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
Several Pauline passages are often used to support the contention that the Law was done away with by Christ and consequently is no longer the norm of Christian conduct. In view of the limited scope of this chapter, we examine the five major passages frequently appealed to in support of the abrogation view of the Law.
(1) Romans 6:14: "Not Under Law"
Romans 6:14 is perhaps the most frequently quoted Pauline text to prove that Christians have been released from the observance of the Law. The text reads: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under Law but under grace." The common interpretation of this text is that Christians are no longer under the Mosaic Law as a rule of conduct because their moral values derive from the principle of love revealed by Christ.
This is a serious misreading of this passage because there is nothing in the immediate context to suggest that Paul is speaking of the Mosaic Law. In the immediate and larger context of the whole chapter, Paul contrasts the dominion of sin with the power of Christís grace. The antithesis indicates that "under Law" simply means that Christians are no longer "under the dominion of sin" and, consequently, "under the condemnation of the Law" because the grace of Christ has liberated them from both of them.
To interpret the phrase "under Law" to mean "under the economy of the Mosaic Law" would imply that believers who were under the Mosaic economy were not the recipients of grace. Such an idea is altogether absurd. Furthermore, as John Murray perceptively observes, "Relief from the Mosaic Law as an economy does not of itself place persons in the category of being under grace."20
"The Ďdominion of Lawí from which believers have been Ďreleasedí is forthrightly explained by Paul to be the condition of being Ďin sinful nature,í being Ďcontrolledí by Ďsinful passions . . . so that we bore fruit for deathí (Rom 7:1-6). From this spiritual bondage and impotence, the marvelous grace of God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has set believers free; but it has not set them free to sin against Godís moral principles."21
Since "under grace" means under Godís undeserved favor, the contrast with "under Law" presupposes the idea of being under Godís disfavor or condemnation pronounced by the Law. Thus, in Romans 6:14 Paul teaches that believers should not be controlled by sin (cf. Rom 6:1-2, 6, 11-13) because Godís grace has liberated them from the dominion of sin and the condemnation of the Law.
In this passage, as John Murray brings out, "there is an absolute antithesis between the potency and provision of the Law and the potency and provision of grace. Grace is the sovereign will and power of God coming to expression for the deliverance of men from the servitude of sin. Because this is so, to be Ďunder graceí is the guarantee that sin will not exercise the dominionóĎsin will not lord it over you, for ye are not under Law but under grace.í"22
Not Under the Condemnation of the Law.
This interpretation is supported by the immediate context where Paul affirms that "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). Again he says: "We know that the Law is spiritual" (Rom 7:14). And again, "So then, I of myself serve the Law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the Law of sin" (Rom 7:25). These statements clearly indicate that for Paul the Law is and remains the Law of God, which reveals the moral standard of Christian conduct.
Surprisingly, even Rudolf Bultmann, known for his radical rejection of the cardinal doctrines of the New Testament, reaches the same conclusion. "Though the Christian in a certain sense is no longer Ďunder Lawí (Gal 5:18; Rom 6:14), that does not mean that the demands of the Law are no longer valid for him; for the agape [love] demanded of him is nothing else than the fulfillment of the Law (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14)."23 The point is well made, because we find that in Romans 13:8-13 Paul explains how love fulfills the Law by citing four specific commandments and by including "any other commandment."
In the light of these considerations, we conclude that far from dismissing the authority of the Law, Paul teaches that believers should not transgress the Law simply because Godís grace has "set [them] free from sin" (Rom 6:18). It is only the sinful mind that "does not submit to Godís Law" (Rom 8:7). But Christians have the mind of the Spirit who enables them to fulfill "the just requirements of the Law" (Rom 8:4). Thus, Christians are no longer "under the Law," in the sense that Godís grace has released them from the dominion of sin and the condemnation of the Law, but they are still "under Law" in the sense that they are bound to govern their lives by its moral principles. Thanks to Godís grace, believers have "become obedient from the heart to the standard of teachings" (Rom 6:17) and moral principles contained in Godís Law.
(2) 2 Corinthians 3:1-18: The Letter and the Spirit
2 Corinthians 3 contains a great deal that is often used to argue that the Law has been done away with by Christ and, consequently, Christians are no longer bound to it as a norm for their conduct. In view of the importance attributed to this chapter, we look at it in some detail.
The chapter opens with Paul explaining why he does not need letters of recommendation to authenticate his ministry to the Corinthians. The reason given is, "You yourselves [Corinthian believers] are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men" (2 Cor 3:2). If, on coming to Corinth, inquiry should be made as to whether Paul carried with him letters of recommendation, his answer is: "You yourselves, new persons in Christ through my ministry, are my credentials."
Paul continues developing the imagery of the letter from the standpoint of the Corinthians relationship to Christ: "You are a letter from Christ delivered to us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor 3:3). The mention of a letter written by the Spirit in the heart triggers in Paulís mind the graphic imagery of the ancient promises of the New Covenant. Through the prophets, God assured His people that the time was coming when through His Spirit He would write His Law in their hearts (Jer 31:33) and would remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ez 11:19; 36:26). The change of heart that the Corinthians had experienced as a result of Paulís ministry was a tangible proof of the fulfillment of Godís promise regarding the New Covenant.
The Letter and the Spirit.
Is Paul saying here, as many believe, that the Law is of itself something evil and death-dealing? This cannot be true, since he clearly taught that "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12) and that "the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it" (Rom 10:5; cf. Gal 3:12; Lev 18:5).
Commenting on this text in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Philip Hughes writes: "Paul is a faithful follower of his Master in that he nowhere speaks of the Law in a derogatory manner. Christ, in fact, proclaimed that He had come to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it (Matt 5:17). So also the effect of Paulís doctrine was to establish the Law (Rom 3:31). There is no question of an attack by him on the Law here [2 Cor 3:6], since, as we have previously seen, the Law is an integral component of the New no less than it is of the Old Covenant."24
It is unfortunate that many Christians today, including former Sabbatarians who attack the Sabbath, ignore the fundamental truth that "the Law is an integral component of the New no less than it is of the Old Covenant." This is plainly shown by the terms used by God to announce His New Covenant: "I will put my Law within them" (Jer 31:33). The intended purpose of the internalization of Godís Law is "that they may walk in my statutes, and keep my ordinances, and do them" (Ez 11:20). Note that in the New Covenant, God does not abolish the Law or give a new set of Laws; instead He internalizes His existing Law in the human heart.
Philip Hughes states the difference between the two Covenants with admirable clarity: "The difference between the Old and New Covenants is that under the former the Law is written on tables of stones, confronting man as an external ordinance and condemning him because of his failure through sin to obey its commandments, whereas under the latter the Law is written internally within the redeemed heart by the dynamic regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, so that through faith in Christ, the only Law-keeper, and inward experience of His power man no longer hates but loves Godís Law and is enabled to fulfill its precepts."25
Coming back to the distinction Paul makes between the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life, it is evident that the Apostle is comparing the Law as externally written at Sinai on tablets of stone and the same Law as written internally in the heart of the believer by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. As an external ordinance, the Law confronts and condemns sin as the breaking of Godís Law. By revealing sin in its true light as the transgression of Godís commandments, the Law kills since it exposes the Lawbreaker to the condemnation of death (Rom 6:23; 5:12; Ez 18:4; Prov 11:29). It is in this sense that Paul can speak startlingly of the letter which kills.
By contrast, the Spirit gives life by internalizing the principles of Godís Law in the heart of the believer and by enabling the believer to live according to the "just requirement of the Law" (Rom 8:4). When Christ is preached and Godís promises made in Christ are believed, the Spirit enters the heart of believers, motivating them to observe Godís Law, and thus making the Law a living thing in their hearts.
Paul knew from firsthand experience how true it is that the letter kills and the Spirit makes alive. Before his conversion, he was a self-righteous observer of the Law:
"As to the Law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the Law blameless" (Phil 3:6).
Yet at the same time, he "blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him [Christ]" (1 Tim 1:13), that is, he was a transgressor of the Law under divine judgment. His outward conformity to the Law only served to cover up the inward corruption of his heart. It was as a result of his encounter with Christ and of the influence of the Holy Spirit in his heart that it became possible for Paul to conform to Godís Law, not only outwardly, in letter, but also inwardly, in spirit, or as he puts it, to "serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom 7:6).
The Ministry of Death and the Ministry of the Spirit.
"Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!" (2 Cor 3:7-11, NIV).
It should be pointed out first of all that Paul is speaking here of two ministries and not two dispensations. The Greek word used by Paul is "diakonia," which means "service" or "ministry." By translating "diakonia" as "dispensation," some translations (like the RSV) mislead readers into believing that Paul condemns the Old Covenant as a dispensation of death. But the Apostle is not rejecting here the Old Covenant or the Law as something evil or inglorious. Rather, he is contrasting the ministry of death provided by the Law with the ministry of the Spirit offered through Christ.
The ministry of death is the service offered by the Law in condemning sin. Paul calls this a "ministry of condemnation" (2 Cor 3:9) that was mediated through Moses when he delivered the Law to the people. The ministry of the Spirit offers life and is made available through Christ (cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). Both ministries derive from God and, consequently, are accompanied by glory. The ministry or service of the Law coming from God was obviously glorious. This was evident to the people by the glory which Mosesí countenance suffused when he came down from Mount Sinai to deliver the Law to the people. His countenance was so bright that the people had difficulty gazing upon it (Ex 34:29-30).
The ministry or service of the Spirit rendered by Paul and other Christian preachers is accompanied by greater glory, that is, the light of Godís Spirit that fills the soul. The reason such ministry is more glorious is that, while the glory reflected in Mosesí face at the giving of the Law was temporary and gradually faded away, the glory of the ministry of the Spirit is permanent and does not fade away. Through His Spirit, God has "made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 3:6, NIV).
Cranfield correctly summarizes the point of these verses, saying: "Since the service rendered by Moses at the giving of the Law, which was actually going to effect Ďcondemnationí (2 Cor 3:9) and Ďdeathí (2 Cor 3:7), was accompanied by glory (the glory on Mosesí faceóEx 34:29ff), the service of the Spirit rendered by himself (and other Christian preachers) in the preaching of the Gospel must much more be accompanied by glory."26
Paulís aim is not to denigrate the service rendered by the Law in revealing and condemning sin. This is indicated by the fact that he calls such service a "glorious" ministry: "If the ministry that condemns men is glorious . . ." (2 Cor 3:9, NIV). Rather, Paulís concern is to expose the grave error of false teachers who were exalting the Law at the expense of the Gospel. Their ministry was one of death because by the works of the Law no person can be justified (Gal 2:16; 3:11). Deliverance from condemnation and death comes not through the Law but through the Gospel. In this sense, the glory of the Gospel excels that of the Law.
The important point to note here is that Paul is contrasting not the Old and New Covenants as such, rejecting the former and promoting the latter; rather, is he is contrasting two ministries. When this is recognized, the passage becomes clear. The reason the glory of the Christian ministry is superior to that of Mosesí ministry, is not because the Law given through Moses has been abolished, but because these two ministries had a different function with reference to Christís redemption.
The comparison that Paul makes in verse 9 between the "ministry of condemnation" and the "ministry of righteousness" clearly shows that Paul is not disparaging or discarding the Law. "Condemnation is the consequence of breaking the Law; righteousness is precisely the keeping of the Law. The Gospel is not Lawless. It is the ministration of righteousness to those who because of sin are under condemnation. And this righteousness is administered to men solely by the mediation and merit of Christ, who alone, as the incarnate Son, has perfectly obeyed Godís holy Law."27
With Unveiled Face.
Second, Paul applies the notion of "the veil" to the Jews who up to that time were unable to understand the reading of the Law in the synagogue because a veil of darkness obscured the glory which they had deliberately rejected (2 Cor 3:14-16). Paul is thinking historically. The veil that Moses placed over his face to indicate the rebellion and unbelief of the people, which curtained the true apprehension of Godís glory, symbolically represents for Paul the veil of darkness that prevents the Jews from seeing the glory of Christ and His Gospel (2 Cor 3:15). But, Paul continues, "when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed" (2 Cor 3:16). "There is here no suggestion," C. E. Cranfield correctly points out, "that the Law is done away, but rather that, when men turn to Christ, they are able to discern the true glory of the Law."28 The reason is aptly given by Calvin: "For the Law is itself bright, but it is only when Christ appears to us in it, that we enjoy its splendor."29
Third, when the veil that prevents the understanding of the Law is removed by the Spirit of the Lord, there is liberty.
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17).
The point Paul is making here, as C. E. Cranfield explains, is that when the Law "is understood in the light of Christ, when it is established in its true character by the Holy Spirit, so far from being the Ďbondageí into which legalism has perverted it, is true freedom (cf. James 1:25óíthe perfect Law, the Law of libertyí)."30
In the light of the preceding analysis, we conclude that in 2 Corinthians 3 Paul is not negating the value of the Law as a norm for Christian conduct. The concern of the Apostle is to clarify the function of the Law in reference to Christís redemption and to the ministry of the Spirit. He does this by contrasting the ministry of the Law with that of the Spirit. The Law kills in the sense that it reveals sin in its true light as the transgression of Godís commandments and it exposes the Lawbreaker to the condemnation of death (Rom 6:23; 5:12; Ez 18:4; Prov 11:29). By contrast, the Spirit gives life by enabling the believer to internalize the principles of Godís Law in the heart and to live according to "just requirement of the Law" (Rom 8:4).
Chapter 5, Part 2
Chapter 5, Part 3b
Notes to Chapter 5, Part 3a
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University