top of page

No longer under the law

What is the law?

This seems like a foolish question, but it is a very necessary one. When the phrase, “the law”, is used in the Bible, and in particular in the New Testament, it does not always refer to the same thing. Of course most of us understand this to some extent, and we readily point out that there is the ceremonial law, and there is also the moral law. However, for the most part this is not really the most significant understanding which we need to have.

Yes, sometimes the word “law” referred to the 10 Commandments, sometimes to the ceremonial laws including the rituals and the sacrifices, but it is very important to understand that many times it also referred to the entire system of government which was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. This includes all aspects of the law, the moral, the ceremonial, the health, as well as the civil laws. In fact, there are times when reference is made to the law, and it really means the entire Old Testament Scriptures! This wider understanding is important and I want to demonstrate this quickly by looking at a couple of Scriptures.

The law – all the Old Testament Scriptures.

In John 10:34 we find the following statement:
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? (John 10:34)

Jesus was speaking to the Jews and he was making reference to a statement found in Psalm 82:6. In this Psalm, God states, I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. (Ps 82:6-7)

God here, actually refers to the Jews as “gods”. But what is interesting is that Jesus quotes this statement and says, it is written, “in your law!” Here, Jesus himself refers to the book of Psalms as being a part of the law. This demonstrates the fact that the entire Old Testament was considered to be, in a broad sense, the law. This was so because it contained the laws, the principles, the rules of life by which the Israelites were expected to live. Sometimes it was referred to as, “the law and the prophets,” but in this instance Jesus simply referred to it as, “your law”. It is necessary that we keep this broader understanding in mind as we continue to discuss this issue.


So now we come to the key question; what does it really mean to be, “under the law”? The simplest and the most obvious way to arrive at an answer to this question is to allow the apostle Paul to explain it himself. We should notice that Paul is the only writer in the entire Bible who actually uses the phrase, “under the law”, so of course we are interested in understanding his interpretation of the phrase.

In 1 Corinthians 9:20, 21, Paul uses the same phrase and in this passage we see clearly what he means by the phrase:

And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. (1Cor 9:20-21)

Here is the same passage from the New International Version.

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. (1Cor 9:20-21)

Paul identifies the Jews as being the people who were under the law, and he speaks of other people as not having the law, or, not being under the law. From this passage it becomes clear that when Paul speaks of being under the law he is referring to being under the administration, or the jurisdiction of the law. What he is saying is that when he was dealing with the Jews he lived as the Jews lived. He adopted the practices of the law and lived in harmony with their beliefs so as to break down prejudice and make it easier for them to listen to him. When he was working among the Gentiles he did the opposite; he did not conform to the practices of the law while among them, and again, this was so that he would avoid creating prejudice in their minds. This was Paul’s principle of operation, he knew that it did not matter whether he observed the works of the law or not, but he adapted himself to suit the customs of the people he was working with so as to make it easier to gain an entrance to their hearts. He himself explained it this way:

To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1Cor 9:22)

So now we have a clear definition of what the phrase means, given by the only person who uses the phrase. We see that it does not mean to be condemned by the law, but to be under the government of the law. The Jews were governed by the law, but the Gentiles were not. If we are honest people, from this point on we should not allow denominational bias to pervert or to distort this clear definition given to us by Paul. Let us put down our preconceived ideas and see where the Scriptures will take us. Armed with this definition let us now look at the other passages where the phrase is used. We go first of all to Galatians 3:23.

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. (Gal 3:23)

Here Paul tells us that before faith came, we, the people of God were kept under the law, meaning of course, under the administration, or under the government of the law. This is referring to the way God governed and directed the nation of Israel before the coming of Christ. He says that they were kept under the law before faith came. The coming of faith refers to the coming of Jesus, as the previous verse makes clear.

But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. (Gal 3:22)

The promise is given to those that believe and it is given by the faith of Jesus Christ. In other words, we receive the promise by faith in Jesus, or by having the faith which centers around Jesus Christ. When we examine the rest of the passage carefully we see that this promise is the promise of the Holy Spirit.

That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:14)

So before the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s people were kept under the law, under the government of the law. The way of the faith of Jesus Christ which is the way of the Holy Spirit was not yet revealed and until that time God placed his people under the law. The meaning is unmistakable, especially when we look at the following verses which are taken from the same passage:

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. (Gal 3:24-25)

Notice, the law was our schoolmaster. We are no longer under a schoolmaster.

Under a schoolmaster = under the law
Not under a schoolmaster = not under the law

Again I want to point out, being under the schoolmaster does not mean being condemned by the schoolmaster. When I went to school and was under the teacher, it was not in order that the teacher might condemn me, but in order that I might learn and that I might be disciplined. The law was a schoolmaster, not to condemn, but to teach and to discipline until the coming of the better system which was brought by Jesus Christ. This is what the apostle Paul is saying, and this is exactly the meaning of the phrase in every place that he uses it. So Paul is saying that the Jews were under the administration of the system of the law, not that they were all condemned by the law. We can see clearly how Paul applies this understanding to the following situation:

Under Dominion

Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. (Rom 7:1-3)

Notice that Paul uses the word, “dominion”, to refer to the authority that the law has over a person. The law was what controlled the lives of the Jews. Paul is referring to Jews because he says, “I speak to them that know the law”. The law controlled every aspect of their lives including the marriage relationship, so it was the law which demanded that a woman should stay with her husband as long as he was alive. They were under the dominion, or the government of the law. Paul then goes on to apply this analogy to our experience as Christians.

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. (Rom 7:4-6)

It is very difficult to understand what Paul is saying here unless we first understand what it means to be under the law. Paul says we have become dead to the law. What he means is that we are no longer under the dominion of the law, or the government of the law. The law no longer controls our relationships (remember the illustration he gave, how the law made it necessary for the woman to stay with her husband). We have been delivered from the law, this is the word he uses. What he means is that we have been delivered from the government, or the dominion of the law! It no longer controls our lives and determines how we behave moment by moment. This is the hardest point for Adventists to accept, but if we read the Bible with honest hearts we cannot escape the truth that this is what Paul is saying.

Why is it necessary for us to be delivered from the government of the law? It is because the law was designed to be the governor of carnal people! In 1 Tim 1:9,10 we read:

Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; (1Tim 1:9-10)

There is a relationship between the law and carnality which is inescapable. As long as we are carnal, or as Paul puts it, we are in the flesh, or married to the old man, the law is our governor, we are under its dominion because it was made for people like us! Conversely, as long as we remain under the dominion of the law we will always be operating from the basis of the flesh, because the law can only relate to the flesh, it was never designed to be the governor of the spirit. So by choosing to remain under the dominion of the law, we are choosing to remain in the realm of the flesh. But Paul says to those of us who have come to Christ,

But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. (Rom 7:6)

We are delivered from the law, we are no longer under its dominion or its government, because the thing that held us is dead. He is referring to the carnal nature, the old man, the body of sin which was put to death when the Spirit of Christ came into our hearts. So now we serve God, not in the oldness of the letter – that is, no longer in keeping with the demands of the law relating to outward behaviour – but in newness of spirit. We are told in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “the Lord is that Spirit”. So the new law which governs our lives is Christ within. We have living contact with God and are not governed from outside by external rules, but from within by the promptings of the Spirit of the living God! This is what the new covenant is, it is the writing of the law of God upon our hearts but not in the legalistic way as many interpret it! It is not the inscribing of 10 sentences upon our memories, it is the impartation of the very nature of God through the living spirit of God and his son!

This is the amazing truth of the new covenant! This is the wonderful reality that the legalistic mind will not accept! But brothers and sisters, should we accept what the Bible says? Can any reasonable person look at the evidence presented and contradict the fact that this is what Paul is saying? I know why this is so hard for Adventists to accept, they think that it will destroy their mission to emphasize the 10 Commandments, and maybe it will. However, Paul is not saying that the 10 Commandments have been abolished, what he is saying is that it is no longer our governor, it no longer has dominion over those who are led by the Spirit. And so he says,
But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. (Gal 5:18)
With this background it is simple to understand what he is saying. Those who possess the spirit of Christ are no longer under the government or the dominion of the law.

For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom 6:14)

When we were under the law sin always had dominion over us. The law demanded good behaviour from the flesh. It required an impossibility and when he was under the law all Paul could say was,

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. (Rom 7:21-23)

The problem was not unwillingness, the problem was not lack of effort, the problem was not lack of education, not lack of awareness of what was required, the problem was being in the flesh, being carnal. This is what the law was designed to govern, to control and to dominate. It was a relationship that was bound to produce frustration and failure. The law was good and will always be good, but it was not good enough to rule the lives of God’s people, for it could never produce what God wanted. Thank God, it was only intended to last, until Christ arrived and put the better system in place!

The three laws

I like to refer to this as Paul’s Gospel, because of all the Bible writers the apostle Paul expresses this more clearly than anyone else. Paul goes on to reinforce his point that righteous living in the Christian is not the product of education, is not the product of hard work, is not the product of laborious effort, but is the consequence of the new life that we now possess! A miracle takes place and good fruit begins to appear in our lives naturally. Jesus also taught this truth when he said,

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. (Matt 7:17-18)

Paul expresses it another way:

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 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 might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom 8:2-4)

Notice the means by which we are set free from the law of sin, it is “the law of the Spirit of life” which sets me free. What is this law and how does it work? Actually this passage is a continuation of Romans chapter 7 where Paul showed us the problem a person experiences when he is under the law. In chapter 7 Paul expressed the dilemma in this way:

For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. (Rom 7:22-23)

Notice Paul speaks of two laws, one of them is the law of God or the 10 Commandments. Paul says that inwardly he delights in this law, meaning he desires to obey this law, he recognizes that it is good. But he says there is a second law which exists in his body and it is in conflict with the 10 Commandment law which is in his mind. The result of this second law is that he cannot obey the 10 Commandments and he has become a slave to this law which rules in his body. It is this same law, or principle which he refers to as, “sin that dwells within me”, “the old man”, “the flesh”, “the body of sin”. The real problem is, the 10 Commandments are legal rules, what they do is demand behaviour, but they cannot produce that behaviour.
The law of sin which exists in the body of the carnal person is not a legal law, it is a law of nature, it is the natural product of the carnal person and it lives within him regardless of how he’s educated, regardless of what he wants to do, regardless of what is demanded of him. Because it exists in him by nature, it will always overcome his education, it will always overcome what an external legal law demands of him. This is why the 10 Commandments can never succeed in fulfilling what God wants, because it can only require or demand, it can never produce.

But in Jesus Christ God has established a third law, it is the law of the Spirit of life. This is a law of nature, not a legal rule. Where is this law to be found? It is to be found in Christ Jesus, in the life of Jesus, which is the Holy Spirit. So Paul says, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, has made me free from the law of sin which was in my members! One natural law defeats the first natural law. The 10 Commandment law could not do this, because it was weak through the flesh! Legal law cannot win the battle against natural law. A legal rule will bring some kind of conformity, some outward forms of morality, but it can never produce true righteousness and so the government of legal law has been abolished as a system by which God’s people are ruled! Something far better has been put in place, it is the government of the Spirit of life. This government does not demand righteous behaviour, rather, it produces righteous behaviour. Instead of God demanding something from man, God provides something for man, and all that man is asked to do is to believe the word of God and to receive the blessing!

There is one other passage which puts the seal on this understanding that we are delivered from the jurisdiction of the law. It is 2 Cor. 3:6-11.

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. (2Cor 3:6-11)

(Source: David Clayton from Restoration Ministry)

bottom of page