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
This brief survey of Paulís background view of the Law provides us with a setting for examining now Paulís basic teachings about the Law. For the sake of clarity, we summarize his teachings under the following seven headings.
(1) The Law Reveals Godís Will.
First of all, it is important to note that for Paul the Law is and remains Godís Law (Rom 7:22, 25). The Law was given by God (Rom 9:4; 3:2), written by God (1 Cor 9:9; 14:21; 14:34), contains the will of God (Rom 2:17, 18), bears witness to the righteousness of God (Rom 3:21), and is in accord with the promises of God (Gal 3:21). Repeatedly and explicitly Paul speaks of "the Law of God." "I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self" (Rom 7:22); "I of myself serve the Law of God with my mind" (Rom 7:25); the carnal mind "does not submit to Godís Law" (Rom 8:7). Elsewhere he speaks of "keeping the commandments of God" (1 Cor 7:19) as being a Christian imperative.
Since God is the author of the Law, "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). The Law is certainly included among "the oracles of God" that were entrusted to the Jews (Rom 3:2). To the Jews was granted the special privilege ("advantage") to be entrusted with the Law of God (Rom 3:1-2). So "the giving of the Law" is reckoned by Paul as one of the glorious privileges granted to Israel (Rom 9:4). Statements such as these reflect Paulís great respect for the divine origin and authority of Godís Law.
Paul clearly recognizes the inherent goodness of the moral principles contained in the Old Testament Law. The Law "is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12) because its ethical demands reflect nothing else than the very holiness, righteousness, and goodness of God Himself. This means that the way people relate to the Law is indicative of the way they relate to God Himself. The Law is also "spiritual" (Rom 7:14) in the sense that it reflects the spiritual nature of the Lawgiver and it can be internalized and observed by the enabling power of the Spirit. Thus, only those who walk "according to the Spirit" can fulfill "the just requirements of the Law" (Rom 8:4).
The Law expresses the will of God for human life. However, what the Law requires is not merely outward obedience but a submissive, loving response to God. Ultimately, the observance of the Law requires a heart willing to love God and fellow beings (Rom 13:8). This was the fundamental problem of Israel "who pursued the righteousness which is based on Law" (Rom 9:31); they sought to attain a right standing before God through outward obedience to Godís commandments. The result was that the people "did not succeed in fulfilling that Law" (Rom 9:31). Why? Because their heart was not in it. The people sought to pursue righteousness through external obedience to commandments rather than obeying the commandments out of a faith-love response to God. "They did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works" (Rom 9:32).
The Law of God demands much more than conformity to outward regulations. Paul makes this point when he speaks of a man who may accept circumcision and yet fail to keep the Law (Rom 2:25). Superficially this appears to be a contradictory statement because the very act of circumcision is obedience to the Law. But Paul explains that true circumcision is a matter of the heart, not merely something external and physical (Rom 2:28-29).
For Paul, as C. K. Barrett points out, "obedience to the Law does not mean only carrying out the detailed precepts written in the Pentateuch, but fulfilling that relation to God to which the Law points; and this proves in the last resort to be a relation not of legal obedience but of faith."14 The failure to understand this important distinction that Paul makes between legalistic and loving observance of the Law has led many to wrongly conclude that the apostle rejects the validity of the Law, when in reality he rejects only its unlawful use.
(2) Christ Enables Believers to Obey the Law.
For Paul the function of Christís redemptive mission is to enable believers to live out the principles of Godís Law in their lives and not to abrogate the Law, as many Christians mistakenly believe. Paul explains that in Christ, God does what the Law by itself could not doónamely, He empowers believers to live according to the "just requirements of the Law." "For God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:3-4).
The new life in Christ enables the Christian to keep the Law, not as an external code, but as a loving response to God. This is the very thing that the Law by itself cannot do because, being an external standard of human conduct, it cannot generate a loving response in the human heart. By contrast, "Christís love compels us" (2 Cor 5:14) to respond to Him by living according to the moral principles of Godís Law. Our love response to Christ fulfills the Law because love will not commit adultery, or lie, or steal, or covet, or harm oneís neighbor (Rom 13:8-10).
The permanence of the Law is reflected in Paulís appeal to specific commandments as the norm for Christian conduct. To illustrate how the principle of love fulfills the Law, Paul cites several specific commandments:
"The commandments, ĎYou shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,í and any other commandment, are summed up in the sentence, ĎYou shall love your neighbor as yourself.í Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law" (Rom 13: 9-10).
Paulís reference to "any other commandment" presupposes the rest of the Ten Commandments, since love fulfills not only the last six commandments that affect our relationship with fellow beings, but also the first four commandments that govern our relationship with God. For example, love fulfills the Sabbath commandment because it motivates Christians to truly love the Lord by giving priority to Him in their thinking and living during the hours of the Sabbath.
Central to Paulís understanding of the Law is the Cross of Christ. From this perspective, he both negates and affirms the Law. Negatively, the Apostle repudiates the Law as the basis of justification: "if justification were through the Law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal 2:21).
Positively, Paul teaches that the Law is "spiritual, good, holy, just" (Rom 7:12, 14, 16; 1 Tim 1:8) because it exposes sin and reveals Godís ethical standards. Thus, he states that Christ came "in order that the just requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us" through the dynamic power of His Spirit (Rom 8:4).
Three times Paul states: "Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision;" and each time he concludes this statement with a different phrase: "but keeping the commandments of God . . . but faith working through love . . . but a new creation" (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15). The parallelism shows that Paul equates the keeping of Godís commandments with a working faith and a new life in Christ, which is made possible through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
(3) The Law Is Established by the Ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Christís ministry enables His Spirit to set us free from the tyranny of sin and death (Rom 8:2) and to reestablish the true spiritual character of the Law in our hearts. In Romans 8, Paul explains that what the Law, frustrated and abused by sin, could not accomplish, Christ has triumphantly accomplished by taking upon Himself the condemnation of our sins (Rom 8:3). This Christ has done, not to release us from the obligation to observe the Law, but "in order that the just requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4).
The Spirit establishes Godís Law in our hearts by setting us free from tampering with Godís commandments and from "boasting" of presumptuous observance (Rom 2:23; 3:27; 4:2). The Spirit establishes the Law by pointing us again and again to Christ who is the goal of the Law (Rom 10:4). The Spirit establishes the Law by setting us free to obey God as our "Father" (Rom 8:5) in sincerity. The Spirit enables us to recognize in Godís Law the gracious revelation of His fatherly will for His children. The final establishment of Godís Law in our hearts will not be realized until the coming of Christ when the "revealing of the sons of God" will take place (Rom 8:19).
The slogan of "New Covenant" ChristiansóNot under Law but under love"ódoes not increase the amount of true love in the world, because love without Law soon degenerates in deceptive sentimentality. E. C. Cranfield perceptively observes that "while we most certainly need the general command to love (which the Law itself provides in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18), to save us from understanding the particular commandments in a rigid, literalistic and pedantic manner, we also need the particular commandments into which the Law breaks down the general obligation of love, to save us from the sentimentality and self-deception to which we all are prone."15
(4) The Law Reveals the Nature of Sin.
As a revelation of Godís will for mankind, the Law reveals the nature of sin as disobedience to God. Paul explains that "through the Law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20), because the Law causes people to recognize their sins and themselves as sinners. It is self-evident that this important function of the Law could not have been terminated by Christ, since the need to acknowledge sin in oneís life is as fundamental to the life of Christians today as it was for the Israelites of old.
By showing people how their actions are contrary to the moral principles that God has revealed, the Law increases sin in the sense that it makes people more conscious of disobeying definite commandments. This is what Paul meant when he says: "Law came in, to increase the trespass" (Rom 5:20; cf. Gal 3:19). By making people conscious of disobeying definite commandments, the Law increases the awareness of transgressions (Rom 4:15).
The Law not only heightens the awareness of sin but also increases sin by providing an opportunity to deliberately transgress a divine command. This is what Paul suggests in Romans 7:11: "For sin, finding opportunity in the commandments, deceived me and by it killed me." The term "deceived" is reminiscent of the creation story (Gen 3:13) where the serpent found in Godís explicit prohibition (Gen 2:17) the very opportunity he wanted to lead Adam and Eve into deliberate disobedience and rebellion against God.
It is in this sense that "the power of sin is the Law" (1 Cor 15:56). "In the absence of Law sin is in a sense Ďdeadí (Rom 7:8), that is, relatively impotent; but when the Law comes, then sin springs into activity (Rom 7:9óĎsin revivedí). And the opposition which the Law offers to menís sinful desires has the effect of stirring them up to greater fury."16
Sinful human desires, unrestrained by the influence of the Holy Spirit, as Calvin puts it in his commentary on Romans 7:5, "break forth with greater fury, the more they are held back by the restraints of righteousness."17 Thus, the Law, in the absence of the Spirit, "increases the trespass" (Rom 5:20) by attacking sinful desires and actions. To claim that "New Covenant" Christians are no longer under Law, in the sense that they no longer need the Law to expose sin in their life, is to deny or cover up the presence of sin. Sinful human beings need the Law to "come to the knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20), and need a Saviour to "have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:14; cf. Eph 1:7).
(5) Observance of the Law Can Lead to Legalism.
The goodness of the Law is sullied when it is used wrongfully. Paul expresses this truth in 1 Timothy 1:8: "Now we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully." Contrary to what many believe, Paul affirms the validity and goodness of the Law, but it must be used according to Godís intended purpose. This important distinction is ignored by those who teach that "New Covenant" Christians are no longer obligated to observe the moral Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, because they claim to derive their moral principles from the principle of love revealed by Christ. God has only one set of moral principles. Paul openly and constantly condemns the abuse, and not the proper use of Godís Law.
The abuse was found in the attitude of the Judaizers who promoted the works of the Law as a means to achieve self-righteousness before God. Paul recognizes that observance of the Law can tempt people to use it unlawfully as a means to establish their own righteousness before God. He exposes as hopeless the legalistís confidence of seeking to be justified in Godís sight by works of the Law because "no human being will be justified in his sight by the works of the Law, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20). Human beings in their fallen condition can never fully observe Godís Law.
It was incredible pride and self-deception that caused the Jews to "rely upon the Law" (Rom 2:17) to establish their own righteousness (Rom 10:3) when in reality they were notoriously guilty of dishonoring God by transgressing the very principles of His Law. "You who boast in the Law, do you dishonor God by breaking the Law?" (Rom 2:24). This was the problem with the Pharisees, who outwardly gave the appearance of being righteous and Law-abiding (Luke 16:12-15; 18:11-12), but inwardly they were polluted, full of iniquity, and spiritually dead (Matt 23:27-28).
The Pharisaic mentality found its way into the primitive church, among those who refused to abandon the wrongful use of Godís Law. They did not recognize that Christís redemptive accomplishments brought to an end those ceremonial parts of the Law, like circumcision, that foreshadowed His person and work. They wanted to "compel the Gentiles to live like Jews" (Gal 2:14). These Judaizers insisted that in order to be saved, the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and observe the covenantal distinctiveness of the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1). In other words, the offer of salvation by grace had to be supplemented with the observance of Jewish ceremonies.
Paul was no stranger to the attitude of the Judaizers toward the Law of Moses, because he held the same view himself prior to his conversion. He was brought up as a Pharisee and trained in the Law at the feet of Gamaliel (Phil 3:5; Acts 22:3). He describes himself as "extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal 1:14). From the perspective of a person who is spiritually dead, Paul could claim that as far as "legalistic righteousness" was concerned, he was " faultless" (Phil 3:6, NIV).
After his conversion, Paul discovered that he had been deceived into believing that he was spiritually alive and righteous, when in reality he was spiritually dead and unrighteous. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Paul recognized that "having a righteousness of my [his] own, based on Law" (Phil 3:9) was an illusion typical of the Pharisaic mentality. Such mentality is reflected in the rich young rulerís reply to Jesus: "Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth" (Mark 10:20). The problem with this mentality is that it reduced righteousness to compliance with Jewish oral Law, which Jesus calls "the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8), instead of recognizing in Godís Law the absolute demand to love God and fellow beings. When the Holy Spirit brought home to Paulís consciousness the broader implications of Godís commandments, his self-righteous complacency was condemned. "I was once alive apart from [a true understanding of] the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died" (Rom 7:9).
In his epistles, Paul reveals his radical rejection, not of the Law, but of legalism. He recognizes that attempting to establish oneís righteousness by legalistic observance of the Law ultimately blinds a person to the righteousness which God has made available as a free gift through Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 10:3). This was the problem with the prevailing legalism among the Jews of Paulís time, namely, the failure to recognize that observance of the Law by itself without the acceptance of Christ, who is the goal of the Law, results in slavery. Thus, Paul strongly opposes the false teachers who were troubling the Galatian churches because they were promoting circumcision as a way of salvation without Christ. By so doing, they were propagating the legalistic notion that salvation is by works rather than by faithóor we might say, it is a human achievement rather than a divine gift.
By promoting salvation through the observance of such ceremonies as circumcision, these false teachers were preaching a "different Gospel" (Gal 1:6), which was no Gospel at all (Gal 1:7-9), because salvation is a divine gift of grace through Christís atoning sacrifice. With this in mind, Paul warns the Galatian Christians:
"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all . . . . You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal 5:2, 4, NIV).
It is evident that what Paul opposes is the unlawful use of the Law, that is, the attempt to earn acceptance with God by performing rituals like circumcision, thus ignoring the gracious provision of salvation offered through Jesus Christ.
(6) The Law Was Never Intended to Be a Means of Salvation.
After his conversion Paul understood that the Old Testament Law was never intended to be legalistic in character, that is, a means to earn salvation. From his personal experience, he learned that he could not gain self-merit or justification before God by faithfully obeying the Law. Gradually he understood that the function of the Law is to reveal the nature of sin and the moral standard of human conduct, but not to provide a way of salvation through human obedience.
This truth is expressed in Galatians 2:19 where Paul says: "For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God" (emphasis supplied). Paul acknowledges that it was the Law itself, that is, his new understanding of the function of the Law, that taught him not to seek acceptance before God through Law-works. The Law was never intended to function as a way of salvation, but to reveal sin and to point to the need of a Savior. This was especially true of the promises, prophecies, ritual ordinances, and types of the Mosaic Law which pointed forward to the Savior and His redeeming work. In the great Bible lessons of all time, Christ expounded "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, . . . what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).
Paul insists that the Mosaic Law did not annul the promise of salvation God made to Abraham (Gal 3:17, 21). Rather, the Law was added "till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal 3:19). The function of the Mosaic Law was not soteriological but typological, that is, it was not given to provide a way of salvation through external ceremonies but to point the people to the Savior to come, and to the moral principles by which they ought to live.
(7) The Law Pointed to the Savior to Come.
The typological function of the Law was manifested especially through what is known as the "ceremonial Law"óthe redemptive rituals like circumcision, sacrifices, sanctuary services, and priesthood, all of which foreshadowed the work and the person of Christ. Paul refers to this aspect of the Mosaic Law when he says that "the Law was our tutor . . . to Christ, that we may justified by faith" (Gal 3:24, NASB). Here Paul sees the Mosaic Law as pointing to Christ and teaching the same message of justification contained in the Gospel. The tutor or schoolmaster to which Paul alludes in Galatians 3:24-25 is most likely the ceremonial Law whose rituals typified Christís redemptive ministry. This is indicated by the fact that Paul was engaged in a theological controversy with the Judaizers who made circumcision a requirement of salvation (Gal 2:3-4; 5:2-4).
When Paul speaks of the Law as pointing to Christ and teaching that justification comes through faith in Christ (Gal 3:24), it is evident that he was thinking of sacrificial ordinances that typified the Messianic redemption to come. This was also true of circumcision that pointed to the "putting off of the body of flesh," that is, the moral renewal to be accomplished by Christ. "In him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ" (Col 2:11). The moral principles of the Ten Commandments, like "you shall not steal," hardly represented the redemptive work of Christ.
Paul insists that now that Christ, the object of our faith, has come, we no longer need the tutorship aspect of the Mosaic Law that pointed to Christ (Gal 3:25). By this Paul did not mean to negate the continuity and validity of the moral Law, in general. This is indicated by his explicit affirmation in 1 Corinthians 7:19:"For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God." Usually Paul does not distinguish between the ethical and ceremonial aspects of the Law, but in passages such as this the distinction is abundantly clear. Commenting on this text, Eldon Ladd notes: "Although circumcision is a command of God and a part of the Law, Paul sets circumcision in contrast to the commandments, and in doing so separates the ethical from the ceremonialóthe permanent from the temporal."18
The failure to make such a distinction has led many Christians to mistakenly conclude that Paul teaches the abrogation of the Law in general as a rule for the Christian life. This conclusion is obviously wrong, because Paul while presents to the Gentiles "the commandments of God" as a moral imperative, he adamantly rejects the ceremonial ordinances, such as circumcision, for these were a type of the redemption accomplished by Christ (1 Cor 7:19).
For Paul, the typological function of the ceremonial Law, as well as the unlawful legalistic use of the Law, came to an end with Christ; but the Law as an expression of the will of God is permanent. The believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit is energized to live according to "the just requirements of the Law" (Rom 8:4).
The starting point of Paulís reflection about the Law is that atonement for sin and salvation come only through Christís death and resurrection, and not by means of the Law. This starting point enables Paul, as well stated by Brice Martin, "to make the distinction between the Law as a way of salvation and as a norm of life, between the Law as it encounters those in the flesh and those in the Spirit, between the Law as a means of achieving self-righteousness and as an expression of the will of God to be obeyed in faith. . . . The moral Law remains valid for the believer."19
Chapter 5, Part 1
Chapter 5, Part 3a
Notes to Chapter 5, Part 2
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University