There are many meanings of the word Law

It is easy to be confused when we read, “you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14) and then also read, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Romans 3:31)

In both English and Greek, there is only one word for law, but there are several meanings. The meaning is understood by context. Here are examples of different meanings.

Meaning #1 of “Law”: The collective set of commands given to Moses

By traditional count, there are 613 commands, statutes and ordinances. This meaning refers to just the rules, but not the surrounding historical narrative.

Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29)

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Romans 2:13)

Meaning #2 of “Law”: The first 5 books of the Tanakh (Old Testament)

Sometimes New Testament writers used the word “law” to mean the first five books of the Old Testament attributed to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This meaning of law is sometimes signalled by distinguishing the writings of Moses from those of the Prophets and Writings.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:15)

Meaning #3 of “Law”: Everything from Genesis to Malachi; the Tanakh

  • In Hebrew, this collection is referred to as the Tanakh (pronounced like: Ta-NAHK where the K sounds a little like clearing your throat).
  • Combination of the Law (Torah), the Writings (Ketuvim) and the Prophets (Nevi’im).
  • Jesus and the Apostles called these books the Scriptures and the Word of God.
  • The common term for these writings today is the Old Testament. This description is not found in the Bible, but is well understood in our era.

In Romans 3, Paul quotes a few different Tanakh passages outside of the law of Moses; Psalm 51:4 and Psalm 14:3. There’s also a common theme with Psalm 53:3. Then in Romans 3:19, Paul refers to these passages as the law.

Now we know that whatever the law [Tanakh or Old Testament] says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (Romans 3:19) 

This meaning of law is evident in the context of the argument mentioning the oracles of God in verse 2: “To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Then Paul quotes from the Psalms in verses 4 and 10-18.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to the law and then alludes to Deuteronomy 28:49, Isaiah 28:11, Isaiah 33:19 and Jeremiah 5:15.

In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 14:21)

Meaning #4 of “Law”: A false teaching that says command-keeping earns justification

In the first century, a false teaching that was rampant among Jewish sects taught it was necessary to become a Jew to be saved. Paul argued against this false teaching often and referred to it as “works of the law”.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law [the Torah] comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.(Romans 3:28)

yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law [self effort with an intent to earn justification] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

Paul plainly contrasts works of the law with the Spirit and faith.

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2)

Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—” (Galatians 3:5)

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)

It is clear in the Bible that the commandments given to Moses had nothing to do with being justified before God. Justification has always been by grace, by the Spirit of God and through faith in the promises of God. Abraham possessed this faith. “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3, also Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23)

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)

Meaning #5 of “Law”: Municipal laws of government

All things are lawful [not illegal under Roman law] for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

In these verses, Paul is putting forth an objection on behalf of hypothetical Corinthian opponents and then refuting their argument. A paraphrase to convey the meaning of 1 Corinthians 6:12 might go like this: “Someone may argue that prostitution is legal under Roman law”. To that, I say not everything acceptable to Rome is beneficial for one whose body is joined to the Lord.” These two verses will be looked at more fully later.

Meaning #6 of “Law”: The just consequence of law-breaking

This is the punishment everyone deserves for transgressing the law. Paul phrased this meaning of law a few different ways: the wages of sin, the law of sin and death, under the law and the curse of the law. To be released from the law is to be released from the wages of sin.

There is a distinction between the rule and the consequence for breaking the rule. To illustrate: The rule is, “Don’t steal a car or you will be sent to jail.” Let’s rename this, ‘the law of stealing a car and going to jail’. If the judge sends his son to jail in your place, does that mean stealing cars is now okay? No, rather it means the judge is merciful. It means you no longer have to suffer the consequences. You are no longer under the curse of ‘the law of stealing cars and going to jail’.

The definition of sin is violating God’s law.

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin [lawlessness].” (1 John 3:4-5)

The wages of sin [lawlessness] is death…” (Romans 6:23). Transgression of God’s law (sin) requires a life. God’s law is so important to God that he sacrificed his son’s life to take away the penalty from all who believe.

For sin [breaking the law] will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law [its punishment] but under grace. What then? Are we to sin [break the law] because we are not under law [its punishment] but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:14-15)

Here’s my paraphrase, “Just because you are no longer under the penalty for breaking the law, should you celebrate the gracious gift of God by breaking the law anyway? By no means!”

For the wages [earned penalty] of sin [lawlessness] is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 3:23)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law [the consequence of disobeying the law] by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death [the death penalty]. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin [disobeying God’s law] in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-5)

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law [subject to the consequence of breaking the law] but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)

“But now we are released from the law [the penalty of death according to verses 5, 9, 10, 11, 13 and 24)], having died to that which held us captive [in slavery to the desire to sin and it’s death penalty according to verses 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 25], so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)

Meaning #7 of “Law”: The law of the Spirit of life

Those with the Spirit of God will have eternal life. By contrast, those who have not been set free in Christ Jesus are condemned to death for breaking God’s law (sinning).

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4)

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:10-11)

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8)

Meaning #8 of “Law”: When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:21-23)

Here we see examples of different meanings of law in just one verse. Being captive to the law of sin is clearly delineated from delighting in the law of God. These two are depicted as waging war against one another.

Meaning #9 of “Law”: Man-made traditions, taught as doctrine, that are not in the instructions given through Moses

Over time, men added their own rules to those given by God. “But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:2)

Many of the traditions were motivated by a desire to further insulate the people from accidentally breaking the Torah. Nevertheless, it is a transgression of the Torah to add to or take away from it. 

You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32)

We see the same kind of stern warning in the last book of the Bible.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18)

Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for demanding obedience to their traditions, many of which were passed down through the Talmud (extra-biblical Jewish tradition, philosophy, ethics, history and lore).

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”” (Matthew 15:1-9) See also Mark 7:1-13

This kind of law (traditions of men taught as doctrines) results in bondage.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

Meaning #10 of “Law”: The law of faith

The law of faith’ is one way Paul phrases the truth that one can only be justified by faith. (Romans 3:28, 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 3:11, 3:24)

I put this one near the end because the example text mentions more than one kind of law.

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? [There’s more than one kind.] By a law of works? [works with intent to earn justification?] No, but by the law of faith [It is a law that one must believe by faith to be justified]. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law [of God] by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law [of God]. (Romans 3:27-31)

Meaning #11 of “Law”: The law of liberty

This is the law everyone wants to be judged by. It says that in Christ Jesus we will receive mercy instead of the wages of sin (eternal death).

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:10-13)

  • Go Back

    A warning from Peter about interpreting Paul

  • Next

    Paul in context… Romans 3:20 – “For by works of the law no human being will be justified…”