Paul and the Law

In his letters, the apostle Paul has much to say about the Law of God and the place that it holds in the life of the Christian believer. The Israelites had been given the Law as part of a covenant of works: God’€™s blessings would accrue to them as a result of their obedience to the Law, and His curses would follow when they disobeyed (Deut. 30:15-20). In the context of Israel as a historical nation, these blessings and curses were generally seen as relating to temporal things; blessings might mean productive harvests or times of peace, whereas curses might involve droughts and famine or invasion by warlike neighbors.

Paul, however, considers the Law on a deeper level. He acknowledges that the Law is what defines sin and that the penalty for sin is death -€“ separation from God (Romans 7:7; 6:23). Since all men have sinned, all are alienated from God and in need of salvation. Paul points out that the Law served as a “€œtutor”€ to lead us to Christ, in whom real salvation is possible (Gal. 3:24, NASB). Since the Law points out our sins, we realize that we stand guilty before God and can do nothing to redeem ourselves -€“ only Jesus can pay the penalty on our behalf so that we may be justified by faith in Him.

The Christian who has been justified by faith is indwelt by the Spirit of God, and Paul points out that “€œif you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law”€ (Gal. 5:18). This does not mean that Christians are not obligated by any moral norms, but that they are not enslaved to the Law as a means of salvation. There would be no hope in such an arrangement, since none can keep the Law perfectly. Jesus Christ has done that on our behalf, and His righteousness is imputed to us by faith. But the Law is nonetheless important for Christians, because it delineates the way God would have us live. As Paul points out, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good”€ -€“ they provide a sure guide for holy living (Romans 7:12). Throughout his teaching, Paul emphasizes the principles that were found in the Ten Commandments, which had formed the core of the Law given to Israel through Moses (Exodus 20:2-17). In doing so, he emphasizes that these Commandments still have a place of honor at the heart of Christian living and he establishes a set of moral norms that are vital if the Christian is to live a holy life. What follows is a brief consideration of Paul’€™s teaching in the area of each Commandment.

 Commandment 1 -€“ “€œYou shall have no other gods before me.”€[1]

The principle contained in this commandment is exclusivity -€“ the God of Israel is the only true God and no other God is to be worshiped in His place. The nation of Israel violated this Commandment repeatedly by engaging in the worship of false gods. This continued until God finally brought judgment on the nation, allowing them to experience exile and captivity in Babylon.

In line with this Commandment, Paul points out that there is only one God (Romans 3:30) and that any other gods are “€œso-called”€ gods, pretenders who are not to be worshiped. He concludes this line of reasoning by writing, “for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”€ (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Commandment 2 -€“ “€œYou shall not make for yourself an idol”€

The second Commandment is related to the first, since it involves an object of worship other than the true God. Idols are objects made by man that take on religious significance, in that they are seen as representations of deities, and they are worshiped in a representative way. No man can craft anything that resembles the transcendent God, so no image of Him would be appropriate for worship. Obviously, the use of idols in worship of false gods would be condemned by both the first and second Commandment.

Paul’€™s writings contain repeated warnings against idolatry (1 Cor. 5:11; Ephesians. 5:5; Col. 3:5). He acknowledges that “€œan idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one”€ (1 Cor. 8:4). He strongly admonishes Christians to “€œflee from idolatry”€ (1 Cor. 10:14).

Commandment 3 -€“ “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God”€

Some translations translate this verse in a manner similar to the NASB, “€œYou shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain”€ (Exodus 20:7).[2] This terminology seems to imply more than a mere “€œmisuse”€ of the name through blasphemy, though such misuse is common indeed in today’€™s world, in which so many use the names of God and Jesus Christ as curse words. It can also imply a taking up of God’€™s name to oneself in a meaningless or worthless way. A false prophet, for example, who claims that God has spoken through him when God has not done so, would be guilty under this Commandment.

Paul confesses before King Agrippa that he himself was a blasphemer before he came to know Christ (Acts 26:11). He likewise cites blasphemy as the sin of the false teachers Hymenaeus and Alexander, who had “€œshipwrecked their faith”€ and needed to be “€œhanded over to Satan”€ (1 Tim. 1:20). He also says that “€œblasphemers”€ will be among the evil works of men that will characterize the last days (2 Tim. 3:2, AV).

In discussing the development of a Christian life, Paul also points out the necessity of building upon the foundation, which is Christ, with materials of high quality, since all of our works will be tested as if by fire (1 Cor 3:9-15). Anyone who follows Paul’€™s advice in this area is incapable of taking up God’s name in a meaningless way. Rather, his works glorify God before men and will produce rewards of eternal value.

Commandment 4 -€“ “€œRemember the Sabbath day”€

Among all of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath Commandment is the only one that is not specifically reinforced in the New Testament as necessary for holy living under the New Covenant. Rather, Paul explicitly disclaims the need for Christians to specifically observe the seventh day, as was required under the Law. He writes, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God”€ (Romans 14:5, 6).

By the time of Paul’€™s ministry, Christians had developed the custom of worshiping on the first day of the week, in remembrance of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).[3] However, this observance was not required of Christians in a legalistic way, nor was it necessary that they refrain from work on that day, as had been the case under the Law. Rather, Paul wrote, “€œTherefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ”€ (Col. 2:16, 17).

Commandment 5 -€“ “€œHonor your father and your mother”€

Great weight was given under the Law to the relationship between parent and child and the respect that a child should have for his or her parents, even as an adult. A person who openly cursed his parents was subject to the penalty of death (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9).

Paul explicitly refers to this command when he writes, “€œChildren, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘€˜Honor your father and mother’ €™-which is the first commandment with a promise- ‘€˜that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth'”€ (Ephesians 6:1-3). It seems that the original context implied an understanding of “€œlong life”€ in the temporal sense of many years. However, placed in the context of Paul’€™s writing, the term may take on a greater meaning, implying that eternal life might result from a child’€™s heeding the instruction of godly parents and turning to Christ. While this may be reading more than was intended into the passage, it is clear that Paul advocated respect for parents as an essential part of a believer’€™s holy life.

Commandment 6 -€“ “€œYou shall not murder”€

The extreme sinfulness of unjustly taking the life of a fellow human being has been included in every code of law ever developed by virtually any human society. The Law of Israel, given by God, was no exception. This is not surprising, since laws developed by men are merely a reflection of the Law that God has written in their hearts (Romans 2:15).

Not surprisingly, Paul associates murder with “€œevery kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity”€ (Romans 1:29). Furthermore, he associates love of neighbor with obedience to the Commandments, including the one prohibiting murder (Romans 13:9).

Commandment 7 – “€œYou shall not commit adultery”

The sanctity of the marriage bond, including fidelity to the marriage bed, is a cornerstone upon which human society is built. God instituted the standard with the first human couple: “€œFor this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”€ (Genesis 2:24). For a married person to unite physically with someone other than his or her mate constitutes a serious defilement of God’€™s arrangement, and was punishable by death under the Law (Leviticus 20:10).

Paul is clear that the penalty for such defilement is no less severe under the New Covenant: “€œDo you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God”€ (1 Cor. 6:9, 10). He also refers to adultery as a “€œwork of the flesh,”€ as contrasted with the fruits produced in the lives of those in whom God’€™s Holy Spirit is at work (Gal 5:19-23).

Commandment 8 -€“ “€œYou shall not steal”€

Respect for the property of others is another fundamental human value, inscribed on the hearts of men by God and codified in the laws of nearly every civilization. This principle was also enshrined in the Law of Israel, and is reinforced by Paul under the Christian covenant. In 1 Corinthians 6:10, cited above in relation to Commandment 7, “€œthieves”€ are identified along with adulterers as being among the “€œwicked”€ who will not inherit God’€™s kingdom.

Further, Paul writes, “€œHe who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need”€ (Ephesians 4:28). Honest labor, not theft, is to be the way in which a believer in Christ provides for his own material needs and those of others.

Commandment 9 -€“ “€œYou shall not give false testimony”€

In order to provide a just means of determining disputes between individuals and exercising justice against those who break society’€™s laws, most civilizations have instituted some sort of court system. When testimony is given in courts, it is essential that it be truthful if justice is to be done. Therefore, most societies have set in place significant sanctions against false testimony, and this was true under Israel’€™s Law as well (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). In a less formal sense, however, it is important that all communications between persons should be honest and forthright, especially for those who claim a spiritual relationship with the “€œGod of truth”€ (Psalm 31:5).

Paul reiterated this principle several times in his writings. With reference to the ministry God had given him, Paul wrote: “€œwe have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God”€ (2 Cor. 4:2). He commanded the Christians at Ephesus: “€œTherefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body”€ (Ephesians 4:25). And he spoke of lying as characteristic of the “€œold self,”€ which has been taken off by those in whom Christ lives (Colossians 3:9).

Commandment 10 -€“ “€œYou shall not covet”€

The apostle James pointed out that “€œeach one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed”€ (James 1:14). If we had no desire for things that are wrong in God’€™s eyes, we would never sin. Sin begins with desire. We steal because we want something to which we are not entitled. We commit adultery because we covet another person’€™s spouse. Covetousness is so inextricably tied up with sin that it is no wonder it was included in God’€™s Law as a sin in itself.

Paul warns about covetousness and, like James, attributes to it the roots of sin. “€œWhat shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘€˜Do not covet.’€™ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead”€ (Romans 7:7, 8). It is interesting that Paul chooses the final Commandment to illustrate the relationship between the Law and sin. He understood that this final Commandment attacks the root of the problem, the desires and lusts of the heart that incline us toward sin. Indeed, Paul’€™s words bring to mind the statement of Jesus: €œ”You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”€ (Matt. 5:27, 28). Not only the overt act, but the inappropriate desire itself offends God.


As Paul pointed out repeatedly, Christians are “€œnot under law, but under grace”€ (Romans 6:14). The same verse that says that, however, also admonishes, “€œSin shall not be your master.”€ Christians are not “€œunder the Law,”€ in the sense that their salvation rests upon obedience to it. Paul tells us plainly, “€œit is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). While there are no works we can perform that would make us worthy of eternal life in God’€™s eyes, He has provided One who did perform such meritorious works -€“ His Son, Jesus Christ. It is by faith in Him that we are justified.

Nonetheless, God is pleased when we, as His children, strive to live a holy life before Him. In the Ten Commandments, He has provided a perfect set of moral norms, a guide to holy living, by which we can express our love for Him in our daily lives. Though we do so imperfectly, His Spirit produces within us the spiritual growth that makes us more like Christ, day by day. In all of his writings, Paul illustrates the importance of these  Commandments and the place that they should hold in the lives of Christians. The morality that is advocated by Paul is a challenge to every believer to live in a godly manner, thus bringing glory to the Holy God.


Barker, Kenneth, Gen. Ed. The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Goldberg, Louis. Apologetics -€“ Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1990.

Zodhiates, Spiros. Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (NASB). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1990.



[1] Quotations from the Ten Commandments in the subheadings are taken from the New International Version.

[2] See also, for example, the Authorized (King James) Version, the Amplified Bible, the English Standard Version and the NET Bible.

[3] It is to be noted that some sabbatarian groups deny this, pointing to incidents of Paul and the other apostles going to the Jewish synagogue on the seventh-day Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:2). A full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is to be noted that these instances do not necessarily imply that the apostles were legalistically observing the Sabbath as they would have done under the Law. The synagogue was where the Word of God was read publicly on a weekly basis, which was important in a society where individuals did not generally have personal copies of the Scriptures. In addition, what better place to evangelize unbelieving Jews than at the synagogue where they gathered, and the time to find them gathered there was on the Sabbath (Acts 18:4)!