By: A.G. Martin
You do not have to read far in the writings of Paul to come to the realization that at the center of his theology resides the cross of Christ. Yet, we arrive at a crossroads. Or so it would appear. In a time where all the information we could ever want lies literally at our fingertips; still we ponder how do we reconcile the law of God, with the grace of Christ? The two concepts, on the surface, seem to conflict with one another. Is that the case? Can the two be harmonized? What is the Apostle Paul’s view of the law given that he was a Pharisee? When dealing with the issue of law within the scriptures, there are typically two sides of the isle in which people find themselves.
The first is antinomianism. This is where a person believes the entirety of the law has been done away with. Therefore, you are left with a license to sin with no consequence. The Apostle Paul refutes this idea in Romans 6:1-2 saying, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul is clear in this passage. Just because you are now under grace you do not have the freedom to sin at will.
The second position a
person may hold is that of a legalist. Matt Slick of Christian Apologetic Research
Ministries, defines legalism in this way:
“Legalism can take different forms. The first is where a person attempts to keep the Law in order to attain salvation. The second is where a person keeps the law in order to maintain his salvation. The third is when a Christian judges other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct that he thinks need to be observed.”
When we look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we gather that legalism is trying to be forced upon the Galatian believers by the Judaizers (converted Jews who infiltrated the church and taught that one must keep the law of Moses in order to be saved). At the same time, if we look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, we get a clear picture of how Paul views the law of God, and the role it plays in the life of a believer. The Judaizers believed you must keep the law in order to gain and maintain salvation, as well as to be found justified before God. To them, faith in Christ alone was not enough. This goes against God’s plan for redeeming sinful people. Paul gives a thorough exposition of how faith in Christ alone is the means by which a believer is justified, declared righteous and set free apart from the works of the law.
What Is the Law?
Before we continue, we must define the law of God. To give the short answer, Elmer Towns expresses that the law is, “an extension of the nature and will of God over all His creation.” While I agree with this definition, to expand; the law is the standard by which God says we are to live. The law exhibits the righteousness of God, and in doing so it is the only righteousness that is acceptable to God.
The law of God can be divided into three categories. The first category is the Holiness code. Or this can be referred to as the Jewish Civil Laws. These were laws that were given for the purpose of separating Israel from every other nation. They were to guide Israel in how society should function. The next category is the Ceremonial Law. These are laws that applied to how one was to worship God and be purified through rituals such as but not limited: feast days, offerings, and sacrifices. Finally, the last category is the Moral Law. These laws are binding to everyone. The Ten Commandments, are the laws which provide the general outline for the moral law. Every moral law can fall into one of these commandments. With these commandments we see how we are to view God (commandments 1-4) and how we are to treat others (commandments 5-10).
When studying the law of God, we often come to parts of the law that are not impactful for today. Many non-believers tend to refer to Christians as “cafeteria Christians” believing that we simply pick and choose what laws we wish to follow. This is an ignorance on the part of the non-believer having no awareness between the distinctions of law and/or their function. The civil and ceremonial laws have passed away and are no longer in affect. Reason being, under the Old Covenant, the Civil Law was meant for the Israelites in order to separate them from all other nations. However, under the New Covenant, God has done away with ethnic distinctions. Since all repentant believers are now one in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek (Galatians 3:28). We are not obligated to follow Ceremonial Law anymore, and it would be an abomination if these laws were to be continued. Under the Ceremonial Law, sacrifices were to be made to atone for sin. Yet, Christ was the final sacrifice. The perfect and spotless lamb that was slain to atone for the sins God’s elect. Christ was the sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 10:10).
The only category of law that is binding for us today is the Moral Law. Although certain principles stemming from the previous two categories may be relevant. One way we can tell that moral laws are still fully relevant is when they show up again in the New Testament. You see a pattern of Paul dismissing ceremonial or civil laws, but at the same time acknowledging the moral laws. For example, we see in Romans chapter one, Paul gives a list of moral laws that are continually being broken by those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness. Yet, he turns right around in chapter two and dismisses circumcision. How can this be? Christ fulfilled the law of circumcision which was a law that was a shadow pointing to Him. In Him we are circumcised. The dead flesh is cut away and we put on Christ (Colossians 2:11). The moral law is how we should live, and how we should want to live now being in Christ.
Since moral law is relevant for today and subject to every person, we can divide it up into what John Calvin called the “Threefold Use of the Law.” The first use shows the law as a mirror. In this mirror you see the perfection of God’s righteousness while simultaneously seeing ourselves in our iniquity. The second use of the law is by means of fearful denunciation and the dread of punishment. The law of God cannot change the heart. However, it can serve as a reminder of the consequences for breaking the law. The third use is to show the believer what pleases God. Since the law displays that which pleases God, the believer should delight in the law as God delights in the law.God gave the law as a guide for His people. A guide that pointed to the coming Messiah. “The law given not to retain a people for itself, but to keep alive the hope of salvation in Christ until His advent.” The law is perfect, and it is holy. In order to be declared righteous before God the law must be kept perfectly. However, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7). It is impossible for anyone to keep the law perfectly. Our natural will apart from Christ does not allow us to do so. This is why we are in desperate need of a savior. From birth, we have broken God’s holy law. Because the payment of sin is death, a price had to be paid. It is the holiness of God’s law that brought about the crucifixion of Christ to pay the debt that we as sinners owe to God.
Letter to the Galatians
When we get into the letter to the Galatians, Paul is writing to warn his Galatian converts against certain “trouble-makers” who through their teaching, urge a course of action that undermines the gospel message Paul brought them, and they in turn accepted. The conclusion from the plain reading of the text is that these “trouble-makers” are Judaizers. Jewish converts teaching that you must keep Jewish customs in order to be saved. Teaching circumcision was a major part of their platform. According to Bruce, scholars in more recent times believe that these “trouble-makers” may have been promoting an early form of Gnosticism or a teaching of the true knowledge (gnosis) of God.
When Paul begins his address to the churches in Galatia, he references his astonishment that the Galatian converts are “quickly deserting” the gospel message of Christ, for another gospel. This other gospel is a false gospel being taught to them by the Judaizers. What the Judaizers would teach is that along with faith in Christ, you must hold to the Jewish laws as well. The law that Paul mainly addresses in the letter to the Galatians is the law of circumcision. Paul’s position on circumcision was clear, as was the other Apostles. Gentiles believers did not need to participate in circumcision in order to be included in the body of believers (see Acts 15). Because Christ is the spiritual circumcision, physical circumcision counts for nothing (Galatians 5:6). Holding to the Jewish laws does not gain you merit from God. Paul says, “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). Continuing in the theme of justification by faith, Paul says, “it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11). Why is it evident? “But the law is not of faith, rather the one who does them shall live by them” (vv.12). If you have made the law your standard by which you believe you are to become justified before God, then you are under obligation to fulfill all of it. Since this task is impossible for anyone accomplish, it again stresses our desperate need of an alien righteousness. That is to say, a righteousness not of our own by which we are declared justified before God.
What is Justification?
Justification is where God declares a sinner to be innocent of his or her sin. This is the work of God where the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to the transgressor, so that the sinner is declared by God to be righteous under the law. While this is the traditional view of Justification, N.T. Wright seeks to redefine the term saying, “Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.” To answer Wright on the basis of eschatology, we have eternal life and are able to live with God for eternity because of our being justified. To answer Wright on the basis of the Bible, “God’s justifying act does not make somebody a member of the covenant but confirms the person’s already existing status within the covenant.”
The New Perspective on Paul
While on the topic of justification it is important to bring to attention liberal modern scholarships view of justification. Introduced by E.P. Sanders, the New Perspective on Paul is really two new perspectives to theology. The first, is a new perspective as it relates to Jewish background in Second Temple Judaism. The second, is based off of the first, and built around Paul. The New Jewish background claims that legalistic works righteousness did not exist in Second Temple Judaism (covenantal nomism). Therefore, while it looks as though Paul is arguing against works righteousness, he is not since it did not exist. To the New Perspective, being justified simply means you have become a member of the covenant. It is ecclesiological and not soteriological. This New Perspective is opposed to the Old Perspective, or what is called the Traditional view brought to light by the Reformation. The claim by proponents of the New Perspective is that the reformers were blinded by their battling with the Roman Catholic Church and therefore, do not have an accurate view of justification. Essentially, this movement claims that the Reformers, and the traditional view are wrong.
The Traditional View teaches that Paul argues against works righteousness and that justification is found only in the finished work of Christ. James Dunn, a leading supporter of the New Perspective says, “The problem with the traditional view, however, emerges from ‘the new perspective.’ For as we have seen, the suggestion that Judaism typically taught that righteousness had to be achieved by law-keeping is a fairly fundamental misperception of ‘covenantal nomism.’” The problem with Dunn and other New Perspective advocates is that if the traditional view of justification by faith is wrong, then our entire basis of soteriology must be wrong. Our justification is directly linked to our receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ. If we get the wrong view of justification, we then have to rethink everything we know about Christian Theology, how one comes to know God, and be reconciled to Him. Not only that, we must rethink the entire purpose of Christ’s work on the cross, and its impact in the life of a believer.
Letter to the Romans
When we take into consideration the New Perspective’s perspective, we must always return to the scriptures. For the clearest view of what Paul said regarding works righteousness and justification by faith, we turn to the book of Romans. From Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul gives us the required backdrop to Romans 3:21-26, in order to show us that man’s righteousness does not work. The overview is that everybody sins, and we need the righteousness of Jesus. While we know that no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20), Paul teaches that the Bible (in theory) gives you the option to achieve righteousness by perfectly living out the law. This is referred to as the “covenant of works.” In the garden Adam was told “do this and you will not die.” Justification by works is true, you just cannot accomplish it is Paul’s point (referring to Romans 2:6, 2:13). Romans 3:10-11 gives us a clear picture of what we call the depravity of man, “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks for God.” The reason no one can perfectly live out the law is because none are righteous. Paul then moves into speaking of the righteousness of God being manifested through faith in Christ apart from the law, Romans 3:21-26:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:21-26.
The very book of Romans alone is a rejection of the New Perspective on Paul. If justification by works did not exist is Second Temple Judaism, Paul would not feel the need to stress Justification by faith and the imputed righteousness of Christ in his letter to the churches in Rome. To stress the point further, Romans four describes how Abraham was justified by his faith and not by what he did. If Abraham was justified by what he did Paul says, “he has something to boast about” (Romans 4:2). If our justification is by works of the law, we have something to boast about. All through the gospels Jesus is confronting the Pharisees who are boasting in how “holy” and “righteous” they are by keeping the law.
How then are we as believers to live in reference to the law? Paul gives us the answer in Romans chapter seven. We are set free from the law. Not in terms of antinomianism, but in terms of being free from the curse of the law. “but now we are released form 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” (Romans 7:6). Since Christ is our advocate, being “in Christ” we are no longer bound to the penalty of the law when we break it. Christ became the curse for us. Connect this to Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Paul continues through the chapter explaining that while we desire to please God by being obedient, sin is still present in us which causes us to do that which we hate (Romans 7:15). Yet, Paul says he delights in the law of God (vv.22). This is because Paul recognizes that the law of God is holy. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). If the law is not abolished, then it is not gone. Rather, it shifts its purpose. Since Jesus had a high view of the law, Paul has a high view of the law, and therefore, we should have a high view of the law.
Along with being set free from the curse of the law, we are now set free to obey the law. How is that possible? Romans 8:7-8 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Is keeping God’s law pleasing to God? Yes! However, those who are in the flesh, or the person apart from Christ, cannot do what is pleasing to God. Therefore, he cannot even submit to the law of God in order to please Him. When we die to our flesh and submit to Christ as Lord, we are no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit. God changes our nature from desiring to do sin, to now desiring the things of God. In turn, not only do we desire the law of God as our standard of living, but now being set free from sin we are able to do that which pleases God. Not as a way to obtain righteousness, but presenting out bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and blameless to God. Which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).
It is immensely clear that through the letter to the Galatians, and the letter to the Romans, Paul is fighting against the idea of works righteousness. Despite the idea of the New Perspective on Paul, claiming that works righteousness did not exist in the first century, it is obvious that the plain reading of scripture teaches otherwise. If you doubt this, look inwardly at your own heart, motivations and actions. We are constantly measuring what we do against what others do thinking that if we do more good, we will merit more favor. If I pray more, read my bible more, serve others more, then God will reward me. Our heart naturally brings us to a works base system. This is one reason why we must continually die to self.
We cannot merit any justification or righteousness on our own. If we could get to heaven by keeping the law, then Christ died in vain (Galatians 2:21). If Christ died in vain, then we are still in our sin. Nevertheless, Christ left His throne to come and live the life we could not live, become a curse for us bearing our sin, and died the death we deserved to die for breaking God’s law. It is only by faith in Christ that we are justified. Meaning, we are looked at as if we had always obeyed God. Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the basis by which we have obtained our justification. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Our faith in Christ alone is the instrument by which we are justified and declared righteous before God and are set free from the works of the law.
Matt Slick. What Is Legalism? Article. (Slick n.d.) (Elmer Towns 2012) (Towns 2008) (Calvin 1993) (Bruce 2000). Accessed August 3, 2018.
Elmer Towns, Ben Gutierrez. The Essence of the New Testament: A Survey. (B&H Academic. Nashville, 2012) P.171
Elmer Towns. Theology for Today. (Cengage Learning. Mason, 2008). P.130
John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, 1993). Bk. II, P.305
Ibid. P. 309
Ibid. P. 299
F.F. Bruce. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, 2000.) P.179
Matt Slick, The Roman Catholic View on Justification. ( (Slick, Carm.org n.d.) (Wright 1997) (Ben C. Blackwell 2015) (Cara 2017) (Dunn 2006)) Accessed, August 3, 2018.
N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real founder of Christianity?(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) p. 119.
Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, Jason Maston, Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids, Zondervan 2015) p.54
Robert Cara. Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul. (Christian Focus Publications. Great Britain, 2017) P.20
James Dunn. The Theology of Paul The Apostle. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, 2006) P.354