What is the Law of Christ?

What exactly did the Apostle Paul mean when he spoke of "the law of Christ?"A lot of debate surrounds this little phrase, probably due to the fact that it only occurs one time in the whole New Testament. Galatians 6:2 says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" [ton nomon tou Christou] (ESV). Paul uses a very similar phrase in 1 Corinthians 9:21: "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 [ennomos Christou]) that I might win those outside the law." This verse could be translated "in-lawed to Christ."

Based upon these two occurrences and their surrounding contexts, I define the law of Christ as the pattern of rights-renouncing, self-giving love exemplified by Jesus on the cross.

Let's start with the Galatians passage. The first question to ask is what Paul means by "law?" He has used the word all over the letter and the vast majority of the time he is referring to the law of Moses given to Israel. Because of past usage in the letter, many think Paul is talking about the law of Moses here, just in light of Christ or some other variation. I don't think Paul is talking about the law of Moses in Galatians 6:2. First and foremost because he says law of Christ. Plus, throughout the letter, Paul has put Christ and the law in opposition to one another. This would be the first time to use them together in a positive way. The final reason that I think Paul is referring to some "other" law here comes from the passage we will look at next.There we will see that Paul explicitly says that the law of Christ and the law of Moses are distinct.

What then does he mean by "law of Christ"? Some think he means all the teaching of Jesus, a Messianic Torah of sorts. I simply do not think that much can be packed into these two verses. While it is obviously true that new covenant believers are bound to the teaching of Jesus, I just do not think that is what Paul means here by "the law of Christ."

Rather, I think Paul is pointing us to the example of Jesus. More specifically, the "pattern" Jesus shows us. Paul often uses word-plays and that's what he is doing here with "law" in Galatians 6:2. Right away, we see that fulfilling the law of Christ has something to do with bearing one another's burdens. It is by bearing one another's burdens that we fulfill the law of Christ. And Paul has shown again and again in this letter that Christ is the ultimate burden-bearer. He dies for our sake. He gives of self for our good - our salvation. That's what biblical love is: giving of self for the good of another. "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters" (NIV). He is the paradigmatic burden-bearer. He gave himself for our sins in order to deliver us from the present evil age (Gal 1:4). He gave of self for our good. He loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20). Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He gives of self for our good, bearing our burden. We, in turn, our called to do the same, thus fulfilling the pattern of Jesus.

Now, let's consider our second occurrence in 1 Corinthians 9. For a little more context, read 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 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 outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."

We see clearly here that the law of Christ and the law of Moses are distinct. He says that he is not under the law, meaning law of Moses, but is under the law of God, which now means being in-lawed to Christ. He is neither under the law, nor outside the law. He is in another place altogether: in-lawed to Christ. He is law-less, not lawless but under the jurisdiction of Jesus.

These verses and their larger context in 1 Corinthians 8-11 are where I get the "rights-renouncing" part of the definition. A large portion of these chapters deal with food. With regard to eating food offered to idols, love should be the operating principle. Give up your right to eat to keep your brother from stumbling. "Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Cor 8:9). Give up your rights for the sake of love for one another. If food makes another stumble, Paul says "I will never eat meat" (1 Cor 8:13). Chapter 9 is all about Paul's rights as an apostle. First Corinthians 9:4-5 says, "Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife?" Later he says he has a "rightful claim" to receive money for his labor, "nevertheless, we have not made use of this right" (1 Cor 9:12). The Apostle has all kinds of rights and claims "I have made no use of any of these rights" (1 Cor 9:15).

Which leads us back to our main passage in 1 Corinthians. He is free from all. He has that right, but he gives it up and becomes a servant of all to win as many as possible. To the weak he becomes weak. He becomes all things to all people to save some. He renounces his rights and gives of self for the good of others. That's precisely what it means to be "in-lawed to Christ."

Moving onto chapter 10, he basically defines the law of Christ for us: "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor" (1 Cor 10:24). Sounds like the Golden Rule, doesn't it? Or the Great Commandment? Must be onto something. At the end of the chapter he unpacks this pattern of Christ further: "I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved." He bears burdens, renounces rights, and gives of self. Then, overlooking the unfortunate chapter break, he ends this section with a command: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Imitate me in this renouncing of rights and this giving of self because I am simply imitating Christ. I am simply fulfilling the law of Christ.

More could be said. More passages could be unpacked. Though the phrase "law of Christ" is not mentioned, I can't help but mention one more passage. The Christ hymn of Philippians 2 lays out this law of Christ beautifully. There Paul exhorts the Philippian believers to consider others better than themselves and to put the interests of others before their own. In other words, to give of self for the good of others. Then he commands them to have the mind of Christ, who though in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be used for his own advantage. Rather he emptied himself, took on human form, and died on a cross. Though he had rights (the form of God) he gave of self and bore our burden.

This is already long enough, but I think this view is easily confirmed by the writings of John. In fact, I think Paul is probably thinking of the episode recorded in John 13 where Jesus renounces his right to have his feet washed, "takes upon the form of a slave," and gives of self for the good of his disciples. Then the chapter ends with the new commandment to love others just as Jesus loved us. I hope a brief reflection on the context of the only two passages that mention the law of Christ is enough to see the validity of seeing it as the pattern of the rights-renouncing, self-giving love of Jesus - for the good of others and the glory of God.