What does it mean to be “under the law? by Ken Rank

An idiom is a figure of speech which is designed to express a literal concept through an abstract picture. “Kicking the bucket” is an idiom depicting death, yet at death one doesn’t “kick a bucket.” There are many idioms in English, some say as many as 25,000 of them, but who really knows? Many idioms are regional, some even personal. I grew up using the term “booking” when speaking about running fast. Idioms exist in all languages including of course, Greek and Hebrew.

Scripture is full of idioms. The idiomatic phrase “poor in spirit” found in Matthew 5:3 is an abbreviated idiom that refers to the “poor and of a contrite spirit” from Isaiah 66:2. It means those that have come to the end of their own strength and cry out in desperation to God, acknowledging they have no righteousness of their own. There are so many Hebrew idioms found in scripture that I am sure we don’t always recognize them all. One of them is the phrase “under the law.”

“For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace.” Rom. 6:14

What does “under the law” mean? The Torah of God is not tangible, meaning it isn’t like we can cozy up under it like a blanket. Therefore, this phrase needs to be considered in more abstract terms. This is one of those idioms that have really caused much confusion in the church over the years. A misunderstanding of this idiom, and a few others like it, cause us to recoil against a brother or sister for taking part in something they deem done away with, like the Sabbath or other Feast days. In their recoil they will generally malign the brother taking part in the Feast as being lost, in a cult, or trying to “work his way to salvation.” This just isn’t the case, but how do you get that point across to somebody who was born into a culture that has misrepresented and/or misunderstood Torah (God’s instructions, directions, laws) for hundreds of years?

I had an epiphany regarding the idiom “under the law” in the weirdest of places, a Western Maryland highway. About 7 or 8 years ago, I was traveling with my wife and children from Kentucky back to NJ to spend Thanksgiving with family. I was not too far into Western Maryland from West Virginia when I was pulled over for speeding. I was heading east and coming off a fairly steep mountain and had gained a little too much speed in the process. I was pulled over doing 79 in a 65 and I was guilty. The officer came to my window and asked for my credentials which he received with some lame excuse as to why I was driving as quickly as I was. He left, ran his checks, and came back 5 minutes later with what was surely a ticket worth a couple of points and at least $100. Instead, he gave me a written warning, no ticket, no points, no fine!

I was guilty under (or according to) the Maryland State traffic laws and deserved the points, the fine, and the ticket! However, what the officer extended to me was grace; he showed me unmerited (un-earned) favor. I was no longer guilty under the law. However, the grace he extended to me did not abrogate (revoke) the Maryland State traffic laws. Even though I was given a pass, shown grace, it was still against the law to speed.

The lesson here should be obvious. We are born into sin, to the degree that it is our nature to sin. We often miss the mark we are aiming at, but, we have been shown grace by a God who through the 2nd Adam, reversed the curse incurred through the sin of the 1st Adam. We no longer have guilt, which is what the idiom “under the law” is dealing with. We are no longer guilty, sin and death no longer reigns over us, we have escaped with a written warning. However, because we are no longer guilty under the law, because we have had un-merited favor extended to us, that does not abrogate the commandments of God, commandments He said were everlasting. It is still sin to steal, to serve another god, to make idols. It is still sin to murder, to commit adultery, and yes, forsake the Sabbath. These are everlasting commands given by God to His people. When we come to the God of Israel through the Messiah of Israel, we become a “part of” the family of God. (Eph. 2) And the commandments were given to the family of God as part of an everlasting covenant that is being renewed through the blood of Messiah. We are not under the law, we are no longer guilty, but we are also not licensed to walk in lawlessness (Torahlessness).

Matthew 7:23 and then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice Torahlessness!’ (lawlessness- Greek anomia meaning “without law”)