saying sin is a form of slavery that leads to death.
But what does Paul mean by “under law” and “under grace”? When the meaning of a Bible passage is unclear, we should first read the context—the verses before and after. That will usually help clear up any confusion. At times we will need to read the entire chapter or even the entire book or how certain language is used elsewhere to see the context.
Interestingly, the epistle to the Romans—the letter that misguided theologians cite the most in arguing that Paul dismissed the Old Testament as being valid for Christians—actually has the largest number of Old Testament quotes that Paul uses to support his teachings! Paul quotes or paraphrases the Old Testament 84 times in this letter—an average of more than five times per chapter!
So it’s nonsensical to argue that Paul in Romans is arguing against the validity or authority of the Old Testament or the laws of God written there. In all, Paul quotes or paraphrases 184 Old Testament passages in his writings (not counting another 83 in the book of Hebrews, which he likely also wrote), and this figure doesn’t include his additional dozens of references to people, places and events in the Old Testament. Who in his right mind quotes from a source as a primary support of his teachings while simultaneously arguing that this source is no longer valid or authoritative? Clearly that makes no sense. (This is addressed in detail in our free book The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God’s Law?)
What subject is Paul addressing?
But back to the context of Romans 6—what subject is Paul actually addressing? In Romans 6:1-2 Paul tells us: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”
The issue or question he is addressing is simple: Can a Christian who has “died to sin”—by recognizing that his or her sin deserves the death penalty, and has sincerely repented, been baptized as a symbol of burying the old person in a watery grave and been symbolically raised to a new life as an entirely new person now led by God’s Spirit—continue in a life of sin? Paul’s answer is blunt and simple: “Certainly not!”
In no way does grace nullify, invalidate or negate God’s law. As explained in this chapter, God’s law is actually another gift of God’s grace toward mankind—it reveals the thinking, character and mind of God and shows us the way He wants us to live! The longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, is one long hymn of praise and thanks to God for the wisdom of God’s law and the blessings it brings to those who obey it. Grace and law don’t contradict one another, they greatly complement each other!
After the first few verses of Romans 6, Paul goes into a detailed discussion of two ways of life. One is our old way of living that led to slavery to sin, suffering and death (sin being the breaking of God’s law, 1 John 3:4). The other, continuing in Romans 6, is to “die with Christ” (Romans 6:8), accepting His sacrifice to pay the death penalty we deserved, symbolically dying and being buried with Him in baptism, then rising from that watery grave “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), now “alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11).
Now living a new life led by God’s Holy Spirit, we are to “not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (Romans 6:12), but to “present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead” (Romans 6:13).
The crux of the matter
Then we come to Paul’s pivotal statement in Romans 6:14: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
With the background leading up to this, Paul’s meaning is clear. For a Christian, “sin shall not have dominion over you”—because Christians are freed from slavery to sin (from being under sin’s “dominion”) by Christ having died for us and are now “dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11). Sin no longer has us enslaved. We have escaped its power and its penalty of death.
“For you are not under law but under grace.” Throughout the chapter up to this point Paul has been comparing and contrasting a sinful way of life that leads to death and a way of receiving and accepting God’s gift of grace and mercy that leads to a new way of life that will ultimately be eternal life.
Now he compares and contrasts two very different outcomes. “Under law,” in this context, is referring to being under the penalty of the law—which, as he has mentioned in nearly every verse up to this point, is death. The law required death as punishment for sin. That never changed. What changed is that through God’s grace, Jesus Christ emptied Himself of the glory, splendor, majesty and power that He shared with God the Father and came to earth as a physical human being to take that awful penalty on Himself in our place (Philippians 2:5-8; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
Because of that supreme sacrifice on our behalf and His resurrection from the dead—also mentioned in nearly every verse in this chapter up to this point—we are no longer under the penalty of death, but “under grace.” In God’s grace He has called us to His truth, forgiven our sins by the sacrifice of His Son, and offers us resurrection to eternal life just as Jesus Christ has been resurrected to eternal life.
Paul goes on to explain the only logical response in the lives of those who experience and recognize this great gift of God’s grace: “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).
In deep gratitude our response to God is to become “slaves of righteousness”—totally committed and dedicated to our new Master and totally rejecting our old master of sin and death. Thus, being under grace does not mean out from under obligation to obey God’s law. Being under grace means out from under the penalty of the law for breaking it so that we may be empowered with new life to live in obedience to it in following Jesus Christ as Ruler of our lives!
Paul summarizes the point of this discussion in the last verse of the chapter, Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “Gift” here translates the Greek word charisma, closely related to the word charis, meaning “grace.” And charisma means “gift”—the gift in this case being “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”—the ultimate gift of God’s grace!