Καταργέω and the Law: Nullified or not?

One of the most confusing aspects of the Christian life is the relationship of the believer to the Law. Believers seem split between those who say the Law is binding for the believer, at least the moral law or 10 commandments, and those who say the believer is no longer under the Law since Christ is the end of the Law for those who believe (Rom 10:4). It must be noted that various believers have different understandings of what “law” means in Romans, and the rest of the New Testament. The point of this post is not to solve that debate. For one, it is too large, and for another, no matter how one views “law” (νόμος) in Romans, the result in both passages is clear: the law is both established (Rom. 3:31) and the believer has been released from it (Rom. 7:6).

This confusion over the believer’s relationship to the Law isn’t helped by the way Paul seems to employ the Greek verb καταργέω in Romans 3:31 and 7:6. We read,

Do we then nullify [καταργοῦμεν] the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law (Rom. 3:31).

But now we have been released [κατηργήθημεν] from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter (Rom. 7:6).

Now on the surface it seems to some as if Paul is saying that the law is both operating for the believer and that it is not. One of the challenges we face is getting past preconceived ideas because of the various ways the verb καταργέω has been translated into English versions of the Bible. Just in the NASB alone, the verb καταργέω is translated into English with the following terms: abolish, nullify, release, use up, passing away, do away, fading, remove, bring to an end, and render powerless. That is 10 uses with only 27 uses of the verb in the New Testament! No wonder there is confusion.

However, the various ways that the NASB (and other versions) translates καταργέω are all pretty much within the same semantic range and while there may be 10 various renderings into English, we are not dealing with significantly different ideas. The one thing we do know is that lexically, the verb does not mean to destroy, obliterate, or exterminate. The one overall concept of καταργέω can best be described as rendering something idle or ineffective. In other words, the entity may remain but someone or something’s relationship to it may change. We could best illustrate this with the idea of putting a car transmission into neutral. The transmission is still functioning but its power has been rendered idle or ineffective. Therefore, the idea “to disengage” might work very well.

We know that the Law has not been abolished in the sense of destroyed or obliterated, since Jesus said he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17)

The verb “abolish” used twice in this verse, however, is not καταργέω, but καταλύω, a verb that does often means “to destroy,” “demolish,” or “dismantle” but can also mean simply “to bring an end to.” Therefore, the same point made by Jesus is made by Paul: Jesus came to fulfill the law for sinners. And in that sense, the law is established and still operates in the world today. As Paul says, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). And for that reason, the Law is good when used correctly. Paul declares in 1 Timothy 1:8-9,

8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully,

9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers.

So we see that Law still operates in the world and has a purpose: it should be proclaimed to the lost to demonstrate just how far short of God’s holiness and glory they fall. Its primary role today is for the lost, or as Paul states, “for the ungodly and profane” and not for “a righteous person.”

But what about the believer’s relationship to the Law? While the nature and purpose of the Law remains the same, the believer’s relationship to the Law has changed. While the Law is operating today, its intended audience is the unbeliever. We see in the New Testament that the believer has been released from the Law:

But now we have been released [κατηργήθημεν] from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter (Rom. 7:6)

The believer has been released from the Law (καταργέω). Paul explains this more fully by giving the manner of how were released: having died to that by which we were bound. We were once bound (κατειχόμεθα) to the Law, but no longer.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3).

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:4).

When we come to faith in Christ (Rom. 3:31), we do not nullify or render the Law ineffective completely. It is established, operating in the world the way God has purposed: as a school master or tutor to lead us to salvation through Christ (Gal. 3:24). But since it is fulfilled in Christ, it is no longer binding to the believer. It is now nullified or rendered idle or ineffective for the believer (Rom. 7:6; 10:4).

Some may ask, “What about the 10 commandments?” Nine of the 10 commandments are reiterated in the New Testament as binding for the believer. The only one that isn’t is the keeping of the Sabbath. Sunday is not the Sabbath. We see both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testament, and this is an example of discontinuity. The Sabbath is related to seventh, and in the New Testament, there is a conscious decision to worship on the first day of the week in contrast to the seventh. In addition, the New Testament declares in this new age, new wine has not been poured in to old wine skins. As a result, no one day is highlighted over another (Col. 2:16-17).

Christ has fulfilled for us the requirements of the holiness of God, a holiness represented in the Law. His righteousness has been credited to us through faith alone in Christ alone. The Law has in this sense fulfilled its purpose. It has shown us our sin and need of a savior. As a result, we are no longer “bound” to the Law. We have been released from it.



Categories: Greek, καταργέω, Law, Romans

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