What is the Law of Christ? What Paul Meant


New Testament scholars are in general agreement that the phrase “the law of Christ” is one of the most difficult to interpret in all of Paul’s letters. Even theologians and pastors that have similar positions on most aspects of Christian doctrine, and serve in the same tradition, arrive at different conclusions about what “the law of Christ” means.

The majority of Bible scholars believe that the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) is synonymous with the law of love, i.e. loving your neighbor as yourself (Gal. 5:14). In context, this means that when believers share each other’s burdens and “fulfill” the law of Christ, they are following Jesus’ ethical standards.

What is the context of Galatians 6:2? Why is the phrase so unclear to many readers. What are the core arguments for believing “the law of Christ” refers to the so-called law of love? What are the other views? What does the phrase mean in 1 Corinthians 9:21? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also see What Does It Mean To Be In Christ? to learn more.

Christian cross
Why do people find “law of Christ” so ambiguous? See below

The Law of Christ in the context of Galatians 6:2

In Galatians 5:1-6:18, Paul offers practical applications of the doctrine he explained in 3:1-4:31. In Galatians 5:15, he teaches about freedom in Christ; in 5:16-26, he writes about walking by the Spirit; and in 6:1-10, he talks about carrying each other’s burdens.

Galatians 6:2 reads, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (ESV). While English translations use different synonyms for “bear,” like “carry” and “share,” they all translate the last phrase, “the law of Christ,” the same (see the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, and NLT).

GreekEnglish
anaplērōsete (ἀναπληρώσετε)you shall fulfill
ton (τὸν)the
nomon (νόμον)law
tou Christou (τοῦ Χριστοῦ)of Christ

Why is the phrase unclear to many readers of Galatians?

By carrying each other’s burdens, Paul states that they are fulfilling “the law of Christ.” The phrase generates a lot of discussions primarily because the word “law” is found in it. “Law” can have a variety of meanings and nuances in the Bible.

Readers ask questions like: Is Paul referring to the Old Testament law of Moses? If he is, why didn’t he say “law of Moses” or something similar? Is he referring to a new law that Jesus instituted? If so, why doesn’t he just say “teachings of Christ” if that’s what he meant? And what do either of these ideas have to do with carrying each other’s burdens?

Also see Where Is Jesus Christ Now? to learn more.

Why does the law of Christ mean the law of love?

The majority view is that “the law of Christ” refers to the “law of love”; that is, the commandments to love your neighbor as yourself. This command is found in Leviticus, Matthew, Mark, James, and Galatians. The majority view is built on arguments like:

  1. The law of “Christ” suggests something different and newer than the law of Moses
  2. The “law” of Christ suggests continuity with the moral principles of the law of Moses
  3. Paul doesn’t say “the teachings of Christ” because he is referring to more than the oral explanations and instructions he gave; it also refers to how he lived, especially his sacrificial death on the cross
  4. The description “fulfill” relates to Jesus bringing the law of Moses to completion, and bearing each other’s burdens is to bring the moral standards Jesus taught to completion
  5. Jesus is the model and goal of Christian living
  6. The view has precedent in Christian history in that it was supported by theologians and scholars like Augustine (354-430), John Calvin (1509-1564), and F.F. Bruce (1910-1990)

New Testament scholar, Thomas Schreiner, is an example of a theologian who holds this view: “The law of Christ for Paul includes the moral norms of the OT Law, focusing particularly on the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Paul emphasizes that this Law cannot be fulfilled apart from the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in the believers’ life.” [1]

Also see Who Is the Bride of Christ? to learn more.

three Christian crosses
What does having so many interpretations suggest? See below

Other views on the meaning of the law of Christ

There are several different minority views on what the phrase means. When studied in-depth, the views often reveal commonalities as well as unique aspects. The variety of interpretations conveys that it’s one of the most discussed and debated phrases in all of Paul’s letters.

  • Some believe that Paul’s opponents coined the phrase and that he is borrowing it in an attempt to effectively make his point to them
  • The Greek word for law (see above) can have the meaning of principle or philosophical foundation, i.e. a truth that is less rigid and legalistic than the English word “law”
  • The phrase refers to the Old Testament, which records the promise of Christ
  • The phrase refers strictly to the law of Moses
  • The phrase refers strictly to the Holy Spirit

Perhaps Peter had this phrase in mind when he write that “there are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16)

Also see Who Am I Christ? to learn more.

Jesus Christ
What does Paul mean by “under the law of Christ”? See below

What does the law of Christ mean in 1 Corinthians?

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul writes about the nature of his service to God. He says he has made himself a servant to all people to win them to Christ (v. 19). “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” (v. 20).

With regard to Gentiles, Paul writes, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:21).

In Galatians, Paul explains that the law of Moses was temporary and that Christ fulfilled it (Gal. 3:15-4:7). In this way, Paul is “outside” the law since he longer lives according to its stipulations.

Yet, Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to think that he is free in the sense that he has no moral standards. On the contrary, God’s moral standards, as exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus is his “law.” This is what he means when he says he is “under the law of Christ.”

Also see What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? to learn more.

References:
[1] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. “Law of Christ” entry by Thomas Schreiner. p. 542-543.
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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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