It is perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in the Bible: “not under the law, but under grace.” Not only is it a very important concept, but a misapprehension of it can be disastrous. We look at the concept carefully, explain what it means, and apply it to our lives in a practical way.
In the Bible, in Romans 5 and 6, it is written:
20 Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:
21 That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?
17 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.
19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.
This text describes a very important concept: how to overcome sin. How do we arrange our thinking so that we sin less and less? The concept appears to be a mystery into which we have very little insight. The heart of the matter is verse 14: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
This concept, that we are not under the law but under grace, is not so easy to understand as one might think. An initial impression many have, perhaps it is the most commonly held view, is that we are no longer under any obligation to obey God’s Law, that we have no responsibility to obey it, that God’s forgivness and favor are ours no matter what we do or how we act. It is thinking that God no longer minds if we violate His Laws because Christ died for us. Let us consider this initial reaction carefully.
Since “sin is the transgression of the Law,” (1 John 3:4) the idea that we have no responsibility or obligation to obey the Law is equivalent to thinking we are free to sin, that we need not concern ourselves about sin or holiness. But this contradicts the immediate context as well as the general context of Scripture: God certainly is concerned about us continuing in sin. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Rom 6:1) Clearly, the text before us in Romans is an encouragement to help us in our struggle to stop sinning, not a free pass to continue in sin. Evidently not under law means something else.
Another common view is to say that the Law wasn’t given to Gentiles, only to Jews. This position asserts that the Law is optional for Gentiles and that obedience is only required of the Jewish people. This view also fails because some of those addressed in the text were Jewish (Romans 2:17). Whatever not under the law means, it must mean the same thing for both Jew and Gentile. Again, we must find another way.
A more reasonable view is that Paul is telling us all, both Jews and Gentiles, that those in Christ are not under the condemnation of the Law and are loved by God unconditionally. This position is certainly consistent with the rest of scripture, but there is still a problem with applying it here: there is little if any connection between this concept and the immediate context: overcoming sin.
For example, does it make sense to try and help alcoholics overcome their addiction merely by telling them that we love them unconditionally so they don’t need to worry about living a healthy lifestyle in order for us to fully receive them? This tactic would only work if, in fact, fear of rejection and feeling unloved were the sole cause of alcoholism. If they simply love to drink and forget their troubles then our love for them might just encourage them to harm themselves and others even more. There appears to be something in the logic of this text which suggests to us a more significant meaning than unconditional love.
Note carefully the wording of Scripture: “for sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law.” A direct cause-and-effect relationship is being described here: what enables us to overcome sin is the fact that we are not under the law, the fact that we are under grace instead. The connection between these two concepts is implicit and inseparable: our state, that of not being under the law but under grace, produces an ability to overcome sin, and this applies to every single believer.
Yet for most of us, telling us that we won’t be rejected and punished for our sin does not tend to deliver us from it; it rather tends to make us relax while we are still under sin’s power and dominion. This kind of “encouragement” thus moves us to be less concerned about our sin and thereby often deepens our bondage to it. This is then not so much providing power to live a holy life as it is providing, again, an excuse to continue sinning, and this is certainly not God’s intent in our text; this is more likely the enemy’s intent in wresting it.
But what if coming from law to grace is more like … giving someone a distaste for alcohol … changing their appetites … giving them different inclinations … a fundamentally new nature?
Not an Option
If we step back and look at the whole of Scripture, it is clear that believers in Christ are required to obey God’s Law and that God is grieved and angered when we deliberately or carelessly break it. (Acts 5, Rom 2, Heb 10:29-31) In other words, trusting Christ for salvation does not give anyone a license to sin. The Gospel makes no provision for deliberate, willful, continuous, unrepentant sin. Holiness is not optional. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (Heb 12:14) There is certainly forgiveness for sin in Jesus Christ, but make no mistake, there are also consequences for sin, both in this life and in the next.
Further, God has never indicated that some of His laws are optional. Contrary to what is commonly taught in evangelical circles, God does not classify His laws into Ceremonial, Civil, and Moral laws. A complete classification of the laws of God under such labels does not actually exist, to my knowledge, anywhere. When one actually attempts this classification of Torah, trying to divide up the laws into such groups, the reason such a classification is not available becomes much more obvious. Thinking this way about the Law is truly to misunderstand the nature and intent of the Law itself.
Jesus said it as plainly as it can be said: Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19) There are no optional or obsolete laws: every law given to the Jewish people as a group at Sinai which we are able to obey, we should obey, even if we are not Jewish. The Law of God did not originate at Sinai, it was simply revealed there. It is not just for Jews, it is God’s perfect standard of holiness for all people, a revelation of His heart. This was the understanding of everyone who heard Jesus’ teachings and followed Him. None of the Apostles ever got the idea that the Law was optional or just for them, they continued keeping it their entire lives and encouraged others to do so as well. (Acts 21:24)
The above truths are not commonly held by the saints today, and they raise many difficult and challenging questions which are beyond the scope of this particular work. For now, suffice it to say all of God’s Law is both good (1 Tim 1:8) and spiritual (Rom 7:14), telling us what is holy and what is sinful. (Rom 3:20) The standard of the Law is perfect and consistent throughout, embodied and represented in the two most important laws: loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self. There is no higher standard than this, and God will never promote a lesser one. God’s purpose in giving us Torah is to equip us to all good works (2Tim 3:16-17), and to produce love from a pure heart, a clean conscience and unpretended faith. (1 Tim 1:5) While the inward man ever delights in God’s Law (Rom 7:22), the carnal mind cannot be subject to it, thereby revealing that it is at enmity with God. (Rom 8:7) Thus, distaste for or aversion toward any particular Law exposes and identifies the flesh, the carnal mind, and/or the old man. To break any single law of God is to be guilty of breaking the entire Law and offending the Lawgiver. (James 2:10-11) Those who do so, in either word or deed, are least in the kingdom. (Matt 5:19)
However, our present purpose is not to to elaborate upon and explain our obligation to obey God’s Law. (See Keep My Commandments, The End of the Commandment, No Greater Burden and Use It Lawfully.) Rather, our goal is to understand how the concept of not being under the law is a precious encouragement to those earnestly seeking to obey God and live righteous lives. This is truly hope for the struggling heart.
Let’s Face It
We believers in Christ are yet a very sinful people, and few seem to have a good, practical handle on how to overcome sin.
What has really helped you, practically, in your pursuit of holiness? Are you firmly grasping the reality of God’s call to be holy, just as He is holy, and making real progress in your fight to overcome anger, envy, lust, fear, love of the world, cowardice, lying, laziness and apathy? Are you growing in that basic command to “love thy neighbor as thyself?” What about loving God with all of your heart? Well, here is some help.
When I consider that I am “not under the law,” I want to weep for joy and shout for joy all at the same time. Not because I now have an excuse to go on in my sin with no consequence, but because I am reminded — in a very practical way — that what I desire with all of my heart … to be more like Jesus Christ … is in reality being provided to me by Him. This struggle after holiness is not a futile, hopeless one. God has made us a promise … “you are not under the law, but under grace.”
Perhaps the best way to explain what not under the law means is to contrast it with its counterpart: grace. And as not under the law may be the most misunderstood phrase in the Bible, grace may be the single most misunderstood word in the Bible. The enemy seems to have gone to great lengths to completely redefine the word grace, and I’d say that he’s been largely successful. He has gone after this word with intensity because what we think when we use this word has a significant impact upon our entire theology.
The insidious part about redefining a word is that we very likely won’t be delivered from the lies of the enemy related to the word by simply reading the Bible, which is generally one of the most productive ways to rid ourselves of the enemy’s lies. The reason our efforts fail here is that every time we see the word grace in a text we impose onto the text an incorrect or incomplete definition of the word. This drives the lies deeper into our souls rather than delivering us from them. It often takes a brother or a sister to point the problem out… and that is what I aim to do now.
Again, let’s start with the common misconception of the word grace. When most of us hear that we are under grace, most of us interpret this to mean under mercy, under favor , under loving kindness. We are really thinking along the lines of leniency and forbearance and tolerance and forgiveness than anything else. We hear, “God is merciful. He won’t punish me for my sin, He loves me just the way I am, and He will forgive me unconditionally. God will be nice to me, He will be kind to me, He will accept me no matter what.” It is the refrain of evangelical witness … perhaps the only refrain.
This definition is perhaps most clearly embodied in Philip Yancey’s wonderful book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, with glowing endorsements from the likes of Charles Colson, J.I. Packer and other renowns. In his effort to encourage us to grow in grace, Yancey equates grace with unconditional mercy, forgiveness, compassion and love, and suggests to us that the church should be giving this unconditional mercy, compassion and love freely to the world. This is a big mistake.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Yancey … I don’t disagree with him even a little bit: the church certainly should be the vehicle for unconditional mercy, forgiveness, compassion and love to the world. The problem is that Yancey is missing the whole point about grace itself: this is not a biblical definition of grace at all. Yancy is talking about mercy, not grace.
As evidence, I submit a definition for the Greek word charis, the word translated grace in the above verses, provided by James Strong, the author of Strong’s Concordance. Strong’s definition is as follows: “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life.” In other words, grace is divine enablement, a much different concept from what is commonly accepted today.
Additionally, we may note that there are many places in the Bible where believers are instructed to be merciful, compassionate and loving. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt 5:7) Such references abound in both the Old and New Testaments. However, it may come as a surprise to discover that there is not a single command in the entire Word of God that we be gracious to anyone. There is absolutely no mention of the idea anywhere in the Scripture, that we can be a source of grace to others. We find a few texts where one seeks the favor of another, to “find grace in their eyes,” where the seeker is in a somewhat dependent or vulnerable place. But these texts don’t get at the concept provided by Strong. We receive enabling grace only from God. “The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.” (Ps 145:8)
Clearly, the concepts of compassion and mercy and love are very closely connected with grace, but the terms should not be confused. While it is true that God is merciful, it is also true that God is gracious, and these concepts are certainly distinct. They are not synonyms in a biblical context, even though your dictionary tells you they are. In the Bible, these words mean very different things.
What we may say here, leaning upon the definition provided by Strong, is that when God’s grace is upon a person, when there is “a divine influence upon the heart, and this is reflected in the life,” then we expect to see, as a result of that divine influence, character qualities like mercy, compassion and forgiveness being expressed.
Consider the use of the word in Hebrews 12:28: “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” Having grace is what enables us to serve God acceptably. This is not the same as saying God’s forgiveness can make us so thankful that serve Him better. What the text is saying is that God is actually offering us real power to serve Him, strength to be holy and obedient. This is much more than mere thankfulness and gratitude, it is a fundamental alteration of our basic nature, a supernatural empowering. The entire context is much more suited to the concept of divine enablement than of a concept like forgiveness or mercy.
Another place we may observe this kind of result is 1 Cor 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” Here again, understanding grace as divine enablement makes so much more sense in the immediate context. No other definition can make sense here in this particular text.
What we should understand when we think of grace is not its godly fruit, but the root of godliness, the source, the divine enablement from which the wonderful fruit of holiness springs. Grace is not something we produce, but an energy, a tendency, an equipping dynamic, an ability or power given to us by God. We cannot give it to others, only display to others what we have received. We can only be gracious in that we are filled with divine influence, when God has enabled us by grace to be like Him.
There are certainly some texts which may seen problematic with this definition, such as in the first part of our initial context, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1) Here we might be strongly tempted to think of grace as leniency, mercy or forgiveness, and that the more we sin the more forgiving God must be with us. We would almost be forced to think this way if we thought the grace mentioned here was abounding toward ourselves as we continued in more and more sin. However, if we thought about how the grace of God would need to abound in the lives all of the other poor souls around us to keep from being taken down and destroyed by our sin, then we might again apply our proposed definition with ease, and see that the entire context, that “even so might grace reign through righteousness” (Rom 5:21) makes so much more sense. Grace does not reign more through righteousness in the lives of those who are continuing and abounding in more and more sin, but in those who are enabled to walk in progressively more and more righteousness in spite of the growth and proliferation of sin and wickedness all around them. Here again, the definition of grace completely changes both the meaning and implications of the text.
Implications of Grace
Armed with this definition and going back to the Bible to read it anew, we may often find that the Bible is saying something quite different than what we once thought.
Take, for example, Ephesians 5:7-8: “…that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God…” We used to read it like this, “for by God’s love and compassion and leniency and forbearance and mercy you are saved through faith.” Now, rather, we read it as: “for by divine enablement you are saved through faith.” This is an entirely different meaning! The former suggests that God freed us to do something for ourselves by His leniency in withholding punishment from us, the latter suggests that God did something in us that we couldn’t do for ourselves: He enabled us to believe; our faith came through His working in us. It is this second meaning that fits with and is reinforced by the rest of the text, “and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”
The exceeding riches of divine enablement (vs 7) leading up to this text is also quite differently understood. When we understand grace as forgiveness and compassion , we see that God blesses us in a passive way in the sense that we are not getting something bad that we definitely deserve; God withholds something from us that would justly harm us. This is at the heart of mercy, and it is certainly wonderful. But there is no real salvation in mercy, no real deliverance from the power of sin … just deliverance from its penalty. The exceeding riches of His grace … being “the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,” (Eph 1:19) this is a different thing entirely! It opens up a world of potential that we have barely tapped, if at all.
If we are content to live in bondage to sin so long as God doesn’t cast us into the lake of fire … which is where most people seem to dwell … then mercy is what we will look for. Perhaps it is no real surprise then that the visible evangelical Church is where she is… clinging to and promoting the mercy of God in a world that has forgotten what sin does and what repentance means, and all the while stripping the word grace of any real meaning. No wonder things are such a mess!
But if we are not content with that, if we want to start seeing victory in our battle with sin, we must have something more than mercy and compassion from God. It is in grace where we find true salvation, deliverance, victory, strength, empowerment … in getting some actual help to be different, better … and this is good news indeed. It is not a passive blessing, but an active, effectual one … a true gift.
As we consider the definition of grace in our study of God’s Word, as well as in our usage of the word in common conversation, the implications may begin to appear more and more profound. One such place is in our present context: trying to understand what “not under the law” means.
“Under Law” vs “Under Grace”
Equipped with a clear, correct and pertinent definition of grace, let us now consider the term under grace. God says, “sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but” — let us say, “in a new paradigm of living in which we understand that we are being enabled and empowered by God, actually and experientially, to become like Him.” We are not “on our own” any more. Jesus Christ has become part of us, woven into the very spiritual fibers of our lives. He is our life (Col 3:4), the pulse and energy that inclines us away from lies and toward God. Jesus Christ is constantly beside us, in and around and through us, offering us His life, His nature, His inclinations and passions and likes and dislikes. He is offering Himself to us every moment of the day. He has never believed a lie, never succumbed to any temptation, never been lazy, or indifferent to God. He lived a perfect life and overcame the world once before, and He is doing it again in us. (John 16:33) Our goal is assured, our way is cleared, our energy is provided… by Him and for Him and through Him! (Rom 11:36, 1Cor1:30-31)
When we are under grace, God’s Law is written on our hearts. In other words, our hearts are renewed and energized and inclined by the life of Christ to love, enjoy, and obey God’s Law. In this state, we “delight in the Law of God after the inward man.” (Rom 7:22)
This is in contrast to the way we lived outside of Christ, before He came into our lives, before He became our life. (Col 3:24) Being outside of Christ, without faith, necessarily implies being under the law: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” (Gal 3:23) In that paradigm, without the enabling life and power of Jesus Christ, which we call under the law, we were operating under a completely different mentality. In that state we were operating on our own, and doing so hopelessly: we were “shut up,” imprisoned, trapped, trying the best we could to be good in our own strength but totally unable to be good on our own.
From that standpoint the Law of God was not so much a delight as it was a burden. We didn’t want to obey it but we felt compelled to do so. We had an obligation but no inclination, no power. Parts of it we may have liked, the mechanical or ritualistic parts, but the parts that dealt with our corrupt and broken hearts we either ignored or rewrote. We constantly felt condemned by the Law because we actually were condemned by it. We were guilty of breaking the Law of God, and we often wanted to break it, and we were therefore subjected to both the temporal and eternal consequences of rebellion against Heaven. God was angry at us and with us, and was ready at any moment to destroy us. And there was nothing we could do about this, no matter how hard we tried.
Trying hard is good, but if we are dead … our trying isn’t really trying at all. A dead man can’t do anything good, or even really try to be good. What we thought of as trying was actually just more sin … more pride, more selfishness, more fear. In the end, without Christ, our hearts did not love God, and all else we thought of as good in us was less than nothing; it was, in fact, dirty, filthy rags. (Is 64:6) This is what God calls “the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8:2)
But now that we are in Christ, God is not saying that we should stop trying, He is saying that we should be trying in a different sort of way, walking in a different paradigm, with a different understanding, and pursuing a different means to holiness than we did before. When God is saying that we are under grace and that we are not under the Law He is explaining the same concept in two different ways. He is showing us that before Christ came to us our only hope was to try harder with a corrupt nature. But God is saying what we should have always known, that we can’t do anything at all apart from Him; we cannot overcome the law of sin and death on our own any more than we can defy the Law of Gravity. But He is not stopping there; He is also saying that we are not alone any more. We have a new law operating within us, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, has made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8:2) He is telling us that we have another life within us that actually can be good. It is in this life, the life of Christ, which we learn to put on, learn to walk in, learn to appropriate by faith, where we find victory over sin. But how can we actually do this?
Access By Faith
In what may be one of the most powerful, and also one of the most overlooked verses in the Bible, we are told how to obtain grace from God, how to get in on this divine enabling that equips us for the spiritual life. “By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2 ) Here is our roadmap to divine enabling: we are currently standing in a place where we have access to all of the grace that we need, and we access it by faith: by knowing that God is equipping us to do what we are called and designed by Him to do.
Faith, itself another word that is not well understood (the article The Substance may be helpful here), is not hopefulness, or mere desire or assertion of the will; faith is a supernatural knowing, a gift from God. In our present context, this knowing is based on an assurance that what God commands of us He also provides for us; He equips us to rise to the occasion, to actually fulfill what He requires of us. When we know this, this very knowing itself becomes the vehicle through which God strengthens us to be and to do what He tells us to be and to do. This is a supernatural enabling of our natural facilities, and it is ours for the believing. When God calls us to love wives, and reverence husbands … to love our neighbors, and enemies, as ourselves … and in all of our brokenness it just seems so impossible — believe. God has given you grace: rise and walk. This is what Wait On The Lord means, and it results in being renewed in our strength, receiving grace.
Rejoice in the Power of Another Life
So, if you are in Christ, look to Him to live through you. When you are envious, for example, lay it out before Christ, your life: He is not envious. Let Him have your envy and let Him give you His contentment and love. Let Him be content in you. Ask Him to show you the lies, thinking that in someone else’s loss or misery that you might find solace or comfort. Allow Him to show you that He is all the comfort and solace that you will ever need, or ever have needed. Not only allow, but now in faith, because you are not under the Law but under grace, expect Him to do it!
This is the key to living the Spiritual life: abide in Christ and let His life course through, abide in, yours. (John 15:4,7) It is now possible because you are no longer under the law, you are no longer living in a paradigm where you are trying to obey the Law in your own strength … and only failing. Now, in Christ, you have an inclination to obey the Law, and this very inclination is Christ Himself willing and believing within you. You have grace, divine enablement, to live in obedience, to live in freedom.
Whatever the temptation, whatever the need, remember that you are no longer under the law, living this life all on your own, by your own strength. Christ is your answer, your source, your help and your strength. “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Cor 30:31) He is everything you will ever need to live the Christian life: in fact, He is your very life. (Col 3:4) Rest in this fact, depend on it, and by all means … enjoy it!