Galatians 5:18 - "Under the Law"

Ellet J. Waggoner

The Signs of the Times : May 13, 1886 

The next text which we shall notice is Galatians 5:18. “But if ye led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.” Antinomians very rarely quote this verse, doubtless because it is so very evident from the connection that the law is recognized as being in active existence. Let us give it our attention for a little while, that we may see what beautiful harmony there is in the Bible on the subject of the law.

Since those who are led by the Spirit are not under the law, it follows that those who are not led by the Spirit are under the law. Again, the preceding verses read as follows: “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other.” Galatians 5:16, 17. These verses state in the plainest terms that the flesh and the Spirit are contrary to each other; that walking in the flesh and walking in the Spirit are directly opposite conditions. Then since those who are led by the Spirit are not under the law, and those who are not led by the Spirit are under the law, it follows that those who are under the law are those who are fulfilling the lusts of the flesh.

“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like; of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21

The fruit of the Spirit is, of course, the very opposite, being “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” Verses 22, 23. Referring to these fruits of the Spirit, the apostle says: “Against such there is no law.” Verse 23. That is, those who are led by the Spirit, and who yield its fruits, are in harmony with the law; while the law is against the works of the flesh; and those who do the works of the flesh are condemned by the law, or are under it. Here we arrive at the same conclusion as in regard to Romans 6:14, that “under the law” simply represents a state of antagonism to, and violation of, the law; and of course no one could be in such a state if the law were not in full force. Now since all sinners are by the law condemned to death (Romans 3:19; 6:23), it follows again that “under the law” means condemned by the law—under the sentence of death.

Turning backward, we find the expression “under the law” used twice in Galatians 4:4, 5: “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”

In the third verse the apostle says that when we were children we were “in bondage under the elements of the world.” But (that marks a change) God sent forth his Son to redeem “them that were under the law.”   We would naturally expect the redemption to be from that under which we were in bondage, which was “the elements of the world.” In the fifth verse the redemption is said to be from “under the law,” thus showing that “in bondage under the elements of the world,” and “under the law,” are equivalent terms.

Let us trace further this matter of bondage. In verse 9 Paul says to the Galatians: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” Here it is implied that they were in danger of returning to a condition in which they had previously been. And what condition was that? Read verse 8: “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.” That is, they were heathen. So being in bondage to the elements of the world,—the “weak and beggarly elements,”—is equivalent to being in a state of heathenism. Those who do not know God are termed heathen. But no man can know God without being a follower of Christ, as the Saviour said, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” John 14:6. In the strict Bible sense, therefore, all who are not in Christ are heathen. And therefore although Paul addressed his epistle to those who had been idolaters in the commonly accepted sense, the argument is of universal application.

We conclude, then, that the “elements of the world” are simply the various forms of sin. This is still further shown by Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience; among whom also we all had our conversation [manner of life] in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” Nothing but sin is meant by “the course of this world,” the “weak and beggarly elements,” and “the elements of the world.” And to be “in bondage under the elements of the world,” is to be “under the law,” in a state of condemnation.

Christ came in the fullness of time (see Mark 1:14, 15; Daniel 9:25) “to redeem them that were under the law.” But in order to do this, he himself had to be “made under the law.” This is in harmony with Hebrews 2:17, which says: “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” The people whom Christ came to redeem were “under the law,” therefore he was made like them, “under the law.”

Now if there is any lingering doubt as to the meaning of “under the law,” compare with the above and Galatians 4:4, 5, Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For he [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Christ was sinless; he “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22); the Law of God was in his heart (Psalm 40:8), and his whole life was an exemplification of the law. Yet knowing no sin, he was made to be sin for us. As the prophet said: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53:5, 6. We were in bondage to sin, “under the law,” and he took upon himself the same bonds, and was made under the law. Moreover, since those “under the law” are condemned, under sentence of death, he, “being found in fashion as a man,” having voluntarily placed himself in the same condemnation “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:7, 8

And so the innocent suffered for the guilty. Man had been overcome by sin, and by it brought into bondage (2 Peter 2:19), and in order to redeem him from this corruption, and the death that must necessarily follow (James 1:15), the spotless Son of God took upon himself the form of a servant of sin, and consented to be covered with the same degradation into which man had plunged himself. What for? “That we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21. In order that we might be made without “spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27),—perfectly conformable to the holy Law of God; and that thus being enabled, in Christ, to keep the commandments, we might through him have eternal life. Matthew 19:17

Before leaving this text in Galatians, there is one more point which we wish to place before the reader. We read that Christ was “made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.”  It was necessary for Christ to assume the condition of those whom he would redeem.  This being the case, we may know that Christ redeems none who occupy a position different from that which he took. This is plainly stated in the Scripture. “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren,” etc. Hebrews 2:16, 17. Those whom he was made like, he can redeem; others he cannot. We read also that Christ “died for all.” 2 Corinthians 5:15. What, then, is the necessary conclusion? Just this: Since he was made “under the law,” and was made like those whom he came to redeem, and he came to redeem all men, then all men were “under the law.” Further, the text indicates that he came for the sole purpose of redeeming them that were under the law; their being under the law made necessary some act for their redemption. If they had not been under the law, they would have needed no redemption. Now when we recall Paul’s words to the effect that Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14), the conclusion is unavoidable that “under the law” indicates the state of sin which characterizes every human being, and from which none can be rescued but by Christ. 

But notice the dilemma in which they place themselves, who claim that Gentiles are not “under the law,” and that the law was only for the Jews. If that position were true, it would necessarily follow that since Christ came to redeem only those who are under the law, he came to redeem only the Jews! For certain it is, that no person who is not in the position which Christ took upon himself when he came to redeem man, can have any part in that redemption. We think that none, when they consider this point, will place themselves outside of God’s scheme of redemption, by refusing to admit that they are by nature and by practice “under the law.”

Let us rather acknowledge our guilt, that it may be washed away in the blood of the Lamb. “He that covers his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy.” Proverbs 28:13