The Law: Basics on Paul and the Law
Throughout the history of the church countless gallons of ink have been spilt trying to expound on the issue of ‘the Law’ in Scripture. In general when theologians, especially in Reformed circles, speak of ‘the Law’ they are speaking of the commands of God that reveal His moral will and mandate obedience on all humanity. As a theological category (one that has much Biblical warrant) Law is contrasted with the Gospel. In short, the Law demands but the Gospel fulfills and promises. The Law brings requirements but the Gospel forgives & fulfills so that we can receive what we could not acquire. This general grid can be helpful in many ways yet it can miss some of the nuances of the Scriptural arguments especially about the shifting role of the Law with respect to redemptive history.
Recent trends in New Testament studies have spent even more countless gallons of ink exploring the concept of ‘the Law’ from every perceivable angle and nuance. Needless to say, an introductory post to go with our podcast can barely scratch the surface. What we shall do is outline a few basic theses about ‘the Law’ as the apostle Paul uses the concept.
With respect to hermeneutics, one of the challenges in approaching the concept of ‘the Law’ in Paul’s theology is that Paul does not always use the word ‘law’ (nomos in Greek) to mean exactly the same thing. One word can be used in differing contexts to highlight differing concepts. For example, sometimes he uses ‘law’ to speak of a principle. Other times he is speaking specifically of ‘the Old Covenant’ often with reference to its role in salvation history. Still other times he speaks of ‘law’ to refer to commands or even moral requirements. This difficulty warrants careful reflection whenever we see the word ‘law’ in the Pauline corpus.
Let’s outline a few organizing points for thinking about the Law from the Pauline epistles:
(1) The Law in and of itself is good and reveals the righteous and holy will of God. Here Paul is probably most explicit in Romans 7:12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” 1 Timothy 1:8 tells us the Law is good. Of course, the Law is part of the Word of God and is therefore breathed out by God and profitable (2 Tim. 3:16). The Law speaks not only for the Old Testament saint but also for the believer today (1 Cor. 9:8-10).
(2) The Law demands things of the individual that because of their sin they cannot do. The problem then with the Law is not the Law itself but the fact that when it confronts the individual it stirs up sin rather than remedying it (Rom. 7:10-11; 8:3). The individual can never keep the Law of God nor does the Law provide the means for obedience, life, or righteousness (Rom. 3:19, 8:3; Gal. 2:16; 3:21). The Law clearly specifies what the transgression is and increases sin (Rom. 5:20). God’s intent was never for the Law or obedience to the Law to be the means by which the world was saved (Rom. 8:3).
(3) The morality revealed in the Law is not just for Israel but brings the whole world under judgment. The Law brings knowledge of sin (Rom 3:19). It does this by clearly identifying the will and commands of God. The Law makes sin to be trespasses because it lays down the line so that when one sins the Law has clearly delineated the nature of the transgression (Rom. 5:14, 20; 7:14). While the covenant of the Law was given through Moses to Israel (Rom. 3:2, 19a; 9:4), the Law brings the whole world to be held accountable to God (3:19b). Every person, whether they have heard the God’s Word or not, is a law breaker before God (Rom. 2:12-15). By virtue of even fallen consciouses and our creation in the image of God, even Gentiles who were not under the Old Covenant, have the works of the law on their hearts (Rom. 2:15).
(4) Salvation in both the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law) and the New Covenant has always been by the same principle: faith in Jesus Christ. No one has been or ever will be justified by works of the Law (Gal. 2:16; 3:6-9, 18; Rom. 4:1-3). One of the most pernicious errors of our day has been to speak of the Old Testament saint as achieving salvation on a different basis as if their inheritance came through the Law or through keeping the Law. Eternal spiritual life never comes through the Law nor was the Law designed to give this to the believer (Gal. 3:21). The Law lays out the standard, it tells us what is required of God, it tells us what would result if we could keep it (‘Do this and live’) but it can never give righteousness, or the power to actually save (Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3). In fact, since we could not keep it by its very design the Law was intended to drive us to Christ through faith, whether we were an Old Covenant or a New Covenant saint.
(5) As the Old Covenant, the Law is not the ultimate goal or apex of the plan and purpose of God but rather serves a historical function to point us to Christ. The plan and purpose of the Old Covenant is to serve the promise given to Abraham and the fulfillment that we look forward to the comes under Christ. Paul is very clear in Galatians 3 that the promise was given to Abraham and the Law (the Old Covenant) comes in service of that promise. The Law then as a covenant was added until Christ comes (Gal. 3:19). The role of the Law then was to serve as a tutor or guardian until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:23-24). Thus, Christ is the end (or possibly translated ‘goal’) of the Law (Romans 10:4).
(6) As the organizing principle of the covenant, we are no longer under the Old Covenant of the Law. As a covenant, the Old Covenant of Law is superseded now that Jesus Christ has come mediating a New Covenant. According to Ephesians 2:15, the Law is abolished by Jesus Christ so that it regulations are broken down and Gentiles freely participate in the covenant promises of God. On several occasions, Paul describes the believer as no longer “under the Law” (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:18; 1 Cor. 9:20). “Under the Law” is how Paul describes the Jew (Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 9:20). In fact, Paul is very clear that the believer who has received the promised Holy Spirit of the New Covenant is not under the Law: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). This means not only are we free from the condemnation brought by the Law but Paul views the believer in Jesus Christ as liberated from the Old Covenant ceremonies and regulations with a new found freedom.
(7) The Law is now written upon the hearts of the believer so that in the Spirit and through Christ we are the fulfillment of the Law. The believer’s position as no longer “under the Law” does not mean that the Law has no bearing upon our lives. In fact, the great hope of the New Covenant is that the Law (God’s commands) are written upon our hearts. The gift of the Holy Spirit writes God’s Law upon our hearts (Romans 2:28-29). With the presence of the Holy Spirit the requirements of the Law are fulfilled in the believer (Rom. 8:4). The believer is described as one who by the Holy Spirit keeps the ordinances of the Law (Rom. 2:26).
(8) The moral aspects of the Law as commandments which are good, righteous, and true still apply to the believer so that we might find instruction from them. Paul is by no means an antinomian—nor do we by our item 6 mean anything that might state or imply that we do not have moral commandments from the Law. In fact, Paul describes the believer as under the Law of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul describes himself as not under the Law but then most telling writes: “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:21). Our relationship to the Old Covenant has changed but the morals of the commands still have value. So Paul, although not under the Old Covenant per se, does not shove off the commands of God given in the Law but by keeping them through the Spirit he is under the ‘Law of Christ’. According the Galatians 6:2 we are to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The Christians attribute of love fulfills the Law (Gal. 5:14). In fact, as a matter of ongoing obedience in fulfillment of what we have in Christ, Paul can say “Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Cor. 7:19).
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.