Friday, September 16, 2011

Not under Law But under Grace: An Exposition of Romans 6:15–23

“Christians are under grace, not law!” This is a slogan that Christians, following the Apostle Paul, have frequently parroted. The problem is: have we understood what Paul meant by this slogan? Protestants typically interpret law in the phrase for you are not under the law but under grace to mean law in general, but this is to take Paul’s teaching out of its historical context, and to apply it in an illegitimate way.

The law that Paul was talking about in Rom 6:14 was specifically the law of Moses, not law in general whether divine or human. On the surface, the noun νόμος (law) in the phrase ὑπὸ νόμον under law looks indefinite, but it needs to be kept in mind that in New Testament Greek the definite article is frequently not used after prepositions. In the end, context needs to determine whether ὑπὸ νόμον means under law (in general) or under the law (of Moses). The big issue in the early church was whether or not Gentiles could be saved by faith in Jesus Christ apart from following the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1, 5). The orthodox Christians said “yes,” whereas the Judaizers said “no.” This is the particular historical context that argues for ὑπὸ νόμον to mean specifically under the law (of Moses). This is consistent with the rest of Paul’s argument in the epistle to the Romans, which is concerned with Jews versus Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation as foretold in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament). This Judaizing issue was being replayed in Rome after Nero’s accession to the imperial throne led to increasing numbers of Jews returning to Rome following the cessation of Claudius’s edict of expulsion. 

In Paul’s day, there were people who objected to Christianity on the basis that it was anomian or law-less. In the historical context of Paul’s day, this was a specifically Jewish objection. Paul’s Jewish opponents viewed that Christian teaching which proclaimed that being right with God was a matter of belief in (i.e., submission to) Jesus Christ rather than a matter of obedience to the law of Moses as constituting a rejection of Moses and Mosaic law, rebellion against the covenant, and disobedience to God.

In Rom 6:15 Paul picks up the objection of his Judaizing opponents to the Christian teaching that God’s people are under grace rather than law in the new covenant age. His opponents’ objection was: “Following your teaching, Paul, we should all sin, because we are not under the law but under grace.” This objection appears as a direct response to Paul’s final statement in Rom 6:14. From Paul’s opponents’ perspective, being under grace rather than law was to reject God’s standards of righteousness as defined in the law of Moses. They thought that Christianity was a license to sin, but Paul strongly strongly rejected this implication (Rom 6:15).

Consistent with Old Testament teaching, Paul understood that there are only two ways of living in the world. On the one hand, there is the way of life that leads to God; and on the other, the way of death that leads away from God. Paul captures this in Rom 6:16 by talking about two states of slavery: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves as slaves for obedience, you are slaves to whom you obey, either of sin which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” According to Paul, there are only two masters whom we can serve: sin or obedience. Serving sin is the way of death, whereas pursuing obedience is the way of righteousness and life. These two possibilities applied in the old covenant age, and Paul understood that they apply just as equally in the new covenant age. The coming of grace in Jesus does not render invalid the basic framework of the dual halakhic (i.e., the two ways of living) ethical system of the Old Testament. Paul’s opponents were wrong to think that this is what Christianity advocated.

Paul understood that Christian conversion involved a heart transformation that brought converts into slavery to righteousness (Rom 6:17–18). Paul was thankful to God that the Christians in Rome had undergone this transformation. Before conversion they had been “slaves of sin,” but since their conversion “you have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching that you received” (Rom 6:17). The phrase from the heart is a deliberate echo of the new covenant prophecies of Deut 30:6: “And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live”; and Jer 31:33: “ For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Paul understood that the Old Testament prophecies about the restored (i.e., new covenant) obedience of the people of God are fulfilled through conversion to Christianity. It is also significant that the law written in the heart is equated by Paul with the standard of teaching that you received. The model of teaching received by the Roman Christians was Christian teaching. It was the Christian gospel. The gospel is the received tradition of the Christian community, passed down from Christ to his apostles, and from them to subsequent Christian teachers. Receiving this teaching into the heart is the key to freedom. The Christian gospel, the new covenant word of God, has the power to set people free from slavery to sin; but this is freedom for the sake of obedience to righteousness (Rom 6:18). There is no morally neutral territory. From the beginning of time, there has only ever been two ways of living: one a way of life, and the other a way of death.

Paul’s imagery of slavery to one of two masters was an accommodation to the weakness of the understanding of his readers (Rom 6:19). He used this illustration for the purpose of encouraging his Christian readers to pursue Christian sanctification: “just as you have presented your members [i.e., the parts of your body] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19). Divine grace is not a license to sin. The Jewish accusation that Christianity was ἀνομία lawlessness was far from the truth. Being part of the new covenant is about walking in righteousness with the law of God written in our hearts. Being a Christian is about being holy, as the gospel of Christ brings holistic transformation. It is true that Christians are under grace, not law; but this is not the same as saying that Christianity is law-less, that Christians are not bound to any law, that they are free to live without any sense of morality. If law in the phrase under law is taken as denoting all possible forms of law, then Christianity is truly anomian. But if Paul, in the light of the historical context of his day, is specifically talking about the law of Moses as the law which we are not under, then a place is left for understanding that the gospel is new covenant law, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (such as Deut 30:11–14; Isa 2:1–4; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26–27) that speak of the vivifying function of eschatological torah in the heart of God’s new covenant people. Paul was objecting to old covenant law. He was not denying that Christians are under new covenant law, which is the gospel, “the standard of teaching that [we] have received.”

As Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). When Paul’s readers were “slaves of sin,” they were “free of righteousness” (Rom 6:20). Slavery to sin is incompatible with slavery to righteousness. Paul also reminds his readers of the consequences of their former way of living. “What fruit did you get then from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Rom 6:21). Serving sin leads to shame and death. It is a dead end and totally fruitless. This fruitlessness of slavery to sin contrasts markedly with the consequences of slavery to righteousness. “But now, having been set free from sin, and having become enslaved to God”—that is, after Christian conversion—“you have the fruit of sanctification, and its end eternal life” (Rom 6:22). Slavery to righteousness is equated by Paul in Rom 6:22 as being slavery to God. The two masters that we must serve in life are either sin or God. Serving sin is useless. It leads to death. But serving God, as the Old Testament consistently teaches, has great benefit. Serving God means bearing and enjoying the fruits of holiness. Furthermore, the end destination of this way of living is eternal life. It is significant here that Paul views eternal life as residing at the end of a lifelong process of sanctification. Eternal life in the presence of God is the goal of Christian halakhah.

Paul concludes his teaching concerning righteousness in Rom 6 by summing up the consequences of the two possible ways of living in the world. He shifts from the image of fruit to that of wages: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The concept of wages is used as a metaphor for what God “pays back” to people. There are consequences for how we live our life in the world. If we indulge in following sin, then the end result of that is God’s payback of death. “But the gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” is not like the consequences of sin: “the gracious gift of God … is eternal life” (Rom 6:23). This verse is often quoted by Christians out of context, as if to say that God’s gracious gift of eternal life in Christ has no connection with the need for personal righteousness on the part of the believer. God’s gracious gift in Christ Jesus is eternal life, but this cannot be divorced from the process of sanctification that leads to eternal life. In effect, the phrase eternal life in Rom 6:23 is basically a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is used to refer to the whole. Eternal life lies at the end of a process of sanctification. The whole of this process is the gracious gift of God.

To continue in sin, therefore, because we are not under law but grace is to fail to understand the meaning of God’s new covenant grace. God’s new covenant grace not only involves God graciously sending Jesus to make full atonement for our sins, but also God graciously writing his law in our hearts, so that we might be able to obey him, and to live as a consequence of walking in the way of personal righteousness in the context of atoning grace. To say (as some have said to me in the past) that the idea that personal righteousness is necessary for salvation is inconsistent with grace is ironically to fail to understand the nature of God’s grace. People who say that have, in effect, narrowed God’s grace down to simply the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received. It is definitely true that Christ’s righteousness stands at the heart of God’s grace, but God’s grace to us Christians is more than simply the reception of an alien righteousness. God’s grace involves both the reception of an alien righteousness and its personalization in a holistic way within the believer. The extrinsic righteousness of Christ truly applied will see itself reflected in the Spirit-induced intrinsic righteousness of the believer. The extrinsic without the intrinsic is inefficacious. Being under grace instead of law, therefore, does not make us lawless.


Terry Rayburn said...


You are so confused, I wonder if you yourself even know what you mean to say.

The absurdity of your premises about obedience and "walking in the way of personal righteousness" is that it cannot be measured, and all of us still fall short of the glory of God, DAILY.

Or to put it another way, how much "obedience" or "personal righteousness" do you think is required? 50%? 85%?

No one is able to obey enough or exhibit enough "personal righteousness" to even put a dent in the requirement of the perfection required by God.

That's why we need a Savior?!!

Are you so blind?

Having begun by the Spirit, are we now to be made perfect by...what? The flesh? Obedience? Personal righteousness.

You are so far off the track, it's hard to know where to begin.

If we have been "declared righteous" (justified) by God, what can we add to that?

Now, back to Paul, SHOULD we sin so that grace abounds?

Of course not, Paul says. But we will sin to varying degrees. Thank God we have an Advocate. If we relied on your grace-plus-works paradigm, we'd be in big trouble.

I don't mean to be so harsh, except that we've been over this in previous discussions. You simply are not getting it (the grace of the UNILATERAL new covenant, that is).

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Terry,

Thanks for your comment.

I think you misunderstand (to some extent). All of us fall short of the glory of God daily, but there is a difference between those who have God’s word in their heart and those who don’t. The Bible teaches that there is a difference between the righteous and the wicked: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him” (Mal 3:18). Do you not have room for this distinction in your system of theology?

How much obedience is required? We can ask the same thing of faith. None of us have perfect faith either. It is not a matter of percentages, but a matter of commitment, a matter of perseverance in the faith, at the heart of which lies the daily confession of sin. Having begun by the Spirit, we need to continue in the Spirit. Paul says that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). In other words, all of us have a need to walk in the Spirit. It seems to me that you are treating our need to walk in the Spirit as being back under law. But Paul would disagree with this, I suggest.

I note, for example, that Paul teaches: “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh … I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:16, 21). It is possible to lose our inheritance through apostasy. And also: “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:8–9). If we want to reap eternal life, we need to persevere in sowing to the Spirit. These are words that Paul addressed to Christians who were being tempted to return to “the works of the law” of Moses, not law in general.

Also from Romans: “For God has done what the law [of Moses], weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3–4). Those who walk in the Spirit fulfill the law, not perfectly but covenantally (see also Rom 8:6–8, 13). We have need of a Savior for perfect righteousness, and our Savior also works in us to fulfill the obligations placed upon us by God as part of the covenant. It seems to me that your either-or paradigm is not consistent with the Scriptures at this point.

The new covenant is not unilateral. Every believer has an obligation of love and obedience to God as part of the new covenant. Jesus taught his disciples: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10). After talking about the importance of the new covenant, the writer to the Hebrews also says: “Strive for … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God” (Heb 12:14–15). We should not water down the importance of such warnings.

The good thing about the new covenant though is that God has promised to work this necessary love and obedience in the hearts of the elect, and to provide the perfect righteousness of Christ to cover all of our sins. It’s quite simple ... once you get it.