For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom 6:14)
All my life I have been confronted with this text by non-Adventists. Adventists have been accused of being legalists and of not understanding the purpose and the relevance of the law as it was given on Mount Sinai. This text, Romans 6:14 has been one of the favorite texts of those who say that the law is no longer relevant for Christians since the time of the death of Jesus. These Christians have stated (with much Scripture to back them up), that Christians are not under the law.
How should we understand this statement that Christians are no longer under the law? A significant number of Christians understand this to mean that the Ten Commandments have been abolished. In addition, many of them go on to teach that there was a time when God saved people by means of the law, if they were obedient, but that He has changed His method of saving people since Jesus Came.
On the other hand, as far as I can remember I have always heard Adventists interpret this phrase to mean being under the “ condemnation of the law.” I have listened to sermons, read books by outstanding SDA evangelists and authors and, this was always the way that the phrase was interpreted. The explanation is, when a person commits sin, he is under the law, because he is condemned by the law. The law condemns him because of his sin. However, if a person commits no sin, then he is not under the law because then, the law cannot condemn him.
Both sides agree that there is a condition which the Bible describes as being “under the law.” There is no question or argument about that. The real issue is, what does the Bible mean when it speaks about being “under the law? The problem is that neither of these two views fits with all the references in the Bible. There are some places where one interpretation seems to make sense, but others where it just does not fit, and it is the same with the other interpretation. This question is a very critical one because our understanding of it contributes to our understanding of several issues which are presently agitating Adventism, including the issue of righteousness by faith. Is the “Adventist” point of view correct or is the non-Adventist point of view?
After examining this issue carefully for several years, I have come to the conclusion that neither of those views is correct. I have come to see that there is another explanation which not only makes much more sense, but which perfectly harmonizes all the references to being “under the law,” and which gives us a much more complete understanding of what God's purpose was when He gave the law on Mount Sinai.
One passage in particular which helps us to understand what Paul means in using this phrase, is Galatians 4:1-5. Let us examine this passage and see what we may learn from it on this question of what it means to be, “under the law.”
Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; (2) But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. (3) Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: (4) But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, (5) To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Gal 4:1-5)
Perhaps it is not necessary to go any further than this passage to come to an understanding of what the phrase means. We are told that as long as a person is a child he is placed under tutors (teachers) and governors (his behaviour is restrained by others). It does not matter if he is one day to be Lord of all, as long as he is a child, this is how he is treated. Then Paul says, “even so,” this shows that he is using this as an illustration of something which he is about to say. What is his point? His point is that there was a time when we, (meaning the people of God) were children (spiritually speaking), and because we were children we were in bondage under what he calls the “elements of the world.”
This word bondage is regarded as a bad word and is made worse because it says we were in bondage under the “ elements of the world .” Surely, we think, the elements of the world must be something bad. But if we look at the illustration, we cannot come to that conclusion. The child is placed under tutors and governors. Is this something bad? Of course not. His behaviour is restricted, his freedom is limited. In this sense he is in bondage. Another person controls his behaviour but this is not a bad thing, as long as he is a child. Now, “even so,” or in the same way …. Paul says that the situation with us Christians was the same. We were in bondage under the elements of the world. Who put us there? Who was interested in keeping us under control and disciplining our behaviour while we were still children? This “bondage” under the “elements of the world” was the way of tutoring us and governing us until we became adults and since, when we were children we were God's children, then it must have been He who placed us under these “governors and tutors” which kept us in bondage under the elements of the world.
In 1 Corinthians 7:15 Paul uses this word bondage in a way which helps us to see that when he uses it, he does not mean something bad:
But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. (1 Cor 7:15)
What does the word “bondage” mean in this verse? Paul is speaking of a Christian who is married to an unbeliever. He says that the Christian should not separate himself from the unbeliever if the unbeliever wants to stay with him. But then he says, if the unbeliever wants to leave, then the brother or sister is not under bondage in such a case. What is it that keeps the brother or sister under “bondage” if the unbeliever desires to stay? It is the law! The law requires the brother or sister to stay with such a person and Paul describes this obligation to the requirements of the law as “bondage.” So we see that Paul does not mean that bondage is a bad thing, only that when a person is in bondage, he is controlled by rules and regulations which determine how he is to behave, regardless of how he feels.
But why does Paul refer to these rules as the “elements of the world?” Could Paul refer to the laws given by God as “elements of the world?” Consider for a moment, what did these laws relate to? What aspect of a person did these laws control, was it the spirit (mind) or was it the body and the outward behaviour? Did these laws have to do with the life of the world to come or did they have to do with life in this world? As long as they had to do with the outward behaviour, the body and its actions, then they were nothing but elements of the world, even though they were given by God Himself.
This is not to say that God gave something which was not good, but He certainly gave something which could not bring eternal life in itself. He certainly gave a system which did not produce righteousness in itself because that was never His purpose for the law. What was His purpose in placing them “under” these “governors and tutors” or “elements of the world?”
(Gal 3:24-25) Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (25) But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
This is as plain as day. The law was our schoolmaster . It was our tutor and governor because we were children. But it had a definite purpose and what was this purpose? Its purpose was to bring us to Christ. It was to govern us until we became adults. But now that Christ is come, are we still under the schoolmaster? Are we still under tutors and governors? Are we still under the law? Absolutely not. “ after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.”
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, (5) To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Gal 4:4,5)
It should be clear then, that being under the law does not mean that one is necessarily under the condemnation of the law. Neither does it mean that the Ten Commandments have been abolished. What it really signifies is that one is under a certain system of government, a system where one is controlled by external rules and regulations which govern his behaviour. In other words, it means to be under the administration of law. The implications of this are tremendous. If this is true, what then is the alternative to being “under the law?” If what we are being told is that the Christian is no longer governed by the law, then by what is he governed? Again, the Bible has a very clear answer.
But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. (Gal 5:18)
There are two kinds of system which govern the way a person behaves, one is for children and the other is for adults. One is based on external control. It is a system which deals with peoples' actions, it governs what they do and controls them on the basis of rules and regulations. Its methods are based on, “elements of this world.” The other is based on internal change. It is a system which deals with peoples' hearts and minds, it governs their natures and determines how they think. It changes their behaviour on the basis of Christ living inside. This system is not based on the rule of law, but on the rule of the spirit.
It is very difficult for some of us to accept this truth because if flies in the face of what we have always believed. It contradicts the entire direction of our religious lives which has been based on the principle of following a system of rules and law rather than behaving on the basis of a transformed nature. We cannot see how it is possible for us to do what is right except it be on the basis of being instructed how to behave. The idea of receiving a life which is by instinct predisposed to good, a nature which always turns in the direction of good, without the need of law seems an impossible thing. It would require the actual introduction of something supernatural and out of human experience to accomplish such a wondrous miracle.
Oh how blinded we have been brothers and sisters! Isn't this exactly what we have been promised? An experience which is out of this world, a new spirit and a new heart, the very life of Christ Himself. Something which is out of this world, supernatural, something which human effort, obedience to rules and laws can never produce. This is what it means to be no longer under the law. It is to be under grace, that is, to be under the government of the spirit of God.
Now that we understand this, all the other verses which speak of being “under the law fit neatly into place. We understand that they neither speak of the abolition of the Ten Commandments, nor of being under the condemnation of the law. What they really refer to is a condition where a person is governed by external forces, a condition where rules and regulations dictate how he behaves. The Christian no longer operates under this kind of system.
But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. (24) Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (25) But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Gal 3:23-25)
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law , To redeem them that were under the law , that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Gal 4:4, 5)