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Friday, August 05, 2011

Not Under the Law

It's a happy phrase in Scripture. Paul writes in Romans 6:14 "For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace." Woohoo!! We're free of the law! Yippee!! We're free to sin all we want! Okay, now, most people won't go there, even though the phrase might suggest it. In fact, Paul goes on to say, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!" (Rom 6:15).

Still, this "not under the law" phrase is very popular among modern Christians. It means we don't have to worry about the law, right? Now, when I ask that question, most genuine Christians will become at least vaguely uncomfortable. "It's a trap!" Some will indeed argue for antinomianism -- the position that there is no law and when you're a Christian you can do whatever you want. But most of us know that can't be the case. And a very small amount of searching tells us that "sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4). Thus it cannot mean we are without the law. So what does it mean to say that we're not under the law?

Well, Paul gives a hint over in Galatians. "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law" (Gal 5:18). Notice in that statement there is a condition, a requirement. To be "not under the law" in this reference you have to first be led by the Spirit.

Over in his first letter to Corinth, Paul says:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law (1 Cor 9:19-21).
Note here that Paul says that he became "as under the Law" in order to win Jews even "though not being myself under the Law." There it is again. He goes on to say that he became "as without law" to win those who are without the law to win them as well. However, notice what he says there. It's not that he is without the law. He is "under the law of Christ". Thus, while he is not without the law, neither is he under the Law. Elsewhere, in the very portion where Paul assures us that we are justified by grace through faith, Paul also said, "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom 3:31).

Many have used this concept to say that we have no obligation to keep the Jewish laws. There is the artificial construct of "ceremonial laws" and "moral laws" which we can reason through, but isn't actually found in Scripture. (I'm not saying it's not there; I'm simply saying it's not explicit.) And many, perhaps most, use this "not under the law" as proof. Unfortunately, the result, if followed to its logical conclusion, is lawlessness, or what John calls "sin".

What, then, could it mean? If we are not under the law, but not without the law, how does that work? Well, clearly there are two errors to avoid. First is the error of legalism -- salvation by works. You don't get to heaven by doing what the law says. The second mistake is just as wrong, but off the other side of the road. The position that we have no law falls in the biblical category of "the definition of sin". The truth, then, must be between these two errors.

This can become clear if we examine "not under" versus "not without". You see, for those who are "under the law" there are legal consequences. For instance, the Mosaic Law prescribed death for adultery. Clearly that's not the case anymore. Does that mean that adultery is no longer sin? Not at all! We're not without the law; we're just not under it. The law, then, serves as a description of what God likes and dislikes. He describes, for instance, some sins in Scripture as "an abomination", but if you'll note, some of them are abominable "to you" and others are abominable to Him. Thus, those sins that He finds abominable would be good to avoid. (Note, for instance, that the dietary "abominations" are abominable "to you".)

The law is no longer the weight on the backs of those who follow God. The penalty of the law has been taken by Christ. We are no longer under that penalty. But we are not without the law. The law provides instruction. It guides the believer. It restrains the unbeliever. It stands opposed to sin. Paul says that it also ignites sin in the unbeliever, serving the purpose of demonstrating his sinfulness. The law provides a standard for Christian sanctification. We are not without the law while we are not under the law. It's important that we don't jettison the law in our joy of being out from under it.


Craig said...

Well said.

Stan said...

Thanks, Craig. Haven't seen you for awhile. Glad to know you're still lurking about.

Craig said...

Haven't commented much anywhere for a while. Too many threads have gotten hijacked recently to be worth it.

Marshal Art said...

Ignore the hijackers, I say, OR, have fun demanding they explain and prove their positions.

As to the thread, it was indeed well done. The Law is important, if for nothing else, to instruct us as to what is or is not sinful and behaviors to avoid. Without the Law to instruct us, there would really be no difference between a believer and a non-believer (beyond the insistence that one believes) as I don't see that many people would instinctively know how God wants us to act. Sure, one can say that His Law is written on our hearts. But it is far too easy to justify our wants. A clear list of "thou shalt nots" is imperative for imperfect beings and self-centered beings.

Stan said...

"The law is written on our hearts" is a good point. I mean, that's biblical. Unfortunately, using "our hearts" as proof of "what God wants" is a problem. However, if you understand that indeed the true believer has the law of God written on his/her heart, then 1 John 3:9 makes more sense.