Paul and the Law
by Jimmy Akin
I. The Law in Paul
The Greek term nomos occurs 89 times in the Pauline corpus, and its derivatives (such as anomos, normally rendered “without the Law”), the total number of references to the Law in Paul would be around a hundred.
There are basically four senses in which he uses the term and in almost every occurrence (so far as I can tell) it can be rendered either (1) “Torah” [or “Mosaic Law”], (2) “code of law,” (3) “commandment,” or (4) “principle.”
In most cases it is very clear which sense he means it as. However, there are a few instances where it is ambiguous in which of these four senses it should be taken. This is especially true when Paul makes a play on words, as in Romans 2:14, when he says, “When Gentiles who have not the [nomos] do by nature what the [nomos] requires, they are a [nomos] to themselves, even though they do not have the [nomos].” The nomos which the Gentiles do not have (for Paul makes it very clear the have God’s eternal moral law) is the Mosaic Law.
Thus we can translate every occurrence of the root word nomos in this as “Torah,” except perhaps the third, where the translation would read, “they are a Torah to themselves.” This is very klunky in English since we do not view the Torah the way the first century Jews did — as God’s binding legal code. Paul is concerned to show that Gentiles are under God’s Law too, and thus their consciences function for them like the Torah functions for the Jews — i.e., as a medium by which God’s Law is communicated to them. Thus one might translate the third occurrence of nomos as “they are a code of law unto themselves,” which is still klunky in English, but clearer for those who are not familiar with the Jewish view of Torah. However, if one translates the third occurrence like that, one misses the fact that in Greek Paul is piling up the same word on top of itself four times in a single sentence and making a play on words with the third occurrence to the effect — “they are a Mosaic Law unto themselves!”
A similar Pauline play on words occurs in Romans 3:27, where Paul states: “Then what becomes of our glorying? It is excluded. On what [nomos]? Of works? No, but on the [nomos] of faith.” Read by itself, his second question, “On what [nomos]?” would normally be taken to mean “On which principle?” And this is the way in which his final statement is read: “On the principle of faith.” However given his usage of nomos everywhere else, when one encounters the phrase “On what law? Of works?” one is immediately reminded that for Paul the Law of Works is the Torah, as he demonstrates by immediately (3:28-30 and chapter 4) going on to attack justification by circumcision.
Nevertheless, despite an occasional question over whether a given instance of nomos should be translated Torah, code of law, command, or principle, the overwhelming majority of Paul’s uses of the term are references to the Law of Moses or the Torah. This may be demonstrated by simply looking at a representative selection of the verses in question taken from the principal passages of Romans and Galatians.
The Law is first mentioned in Romans in Romans 2:12, and the passage that follows sets the tone for Paul’s use of the term “Law.” In Romans 2:12-15, he states:
“All who have sinned outside the Law will also perish outside the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the Law do by nature what the Law requires, they are a Law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law. They show that what the Law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them . . . ”
Here the context is very obviously the difference between Jews and Gentiles and the accountability of the Gentiles even though they do not have the Torah or the Mosaic Law. See how naturally the passage reads if we substitute the term “Torah” for “Law”:
“All who have sinned outside the Torah will also perish outside the Torah, and all who have sinned under the Torah will be judged by the Torah. For it is not the hearers of the Torah who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Torah who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the Torah do by nature what the Torah requires, they are a Law to themselves, even though they do not have the Torah. They show that what the Torah requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them . . . ”
Similarly, in Romans 2:17-24, Paul says:
“But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the Law and boast of God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the Law. . . . a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and truth . . . You who boast in the Law, do you dishonor God by breaking the Law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'”
Again we have a Jewish-Gentile context in which Jews who boast about God before Gentiles often end up dishonoring God before the Gentiles by breaking the Torah. And again we find the text to read entirely naturally when we substitute “Torah” for “Law”:
“But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the Torah and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the Torah. . . . a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the Torah the embodiment of knowledge and truth. . . . You who boast in the Torah, do you dishonor God by breaking the Torah? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'”
And in Romans 2:25-27, we read:
“Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the Law; but if you break the Law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the Law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the Law.
Again, the Jewish-Gentile context is present and the passage makes perfect sense if one inserts “Torah” for “Law.”
The same is true when the term first crops up in Romans 3. We read in Romans 3:19-21:
“Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the Law, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.”
The Torah does indeed speak to those under the Torah, and because those under the Torah are sinful, just like those outside it, the whole world is held accountable to God. Nobody will be justified by the Torah because that is not its purpose; the function of the Torah was to bring a knowledge of sin. But now a way of becoming righteous apart from the Torah has been revealed, and the Torah and the Prophets in fact testify to this method.
A passage of crucial importance is Romans 3:28-30, where we read:
“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.”
It is of decisive importance to recognize what Law Paul is talking about here. Unfortunately, most Protestants never ask that question but simply assume one way or another without looking at any evidence beyond the preaching they have heard. Fortunately, Paul answers the question for us immediately after stating that we are justified by faith (in Christ) and not by works of the Law he immediately asks, “Or is God the God of the Jews only?” Well, what Law do Jews have that Gentiles don’t? The Mosaic Law. He then makes the same point in the next statement, saying that God will justify the circumcised and the uncircumcised by faith. Okay, what Law commands circumcision? Again, the Mosaic Law. So the Law Paul has in mind here is the Mosaic Law, meaning the passage should be understood as:
“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Torah. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.”
This has major importance for correctly understanding Paul’s use of the phrase “works of Law” (i.e., “works of Torah”) and his abbreviated phrase “works.”
Paul also alludes to this fact in Romans 3:31, where he says:
“Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law.”
How on earth does Paul claim to be upholding the Law? This question has plagued the minds of countless thinkers, and some liberal ones have recently said that Paul was simply wrong, that he was not upholding but overturning the Torah by his teaching. The reason that the answer is less clear than it could be is that this verse is treated as the last verse of chapter 3, but in reality it introduces the subject of chapter four, where Paul uses the case of Abraham to prove his point. Paul is upholding the Torah by citing the Torah’s own words (concerning Abraham; Gen. 15:6, etc.) to prove his point. He is thus upholding the true teaching of Torah concerning righteousness, not overthrowing Torah from its rightful place. It never had the place of making righteous, as its own words indicate.
This is what Paul meant earlier in Romans 3 when he said the Torah and the Prophets testify to the way of becoming righteous apart from the Torah. In chapter four he proves that by citing Abraham (4:1-6 and 4:9ff; from Genesis in the Torah) and David (4:6-8, from the Psalms in the Prophets) to establish his case.
The same is true later in Romans 5, for in Romans 5:13-14a, Paul tells us:
“[S]in indeed was in the world before the Law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no Law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.”
Again it is obviously the Mosaic Law being discussed since this, by definition, this was the Law given at the time of Moses, and so Paul speaks of the time “from Adam to Moses” as the time “before the Law was given.”
The same identity for the Law is found in Romans 6, for in 6:14-15, we read:
“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under Law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under Law but under grace? By no means!”
Obviously, we are still under God’s moral law, which is why we must not sin (“By no means!”), but we are not under the Mosaic Law because Christ has come and the grace he brought has been given to us.
Romans 7 also makes the point that we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, and it begins with an extended discussion of precisely this fact in 7:1-6, a passage which also makes perfect sense with the substitution of “Torah” for “Law”:
“Do you not know, brethren — for I am speaking to those who know the Torah — that the Torah is binding on a person only during his life? Thus a married woman is bound by Torah to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the precept concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that precept, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the Torah through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the Torah, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the Torah, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”
And in Romans 8 we also have the identification of the Torah as the Law Paul is talking about, for in Romans 8:3-4 we read, with the substitution “Torah”:
“For God has done what the Torah, 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 requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
The first occurrence of the term “Law” in Galatians is found in 2:15-19, where we read, with the substitution:
“We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the Torah but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Torah, because by works of the Torah shall no one be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor. For I through the Torah died to the Torah, that I might live to God.”
Again we have the Jewish-Gentile context and the stress that we are not justified by Torah but by faith in Christ and that consequently, now that Christ has come, we are no longer under the Torah.
In Galatians 3 we also find the identification of the Law Paul is talking about as the Torah. Galatians 3:10-13 states:
“For all who rely on works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the scroll of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the Law; for ‘The righteous one shall live through faith’; but the Law does not rest on faith [in Jesus], for ‘He who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.'”
The scroll of the Law is, of course, the Torah, and the curse applied to people who don’t do what is in the book of the Torah is, of course, written in the Torah, as is the curse Christ took upon himself by being hung on a tree, the other curse of the Torah Paul cites. Thus again in this passage, as in Romans 3:28-30, we have Paul’s statement that no one will be justified by works of the Law interpreted for us to mean ‘works of Torah,’ for Paul says: “[A]ll who rely on works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the scroll of the Torah . . . ‘”
Later in Galatians 3 we see the same. Galatians 3:17-21 states:
“This is what I mean: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the Law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. . . . Is the Law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a Law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law.”
Of course, the only Law which was given four centuries after Abraham was the Mosaic Law, not God’s eternal moral law. God’s eternal moral law also was not put into effect through angels and an intermediary (Moses), but the Mosaic Law was. And since God promised to soteriologically bless the Gentiles as Gentiles through Abraham, the Mosaic Law could not have been intended to switch the basis of salvation to the Torah, since this would require all the Gentiles to become Jews and thus annul the promise to Abraham to bless the nations as other nations — without turning them into Jews.
Thus a Torah was not against the promises of God, for saving people was never its function. If God had given a Torah which could make people spiritually alive then righteousness would be gained by keeping Torah. Note that Paul does not say, as much contemporary Protestant preaching misstates this verse, that God could not give such a Torah, but merely that he did not give such a Torah. God is omnipotent and can attach saving grace and the power to keep the Torah to anything he wants, including the Torah itself, but that was not his plan since he had already promised to grant salvation to the Gentiles as Gentiles.
Finally in Galatians 3 we have yet another identification of the Law as the Torah, when in Galatians 3:23-25, Paul states:
“Now before faith came, we were confined under the Law, kept under restraint until faith [in Jesus] should be revealed. So that the Law was our tutor until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith [in Jesus] has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”
The faith being discussed here, as everywhere else, is obviously faith in Jesus since the Jews already had faith in God before the coming of Christ, and even faith in the future Messiah, but not faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah Who Has Come. That was the faith which was revealed at the coming of Christ. And again, the only Law which served as a tutor until the coming of Christ but not afterwards was the Mosaic Law.
In Galatians 4 we again have the Law identified as the Torah. Galatians 4:4-5 states:
“But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Again, the only Law Christ was born under to buy back those who were under that Law was the Mosaic Law. Likewise, later in Galatians 4, 21-22, Paul states:
“Tell me, you who desire to be under Law, do you not hear the Law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise.”
Those who desire to be under the Law are those who desire to be circumcised and become Jews, so Paul asks them if they do not hear what the Law — the Torah — itself says and quotes them Genesis to disprove their view of who the sons of God are.
In Galatians 5, we again find the identification of the Law as the Mosaic Law, for in Galatians 5:3-4 Paul states:
“I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole Law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace.”
Of course the only Law that commands circumcision is the Torah, and thus the movement to be justified by the Law that Paul has been combating all the way through Galatians, as with Romans, is justification by the Mosaic Law rather than by Christ.
And in the last chapter of Galatians, we again find the equation “the Law = Torah.” In Galatians 6:13 we read:
“For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the Law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.”
Again, the only Law to command circumcision is the Mosaic Law. Thus from the front to the back of Galatians, like the front to the back of Romans, the Law Paul is almost invariably talking about is the Mosaic Law. The same is shown by examining the use of the term nomos in Paul’s other letters, as in the remainder of the New Testament books in general.
This leaves us with a question about how the term should be translated for purposes of our discussion. The problem is that if we leave it as just “Law” then as Protestants read through Romans they have a tendency to forget what Law Paul is talking about. I cannot tell you the number of sermons and radio speeches I have heard from Protestants where they will read a verse of Romans or Galatians where Paul is talking about circumcision and then, in the next verse or even in the same verse, the preacher will use the term “Law” to mean “God’s eternal moral law” without offering any justification whatsoever for the shift in meaning.
Some Protestants recognize the problem of trying to draw out of texts where Paul is discussing the Mosaic Law the point that we are not justified by keeping the eternal moral law (which is certainly true, for God forgives our sins gratuitously, without any prior works, as Trent states: “[N]othing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification;” Decree on Justification 8).
For example, some try to force a card on their audience by paying tacit acknowledgment to the fact he is talking about the Mosaic Law and then suddenly but unceremoniously broadening the reference. Thus one anti-Catholic apologist I know is in the habit of quoting Romans 3:28 and saying that “Paul here says that we are not justified by works of the law — any law — but by faith in Christ.” The reason he inserts the phrase “any law” is because he realizes that Paul is not necessarily talking about (in fact, he is not talking about) the law which the anti-Catholic apologist wants him to, and so he tries to force a card on the audience by quickly and unceremoniously broadening the scope of Paul’s statement by inserting a pious sounding catch-all phrase.
The answer to that is, of course, to say, “Wait a minute, buster! That’s not what Paul said! You can’t pull a slight of hand trick like that. If you want to show that Paul meant any law then you are not only going to have to produce verses which show he meant any law, but you are also going to have to show that he meant that in this verse and that you are not taking a truth based on other verses and stuffing it into a passage that doesn’t teach it but which makes a different point.”
I know that when I was a Protestant it bugged the fool out of me that I, like my pastor and like all the Protestant preachers I heard, was trying to draw out of Mosaic Law texts a statement that we are not justified by the eternal moral law without any explanation of how the one can be read out of the other. I knew of course that we aren’t put right with God by doing that, but as an aspiring exegete committed to faithfully representing what the text actually says, I could not simply suppress the knowledge that Paul was not talking about the eternal moral law in these texts, and so I felt like crying, “Okay! Sure! We don’t get right with God by keeping the eternal moral law, but that just isn’t what Paul says in these passages! He’s clearly talking about the Mosaic Law, not the eternal moral law! The point is true, but the use of the passages to support it is false!”
I was thus very pleased when I discovered a school of Protestant exegetes who make precisely this point. This school, leading what is coming in the Christian press to be called “the Copernican Revolution in Pauline studies,” is headed by men such as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and Paul Zeisler. They are very frank about acknowledging that, while it is certainly true we don’t get right with God by doing good works, those aren’t the “works of the Law” Paul is talking about because that isn’t the Law he is talking about. When he says we aren’t justified by works of Law, he means works of the Mosaic Law, not good works.
Still, for our present discussion, this leaves us with the translation question. How are we to render nomos? After my own internal experience in having to unlearn all the sloppy exegesis of Romans and Galatians (and Ephesians for that matter) that I heard as a Protestant, I have become convinced that the only way to keep the discussion of these books on track is to insert some marker into the text to force the Protestant reader to keep in mind what Law Paul is discussing in any given verse. If you don’t insert a cue into the text to keep this ever before his mind, the habit is too strong of one moment realizing he is talking about the Mosaic Law but then the next moment unconsciously sliding back into the misperception that he is talking about the eternal moral law because of the point one wishes to prove.
This leaves us with the question of what kind of indication should be used in the text. One option would be to insert a symbol, such as an asterisk or a dagger, but this has the disadvantage of making the text look klunky. The symbol may also go unnoticed as one reads the text since one tends to block out repetitive symbols. And if the symbol is noticed it reminds the reader in an unnatural way of which Law is being discussed since we don’t say such symbols out loud and it thus interrupts the flow of our internal audible monologue.
If we do not insert a special symbol into the text, we can simply translate the term nomos in a more specific way to remind the reader — either as “Mosaic Law” or “Torah.” Either of these would make the text flow much more naturally when read. However, if we used “Mosaic Law” the reader would be distracted by the fact a term — “Mosaic” — was being inserted where there was no underlying equivalent in the Greek. We would also run into problems when Paul or other New Testament authors actually do use the phrase “Law of Moses” or “Mosaic Law” (same thing in Greek) since the reader would not be sure that in these cases there was a corresponding term in the Greek text.
This points us toward translating nomos as “Torah,” which is the policy we will pursue (see the piece, “Romans: A More Consistent Rendering”). This is ideal since not only is it a single term in English corresponding to a single Greek term, but the term nomos is the standard Greek translation in the Septuagint for the Hebrew term torah, which was almost certainly the word in the back of Paul’s mind in these passages. Thus it has the advantage of bringing into the foreground what was in Paul’s mind, and does so without having to use a multi-word circumlocution.
Furthermore, since Torah is a Hebrew term, it brings out the Jewishness of the whole discussion in Paul and detaches it from the abstract, obscure philosophical realm to which it is so often consigned, in which “law” is some abstract cosmic principle without a concrete identity and where “faith” is an abstract cosmic principle without the concreteness Paul intends of “faith in Jesus.”
II. Paul’s Life Under Torah
Having established that for Paul the Law is almost invariably the Torah, we can now proceed to look at Paul’s discussion of his own life under Torah — Romans 7:9-25. This is, by everyone’s admission, one of the most difficult passages in Romans because in it Paul says things that seem to flatly contract things he says elsewhere in the very same epistle. Thus there are several schools with respect to its interpretation that have developed and which are found, more or less equally, among Protestants and Catholics. We will look at the three most popular schools.
One school says that in this passage Paul is not talking about himself but about mankind in general and its slavery to sin. His references to “I” thus become a symbol of the human race. This is a problem because he is talking about how the Law produced sin in him and here, as everywhere else in Romans, he the Law he is talking about is the Torah, yet all mankind is not enslaved to sin under the Torah.
A second school says that in this passage Paul is talking about his experience as a Christian. This is a problem because chapter 7 would then flatly contradict the chapters immediately surrounding it, 6 and 8, where Paul explicitly states that Christians are not enslaved to sin. They may have to struggle against sin, even “In your struggle against sin you . . . [may] yet resist to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4). However, Christians are not enslaved to sin, but dead to sin, which is why they must fight it. Especially problematic if both 7 and 8 describe Christian experience is the sudden shift from slavery to liberty at the cusp of the chapters. This interpretation also has the disadvantage of saying that Torah produces sin in Christians, which might be true since Christians know the Torah, but it is certainly an unnatural thing for Paul say.
I should point out that this interpretation is a common one among Catholics as among Protestants. Catholics are also quite aware of the fact that after justification a corrupt, sinful nature remains in the believer, that his subsequent life as a Christian is a perpetual war against sin, and that “we all stumble in many ways” (in fact, Trent’s decrees on original sin and justification state these facts quite clearly). One may ask, “Why do you think Catholics have the sacrament of confession?” For a long time, I myself, as a Catholic, held to this second of the three major interpretations. However, the more I have studied the text the more I have become convinced that the problems with that interpretation are too great and so I have changed to the third major school.
The third school says that in this passage Paul is talking about his former life as a Jew. The only reason people don’t adopt this interpretation automatically is that Paul speaks of faulty translation. Paul here speaks of his experience in the present tense and this misleads many English speakers because they are unaware of a very common Greek usage known as the historical present tense. Often New Testament writers will speak of a past event using the present tense. By doing so they depict the past event with greater vividity and make it more dramatic and more real to the audience. This happens over and over again in the gospels. Over and over again one encounters statements in the Greek like, “Then Jesus comes and says . . . ” One of the nice things about the New American Standard Bible is that it marks these occurrences of the historical present tense with an asterisk so one is unobtrusively cued to the fact of what the Greek text is doing.
But while people are quite attuned to picking up on the historical present when it occurs in narrative books, like the gospels and Acts, they pick it up less in didactic books, such as Paul’s epistles, even when Paul is recounting a historical sequence.
This is obviously the case in Romans 7, even for those of the second school, since in 7:9 he states: “I was once alive apart from the Torah” — an obvious reference to Paul’s early childhood, before he learned Torah in Hebrew school, as even those of the second school admit — and follows it up by saying, “but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” — an obvious reference to the time he learned Torah’s precepts and it produced in him a neurotic desire to break them, as it does in the rest of us. Thus he is clearly narrating a historical sequence (early life, arrival of Torah, neurotic sinful impulses), which should cue us in to the possibility to the historical present.
The reality of the historical present is confirmed, as we said, by the fact that if it is not used here then Paul explicitly contradicts things he says in the very chapters surrounding chapter seven. Thus he would say, “I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:14), “I see . . . [a] law . . . making me captive to the law of sin” (7:23) and “with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:25).
But in chapter 6 he declares: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin” (6:6-7), “you also must consider yourselves dead to sin” (6:11), “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under Torah but under grace” (6:14), “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart . . . and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (6:17-18), and “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:22).
And in chapter 8 he says: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2), “For God has done what the Torah, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son . . . he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3-4), and “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s Law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (8:7-9).
Thus, to avoid these contradictions and to avoid the fact that Paul would be saying that Torah produces sin in Christians and to embrace the fact that Paul is clearly moving from the stage of his childhood through his bondage to sin under the Torah to his life of liberty in Christ in chapter 8, the historical present in 7:9-25 confirmed, and thus the third interpretation of the passage is established.
Thus the passage would be better rendered:
“I was once alive apart from the Torah, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. We know that the Torah is spiritual; but I was carnal, sold under sin. I did not understand my own actions. For I did not do what I wanted, but I did the very thing I hate. Now if I committed what I did not want, I agreed that the Torah is good. So then it was no longer I that did it, but sin which dwelled within me. For I know that nothing good dwelled within me, that is, in my flesh. I could will what is right, but I could not do it. For I did not do the good I wanted, but the evil I did not want is what I did. Now if I did what I did not want, it is no longer I that did it, but sin which dwelled within me. So I found it to be a principle that when I wanted to do right, evil lay close at hand. For I delighted in the Torah of God, in my inmost self, but I saw in my members another principle at war with the Torah within my mind and making me captive to the principle of sin which dwelled in my members. [I cried:] “Wretched man, I! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” [or, “Wretched man, I! Who would deliver me from this body of death?”] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself served the Torah of God with my mind, but with my flesh I served the principle of sin.”
This reading of the passage, and this reading alone, make it fit not only the other things Paul says in 6 and 8 but also makes it read as a united historical narrative with the liberty from sin Paul extols in 8. If 7:14-25 is not talking about his Jewish experience, then since 8 clearly talks about his Christian experience and 7:9 clearly talks about his childhood, where into this does his Jewish experience fit?
Nevertheless, this interpretation of the passage is not mandatory for the Catholic view of justification and salvation since Cahtolics do acknowledge the continuing reality of sin and the sinful nature in the life of the believer.
Yet there is another aspect of Paul’s thought on Torah we have to consider, namely . . .
III. What Happened to the Torah?
From the New Testament it is clear that certain commandments in the Torah, such as “You shall not murder” are still binding on us today, while other commandments, such as the precept not to eat pork, are not binding on us. This has led Christians to continue to ask the question which was burning in the first century, “What commands of Torah are still binding on us today and what are not?”
One of the most common answers to this question involves classifying the individual precepts of the Torah into three kinds — moral, civil, and ceremonial — moral being those commands which have permanent moral value (and thus are still binding), civil commands which dealt with the regulation of the life of the nation of Israel (and whose applicability to other nations is debatable), and ceremonial commands which dealt with specific Jewish ritual requirements, such as the laws concerning ritually unclean foods like pork (and which are not binding today).
This classification of the commands of the Torah goes back centuries (to the time of Aquinas at least) and is quite useful, though there are hard cases in which it is difficult to classify which kind of commandment a law is because it has elements of more than one category. Thus, for example, the Sabbath commandment is partly moral (in that it recognizes the need to set aside sufficient time from workaday affairs to worship and rest), but it is also partly ceremonial (in that it requires this time to be fulfilled on Saturday in particular). The same is true of numerous other commands, in great part because the civil and ceremonial precepts of Torah have moral principles underlying them.
However, as useful as the three-fold classification of precepts has been, it has also been greatly misused in recent centuries when people have begun to speak of “the moral law” and “the civil law” and “the ceremonial law” and to discuss which of these three laws has passed away. This is a recent development that did not exist in prior Christian thought. Thus Aquinas speaks of “the moral precepts of the Old Law,” “the civil precepts of the Old Law,” and “the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law,” but not “the moral law, the civil law, and the ceremonial law. The casting of the matter as if there were three separate laws is a misstep for several reasons.
First, as useful as the three-fold classification of commandments may be for discussion purposes today, it is not at all clear that Paul or the other New Testament writers had this division in mind when they wrote. When one reads Paul one finds that, to the extent he is interested in any particular precepts of the Torah (as opposed to being interested in the Torah as a whole — something he is very concerned with), he is interested only in binding versus non-binding commandments. “Is this commandment binding today or not?” is Paul’s chief concern. When one reads Paul, he thus seems to have a two-fold attitude toward individual precepts of the Torah and would regard them as binding or not-binding.
I would argue that Paul’s division into binding and non-binding may be translated into a division between moral and non-moral precepts. In Paul’s mind, to the extent a precept is moral, it is still binding today; to the extent it is not moral, it is not binding today. Thus Paul would consider the commands not to murder, commit adultery, etc., fully binding today, but he would consider the command to be circumcised not binding except for the moral principle it illustrates — namely, that we must be circumcised in the heart by having our sin nature cut off in baptism (Col. 2:11-12). Likewise, he would consider everything in the Old Testament in general binding on us as an example of moral principles (and what happens if you break them), but not binding in and of itself except to the extent it is moral.
This is a problem for the three-fold classification of precepts because it just does not seem from reading Paul that he is interested in those three as separate classifications. Paul’s interests are “Is it binding or not?” and “Is it moral or not?” — the two questions always receiving the same answer. Thus, even though a three-fold division may sometimes be useful, it is dead wrong to talk about three separate laws and which are still binding.
This leads us to the basic reason it is wrong to absolutize the three-fold classification scheme and talk about three laws. The most basic reason is that in Paul’s writings he does not talk about there as being three laws given by Moses but one Law — the Torah. The Torah may be able to have its precepts classified according to some scheme (either two-fold or three-fold or some other scheme, depending on the needs of the question being investigated), but in Paul’s mind there is only one Torah.
The Torah is a united entity in Paul’s mind, even if its contents can be sub-classified. This is because the Torah is like any code of law. The Federal Law of the United States is a single entity, even though its contents may be classified topically. The Law of the State of California is a single entity, even though its contents may be classified topically. And the Law of Moses — the Torah — is a single entity, even though its contents may be classified topically.
Because these laws are united entities, when one of them passes away, every piece of it looses its force. Thus if the Federal Law of the United States was abolished, every piece of it would lose its force. Similarly, if the Law of the State of California was abolished, every piece of it would lose its force. However, two points need to be made:
First, a given act may be forbidden by more than one law. For example, suppose that murder was both a crime under California Law and under Federal Law. In that case, if California Law ceased to exist, murder would still be a crime under Federal Law. The same would have been true prior to the institution of the Law of California or any other state. When a territory was first acquired by the U.S., but before it had a legislature (even a provisional one) established in it, Federal Law would be binding there but there would be no local law.
Second, a new code of law might be instituted in California which also included the murder prohibition. It might (and this is a point I owe to Steve Greydanus) even be identical to the former Law of California in content, but it would still be a new law and the reason murder would now be illegal under it would be because the new Law of California forbade it, not because the old Law of California forbade it.
This situation mirrors almost exactly the situation between the Divine Law, the Law of Moses, and the Law of Christ. The Divine Law corresponds to the Federal Law, the Law of Moses corresponds to the Old Law of California, and the Law of Christ corresponds to the New Law of California. In order to understand this, we need to define a few terms.
First, the Divine Law, as we will be using the term here, consists of God’s eternal Law and God’s natural Law.
The eternal Law is, for our purposes, that Law which is binding on all rational beings at all times. It thus includes the two great commandments: “Love your God with all your heart” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is binding on all rational beings irrespective of circumstances — living humans, departed humans, angels, and any other rational beings God may have created.
The natural Law is, for our purposes, that Law which God has designed into the human nature and is thus applicable to all humans (at least all living humans — those with a complete human nature, which includes a body) at all times. The natural Law is founded on the eternal Law, such that by loving God and our neighbor, we will respect the nature he has given us and our neighbor. Thus we will not offend God and/or our neighbor in the sexual sphere, for example, by committing sodomy, masturbation, adultery, fornication, etc., since all of these are against God’s natural design for sex in one way or another (sodomy and masturbation being crimes against the physical design of the sex act, and adultery and fornication being crimes against the fact that human sexual unions are to be faithful and permanent to provide a stable environment for the raising of offspring). Similarly, given the human nature as it is in the world, killing, stealing, lying, etc., are also against God’s natural design for human society, as based on human nature.
Like the eternal Law, which is reflected in Scripture in the two great commandments, the natural Law and natural Law reasoning is also taught in Scripture, as when Paul comments on the unnatural nature of homosexual sex (Rom. 1) or when Proverbs exhorts the sluggard to look to the ant (Prov. 6:6ff), the message being, “God’s design is for living creatures to engage in work. If you do not imitate the ant, you will starve” (natural Law and the Law of prudence overlap to a great degree, as with the prudential justification for laws against murder and theft, which are obvious even to unbelievers).
Together the eternal Law and the natural Law form, as we are here using the term, the Divine Law. The Divine Law would be true even if God had never given any special revelation. It would still remain true that we should love God and our neighbor as ourselves and that we should obey the dictates of human nature both in its individual and societal implications. (All of this would be known by general revelation; cf. Romans 1).
However, because of human sinfulness, it is advantageous that, in addition to the Divine Law which can be known by general revelation, there also be a positive statement of God’s will by special revelation. This is what lies behind Paul’s statement in Romans 5:13-14a:
“[S]in indeed was in the world before the Torah was given, but sin is not counted where there is no Law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam”
Adam’s transgression differed from those between him and Moses in that his transgression was a violation of a divinely revealed commandment (not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, in his case). But because the Divine Law (the eternal Law plus the natural Law) was still in effect between him and Moses, sin still existed and people were held accountable, for death spread to all men both because of the original sin they inherited from Adam and because of the personal sins they committed. The sense in which sin was not counted during this period is that it was not clearly recognized by the people because they did not have a positive revelation of God’s will. And so Paul says:
“For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of Torah, since through the Torah comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
The people before the Torah came to bring (a clear) knowledge of sin were thus in the same situation as the Greeks in Romans 1, who by natural revelation knew in a sense what was required of them but disregarded it anyway and were consequently under condemnation. The people before Moses, like the pagans in Paul’s day, functioned “as a Torah to themselves” even though they didn’t have a clear expression by special revelation of God’s will.
Thus it was advantageous for man that a positive expression of the divine will be given. So “[w]hy then the Torah? It was added on account of transgressions . . . So that the Torah was our tutor until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith [in Jesus]” (Gal. 3:19, 24). The Torah was thus added to make the Jews aware of their sins in a way they would not have been otherwise. As Paul says, “if it had not been for the Torah, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the Torah had not said, ‘You shall not covet'” (Rom. 7:7). But while Torah was given to make us aware of sins it, was not (and this is Paul’s big point in Romans and Galatians) meant to be the basis for salvation — that was always meant to be the future, coming Christ.
The Torah, as an expression of God’s laws, thus reflected not only the eternal Law and the natural Law but also individual laws meeting the needs of the nation of Israel at that time, which led to the specific form the civil law took given their culture and the surrounding cultures — thus Jews were told to build rails around their roofs because roofs were used as front porches in their culture and they were told not to get tattoos because these were used by surrounding pagan cultures as tokens of ancestor worship, from which God wanted to protect the Jews, and they were required to make blood sacrifices pointing forward to the coming Messiah. Much of the civil and the ceremonial precepts in the Torah thus reflect the unique cultural, religious, and redemptive-historical situation of Israel.
This means that the Torah of Israel was not suited for use as a Law in future historical epochs, such as when the Gentiles would be included in the family of faith, and so “the Torah was our tutor until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith [in the arrived Messiah]. But now that faith [in the arrived Messiah] has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:24-25).
The Torah, the Old Law, thus had to be torn down. And so Paul tells us: “Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).
One specific reason it needed to be torn down is that many of the precepts of the Old Law were designed to culturally isolate the Jews from the pagans who surrounded them. That is why it was so hard for Jews to make formal converts, even if they were able to convince a pagan of the truth of Judaism intellectually (see the article, “Jewish and Christian Boasting in Romans” for more information on this phenomenon and its relationship to the Torah). If, now that Messiah had come, the Gentiles were to be included in the household of God (Eph. 2:19), the oikonomia (“house law” or “economy”) governing that household had to be changed. Thus the Old Law had to be abolished to make way for the New Law, the Law of Moses replaced by the Law of Christ.
Of course, the New Law would reflect the eternal and the natural Law the same way the Old Law had done, and it would include legislation specifically adapted to the cultural and redemptive-historical situation of the Church (see below). However, it had to be replace the Old Law.
This is what Paul means when he says the Law of Moses passed away. He doesn’t mean “The ceremonial law passed away,” or “the civil and the ceremonial law passed away.” Paul doesn’t know anything about three separate codes of law being given by Moses. He knows of the one Mosaic Law, as embodied in the first five books of the Bible, and he means exactly what he says — the Torah, the Mosaic Law, passed away, as a unit, as an entity.
However, specific precepts within that Law may still be binding on us today, not because the Torah has any legal authority anymore, but because those precepts are included in the eternal Law, the natural Law, or the Law of Christ, which all do have legal authority for us today. We may still look to the Torah for instruction by example and to learn of God’s will, but it is not legally binding on us today. We do not have to refrain from murdering because the Torah says so, but because the natural Law and the Law of Christ say so. We do not have to love God above all things because the Torah says so, but because the eternal Law, the natural Law, and the Law of Christ say so.
This is analogous to the situation we described earlier when we spoke of the Federal Law applying in California before there was a Law of California, then the Old Law of California existing, and then it being replaced by the New Law of California. The Divine Law has always existed, thus it applied before the giving of the Law of Moses, then the Torah arrived and included not only the Divine Law but also situational laws, then when the situation changed (Messiah came and died and was to be preached to the nations) the Law changed (i.e., was replaced) also and we received the Law of Christ, which includes not only the Divine Law but also situational laws applying to the circumstances of Christians today (see below).
The whole enterprise of trying to carve up Paul’s use of the term “Law” when speaking of the Law of Moses is thus a fruitless venture. He does not know anything about Moses having given three separate codes of law (or even two separate codes of law), which is why he always speaks of the Mosaic Law as a united entity — the Law, the Torah. And this is why when he speaks of it passing away, he always speaks of it passing away in a simple, unqualified sense — passing away as an entity, not just part of it passing away. The same is true when he speaks of himself or us not being under the Torah. Precepts of the Torah may be binding on us today (those of the eternal and natural Laws, which amount to what some call “the moral law” within the Pentateuch), but they are not binding because Torah contains them but because God’s Divine Law and the New Law do.
And so Paul is to be taken with absolute seriousness when he says things like:
“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under Torah but under grace” (Romans 6:14)
“Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the Torah through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).
“But now we are discharged from the Torah, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the Torah I became as one under the Torah — though not being myself under the Torah — that I might win those under the Torah” (1 Corinthians 9:20).
“For through the Torah I died to the Torah, that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19).
“So that the Torah was our tutor until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25).
“Tell me, you who desire to be under Torah, do you not hear the Torah?” (Galatians 4:21).
“But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the Torah” (Galatians 5:18).
“For he is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the Torah of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Ephesians 2:14-16).
Of course, just because the Torah, the Law of Moses, has passed away does not entail antinomianism, because today we are under the New Law, the Law of Christ . . .
IV. The Law of Christ
The phrase “the Law of Moses” occurs eight times in Scripture (Luke 2:22, 24:44, John 7:23, Acts 13:39, 15:5, 28:23, 1 Cor. 9:9, Heb. 10:28). However, despite all Paul’s clear emphasis on the Torah, only once does he use the specific phrase “the Law of Moses” (1 Cor. 9:9). By contrast, he twice, and in very strategic settings, uses the phrase “the Law of Christ.”
The first is in 1 Corinthians 9:21, just a dozen verses after his only use of the phrase “Law of Moses.” In 1 Corinthians 9:19-21, Paul writes:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the Torah I became as one under the Torah — though not being myself under the Torah — that I might win those under the Torah. To those outside the Torah I became as one outside the Torah — not being without Law toward God but under the Law of Christ — that I might win those outside the Torah.”
Here Paul, in the midst of pointing out that he himself is not under the Torah, feels the need to reassure his readers (no doubt his Jewish Christian readers and any Gentile Christians who are tempted toward antinomianism) that he is indeed not free from being subject to any and all codes of law with respect to God. He is under the Law of Christ (alternate translation, “the Torah of Christ”).
Although Paul here declares the fact that he, like all Christians, is under the Law of Christ, he does not here give us a clue concerning what the content of the Law of Christ is. He does that in Galatians 6:2, the other passage where he uses the phrase: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” This tells us that essential to the content of the Law of Christ is the principle of love.
Paul said the same thing concerning the Mosaic Law: “For the whole Torah is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:14), and elsewhere, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Torah” (Rom. 13:8-10).
Still, Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:2 does not give us much detailed content for the Law of Christ. It does give us its essential principle of Christ’s Law, but it does not give us the sweep of its details, just as the law of love within the Torah did not give us the sweep of the Torah’s precepts. The fact that there are additional specific precepts in the Law of Christ besides is indicated in Christ’s own words in the apostolic commission:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age'” (Matthew 28:18-20).
“All that I have commanded you” is indeed summed up in the commands to love God and love one’s neighbor, but it includes many specific precepts, as any reading of the gospels (and the later teaching of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament) will show.
These specific precepts are not only moral in nature. Sometimes one is tempted to say that today all we have to keep is the moral law, and thus that this must be the content of the Law of Christ, but while the principles, both general and specific, of God’s eternal moral law certainly are part of the Law of Christ, it also calls what one would call civil and ceremonial precepts.
Because it is intended to serve as a set of principles for many nations and many cultures, the Law of Christ does not give us the kind of detailed, tailored to one culture commands that the Mosaic Law commands, but he does give general principles, most notably: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Another instance of a civil precept is found in Christ’s command to go two miles with one who requires you to go one (Matt. 5:41). This is a reference to the Roman state’s permission to its centurions to impress passers by to carry loads for the centurion for one mile. A civil principle found outside the gospels in the teachings of the apostles would be Paul’s discussion of the state, its nature and function, and one’s relationship to it, in Romans 13.
One might also include as “civil” law Christ’s instructions concerning the internal constitution of the Church (cf. Matt. 16 & 18). The same might be said of the apostles’ instructions (e.g., in the pastoral epistles). However, one might classify these as part of Christ’s ceremonial laws.
The fact that there are ceremonial precepts to the Law of Christ is manifestly clear, though few notice it, because of Christ’s commandments concerning the sacraments, whether recorded directly from his lips in the gospels or mediated through the pens of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament. Though some Christians triumph in the supposed absence of a set of ceremonial precepts today, the fact remains that the sacraments are ceremonies commanded by Christ and thus that Christ’s Law for his followers does include ceremonial precepts.
An actual study of the New Testament therefore shows that the Law of Christ, which replaced the Law of Moses and which today governs the lives of God’s people, does indeed contain moral, civil, and ceremonial precepts. But like the Law of Moses, the Law of Christ is not the basis of our salvation. Only Jesus Christ himself is. As Paul told the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch:
“Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).