What Does it Mean to Live Under the Law?

It’s Monday Grace!

Some people think the law means the Ten Commandments. Some think it means the rituals required of the Jews during worship. Some suggest that living under any set of rules is living under law, even the rules of your country, even rules of parents.

But when Paul refers to the law and to those still living under it, he is not limited to any of these. He is referring to a system whereby people seek to please or even impress God. Those under the law, in Paul’s heart, are those still trying to win God’s favor by their behavior.

You see, the key word in the phrase is “under.” The law still exists and still has value. I know that some grace folks will say otherwise, but Paul made it clear that he was not “without law,” but “under grace” because of Christ. (1 Cor 9:21) We are still to follow the Ten Commandments, for example. We are, in Christ, not to steal or kill or lie or neglect those for whom we have responsibility. In fact, if we do these things, we will suffer earthly consequences. Abusers, thieves, murderers, and other criminals—whether Christians or not—can and should be punished by earthly courts using earthly methods. God is under no obligation to intervene so that believers escape or avoid these moral punishments.

But God has placed Himself under obligation to remain with the believer through the earthly punishment. Why? Because the believer is under grace! Even the believer who sins is not rejected or disqualified because God’s grace is sufficient.

You see, the law has not gone away. There are many people who remain under the law. They may work to make God notice them, to like them. They are trying to earn their salvation (or, at least, God’s favor) by their behavior. If they are moral unbelievers, they think their efforts should count in their favor. If they are believers, they are under grace, but they might not know that or accept it because of bad teaching or an unwillingness to release their guilt to the Lord. They place themselves under the law because they think they should earn what God has already given them.

So, there are two groups of people who live under the law, unbelievers and foolish believers. Neither of them will ever find peace, not as long as they continue to strive for what God gives freely. The first group, the unbelievers, work hard and lay the offering of their efforts before the Lord. They ask Him if they have done enough. He says that their works are not enough, that they can only be saved through trusting in the free gift of the Son’s sufficient sacrifice. The second group, foolish believers, work hard and lay their efforts before the Lord. They ask Him if they have done enough. He says that their works are not enough, but they have already received the gift of His Son’s sufficient sacrifice.

Some will say that at least it is good for them to try. There must be some good in their efforts, they say. God should take that into account somehow. But God has no interest in their efforts if they refuse to accept what He has already done for them. By rejecting His work for them (or neglecting to use it as the basis for their life) they commit sin against Him. It might be a better world for the rest of us if they are trying to be good, but it profits them nothing.

To be under the law, either by nature (unbelievers) or by choice (foolish believers) is to be condemned to a life of working without accomplishment, of striving without victory. No victory is possible for those under the law because victory is found only through Jesus. So the streets are full of people in despair and grief because they feel rejected and ashamed, while the churches are full of the same kind of people. To come to Jesus and not fully accept or believe the gospel of grace is more than foolish, it is just sad.

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