A law unto themselves

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He’s his own man.  A ‘loose canon’, a ‘live wire’, ‘off the radar’.  Or in other words “a law unto himself.”  That’s the way we tend to use the phrase nowadays.

Question: What would God prefer us to be?  Would He rather we lived ‘under the law’ or would He rather we be ‘a law unto ourselves’?

The surprising answer is that God wants us all to stop being under the law and instead to be a law unto ourselves!  But we need to understand what the Bible means by these phrases.

Early in his letter to the Romans Paul declares the substance of his teaching:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)

Salvation comes from the Jews, so said Jesus said in John 4.  They were the chosen people through whom the Messiah would come.  But once He came, the nations (the Gentiles) would put their hope in Him.  First the Jews, then the Gentiles.  That’s the way the gospel works.

But it is the gospel of Christ that saves the world and nothing else.  That’s why Paul immediately goes on to rule out any other way of salvation.  From chapter 1:18 all the way until chapter 3:20 Paul demolishes our confidence in any human identity or ability or performance.  No nationality, no religion, no moral code, no deeds can avert the judgement that has rested upon our race since Adam.  And every attempt to lift ourselves above condemnation through the law of God is like Baron Munchhausen trying to lift himself out of the swamp by his hair.  It is futile and a denial of the seriousness of our predicament.

In Romans 2, Paul addresses the Jew who uses the law to feel superior to those without it.  But their claim to special treatment is void.  Having the law is one thing.  Doing what it says is entirely another:

12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; 13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts.  (Romans 2:12-15)

So who are these Gentiles who are “a law unto themselves”?  Well verse 15 uses the language of Jeremiah 31 to describe them: they are those with the law written on their hearts.  In other words, these are the Gentiles who are cottoning onto salvation in Christ.  They are coming into that global salvation which the Jewish Scriptures prophesied.  The whole purpose of the law was to testify to Christ, and they were following the true intention of the law by trusting Him.  Even though they never had the law of Moses (the old covenant), they are now enjoying the new covenant reality.

And the difference between the covenants is this: in the old, God’s life stood above, judging you for how far short you fell.  In the new, the law is fulfilled and God’s life is put within you.  Law is not over you.  You are a law unto yourself.  You don’t have a godly limit imposed on you, you have a godly impulse driving you.

According to Paul, if someone is “a law unto themselves” they are not unpredictable or unruly.  Certainly they have escaped from being “under the law”.  But that has liberated them to be truly good.  Not good so as to tick some boxes.  Not good, so as to make some grade.  But good from the heart.

God doesn’t want anyone to be “under the law.”  He desires Jews and Gentiles – the whole world – to become a “law unto themselves.”  Christ didn’t come to create “live wires” and rebels, that’s not what the phrase means.  To be a law unto yourself is to be liberated by Jesus from the external code and freed into the life of love which the law describes but can never produce.  The gospel is the power of God to save us from petty legalisms and bring us into Christ’s life, ruled from within not constrained from without.  In short, the difference between ‘under the law’ and ‘law unto yourself’ is the difference between God on your back, and God on your side.

I know which I’d rather, and so does God!

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3 Responses to “A law unto themselves”

  1. Paul Blackham says:

    What helpful truth. I so easily think that I am more free the more I make up my own rules or go “off piste” but in reality I spend so much time crashing and burning when I do that. The true joy and peace come when the One who made me gives me His own rule and freedom. So much to think about.

  2. David says:

    That’s quite an interesting post, especially since the conclusion was not what I expected. The Greek word ‘autonomous’ means more or less to be self-legislating or ‘a law unto our-self,’ which I associate with Kant’s idea that enlightenment is to break free from externally imposed moral strictures. Because of this association I tend to see ‘being a law unto yourself’ as a bad thing because it is tied up with austere German rationality. In a sense, though, you could argue that Kant’s version of moral enlightenment in which we become self-legislative is a poor imitation of Christ’s own. The difference is that with Kantian autonomy our affections become less important, but with Christ it is love which guides our autonomy.

  3. Glen says:

    Thanks Paul.

    And yes David, it’s interesting to think through these parallel terms in Romans:

    - a law unto yourself (which is different to popular use of term)
    - not under law
    - under grace
    - love is the fulfilling of the law