Beware the Dogs of Law

What does Philippians 3:2 mean?

Have you ever noticed how Paul often warned Christians about the dangers of the law and those who preach it?

In just about every letter there’s a warning:

  • Watch out for those who put obstacles in your way contrary to what you have been taught (Rom 16:17).
  • See that no one takes you captive through philosophy which depends on men rather than Christ (Col 2:8).
  • If anyone preaches a different gospel, let him be cursed (Gal 1:8).
  • Charge certain men not to teach a different doctrine (1 Tim 1:3).

Paul’s habit of warning people was intentional:

It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs… (Philippians 3:1-2)

Perhaps Paul was motivated to write the same things again and again because of what had happened to the Galatians.

The Galatians never meant to cut themselves off from Christ, but this is what happens when you are seduced by dead works.

One moment you’re under grace, the next you’re back under law. One moment you’re free, the next you’re enslaved. It is a subtle shift unmarked by signposts.

With the benefit of hindsight we read his letter to the Galatians thinking, “it’ll never happen to me.”

Yet many Christians are doing exactly what Paul warns us not to do. Many believers are in danger of falling from grace and coming back under the law.

By law, I don’t mean they’re hanging the Ten Commandments in their churches and living rooms. Watchman Nee distinguished grace and law like this: “Grace means that God does something for me; law means that I do something for God.”

To live under law is to buy into the idea that we can compel God to bless us (or not hurt us) through our performance.

It is the height of hubris to think that we can manipulate the Creator in this way. If you live by faith in the goodness of a grace-giving God, then none of the following symptoms of a law-based life will apply to you.

Seven more symptoms of a law-based life

1. You always try to do the right thing

A preoccupation with doing the right thing is a classic sign that one has been eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. To live by a code of conduct is infinitely inferior to the life Christ wants to live through us.

In choosing the wrong tree, Adam chose independence from God. An independent spirit wants to decide for himself and thus prefers rules to relationship. But someone under grace says, I trust him from start to finish. He will lead me in the right path (Ps 23:3).

Your choice is rules or relationship. You cannot reduce relationship to a set of rules.

Live by rules and you’re setting yourself up for failure, for the law stimulates sin and produces death (Rom 7:5). Even when you do the right thing it’ll be the wrong thing because you’re operating in an independent spirit instead of walking by faith (Rom 14:23). But when you abide in Christ, you’ll find yourself doing the right thing at the right time every time.

2. You think we must do all the things Jesus said

Jesus said “be perfect” (Matt 5:48). How’s that working out for you? If you can’t score yourself a perfect 10, then you’ve failed the test.

It’s true that God requires perfection and nothing less. But we have a perfect High Priest whose perfect sacrifice has already given us perfect standing before God forever (Hebs 10:14).

Jesus was born under law and preached the law to those under law in order that our sin – and our need for a Savior – might be fully revealed (Gal 3:24, 4:4). Jesus preached the law and then fulfilled it on our behalf.

The new covenant of God’s grace did not begin at Matthew 1:1, but at the cross when God’s own blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28). If you fail to filter Jesus’ words (before the cross) through Jesus’ actions (on the cross) then you may have settled for an inferior covenant.

3. You think poverty is a good thing (it teaches character)

If poverty is a good thing, then abject poverty must be great! But there is nothing admirable about a 12 year old girl selling her body for food money or babies dying from preventable diseases.

The devil wants you to think that poverty is a gift from God or that it is a controversial subject. It is not. Poverty is part of the curse, while prosperity is part of God’s provision made available to us through the cross. (What do you think “blessing” means?)

A poverty mentality is a natural consequence of living under law, for the law constantly reminds us of our indebtedness. But grace reveals a God of the “more than enough.”

Live under the “weak and beggarly elements” of the law (Gal 4:9), and you’ll end up weak and beggarly.

There’s no such thing as a prosperity gospel, but neither is there a poverty gospel. There’s only the gospel of Jesus Christ who became poor so that through him you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). There was no lack in the Garden and there’s no poverty in heaven. If poverty is not God’s will there, it is not his will here.

4. You think nothing will get done unless we bind the strong man

Who is the strong man Jesus spoke of in Matthew 12:29? He is the devil who had been keeping the planet in bondage ever since the fall. But at the cross Jesus disarmed and triumphed over his enemies (Col 3:15). Now it’s our privilege to plunder the enemy’s house and set the prisoners free.

To live under law is to say that Jesus can’t do it, won’t do it, or hasn’t done it. But grace rejoices that the work Jesus came to do – which included taking down the devil (1 John 3:8) – was finished at the cross.

We empower a disarmed enemy when we believe him to be dangerous and in need of binding. Instead of fretting about the enemy, look to King Jesus who is our victory. Satan is already under his feet; put him under yours (Rom 16:20).

5. You don’t think of yourself as righteous

Then repent and believe the good news. Before the cross righteousness was demanded of sinful man (Deut 6:25). But at the cross righteousness was freely given (Rom 5:17).

If you have not received the gift of righteousness, if you still think there are things you need to do before getting saved/blessed/whatever, then you are suffering from a full-blown case of “under lawism.” You are lukewarm. The gospel of grace reveals the gift of righteousness that comes from God (Rom 1:17).

There are only two things you can do with a gift; receive it or reject it. We receive grace by renouncing our self-righteousness and acknowledging our need for his. God doesn’t make you righteous because you are good, but because he is good.

If you are a believer but you don’t think of yourself as righteous, train your mind to agree with God’s word: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

That’s not describing some future event. That’s describing what happened at the cross. Under first Adam you were literally a sinner; in last Adam, you are literally righteous.

6. You don’t think of yourself as holy

Then you’re in trouble because “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

Manmade religion defines holiness in terms of moral behavior, but this definition falls far short of the perfect holiness required by God.

Just as you cannot make yourself righteous, neither can you make yourself holy. But thank God for Jesus who is “our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). It is by his sacrifice that you have been sanctified (Heb 10:10).

The next time you’re struggling with this, remember the Corinthians. Few would say the Corinthians acted holy. Yet despite their bad behavior, Paul addresses his letter to the “church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ” (1 Cor 1:2). It takes a lot of faith to call the Corinthians saints, yet that is what they were in Christ.

Holiness is not based on your behavior, but your identity. Jesus is holy and righteous, and in him, you are holy and righteous.

A law preacher says we must strive to become holy. That’s like saying, “I don’t identify with Christ who is my holiness.” But under grace we exhort one another to be holy (1 Pet 1:15), because that is what we are.

7. You think you have disappointed God

For someone with a law mindset, it’s natural to think that you have disappointed God. Here’s the good news. It is impossible to disappoint God.

Disappointment results from unmet expectations and God doesn’t have any. The word “disappoint” is not in his vocabulary.

Before you were born he knew everything you would ever say and do. He knew how long it would take you to come to the cross. He knew how many times you would stumble. He knew in advance when you would run like a coward and act like a dullard. He even knows about all the mistakes you haven’t made yet.

Knowing all this, he still loves you! Isn’t he wonderful?

Under law it’s natural to think of our shortcomings and project them as disappointments onto our heavenly Father. But grace opens our eyes to a good God who loves us with an unfailing love (1 Cor 13:8).

Surely he knows all our faults, yet he chooses to remember them no more (Heb 8:12).

The next time you do something dumb, don’t listen to the lie that says you’ve disappointed him. That’s the path to guilt and condemnation.

Instead, have faith in his shadowless love and rejoice!


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34 Comments on Beware the Dogs of Law

  1. Well, once again, you don’t disappoint! And to those who are reading this article, don’t neglect to click on the red links – you’ll miss a blessing if you pass them by (unless you’ve been following ETR for awhile.


  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for these great truths! Clear as Jesus! I like that!
    Regards Mike

  3. great post. Really enjoying your stuff Paul!
    One comment: The subtle shift from grace to law/works is marked by one clear signpost: Loss of joy. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “What has happened to all your joy.” This to me is the acid test of where you’re at. Are you filled with joy or not? If not, you’re under law!

  4. @Pat and Mike – thanks for the encouragement!

    @Jan – You make a good point. In fact, I have been working on two long-ish lists simultaneously; (1) signs that you may be living under law (part 3 is what you see above) and (2) what happens to you when you live under law. Loss of joy is a big one on my second list. Stay tuned!

  5. I’m reading Romans 8:1 in the Kenneth Wuest version and I love it! “Therefore NOW, there is not even ONE BIT of condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus—not a hint of condemnation from Jesus. He’s training my ears to listen to his voice of Truth that only speaks true identity flowing out of grace, holiness, righteousness. Thanks for speaking, preaching Truth–we need to hear this everyday because we live in an atmosphere filled with leaven and that’s not the air we breathe.

    • Hi Febe – that’s a great translation of Rms 8:1. I have recently discovered that I am allergic to leaven. When I get exposed to it, my breathing is constricted, my heart rate soars, I break out in cold sweats, I get very agitated (ask Camilla!), my legs start shaking, and steam comes out of my ears. I have been advised by the Greatest Doctor of all that the only cure is a diet of 100% pure, leaven-free grace. Eat that and my health is fine and my energy levels are through the roof. It’s the greatest diet in the world, as I’m sure you know. 🙂

  6. Hey Paul, I enjoy your articles and love your teachings on grace…I have benefited a lot from your teachings.

    After reading #2 in this post — my mind immediately went to John 14, where Jesus tells His disciples three distinct times in three different ways: if you love me, you’ll obey my commands. I read #2 in this article and I understand that when Jesus says this, it is pre-cross. I also recognize that Jesus is not giving a law or a command here, He is simply saying — “those that love me will obey my commands.” What commands is He referring to?

    I am asking because I have a desire/responsibility to teach others — so I want to make sure I’m convinced of something before I begin to teach it. What commands is Jesus talking about?

    • Hi Michael, thanks for your question. You have read it correctly – obeying the commands of Jesus is a consequence of relationship. If you love Him, you really will do all the things He said. A legalist reads that verse backwards – obey me, if you love me. I like what Steve McVey says: The commandments are not an obligation, but an opportunity to reveal the life of Christ.

      Jesus commanded many things; go and make disciples, preach the good news, heal the sick, etc. (You can summarize all the commandments in the two “royal laws” of Mt 22:37-38.) If you try and do any of these in your own strength, you will ultimately fail. (How many dead have you raised? Mt 10:8) Yet these are the very things Jesus said we would do when we allow Him to live through us. And the really amazing thing is, keeping the commands – when we’re walking in grace – is not hard but easy…

      “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)

      A legalist reads his Bible and is condemned when he learns he has to heal the sick because Jesus commanded it. But someone under grace responds like this, “look at this, I get to heal the sick – Jesus said so! That’s awesome. My neighbor is sick. Jesus provided for her healing (1 Pt 2:24). So I’m going to heal her in Jesus’ name.” Grace plus faith = supernatural obedience, freedom, healing, deliverance and the King revealed! Pretty exciting huh!

  7. Great blog Paul…I think I’m going to steal it and preach it soon. One question, I’m trying to reconcile Hebrews 12:6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he punishes every son he accepts.” Once we get it into our head that NOTHING can separate us from Christ’s love, isn’t there a place for our own development where God can “chastise” us? I mean you and I discipline our kids BECAUSE we love them. Its not “judgment” per se. Sometimes I get the feeling from some grace teaching that there is no maneuver room for God to develop us as that would lead to living under law. What are your thoughts?

    • (Update: I have now written a post on Hebrews 12:6.)

      Your perception of God will affect your interpretation of Hebrews 12:6. If you think God is remote and vengeful, then you will conclude that “God punishes, even scourges us.” If you think God is intimate and loving, then you will rejoice that God relates to us a Father. So which is it? Read Proverbs 3:11-12, which is the scripture being quoted, and decide for yourself. There the Lord is compared to a father who delights in his son.

      God is not an absent, distant Father. He loves us so much that He disciplines us as sons. The Greek word for “discipline” in Heb 12:6 can mean “to train children,” or “to cause one to learn,” so this verse is speaking about training. God does not train us by inflicting suffering, yet there is suffering in following Christ. If Jesus “endured hostility from sinners” (v.3), we can expect the same. Jesus said, “If they persecute me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:20).

      The context of Hebrews 6-12 is the vast divide between death-dealing religion and the new life-giving covenant of God’s grace. When you walk in the radical grace of the Father’s unconditional love, you can expect opposition from others. Even though it’s not pleasant, our loving Father allows this to take place because it produces maturity in our lives (the peaceable fruit of righteousness). So the writer is saying, don’t get discouraged when you run into persecution. It happens to all of God’s sons of grace. It happened to Jesus, it happened to Paul – you’re in good company. You’re still alive (v.4) and God is still in control. (Indeed, you should be more concerned if you’re not opposed – see v.8.)

      How do I know this training is about grace? Look at the warning in verse 15: “…looking carefully lest there be any man that fall short of the grace of God.” One danger of persecution is that we may buckle, revert back to the dead works of religion, and fall short of God’s grace.

      Regarding your other point about God developing us, I highly recommend The Lost Secret of the New Covenant. In this book, Malcolm Smith talks at length about “putting on” Christ. It’s very practical and I highly recommend it.

    • PS: This is how Hebrews 12:6-15 is paraphrased in the Mirror Translation:

      “For every instruction is inspired by his love, even as a father would discipline his sons with affection, though it might seem harsh at the time. Check your attitude when you are corrected. His instruction confirms your true sonship, just as a father would take natural responsibility for the education of his children. See yourselves as sons, not as illegitimate children (children of faith, not of the slave woman), welcoming your spiritual education together with the rest of the family of faith… The discipline of the education process is not always immediately appreciated; sometimes it seems to involve more pain than pleasure, but it certainly yields the harvest that righteousness yields for the faith athlete. Shake off your weariness, loosen your limbs, catch your breath! (Get back into faith-mode, quit the flesh-mode)… You must understand that this is a grace-race and not a law-race.”

  8. Very thought provoking. You said a number of things I would agree with. Yet, some thoughts come to mind.

    Re #1: Ref Jer 31:33. Having and obeying law isn’t wrong in and of itself. The law is perfect, after all. The law is a written manifestation of the perfect character of God. The issue is placing faith in our own behavior vs. faith in our Creator. You pointed this out above, but your point 1 was a bit vitriolic against the law rather than the human response to law. I would remind you of Ro 6:1-2

    Re #2: The problem is the call to holiness, its the notion we can be holy apart from faith and the redeeming blood. It is our faith coupled with Jesus’ blood. Not only blood, but blood and water. Heb 11.

    Re #3: Poverty is a worldly condition. Any financial status is a worldly condition. Prosperity is not the gospel. The “prosperity gospel” is not the gospel of Christ.

    Re #4: And we don’t need liberty? We don’t need to be set free? We don’t need deliverance? Why else would Jesus have given Peter the keys to hell if not to set the captives free?

    Re #5-7: We must realize who and what we are so that we can recognize the need for salvation, a savior, forgiveness, redemption, justification, atonement, etc. God sees us as righteous and holy only when the blood is applied and the blood is applied by faith and faith comes from known He is the giver of life and we are wretched dying ilk apart from grace. And so, it is about perspective. Our righteousness is but filthy rags. Only the fruit of the Spirit is living. The fruit of works is dead where the works are apart from Him. So is our holiness. It is not our holiness, but His holiness imparted because He loves us, not because we are worthy.

  9. Gday Paul, thanks for a concise focused look at the gospel of grace. As I read through the comments above I was again reminded that the line between knowing grace and fully accepting it as the only basis for faith can be very fine indeed. When we next visit NZ I hope there is time for a coffee…Please continue to be a Kingdom blessing, Grace and Peace Rob.

  10. Who let the dogs out… who who who…. Well lock ’em back up I say!! I used to have all 7 of those dogs living with me everyday… man it was crowded and smelly and kinda depressing and tiring! So no more doggies for me. Just Jesus all the way yay!

  11. Maryanne Pereira // December 3, 2011 at 5:30 am // Reply

    Thank you.. this article is like a breath of fresh air.. too many churches frustrate the Grace of God… and leave their congregation in bondage…

  12. good post. Question, #4,the strongman, how do you view the deliverance ministry, I have seen a lot,and am becoming convinced ,that the more truth we begin to live in the less hold satan can have on us,I know i have expressed this before,I wonder if we will reach a point were deliverance,will in a sense for Christians be no longer be needed,

    • Deliverance, like healing, is enforcing Christ’s victory on the cross. I agree that a lot of deliverance (and healing) simply happens as we grow in grace. It’s not that we are denying footholds or closing windows, it’s just that the more we shine with Jesus, the less Satan can stand to be around us.

  13. Watchman Nee is watching?! Really?! The guy who said his name should be despised?! I would love challenge you to a “quote Nee competition.” Anyone who has to listen to me for any length of time has to hear at least 1-2 quotes every 3 minutes.

    Keep up the good work!

    On the poverty issue, I remember hearing Michael Harrington, a noted socialist, recalling his days at the Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, eating bad food and convincing himself that it was good! Self-righteousness doesn’t get much better!

  14. Love that title Paul, ‘The Dogs of Law’. A neat twist of the film – ‘Dogs of War’. Great stuff!

  15. This post was wonderful Paul… 🙂

  16. I hear other people turn those warnings around and say it’s those preaching nothing but good who are the dogs. That they are the ones teaching false doctrine, and that we need to be aware of. This all confuses me so much. Who are the wolves in sheep’s clothing?

  17. Ophelia Dawn Thomas // September 1, 2014 at 2:09 pm // Reply

    I sure appreciate all that God is doing through you, and a few others I listen to.
    I needed to hear this.. I cam out of a 37 years of religion, and I am not quite a year old being Born anew.. I am renewing my mind, it is a hard process, But I know I can do all things through Christ. I sometimes find myself correcting myself a lot. I have been flooding myself with His truths, and who I am in Him.. I still have catch myself from time to time, in a old habit I am so ready for it to completely pass.. I HATE RELIGON.. It truly kills… God bless you, and all here..

  18. You have a low view of law because you have a low view of grace. Jesus never set them in opposition to each other. God does not contradict himself.

  19. Paul, I’ve been reading your old posts as a sort of devotion and this one really moved me. Such simplicity and wisdom. I wrote this phrase of yours in my Bible: “To fall from grace is to buy into the idea that we can compel God to bless us (or not hurt us) through our performance”. Wow. How foreign is that to almost all of the Church, including me for the first couple decades of my walk. The tricky thing about good performance is that it is good, so how can it be bad?? It, in the natural, produces some good results. It’s just not the gospel though and doesn’t have the power to crazily transform you like pure grace can.

    Your teaching are a blessing to me. Genuine thanks.

    • Thanks for the encouraging feedback, Bob. Yes, it is a great blindspot that we think only bad things can be bad for us.

      • Yes, another good link to a profound post. I’ve been thinking so much about this lately. How we all strive to come to the place where we get saved, start going to church and start trying to do right. Trying to earn God’s blessings. Succeeding and failing. Getting by on partial grace and much self effort (to him who works…). And its good, at least compared to where we were before – not caring about God and doing what we want. BUT it’s not the new covenant, it’s not pure grace. It’s like being thirsty and drinking water that’s just a little dirty.

  20. Richmond ogbonna // July 19, 2015 at 3:25 am // Reply

    My friend has believed in Jesus and have been saved. After being saved, He had decided to go back into the world since he had been saved? Will he go to hell if he does not repent?

  21. Joseph Sanchez // March 9, 2016 at 8:21 pm // Reply

    Great post Paul… that I’ve been awakened to Grace and the true Gospel, from teachers like yourself, tullian, horton and others,I find it hard to listen to the sermons at local church’s now. Because I can hear the pop law that’s laced through out the whole sermon. Man I wish there where more Gospel preachers like you in Southern California.

  22. Calvin Shilabje // March 10, 2016 at 2:35 am // Reply

    Amen well articulated sir,you’re preaching the Gospel at its purest form,stay blessed sir…

  23. so much to chew on

  24. We left a baptist church because of the confession dance and now have the freedom promised by Christ. . My take on this is this.
    At the moment of salvation, Colossian 2:11, Circumcision made without hands, Ephesians 2:6 And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: where we cannot sin, and the old man is dead, Romans 6:6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. God does not see the old man which is dead and is filled with sin, Romans 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. To confess sins means that the old man must be raised from the dead which we don’t have the power to do.

  25. Keeping the sabbath/sunday holy is keeping the law or trying to do so.

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