Are unbelievers under the law since Christ abolished the law on the cross?
The question typically is a result of John “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (NKJV)
The problem is, most people have a misunderstanding of what “law” and “grace” mean here. It is a reference to, and way of saying “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant”; the two primary ways that divine revelation has come from God.
The Old Covenant was established by the Mosaic Law and served the purpose to define what separated man from God; to demonstrate that God’s requirements could be violated and thus required a punishment and it showed that a written law was needed to define what sin is. (Isa 59.1-2; Rom 7.7; Rom 3.26)
The New Covenant revealed the redeeming purposed of Jesus Christ and that He is the only path to salvation (1Cor 15.3; Matt 26.28). Grace is the fact that man could do nothing to merit His salvation and is “poor in spirit” (Matt 5.3). Man is incapable of doing anything to change His lost condition without God and is in need of being rescued.
So Moses brought “law” by which we are able to know that we have violated God’s will and deserve to be penalized. And Jesus brought “grace” by which our penalty is now capable of being paid.
So we are all “under law” in the sense that the law condemns us justly for our sin. We are all also “under grace” in the sense that the opportunity for salvation was procured for all mankind by Jesus Christ (John 3.16).
But only those who accept Jesus Christ by faith, and respond in obedience to the Gospel call are explicit beneficiaries of God’s grace.
Law and grace represent two parts of the divine revelation from God related to reconciling man to Himself.
Consider this as well: there was grace under the “law” age. Noah found Grace in God’s eyes (Gen 6.8). God poured out grace on many responded to Him in the Old Testament (Ex. 33.13; Dt. 7.12; Jer. 31.3)
Under the New Covenant, the Law still serves to be a measure of what is sinful. Jesus is the “King of Kings”…. what King does not rule by law? Also, “the law” still exists in the New Testament in new forms: the law of the Spirit (Rom 8.2) and the law of love (Rom 13.8,10; Gal 5.14; James 2.8).
So there was grace in the “law” age, and law in the “grace” era. The Bible does not make this distinction of “who is under what law at what time?” but if I had to answer your orginal question in one sentence I would say that “all men are under law; all men today have access to grace; but only those who respond to Christ will receive it”.