The Old Testament. The concept of lawlessness comes to expression frequently in the Old Testament through more than twenty Hebrew terms (all of which the Septuagint translates with anomia [ajnomiva]). Although the Greek term anomia [ajnomiva], which translates all of these terms in the Septuagint, might lead one to suspect that breaking of the Mosaic Law (ho nomos) is primarily in view, the more general idea of iniquity or of Acts that reflect rebellion against God is the basic one. The law as such may be the criterion or standard for determining what constitutes lawlessness (as with sin in general), but at its root lawlessness is rebellion against God, whether viewed as the condition of one's life or as specific Acts that demonstrate a determined refusal to acknowledge God.
The New Testament. These same ideas are in view in the New Testament's development of lawlessness (anomia [ajnomiva]). The unique circumstances that these writings address, however, called forth additional reflection that both confirms and enlarges on the picture drawn from the Old Testament evidence.
The Relation of Lawlessness to Sin. First John 3:4 is perhaps the classic statement of the relation of lawlessness and sin. In asserting that "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness" the author was probably correcting a misconception about sin that had crept into the community through false teaching. Sin was being disregarded or trivialized, and 3:4 counters by defining it in terms of lawlessness. Sin is thus an act of rebellion against God, and cannot be thought of as harmless, neutral, or imaginary. Through the category of lawlessness, John clarifies that one cannot sin without declaring oneself to be in direct opposition to God. Romans 4:7 (quoting Psalm 32:1 ; see also Num 14:18 ) makes the same connection between sin and Acts of lawlessness. Together with passages such as Titus 2:14 and Hebrews 10:17, Romans 4:7 indicates that Acts of lawlessness and the rebellious condition of fallen humankind that issues in these Acts stand in need of God's forgiveness. Receiving the righteousness of God depends on being forgiven.
Lawlessness and Righteousness. In Romans 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:14, and Hebrews 1:9, "lawlessness" as a state or condition is contrasted with righteousness. Righteousness is the condition characteristic of faith, while lawlessness is the condition characteristic of unbelief. As the contrast continues, it becomes clear that the two categories have nothing in common; they are as different as light and darkness. Moreover, as Hebrews 1:9 (quoting Psalm 45:7 ) reveals, the Son distinguishes himself in manifesting the attitude of God toward these two states: he hates lawlessness but loves righteousness. Lawlessness is the state defined by sin and sinning; righteousness, both declared and bestowed by God on believers, creates the possibilities of obedience and holiness. Finally, Romans 6:19 makes it clear that the Christian has a conscious choice to make: to live in the condition of lawlessness and do its deeds, or to serve righteousness and do its deeds.
Lawlessness as Acts of Sin. By means of the concept of "doing lawlessness" ( Matt 7:23 ; 13:41 ; cf. 1 John 3:4 ), lawlessness takes the meaning of deeds of lawlessness (cf. Matt 24:12 ; Titus 2:14 ). They are deeds that manifest rebellion against God. To be "full of lawlessness" ( Matt 23:28 ) is to lead a life characterized by wrongdoing.
Lawlessness and the Eschatological Rebellion against God. What is perhaps the most striking development in the biblical concept of lawlessness comes through a series of New Testament passages that view rebellion against God as an eschatological characteristic. The preparation for this application of the concept might be descriptions of the rebellious posture of God's enemies in the final battle in some of the extracanonical writings of Judaism (see Testament of Dan 5:4-5 ; Testament of Naphtali 4:1; 1QS 1:23-24; 3:18-21; 4:19-20). On the one hand, the occurrences in Matthew are particularly related to the persistent refusal to accept the Messiah on God's terms and to harassment of God's people by those in opposition. The setting is either the final judgment ( 7:23 ; 13:41 ; 23:28 ) or the last stage of history when lawlessness is to reach an unprecedented height (24:12). Thus, lawlessness comes to be seen in direct connection with opposition to the Messiah and his message. This connection is completed in the description in 2 Thess 2:3, 7 of the eschatological "man of lawlessness, " who will lead the final rebellion against God that will precede Christ's second coming. In this figure the rebellion that has exerted itself against God's will in every age reaches its height in the last day.
By bringing Johannine and Pauline teaching on lawlessness together, we can see how the concept serves to underline the seriousness of sin for the individual. Any sin, no matter how inconsequential it might seem, is the acting out of rebellion against God. This rebellion apparently draws its strength from spiritual forces opposed to GodJohn's antichristswhich, John tells us, are already active and whose opposition, Paul tells us, will reach a crescendo in the end, just before Christ's return. People always have the possibility to opt out of this rebellion, but it requires receiving forgiveness from God. The choice to decide between righteousness and lawlessness is one that believers continually face. Understanding lawlessness as rebellion and as the opposite of righteousness allows us to see that at the practical level it is ultimately a question of taking sides. Moreover, the decision taken is one that has eternal consequences: salvation or judgment.Philip H. Towner
See also Sin
Bibliography. H.-H. Esser, NIDNTT, 2:436-50; H. Kleinknecht and W. Gutbrod, TDNT, 4:1022-91; L. Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians; I. de la Potterie and S. Lyonnet, The Christian Lives by the Spirit; A. Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Lawlessness'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".