Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Meaning of "Under the Law" in Paul's Writings

This Post is to meant to clear up an important point of translation/interpretation found in the writings of Paul the Apostle.

It is in response to another thread "Not under the Law", which unfortunately contains disinformation and is misleading.

We did a deep study of this, involving, Koine Greek, modern English idioms, and also translational practices, and present our findings again here.


To begin, we believe that most will agree at least on the basic meaning of the modern English idiom, "under the Law".

We also agree as to the basic intent of this common modern English idiom:

Greek Idioms and their Meaning:

Turning now to Paul and the original Greek, we find several similar idioms in the New Testament, each with its own meaning:


(1) Romans 8:7 (ὑποτάσσεται τῷ νόμῳ) This is a full Greek idiom but not closely matching the modern English idiom above:

"Therefore the carnal mind is at enmity with God; For it is not subject to the Law of God, nor indeed can it be."

διότι τὸ φρόνημα τῆς σαρκὸς ἔχθρα εἰς θεόν; 
τῷ γὰρ νόμῳ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ὑποτάσσεται οὐδὲ γὰρ δύναται·
This can be rendered in a variety of ways in English, because English is rich in idioms of similar impact and meaning. The verb "be subject to" or "submit" is effective and clear in its meaning and import in both Greek and English.

The point here should be further expounded: Paul does not say that the 'fleshly mind' is not obligated to keep the Law, but rather that it is incapable of obedience, which the Law nonetheless demands.

So "(not) obligated to keep" or "(not) under authority to" is actually an improper rendering here. Paul means that the 'fleshly mind' is in a state of transgression through wilful disobediance of the Law.


(2) Romans 3:19 (ἐν τῷ νόμῳ) - This is another Greek expression which carries similar meaning to the modern English idiom above:

"We know that whatever the Law (Torah) says, it speaks to those under the Law (Torah), so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may become accountable to God."
Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὅσα ὁ νόμος λέγει, τοῖς ἐν τῷ νόμῳ λαλεῖ, ἵνα πᾶν στόμα φραγῇ, καὶ ὑπόδικος γένηται πᾶς ὁ κόσμος τῷ θεῷ·
The Greek here is literally "in the Law". This is a Greek idiom for "under the Law" in the modern English sense.

And it is translated just so, in the KJV (AV) and in many other more modern translations as well. The reason is essentially 'dynamic equivalence' or simply matching the meaning rather than the form of the Greek into good English.
In English, "in the Law" would actually be ambiguous, and possibly confusing.

In this case, the English translations generally are correct, clear and unambiguous, and carry the original intent of Paul quite well.


(3) Galat. 5:18 (υπο νομον) - "under the Law" (i.e., = under judgement, condemned by the Law, under the penalty prescribed for breaking the Law). Here we find a new expression, a different Greek idiom, with a more sinister meaning:

"...the fruit of the Spirit is love, patience, loyalty, self-control...
If you are led by the Spirit,
you are not under the Law  (i.e., condemned) ...
because against these things there is no Law."
(Gal 5:22-23a, 18, 5:23b)

  ... ει δε πνευματι αγεσθε ουκ εστε υπο νομον   (Gal. 5:18)
       πραοτης εγκρατεια κατα των τοιουτων ουκ εστιν νομος  (Gal. 5:23b)
Before proceeding, we note that this phrase (υπο νομον) "under the Law" does not occur elsewhere at all in the entire Old Testament, nor is it found in any of the Gospels, or Acts, or Revelation, or the Letters/Epistles of Peter, John or James.

It appears ONLY in Romans, 1st Cor. and Galatians. That is, it is an idiom unique to Paul, possibly originating in his Pharisee training and background. Since it is a technical term possibly invented or coined by him, we must look to Paul to explain its meaning for us, by his own usage and exposition.

Thankfully, Paul provides the definition for us right in Galatians, the first letter to use this phrase.

Here Paul clearly says we are not under the Law, because we are no longer breaking it: "against these things (that we do, led by the Spirit) there isn't any law!".

The idea here is that Paul is claiming we are no longer under condemnation, because we are not transgressing the Law, since we have passed out from under what the Law condemns, and into what the Law approves!

Paul's whole argument would be pointless if the Law were actually cancelled and/or simply no longer applied to Christians, regardless of their behaviour.

In that case, Paul would have simply said,
"You are not under the Law, because it is no longer valid.", or perhaps,
"You are not under the Law, because it doesn't apply to Christians."
The converse of this teaching is equally clear:

We remain under the Law in Paul's sense, when we continue transgressing it
by doing the works of the flesh, and committing sin, i.e., law breaking. Neither Paul's argument, nor its corollary would work if the Law were no longer in existance and/or applicable to Christians.

This meaning for (υπο νομον) "under the Law" (= condemned) is entirely different from the modern English phrase "under the Law" ('obligated to keep it').

The idea that we need not obey the Commandments finds no support from Paul here.
And we certainly cannot arrive at an adequate understanding of Paul's meaning in this case by applying modern idioms in translation which are completely foreign to the Greek idiom Paul is using here.

We'll need Paul's own definition of this phrase (υπο νομον) "under the Law" again, to interpret properly other places where he uses the same expression. (i.e., Rom. 6:14-15, 1st Cor.9:20-21, Gal 3:23, 4:4-5, 21, 5:18).


When Paul actually suspends (or more accurately limits the application of) certain laws/obligations, (e.g., the food laws, circumcision and Jewish festivals), we have to look elsewhere for the explanation.

It cannot be found in any novel theory of lawlessness, or 'vanishing obligations' to the Law.

For more on Paul and the Law, try our other posts.

A poster writes:

My Response:  This I think is the crux of your position. Unfortunately, it seems to go far beyond the text as it actually stands, and against the natural logic of Paul's arguments elsewhere.

Take for instance the following quotation also:
For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!
- Romans 6:14-15 (NKJV) 
Notice the last verse in particular, following up the phrase (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law"

This is precisely the phrase we are seeking to interpret, and Paul provides an immediate context and set of assumptions for us:

(1) It is possible to sin after accepting grace.
- so then, should we?

(2) The definition of "sin" hasn't changed at all here. It has been predefined by the Law, and Paul feels no inconsistency, and no need to re-define it by other terms.

Paul simply asks the plain and straightforward rhetorical question,
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?
- and answers it immediately with a resounding "no": Certainly not!

What does Paul expect of the reader at this point? He has not claimed that the Law is no longer in effect. He has not re-defined "sin" by some other means or yardstick other than the Moral Code of Moses (Law, Torah).

He certainly hasn't provided any argument here suggesting a new way of defining "sin", or a new world in which the Law of Moses is irrelevant. Instead, he asks his (mostly Jewish) readers to think INSIDE the box they've always been accustomed to.

The question they have on their mind quite naturally is this:

Is Paul teaching lawlessness?
(its what the controversy surrounding Paul is all about!)
And Paul's answer is a full denial of that charge, on the Jewish hearers' terms!

Is Paul suggesting that Jews or Gentiles can now or should now commit what are recognized 'sins' according to the Law of Moses? Paul answers NO!

Paul is here clearly continuing what he begun in the first verse of the same chapter:

'Shall we continue in sin, so that grace may abound? Certainly not!' (Rom. 6:1)
And again, Paul continues this line of thinking about "sin" and our obligation to stop sinning and keep the basic requirements of the moral code. Verse 6:16 is a logical continuation of the same idea:

'You are the servants of whom you obey:
whether of SIN unto death,
or of OBEDIANCE unto righteousness.' (6:16)
Again, what is the natural sense of these verses? That we can now do anything we want? That "sin" has been re-defined on some other measuring-rod? Or rather that our new-found "grace" frees us to FULFILL the Law, and AVOID sin?

Paul continues, not substituting the Law for some other measure, but using it over and over again, as though it were not only perfectly valid, but was the test of the truth of all his own arguments:

'Know you not, brothers, that the Law (Torah) has dominion over a man as long as he lives? (I speak to those who know the Law)' (7:1)
Later on it is true, he begins a series of difficult and subtle arguments regarding a kind of personal "death" inside a truly repentant Christian, namely the "death of the desires of the flesh", but even here the discussion is Spiritual if not symbolic. He assumes each reader is not a ghost or a corpse but a human being who is very much still alive.

The point is this: Even if Paul later on takes us on a theological, soteriological and philosophical journey to advanced matters, our question remains:
What does Paul mean HERE, when and where he uses the actual phrase (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law", not 'What does Paul say somewhere else?'

For we cannot understand Paul properly or treat him adequately unless we understand EVERYTHING he writes and take it seriously as it stands. Our doctrines and dogmas must come AFTER we have thoroughly understood everything Paul says, when and where he says it.

The natural sense of (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law", in this second example also, is just this: "under judgment", i.e., under condemnation for being in a state of transgression against "the Law" (Torah), - the Covenant of Moses.

Paul implies that Christians are NOT (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law", meaning we are not "under judgement" (condemnation). But that does not mean we should go back (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law" (under condemnation), by transgressing it again.

Paul never implies here that we are NOT (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law", in the modern sense that we don't have to obey the ethical and moral code revealed by God to humankind on Mount Sinai (i.e., the Ten Commandments).

Rather Paul suggests we abstain from lawbreaking, and by this means (following the Holy Spirit, which by implication would never lead us into lawbreaking) stay out from (υπο νομον) "under (the) Law", that is, not become criminals again.


Again, Another poster develops a doctrine that the Law and the ethical standard it represents is no longer applicable to Christians.

But this is not the meaning of Paul at all. Instead, Paul, like John the Baptist and Jesus before him, is announcing a ONE-TIME AMNESTY to all of Fallen Israel in the Diaspora, and all of mankind (the Gentiles, Greeks and Romans etc.).

Its a Conditional Pardon, an Amnesty WITH TERMS, one of them being to REPENT, meaning STOP SINNING. It is not a license to continue in lawlessness or sin, and it is not an announcement that sin has been re-defined.

Sin is still defined by the public declaration and expounding found in the Ten Commandments and their accompanying guidelines, and men are still required to STOP SINNING.

Imagine if you had a country with an ongoing civil war tearing it apart. The benevolent government makes a public announcement of a COMPLETE AND UTTER PARDON to ALL REBELS who PUT DOWN THEIR WEAPONS AND STOP FIGHTING.

That is the New Testament Covenant in a nutshell: it bypasses the Old Covenant (the Torah) and bypasses all the punishments prescribed therein. How can Christ do this? Because Christ speaks for God the Father Himself, and the offer of Amnesty is from the ultimate authority, God.

Men are not asked to abandon the Law, but they are asked to RETURN to its moral and ethical standard, in exchange for a PARDON of all past transgressions. Included in the package is a restoration and redeeming of Israel out of her sins, and a BETTER COVENANT with new terms and more power.

But sin remains the same, and the basic moral Law and universal principles remain the same too: Thou shalt not murder, bear false witness, commit robbery, adultery, idolatry etc.

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