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
Perhaps more than any other Pauline passage, Galatians 3:15-25 has misled people into believing that the Law was done away with by the coming of Christ. The reason is that in this passage Paul makes some negative statements about he Law which, taken in isolation, can lead a person to believe that Christ terminated the function of the Law as a norm for Christian conduct. For example, he says : "The Law was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal 3:19). "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian" (Gal 3:25).
Before examining these passages, it is important to remember that Paulís treatment of the Law varies in his letters, depending on the situation he was facing. Brice Martin makes this important point in concluding his scholarly dissertation Christ and the Law in Paul. "In his letters Paul has faced varied situations. In writing to the Galatians he tends to downplay the Law because of their attempts to be saved by means of it. In 1 Corinthians he stresses the Law and moral values since he is facing an antinomian front. In Romans he gives a carefully balanced statement and assures his readers that he is not an antinomian."31
The Galatian Crisis.
The false teachers accused Paul of accommodating and watering down the Gospel by releasing Christians from circumcision and observance of the Mosaic Law. His Gospel disagreed with that of the Jerusalem brethren who upheld circumcision and the observance of the Law. Realizing that his entire apostolic identity and mission in Galatia was jeopardized by these Judaizers infiltrators, Paul responds by hurling some of his sharpest daggers of his verbal arsenal. "Credulity (Gal 1:6) is the operative principle of the foolish Galatians (Gal 3:1). Cowardice motivates the troublemakers (Gal 6:12). Seduction is their method of proselytizing (Gal 4:17).Castration is their just desserts (Gal 5:12)."32
The message of the agitators was primarily built around the requirement of circumcision. This is underscored by Paulís warning:
"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all" (Gal 5:2, NIV).
That circumcision was the main tenet of the "other Gospel" preached by the false teachers is indicated also by Paulís exposure of their motives:
"Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the Cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the Law, yet they want you to be circumcised, they may boast about your flesh" (Gal 6:12-13).
The emphasis of the false teachers on circumcision reflects the prevailing Jewish understanding that circumcision was required to become a member of the Abrahamic covenant and receive its blessings. God made a covenant of promise with Abraham because of his faithful observance of Godís commandments (Gen 26:5), and circumcision was the sign of that covenant.
Paulís Response. In his response, Paul does admit that being a son of Abraham is of decisive importance. He does not deny or downplay the importance of the promise covenant that God made with Abraham. But, he turns his opponentsí argument on its head by arguing that Godís covenant with Abraham was based on his faith response (Gen 15:6; Gal 3:6) before the sign of circumcision was given (Gen 17:9-14). In all probability, the false teachers appealed to the institution of circumcision in Genesis 17 to argue that circumcision was indispensable to become a son of Abraham. Paul also points to Genesisónot of course to Genesis 17 but to Genesis 15:6 which says: "He [Abraham] believed the Lord and he reckoned it to him as righteousness." From this Paul concludes: "So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham" (Gal 3:7).
Paul uses the same Scripture to which his opponents appealed to show that God announced in advance to Abraham that He would justify the Gentiles by faith: "The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying: ĎIn you shall all the nations be blessed.í" (Gal 3:8). And again Paul concludes: "So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith" (Gal 3:9).
Paulís argument can be briefly summarized by means of the following syllogism:
First premise: God justified Abraham because of his faith before instituting circumcision.
Second premise: In Abraham all people are blessed.
Paul develops this argument further by setting the promise given to Abraham (in Genesis 18:18) against the giving of the Law at Sinai which occurred 430 years later (Gal 3:15-18). Making a play on the word diatheke, which in Greek can mean both will-testament and covenant, Paul points out that as a valid human testament cannot be altered by later additions, so the promise of God given to Abraham cannot be nullified by the Law, which came 430 years later. The fact that the covenant with Abraham was one of promise based on faith excludes the possibility of earning righteousness by works. "For if the inheritance is by the Law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise" (Gal 3:18).
The same thought is expressed in Romans where Paul says that Abraham attained righteousness by faith before the sign of circumcision had been given (Rom 4:1-5). Circumcision, then, in its true meaning, is a sign or seal of a justifying faith (Rom 4:9-12). "The implication of the line of thought in Galatians 3 and Romans 4," as Eldon Ladd points out, "is that all the Israelites who trusted Godís covenant of promise to Abraham and did not use the Law as a way of salvation by works, were assured salvation. This becomes clear in the case of David, who, though under the Law, pronounced a blessing on the man to whom God reckons righteousness by faith apart from works (Rom 4:6-7)."33
The examples of Abraham and David as men of faith under the Old Covenant help us to interpret Paulís statement: "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian" (Gal 3:25). The coming of faith for Paul does not mean that saving faith was not exercised prior to the coming of Christ, since he cites Abraham and David as men of faith. Rather, he uses "faith" in a historic sense identical to the proclamation of the Gospel (Gal 4:4-5; Rom 1:16-17). Salvation was by faith in the Old Covenant, but faith was frustrated when people made the Law the basis of their righteousness and boasting.
If salvation was by way of promise (faith) and not Law, what then was the role of the Law in Godís redemptive purpose? Paulís answer is both novel and unacceptable to Judaism. The Law "was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promises had been made" (Gal 3:19). The Law was not added to save men from their sins, but to reveal the sinfulness of their transgressions. The term "transgression" (parabasis), as Ernest Burton points out, implies "not simply the following of evil impulse, but violation of explicit Law."34 By revealing what God forbids, the Law shows the sinfulness of deeds which otherwise might have passed without recognition.
In this context, Paul speaks of the Law in its narrow, negative function of exposing sin, in order to counteract the exaltation of the Law by its opponents. Calvin offers a perceptive comment on this passage: "Paul was disputing with perverse teachers who pretended that we merit righteousness by the works of the Law. Consequently, to refute their error he was sometimes compelled to take the bare Law in a narrow sense, even though it was otherwise graced with the covenant of free adoption."35
The Law as a Custodian.
To explain the function of the "bare Law" before Christ, Paul compares it to a paidagogos, a guardian of children in Roman and Greek households. The guardianís responsibility was to accompany the children to school, protect them from harm, and keep them from mischief. The role of a paidogogos is an apt illustration of how some aspects of the Law served as a guardian and custodian of Godís people in Old Testament times. For example, circumcision, which is the fundamental issue Paul is addressing, served as a guardian to constantly remind the people of their covenant commitment to God (Jos 5:2-8).
When God called Israel out of Egyptian bondage, He gave them not only the Decalogue that they might see the sinfulness of sin, but also ceremonial, religious Laws designed to exhibit the divine plan for the forgiveness of their sins. These Laws, indeed, had the function of protecting and guiding the people until the day of their spiritual deliverance through Jesus Christ. With the coming of Christ, the ceremonial, sacrificial Laws ended, but the Decalogue is written in human hearts (Heb 8:10) by the ministry of the Holy Spirit who enables believers to "fulfill the just requirement of the Law" (Rom 8:4).
It is difficult to imagine that Paul would announce the abolition of the Decalogue, Godís great moral Law, when elsewhere he affirms that the Law was given by God (Rom 9:4; 3:2), was 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). So long as sin is present in the human nature, the Law is needed to expose its sinfulness (Rom 3:20) and reveal the need of a Savior.
On the basis of the above considerations, we conclude that Paulís negative comments about the Law must be understood in the light of the polemic nature of Galatians. In this epistle, the apostle is seeking to undo the damage done by false teachers who were exalting the Law, especially circumcision, as a means of salvation. In refuting the perverse and excessive exaltation of the Law, Paul is forced to depreciate it in some measure, especially since the issue at stake was the imposition of circumcision as a means of salvation.
C. E. Cranfield rightly warns that "to fail to make full allowance for the special circumstances which called forth the letter would be to proceed in a quite uncritical and unscientific manner. In view of what has been said, it should be clear that it would be extremely unwise to take what Paul says in Galatians as oneís starting point in trying to understand Paulís teaching on the Law."37
(4) Colossians 2:14: What Was Nailed to the Cross?
Christians who believe that "New Covenant" Christians are not under the obligation to observe the Law usually refer to Colossians 2:14, saying: "Does not Paul clearly teach that the Law was nailed to the Cross!" This conclusion is drawn especially from the KJV translation which reads:
"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Col 2:14).
The phrase "handwriting of ordinances" is interpreted as a reference to the Mosaic Law which allegedly was nailed to the Cross.
Does Paul in this text supports the popular view that Christ blotted out the Law and nailed it to the Cross? Is the "written documentócheirographon" that was nailed to the Cross the Law, in general, or the Sabbath, in particular? Traditionally, this is the way this text has been interpreted, namely, that God set aside and nailed to the Cross the Mosaic Law with all its ordinances, including the Sabbath.
This popular interpretation is unwarranted for at least two reasons. First, as E. Lohse points out, "In the whole of the epistle the word Law is not used at all. Not only that, but the whole significance of the Law, which appears unavoidable for Paul when he presents his Gospel, is completely absent."38
Second, this interpretation detracts from the immediate argument designed to prove the fullness of Godís forgiveness. The wiping out of the moral and/or ceremonial Law would hardly provide Christians with the divine assurance of forgiveness. Guilt is not removed by destroying Law codes. The latter would only leave mankind without moral principles.
The Contest of Colossians 2:14.
To oppose this teaching, Paul emphasizes two vital truths. First, he reminds the Colossians that in Christ, and in Him alone, "the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9) and, therefore, all other forms of authority that exist are subordinate to Him, "who is the head of all rule and authority" (Col 2:10). Second, the Apostle reaffirms that it is only in and through Christ that the believer can "come to the fullness of life" (Col 2:10), because Christ not only possesses the "fullness of deity" (Col 2: 9) but also provides the fullness of "redemption" and "forgiveness of sins" (Col 1: 14; 2:10-15; 3:1-5).
In order to explain how Christ extends "perfection" (Col 1:28; 4:12) and "fullness" (Col 1:19; 2:9) to the believer, Paul appeals, not to the Law, but to baptism. Christian perfection is the work of God who extends to the Christian the benefits of Christís death and resurrection through baptism (Col 2:11-13). The benefits of baptism are concretely presented as the forgiveness of "all our trespasses" (Col 2:13; 1:14; 3:13) which results in being "made alive" in Christ (Col 2:13).
The reaffirmation of the fullness of Godís forgiveness, accomplished by Christ on the Cross and extended through baptism to the Christian, constitutes Paulís basic answer to those trying to attain to perfection by submitting to ascetic practices to gain protection from cosmic powers and principalities. To emphasize the certainty and fullness of divine forgiveness explicitly mentioned in verse 13, the Apostle utilizes in verse 14 a legal metaphor, namely, that of God as a judge who "wiped out, . . . removed [and] nailed to the Cross . . . the written documentócheirographon."
The Written Document Nailed to the Cross.
This is indeed the popular view defended, especially in the anti-sabbatarian literature that we have examined during the course of this study. But besides the grammatical difficulties,39 "it hardly seems Pauline," writes J. Huby, "to represent God as crucifying the Ďholyí (Rom 7:6) thing that was the Mosaic Law." 40 Moreover, this view would not add to but detract from Paulís argument designed to prove the fullness of Godís forgiveness. Would the wiping out of the moral and/or ceremonial Law provide to Christians the assurance of divine forgiveness? Hardly so. It would only leave mankind without moral principles. Guilt is not removed by destroying Law codes.
Recent research has shown that the term cheirographon was used to denote either a "certificate of indebtedness" resulting from our transgressions or a "book containing the record of sin" used for the condemnation of mankind.41 Both renderings, which are substantially similar, can be supported from rabbinic and apocalyptic literature.42 This view is supported also by the clause "and this he has removed out of the middle" (Col 2:14). "The middle" was the position occupied at the center of the court or assembly by the accusing witness. In the context of Colossians, the accusing witness is the "record-book of sins" which God in Christ has erased and removed out of the court.
Last, the context is substantially different. While in Ephesians the question is how Christ removed what separated Jews from Gentiles, in Colossians the question is how Christ provided full forgiveness. The former He accomplished by destroying "the dividing wall of hostility" (Eph 2:14). This is a possible allusion to the wall that divided the court of the Gentiles from the sanctuary proper,43 making it impossible for them to participate in the worship service of the inner court with the Jews.
The wall of partition was removed by Christ "by abolishing the Law of commandments [set out] in regulations" (Eph 2:15). The qualification of "commandments contained in ordinances" suggests that Paul is speaking not of the moral Law, but of "ceremonial ordinances" which had the effect of maintaining the separation between Jews and Gentiles, both in the social life and in the sanctuary services. The moral Law did not divide Jews from Gentiles, because speaking of the latter, Paul says that what the moral "Law requires is written on their heart" (Rom 2:15).
In Colossians 2:14, full forgiveness is granted, not by "abolishing the Law of commandments contained in ordinances," but by utterly destroying "the written record of our sins which because of the regulations was against us. The context of the two passages is totally different, yet neither of the two suggests that the moral Law was nailed to the Cross.
Chapter 5, Part 3a
Chapter 5, Part 3c
Notes to Chapter 5, Part 3b
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University