What does it mean to be under law?

In Romans 6:14, Paul writes, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”

What does it mean to be under law? How do the Scriptures portray a man who is under law?

Consider the following eleven characteristics of those who are under law:

1. To be under law is to be in bondage to the command of perfect obedience for life (Gal. 3:10).

The law only promises life, upon perfect obedience. The man that is under the law has no strength to obey God or live unto God because the law gives no strength or ability. And so the law domineers over the man like a cruel taskmaster demanding the making of bricks without any straw (Exodus 5:18).

2. To be under law is to be in bondage to the curses and threatenings of the law for disobedience (Gal. 3:10).

3. To be under law is to be dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1)

4. To be under law is to be in bondage to the devil (Eph. 2:2)

5. To be under law is to be in bondage to the sinful desires of the flesh (Eph. 2:3)

The man that is under the law is under the power of sin. The law irritates the sinner’s corruption like a piece of sand in his eye. The law strengthens and stirs up his sin (Rom. 7:5)

6. To be under law is to be unpleasing to God (Rom. 8:8).

Those under the law do not realize they have lost their life. So they think they can do something that will please God and profit them relative to their standing with God.

However, those who are under the law can do nothing that is pleasing to God (Rom. 8:8). The man that is under the law can perform no holy act. All of his moral acts of “goodness” only serve to pollute him more and more and make him more unholy and less pleasing to God.

7. To be under law is to lack the ability and desire to obey (Rom. 8:7).

The man that is under the law is without strength, and cannot perform obedience to the law. The law is weak through the flesh (Rom. 8:3), and thus cannot justify or sanctify any man (Rom. 7:4).

8. To be under law is to lack the ability and desire to repent or shake off the yoke of sin (Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9, 11).

As a witness to the impenetrable, hardness of man’s heart, man will not repent even in the face of judgment. Judgment does not lead to repentance but to defiance and hatred of God.

9. To be under law is to be void of the Spirit, who is the principle agent and originating source of holiness (Gal. 3:2, 14; 2 Cor. 3:2; 2 Thess. 2:13-14).

How does one receive the Spirit of sanctification?

Paul, in Galatians 3:2, 14 teaches that a man receives the Spirit through faith, and not by works of the law.

    “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?… in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith,” (Gal. 3:2, 14).

It is the doctrine of grace and not of works that makes a man partake of Christ and His Spirit. It is the Gospel that is the manifestation of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:2).

It is not by law and legal means that the Holy Spirit is given to man. Rather, it is by the proclamation and exaltation of the Gospel. It is the Gospel that calls a man effectually to sanctification (2 Thess. 2:13-14).

10. To be under law is to be without Christ, in whom sanctification alone is found (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 5:25)

To be outside of Christ is to be under judgment and wrath (John 3:36). To be in Christ is to be under grace and favor. To be in Christ is to be sanctified. Christ gave Himself for His church that He might sanctify it (Eph. 5:25).

Ralph Erskine properly reminded his readers that to be a saint is to be a saint in Christ. A Christian is brought into union with Christ by grace and only in Christ is he or she sanctified. “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,” (1 Cor. 1:30).

11. To be under law is to be under the just and fearful judgment and vindictive wrath of God (John 3:36; 5:24; Rom. 1:18; 2:3, 5; 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:7; Heb. 10:27; James 2:10)

To be alive to the law is to be dead unto God and under the just sentence of guilty and condemnation (Rom. 3:19; James 2:10).

In short, to be under law is to be without Christ and under God’s vindictive wrath. If a man is alive to the law he is under both the commanding and condemning power of the law. Moreover, he is also under the commanding and condemning power of sin. Sin is his master and law is his punisher.

“…under the law the man is under bondage, and severe bondage to the command of perfect obedience, upon pain of death and damnation; and under bondage to the curse of the law, and fear of God’s everlasting wrath and thereby he can do nothing; he hath neither heart nor hand to serve God; he is bound neck and heel…” (Ralph Erskine, “Law-Death, Gospel-Life,” in The Works of Ralph Erskine, vol. 2, p. 51)


5 Responses to What does it mean to be under law?

  1. jae says:

    Does obedience= bondage to the law?

    What is sin?

  2. John Fonville says:

    Hi Jae. Thanks for writing. As I stated above in the first point, the law only promises life, upon perfect obedience (cf., Lev. 18:5; Matt. 19:16-17). There is only one problem, no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10-20) and thus no one can obey God’s law perfectly. Thus, to be under law is to be in bondage to the command of perfect obedience for life (Gal. 3:10). If perfect obedience is not given to the law, then one is under the law’s curse (Gal. 3:10). It is in this sense that obedience equals bondage to the law.

    If it were not for Adam’s bringing our nature into the bondage of corruption (cf., Rom 5) it would still be possible for someone to be saved through Law-keeping. But, we learn from passages like Matthew 19:16-22 that no one, including believers, can keep God’s commandments perfectly.

    But the Good News of the Gospel is that the moment a believer is united to Christ, Christ’s law-keeping (thus fulfilling the condition of eternal life) is imputed to the believer. “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).

    Thus, the Christian is no longer obligated to obey the law as a condition of life (thus no more bondage). The believer is now free from the law’s threatenings of death and wrath for his disobedience (cf., Gen. 2:16-17).

    Through union with Christ, believers are dead to the law in that they are not under it to be justified (in favor) or condemned (out of favor). Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). The law no longer terrifies us relative to our righteousness before God. That is to say our status and standing before God; His favor upon us!

    As those who are “in Christ,” we are now accepted in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6). Hope this helps. Gospel blessings!

  3. John Fonville says:

    I forgot the second part of your question. The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a succinct answer:

    Q. 14 What is sin?

    A. Sin is any want (lack) of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. cf., 1 John 3:4 (see also WLC, questions 24-25; Keach’s Catechism Q. 18).

  4. Rick says:

    Hi John – thanks again for the wonderful thought provoking blog. As I read through the points it is clear that you are referring to being under the law as it is in contrast to being under grace (or being unregenerate vs. regenerated). Yet there are many times and ways that we slip back under the influence of the law in a legalistic approach to our relationship with God and others. Although we may not be ‘under’ the law, we are still influenced by remaining sin’s tendency towards ‘self-salvation projects’ (Keller) or self-righteousness. Or to view it in the positive, we find it difficult to live in the goodness, sufficiency and true freedom of the good news (Gospel) – that Christ not only died for our sins, but He also lived the perfect life of obedience for us. And because of Christ and or being united to Him (by and through His Spirit) we are able to freely obey the law. Thanks again, Rick

  5. bribrit says:

    Point 11 “Vindictive judgment of God”? No, never. Vindictiveness is sin. God is just and merciful and both flow from His Love.

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