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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?

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    ... not being without law to God, but within law to Christ [YLT]
    – Nigel J
    Jul 17, 2020 at 11:02

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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.

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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

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  • edited - looking forward to your response.
    – Steve
    Jul 17, 2020 at 8:54
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    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, 2020 at 8:55
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Point One: The translation used for the question seems to be very poor, compared with five others I have checked.

Point Two: It's never a good idea to only quote the last part of an argument in Biblical Hermeneutics.

Point Three: Paul's argument could be said to start at verse 19 - "...to all men I made myself servant, that the more I might gain." (Young's Literal Translation YLT)

Now, to deal with all three points, let me quote from three different translations, from verse 20. Please bear with me here, for I think that this alone could give you the understanding you seek, especially as the crucial point in verse 19 is borne in mind.

"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law - though not being myself under the law - that I might win those under the law; to those outside the law I became as one outside the law - not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ - that I might win those outside the law." Revised Standard Version

"Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law of Christ,) that I might gain them that are without the law." The Authorized (King James) Version

"I became to the Jews as a Jew, that Jews I might gain; to those under law as under law, that those under law I might gain; to those without law, as without law - (not being without law to God, but within law to Christ) - that I might gain those without law." YLT

In order not to be misunderstood, Paul put those points that are either in brackets, or set within hyphenation in some English translations, to avoid being accused either of legalism (clinging on to the law as did the Judaizers of Acts 15), or of antinomianism (being without law). He was out to share the gospel of Christ as winsomely as possible to "all sorts of men", to win as many as possible.

Gentiles had little regard for the law that identified God's nation of Israel. They were not in that nation, so what would be the point of Paul going on about that to Gentiles? Conversely, the Jews were only interested in that old covenant law, so they needed to see how the new covenant was neither legalism nor antinomianism. Paul had to be versatile in his respective approaches to those disparate groups. And so he was. But he was careful to add those caveats, to avoid accusations of either legalism, or antinomianism.

That letter to the Christians at Corinth was addressed mainly to Gentile converts. Knowing the complex situation regarding law in that first century, in Corinth, it should become clear why Paul had to bear both groups in mind while maintaining balance between not being legalistic (going back to the old covenant law) and appearing to be lawless (antinomian).

As he wrote here:

"For the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Romans 8:2-4 A.V.

I hope that solves "the puzzle" for you.

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To understand this we need to understand that the covenant the house of Judah was under until Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, was everything contained in the "book of the Law". This book of the Law was not the same as the book of the covenant that was sealed (blood ratified) in Exo 24. After the ratification of this covenant, God calls Moses up the mountain again to give him the testimony and a Law "to teach them". This is when Moses receives additional instructions for the office of an Earthly high priest and a physical place for God to place His presence. Things get rapidly worse as the mixed multitude below break the covenant. There is a lot more to this than can be explained in a short comment, but essentially Law defining sin , righteousness, holiness, clean and unclean always existed - this is the Law of God. Then Law was added to teach them and because of their transgressions. Paul in Gal 3 speaks of the "schoolmaster", - this is referring to the Law that was given to "teach" them the principles of restitution between corrupted human nature and a holy God. Additional laws were also given to administer this "system of punishment and restitution". This came into existence during Moses's leading and I believe this is what is meant by the Law of Moses. It still originated from God, it was not a concoction of Moses's fantasy, but would be temporarily in place to show them the principles of the Holiness of God, and the need for a mediator.

The Law of Christ is also under the umbrella of God's Law, just like the Law of Moses was under the umbrella of God's Law, but the grace of God ministered through the works of Christ, replaces the old system of reconciliation with a much better covenant, and everlasting one time offering and sacrifice. The Law of God defining, holy living, righteousness and those things God regards as detestable or abomination do not change.

So to the Jews that were still clinging to the covenant renewal conditions defined in the "book of the Law" and placing their hope in their old system of reconciliation, were not able to fully let go of those works of the Law, and embrace the simplicity that was in Christ. Paul could identify with them and therefore speak to them as one under the Law, i.e the book of the Law, and explain how Christ fulfilled those righteous requirements of the Law.

So to summarise - Paul's approach to Gentiles, was to understand their mindset - they were never in covenant with God and now they could be, they could embrace the sacrificial work of Jesus just by believing. For the Jews, Paul had to use a different approach, to get them to let go of the old system of reconciliation and embrace the new way - the Law of Christ.

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