“Not Under the Law” in Galatians
by Pinchas Shir
In Galatians, Paul teaches his disciples,
“If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal 5:18; cf. Rom 6:14-15; 1 Cor 9:20-21). What does Paul mean by “not under the Law”?
The traditional answer is that Paul (Shaul) abandoned Torah for an alternative way of living—not a life of legal observance, but a life under “grace” and “faith.”
This supposed shift in Paul’s lifestyle assumes that grace and faith are in opposition to God’s Law, but Paul himself denied such an opposition many times over (e.g., Rom 3:31; 4:16; 7:7-16; 10:5).
A closer examination of Gal 5:18 shows that Paul does not disdain the Law (far from it), but rather he qualifies the Law’s scope in light of the Messiah’s arrival. I have to warn you, my explanation of the apostle’s words will take you far from the traditional path of reading Galatians.
Shaul’s notion of not being “under the Law” begins earlier in Galatians when he asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2-3). Clearly, the Spirit works through faith! Paul adds, “But before faith came, we were protected under the law, being enclosed together to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore, the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal 3:23-25).
First, Paul frequently uses the term “faith” (πίστις; pistis) in Galatians as a shorthand for “faith in Messiah,” and the term “promise” (ἐπαγγελία; epangelía) for the promised inheritance given to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-3; 15:18-20). The inheritance or promise is something an heir receives once the child matures. According to Paul, his Galatian disciples already received the “Abrahamic promise/inheritance” by the Spirit, without the involvement of Torah (Gal 3:26-29). Jews can receive the same “promise/inheritance of the covenant” through the Spirit in the process of being guided by the Torah.
Second, Shaul compares the custody of a caretaker or tutor (Greek: παιδαγωγός; paidagogós) over a minor to the custody of Torah over Israel. This is not a perfect illustration (because it highlights only one side of Torah), but Paul introduces an idea of “tutor” as an example from the Roman life his audience would understand.
In English, a tutor or pedagogue may imply academic instruction, but in Greek or Hebrew, the terms imply practical training in life skills. In Hebrew (מוֹרֶה; moreh) “teacher” or “instructor”, “someone who points to right direction” is related to the word Torah (תּוֹרָה; torah). Greek “law” (νόμος; nomos) is not the best translation for such relationship but translations are rarely perfect or precise. The issue of Torah comes up because Paul addresses his letter to non-Jews who are contemplating circumcision and formal conversion, which would obligate them to live by the Torah’s commandments.
So, keeping this in mind, what does Paul mean by not being “under the Law” or “under a tutor” in his illustration? The answer can be surprisingly straightforward.
Mature heirs know how their father wants them to act and do not require the enforcement of rules by a caretaker who already taught them how to live well in society. Galatians are non-Jews, and technically, they were never “under the law” and thus do not require emancipation from it.
So, applying this scenario to non-Jews is not entirely proper. Paul merely says there are two paths to the inheritance, one through the Spirit and another through Torah which leads one to Christ. (Gal 3:24). But Galatians did not know Torah. They did not even know God before Paul introduced them to Jesus (Gal 4:8; cf. Eph 2:12) so what law could they be under before Messiah?
Indeed, throughout Israel’s history, Torah served as a guide, as a teacher, and custodian who instructs, corrects and even disciplines. Torah preserved Israel as a people living among pagan nations for many generations, allowing them to finally see the days of the Messiah.
Now that Messiah has come, those who embrace him are “mature heirs”, they are ready to receive their inheritance/promise. They are guided by the Spirit and thus not “under the tutor”. Yet this does not mean that Israel as a mature heir can now ignore everything she was taught since childhood and now can live however she pleases without any consequences.
Torah’s teaching never ceases to be valid and true. Paul’s illustration should not be pressed too far. Illustrations are rarely perfect and simply exist to clarify an idea. In fact, illustrations are not meant to be scrutinized or made into theology.
Paul’s original point is that Galatians, who are Gentiles are not supposed get circumcised and quickly acquire a tutor for themselves. Their journey to the “promise” (ἐπαγγελία; epangelía) is different, according to their teacher (Gal 5:18) and that is why they are “not under the law”.