What does it mean to be “under the law?”

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What does it mean to be “under the law?”
by Edwin M. Cotto


Christians are no longer “under the law!” So we do not need to keep the Ten Commandments, including the fourth commandment.


The phrase “under the law” itself proves there was still a law when Paul wrote this by which people can choose whether to be under or not. This is why Paul asks the Galatians the question, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?” (Gal. 4:21). This question implies that the Galatians were placing themselves “under the law,” and this was many years after the cross where supposedly the Ten Commandments were abolished.

Additionally, Romans 6:14 says that those who are not “under the law” are “under grace.” Grace, accordingly to Titus 2:11-12, is something that teaches obedience, not disobedience. In fact, in the very context of Romans 6, from verses 15 towards the end of the chapter, the emphasis is on being servants of righteousness, and not of lawlessness (verses 18-19). He asks, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (verse 15). And the definition of sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4).

To be “under the law” is to be condemned by it, pronounced guilty, of living under condemnation for breaking it (Rom. 3:19). Therefore, its those who break it, and insist on others to break it, that are in fact “under the law.”


The phrase “under the law” in Romans 6:14 and elsewhere has generally been understood to mean one of two things; either that a person is no longer required to obey God’s law, or that a person is no longer under the penalty for violating God’s law. But this very phrase proves that when Paul wrote it there were people who were still “under the law.” For example, Paul’s question to the Galatians, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?” (Gal. 4:21) would make no sense if it were not because people could still choose to be “under the law.” In other words, one cannot be under a law that was abolished years prior. Therefore, there was still a law when Paul wrote this, and if the law was still in force, then “under the law” did not then, and does not now mean, that believers aren’t required to obey it.

We find that this logic reflects the context. Verses 15-23 explain that such a person would, contrary to modern antinomian opinion, obey the laws of their master. It begins in verse 15 with the question of whether a person can now sin while no longer under the law. The answer is no, and, analogizing the slave/master relationship so popular during his time, Paul demonstrates why those not “under the law” aren’t lawless. We read:

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.” (Rom. 6:16-17).

That “form of doctrine” rejects lawlessness, as we read in the very next verse which says that “just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” (verse 19). And righteousness is obedience to God’s commandments and having Christ in us (Psa. 119:172, 1 Cor. 1:30), while sin is, by definition, “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). How then does not being “under the law” mean Christians do not have God’s Law?

To prove this further, it is helpful to locate where else Paul used this phrase “under the law.” Notice in his first letter to the Corinthians how he separates those “under the law” from those “without law,” an unnecessary distinction to make if those under the law were not subject to obey it:

“And to the Jews I became a Jew, that I might win the Jews’ to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law towards God, but under the law towards Christ), that I might win those who are without law.” (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

Paul’s method was to relate to the individuals he was witnessing to in such a way as to open the opportunity for him to win them to Christ. He does this to those under the law as well as to those without law, two classes of people, the former evidently having law while the later does not. Therefore, not being under the law does not mean that one does not have God’s Law or that he is a breaker of God’s Law. On the contrary, the believer who is not under the law establishes the Law (see Rom. 3:31).


It is quite evident that if Paul warns others against being under the law, he also was not under the law. For this reason he includes himself when he uses the pronoun “we” (see Rom. 6:15, Gal. 3:23). Nevertheless, Paul says that he “delights in the law of God” (Rom. 7:22), speaks of it as “holy, just and good” (Rom. 7:12), his faith establishes, rather than voids (abolish) the law (Rom. 3:31) and he exalts the Law as the standard by which he and everyone else will be judged (Rom. 2:12-13, 14:10). How, then, could not being “under the law” mean that one does not need to obey it, while he himself obeyed it?

Specifically, Paul is speaking about the Ten Commandments. In chapters 1 and 2 he explains that all are without excuse, but more so the Jew who has received the Law by revelation, and by Law he means the Decalogue (Rom. 2). In chapter 7, while writing about his battle between his old nature which is against God’s Law and his new life in Christ which is spiritual (the only means by which a spiritual law can be kept, see 7:14, 8:1), he tells you directly which Law exposes his sins by quoting the tenth of the Ten Commandments (7:8). And in chapter 13, within the context of our dealings with our fellow man, he uses the last six of the Ten Commandment as a means by which we can avoid getting into trouble with secular authorities.


Returning to Romans 6:14, the text plainly says that whoever is not “under the law” is now “under grace.” So, we should now ask, what is grace? A few texts written by the same author should suffice to answer this question:

“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Note here that grace is defined not merely as a concept, but as power to save and to cause obedience, “that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Grace teaches people to deny all things worldly, and to “live soberly, righteous, and godly,” when? “In this present world.” Let’s compare it to this next text:

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:8-10)

Critics often stop short of this text without carefully considering verse 10, which reveals where exactly those zealous good works come from. We are created “in Christ Jesus unto good works” which God previously prepared so that we should “walk in them.” In other words, the man saved by grace will practically live out that faith in good works, and those good works originate, not with him, but with God! Phi. 2:13 says that it is God which works in man both the desire to do right and also the actual doing of that which is right, and in Isaiah 26:12 we read, “LORD, You will establish peace for us, Since You have also performed for us all our works.” (NASB). Speaking of the New Covenant, notice how Ezekiel put it:

“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do [them].” (Eze. 36:26-27)(1) 

Here the prophet tells us that the giving of the Spirit and the cleansing of the heart will be done free of charge, and even the obeying will be done by God, “and cause you…” This explains why Paul can write on the one hand that “to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Rom. 4:4), while on the other hand write that grace through faith establishes the law (Rom. 3:31). God handles both the saving and the obeying, and Paul could not give any greater examples of this than the lives of Abraham and David who were also saved by grace and yet obeyed God’s commandments (Rom. 4, cf. Gen. 26:5, Ps. 119). Evidently, we cannot obey of our own selves. So God has to do it for us. To explain it another way, whoever is saved by grace, free of charge, is at the same time empowered by that grace to obey God’s commandments. Thus, I am no longer “under the law,” to obey it of my own strength, and to be under its penalty when I fail. I am “under grace,” a power that forgives me, justifies me, and strengthens me to live “soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” True Christians who are under grace will be seen obeying God’s commandments, not attacking them.


To add force to what was just explained about grace, note how the very next verse says that grace is not an excuse for breaking God’s Law: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:15). According to the very next chapter, the main definition of sin is violating the Law. Romans 7:7 says:

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

How do we know sin? By the Law, because the Law tells us what sin is. And again, the apostle here speaks specifically of the Decalogue by quoting the tenth one. The apostle John confirms this by saying that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 5:7), and lawlessness (Greek: ἀνομία), according to the Greek lexicon, means “the condition of being without law.” Therefore, “shall we sin” or, transgress the law, “because we are not under the law but under grace?” Paul’s answer to this questions should be the answer of every critic who takes issue with Adventists who insist on the obedience to God’s Law, “God forbid!” 


We noted earlier that being “under the law” demonstrates that the Law was not abolished a few years prior at the cross, or else people could not be under it when Paul wrote Romans. We can also see this in Romans 3:19, where Paul speaks of the law with an active, present tense.

“Now we know that what things soever the law saith (λέγει – active present), it saith (λαλεῖ – active present) to them who are under (ἐν – preposition) the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

A few things to notice here. First, the law was still metaphorically speaking when Paul wrote this, indicating that it did not cease at the cross a few years prior. Further, the Greek word for “under” in other cases such as Rom. 6:14 means “to be below or under.” We use this word often, even in the medical field when we say a patient has hypotension, which means low blood pressure. But in Rom. 3:19, Paul uses the Greek word ἐν which generally means “in.” Young’s Literal Translation translates it this way, “And we have known that as many things as the law saith, to those in the law it doth speak…” Thus, even during Paul’s time, there were still people both under and “in” the Law.(2) Finally, the context indicates the continuity of the Law of God. Verse 21 says that although God’s righteousness is revealed apart from the law, yet the law is still around to witness to that very fact. In essence the Law can see Christ’s righteousness in the believer and say, “yes, he is righteous through faith in Christ, since he is not violating my demands.”


The rest of the times the phrase is found is in Gal. 3:23, 4:4-5, 21 and 5:18, and each instance comes with a negative connotation. No one wants to be “under the law,” and in fact, those led by God’s Spirit aren’t under it. Though, if not being “under the law” doesn’t mean one is “without law” as we noted earlier, what does it mean? Within the context of Galatians 3, Paul argues that the Spirit is received by faith, and not works, as with Abraham (verses 1-9). Recall, however, that Abraham, though saved by grace without any works, was obedient to God’s commandments (Gen. 26:5). Evidently, his obedience was not for the purpose of gaining this grace; rather it was a result of it. As Paul argues in the next few verses, anyone attempting to obey the Law of their own strength will fail and incur the curse of death (Gal. 3:10-14, cf. Rom. 8:7). In verse 10, Paul quotes Deut. 27:26, which in context pronounces curses upon those who do not obey God (see Deut. 28). In other words, death comes from disobedience, not obedience, so the Spirit is needed to fulfill the law, especially because the Law is spiritual and we are not (cf. Rom. 7:14, 8:14, Gal. 5:18).

“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:16-18, cf. Rom. 8:13-14, where the Spirit causes you to overcome the deeds of the flesh).

Then follows a description of various sins that violate, in one way or the other, God’s Ten Commandments (ibid, verses 19-21). Paul is not speaking of whether the Law should be obeyed or not, but of how it needs to be obeyed. If it’s not through the strengthening power of the Spirit of God, you will fail, and thus place yourself “under the law” (cf. 3:23). This is made crystal clear by Paul in his letter to the Romans:

“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:19-20).

When we are under the law, we are “guilty before God.” Therefore, to be under the law is to be under its penalty for violating it. When we are led by the Spirit, He causes us to obey, and in this way we avoid incurring the curse of death for breaking it. In other words, to be under the law is to be a breaker of the Law. The commandment keeper, in fact, is not “under the law.” The commandment breaker is.


Paul says that those under the law are “guilty before God,” but then says Jesus was born “under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Does this mean that Jesus was guilty of breaking God’s commandments? Of course not. The very next verse reads, “to redeem those who were under the law…” In other words, he became us to save us. It is similar to when Paul said he became like those that were under the law in order to reach them (1 Cor. 9:20-21). Like Jesus, Paul became whatever was necessary to reach people and lead them to salvation. But does this mean that Paul participated in the evil acts of the people? No, because he clearly also wrote in verse 21 that he was not “without law toward God, but under the law toward Christ.” Yet, in an even more perfect way, Jesus was “madesin for us,” and yet “knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). In a divinely, mysterious way, Jesus, “in all things” became “like unto his brethren (Heb. 2:17), took on “the form of a bondservant” and “likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7), guilty of sin, yet without actually ever sinning. He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). No wonder the text also mentions that He was “made of a woman.” He was victorious in the same nature that we are in, and offers us His victory in place of our weakness. Therefore, His being born “under the law” was the best way for Him to meet us at our level and save us. His nature was like ours, “under the law,” yet in that very same nature He had the victory over sin. Amen.


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About The Author

Edwin Cotto

With over 13 years of experience in apologetics, evangelism and youth directing, Edwin has worked with various ministries both in English and Spanish. Having had the opportunity to travel to various states in the USA, and also to Venezuela and Mexico, he has enjoyed the privilege of conducting evangelistic meetings and apologetics seminars. His education includes training in the Medical Field, Adult Education at Valencia College, Biblical Hebrew with the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and Evangelism with Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism. He is furthering his academic studies in theology while also working as a bible worker for the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Ordained as an elder, Edwin's passion for ministry begins first at home with his wife and kids.

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