The Under Law Debate


Dennis McCallum



What does Paul mean when he says we are "no more under law, but under grace?" (Romans 6:14). Our answer to this question must account for the fact that Paul sees something different now from before the time of Christ. Galatians 3:24ff teaches that Old Testament saints were kept by a "child conductor" (paidagogos) until the time of Christ. What is the difference Paul is referring to? Arguments have tended to fall into a "law is good for you" camp and a "law is bad for you" camp. The following chart shows the arguments typical of both sides.

The "Under Law" Debate: What does Paul mean by this phrase?

Arguments that we must remain under law as a rule of lifeResponses showing we are not under law as a rule of life
We are "not under law" means we are not justified, or saved, by lawNo one was ever saved by law, so if this were true, the new covenant wouldn't be anything new after all. Galatians 2:16b
We are "not under law" means we are no longer under the ceremonial law (sacrificial system); we are still under the moral law of God.The example Paul cites in Romans 7:7 is the 10th commandment. It is a moral law. Also, the "covenant of death inscribed on stones" does not refer to ceremonial laws, but to the Ten Commandments which are mostly moral laws.
In Romans 8:9 says Paul says, "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." Therefore, Paul is comparing Christians with non-Christians when he speaks of those who walk by the Spirit and those who are according to the flesh, as he also does in 7:5.Paul does use the phrase "in the flesh" and "in the Spirit" to refer to Christians vs. non-Christians. However, he also uses another phrase "according to the flesh or Spirit" which refers to carnal vs. Spiritually minded Christians. Contrast Romans 8:4-7 with 8:8,9. (see also Galatians 5:18) We will study this passage in detail later in this book.
Paul says he "was once alive apart from the law" because Hebrew boys were not responsible to keep the law until their Bar-Mitzvah at age 13.It is highly unlikely that Paul would ever say he was alive apart from the law as a non-Christian. This goes against his doctrine of spiritual death before regeneration in Christ (e.g., Romans 5:18; Ephesians 2:1) It is better to understand this as referring to a period early in his Christian life.
How can we not be under the law of God, when his character never changes?God's character can be reflected in the law without us being "under" it. The problem is not with the law, but with our rebellious reaction to the law, which renders it ineffective as a tool for life change.
Jesus taught that he did not come to abolish the law. He also warned that, "Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:19)Jesus taught that he "did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it." This means that either 1) the law is a term for the Old Testament, which he fulfilled, or 2)Christ fulfilled the legal requirements of the law on our behalf. Jesus spoke in the period before his own death. This is why Paul said Jesus was "born of a woman, born under law." (Galatians 4:4) During this period, the new covenant of the Spirit was not available, because "the Spirit was not yet given . . ." (John. 7:38,39) The sermon on the mount ministers to those who were trying to bring the law down to the level where it could be kept by human effort. He stressed the absolute demands of the law for those who mistakenly believed they could be justified by works.
Although the context of Romans 7 is spiritual growth (in chapter 6) the truths about our spiritual birth give us our basis for growth. This is why Paul returns to a consideration of the dynamics of conversion in Romans 7 (for instance verse 5).The context for Romans 7 is indeed chapter 6, which discusses spiritual growth (11-19) and chapter 8, which also discusses growth. However, while these passages mention conversion, the pattern of argument is always the same. Namely, he points out that we should remember our conversion, and our growth should proceed in accordance with that new identity. Since interpreting in the light of the context is the first rule of Bible interpretation, we should prefer to understand Romans 7 as referring to growth also.