The question of the law of Moses and what place it has in the Christian life is a perennial one. There is often as much to unlearn around such questions as there is to learn. When words such as lawlessness are in view, this is especially true. I leave aside the more specific uses of the word, such as “the man of lawlessness” and “the mystery of lawlessness.” These are more eschatological in scope. I want to focus on lawlessness as a synonym for sin, and the practice of sinning. Paul states in Romans 6:19, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” If we were to replace the word lawlessness with sin, would the meaning of this verse change? I submit it would not. Paul has earlier shown that sin does not need law as a foil. That is, “sin was in the world before the law was given.” (Rom 5:13) There was not a specific command not to kill when Cain murdered Abel, yet he was still guilty of sin. Thus when Paul refers to lawlessness in Romans 6, he isn’t playing it off of lawfulness. Indeed, a truth we see is that lawfulness is never presented as the path of Christian discipleship. Keeping the law is neither possible nor does it get to the heart of holiness we are called to.
I have often seen people quote 1 John in this regard, to demonstrate a continuing obligation to the law, at least to the “moral law.”
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2:3-5)
But it’s too facile to say that every time one sees the word “commandment” it means the Mosaic law or the Ten Commandments. Jesus spoke of a new commandment, one that was not part of the Mosaic law. The command to love one another as he has loved us was radically new! The following verses in John 2 indicate this is what John has in view. “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (v. 5-6) To imitate Jesus, to walk as he walked, to love as he loved goes far beyond anything in the law. It is not inconsistent with the law, it just goes much further.
Nothing in the law required Jesus to lay down his life, much less for those who were his enemies. His death fulfilled the law by taking the place of the sinner, by absorbing the curse of the law. In him, we also died to the law. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19-20) Paul confirms that we are free, not to live according the law, but unto God.
There are many assumptions bound up with this—what I earlier referred to as what we sometimes need to unlearn. Among these are the idea that the law represents the highest expression of God’s will for man. It does not. The revelation of God in Christ does. As a Jew, Jesus walked according to the Mosaic law, but he did so much more than this. He loved us in a fashion the law never required. Measuring our conformity to Christ by looking to the law will leave us falling short of what he calls us to.
What, then, is the opposite of lawlessness? It is righteousness. Turning again to Romans 6, Paul has said that believers have “been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (v. 18.) A few verses earlier he has shown that if we are to be free from the dominion of sin, from its mastery, we must be free from the law. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (v. 14)
Many will answer that of course we cannot be justified by law, and it is this that Paul is speaking of. But this is untrue. The remainder of chapter 6 indicates he addresses living the Christian life—sanctification—not our entrance into that life through justification. “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (v. 15) Nowhere in the New Testament can we find a use for the law that says “You are not under it for justification, but you are obligated to keep it as part of your sanctification.”
Righteousness describes not only who Christians are, but what we do. We are made righteous in Christ. Positionally, it is who we are in him. “And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” 1 Cor. 1:30. We pursue righteousness, are trained in righteousness, and Paul never says any of this comes by the law, even the law as a guide or rule of life. We are delivered from the law in order that we might bear fruit for God (Rom 7:4) In 1 Tim 1:8, Paul says that the law is not made for the just, for the righteous. Where is Paul’s embrace of the “third use of the law?” It is absent. That Paul (and we) should glean wisdom from the law, from the Old Covenant, is plain. He is not setting aside God’s revelation. I again stress that the opposite of this is not lawlessness. Paul wrote to Titus that the rule, the guide for Christians, is grace. “For the grace of God has appeared, teaching us to deny ungodliness.” We have all the instruction we need through grace. We have Jesus himself. The truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:21) and what does this truth teach us?
“to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-24)
This teaching does not rely on the law to instruct us. It relies on the person of Christ.
We need to go beyond a binary mindset of thinking that if lawlessness means sin, then lawfulness must mean holiness or righteousness. It is more nuanced than this, and indeed, the guide for our righteousness isn’t the law, it’s the Lord Jesus himself.