Friday, 2 October 2015

Between the Covenants: Paul and the Law

What I love about Paul, is that he ferociously defends the Gospel. He refuses to allow anyone to add or take away from the work Christ has done. We see this especially when responding to a group of Christian-Pharisees called ‘the circumcision party’ who said Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved. Paul said he wishes that they would castrate themselves (Gal 5:12). We owe much to Paul and the freedom that comes by the doctrine of justification by grace. This is why he was so popular among Protestant reformers like Martin Luther who were publicly rejecting the Roman Catholics works based salvation.

But, could it be possible that this focus on grace has caused many to misunderstand Paul’s position on the Law? Many would argue that “None of the Old Testament law is binding on Christians today. When Jesus died on the cross, He put an end to the Old Testament law” ( But is this a reliable interpretation? Peter warns his audience, and us today that:
There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability (2Pet 3:15-17).
 I know in researching and preparing this post that there are a number of parts of Paul’s writing that I found difficult to make clear sense of. Especially when he appears to be contradicting himself, or when he introduces something apparently new and unsure of how it relates, or sometimes just the way he can use such dense wording. So not only did I want to write this to suggest some interpretations that might offer some clarity on difficult passages, but it has also helped me in gaining some clarity too.

As we have explored in this series of ‘Between the Covenants’, we have found that there is a real continuity between the Old and New Covenant, and the real essence of both covenants is the way a Holy God has related to an unholy people. Under the Old Covenant, the Law was such a significant part of that. But what about now under the New Covenant where Jesus’ satisfaction of the requirements for a perfect, once for all sacrifice, which is the basis for our forgiveness and being made right with God? How does the Law fit into this covenant? What is Paul’s attitude towards the Law in response to Grace?

Paul explains this quite plainly in Romans 3:31, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” Quite clearly, Paul continues to uphold the Law (Torah), even in view of justification and salvation being a free gift in response to our faith in Jesus as saviour and Lord. But there are other places that Paul seems to be suggesting that the law is contrary to Grace, and that it is actually done away with. What do we do with those passages?

Paul's Use of 'Law'

Before we explore them, I think it would be helpful to review the meaning of Law and look at how Paul uses it. First, we need to recognise that Paul in his letters actually uses law (nomos) in more than one way. Strongs explains that the word nómos ("law") can refer not only to "the Law," but also "law" as a general principle (or both simultaneously). Moreover, “the particular sense(s) of (nómos) is determined by the context.” And so, by looking at the context of the occurrences of Paul’s use of nomos, we find the following seven laws being referred to:

1. The Law of God, or Torah (Rom 3:31, 7:22-5, 8:7)
- These are God’s instructions on how to live a moral and Holy life.

As a Jew, Pharasee, and scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Paul was most likely thinking Torah rather than nomos. Jeff Benner explains the difference as follows: “To interpret the Hebrew word torah as law is about the same as interpreting the word father as disciplinarian. While the father is a disciplinarian he is much more and in the same way torah is much more than law.” And therefore it is in this light that we must understand Paul when he speaks about God’s Law.

The other uses are more in line with the concept of nomos as principle.

2. Law of Sin (Rom 7:23-5)
- This is the principle of how disobedience to the Law from the flesh makes people accountable to sin (Rom 3:19-20, Jer 44:23)
3. Law of Sin and Death (Rom 5:12, 8:2; Gen 2:16-17)
- The consequence of sin leading to death, to which we are in bondage to apart from Christ
4. Law of Spirit of Life (Rom 8:2)
- The Spirit sets us free, exposes our lost reality, and leads us to the Law of God, which leads us to life
5. Law of Faith (Rom 3:27)
- The Law of faith describes the process of having confidence and trust in the word of God, making it the foundation of how we are to live
6. Law of Righteousness (Rom 9:31)
- The instruction to live out our faith and righteousness by the Spirit, as opposed to living in disobedience by our flesh
7. Law of Christ (1Cor 9:21)
- Jesus’ instruction, example, and empowerment to live according to the Law of God.

So with this range in mind, let’s consider the main examples of where Paul seems to suggest that the Torah no longer applies to Christians.

Are We No Longer Under the Law?

According to Romans 6:14:
“…sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

This passage actually raises two questions when it comes to understanding it?
Were people before Jesus not under grace?
What does it mean to be under the law, and what law?

Firstly, as Deuteronomy 7:7 explains, the Lord did not set his affection on Israel because of anything they had done, or their size. God chose to love them because he chose to love them. Also, as Romans 4:1-5 explains, Abraham was justified by grace through faith, and not by works. So grace existed before Jesus. Moreover, the Law of God is not contrary to grace. The giving of the Law was actually an act of grace. It told the people how to live in peace with God and one another, and reveals the reality of sin, judgement, and forgiveness. The Law was considered by its initial recipients, to be a blessing and a demonstration of God’s favour (Deut 4:8).

Secondly, the context of the passage helps to understand what being ‘under the law’ means, and what law it is referring to. Earlier, in Romans 6:6 Paul explains, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin”, and therefore, as verse 14 explains, that ‘Sin has no dominion’ over the Christian. This means, that the Christian was once a slave to sin (Rom 6:18), but now, no longer under its authority because of grace. So can we equate no longer being under sin to being under the Law of God?
Paul rhetorically asks later in Romans 7:7, Is God’s law sin? His response in Greek, moi genoito!, the strongest way possible to say ‘No!’  So the use of law in Romans 6:14 cannot be referring to the Law of God. The logical problem with such an interpretation is that since God’s law defines sin, and if the Law no longer exists then sin no longer exists, and therefore, what would we need grace for?

So, based on the context of the passage, we can see that Paul is talking about the Law of Sin and Death, and not the Law of God. The reason Jesus’ death frees us from this law is because the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). And so, if we are united with Christ (including His death) the Law sees us as having already been given the punishment for disobedience, and therefore no longer under the condemnation of the Law. Paul also explains that the implications of this is that we have been transferred from slaves to sin (disobedience of the Torah [1Jn 3:5]), to slaves to righteousness (obedience of the Torah [Rom 2:13]). As John Piper explains, “…when [Paul] said, ‘You are not under law but under grace’… this does not mean: you don't have to keep the law. It means you are not burdened by it as a job description of how to earn the wages of salvation” (emphasis added).

The truth of the Gospel is that obedience to the Law cannot free us from the law of sin and death, only forgiveness by grace through faith can achieve that. But that forgiveness frees us to live in a deep and empowered way of obedience to the Law.

Died to the Law
To die to something can generally be taken to mean that it is no longer relevant to our lives. The Bible talks about dying to sin, meaning that you are denying your sinful nature control over your life and now living under the authority of God. But Paul says in a number of places that he has ‘died to the law’, and therefore it makes sense according the phrase’s common understanding to see that to mean the Law is no longer an authority over his life. Let’s consider two passages of scripture where he says this to see if that is what he meant.

In Romans 7:6, Paul says “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” The typical interpretation of this is that we no longer need to do what the Law says because we are released from its authority. We now just need to follow how the Sprit leads us. But is this a faithful interpretation?

Looking at the broader context of the passage, we find Paul describing how his actions are held captive by the flesh, such as in verse 5: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” But to suggest that here Paul is saying, ‘the law is bad and now we have been set free from having to keep it’ is to ignore the rest of the chapter. In it, Paul explains that the law is not sin, rather, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (v12). Also, it definitely wasn’t (moi genoito) the law that makes us sin, “It [is] sin, producing death in [us] through what is good” (v13). The reason sin can do this is because, “the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (v14). So it is unlikely that Paul is talking about being released from the Law of God that held (past tense) us captive. Rather, we have been set free from the law of sin: that which causes us to disobey God’s Law. As we looked at above from Romans 6, we were once slaves to sin, but now we are slaves to righteousness. Before we received the Holy Spirit, we only had the will of the flesh to try and keep God’s Law, but now that we have the Spirit, we have the ability and empowerment to follow and obey His Law. So let’s paraphrase verse 6 with this understanding:
“But now we are released from the law of sin, having died to that which held us in disobedience and death, so that we obey the Torah in the power of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” This is a fulfilment of what was spoken through Jeremiah: ‘I will write my law on their heart’ (Jer 31:33) as God uses His Spirit to acheive this. 

Was the Law done away with at the Cross?

A verse used to suggest that Jesus did away with the law is Colossians 2:14, usually quoted in the King James:
“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances [commands/requirements] that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross”
But did Jesus really nail the Law to the cross and crucify it?

Firstly the context of this passage is about our justification, and not our sanctification, as demonstrated in the previous verse: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…”
Secondly, there are two layers of understandings of the Greek which reads, cheirographon tois dogmasin; Cheirographon means anything written by hand, but can more specifically apply to a legal document, bond or note of debt [and] Dogmasin refers to decrees, laws or ordinances” (Henn).
1. Dogmasis (or dogma) refers here to the requirements of the law, specifically in terms of the punishments and penalties for sin (i.e. death), which reflects the understanding of cheirographon as a legal notice of debt and the salvation context of the passage. Also, the reference to ‘it’ is singular, whereas dogma is plural, suggesting ‘it’ is not the ordinances and laws etc… In crucifixion, only two things were nailed to a cross: the offender, and a decree of their offence. Thus, in His death, Jesus justified us by nullifying the debt of our sin. This comes out the best in the ESV: “cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.”
2. One could also understand dogma as referring to “the ‘decrees, laws and ordinances’ of the society in which we lived. Now that we have repented and accepted Christ, we have embarked on a new way of life and are living by God's standards and values” (Henn).

Paul uses similar language in Ephesians 2:14-15:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances (dogmasin), that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two…”
When interpreting this passage, it’s important to remember that the focus and context of this passage is the breaking down of the wall of hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles who “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (v12). And so, like Colossians 2, Paul is talking about those things that kept Gentiles from becoming part of the people of God. This is again, talking about the consequences of our sin, as well as man-made traditions and hostilities that kept division between the two groups, because for Paul to say that The Law was abolished would be to contradict Christ (Matt 5:17).

Another passage is Galatians 3:23-26:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Typically, the interpretation of this verse goes something like this: ‘We used to have the Law to tell us what to do, but now that Jesus has come we can get rid of it.’
In order to understand this passage, we need to remember the purpose of the book of Galatians, namely, to counter the false teachers and correct those who were trying to be justified and saved by the law: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4). As Paul wrote many times, no one can be declared righteous by keeping the Law (see Rom 3:20; 8:3; Gal 2:15-16; 2:21; 3:10-11; 3:21; Eph 2:8-9). And as James alludes to, only perfect obedience could produce salvation (Js 2:10). It is only by faith that we can be saved. In this passage Paul connects the role of the guardian to justification by faith, and considering its context, it is reasonable to understand Paul as saying that the guardian cannot justify us. Rather, its purpose was to lead us to Christ.

It also says that we are no longer under the guardian, i.e. the law. But which law? Paul uses the same language of ‘captivity’ and ‘enslavement’ as he did in Romans 6, which means we are no longer under its condemnation. Also, Paul wrote earlier in verse 13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” May I suggest, as 119 Ministries does, that the guardian is in fact the ‘curse of the law’, or ‘the law of sin and death’. This is reflected in 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin…’ As Paul goes on to write in verse 19: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” So to paraphrase, ‘The law of sin as tutor was added because of disobedience to the Law of Moses.’ Thus, we are no longer under the curse of the law which served to instruct us of our need for salvation. But let’s assume that Paul is actually saying we are no longer under the Law of Moses as a Tutor, ask yourself: ‘should we throw out and abandon the text books once we are done with the tutor?’

A Right Attitude to Law

Many verses of Paul used to argue against the current validity of Torah are done in such a way to describe it in negative terms. It’s described as a curse, a burden, oppressive, enslaving and something Jesus set us free from. But to think of the Law of God, Torah, in these terms is to contradict scripture. God and John explained that it is not a burden (Deut 30:11, 1Jn 5:3). As mentioned above, Paul saw the Law as something good and Holy. Also, King David delighted in the Law as he declared: “The [Torah] of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;… the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart… More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Ps 19:7-11).
Perfect. Joyful. Desirable. Sweet. A Blessing. If this is the Law, and every good and perfect gift comes from God, why would He remove such a thing? And if this was David’s experience under the Old Covenant, shouldn’t our experience in the new and superior covenant be even better?
As Berean Baptists, when we learn to have a biblical view of the Law, we will begin to see it not as something to be rejected and resisted. But rather, as a delightful gift that will enable us to enjoy and delight in God when we obey, not in a spirit of legalism or religiosity, but it in the light of Christ, in the context of love for and relationship with God, and in the power of the Holy Spirt, walking further into the blessing of how God ordained us to live for which Christ saved us.


119 Ministries, The Tutor

119 Ministries, Pauline Paradox Part 4: Which Law Paul?

Crandall University, Paul and the Law

Earl L. Henn, Was God's Law Nailed to the Cross?

Gotquestions, Do Christians have to obey the Old Testament law?

 Jeff Benner. Hebrew Word Definitions: Torah

John Piper, Why the Law was Given.

Strongs Concordance, nomos.