We Are Under laws, But Not Under The Law


John G. Reisinger



The law of God written on tables of stone at Mount Sinai was neither a suggestion nor good advice. It was absolute law. This is why that law had the clear and sure penalty of death attached to it. I remember hearing preachers, myself included, who insisted that a 65-mile-an-hour speed limit law with no penalties or fines attached to it could not be called "a law." Without a penalty and a police officer to enforce the law by arresting and fining someone driving 75 miles an hour, the sign was merely advice, a request, or a suggestion. It is the penalty aspect that gives any law the true nature of real law. There can be no true law without penalties being attached. I am sure you immediately realize this is the primary reason a child of God can never be under the law or subject to its just penalty aspect.

The terms and penalties of the law given at Sinai were clearly spelled out. The penalty for breaking any of the covenant laws, the Ten Commandments, written on the Tables of Covenant (Deuteronomy 9:9–11) was stoning to death. A whole judicial system was set up to administer strict punishment for not only breaking the terms of the actual covenant, or Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27, 28), but also for other sins such as putting out a neighbor's eye, etc. (cf. Leviticus 24:17–20). This was strict and righteous law, no mercy or pity was allowed to be shown (cf. Deuteronomy 19:16–21). This was because a breach of the law under Moses was not a crime against society, it was a sin against the covenant God of Israel. It was not merely the law of the land—it was the law of God.

There can be no mercy or pity in true law. John Bunyan showed this clearly with his picture of the man with the club (Moses) beating poor Faithful to death. When Faithful pleaded for mercy, Moses replied, "I do not know how to show mercy," and beat him some more. Only the Man with the scars in his hands could make Moses stop the beating. Bunyan was showing that the law, when allowed to reign in the conscience in any covenantal sense, can only condemn anything less than perfection. The purpose of the law as a covenant was not to show man grace but to show him his great need of grace. True law cannot show an ounce of grace, it can only bless perfection and curse the slightest infraction. We have often said, "There was not an ounce of grace in the tablets in the Ark of the Covenant, but it was very gracious of God to give that covenant to Israel to make them see their need of grace." By the way, don't confuse the Ark of the Covenant with the covenant itself. The covenant was the Ten Commandments (cf. Exodus 34:27–29), or Tables of the Covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 9:9–15), and the Ark was the box that housed the tables of the covenant (cf. Hebrews 9:1, 4). The lid of that box was the mercy seat and pictured nothing but pure grace. The blood on that mercy seat hid the sins against the covenant tables in the box. There was no grace in the tablets in the box but there was nothing but grace in the picture of Christ's sacrifice on the lid of the box. Likewise do not confuse the basic covenant document—The Tablets of Stone, Exodus 34:25–27; Deuteronomy 9:9—with the sacrificial system and priesthood that was necessary to administer the covenant (cf. Hebrews 9:1–15).

Everyone must agree that it is impossible to use the word law in its legal meaning without having penalties and judges to enforce the penalty. It is also impossible to deny that the nation of Israel was literally put under the law of God at Sinai and was forever thereafter subject to being stoned to death if they deliberately broke any of the covenant laws written on the tables of the covenant. This death penalty was exacted for breaking any of the covenant laws. You could be stoned to death for picking up sticks (cf. Numbers 15:32–36) or lighting a fire (cf. Exodus 35:2, 3) on the Sabbath.

It is the penalty aspect that gives the law the nature and force of law and puts it in a different category than advice or suggestion. Israel, from Exodus Chapter 20 until the coming of Christ, lived with the constant threat of death if they willfully broke the law. They were literally under the law as a covenant of life and death.

A great theological problem arises when we try to understand how a Christian can be under the law of God when, at the same time, he is totally free from any threat of death or condemnation. If we are free from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), which means the law cannot touch us in a condemning sense under any circumstance, then how can we be said to be under the law in any sense whatsoever. We know for certain that a true child of God is eternally secure in Christ and can never come into condemnation (Romans 8:1). It is impossible for a Christian, in a judicial sense, to bear the same "under the law" status as the Jew did at Sinai without also being under the same curse and threat of death. In other words, the very thing that gives law the nature of law, namely a just penalty, is proof positive that a New Covenant believer cannot be under the law in the same sense as Israel was under law.

It would seem, on the surface, logical to assume that since it takes the curse element to give any rule the status of law, and since believers cannot come under a curse, that there can be no such thing as true law (which must include a curse) in a Christian's life. This is absolutely correct if we are talking about true covenant law. We must insist, and very strongly, that justification forever frees a believer, in every sense, from ever again being under the law as a covenant of life and death. Justification equals "no condemnation" and "full and unconditional acceptance with God," and such a status demands our total freedom from the law's power to condemn. This is the argument in Romans 6:14, 15.

However, we must be very careful not to go in the opposite direction. This very reasoning led some good men in history to be labeled antinomians by their enemies. It also led them to make some rash and dangerous statements that appeared, on the surface, to justify the criticism against them. Granted, these men were reacting to a totally wrong preaching of the law to the Christian's conscience, but they were nonetheless wrong in making their extreme statements. Some of these men made statements that seemed to imply that they did not believe there were any objective standards, or laws, at all in the Christian's life. They did not actually believe that a Christian is without any objective laws, or standards, under the New Covenant, but they did leave themselves open to that charge by their rash statements. However, their enemies were guilty of deliberately putting the worst possible connotation on the statements. Both these men, and their opponents, kept using the word law in two different ways without clarifying their meaning.

Here are some essential facts that must be understood and applied in any discussion on law and grace.

1. Because a believer is not in danger of going to hell if he breaks one of God's commandments (and remember that is exactly what justification teaches), it does not follow:

A. that grace teaches us that we can sin as much as we like and it does not matter;

B. nor does it mean that because the believer personally does not have to pay the penalty for sins committed today, therefore the penalty somehow is not paid. All of a believer's sin, before and after conversion, must still be borne and paid for by Christ.

2. Because a Christian cannot be punished—by being sentenced to hell—does not mean there are no serious consequences for him when he sins. However, chastisement from the hands of a loving Father must never be equated with judgment from an offended God!

3. Because the Christian cannot be under the Old Covenant of life and death made with Israel at Sinai does not mean that there are no laws—in the sense of objective standards—in the New Covenant.

The theological problem arises when we enter a discussion about the distinction between "the law" [Ten Commandments or Tables of the Covenant] and "laws" [specific commandments] in relation to a Christian without first clearly defining the terms and their distinction. Any discussion of the law/grace controversy will always have different sides using the same identical word in many different ways. The word law will sometimes mean covenant, sometimes commandment, and other times objective revelation. Some people will even attempt to make law mean all three things at the same time.

The title for this chapter is, "A Christian is not under the law (singular, meaning "covenant"), but he is under laws" (plural, meaning objective commandments). This means a Christian is not under the law, in the sense that Israel was, as a covenant of life and death. The Christian is, however, under clear objective commandments that are to guide his daily life and motives. A Christian's life is just as much controlled by objective laws, meaning God-given standards, as was an Israelite's. In no sense do we deny that. However, we insist that the Christian's laws, or standards, are much higher than those given to Israel. Grace can, and does, demand far more than the laws given to Moses. Grace is, in every way, higher and better than the law given at Mt. Sinai.

The words the law does not mean "the sum total of all laws." The words the law, when used in Scripture, usually refer to one of two things: (1) The words refer to the law given on the Tablets of the Covenant to the Nation of Israel. In this covenant sense, Israel is the only nation that was ever under the law. (2) The words refer to either part or all of the Scriptures. It often refers to the first five books of the Bible or the whole Old Testament. In this sense Christians are indeed under the law and morally obligated to keep every true moral commandment in the whole of Scripture.

This is almost the same as the old Puritans saying, "The Christian is not under the law as a covenant of life, but he is under the law as a rule of life." They were close to the truth in that statement, but they could never clearly explain what they actually meant. In one sense they could not explain and work out the implications of their statement because they insisted, most strenuously, that Israel was never under a legal covenant of life and death simply because Sinai could not possibly be a legal covenant of works, for there could not be a covenant of works after Genesis 3:15. Their system of theology forced them to contend that the Sinai covenant was the same "gracious covenant" made with Adam after he fell. Sinai must be the same covenant of grace that the church is under. Their statement that the law was, "not a covenant of life, but a rule of life," was, in a sense, nonsense since they did not really believe the Mosaic law ever was a covenant of works. In reality, no one, except Adam, was ever under a legal covenant of works according to the covenant theology of the Puritans. They insisted on bringing the Ten Commandments over into the New Covenant as a rule of life for Christians. Their primary argument being that those commandments were a rule of life for the redeemed people of God, meaning Israel, and you cannot put the redeemed church under a covenant of works. Thus they had a built-in problem. They wanted the law to function in a Christian's conscience as a rule of life and not as a covenant of life as in the case of Israel. However, at the same time they wanted to deny that the law ever was a legal covenant of life and death. Israel had to be under the same covenant of grace that the believers are under today. Therefore the covenant at Sinai had to be "an administration of the Covenant of Grace". They wanted the same law to function as a covenant and a non-covenant at the same time. They wanted to preach the law to sinners as a threat of death [covenant] as a means of convicting them of their lost condition. However, they wanted to do this while also insisting that the law was never intended by God to function as a covenant of life and death.

The Puritans wanted the Decalogue to function both as a covenant of life and death with the power to convict lost sinners to see their need of salvation, and also, at the same time as a rule of life for a believer's sanctification. They further confused the issue by trying to make the law perform both of these functions to the same people at the same time. Little wonder that these men created confusion in the area of law and grace that neither they, nor their heirs, have been able to clarify. We need only read the many meticulous, but still futile, attempts to distinguish between an "evangelical" obedience to the law and a "legal" obedience.

We sincerely believe the Old Covenant (Decalogue) was a legal covenant of life and death. We reject the idea that it was given to a saved people for their sanctification. Israel, for the most part, was a bunch of hard-hearted rebels—not saints. However, we also believe that every one of the laws that formed the terms of that covenant (The Ten Commandments, Exodus 34:27–29) as they are interpreted and applied in the New Covenant Scriptures by our Lord and His Apostles are a vital part of a Christian's rule of life today. We cannot equate the Ten Commandments as they are written on the Tablets of the Covenant with what has been called, without any biblical support, "the unchanging moral law of God." However, the unchanging moral principles contained in the Ten Commandments are just as moral and applicable today as they were when God gave them to Moses on the Tablets of Stone at Sinai. We receive those laws, not as they were written at Sinai, but as they are changed and enlarged by our Lord and His Apostles in the New Covenant Scriptures.

COPYRIGHT 2004 John G. Reisinger