Not Under Law
For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
We come now to one of the most critical and most critically misunderstood aspects about holiness in contemporary American Christianity. This has not always been the case. In past centuries, there was a clearer understanding and a better application of this passage. In this chapter, I want to set out the better understanding first, the poorer understanding second, and then explain to you why the former is better than the latter.
The Classic View
The classic view of the phrase not under the law in church history can be summed up in three basic statements. First, not under the law means that we are not under the ceremonial or civil aspects of the Torah.
The Mosaic Law had three basic sections. The first was the moral law, things that are right in every generation in every culture. Murder has always been a sin against God. It was prior to the Ten Commandments and it is now. That is moral law. The second section was the civil code for Israel, what the Westminster Confession calls the judicial law. This was rules pertaining to Israel as a nation, rules that organized the society politically and nationally, so to speak. The third section was the ceremonial law. This encompassed different aspects and instructions regarding Israel’s religious observances grouped first around the Tabernacle and then the Temple. These were designed to picture the coming Messiah, to help them understand Him, and to help the people keep in mind the purpose of His coming. In this sense, then, not under the law means that as New Testament Christians, we are not under the necessity of observing the Old Testament’s political instructions to national Israel, nor are we required to follow the intricate details of the sacrifices, the feasts, and the Temple worship system. We are, however, still obligated to follow the moral code, the basic rules for right and wrong that are applicable in every generation.
Second, not under the law means that we are no longer under the condemnation of the Mosaic Law. When we placed our faith in Christ’s atoning work on Calvary, we were justified. This justification means that in God’s eyes we are perfectly righteous. The Law cannot condemn us because positionally in Christ we have obeyed it perfectly. The Law could not condemn Jesus and thus it cannot condemn us.
Third, not under the law means that we are no longer powerless to stop sinning. Every human being is born with a basic inability to keep the moral law. As we have seen quite clearly in Romans 6 as children of God we are now out from under the thumb of sin. As I will discuss in more detail in the next chapter, we are now enabled through grace to keep the moral law.
The London Baptist Confession, written in the same century as the Presbyterian Westminster Confession, explains it this way: “The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”
We see then that the classic view of not under the law delivers us from the power of sin, releases us from the Jewish ceremonial obligations, frees us from the civil requirements of political Israel, and yet still requires of us obedience to the timeless precepts of the moral law.
The New View
The new view, which has come into prevalence in the last sixty years or so, goes in an entirely different direction. It, too, can be summed up in three statements.
First, not under the law but under grace means we are accepted by God no matter what we do or how we live. There is nothing we can do or must do in order to make ourselves acceptable to God. It has all been done in Jesus Christ. Philip Yancy, who’s 1997 book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” (we will look at in more detail later), explained this when he wrote, “I fight the tentacular grip of ungrace in my own life. Although I may not perpetuate the strictness of my upbringing, I battle daily against pride, judgmentalism, and a feeling that I must somehow earn God’s approval… By instinct I feel I must do something in order to be accepted. Grace sounds a startling note of contradiction, of liberation.”
Second, while it is true that the Christian is called to live a holy life this life is not a matter of rules; it is a matter of relationship. God is not pleased with me on the basis of what I do or do not do. The rules are not important, indeed, there are no more rules; the Law is gone in every respect. What is important is that I am a child of God, secure in Christ. Consequently, feeling close to my Father and resisting the urge to judge other people is what is vital.
Third, in progression then we are not under any rules or commandments other than these two: we are to love God and to love people. Every other commandment, instruction, ordinance, rule, or requirement is gone. All of our thoughts and actions are now to be driven solely by the rule of love. In Charles Swindoll’s influential 1990 book, “The Grace Awakening”, he explains it this way: “I like the way some saint of old once put it: ‘Love God with all your heart… then do as you please.’ The healthy restraint is in the first phrase, the freedom is in the second. That’s how to live a grace-oriented, liberated life.”
Reasons for and Responses to the New View
A blind man on horseback a mile away can see the startling dichotomy between the classic view and the new view. Thinking Christians on both sides of the debate paint it in stark terms. How did this shift come about? Or perhaps I should say, what thinking underlies this shift in perspective from the classic view to the new view
First, those who hold the new view reject the division of the Mosaic Law into civil, ceremonial, and moral segments. They insist that such divisions are foisted upon the Old Testament externally by theologians and are not supported within Scripture. Thus the Law is one, entirely linked, and if we are not under the Law then all of the Law is gone.
If this is indeed the case why does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount go to such great pains to expound aspects of the moral law? Indeed, He did not just expound upon it but strengthened the then currently weak understanding of its application with His famous but I say unto you. If Jesus saw no distinctive segments in the Law, why did He so clearly call for men to obey its moral commands? “Yes, well, then, the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to us today.” If that is the case why does Paul repeat, explain, and emphasize so much of it in his epistles? Such a position – throwing out all that Jesus said and did prior to the cross – is absurd.
Second, those who hold the new view assert that Jesus fulfilled and thus ended the purpose of the Mosaic Law. (Matthew 5:17)
It is true that Christ fulfilled the ceremonial aspects of Judaism’s Temple observances. These pointed forward in time to His arrival and work; He had arrived and those external observances were no longer necessary. Hebrews expresses this in wondrous detail. It is also true that Jesus fulfilled the moral aspects of the Law. He stood before a crowd of people that hated Him and asked, Which of you convinceth me of sin? (John 8:46) What is not true is that “fulfilled” always means “ended.” Christ fulfilled the moral aspects of the Law to perfection but that does not mean He abolished the necessity for you and me to fulfill them.
Third, those who hold the new view say that the only commands Jesus ever gave was the command to love God and the command to love our neighbor. (Matthew 22:35-40) Thus, the dictum “love God and do as you please” arrives.
It is true that love is the fulfilling of the law. All of the commandments are comprehended in this saying. (Romans 13:9-10) But “comprehended” does not mean “thrown out”; On these two hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40) does not mean there are only two rules. It means these two thoughts are the guiding principles that underlie the moral law, that drive the moral law. These two principles are like nails driven into a wall; every aspect of the moral law hangs on one of these two – but they still hang there. The existence of these two foundational principles does not eliminate God’s laws rather it explains the motivation behind them.
People often say to me, “But, Pastor, their heart is in the right place.” Good. Mere outward obedience without the correct inward motivation – love – is not enough. By the same token, mere inward motivation – love – without outward obedience is not enough either. Holiness is not simply a feeling of love inside my heart; it is an inward grace that works its way outward. Holiness does not throw out rules; it keeps the rules – for the right reason, in the right spirit, with the right power – but it still keeps them.
Fourth, those that hold the new view believe that the New Testament illustration of Christian liberty as revealed in the discussion about eating meat offered to idols is applicable here. It is a guiding principle for all activity in the Christian life.
It is true that Paul obviously grants God’s people liberty to choose whether to perform some actions or to abstain. (Romans 14, I Corinthians 8) What is not true is that Paul applied this to the entirety of the Christian life. The Bible is the revelation of God. If in that revelation He makes clear and plain what He expects I do not have the liberty to ignore such instructions. What I do have liberty in is those areas about which His revelation is not clear. Thou shalt and thou shalt not are about as clear as it gets. God’s expectation that I obey the moral law has not changed because of the dispensation in which I live.
Adam Clarke, an 18th century Methodist theologian whose 6,000 pages of Bible commentary represent his life work, said,
“Your liberty is from that which would oppress the spirit; not from that which would lay restraints on the flesh. The gospel proclaims liberty from the ceremonial law; but binds you still faster under the moral law. To be freed from the ceremonial law is the gospel liberty; to pretend freedom from the moral law is antinomianism.”
An antinomian (from the Greek word for “lawless”) uses the cover of grace to ignore the necessity for obedience to God. Clarke’s point is that when your guiding principle for spirituality is Christian liberty the result will be a Christianity that is anemic, worldly, and licentious yet completely justified in the eyes of its consumers. Who knew Clarke was seeing three centuries into the future?
The fifth support for this new view of not under the law is the idea that the Mosaic Law was never intended to be kept in the first place. It was not given to lead us to perfection; it was given to show us our sin. Its very inability to lead us to moral perfection becomes the impetus for pointing us to the cross of Christ as the only real solution. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:23-25)
I heartily agree that this is the over-arching purpose of the Law. We will shortly here in Book Three examine Romans 7 in which Paul states, I had not known sin, but by the law. The moral law reveals to us our desperate condition, sold under sin. At the same time, the ceremonial law points us to the only possible solution, Jesus Christ. Having said that, my agreement does not mean that it then follows that the Law is no longer necessary. This is true in that the Law still accomplishes both of these aspects, though the ceremonial one is only in retrospect. But it is also true because as we shall see in the next chapter under grace does not revoke the Law, rather it gives us the power to obey it in actuality, a power we never had prior to salvation when we were under the condemnation of the Law.
Reasons for the Classic View
I mentioned above that the idea that the moral law is still in force is the long-held traditional view of orthodox Christianity. Having said that, there are better reasons to hold the classic view than just the fact that so many learned men down through the centuries have done so. As Baptists we hold that our sole authority is the Word of God. It must be to the Scriptures then that we turn in order to find support for the classic view.
The two-word phrase the law occurs three hundred twenty-six times in two hundred eighty-one verses in the KJV. I have looked at every single one. In the Old Testament the term can be loosely organized into the following three usages:
- The law refers to individual laws, as in the law of the trespass offering, for example. In context, it is isolated to the terms of a specific instruction. Such usage is not helpful for our purposes here.
- The law refers to a foreign legal code, as the law of the Medes and Persians, for example. Obviously, this kind of usage does not help us either.
- Most of the time, however, that the law is used in the Old Testament it refers to the entire body of the Mosaic Law via terms such as the law of Moses, God’s law, the law of God, the book of the law, etc.
The New Testament uses this same term, the law, five different ways.
- As in the Old Testament, the law refers most often to the entire body of the Mosaic Law.
- Occasionally, the law references the civil legal code of a particular time and place.
- The law refers to salvation by grace through faith, as in the phrase the law of faith. This phrase does not mean the Law’s purpose of revealing sin and pointing to Christ. It means the absolute rule that justification comes to us not by works but solely by faith.
- The law refers to the rule of sin in the unsaved person, as in the law of sin, a phrase Paul uses twice in Romans 7 and once in Romans 8. He is not referring to the Mosaic Law but rather to the old nature, the warped bent of our fleshly desires that drives us instinctively in the direction of unrighteousness.
- Finally, the law refers to the reign of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, as in the law of the Spirit, a phrase Paul uses in Romans 8. He is not referencing the Mosaic Law, but rather, the new principle which rules in the child of God, the godly desires of the new nature, the new man who hungers and thirsts after righteousness.
You can immediately see the problem, or at least the source of some of the confusion. If you mistakenly mix up one definitive use with another you will stand on a point God never made. Indeed, I have run into such carelessness more times than I care to remember in discussions on this topic with various people. Paul himself uses the law in most of these senses in the book of Romans and it is incumbent upon me to understand that, isolate those usages, and apply them appropriately.
I am not going to weary you with further explanation of my approach. I mention it here just to give you an understanding of how and why I arrived at my reasoning in this section.
What is that reasoning then? What drives me to hold the classic view rather than the much more popular new view? Essentially, it boils down to this: how Jesus and Paul spoke of the Law.
For example, Jesus clearly tells us that He did not come to destroy the Law, indeed, that the Law cannot actually be destroyed.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17-18)
In other passages Jesus speaks of the Law only in terms of the greatest respect, and constantly advocates obedience to it. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Matthew 23:23) And to those who would argue that we are no longer under the law I would offer Jesus’ classic expression of the eternality of the Law in Luke 16:17. After marking a clear dispensational shift around the time of John the Baptist, He said, It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail. You can argue that by “fail” here He meant no longer be true, and I would respectfully disagree. Such an instruction pairs exactly with the differentiation between sign gifts that do “fail” or stop being applicable (I Corinthians 13), and the Word of God that always remains applicable.
In fact, Jesus makes it a repeated point of emphasis to explain much of the moral law, and to stress the importance of obeying its commands. In fact, He equated obedience to the commandments to love for Himself. If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15) He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me. (John 14:21) If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love. (John 15:10). Each of these three He gave to His Apostles in the context of what He expected of them after His crucifixion.
Yes, those commandments – the moral law – hang on two nails of love, but He obviously meant for numerous commandments to continue to apply in the Church age. There is no other reasonable explanation here in this context. The Apostle whom Jesus loved, John the Beloved, interpreted Jesus’ instructions this way for sixty years later he wrote, For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments (I John 5:3).
Paul, the Church’s original theologue, discussed the Law quite often obviously, and if you genuinely want to understand what he wrote in Romans 6:14-15 you have to place it within the context of all that he said about it. For example, when discussing the interaction between sin, faith, and justification a few chapters earlier he said, Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:31) Why would he establish in chapter three that which he was soon to abolish in chapter six? The truth is faith in Christ does not eliminate the Law; it establishes it more firmly than ever. By faith we trust that He fulfilled the prophecies and pictures inherent in the ceremonial law. By faith we grow in holiness as we depend upon the Spirit to enable us to fulfill the dictates of the moral law. Both of these are only possible when we place our faith in Christ.
In Romans 7 Paul repeatedly speaks positively of the Law. We know that the law is spiritual and I delight in the law of God after the inward man. Again, why would he say such things if he had eliminated it in toto in the previous chapter? Obviously, he was not eliminating the Law for in the following chapter he calls on us to obey it. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law – the Mosaic Law – could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; That the righteousness of the law – the right and wrong portion of the Mosaic Law, the moral law – might be fulfilled in us. (Romans 8:2-4) I am no longer under the condemnation of the Law and the stranglehold of sin. Now I am free to fulfill its commandments through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Law in both cases – before and after my salvation – is the same; the difference is in how we are empowered to keep it. When I am unsaved, in the flesh, I am powerless because of sin. When I am saved, in the Spirit, I am empowered to keep it. The moral law did not change; what changed was now I can actually obey it whereas before that was impossible.
Elsewhere, Paul is careful to explain that the portion of the Law that was set aside was only the ceremonial observances that pointed toward Christ. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
No, beloved, the Law is not abolished. It is fulfilled in Christ, and through His grace to us, via the Spirit we are empowered to keep it. The ceremonial aspects are fulfilled but that only changes our observance of that aspect; it does not abolish the moral code. For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. (Hebrews 7:12)
This chapter is not just theological hair-splitting. The practical ramifications of taking the wrong position here are deep. Simply put, your own feelings become your guide. There are no rules. There is only relationship. So as long as you feel close to God you are ok in your own mind. You have the mind of Christ. You are walking in the Spirit. You are living in liberty. So long as you love God you can do as you please.
The depth of the behavioral problems that stem from the above paragraph are found in our reliance upon our own heart for guidance. But our heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. (Jeremiah 17:9) The demonic beings which we so often ignore in this spiritual war are likewise deceptive. (2 Corinthians 11:14-15; I John 4:1) This is the scriptural explanation for why there is a direct correlation in American Christianity between the ever-rising popularity of the new view and the worldliness of said Christianity. I do not doubt my brethren in Christ’s sincerity; I highly doubt the wisdom and scriptural validity of their worldly application.
The Holy Spirit will guide you – but never contrary to Scripture. You can know the mind of Christ – it is revealed in Scripture. Our religion is a relationship – and I know how I am doing in that relationship, not based on my feelings, but based on my obedience to His will as revealed in Scripture. It is not my internal spiritual instincts and/or my twinges of conscience that are to guide me, rather it is what saith the Scripture? (Romans 4:3)
Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Concerning Jesus Blog. Used by permission.