1 Corinthians 9:21 ASV

21 to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law.

The above phrase seems a little bit puzzling to me.

What does it actually mean?

  • ... not being without law to God, but within law to Christ [YLT]
    – Nigel J
    Jul 17 '20 at 11:02

1 Cor 9:19-22 says (BSB):

19 Though I am free of obligation to anyone, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), to win those under the law. 21 To those without the law I became like one without the law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

[Note, the phrase, μὴ ὢν αὐτὸς ὑπὸ νόμον = even though I am not under the law, is missing from the TR and the KJV. For a discussion about this, see UBS5 and its references.]

Paul here is discussing his approach to evangelism - he adapts his methods culturally without compromising principle. The question here is, What does "though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ", mean?

First let us identify some of Paul's euphemisms:

  • "Jews" are easy to identify
  • "those under the law" are presumably (as distinct from Jews by birth) people, Gentiles who choose to burden themselves with minute keeping of the Torah. Ellicott says: "Those spoken of as “Jews” are, of course, Jews by birth and religion; those “under the Law” are probably proselytes to Judaism. In neither case do they mean Christian converts, for the object of St. Paul’s conduct towards those of whom he here speaks was to win them to the Faith of Christ. He himself was no longer “under the Law” being a Christian (Galatians 2:19)."
  • "those without the law" are pagans who do not know the law, the Torah.

... and so forth. Paul's parenthetical statement is supremely important to understand his Gospel. Many people say that as Christians we are free of the law - in one sense that is true, but it does NOT mean that Christians are lawless nor antinomians. Christians are bound by the "law of Christ" (1 Cor 6:21, Gal 6:2), or, "Law of God" (Rom 8:7, 1 Cor 9:21), or, "Law of the Spirit" (Rom 8:2), or, "My laws" (Heb 8:10, 10:16), or, "Law of Faith", or, “Royal law” (James 2:8), or, “Law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12), etc.

Thus, Paul could honestly say that he was not "under the law" (Torah), "I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ".

I recently did a complete survey of every instance in the NT of the word νόμος = law. In all instances, the word invariably means the law that is associated with a covenant: most times the old covenant, or what is loosely described as the Torah. However, as pointed out above, it is also used as the law associated with the New Covenant and is variously described as: the "law of Christ" (1 Cor 6:21, Gal 6:2), or, "Law of God" (Rom 8:7, 1 Cor 9:21), or, "Law of the Spirit" (Rom 8:2), or, "My laws" (Heb 8:10, 10:16), or, "Law of Faith", or, “Royal law” (James 2:8), or, “Law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12), etc.

One of the best summaries of the New Covenant, even using identical language and quoting from the the language in the establishment of the Old Covenant (Ex 19-23) is found in 1 Peter 1, 2.

  • The promise: Salvation by grace through the promised Messiah, 1 Peter 1:3-12, 20,
  • Moral Requirements: holiness (1 Peter 1:15), Purity (v22), Obey the truth (v22), love (v22), “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1), abstain from sinful desires (1 Peter 2:11), submit to civil authorities (v13-17), see also Rom 13:1-7, etc.
  • Sacrifice: Blood of Jesus, 1 Peter 1:18, 19
  • Purpose: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may express the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light … Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 1 Peter 2:9, 12

It is this law of Christ, God, faith, etc, that binds Christians, by the miraculous power of the Spirit (Rom 8:2), to be the sort people that display the righteousness of God (Rom 1:17, 3:5, 22, 6:13, etc). Thus, while Paul was under the law (of Torah) he was under the law of Christ.


the clue is in the preceding verse 21;

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law;

He begins with, 'to the Jews I became a Jew...

So to grasp v21, insert the same beginning concept like so in v22;

'To the gentiles I became a gentile, so that I might win gentiles; to those without law (I became) as without law - except the law of God and of Christ.

The law Paul is focussing on is the 'good' law that leads to life. As opposed to the law that leads to death.

Being without law is of as much value as being with law - when compared to the new law in God through Christ. Neither the Jews or gentiles ways regarding their 'law' status lead to life.

The law of Christ is not about 'keeping commandments', but is a law of love - of life, not a law of sin and death that the Jews were familiar with. (the gentiles had nothing to do with that law, so they were taking a shortcut to what was now available to the Jews via Christ.

Paul was expressing that the gospel is meant for both groups (in fact they are ONE group now in Christ Eph 2) but that the way for them to understand will be different as he has explained - apparently rather clumsily tho :)

He is intent on personally taking up their different views of life and leading them both to the same result/salvation

  • edited - looking forward to your response.
    – steveowen
    Jul 17 '20 at 8:54
  • 1
    This does not explain why Paul is not without law to God and yet is under law ('within law' YLT) to Christ. Which, I believe, is the crux of the question. The whole of this is said in the context of the Gentiles and not the Jews. The distinction is to God and to Christ. And the distinction obtains within the context which regards being without law .... that I might gain them ... This is not written 'apparently rather clumsily' [sic]. It is very precise language indeed. And very profound.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 17 '20 at 8:55

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