The Background of Paul's View of the Law
Paul's View of the Law
A Look at Some Misunderstood Texts
A Look - Continued
A Look - Continued
A Look - Continued
The Law and the Gentiles
PAUL AND THE LAW
In the Sabbath-Sunday debate, it has been customary to appeal to Paul in defense of the abrogation-view of the Old Testament Law, in general, and of the Sabbath, in particular. This has been especially true in recent attacks launched against the Sabbath by former Sabbatarians. For example, in his open letter posted on the Internet on April 1, 1995, Joseph W. Tkach, Jr., Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God, wrote: "Paul does not hold the Mosaic Law as a moral standard of Christian conduct. Rather, he holds up Jesus Christ, the suffering of the Cross, the Law of Christ, the fruit and leadership of the Holy Spirit, nature, creation and the moral principles that were generally understood throughout the Gentile world as the basis of Christian ethics. He never, I repeat, never, argues that the Law is the foundation of Christian ethics. Paul looks at Golgotha, not Sinai."
Similar categoric statements can be found in Sabbath in Crisis, by Dale Ratzlaff, a former Seventh-day Adventist Bible teacher and pastor. He writes: "Paul teaches that Christians are not under old covenant Law. . . . Galatians 3 states that Christians are no longer under Sinaitic Law. . . . Romans 7 states that even Jewish Christians are released from the Law as a guide to Christian service. . . . Romans 10 states that Christ is the end of the Law for the believer."1
These categoric statements reflect the prevailing Evangelical perception of the relationship between Law and Gospel as one in which the observance of the Law is no longer obligatory for Christians. Texts such as Romans 6:14; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; Galatians 3:15-25; Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15; and Romans 10:4 are often cited as proof that Christians have been delivered from the obligation to observe the Law, in general, and the Sabbath, in particular, since the latter "was the sign of the Sinaitic Covenant and could stand for the covenant."2
For many Christians these statements are so definitive that any further investigation of the issue is unnecessary. They boldly affirm that so-called "New Covenant" Christians live "under grace" and not "under the Law;" consequently, they derive their moral principles from the principle of love revealed by Christ and not from the moral Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
For example, Ratzlaff writes: "In old covenant life, morality was often seen as an obligation to numerous specific Laws. In the new covenant, morality springs from a response to the living Christ."3 "The new Law [given by Christ] is better than the old Law [given by Moses]."4 "In the New Covenant, Christís true disciples will be known by the way they love! This commandment to love is repeated a number of times in the New Testament, just as the Ten Commandments were repeated a number of times in the Old."5
This study shows that statements such as these represent a blatant misrepresentation of the New Testament teaching regarding the role of the Law in the life of a Christian. They ignore the fact that the New Testament never suggests that Christ instituted "better commandments" than those given in the Old Testament. On the contrary, Paul unequivocally stated that "the [Old Testament] Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good" (Rom 7:12). "We know that the Law is good" (1 Tim 1:8).
This prevailing misunderstanding of the Law as no longer binding upon Christians is negated by a great number of Pauline passages that uphold the Law as a standard for Christian conduct. When the Apostle Paul poses the question: "Do we then overthrow the Law?" (Rom 3:31). His answer is unequivocal: "By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law" (Rom 3:31). The same truth is affirmed in the Galatian correspondence: "Is the Law then against the promises of God? Certainly not" (Gal 3:21). These statements should warn antinomians that, as Walter C. Kaiser puts it, "any solution that quickly runs the Law out of town certainly cannot look to the Scripture for any kind of comfort or support."6
There are few teachings within the whole compass of biblical theology so grossly misunderstood today as that of the place and significance of the Law both in the New Testament and in the life of Christians. Fortunately, an increasing number of scholars are recognizing this problem and addressing it. For example, in his article "St. Paul and the Law," published in the Scottish Journal of Theology, C. E. B. Cranfield writes: "The need exists today for a thorough reexamination of the place and significance of Law in the Bible. . . . The possibility that . . . recent writings reflect a serious degree of muddled thinking and unexamined assumptions with regard to the attitudes of Jesus and St. Paul to the Law ought to be reckoned withóand even the further possibility that, behind them, there may be some muddled thinking or, at the least, careless and imprecise statement in this connection in some works of serious New Testament scholarship which have helped to mould the opinions of the present generation of ministers and teachers."7
I share Cranfieldís conviction that shoddy biblical scholarship has contributed to the prevailing misconception that Christ has released Christians from the observance of the Law. There is an urgent need to reexamine the New Testament understanding of the Law and its place in the Christian life. The reason for this urgency is that muddled thinking about the role of the Law in the Christian life affects a whole spectrum of Christian beliefs and practices. In fact, much of the anti-sabbatarian polemic derives from the mistaken assumption that the New Testament, especially Paulís letters, releases Christians from the observance of the Law, in general, and the Sabbath commandment, in particular.
Objectives of This Chapter.
By way of conclusion, I propose that the resolution to the apparent contradiction between Paulís negative and positive statements about the Law is found in their different contexts. When he speaks of the Law in the context of salvation (justificationóright standing before God), he clearly affirms that Law-keeping is of no avail (Rom 3:20). On the other hand, when Paul speaks of the Law in the context of Christian conduct (sanctificationóright living before God), he upholds the value and validity of Godís Law (Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19).
Various Usages of "Law."
Sometimes the term "Law" is used by Paul in a personal way as if it were God Himself: "Whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law" (Rom 3:19). Here the word "Law" could be substituted for the word "God" (cf. Rom 4:15; 1 Cor 9:8).
Our immediate concern is not to ascertain the various Pauline usages of the term "Law," but rather to establish the apostleís view toward the Old Testament Law, in general. Did Paul teach that Christ abrogated the Mosaic Law, in particular, and/or the Old Testament Law, in general, so that Christians are no longer obligated to observe them? This view has predominated during much of Christian history and is still tenaciously defended today by numerous scholars8 and Christian churches. Unfortunately, this prevailing view rests largely on a one-sided interpretation of selected Pauline passages at the exclusion of other important passages that negate such an interpretation.
Our procedure will be, first, to examine the positive and negative statements that Paul makes about the Law and then to seek a resolution to any apparent contradiction. We begin our investigation by looking at the background of Paulís view of the Law, because this offers valuable insights into why Paul views the Law both as "abolished" (Eph 2:15) and "established" (Rom 3:31), unnecessary (Rom 3:28), and necessary (1 Cor 7:19; Eph 6:2, 3; 1 Tim 1:8-10).
The Old Testament View of the Law.
Contrary to what many people believe, the Old Testament does not view the Law as a means of gaining acceptance with God through obedience, but as a way of responding to Godís gracious redemption and of binding Israel to her God. The popular view that in the Old Covenant people were saved, not by grace but by obeying the Law, ignores the fundamental biblical teaching that salvation has always been a divine gift of grace and not a human achievement.
The Law was given to the Israelites at Sinai, not to enable them to gain acceptance with God and be saved, but to make it possible for them to respond to what God had already accomplished by delivering them from Egyptian bondage. The context of the Ten Commandments is the gracious act of divine deliverance.
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex 20:2).
Israel was chosen as Godís people not because of merits gained by the people through obedience to the Law, but because of Godís love and faithfulness to His promise.
"It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage" (Deut 7:7-8).
Obedience to the Law provided the Israelites with an opportunity to preserve their covenant relationship with God, and not to gain acceptance with Him. This is the meaning of Leviticus 18:5: "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live." The life promised in this text is not the life in the age to come (as in Dan 12:2), but the present enjoyment of a peaceful and prosperous life in fellowship with God. Such life was Godís gift to His people, a gift that could be enjoyed and preserved by living according to the principles God had revealed.
The choice between life and death laid before the people in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 was determined by whether or not the people would choose to trust and obey the Word of God. Obedience to the Law of God was an expression of trust in God which revealed who really were His people. The obedience demanded by the Law could not be satisfied by legalistic observance of external commands, like circumcision, but by an internal love-response to God. The essence of the Law was love for God (Deut 6:5; 10:12) and for fellow-beings (Lev 19:18). Life was understood as a gift to be accepted by a faith response to God. As Gerhard von Rad puts it, "Only by faith, that is, by cleaving to the God of salvation, will the righteous have life (cf. Hab 2:4; Am 5:4, 14; Jer 38:20). It is obvious that life is here understood as a gift."9
It was only after his conversion that Paul understood that the Old Testament view of the function of the Law was a faith-response to the gift of life and salvation and not a means to gain life through legalistic obedience. Prior to his conversion, as we shall see, Paul held to the Pharisaic view of the Law as a means of salvation, a kind of mediator between God and man. After his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road, Paul was compelled to reexamine his theology. Gradually, he came to realize that his Pharisaic view of the Law as a way of salvation was wrong because the Old Testament teaches that salvation was promised already to Abraham through the Christ, the Seed to come, 430 years before the giving of the Law at Sinai (Gal 3:17).
The Jewish View of the Law.
"For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the Law, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20).
The view that the observance of the Law is an indispensable means to gain salvation developed later during the intertestamental period, that is, during the four centuries that separate the last books of the Old Testament from the first books of the New Testament. During this period a fundamental change occurred in the understanding of the role of the Law in the life of the people. Religious leaders came to realize that disobedience to Godís Law had resulted in the past suffering and deportation of the people into exile. To prevent the recurrence of such tragedies, they took measures to ensure that the people would observe every detail of the Law. They interpreted and applied the Law to every minute detail and circumstance of life. At the time of Christ, this ever-increasing mass of regulations was known as "the tradition of the elders" (Matt 15:2).
During this period, as succinctly summarized by Eldon Ladd, "the observance of the Law becomes the basis of Godís verdict upon the individual. Resurrection will be the reward of those who have been devoted to the Law (2 Mac 7:9). The Law is the basis of hope of the faithful (Test of Jud 26:1), of justification (Apoc Bar 51:3), of salvation (Apoc Bar 51:7), of righteousness (Apoc Bar 57:6), of life (4 Ezra 7:21; 9:31). Obedience to the Law will even bring Godís Kingdom and transform the entire sin-cursed world (Jub 23). Thus the Law attains the position of intermediary between God and man."10
This new view of the Law became characteristic of rabbinic Judaism which prevailed in Paulís time. The result was that the Old Testament view of the Law "is characteristically and decisively altered and invalidated."11 From being a divine revelation of the moral principle of human conduct, the Law becomes the one and only mediator between God and the people. Righteousness and life in the world to come can only be secured by faithfully studying and observing the Law. "The more study of the Law, the more life . . ." "If a person has gained for himself words of the Law, he has gained for himself life in the world to come."12
Paulís Pre-Conversion Experience of the Law.
As a result of his conversion, Paul discovered that his pride and boasting were an affront to the character of God, the only One who deserves praise and glory (1 Cor 1:29-31; 2 Cor 10:17). "What he as a Jew had thought was righteousness, he now realizes to be the very essence of sin, for his pride in his own righteousness (Phil 3:9) had blinded him to the revelation of the divine righteousness in Christ. Only the divine intervention on the Damascus Road shattered his pride and self-righteousness and brought him to a humble acceptance of the righteousness of God."13
The preceding discussion of Paulís background experience of the Law helps us to appreciate the radical change that occurred in his understanding of the Law. Before his conversion, Paul understood the Law like a Pharisee, that is, as the external observance of commandments in order to gain salvation (2 Cor 5:16-17). After his conversion, he came to view the Law from the perspective of the Cross of Christ, who came "in order that the just requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us" through the enabling power of His Spirit (Rom 8:4). From the perspective of the Cross, Paul rejects the Pharisaic understanding of the Law as a means of salvation and affirms the Old Testament view of the Law as a revelation of Godís will for human conduct.
Chapter 4, Part 2c
Chapter 5, Part 2
Notes to Chapter 5, Part 1
1. Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis (Applegate,
California, 1990), pp. 200, 218, 219.
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University