Does God’s law apply to the new covenant era?
Many Christians believe it doesn’t: that Paul sets aside the Old Testament law for “the law of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 9:21, Paul wrote: “to those who are without law, [I am] as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.” The italicized phrases suggest that Paul here declares that in Christ — and, therefore, in the Christian era, our era — a new law prevails, which he calls: “the law of Christ.” This new law of Christ supplants the older law of God as the ethical norm for Christian behavior.
This statement has been badly misunderstood. Paul does not supplant the “law of God” with a new “law of Christ.”
Christ’s Law and Christ’s Teaching
Any supposed “law of Christ” must conform to Christ’s own teaching. And Christ said that He had not come to abolish the law, and that if anyone denied the least of the commandments he would be least in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:17-20). Consequently, any “law of Christ” would harmonize with and support the original law of God. “The law of Christ” would not contradict the Law of God, but endorse it.
God’s Law and Paul’s Ethics
Paul clearly states (1 Cor. 9:19-20) that he does not keep the ceremonial aspects of the law, those Jewish-defining, ritual obligations demarcating Jews from the Gentiles. Then he adds: “though not being without the law of God,” that is, “though I am not without the law of God.”
The phrase “though not being without the law of God” shows the abiding relevance of “the law of God” in Paul’s ethical system. He most definitely is not without God’s law. Although he opposes mandatory observation of ceremonial features of the law, he is not “without the law of God.” This insertion is necessary to protect Paul’s argument from suggesting he endorses anomia, “lawlessness,” the word he employs in “without the law of God.”
This phrase harmonizes with his other observations on the continuing validity of God’s law as an ethical (not ceremonial) obligation in Paul’s writings: Romans 3:31; 7:12; 8:3-4; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; and so forth.
Paul’s Point Regarding the Law
Paul’s statement — “though not being without the law of God, but under the law of Christ” — must be interpreted as written. He does not contrast “the law of God” with “the law of Christ.” He did not say: “I am not under law to God, but rather I am under law to Christ,” as if they were two mutually-exclusive and competing ethical systems.
Note the double-negative. Double- negatives can easily trip up the interpreter. Paul does not state: “I am not under law to God.” Rather he declares that he is “not without law to God.” A world of difference separates these two assertions. He claims he is “not” in a state of being “without law to God.” Thus he denies he is “without law to God” or that he is “apart from” the law of God. In fact, he affirms that he is “under law to God” by denying he is “without” law to God.
Paul’s Liberty in Christ
We must comment on the meaning of his tricky statement.
First, when Paul refers to Christ’s “law” he appears to mean Christ’s “authority” (cp. Mt. 28:18; Eph. 1:21; Phil. 2:9-10; Col. 1:17-1) — not a new system of laws and obligations. Paul is under Christ’s lordship; he is Christ’s servant or slave (1 Cor. 9:16-17; 7:22). Paul’s fuller statement that he is “under law to God” is validated by being under Christ’s law or authority. Being a servant of Christ does not remove the obligation to God’s Law. Remember, the whole debate was about Christian liberty (1 Cor. 8:9; 9:1a,19; cp. Gal. 2:4) — liberty in Christ. Here he asserts again that our liberty is not a wholesale, unbridled liberty, but one constrained by obligations to Christ himself.
When Paul highlights the distinction between Jew and Gentile (1 Cor. 9:19-21), he apparently assumes a distinction between being a servant of Moses (under his ceremonial and ritual authority) and a servant of Christ (with His superior authority, which fulfills those ceremonial obligations in Himself). He is under the new covenant in Christ rather than the old covenant administered by Moses. He is no longer obligated to Moses who was a “servant in God’s house,” but to Christ who is a “Son over the house” (Heb. 3:2-6).
The New Testament provides several examples of Christians’ being freed from ceremonial strictures because they are no longer “under Moses” but rather “under Christ.” For example, in Acts 6:14 we read: “we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” See also: Acts 13:38-39; 15:1,5; 21:21.
Consider the strong adversative alla in the phrase “not being without the law of God but (alla) under the law of Christ.” This corrects any misunderstanding of Paul, and is a slap against the abusers of liberty. Not only is he not without the Law of God, but (strong disjunctive) he is under the authority of Christ. His original reader cannot jump on his “without law” and use the term anomos as if it meant “lawless.” He not only proclaims he is not without God’s Law, but is, in fact, under the authoritative lordship of Christ. This agrees with his declaration of his freedom from “all men” (1 Cor 9:19a), while maintaining the Christ-centered obligations within truly Christian liberty. Paul, then, is simultaneously under the Law of God and the authority of Christ. The two are compatible and co-extensive.
Paul’s use of the phrase ennomos (“in lawed”) to refer to Christ’s “authority” rather than the more common word exousia is for literary reasons. Note his repetition of “law” (using various derivations of anomos):
to the ones under law as under law
tois hupo nomon hos hupo nomon
not being myself under law
me hon autos hupo nomon
in order that the ones under law
I might gain;
hina tous hupo nomon kerdeso;
to the ones without law as without law
tois anomois hos anomos
not being without law of God
me hon anomos theou
but in law to Christ
all’ ennomos Christou
in order that I might win the ones
hina kerdano tous anomous
When he refers to Christ’s authority over his liberty by using a derivative of nomos, Paul maintains his literary cadence, driving home his point in style with this effective word-play. We must not let his literary technique cloud our understanding of his teaching.
Clearly then, a careful reading of this verse exposes the error of those who resist the application of God’s Law in the modern world.1 Rather than undermining God’s Law as a continuing ethical obligation, Paul here establishes the Law — just as he told us he would in Romans 3:31: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”
1. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., God’s Law in the Modern World: The Continuing Relevance of Old Testament Law (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P and R, 1993).