What Is the “Law of Christ”? A Bit of Research

Rightly understanding the relationship between today’s Christians and the law delivered to Moses depends on multiple factors. One of them is grasping the meaning of the NT phrase “law of Christ” (See this article and discussion from last week). The phrase, or a very similar one, occurs twice in most translations—in 1 Corinthians 9:21, and Galatians 6:2. How we understand the term influences whether we see Christ as placing believers under a different law, or if we take the view that parts of the Mosaic law simply continue across peoples and covenants, as well as the millennia.

The information here shouldn’t settle the question for anyone, but may provide a start for those who want to dig deeper.

1 Corinthians 9:21 variations:

To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. (ESV)

…though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ… (NASB)

… (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law)… (NIV)

… (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ)… (NKJV)

… (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,)… (KJV)

Galatians 6:2 reads virtually the same in every translation.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (ESV)

Comments on “The Law of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 9:21

Then, lest any should think that the matter was a change of mind, he added, “not being without law to God, but under law to Christ;” i.e., “so far from being without law, I am not simply under the Law, but I have that law which is much more exalted than the older one, viz. that of the Spirit and of grace.”1

Jewish rabbis such as Hillel made the law no more burdensome than necessary in their endeavours to win people for Judaism (The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, Athlone, 1956, pp. 336ff.). Paul went further. He did not bring them under Jewish law at all; he became like one not having the law. He does not mean that he was a lawless person; he was not free from God’s law, but was under Christ’s law. His disavowal of subjection to the Jewish law is emphatic. But equally emphatic is his commitment to ethical ends in the service of God (Rom. 7:22; Gal. 6:2). He is not making Christianity into a ‘new law’; he is affirming his commitment to the kind of life that befits the servant of God. And as far as this service allows he says he conformed to Gentile practice so as to win2

To keep from being misunderstood, he makes it clear that he is not talking about ignoring or violating God’s moral law. The Ten Commandments and all of God’s other moral laws have, if anything, been strengthened under the New Covenant. For example, not only is it sin to commit murder but also to be inordinately angry with your brother or to call him a fool. Not only is adultery sinful, but so is lust (Matt. 5:21–30). Love does not abrogate God’s moral law but fulfills it (Rom. 13:8, 10; cf. Matt. 5:17). None of us in Christ is without [outside] the law of God, but rather are under the law of Christ. Every believer is under complete legal obligation to Jesus Christ—even though love, rather than the externalities of the law, is to be the guiding force.3

Hence he states that he is not outside God’s law. The notion that not to be under the law is to be godless or ungovernable presupposes “an unwarranted identity of the Torah as the ultimate law of God. A man may be free from the Torah and yet be loyal to the law of God as it is represented or expressed in the law of Christ.” [Dodd, 99] Thus Paul remains subject to the law of Christ. Indeed, Dodd points out, 9:14 has already alluded to an “ordinance” of Christ, just as Paul does in 7:10–11.[Dodd, 103-108] Bruce further relates this to 11:1, where the example of Christ is to be seen as paradigmatic for Christian conduct.[Bruce, 1 and 2 Cor, 88] On the other hand, as Dodd, Bruce, Heinrici, and Schrage also observe, the law of Christ should not be restricted to any specific body of traditional sayings of Jesus. Christians stand under the direction of the gospel as that which witnesses to Christ in a broader and more comprehensive sense (cf. Gal 6:2).4

Everything develops itself according to its proper law. So the Christian, though no longer subject to the literal law as constraining him from without, is subject to an inward principle or law, the spirit of faith in Christ acting from within as the germ of a new life. He does not in the Greek (as in English Version) say “under the law (as he does in 1 Co 9:20) to Christ”; but uses the milder term, “in … law,” responsible to law. Christ was responsible to the law for us, so that we are no longer responsible to it (Ga 3:13, 24), but to Him, as the members to the Head (1 Co 7:22; Ro 8:1–4; 1 Pe 2:16).5

Comments on “The Law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2

However, as Paul has shown already in Gal 5–6, the moral law of God has never been abrogated or annulled, although the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic legislation have been made obsolete by the coming of Christ. The moral law of God, epitomized in the Ten Commandments and summarized in Jesus’ restatement of the “new commandment” given to his disciples (John 13:34; 15:12; 1 John 3:23), continues to play an important role in the life of the justified believer. In sum, the “law of Christ” is for Paul “the whole tradition of Jesus’ ethical teaching, confirmed by his character and conduct and reproduced within his people by the power of the Spirit” (cf. Rom 8:2) [Bruce, Galatians, 261].6

the law of Christ—namely, “love” (Ga 5:14). Since ye desire “the law,” then fulfil the law of Christ, which is not made up of various minute observances, but whose sole “burden” is “love” (Jn 13:34; 15:12); Ro 15:3 gives Christ as the example in the particular duty here.7

While the “spiritual” do the work of restoring, all believers are to become involved by prayer and encouragement. This, wrote Paul, will fulfill (anaplērōsete) the law of Christ, that is, the principle of love (cf. 5:14; John 13:34).
The ‘law of Christ’ which would be thus fulfilled is that referred to in 1 Cor. 9:14 ‘that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’. Financial burdens would not be excluded from the βάρη which are to be shared, but the case for seeing financial burdens as predominantly in view has not been made out.
καὶ οὔτως ἀναπληρώσετε τὸν νόμον τοῦ Χριστοῦ, ‘by so doing you will fulfil the law of Christ’. The ‘law of Christ’ is not essentially different from the commandment of love to one’s neighbour (quoted in 5:14), in which ‘the whole law’ is comprehended. Paul speaks of his commitment to this ‘law’ in 1 Cor. 9:20, where he describes himself as ἔννομος Χριστοῦ (cf. C. H. Dodd, ‘Ἔννομος Χριστοῦ ‘, More NT Studies [Manchester, 1968], 134–148). It may be that Paul speaks of the law of Christ here as a contrast to the law which his converts were being urged to accept: the law of Christ is a ‘law’ of quite a different kind, not enforceable by legal sanctions. ‘The law of Christ is essentially concerned with the quality of the act and the direction in which it is moving’ (C. H. Dodd, Gospel and Law [Cambridge, 1951], 77f.).8

To understand what Paul meant by “the law of Christ” here, much depends on how we understand the purpose and focus of 5:13–6:10. For if we view 5:13–6:10 as a continuation of Paul’s arguments and exhortations against the Judaizing threat, then “the law of Christ” must have relevance to what the Judaizers were proposing. One can then, in fact, wonder why this expression does not appear earlier in the Galatian letter. Likewise, if we take 5:13–6:10 to reflect the polemics of Paul’s antinomistic stance, then νόμος here may very well be used in contradistinction to the Judaizers’ usage. If, however, 5:13–6:10 be seen more in terms of the libertine issues that were also present in the churches of Galatia, then “the law of Christ” may be taken as an expression stemming from Paul’s own ethical vocabulary that is used here to check libertine tendencies among his Galatian converts.
Taking this latter approach, and abbreviating a lengthy discussion quite considerably, I propose that ὁ νόμος τοῦ Χριστοῦ here (as does ἔννομος Χριστοῦ of 1 Cor 9:21) stands in Paul’s thought for those “prescriptive principles stemming from the heart of the gospel (usually embodied in the example and teachings of Jesus), which are meant to be applied to specific situations by the direction and enablement of the Holy Spirit, being always motivated and conditioned by love” (so my New Testament Social Ethics for Today, 15). Paul is not setting forth Jesus as a new Moses. Nor does he view Jesus’ teachings as ethical prescriptions to be carried out in rabbinic fashion.9

Many have supposed the word “law” to be here used for a specific commandment; as for example Christ’s new commandment that we should love one another. So St. James (2:8) writes of the “royal law.” St. Paul, however, never uses the term in this sense in his own writing, though in the Epistle to the Hebrews (8:10; 10:16), the plural “laws” occurs in citation from Jeremiah. It seems better to take it of the whole moral institution of Christ, whether conveyed in distinct precept or in his example and spirit of action.10

A Few Observations

Those who want to understand the role of Mosaic law in believers’ lives today will have to do more than understand “the law of Christ” from the grammar and immediate context of these two passages. Because most commentators would affirm that the 10 Commandments continue to be binding on NT believers in some sense, their comments on these passages fit or fail to fit that idea in some interesting ways. In the comments above views vary on whether the “law of Christ” is a specific command, a general attitude, a spiritual dynamic, a new relationship to the Moral Law, or some combination.

The basic issues are these: in what sense can any part of the Mosaic Law be said to continue to bind NT Christians, and in order to avoid confusion, what’s the best way to express that in preaching and teaching?

Notes

1 John Chrysostom. “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians.” Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians. Ed. Philip Schaff. Trans. Hubert Kestell Cornish, John Medley, and Talbot B. Chambers. Vol. 12. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889. 128. Print. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series.

2 Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 7. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985. Print. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries.

3 MacArthur, John F., Jr. 1 Corinthians. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984. Print. MacArthur New Testament Commentary.

4 Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000. Print. New International Greek Testament Commentary. The references to Dodd are C. H. Dodd, “ἔννομος Χριστοῦ,” in J. Sevenster and W. C. van Unnik (eds.), Studia Paulina in Honorem Johannis de Zwaan (Haarlem: Bohm, 1953), 96–110.

5 Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Vol. 2. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997. Print.

6 George, Timothy. Galatians. Vol. 30. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994. Print. The New American Commentary.

7 Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Vol. 2. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997. Print.

8 Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982. Print. New International Greek Testament Commentary.

9 Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. Vol. 41. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1990. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

10 Spence-Jones, H. D. M., ed. Galatians. London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909. Print. The Pulpit Commentary.

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There are 8 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

Calvin's discussion in his Institutes on the three uses of the law did it for me, honestly. It makes sense.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

What provenance does a NT hermeneutic of "law of Christ" have in historic Christian thought? There is something to be said for being cautious to not burst the boundaries of traditional orthodoxy on the law and the NC Christian:

  • When did a "law of Christ" first become a serious proposal for the life of a New Covenant believer?
  • How does it's provenance compare to, for example, Calvin's discussion and those that came before it?
  • Is it an innovative idea that came along after dispensationalism gained cachet in certain circles, or has it been around for a long time?
  • And what, exactly, does this "law of Christ" contain?

I don't have answers. It's why I've always been skeptical about this approach. Dispensationalists seem to be the one's pushing it; nobody else. Makes one very cautious.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Can you copy paste some key portions, maybe?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Have to wait until I get home.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

appears to be here

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

pvawter's picture

Thanks Don!

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm persuaded that we've all, in general, over-specified the meaning of "law." What I mean is that we tend to see it as some kind of unique thing distinct from simply "what God commands." I don't really see any reason to do that.

I do want to be clear that sometimes what God commands is directed at a specific people in the context of a particular covenant arrangement... e.g., the law of Moses. But there were commands for Abraham as well that are features of that covenant (though they are not structured like the "if you do this I will bless in this way, and if you do not, I will curse in this way" we see in the Mosaic).

So when you get to the church and believers of the present age, we're really just talking about obedience to Christ. There never was "law"/obedience that would bring life to those dead in sins, and there isn't now.

It should be obviously absurd that any people of God in any age would have no obligations to obey Him. It's just as absurd to say they are not "under law," in that sense. The law we are not "under" is the law that condemns sinners. Romans 8:1.

But we're also not parties to the Mosaic covenant, and so it's kind of sloppy to say that any of the covenant stipulations are binding on us.

Better: there are standards of right and wrong that apply to all people in all places and times--and so, of course, particular commands to particular groups of people are going to overlap some. It would be bizarre if we didn't see some things repeated, since God Himself does not change.

I'm sure that can be put more concisely, but I can't do it at the moment.

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