3 reasons why “You are not under law, but under grace” doesn’t mean what you think it means

Reposted from the Kineti blog and authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

Summary: In Romans 6, Paul says “…you are not under law, but under grace.” Does this mean Christians are free to disregard the Torah’s commandments? Many Christians say yes. I give 3 reasons why that interpretation is likely inaccurate.

Well-intentioned Christians often respond to any kind of Torah keeping with, “Don’t you know you’re not under law, but under grace?”

It’s a quote from the New Testament, Romans 6, where Paul says as much.

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

-Paul, Romans 6

The implication is that Paul intends to say believers no longer have an obligation to obey Torah commandments.

This is a fair challenge: if “not under the law” means “free to disregard the Torah’s commandments”, then we Torah-pursuant Messianic believers should stop wasting our time and join the local non-denominational church.

In the last year, I’ve given 16 – count ‘em, 16! – teachings on Romans at my local Messianic congregation. (And I’m only on Romans 7! By the time I’m done, I expect to have delivered some 40 sermons on this remarkable letter.) This deep dive into Romans has revealed some surprises that may change your thinking about what “not under law” mean. Theses surprises were new to me. Maybe they’re new to you.

Let’s dig in:

“Not under law” can’t mean “free to disregard Torah commandments.” Why?

1. Because Paul appeals to the Torah’s authority throughout Romans

Imagine a father who says to his children, “You don’t have to listen to your mother.” Then a moment later he tells them, “Don’t you remember what mom said about this? Listen to her.”

Christians who claim “not under law” means “free to disregard Torah” are making the same mistake. Paul appeals to the authority of the Torah repeatedly in his letter.

In Romans 3, Paul tells the Roman believers to uphold the Torah, rather than overthrow it (3:31).

In Romans 7, Paul clarifies that the Torah is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12), and that the Torah is a spiritual document (7:14) that Paul himself “joyfully concurs with” (7:22). He states that he himself serves the Torah, while it’s the flesh that serves sin (7:25).

In Romans 8, Paul says the Law is made full in us (8:4), and that it is the sinful desires of humanity that rebel against the Law (8:7).

Finally, towards the end of the letter, Paul encourages the Roman believers to live upright lives. How? By keeping the Torah. He says in chapter 13, “He who loves his neighbor fulfills the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and every other commandment is summed up in this: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (13:8-10)

If Paul is appealing to the Torah as holy, righteous, good, spiritual, something which we should keep and obey, instructive for believers’ lives, made full in us – how can Paul say “you don’t have to keep it?”

Non-sequitur.

This point hasn’t been lost on New Testament scholars. C.E.B. Cranfield notes, for example,

“[Romans 6:14] is widely taken to mean that authority of the law has been abolished for believers and superseded by a different authority. And this, it must be admitted, would be a plausible interpretation, if this sentence stood by itself. But, since it stands in a document which contains such things as 3:31, 7:12, 14a, 8:4, 13:8-10, in which the law is referred to more than once as God’s law, and is appealed to again and again as authoritative, such a reading of it is extremely unlikely.”

-C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8

Cranfield is saying that if “not under law” means the Law is replaced by grace, Paul is inconsistent with his own words  where he appeals to its authority.

Cranfield says the usual Christian interpretation might be plausible if Paul’s “not under law” statement stood in isolation. But when taken in context of Paul’s entire letter, it cannot mean what many say it means.

“Not under law” can’t mean “free to disregard Torah commandments.” Why?

2. Because it’s an incomplete, context-free quote. The full contextual quote contradicts the supposed meaning.


We often hear, “…you are not under law, but under grace”, even though that’s an incomplete thought; in English translations, an incomplete sentence. Paul’s full statement is:

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”

We’re not under law, but under grace, because sin is not master over us.

What does sin being master over you have to do with law and grace?

Everything.

In the next chapter, just a few paragraphs away, Paul says that the Torah defines what sin is. He says in Romans 7,

“I would not have known sin except through the Torah. For I would not have known about coveting if the Torah had not said, “You shall not covet.”

-Paul, Romans 7

This has huge implications by itself; this is a mic-drop moment for Messianic theology. ? Torah defines sin, breaking Torah laws is sin.

Some Christians might respond by claiming Paul is only speaking about the ever-nebulous, ill-defined “moral law” here. Even if so, their interpretation still doesn’t make sense: since sin is breaking the [moral] Torah, consider how this statement reads:

“For [breaking the Torah] shall not be master over you, for you are [free to break the Torah].”

Again, a non-sequitur. Even if you swap in the ill-defined “moral law” here. It doesn’t follow, because it’s not what Paul is saying.

“Not under law” can’t mean “free to disregard Torah commandments.” Why?

3. Because Paul is a Torah-observant Messianic Jew

I’ve written before that understanding Paul’s identity as a Messianic Jew is a necessity for accurately interpreting his letters. Here’s an example where it comes into play.

Our premises about Paul’s identity impacts how we interpret him.
Was Paul an ex-Jew who converted to a new religion? (Or even, invented the new religion of Christianity, as some Orthodox Jews claim?) Did he convert, change his name, and abandoned his Jewish identity and his Judaism?

Or did Paul discover Judaism’s long awaited Messiah, amplify his faithfulness as a Jew, see his role as a calling by the God of Israel, keep the Torah, teach others to do the same?

Thankfully, the New Testament already answers this for us:

“They [Jerusalem believers] said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many myriads there are among the Jewish people who have believed—and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been told about you—that you teach all the Jewish people among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or to walk according to the customs. What’s to be done then? No doubt they will hear that you have come.

“So do what we tell you. We have four men who have a vow on themselves.  Take them, and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. That way, all will realize there is nothing to the things they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly manner, keeping the Torah.”

-Acts 21

The Jesus-followers in Jerusalem hear rumors that Paul is telling Jewish people to disregard the Torah, forsake both Moses’ Law and Judaism’s traditions. (Much like today.)

They ask Paul to put the rumors to rest. How? By taking a vow at the Temple as described in the Torah, and paying for his expenses and those of several Torah-observant brothers who were taking the same vow.

This would put an end to the rumors that Paul doesn’t keep or teach Torah. And it should.

Thus, if Paul keeps Torah and teaches others to do the same, Paul’s “not under law” statement can’t mean breaking Torah.

After all, the Roman community Paul is writing to is headed up by a Messianic Jewish couple, Acquila and Priscillla, and the community itself was made up largely of Jewish followers of Jesus, synagogue-attending Gentiles (1st century “God-fearers”), as well as a smattering of non-Jewish slaves and underclass.

If Paul’s “not under law” statement really means “no need to follow the Torah”, now was Paul’s chance to speak boldly and persuasively against Torah.

But he didn’t. And this presents a problem for the “not under law means don’t obey Torah” view.

How Christians interpret this chapter of Acts is both amusing and unfortunate.

Many Christians will say, “Paul did this not because he was Torah observant, but because he was appeasing people.”

This acrobatic interpretation is amusing because it overturns the plain meaning of the text. But it’s unfortunate because it makes Paul out to be a two-faced deceiver and accuses Paul of doing the very thing he rebuked Peter for in Galatians 2: compromising on convictions for appeasement’s sake.

But what about Paul’s conversion?

Paul was an ex-Jew who converted to a new religion and changed his name, right?

Not so fast.

Post-Damascus Paul never claims to cease being a Jew. On the contrary, Paul states – again, post-Damascus – that he is a Pharisee (Acts 23), a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11).

As for converting to a new religion, Paul states persuasively in Acts: “I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything written in the Torah and Prophets.” For Paul, his faith was no new religion.

Larry Hurtado, the respected New Testament scholar and leading authority on early Christianity, writes in Was Paul ‘Converted’?:

“[S]cholars have differed over whether “conversion” is the right term to describe Paul’s change from fierce opponent of the young Jesus-movement to one of the most well-known advocates…

In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance.  At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.”  It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition.  (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)

More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17.  On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.  So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.”  But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.

Given that the Jesus-movement became “Christianity,” a separate religion, however, and for many centuries largely made up of non-Jews, the term “conversion” may reflect this outlook.  But Paul thought of himself as bringing former pagans (and fellow Jews too) to a proper alignment with the God of Israel and his Messiah, not inventing a new religion.”

-Larry Hurtado, Was Paul Converted?

Hurtado is explaining that conversion may not be the right term here, because Paul didn’t convert to a new religion nor change deity, but understood Jewish believers like himself had come understand Jesus was Judaism’s long-awaited messianic figure. Trusting this Messiah was not divergent from Judaism, but a new revelation within it.

He goes on to cite another New Testament scholar Paula Frederickson, who demonstrates that Paul refused to give up his Jewish identity and religion even under great duress:

“In her recent book on Paul (Paul:  The Pagans’ Apostle) Paula Fredriksen insists that “conversion” isn’t appropriate.  Her emphasis is that Paul didn’t change deities, and also continued to see himself and function as a Jew.  His willingness to undergo several synagogue floggings attests this, for the punishment was given only to Jews, and only if they submitted to it.  Paul came quickly to see that his previous attitude toward Jesus and the Jesus-movement was wrong, and that the God of his ancestors in fact affirmed both.”

Frederickson notes that Paul willingly underwent synagogues floggings to remain as a Jew. (He could have recanted his Jewish identity and religion and not submitted to the floggings.) This suggests that to Paul, following Jesus as Messiah wasn’t a new religion – no change in deity – and that it wasn’t a change in identity, as he remained a Jew even at infliction of great pain.

And what about the name change? Didn’t Paul change from the Hebrew “Saul/שאול” to the Greek “Paulus/Paul”?

Unlikely.

Messianic scholar John McKee notes,

“Paul is not the new name of Saul. While there are discussions about whether or not the Apostle adopted the name Paul in lieu of the salvation conversation of Sergius Paulus on Cyprus, that the name Paul was taken by him to replace the name Saul should be totally disregarded. It is widely recognized in Christian academia that in some form or another, Diaspora Jews commonly had a Hebrew or Aramaic name, and also a Greek or Roman name.”

-John McKee, Romans for the Practical Messianic

New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield attests to this as well:

“Had Paul not been a Roman citizen, it would have been natural to suppose that ‘Paul’ was simply a Gentile name possessed by him from childhood alongside his Jewish name ‘Saul’; for the use of a Gentile name in addition to a Jewish, particularly one more or less like-sounding, was by NT times a well-established custom among Hellenistic Jews. But, since Paul was a Roman citizen, the matter is rather more complicated. It is very probably that he possessed the three names characteristic of a Roman citizen: a praenomen or personal name, a nomen or clan name and a cognomen or family name.”

-C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8

Cranfield suggests that Paulus was likely the cognomen or family name.

The picture of Paul as an ex-Jew who converted, changed religion, deity, and name can be disregarded based on the evidence.

So what does “not under law” mean?


We can say with confidence what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean freedom to disobey or disregard the law.

But do we have a better interpretation?

Yes. In the context of the quote, Romans 6 is spent almost entirely on sin: purging it from our lives, crucifying our old lifestyle, dying to sin. Even the full statement, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” begins with a statement about sin.

Sin is what’s being spoken of in Romans 6, and Romans 6:14’s statement that we are not under law also speaks of sin. In particular, it means that condemnation for sin doesn’t fall on Jesus’ disciples. God’s judgment on our sin, and the guilt of our sin, is lifted due to Jesus taking humanity’s sin upon himself.

Cranfield concurs, saying,

“The fact that “under law” is contrasted with “under grace” suggests the likelihood that Paul is here thinking not of the law generally but of the law as condemnation for sinners; for since grace (Greek: χαρις/charis) denotes God’s undeserved favour, the natural opposite of “under law” is under God’s disfavour or condemnation. And the suggestion that the meaning of this sentence is that believers are not under God’s condemnation pronounced in the law but under his undeserved favour receives strong confirmation from 8:1…”

-C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8

He refers to Romans 8:1,

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Yeshua. For the law of the Spirit of life in Messiah Yeshua has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
-Paul, Romans 8

In Romans 8, Paul says the condemnation of sin is not upon believers in Christ.

Messianic scholar Tim Hegg also supports this conclusion, saying,

“The context shows clearly that Paul’s point in this concluding phrase is that the reign of sin had its power or authority through the Torah, for the Torah condemns sin and the sinner…when he concludes that the believer is not under the Torah but under grace, he is not putting the Torah and grace at odds with each other, but showing the means by which the believer is no longer a slave to sin but instead is alive to God. The penalty of the Torah against the sinner, just and righteous as it was, was put entirely upon Yeshua and therefore the believer is no longer under its condemnation. In the place of condemnation has come forgiveness and grace.”

-Tim Hegg, Romans 1-8

Conclusion

Paul saying “you are not under law, but under grace” doesn’t mean we are free to break Torah commandments. Such an interpretation introduces a number of problems:

  1. It undermines Paul’s own statements in Romans where he appeals to the authority of the Torah.
  2. It is out of context: Romans 6 is speaking about sin, and even the statement “you are not under law, but under grace” is an incomplete quote. The full quote and context leads us to a different interpretation.
  3. It is out of character for Paul, the Torah observant Messianic Jew. Paul is not an ex-Jew who abandoned his Jewish identity. Rather, Paul affirms himself a Torah-observant Pharisee who teaches Torah and keeps it himself.

A more harmonious, and likely more accurate interpretation of Paul’s words is that believers are not under God’s condemnation for breaking the Torah; sinning. The penalty for that was paid voluntarily by Messiah, and thus, “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”