Since writing my book (A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace), I sometimes get questions regarding the relationship between Christians and law. I explore this concept in my book, but I figured I would also write an article addressing some specific questions.
ARE CHRISTIANS UNDER LAW?
The Bible explicitly and unequivocally teaches that Christians are not under law. Paul said:
“For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” Rom. 6:14).
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18).
Some believe that Paul’s reference to “law” is only in relation to the Old Testament law system. But it is vital to understand that Christians are not under any law. It isn’t just the Old Testament Mosaical/Levitical Law Christians are no longer under; Christians are not under any law. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia who were caught up in attempting to be justified by the law, he said:
“…know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
Paul taught that law shouldn’t be viewed through a limited scope. He made the point that, while attempting to be saved through the Old Testament law is wrong, attempting to be saved through any law system is fallacious. This is such an important fact to understand. This is made clear when Paul said:
…if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” (Gal. 3:21).
Furthermore, when Paul condemned justification by law in Rom. 1-5, he didn’t limit his usage to just the Old Testament law. He spoke about the law of the Gentiles and the law of which Abraham was amenable. The law of the Gentiles was separate from the law of Moses (Gal. 2:14-15) and the law that Abraham was under predated the law of Moses (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:15-18). We, as Christians, are under a grace system (not a law system). The Bible compares and contrasts the differences in a works-based law system versus a grace system. Notice the following verses:
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
“… If by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).
“However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
“Be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9).
“The people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Rom. 9:31-32).
IF CHRISTIANS AREN’T UNDER LAW, THEN DOES THIS MEAN THAT A LAW DOES NOT EXIST FOR CHRISTIANS?
Just as clear as the Bible teaches that we are not under law, it is equally clear in establishing that law still exists for Christians. When writing about how Christians are not under law. Paul said:
“Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31).
The Bible teaches that law is very real. Sin is a violation of law (1 Jn. 3:4). Where there is no law, there is no sin (Rom. 4:15). The fact that sin still exists today necessitates that there be a law (Rom. 3:23). The law for Christians is described as the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), the “law of God” (Rom. 7:25), the “law of faith” (Rom. 3:27), and the “law of liberty” (Ja. 1:25; 2:12).
The debate is not whether there is still a law today for God’s people. After all, law (specifically as it pertains to Christians) simply means, “anything established, a precept, a rule producing a state approved by God.” The real issue, then, has to do with how Christians relate to God’s established precepts.
HOW CAN THERE BE A LAW FOR CHRISTIANS TODAY IF CHRISTIANS ARE NOT UNDER A LAW?
It is essential we understand what it means to be “under” law. To be “under” law means that a person is under the judgment and condemnation of the law (Ja. 2:10; Rom. 2:12; Gal. 3:23; 4:5; Deut. 27:26). The Bible says:
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Gal. 3:10).
To not be under law means that Christians are freed from the judgment and condemnation of law. Christians are not obligated to keep the law so as to be saved from God’s righteous judgment. If we were, then nobody could be saved since we have all sinned and are all violators of the law (Rom. 3:10ff, 23). It is because we are not under the law that the Bible can say things such as:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:21).
Jesus came to fulfill the Old Covenant and establish the New Covenant (Heb. 9:15-17; Heb. 10:9-10). When Jesus fulfilled the Old Law (Lk. 24:44), He didn’t take one law system away in order to bring a different or more difficult law system only for mankind to fail again.
Mankind couldn’t be justified by the Old Testament law (which has been falsely presumed by some as an “easier” law where God’s grace covered more and where God was more tolerant). Therefore, on what basis does anyone believe they could be justified by a “New Testament law system” (which has been falsely presumed by some to be a “more difficult” law where God’s grace doesn’t cover as much and He is less tolerant toward believers)? This doesn’t even make sense. Jesus came to show mankind that a law system can’t save us and to deliver us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10-13).
IF WE ARE NOT UNDER LAW, THEN CAN WE DO WHATEVER WE WANT?
When Paul was teaching his listeners about grace and how they were not under law, some falsely concluded that they could do whatever they wanted to do. Paul corrected this mentality (Rom. 6:1-2; Gal. 2:19-22). While we are not under law, we are to live within law.
Paul uses the preposition “en” in 1 Cor. 9:21 when speaking of being “within” Christ’s law. We, as Christians, are to strive to operate within the “law of Christ.” Yet, we are not under the condemnation because we all fall short (1 Jn. 1:7-10). We have been crucified with Christ and should always strive to live within His law (Gal. 2:21). But even when we fall short (and we will, Rom. 7:13-25), there is no condemnation for those who place their faith in Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14; Rom. 8:1). This is what it means to live within law, but not under law.
We cannot rely upon our own obedience to the law to save us (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The righteousness that comes from the law cannot save us (Gal. 2:21). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Mt. 5:17). He came to take away the sins and the curse that the law brings (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10-14; 1 Pet. 2:24). There was not, and is not, any law system by which humans can be justified (Gal. 3:21).
If we want to be justified and righteous in the sight of God, our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Our righteousness can’t come through law if we want to go to heaven; our righteousness must be different. The only way to exceed their righteousness is by having a righteousness that is apart from the law (Rom. 3:21).
Our righteousness must come through Jesus and be in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-4:25; Gal. 2:17-3:25; Phil. 3:9). No matter how hard one tries to follow God, he or she will always fall short – always!
This is why Jesus came to fulfill the law. He didn’t come to take one law system out of the way only to replace it with another.
Instead of living within law in freedom and without condemnation, many Christians have made the New Testament just a different “yoke of bondage” and find themselves living under a law system in which they have no hope. Christians, it is time to begin to live within law, and not under it.