“Not Under Law, But Under Grace?” (Part 1)


We read the following in Romans 6:14-15:

“For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”

What does it mean to be under grace and not under law? And how does this explain why sin does not rule over us anymore?

There is much confusion in traditional Christianity regarding this passage (“not under law, but under grace”). It is one of the most misunderstood statements in orthodox Christianity. The common explanation is that the law has been abolished, and that we are now under God’s grace and freed from any obligation to keep the law.

Notice the following examples from Bible commentaries.

The Pulpit Commentary states: “… grace condones sin… the principle of law is to exact complete obedience to its behests; but the principle of grace is to accept faith in lieu of complete obedience…”

The idea is expressed here that grace has replaced the law or obedience to it.

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary writes: “To be ‘under the law’ is, first, to be under its claim to entire obedience; and so, next under its curse for the breach of these. And as all power to obey can reach the sinner only through Grace, of which the law knows nothing, it follows that to be ‘under the law’ is, finally, to be shut up under an inability to keep it, and consequently to be the helpless slave of sin… The curse of the law has been completely lifted from off them… when they were ‘under the law,’ Sin could not but have dominion over them…”

Even though a few remarks in the quote are at least partially correct, it must be recognized that the authors probably did not understand their own words. That is, we cannot assume from the foregoing that the commentary grasped the correct meaning of the term, “the curse of the law” or what it actually means to be “under the law,” as it equates the law with being a slave of sin. The overall tenor is again that grace has replaced the law.

The Geneva Study Bible writes that “the law is… the power and instrument of sin.” It does not explain what this is supposed to mean, but the impression is that the law causes us to sin. This would be totally wrong.

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible state: “We who are Christians are not subject to that law where sin is excited, and where it rages unsubdued.”

This is equally difficult to understand. However, the commentary continues to ask the following pertinent question:

“What is meant by this declaration? Does it mean that Christians are absolved from all the obligations of the law?… The apostle does not affirm that Christians are not bound to obey the moral law. The whole scope of his reasoning shows that he maintains that they are. The whole structure of Christianity supposes the same thing; compare Matthew 5:17-19.”

So far so good. But then, the commentary goes on to mix elements of truth with elements of error, saying:

“… the apostle means to say that Christians are not under the law as legalists, or as attempting to be justified by it. They seek a different plan of justification altogether: and they do not attempt to be justified by their own obedience.”

It is true that we cannot be justified by the law. But in failing to understand what is meant with being “under the law” and seemingly equating this with being “legalists,” the commentary’s reasoning is faulty.

Let us begin to give the answer as to what Paul meant, by explaining the statement that true Christians are no longer “under law.”

Even though it is true that at times, Paul means with the word “law” the temporary ritual law which is no longer in force and effect for us today (compare, for example, Romans 5:13-14; Galatians 3:17, 19, 24-25), the context of Romans 6:14-15 addresses, at least in part, the spiritual law (some call it “moral law”) of the Ten Commandments.

Paul is telling us in Romans 2:13 that the doers of the law, and not the hearers, will be justified. (James 1:25 says the same thing, and James 2:8-12 shows that the law is a reference to the Ten Commandments, and that we are guilty of the transgression of the entire law if we break just one of the Ten Commandments. Compare also James 4:11-12).

In Romans 2:22-23, Paul reconfirms that he is speaking of the Ten Commandments (referring to idolatry and adultery as examples), when he says that we dishonor God when we break the law.

Romans 3:31 does away with the wrong concept that because of faith, we are no longer bound to keep the law. Rather, Paul says here that we do not make void the law of God through faith, but quite to the contrary, we are establishing the law (of the Ten Commandments).

To leave no doubt as to how Paul felt about the law of God, he tells us in Romans 7:12 that the law is holy, and that the commandment (that is, any one of the Ten Commandments) is holy and just and good.

He also adds in Romans 7:14 that the law of God is spiritual, and he states in Romans 8:7, 9, that the carnal mind does not and cannot obey the law of God in its final spiritual application, and that one must have God’s Spirit dwelling in them to be able to obey the law of God.

In Romans 13:8-10, Paul emphasizes that God’s law is a law of love, and that we fulfill the law (at least the portion of the law which deals with our relationship with our fellow man) when we love our neighbor. He stresses the same in Galatians 5:14, stating that all the law (dealing with our fellow man) is fulfilled by us when we love our fellow man; and he says in Galatians 6:2 that we fulfill the law of Christ when we love our neighbor by bearing his burden.

However, many have a wrong concept of love, thinking that we can love someone while breaking God’s law. This is totally false. When we break God’s law, we do NOT love our fellow man. God’s law DEFINES for us what true love is. We read in 1 John 5:3 that “this IS the love of God, that we keep His commandments.” When we commit adultery with our neighbor’s wife, we do not love our neighbor or his wife. When we kill or lie to or steal from our neighbor, we do NOT love our neighbor.

The same is expressed in 1Timothy 1:9-10 where we read that the law is not made for the righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, and then Paul lists numerous examples of sinful conduct. This statement must not be twisted to say that the righteous is under no obligation to keep the law. Rather, as long as he lives righteously, he obeys it and the law is not convicting him as a transgressor; but once he begins to disobey it, he lives no longer in righteousness and has become a transgressor of the law.

In what way then are we no longer “under law”?

In our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound…”, we explain this phrase as follows, on page 18:

“… Others quote Romans 6:14, stating that we are no longer ‘under law but under grace,’ saying this means we don’t have to obey the law anymore. However, the correct meaning of this passage is that when we violate the law, we are no longer under the curse of the law—the death penalty—as the blood of Christ, given to us by grace, has covered and forgiven our sins—has paid the death penalty that we earned. Paul explains in the very next verse (verse 15), that this does not mean that we can now continue to sin—that is, to break God’s law. Rather, we are now to be ‘slaves of righteousness’ (verse 18), in keeping God’s law.”

Some may question this statement, asking for further proof that this conclusion is correct. Let us therefore review additional passages where the term “under law” is mentioned, and let us see in what way this phrase is used. We need to note that in Romans 6:14-15, the Greek word for “under” is “hupo.” We will limit our discussion to the use of that Greek word.

In Galatians 4:4-5, we read:

“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born UNDER (Greek: “hupo”) THE LAW, to redeem those who were UNDER (Greek: “hupo”) THE LAW, that we might receive the adoption as son (better: “sonship”).”

In our free booklet, “Paul’s Letter to the Galatians—How to Understand It,” we explain this passage as follows:

“Christ had to be made UNDER the law—subject to its penalty—as Christ never sinned. He never was under the law—its penalty—due to His conduct; rather, He had to be placed or made under the law, so that He could pay the penalty of sin for us. We came under the law—its penalty—through our conduct, so Christ had to be MADE UNDER the law, in order to redeem us who were under the law—its penalty.

“And why? To give us SONSHIP! The Authorized Version translates verse 5, erroneously, as ‘adoption’ (compare, too, Romans 8:15), but the correct rendering is ‘sonship.’ God is not only ‘adopting’ us ‘as sons,’ by granting us certain privileges and possessions, but He is reproducing Himself—His very divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)—in us. When we receive His Holy Spirit, we are BEGOTTEN sons and daughters of God, and when we are changed into spirit at the time of Christ’s return, we are then BORN AGAIN children of God—not just adopted children, but children with the very same NATURE and MIND of God (Philippians 2:5).”

Another passage, where the term “under the law” is used, is in Galatians 4:21. It reads: “Tell me, you who desire to be under (Greek: “hupo”) the law, do you not hear the law?”

In the above-mentioned booklet on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we state:

“Paul is not saying here that they desired to be under the law in the sense that they wanted to be under the penalty of the law. They did not desire to die because of their sins. But they seemed to desire to live their old way of life again (which brings forth death)—or they desired to follow wrong teachers believing that they must be circumcised in order to be saved.

“But as we saw, circumcision does not justify us—nor do even the Ten Commandments. In violating just one of the Ten Commandments, we have sinned and incurred the death penalty. What saves us is Christ’s sacrifice, by which God forgives us our sins and removes the penalty—but we can’t keep on sinning so that grace may abound.

“To put it differently, if we desire to break God’s law of the Ten Commandments, we are again under the law; that is, under or subject to its penalty. Also, if we desire to obtain justification apart from Christ, we are still under or subject to the penalty of the law, as we can only become justified through Christ.

“Furthermore, Paul is using the word ‘law’ in different ways in verse 21. To be ‘under the law’ means, under its penalty; when he then says, ‘hear the law,’ he means the five books of Moses.”

A third passage can be found in Galatians 5:18. It reads: “But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under (Greek: “hupo”) the law.”

Our above-mentioned booklet on Paul’s letter to the Galatians explains this passage in this way:

“We can choose to walk in the Spirit (verse 16), which will motivate and empower us to KEEP the law of love, and when we do, we will not fulfill the lust of the flesh which will induce us to sin and to break the law (compare 1 John 3:4: ‘Sin is the transgression of the law.’). But if we chose, instead, to walk in the flesh, we don’t show love, but selfishness, and we will engage in biting and devouring one another (verse 15)…

“To walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh is a constant struggle, as Paul explains in verse 17. There is a battle going on in our minds between God’s Spirit and our fleshly desires… When we are led by God’s Spirit and do the things which are pleasing in God’s sight, we are no longer ‘under the law’ (verse 18). When we walk after the Spirit and are led by it, we will keep the law. And since and as long as we don’t break it, we are not under the penalty of the law.”

When we are under the law, we are under its penalty for having violated it. The law has dominion over us in that it can demand our life. The penalty of the law is also described as the “curse of the law.” We are under that curse when we sin, and nothing that WE might do subsequently can abolish that curse.

Galatians 3:10, 13 tells us: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under (Greek: “hupo”) 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.’… Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)…”

Our afore-mentioned booklet on Paul’s letter to the Galatians states the following:

“Paul conveys the thought that nobody kept all the physical works of the law, including all of its rituals, washings or sacrifices. In addition, nobody even kept all of God’s spiritual commandments of the Ten Commandments and its judgments and statutes. Therefore, everybody is under the curse or penalty of the law, which is the second death for spiritual sin or which might be physical death or other physical penalties for civil or criminal infractions…

“The curse of the law is the penalty for breaking or violating the law. Christ redeemed us from the curse or penalty of the law—not the law—as He became a curse for us, in that He took our sins upon Himself and paid the penalty for our sins on our behalf. He thereby redeemed us or set us free from the penalty of death, which we brought upon ourselves by sinning—breaking the law.”

In the same way, we are “under” sin (“hupo” in Greek), as Romans 3:9 says (“we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.”). When we sin, then we are under the power or influence of sin. Sin has us in its clutches. Rather than ruling over it (Genesis 4:7), it rules over us. And as carnal human beings, we cannot keep the law of God (Romans 8:7). But even after conversion, a fight of good vs. evil is going on in our minds and in our lives. Paul was still compelled to say, years after his conversion, that he was “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14; Greek: “hupo”) and did “evil” (Romans 7:19), obeying the “sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:17, 20), and being held in “captivity” to sin (Romans 7:23).

When we sin by transgressing the law (compare Romans 4:15), then we are under sin, under the law, under the curse of the law, under its penalty. Sin has power over us so long as that penalty is not removed, because the penalty of sin—the wages of sin—is death (Romans 6:23). So, death needs to be removed.

In the next installment, we will discuss how death is removed; what it means to be “under grace”; and how this may destroy sin’s dominion over us.

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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