Exegetical/Study Series


The Law in the Letter of James (Part 1)

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The Law in the Letter of James


By tradition, the “James” of the letter—who describes himself in the text simply as “a slave/servant of God and of (the) Lord Jesus Christ”—is James the brother of Jesus, the leading figure (after Peter) of the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 12:17; 15; 21:18ff; Gal 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:7). This identification is almost certainly correct; the only real issue is whether the letter is authentically by James or is pseudonymous. On this question, scholarly opinion is divided; as also is the dating of the letter, which ranges widely—from very early (40s A.D.) to very late (90-100 A.D.). On the basis of a careful and unbiased study of the letter, I find little that points to a date beyond 60-70 A.D.; the similarity of subject matter and terminology with Paul’s letters (Galatians/Romans), as well as 1 Peter, suggests a comparable milieu—somewhere between 50-60 A.D. The lack of any developed Christology is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of an early date.

If we take James 1:1 literally, then the letter was addressed to Jews of the Diaspora/Dispersion, “to the twelve tribes th(at are) in the scattering-throughout [diaspora/]”. We find similar Jewish imagery applied (symbolically) to Christians generally in 1 Peter, but here in James it seems certain that Jews (or Jewish Christians) are intended. The work is undoubtedly Christian, despite the relatively scant references to Christ or specific Christian doctrine (James 1:1, 18ff; 2:1; 5:7, 14, etc). The strongest evidence for this are the many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel. This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the Torah. The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

  • James 1:2—Matt 5:11-12 / Lk 6:23
  • James 1:4—Matt 5:48
  • James 1:5—Matt 7:7 (also Lk 11:9)
  • James 1:17—Matt 7:11 (also Lk 11:13)
  • James 1:20—Matt 5:22
  • James 1:22-23—Matt 7:24-26 / Lk 6:46-49
  • James 2:5—Matt 5:3-5 / Lk 6:20
  • James 2:10-11—Matt 5:19, 21-22
  • James 2:13—Matt 5:7
  • James 2:15—Matt 6:25
  • James 3:12—Matt 7:16 / Lk 6:44-45
  • James 3:18—Matt 5:9
  • James 4:2-3—Matt 7:7-8
  • James 4:4—Matt 6:24 (also Lk 16:13)
  • James 4:8—Matt 6:22
  • James 4:9—Matt 5:4 / Lk 6:25
  • James 4:11-12—Matt 7:1
  • James 4:13-14—Matt 6:34
  • James 5:1—Lk 6:24-25
  • James 5:2, 6—Matt 6:19-20; Lk 6:37
  • James 5:9—Matt 5:22; 7:1
  • James 5:10—Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23
  • James 5:12—Matt 5:34-37

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

  • James 1:6—Matt 21:21; Mk 11:23-24
  • James 1:9-10—Matt 18:4; Lk14:11; note also Matt 6:29-30
  • James 1:12—Matt 10:22
  • James 1:21—Lk 8:8
  • James 2:6—Lk 18:3
  • James 2:8—Matt 22:39-40
  • James 2:14-16—Matt 25:31-46
  • James 3:1-12—Matt 12:36-37
  • James 3:13-18—Matt 11:19
  • James 4:10—Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14
  • James 4:17—Lk 12:47
  • James 5:5—Lk 16:19
  • James 5:7—Mk 4:26-29
  • James 5:8—Matt 24:3, 27, 39
  • James 5:17—Lk 4:25
  • James 5:19—Matt 18:15; Lk 17:3

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus. It is important to keep this in mind when examining James’ view of the Law.

It is now time to look at the most relevant passages in James with regard to the Law.

James 1:21-25

The theme of this passage is the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (adj. e&mfuto$) believers. In using lo/go$ here, the author probably means it in a comprehensive sense, including:

  • The Gospel message, centered on the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with a proclamation of deliverance/salvation and new life in Christ
  • The teachings of Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. above) preserved and transmitted by apostles, missionaries and teachers such as “James”
  • Authoritative early Christian instruction and teaching, delivered principally by the apostles and fellow-missionaries

Paul uses lo/go$ with a similar range of meaning. Jesus also refers to his word (identified with the word of God) in the context of being planted (cf. Mark 4:4-8, 26-27, 31 par; Matt 7:17-19; 12:33; 13:24ff; 15:13; John 8:37; 15:1-7). In the Gospel of John, the lo/go$ is identified more directly with the person of Christ, and he (in/through the Spirit) himself is the living, eternal seed in the believer (cf. John 5:38; 6:53; 12:23-24; 14:17, 20; 15:4; 17:21; 1 John 2:14; 3:9). James does not go quite that far—his description of this lo/go$ as “the (thing) having power to save your souls” is reminiscent of Paul’s famous declaration regarding the Gospel in Rom 1:16. That this “word/account” serves much the same role for believers as the Old Testament Law previously did for Israel—this is indicated in several ways in the passage:

  • James exhorts people to become ones who do (poihtai/, “doers” of) the word (v. 22); this parallels closely the idea of “doing” the Law (i.e. observance of the Torah commands), cf. Gal 3:10-12; Rom 2:13, etc. The context makes clear that “doing” the lo/go$ involves (normative) ethical behavior and performance of good deeds.
  • There is also a normative, governing quality of the lo/go$ indicated by the metaphor of the mirror in vv. 23-24 (cf. Sirach 12:11; Wisdom 7:26). In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, the Torah also allows a person to see clearly, though more often the image is of light or a lamp (Psalm 119:105; Isa 51:4, etc).
  • A connection with the Law (o( no/mo$) is made specific in verse 25—one looks into the Word (lo/go$), one looks into the Law (no/mo$). Note the following details here that seem to echo both Paul and Jesus’ teaching:
    —This Law is called “complete” (te/leio$, cf. also vv. 4, 15; 3:2); note the important usage of this adjective in Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13, as well as the related verb tele/w (“[make] complete”, sometimes in the context of fulfilling the Law, e.g. Luke 2:39; Matt 17:24; Rom 2:27; James 2:8), and the noun te/lo$ (“completion, end”, note esp. Rom 10:4).
    —It is also called the Law of freedom (e)leuqeri/a$); in this context, it is impossible to ignore Paul’s references to the freedom of believers with regard to the Law (cf. Gal 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 7:1-6; 8:2ff, etc).
    —Doing this Law is referred to as “work” (e&rgon); again, one is immediately reminded of Paul’s regular expression “works [of the Law]” (e&rga [no/mou]), cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Rom 3:20, 27-28; 4:2, 6; 9:11, 32; 11:6; also Eph 2:9.
    —Doing this Law leads to beatitude (maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”); the famous beatitudes in Jesus’ teaching (Matt 5:3-12, etc) are closely tied to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God. For the Pauline teaching on the relationship between the Law and the justice/righteousness of God, see Rom 1:17; 2:13; 3:21ff; 4:3-13; 7:12ff; 8:3-4; 9:30-31; 10:3-6, et al.

The expression “the complete Law of freedom” is discussed in a separate daily note.

James 1:27

In this verse the author declares what is “qrhskei/a clean and without stain/soil alongside [i.e. before] God”. The original meaning and derivation of the word qrhskei/a is uncertain, but it generally refers to religious worship and practice, and is often translated simply as “religion”; elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in Acts 26:5 and Col 2:18. In other words, James is defining what true and proper religion is before God: “to look upon (those) bereft (of parents) [i.e. orphans] and widows in their distress, (and) to keep oneself without spot from the world”. This definition is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which being that there is no mention of observing the Law, either generally or in its ceremonial sense. Instead we find a two-fold injunction which fairly summarizes much of the ethical teaching shared by Jews and Christians both, which ultimately derives from the Old Testament Scriptures (including the Torah): (1) to care for the poor and needy (esp. widows and orphans), and (2) to avoid the sinful/defiling influences of the world.

James 2:1-13

This passage can be divided into two sections: (a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). Overall the emphasis is on care for the poor (cf. above on 1:27) and acts of mercy. It is in this context that the author of the letter makes his most prominent direct reference to the Law (o( no/mo$). Two principal points are made:

  1. Anyone who fails to fulfill the Law in one detail is guilty of violating all of it (v. 10; Paul makes much the same point in Gal 5:3). The verb ptai/w, rare in the New Testament (Rom 11; James 3:2; 2 Pet 1:10), refers to tripping and falling, used often in a metaphorical sense of failure.
  2. Showing partiality to the rich and mighty, which in turns shows lack of proper care for the poor and lowly, is a sin and a violation of the Law (v. 9)—indeed, it violates the “royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) (v. 8).

Because of the importance of this passage, it will be discussed in more detail—along with the expressions “royal Law” (v. 8) and “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$, v. 12)—in a separate note.


Paul’s View of the Law: Acts vs. the Letters

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The articles in this series of Paul’s View of the Law (part of “The Law and the New Testament”) conclude with a short comparative study of the Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Commentators frequently note a number of differences and/or apparent discrepancies between the narratives (involving Paul) in the book of Acts and what he himself relates in the (undisputed) letters—in matters of chronology, the itinerary of the missionary journeys, and so forth. In such instances, critical scholars tend to give priority to the letters, regarding the information in the book of Acts as less reliable; traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, generally consider both Acts and the letters as authentic (and reliable), seeking to harmonize the two as far as possible. Perhaps the most well-known (and often-discussed) historical-critical issue involves the relationship between the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2. However, important differences have also been pointed out regarding the portrait of Paul painted in Acts, as compared with what he states himself in the letters, and especially in regard to his view of the Law (the subject of these articles). This may summarized by two related questions:

  1. Did Paul himself continue to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law following his conversion? and
  2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Law?

1. Did Paul continue to observe the Law?

Paul states on several occasions in his letters that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, he was most devout and scrupulous in matters of religion, including strict observance of the (written) Law, the Torah (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4b-6, and Acts 22:3; 26:5). Did he continue to observe it so after his conversion? Many scholars today would say yes, and simply take for granted that he did. However, it must be observed that there is very little actual evidence of this in the letters; in fact, he never makes such a statement about himself, but it could be understood from two passages: 1 Cor 9:20 and Rom 3:31.

  • 1 Cor 9:20—”to the ones under the Law, (I came to be) as one under the Law”. This indicates that Paul voluntarily continued to observe the Law, at least when among his fellow Jews, in order to win them to Christ (cf. below).
  • Rom 3:31—”then do we make inactive/invalid the Law through th(is) trust (in Christ)? May it not come to be (so)! but (rather) we make the Law stand!” Many commentators today read this as if Paul is saying that he and his Jewish Christian co-workers continue to observe the Law. However, there is nothing in the context of the passage to indicate this; the emphasis in Romans 3, especially in vv. 21-31, is the declaration that Jews and Gentiles both are justified through faith, and not by works of the Law (i.e. observing the Law). For more on this passage, see the earlier note and discussion in this series.

By contrast, the following passages indicate that Paul, along with all believers, is free from the Law: 1 Cor 9:20-21; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Rom 6:15; 7:6; Phil 3:3, 7-9.

In the book of Acts, there is somewhat more evidence that Paul continued to observe the Law. First, we have his statements generally to this effect, in Acts 24:14, 17-18 and 28:17 (?). We also see:

  • His presence in the Temple (Acts 21:26-27; 22:17-18; 24:17-18); along with other early believers in Jerusalem (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:21ff, 42; 21:22-27), Paul continued to frequent the Temple. However, it is not clear to what extent he participated in the sacrificial ritual; on only one occasion is he seen involved in ritual activity (21:26-27, cf. below).
  • His traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts, at least on several occasions (Acts 18:21 v.l.; 20:16); but note that Acts 20:6 indicates that Passover would have been observed away from Jerusalem.
  • Acts 18:18 refers to a vow (Nazirite?) he had taken, which presumably was done according to the regulations in the Law.

In none of these instances is it recorded that Paul was under obligation, or felt required, to observe the Torah. The most relevant passage is Acts 21:21-26 (cf. below); but even here, his involvement in the Temple ritual was done voluntarily, at the recommendation of James.

2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the Law?

Again, a good many commentators today would answer in the affirmative—while Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament Law, Jewish believers were still bound to do so. I find not the slightest indication of this in the letters, not even in the most positive references to the Law (Rom 3:1-2; 7:12-14 [cf. also 1 Tim 1:8]; Col 4:11, and, possibly, Rom 4:12; 1 Cor 7:19). As mentioned above, some commentators would read Rom 3:31 as though Paul believed that the Law continued to be binding (for Jewish believers), but I consider this a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The overwhelming number of references, indicating that the Law is no longer in force for believers in Christ, would seem to speak decisively against it—cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; the illustrations in Gal 3-4 (esp. 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31); 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11; Eph 2:15. There are, however, three passages in the book of Acts, which could suggest that Paul held the Torah to be binding for Jewish believers; each of these will be discussed in turn:

Acts 16:3—Paul had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised, prior to his joining the mission effort. This has often been seen as contradicting Paul’s own teaching regarding circumcision in the letters (Gal 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-15; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Rom 2:28-29, also Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; Eph 2:11), causing some critical scholars to question the historicity of the detail in Acts 16:3. Much depends on the reason why Timothy was circumcised; there are several possibilities:

  • Jews, including Jewish believers, were obligated to observe the Law, with circumcision being a central covenant obligation; according to later Jewish tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12), children from mixed marriages were still regarded as Jewish.
  • It was a practical measure, to avoid unnecessary hostility and opposition among Jews to the mission.
  • It is an example (and extension) of Paul’s missionary principle expressed in 1 Cor 9:19-23—of becoming like one under the Law in order to reach those who are under the Law.

There is nothing in the context of 16:1ff itself to indicate that Timothy was circumcised because he was required to do so, as would be suggested in the first view. The only reason given in the passage is that he was circumcised “through [i.e. because of] the Jews that were in those places”, which would seem to fit the second interpretation above. However, it is also possible that Paul was generally following the principle he would later express in 1 Cor 9:19-23; for more on this, see the conclusion below. One would like to think that Timothy willingly (and voluntarily) agreed to circumcision, though this is not indicated in the text.

Acts 16:4—In the next verse, we read that Paul delivered the decisions (do/gmata) from the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:19-31) to the believers in the cities of Pisidia and Lycaonia (i.e. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, etc) in SE Asia Minor, which had been evangelized during the first Missionary journary (Acts 13-14). The letter from Jerusalem (15:23-29) is addressed to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; Paul is extending it northward and westward in the region. There are two major critical issues involved here:

  1. Paul’s knowledge (and support) of the Jerusalem decrees. He never once refers to these in his letters, even on occasions when the decisions would have been relevant (1 Cor 8-10; Gal 2:11-14, etc; Rom 14; Col 2:16ff). In particular, the decisions appear to be directly on point with the very question Paul addresses in 1 Cor 8-10; if he knew of the decisions, and considered them to be authoritative (and binding) for Gentiles, it is rather strange that he does not refer to them. Many critical scholars consider the detail of Acts 16:4 to be inaccurate—e.g., note how in Acts 21:25 Paul appears to learn of the decrees then for the first time. More to the point, commentators have argued that the Paul of the letters would not have supported the decrees, especially with regard to the dietary restrictions placed on Gentiles (cf. issue #2).
  2. The relation of the decrees to the Torah. In Acts 15:21, James (the speaker) clearly connects the decisions of the Council with the fact that Moses (i.e. the Old Testament Law) is proclaimed and read in cities throughout the region, and followed by devout Jews (including Jewish believers). I have discussed this aspect of the Jerusalem decrees in some detail in a previous article. It is possible, but by no means certain, that, in observing the decrees, Gentile believers are thereby expected to follow the Torah in a limited sense. The emphasis is squarely on the idolatrous and immoral aspects of the pagan culture in which the Gentiles live—things which would also offend the religious and moral sensibilities of Jewish believers everywhere. I believe that the primary focus of the decrees is twofold: (1) as an authoritative exhortation for Gentiles to abstain from things associated with idolatry, and (2) as a way to ensure fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apparent discrepancy between Acts 16:4 and Paul’s failure to mention the Jerusalem decrees even once in the letters, can be explained one of several ways:

  • Paul was not aware of the decrees when he wrote his letters (contrary to Acts 16:4)
  • He did not consider (or would not have considered) the decrees authoritative and/or binding on Gentiles (again contrary to Acts 16:4)
  • The decrees had only a limited (regional) scope—the areas in Syria and Asia Minor surrounding Antioch—and were not considered binding for Gentile believers in territories further away
  • The decrees had only a limited scope, insofar as they related to places with large Jewish populations (such as the regions around Antioch)—in support of healthy relations between Jewish and Gentile believers—but were not necessarily binding on Gentile believers en masse.
  • The decrees were only binding for a time, eventually being abolished or superseded as circumstances dictated, or through “progressive revelation”; at the time of Paul’s writing, the decrees were no longer in force.

According to a strict, traditional-conservative (harmonistic) reading of the New Testament, only the 3rd and 4th interpretations above are viable options. A consistent and thorough analysis of Paul’s letters, taken by themselves, would, I think, lead one to adopt the 2nd interpretation. Overall, the last view is perhaps the simplest and most practical solution, but it is nowhere so stated in the New Testament, and would have to be assumed.

Acts 21:21-26—This is almost certainly the most direct (and controversial) passage in Acts related to Paul’s view of the Law. It must be examined in some detail:

  • The Context—At the conclusion of his (third) major missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul travels to Jerusalem, and is greeted by the believers there (vv. 17-19), including James and other leaders (elders) in the Church. Presumably he presented the collection of funds for the needy in the Jerusalem Church, which he had laboriously organized and gathered from the congregations in Greece and Macedonia (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25-28), and which is mentioned (it would seem) in Acts 24:17, but not here in chap. 21.
  • The Issue—James’ address to Paul is recorded in vv. 20b-25, in which the following points are made:
    —In Jerusalem there are many Jewish believers, who continue to be zealous in observing the Torah (v. 20b)
    —It is reported that Paul instructs Jews to forsake the Torah, and not to be circumcised, etc (v. 21)
    —It is assumed that: (a) this cannot be true, and (b) Paul himself continues to observe the Torah (v. 24b)
    —To prove this, James recommends that Paul take part in a purification ceremony (in the Temple) (v. 23-24a)
    —The Jerusalem decrees are also mentioned, indicating, at the very least, that Gentile believers honor and respect the customs of (observant) Jewish believers (v. 25)
  • Summary exposition—James effectively summarizes the controversies between Paul and Jewish believers, regarding his view of the Old Testament Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans). Admittedly, nowhere in the letters does Paul say anything quite like the claim in verse 21, though the teaching that believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are “free” from the Law (cf. above) certainly could be characterized this way. It is perhaps such a (mis)representation that Paul combats, or attempts to avoid, in passages such as Gal 3:21ff; Rom 3:31; 7:7ff. Above, I have examined evidence regarding the extent to which Paul continued to observe the Law himself after coming to faith in Christ, such as James assumes here in v. 24b; the evidence is hardly conclusive, as I shall discuss again below. However, Paul does go along with James’ recommendation and participates in the purification ritual (vv. 26-27), at considerable personal expense it would seem, giving at least a general affirmation of his support for the position of observant Jewish believers. But based on what we have studied thus far in the letters, can we truly say, with James, that “all that of which was sounded down [i.e. reported] to them about you [i.e. Paul] is nothing”? What of the many potentially controversial passages regarding the Law, such as 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31; 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11, et al.?


A fair and unbiased view of the evidence, from both the letters and Acts, would have to affirm that Paul did continue to observe the Law, but only in a special and qualified sense. Ultimately, the clearest declaration of his own view of the matter comes from 1 Cor 9:20:

“And I came to be to the Jews as a Jew, (so) that I might gain Jews (for Christ), to the (one)s under (the) Law as (one) under (the) Lawnot being under (the) Law (my)self—(so) that I might gain the (one)s under (the) Law (for Christ)”

Here he clearly states that:

  1. He observes the Law (i.e. is “under the Law”, u(po\ no/mon) for the purpose of winning Jews to Christ, and not because he is still obligated to observe it—indeed:
  2. He himself is not under the Law. It should be noted, that some manuscripts omit the phrase mh\ w*n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon (“not being under the Law myself”), but it is present in a wide range of witnesses (including many of the “earliest and best” MSS), and is almost certainly original. While some commentators might dispute it, I regard this as a decisive statement that, along with all other believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike), Paul is no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Note also, in v. 21, that:
  3. He is not without the “Law of God” (cf. also Rom 7:22, 25), and identifies himself as now being under (lit. “in”) the “Law of Christ”. This (being “in Christ”) is an altogether new covenant, as he makes clear in 2 Cor 3:1-18.

The basic principle of freedom in Christ, which Paul consistently teaches (cf. Gal 2:4; 3:25, 28; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 1 Cor 9:19ff; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:7ff; 7:2-6; 8:2ff, 21, etc), also means that believers—certainly Jewish believers—may continue to observe the Torah, and other Jewish customs, either voluntarily, or as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between “may observe” and “must observe”—I believe Paul would affirm the former, but definitely not the latter. All of the passages in the book of Acts examined above can be understood and interpreted as voluntary observance. In this sense, the claims reported about Paul (according to James) in Acts 21:21 are false; but there are actually two erroneous claims which ought to be rejected:

  • He teaches that Jewish believers must, or should, cease observing the Old Testament Law—false
  • He teaches that Jewish believers must continue (strict) observance of the Old Testament Law—likewise false

When it comes to Gentile believers, the situation is somewhat different; Paul, especially in Galatians, takes the more forceful position, that they should not observe the Torah, and speaks in the harshest terms regarding those who would influence them to do so. However, this must be understood in the historical (and rhetorical) context of the letter, and not turned into any sort of absolute rule. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish traditions and patterns of thought, and initial Gentile converts could easily be compelled to adopt Jewish religious practices as well. For the most part, this dynamic has long since disappeared from the Church, and there is little inherent danger in (Gentile) Christians today voluntarily adopting customs and practices set forth in the Torah. I will discuss this point again at the very conclusion of this series on The Law and the New Testament.

Paul’s View of the Law: The Remaining Letters (Part 3)

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Part 3—Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters

The final part of this article will address Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus); I have chosen to deal with them separately here since, of all the Pauline Letters in the New Testament, there is the most uncertainty regarding Pauline authorship for these four letters. I will not be examining arguments for and against authenticity here, nor do I make any judgment regarding authorship. In passing, I will only say that I find many aspects of the language and style of Ephesians to be atypical of that in the undisputed letters (compared with Colossians, which otherwise has a number of similarities in structure and subject matter with Ephesians). Regarding the Pastoral letters, I personally accept 2 Timothy as authentic, with very little reservation, its structure, style and phrasing being generally close to that of the undisputed letters; I find many more instances of uncharacteristic vocabulary and phrases in 1 Timothy, while the situation with the letter to Titus is harder to judge, though it may have more in common with 1 Timothy.


The main passage dealing with the Old Testament Law is Eph 2:11-22 (esp. verses 14-15, which I will deal with in a separate note). Specific references to the Torah (Pentateuch) are also found in Eph 5:31ff (citing Gen 2:24, cf. Matt 19:4-6; 1 Cor 6:16) and Eph 6:2-3 (citing Deut 5:16, par Exod 20:12); the latter citation indicates that the fundamental ethical commands of the Decalogue are still valid and applicable for believers, as attested elsewhere in early Christian tradition (cf. Mark 10:18 par; James 2:11; Rom 13:9). The other relevant references may be summarized as follows (cf. Part 2):

Similarities with Paul’s discussion of the Law in Galatians, Romans, etc.:
  • Eph 1:13—hearing/obedience is to the word/account of God (here called the “word/account of truth“), identified with the “good message (Gospel) of salvation”; obedience takes place through trust/faith (pi/sti$), and results in the gift of the Spirit.
  • Eph 1:19f—again the emphasis is on trust/faith, and the work being done by God (in/through Christ)
  • Eph 2:8-9—”for by (the) favor [xa/ri$] (of God) you have been saved, through trust [pi/sti$], and this not out of you(rselves)—(it is) the gift [dw=ron] of God, not out of works, (so) that no one may boast”
  • Eph 4:1-6—religious identity (understood here in terms of unity) for believers is realized through the Spirit and the binding principle of love (cf. Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14, etc).
Symbolic/Spiritual application of the Law:
  • Eph 2:20-22—The Temple shrine (nao/$) is used as a symbol for believers (i.e. the Church) as a whole—a building, with Christ as the cornerstone, parallel to the image of the body (with Christ as the head); for similar application of the Temple, cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16.
  • Eph 5:26-27—Imagery drawn from ritual cleansing (ablution) and sacrificial offering is applied to believers (collectively), as part of the wider ethical instruction (parenesis) in Eph 4:17-6:9.
  • Eph 5:31ff—Genesis 2:24 (related to laws regarding marriage and divorce) is applied symbolically to the Church.
Sources of authority for believers (apart from the Law):
  • Eph 3:1-4ff—Paul’s authority (as an apostle), which comes through special revelation (from God/Christ) cf. Gal 1:12
  • Eph 3:16ff—power/authority is ultimately realized in the “inner man” and by the Spirit.
  • Eph 4:17-5:20—ethical instruction comes by way of (Paul’s) apostolic authority (“I bear witness in the Lord…”, v. 17), but is realized through putting off the “old man” and putting on the “new man”, reflecting the spiritual transformation symbolized by the rite of baptism (which, in turn, represents participation in the death and resurrection of Christ).
  • Eph 5:22-6:9—similar ethical and practical instruction presented as effective commands from Paul (in his role as apostle).
  • Eph 5:21—authority of believers to one another (i.e. the community/congregation itself), “set yourselves in order under each other in (the) fear of Christ”.

The Pastoral Letters

For the sake of convenience, I group these together, without necessarily affirming common authorship; the text of each letter indicates it was composed by Paul, and this was accepted without question in the early Church, though in recent generations scholars and commentators have expressed serious doubt on this point (cf. above).

The Law (o( no/mo$) is mentioned twice in 1 Tim 1:8-9, along with nomodida/skaloi (“teachers of the Law”) in verse 7. It is not entirely clear whether this means specifically the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah), as elsewhere in Paul, or to “the law” in general. In Titus, the author appears to warn against (quasi-)Jewish influence (cf. Tit 1:14; 3:9), and it is often thought that something similar is referenced in 1 Tim 1:4; 4:7 (also 2 Tim 4:4), perhaps an early manifestation of “Gnosticism”. The list of crimes in 1 Tim 1:9-10 are, for the most part, dealt with somewhere in the Torah, but they would just as easily apply to the laws in most societies. The Law here is understood in its rudimentary role of curbing and punishing wickedness, especially crimes which are particularly harmful to others. This would come to be a popular line of reasoning for (Gentile) Christians who wished to maintain the binding validity of the Old Testament Law; however, it should be noted that Paul himself (in the undisputed letters) really never refers to the Law in this context (cp. Rom 13:1-4ff). In Romans and Galatians, Paul ascribes a very different purpose for the Old Testament Law (Gal 3:19-26; Rom 5:20-21; 7:4-25; 11:32), as I have discussed in the previous articles of this series. In Titus 3:9 there is an exhortation to avoid “legal battles” or “fights about the Law” (using the adjective nomiko/$), which may (or may not) refer specifically to the Torah. The fact that, in 1 Tim 1:10, at the end of the list of crimes, the author adds “…and if (there is) any other (thing) lying against [i.e. opposed to] whole/healthy teaching [didaskali/a]” is significant, as will be discussed below.

Other relevant passages are summarized below, organized according to the same structure used above (and in Part 2):

Similarities with Paul’s discussion of the Law in Galatians, Romans, etc.:
  • 1 Tim 1:5—Love (a)ga/ph) is described as the end/completion (te/lo$) of the paraggeli/a (lit. a message given/placed alongside), a word frequently used for authoritative instruction and often translated “command, charge”. Love is here connected with a “pure heart”, the ‘conscience’ (sunei/dhsi$, cf. below) and trust/faith (pi/sti$), all expressing an inward emphasis, rather than observance of external commands, and for which there are parallels in the undisputed Pauline letters. For a similar declaration that Christ is the end/completion (te/lo$) of the Law, cf. Rom 10:4; on the priority of the love command (or principle), see esp. Gal 5:14 and Rom 13:8-10.
  • 1 Tim 4:3-4—Here Paul (or the author of the letter) emphasizes freedom, as against ascetic/legalistic restrictions involving dietary regulations, etc. (cf. Rom 14; Col 2:16-17, 21-23). There is an implicit denial that anything is, in and of itself, clean or unclean; this is expressed more clearly in Titus 1:15. For the abolishment of any (ritual) distinction between “clean” and “unclean” (rel. to the Torah purity laws) for the believer, see esp. Rom 14:14.
  • 2 Tim 1:9-10—Salvation is not “according to our works” (kata\ ta\ e&rga h(mw=n) but according to God’s own purpose (pro/qesi$, lit. what he set beforehand) and favor (i.e. “grace” xa/ri$); note also the verb katarge/w in v. 10, which Paul elsewhere uses in the sense of Christ making ineffective (or nullifying) the Law and/or the power of sin and death (cf. Rom 6:6; 7:2, 6; 1 Cor 3:7, 11, 13-14; Eph 2:15).
  • 2 Tim 4:8dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) is used here in the traditional (eschatological) sense of acceptance in the judgment before God’s tribunal; the emphasis, of course, is not on preserving the Law but on keeping/guarding the trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ. For more on this, see below.
  • Titus 3:5-7—justice/righteousness (and being made/declared just) does not come out of our own doing, but according to God’s mercy and cleasing which comes through Christ’s sacrificial death.
Symbolic/Spiritual application of the Law:
  • 2 Tim 2:19ff—There is here an echo of the Old Testament purity Laws, which is applied (symbolically) in the context of ethical instruction for believers.
  • Titus 1:14-16—purity/impurity is fundamentally a matter of the mind and conscience, rather than observance of (ritual) regulations; impurity or defilement is specifically connected with unbelief (a&pisto$), lit. “lack of trust” (in Christ).
  • Titus 2:14—believers are now God’s (covenant) people, described in traditional language related to the observance of the Law; the context of vv. 12-14 shows that normative ethical instruction is now tied to the Gospel message, and that purification/cleansing is based on the work of Christ.
  • Titus 3:5-7—similarly, ritual cleansing (ablution) is replaced by spiritual washing and renewal, which again is connected with the death of Christ (cf. the symbolism associated with baptism in Rom 6:3-4ff, etc).
Sources of authority for believers (apart from the Law):

One of the most distinctive elements in the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy and Titus) is the pronounced emphasis on the careful guarding and observance of early Christian teaching and tradition. The apparent context of the letters clearly suggests that Timothy and Titus, as co-workers and associates of Paul, represent him in the territories where they are serving (Ephesus and the island of Crete, respectively), and, by way of extension, possess a measure of his own apostolic authority. And yet, the repeated stress on safeguarding a defined body of (correct) doctrine is striking—here, even more than in the undisputed letters, doctrine seems to take priority over personal (apostolic) authority (cf. Gal 1:6-9). Quite often there is a clear contrast between correct teaching (i.e. orthodoxy), and that which is false, unreliable or irrelevant. This involves frequent use of a number of words and phrases which are uncharacteristic of the undisputed Pauline letters; these are marked with an asterisk (*) below.

paragge/llw (and the related noun paraggeli/a)—the verb literally means “give along a message”, generally in the sense of delivering an order, command or other authoritative instruction; while these words do appear in the undisputed letters (1 Thess 4:2, 11; 1 Cor 7:10, etc), nearly half of the occurrences in the Pauline corpus are in 1 Timothy (1 Tim 1:3, 5, 18; 4:11; 5:7; 6:13, 17).
parakale/w (“call alongside”) has a similar meaning, indicating authoritative instruction (and exhortation), 1 Tim 1:3; 2:1; 5:1; 6:2; 2 Tim 4:2; Tit 1:9; 2:6; 2:15; it appears relatively often in the undisputed letters as well.
dida/skw (and the related nouns didaxh/, didaskali/a*)—these words together appear more frequently in the Pastorals than the other letters, emphasizing the importance of (correct) Christian teaching:
(a) dida/skw (“teach”), 1 Tim 2:12; 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:11, and also the compound verb e(terodidaskale/w* (“teaching [something] other [i.e. something different]”) in 1 Tim 1:3; 6:3.
(b) didaxh/ (“teaching”, emphasizing the content of teaching), 2 Tim 4:9; Tit 1:9.
(c) didaskali/a* (“teaching”, emphasizing the process of teaching)—15 of the 19 Pauline occurrences are in the Pastorals (1 Tim 1:10; 4:1, 6, 13, 16; 5:17; 6:1, 3; 2 Tim 3:10, 16; 4:3; Tit 1:9; 2:1, 7, 10).
(d) note also: didaktiko/$* (“teachable, able/willing to teach”), 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24; and dida/skalo$ (“teacher”), 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11; 4:3.
parati/qhmi* (and the related noun paraqh/kh*)—these words are essentially never used in the undisputed letters, but have an importance place in the Pastorals (1 Tim 1:18; 6:10; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2). Elsewhere Paul uses the noun parado/si$, along with the related verb paradi/dwmi; they have a similar meaning—parado/si$ is something “given along” while paraqh/kh is something “set/placed alongside”. However, the latter term carries specifically the nuance of something entrusted to a person, or laid down as a deposit. Christian teaching is no longer limited to something passed down from the apostles; it now has the additional characteristic of a fixed, permanent body of doctrine which must be guarded. While such an idea is not absent from the undisputed Pauline letters, its repeated emphasis in the Pastorals is striking.
eu)se/beia, etc.*—One may also mention the noun eu)se/beia, which is never used in any of the Pauline letters outside of the Pastorals (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 6:3, 5-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5; Tit 1:1); it is sometimes translated (inaccurately) as “godliness”, but it really means “proper fear (or reverence)”, usually in a religious sense, and generally approximates what we mean in English by “religion” (or the more archaic-sounding “piety”). This is another distinctive element (or development) in the Pastorals—a sense of Christianity, marked by correct teaching and practice, as reflecting true religion. The related verb eu)sebe/w* (1 Tim 5:4) and adverb eu)sebw=$* (2 Tim 3:12; Tit 2:12) also are not to be found in the other letters, though Paul (as speaker) does use the verb in the narrative of Acts 17:23.

There are a number of specific passages which clearly indicate the authoritative character of (correct) Christian instruction, especially in ethical matters (1 Tim 6:2b-10, 17-19; 2 Tim 2:14-19; Tit 3:1-11), but also with regard to the governing and administration of local communities or congregations (1 Tim 2:8-15; 3:1-13; 4:6-10; 5:1-8ff, 17ff; 2 Tim 2:22-26; 4:1-5; Tit 1:5-9; 2:1-10, 15). In 1 Tim 6:2-3, we even see that correct teaching functions as “the words of the Lord”; on the authority of the minister, cf. also Tit 2:15. Beyond this, Paul (the putative author), in his role as an apostle (2 Tim 1:11-13; 3:10), issues authoritative instruction—note the first person use of the verbs parakale/w, boulomai, e)pitre/pw, (dia)martu/romai in 1 Tim 2:1, 8, 12, etc. The minister, like the apostle, is also to be an (authoritative) example for others to follow, cf. 1 Tim 4:12; 2 Tim 1:13; 3:10-15; Tit 2:7. On both of these last points, see in Part 2.

In addition, note the following passages:

  • 1 Tim 5:4—proper behavior is regarded as “acceptable” (a)podekto$) before God
  • 1 Tim 5:10, 17, etc—the normative character of good works and ministry in the community (note also 2 Tim 2:2, 5)
  • 1 Tim 6:14—the word e)ntolh/ is often translated “command”, referring to the commands of the Torah; however it can also be used of authoritative Christian instruction, and that is almost certainly the meaning here—”watch/guard the e)ntolh/” should be understood as generally synonymous with “guard/keep the paraqh/kh” (6:20; 2 Tim 1:14, cf. above), and note also 4:16 (“take hold upon the teaching”), etc.
  • 2 Tim 3:14-16—the authority and efficacy of the “sacred writing(s)” (i.e. Scripture) is declared; nowhere else in the Pauline corpus is this stated so precisely, with the Writings set within the context of authoritative Christian teaching (“the things you have learned” [v. 14], “of profit toward teaching” [v. 16]). The idea that the Scriptures are able to lead one to salvation is rather unusual for Paul.
    If 2 Timothy is authentically Pauline, then the “sacred writings” are the Old Testament Scriptures, meaning (at the very least), the Pentateuch, Prophets (presumably Joshua–Kings, along with Isaiah–Jeremiah, Ezekiel–Malachi), and the book of Psalms; if the letter is pseudonymous (and late), then a broader sense of Scripture may be intended, possibly including New Testament writings as well (cf. 2 Pet 3:16).

The Pastoral letters are somewhat unique in the way that they use the term sunei/dhsi$; this word is typically translated “conscience”, but literally means “seeing/knowing (things) together”, indicating (self-)awareness and understanding. It plays an important role in Pauline anthropology and psychology, as we see in Rom 2:15; 13:5; 1 Cor 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25-29; 2 Cor 1:12; 4:2; 5:11. Though he does not use the term in Rom 7:7-25, the passage would seem to be relevant; it is fair, I think, to consider the sunei/dhsi$ along with the mind/intellect (nou=$) as part of the “inner man”. In the Pastorals, sunei/dhsi$ carries more of an authoritative quality, as an inner guide for believers, often mentioned in connection with faith/trust (pi/sti$)—both of which are necessary for safeguarding true teaching, cf. 1 Tim 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Tim 1:3; Tit 1:15.

Finally, we should note several references indicating the (direct) role of the Spirit guiding believers:

  • 1 Tim 4:1—The Spirit is said to speak directly to believers (“and the Spirit in utterance relates that…”), by means of prophetic oracle (to Paul?); clearly it should be understood as authoritative, and in contrast to “wandering [i.e. deceitful/untrustworthy] spirits” that lead believers away from the (true) faith.
  • 2 Tim 1:14—Here the common exhortation/charge to “keep/guard” the teaching (par. to keeping/observing the Torah in the old covenant) is qualified: the guarding is done “through the Spirit th(at) houses [i.e. dwells] in us”, i.e. by the power (and guidance) of the Spirit.
  • Tit 3:5—Cleansing and renewal occurs, not by external observance of commands, but internally by the Holy Spirit.
  • Mention should also be made of the term qeo/pneusto$ (“blown/breathed by God”) in 2 Tim 3:16; the reference is primarily to the divine source of Scripture, but there may also be here an implied understanding of the role of the Spirit (pneu=ma, “breath, blowing”) of God in guiding the believer.

Paul’s View of the Law: The Remaining Letters (Part 2)

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Part 2—Summary of other relevant Passages

After dealing with passages which refer directly to the Old Testament Law in Part 1, I will present here a brief summary of other relevant passages, including:

  1. Instances of language, concepts and imagery similar to that used by Paul in reference to the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc)
  2. References which imply or suggest a symbolic or spiritual application of elements of the Law
  3. Verses where Paul indicates a source of religious and ethical authority for Christians similar to that of the Law

1. Similar language, concepts and imagery

There are a number of instances where Paul uses language and imagery similar to that in the major sections of Romans and Galatians dealing with the Law, faith and works, “justification”, etc. Here I point out the most notable of these, organized as follows:

  • Salvation/justification by grace (and faith)
    • 1 Cor 4:4—par. to the idea of Paul being ethically-religiously blameless (according to the Law), and yet not (on that basis) declared just/right before God
    • 1 Cor 6:11—believers are justified in the name of Jesus Christ
    • 1 Cor 12:13—Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ (and by the Spirit), entirely apart from the Law (cf. Gal 3:27-28 and throughout Romans)
    • Phil 2:12ff—exhortation to “work (out)” one’s salvation, yet it is clear that God is the one who is working (Col 1:29)
    • Phil 3:9—righteousness/justification is from God, by faith
    • Phil 3:16 (also Col 2:6ff)—ethical behavior stems from living/walking “in the Spirit” and “in Christ”, rather than according to the precepts of the Law (cf. Gal 5:16-25)
    • Col 1:13-14, 21-22—the work of Christ releases believers from the power of sin (cf. Romans) through his death (note also Eph 2:4-7); in Col 2:14, Christ’s death also wipes out the written decrees (rel. to the idea of believers death/dying to the Law, cf. Gal 2:19; Rom 7:4, etc)
    • Cf. also Eph 1:13, 19f; 2:8-9, 11ff; 2 Tim 1:9-10; Tit 2:11; 3:5-7
  • Justice/Righteousness (apart from the Law)—Note the use of dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in the following passages:
    • 1 Cor 1:30—Christ came to be the “justice/righteousness of God” for us (cf. Rom 3:21ff, etc)
    • 2 Cor 3:9—see the note on 2 Cor 3:7-11
    • 2 Cor 5:21—believers become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ (par. to 1 Cor 1:30)
    • Phil 1:11—the justice/righteousness that comes “through Christ” is emphasized (cf. Rom 3:21; 10:3-4, etc)
    • Phil 3:6, 9—again the justice/righteousness that comes through faith in Christ is distinguished from righteousness under the Law
    • Cf. also Eph 4:24; 2 Tim 3:16; 4:8; Tit 3:5
  • Old and New Covenant—The major passage in 2 Cor 3:7-18 (cf. the discussion in the recent daily note); other relevant references are:
    • 2 Cor 5:17ff—implies the passing away of the old order of things; on the “new creation”, see Gal 6:15, also Eph 4:24
    • Col 1:23—remaining in faith (in Christ) effectively replaces observance of the Law as the terms by which one fulfills the covenant
  • The “love command”—In Gal 5:13-14 (cf. also 6:2) and Rom 13:8-10, Paul refers to love (esp. love of one’s neighbor/fellow-believer, cf. Lev 19:18) as the epitome and fulfillment of the Law, effectively replacing the commands of the Torah. As previously discussed, this is a development from Jesus’ own teaching (Mark 12:28-34 par and throughout John 14-17), which is well-attested in different strands of early Christian tradition (see esp. James 2:8-13 and all through 1 John 2-5). Elsewhere in his letters, Paul refers to the ruling/guiding principle of love in a similar manner—cf. 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Cor 12:31b-13:13 (cf. also 8:1; 12:25-26); 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; Phil 2:2-3ff; Col 3:14ff; Philemon 9; and see also Eph 3:17-19; 1 Tim 1:5.

2. Symbolic/Spiritual application

In many instances, Paul mentions details or elements of the Old Testament Law only in the context of a symbolic or spiritual application for believers. This is true especially with regard to the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law—circumcision, purity Laws, sacrificial offerings and Temple service, etc. Paul never once suggests that any of these are still required, even for Jewish Christians, despite the claims and assumptions of many commentators. The following elements of the Law may be isolated:

  • Circumcision—Paul does deal with the actual rite of circumcision in his letters, especially throughout Galatians and Romans 2-4 (see the articles in this series on Galatians and Romans), arguing that Gentile believers need not be circumcised (nor observe the other requirements of the Torah); in Gal 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor 7:19 and Col 3:11 he goes beyond this, declaring that circumcision itself no longer has any importance (for believers). It does continue to have value as a symbol, with its true (spiritual) significance now being applied to believers in Christ—this is expressed clearly in Rom 2:28-29; Phil 3:2-3; Col 2:11.
  • The Temple—In several passages (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; cf. also Eph 2:21), Paul refers to believers—individually and collectively—as the Temple (nao/$) of God. The nao/$ is specifically the sanctuary or (inner) shrine, but can also be used of the temple building/complex as a whole. The (Holy) Spirit of God resides in this Temple (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). The emphasis is primarily ethical, stressing the need to keep the body pure; as such it is related to the idea of purity regulations (cf. below). Elsewhere, Paul makes scant reference to the actual Temple in Jerusalem (2 Thess 2:4; 1 Cor 9:13).
  • Sacrificial offerings—Occasionally Paul refers to believers themselves as offerings presented before God, drawing upon the imagery of the sacrificial ritual. The word qusi/a properly means the victim (animal) that is ritually slaughtered, but may also refer generally to the act of sacrifice itself. Paul uses the word of believers (including himself) in Rom 12:1; Phil 2:17; 4:18. Interestingly, he tends not to describe Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering, but qusi/a is used in this context in Eph 5:2; and Christ is referred to as the Passover lamb slaughtered (related vb. qu/w) in 1 Cor 5:7. Elsewhere, qusi/a/qu/w is used only in 1 Cor 10:18-20, and there of pagan offerings. Similarly, Paul almost never mentions the Israelite/Jewish feasts (Col 3:16), referencing Passover only in 1 Cor 5:7; in addition to Jesus as the Passover lamb, believers are described as unleavened bread—again, the context is ethical, with an exhortation to purge the old “leaven” of sin and immorality.
  • Purity laws and regulations—In his letters Paul makes some mention of the dietary laws and the general (ritual) distinction between “clean” and “unclean”, but never once does he suggest that these are still valid; quite the opposite—he effectively declares them to be abolished for believers (Rom 14:14), with dietary restrictions now being entirely dependent on a person’s own conscience and choice (Rom 14; 1 Cor 8; Col 2:16ff). For similar teaching in the Pastoral letters, see 1 Tim 4:3-5; Tit 1:15. Occasionally, Paul draws upon the imagery of the purity laws in his ethical instruction and exhortation for believers—in particular, note 2 Cor 6:17; 7:1 and Eph 5:26f (there may also be an echo in Phil 1:10). It should be noted that Pauline authorship of 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 is questioned by some critical scholars (cf. my supplemental article on the passage), and the authorship of Ephesians continues to be disputed as well; the verb kaqari/zw (“cleanse, make clean”) is elsewhere used only in the Pastoral letters (Tit 2:14; and cf. also 2 Tim 2:21).
  • Sabbath—It is worth noting that Paul says virtually nothing in his letters regarding the Sabbath (nor any comparable Christian “Lord’s day”); he mentions it only in Col 3:16, and not as something which needs to be observed, nor does he ever apply it symbolically to believers (such as we see in Hebrews 3-4).

3. Religious and ethical authority for Christians

A particularly difficult area of study has to do with the way early Christians understood religious authority; there are various sources of authority, mentioned in the New Testament writings—and especially the Pauline letters—which appear to take the place of the Torah commands for believers. One might debate the extent to which this means that Christians create a “new Law” for themselves, somewhat in contrast with the freedom we are supposed to have in Christ—however, that is a subject for a later time. We may emphasize the following:

  • Authoritative tradition and teaching—This involves the earliest preaching and teaching, customs and practices, transmitted by the apostles (cf. below) and subsequently preserved within the early Church. Paul himself makes it clear that this teaching transcends even his own (apostolic) authority (Gal 1:8-9). We may further divide this into three parts:
    • The Gospel message—The proclamation of the Gospel (regarding God’s saving work through Christ) is authoritative and normative for believers, as is clearly indicated in many passages, e.g. 1 Thess 2:2-9; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:23; 2 Cor 4:3-4; 9:13; 11:4; Gal 1:6-9, 11; 2:14; Rom 1:16; 10:16; 15:16; Phil 1:27; Col 1:5, 23; and note also Eph 1:13; 3:6; 6:19; 1 Tim 1:11; 2 Tim 1:10.
    • Sayings/Teachings of Jesus—Jesus’ own words take priority, and Paul references them whenever he can (cf. 1 Thess 4:15-17; 1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-25), though clearly there were many areas and issues for which no such dominical teaching was available. Paul himself apparently received instruction directly from Christ (by revelation) which he transmits as well, cf. Gal 1:12; 2 Cor 12:9, and perhaps also 1 Cor 14:37.
    • Other early tradition—On numerous occasions, Paul mentions early tradition passed down from the apostles and missionaries; he uses several different words and terms for this, most notably:
      parado/si$ (lit. something given/passed along) and the related verb paradi/dwmi, in 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; it can also be used in a more general (even negative) sense, as in Gal 1:14; Col 2:8.
      paralamba/nw (take/receive alongside), sometimes used in a parallel sense with paradi/dwmi, for taking/receiving something which has been passed along, cf. 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6; Gal 1:9, 12; 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3; Phil 4:9.
      dida/skw/didaxh//didaskali/a (teach, teaching), cf. 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 4:17; 14:6; Gal 1:12; Rom 6:17; 12:7; 16:17; Col 2:7, also Eph 4:21 and frequently in the Pastoral letters.
      lo/go$ (word, account), not infrequently used in a collective sense, encompassing both the Gospel proclamation and Christian instruction, e.g., 1 Thess 1:6; 2:13; 1 Cor 14:36; 15:2; Gal 6:6; Phil 2:16; Col 1:25, and often in the Pastorals.
      By the time of the Pastoral letters (whether or not one regards them as authentically Pauline), this teaching/tradition seems to be understood as a precisely defined body of doctrine, which is to be guarded carefully (on this, see Part 3).
  • Fundamental ethical instruction—In common with early Christian tradition, Paul’s ethical instruction often takes the form of an effective command (or series of commands). Of the many relevant passages, note 1 Thess 2:11-12; 4:1-8; 2 Thess 3:6ff; 1 Cor 5:9-13; 10:6-14; Gal 5:16ff; Rom 6:12-13; 12:14-21; Phil 1:27; Col 3:5-4:1, as well as Eph 4:17-6:9. It is also worth noting that the fundamental ethical commands of the Torah (esp. those of the Decalogue, Exod 20:12-17 / Deut 5:16-21) continue to be valid for Christians, at least in principle, though filtered through the lens of Jesus’ teaching (in the Sermon on the Mount, et al). Paul mentions the ethical commands of the Decalogue in Rom 13:8-10, subordinated to the general command/principle of love (cf. Mark 12:28-34 par), as also in Gal 5:14; for another practical citation from the Decalogue, see Eph 6:2-3.
  • Apostolic authority—In general, Paul appears to have regarded his own teaching and instruction (as an apostle) as authoritative, to be followed and obeyed. This comes across clearly in numerous passages in the letters. Note, for example, his use of verbs such as parakale/w (“call alongside”, 1 Thess 2:11; 3:2; 4:1, 10; 5:14; 2 Thess 3:12; 1 Cor 1:10; 4:16; 2 Cor 5:20; 9:5; 10:1; Rom 12:1; 15:30; 16:17), paragge/llw (“give along a message”, 1 Thess 4:11; 2 Thess 3:4, 6, 10, 12; 1 Cor 7:10; 10:17), martu/romai (“bear witness regarding”, 1 Thess 2:11; Gal 5:3, also Eph 4:17), e)pita/ssw (“set in order upon”, with the rel. noun e)pitagh/, 1 Cor 7:6, 25; 2 Cor 8:8; Philemon 8), diata/ssw (“set in order throughout”, 1 Cor 7:17; 11:34; 16:1)—all of which, in context, indicate some measure of authoritative instruction. Paul’s personal authority (as an apostle) is emphasized in passages such as 1 Thess 2:6; 4:1ff; 2 Thess 3:4ff; 1 Cor 2:13; 5:3ff; 7:6ff; 11:2ff; 14:36-37; 2 Cor 2:5-11, 17; 13:3ff, 10; Gal 1:1, 11-12ff; Phil 2:12; 4:9; Philemon 8-9; and also Eph 3:1-4ff. In addition, we may note:
    —Paul (and other apostles) as an authoritative example, in behavior and attitude, to be imitated by believers, cf. 1 Thess 1:6; 2:1-16; 2 Thess 3:7-9; 1 Cor 4:16-17; 7:7-8; 11:1; Gal 3:12ff; Phil 3:17ff; 4:9.
    —There is indication that Paul regarded his letters as a (written) extension of his authority as an apostle, 1 Thess 4:9; 5:1; 5:27; 2 Thess 2:17; 3:14; 1 Cor 4:14; 5:11; 14:37; 2 Cor 10:9-11; 13:10; Gal 6:11; Rom 15:15; Col 4:16. In 1 Cor 14:37, he refers to what he has written as “a command [e)ntolh/] of the Lord”, though the precise extent and force of this is debated by commentators.
  • The community of believers—In several passages, Paul indicates that the body of believers—i.e., the congregation or community itself—has some measure of authority as well, able to render judgment and to instruct each other, as in 1 Thess 4:18; 5:11; 1 Cor 5:4f; 6:1-8; 2 Cor 13:11; Gal 5:13; Rom 15:14; Col 3:16, etc., and see Eph 5:21.
  • Direct guidance by the Spirit—There are also instances where Paul refers to believers being taught and guided directly by God, or, more precisely by the Spirit of God (and Christ). See, for example, 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Cor 2:13; Gal 5:18ff; Rom 8:14. For other references to believers guided or empowered by the Spirit, cf. 1 Thess 4:8; 1 Cor 2:10-16; 12:3, 7ff; 2 Cor 3:17f; 4:13; Gal 3:5; 4:6; 6:1; Rom 2:29; 5:5; 8:4-11, 16, 26ff; 15:13; Phil 3:3. There are times where Paul expressly downplays his apostolic authority, giving priority to the Gospel itself, faith in Christ, and the work/testimony of the Spirit—cf. 1 Thess 2:13; 1 Cor 3:1-9; 4:1-4; 7:6, 17, 25, 35, 40; 9:12ff; 2 Cor 1:24-2:11; 3:17-18; 10:1, 7ff; 12:5, 7-10; Gal 1:6-9; Phil 3:21, etc.

Paul’s View of the Law: The Remaining Letters (Part 1)

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Having gone through Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans in considerable detail, it now remains to examine the relevant passages and references in the remaining Letters. This will be done in three parts:

  1. Specific passages which refer directly to the Old Testament Law, or which are especially relevant, examined in order for 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon and Colossians
  2. A summary treatment of:
    a. Instances of language, concepts and imagery similar to that used by Paul in reference to the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc)
    b. References which imply or suggest a symbolic or spiritual application of elements of the Law
    c. Verses where Paul indicates a source of religious and ethical authority for Christians similar to that of the Law
  3. The relevant passages in Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus); as there remains legitimate doubt, even among traditional-conservative commentators, as to whether these letters are authentically Pauline or pseudonymous, they are dealt with separately.

Part 1—Passages which refer specifically to the Old Testament Law

1 and 2 Thessalonians

There is no mention of the Law in either letter. The word a)nomi/a does appear (twice) in 2 Thess 2:3, 8, along with the related adjective a&nomo$ (used as a substantive, “the lawless [one]”). The privative prefix a)- indicates a lack of no/mo$ (“law”), i.e. “without law, lawless(ness)”. In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ (“without [the] Law, lawless”) as a general reference to non-Jews (Gentiles), those who do not have the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) as a source of religious and ethical guidance and authority. However, in Rom 4:7; 6:19, a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) is used as a general term synonymous with sin and wickedness, as also in 2 Cor 6:14 (and note in the Pastorals, Tit 2:14). Here in 2 Thessalonians, both terms are used in this latter sense, as indicated by the context, a)nomi/a being set parallel with a)postasi/a (“standing away from [God]”, i.e. “falling away”) and a)pw/leia (“[coming to] destruction, ruin”); in fact, in verse 3, some manuscripts read a(marti/a (“sin”) instead of a)nomi/a, further indicating the general equivalence.

1 Corinthians

1 Cor 6:12; 10:23—In both verses we find the declaration pa/nta moi e&cestin, which is sometimes translated “all things are lawful for me”; however, e&cestin literally indicates something coming “out of (that which) is”, i.e. that which is in a person’s power to do, or that which he/she is authorized and/or free to do. Even though Paul does not specifically mention the Law (no/mo$), it is likely that this statement relates directly to his view of the Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans) and the idea of the freedom believers have in Christ; indeed, the statement might be paraphrased as “I am free to do all things”. Commentators are generally agreed that this reflects a declaration (or “slogan”) by certain Corinthians believers, and one that Paul affirms, but only with qualification and careful explanation. Note how he proceeds:

  • ‘all things are (in) my (power to do)’, but not all things bring (themselves) together (for good);
  • ‘all things are (in) my (power to do)’, but I will not be (brought) under (the power) of any (thing)

He thus qualifies the declaration in two ways: (1) some things are not beneficial, esp. for the body of Christ as a whole, and (2) some things can come to dominate a person’s thinking and behavior, which likewise is not beneficial. The first of these points relates more directly to 1 Cor 10:23ff, where he is dealing with the question of eating food that has been sacrificed to pagan deities; the emphasis is on a concern for the conscience of one’s fellow believer. The second of these points, it would seem, is more relevant to the context of 1 Cor 6:12-20, which is a primarily a warning against engaging in prostitution and sexual immorality. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul’s teaching on Christians’ freedom from the Law is connected with: (a) a warning against immorality and “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:16-25; Rom 8:1-11f), as well as (b) demonstrating love and concern for others (Gal 5:13-15; 6:1-5; Rom 12:1-15:7).

1 Cor 7:18-19—As part of Paul’s instruction on marriage among believers in chapter 7, Paul introduces the idea of circumcision in verse 18. Circumcision played a major role in his discussion of the Law in Galatians, where he argues repeatedly, and in various ways, that believers (especially Gentile believers) are not obligated to be circumcised nor required to observe the other commands of the Torah. In this regard circumcision serves to symbolize the entire Torah, especially in its ritual and ceremonial aspects. Similarly, in Romans, Paul makes it clear that actual physical circumcision is irrelevant; true circumcision is of the heart, according to the Spirit (cf. Rom 2:25-29). Here in 2 Corinthians, circumcision is introduced to further demonstrate his basic rule of thumb that a person should remain in the state he/she was before becoming a believer—i.e., if a person was married, he/she should remain married; if single, then he/she ought to stay single. By extension, a Gentile believer should not be circumcised, and a Jewish believer should not try to cover up his circumcision. Paul then adds a decisive declaration in v. 19:

“Circumcision is nothing, and (having a) foreskin is (also) nothing, but (keeping) watch of the things of God (that are) set on (us to do) [i.e. the commands of God] (is something)…”

This is very similar to the statements in Gal 5:6; 6:15, which I have examined together in an earlier note. Here the “commands of God” should be understood either in a general sense, or in terms of the “Law of God” in 1 Cor 9:21 (cf. below), rather than as the commands of the Torah specifically.

1 Cor 9:19-21—In chapter 9, which is part of the larger discussion in chs. 8-10 of the question regarding eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, Paul emphasized how he has given up the freedom and rights he has an as apostle for the sake of others. Here in verse 19, he begins: “being free from all (people/things), I made myself a slave to all, so that I might gain the many [i.e. the more/most]”. In verses 20-21, he treats in parallel, his outreach to Jews and Gentiles, respectively—Jews are “the ones under the Law [u(po\ no/mon]”, while Gentiles are “the ones without (the) Law [a&nomo$]”. Paul came to be like each group—”as (one who is) under the Law” and “as (one who is) without (the) Law”; but note how he qualifies each of these identifications:

  • “…not being (my)self under the Law” (mh\ w&n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon)
  • “…not being without the Law of God” (mh\ w&n a&nomo$ qeou=)

The first phrase indicates that Paul himself, as a believer in Christ, is not under the Old Testament Law (any longer); while the second states that he (as a believer) is still under “the Law of God”, which is not the Torah, as the identification which follows makes clear:

“…not being without the Law of God, but (rather) in the Law [e&nnomo$] of Christ

Note the wordplay between “without the Law” (a&nomo$, ánomos) and “in the Law” (e&nnomo$, énnomos). Here “in the Law of Christ” should be be understood in relation to the expressions “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|) and “the Law of Christ” (o( no/mo$ Xristou=); in Gal 6:3, the “Law of Christ” is generally synonymous with the law/principle of love (Gal 5:14 etc, cf. Lev 19:18).

It should be noted that in verse 20, a good number of witnesses, especially Western and later MSS, are lacking the phrase “not being myself under the Law”; however, it is present in many of the “earliest and best” MSS (including [Ë46] a A B C D*), as well as a wide range of versions (incl. Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Gothic), and is almost certainly original. It may have fell out by accident (through parablepsis), though it is also possible that it was omitted intentionally—Paul’s admission that he was “not under the Law” could be viewed as problematic from a certain religious standpoint. Even today, many commentators are uncomfortable with the blanket declaration that Christians are “not under the Law”, and are reluctant to accept the statement in its plain sense.

1 Cor 15:56—At the conclusion of Paul’s famous (eschatological) treatment of the resurrection in chapter 15, we find the following declaration:

“…and the poking/pricking [i.e. sharp point] of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law

This uniquely Pauline understanding of the interrelationship between the Law, sin and death was developed extensively (and dramatically) in Romans, especially in chapters 5-7. For more on this, see the articles in this series on 3:21-5:21, 6:1-7:25, and the supplementary studies on 5:12-21 and 7:7-25.

2 Corinthians

2 Cor 3:1-18—This passage represents Paul’s most extensive and significant treatment of the Law (outside of Galatians and Romans); because of its importance and complexity, I will be discussing it in detail in a series of daily notes.

2 Cor 6:14-7:1—In verse 14, the word a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) is used, presumably with the same general meaning of “sin, wickedness, injustice”, etc., as in 2 Thess 2:3-8 (cf. above). However, some commentators hold that it should be understood here in the strict sense of “being without Law”, i.e. without the Torah (or refusing to observe its commands). In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul uses the related adjective a&nomo$ to describe Gentiles who live without the Torah; though, in this particular context, he is clearly referring to Gentiles prior to faith in Christ—once they come to faith, they are under “the Law of God” (synonymous with the “Law of Christ”), but not the Old Testament Law as such. Does the usage of a)nomi/a in 2 Cor 6:14 refer to the wickedness of unbelievers (non-Christians) or to Gentiles (even Gentile believers) who do not keep the Law? Most commentators accept the former interpretation, but, as I have already indicated, a minority hold the latter view. Much depends on the wider question of the origin and authorship of the entire passage 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, which I will be discussing in a separate article.


Phil 3:2-3—In Gal 5:6; 6:15 and 1 Cor 7:19, Paul declared decisively that the (physical) rite of circumcision (Greek peritomh/, “cutting around”) is of no account and has no bearing on believers in Christ whatsoever. Here he takes the next step, giving a spiritual interpretation to the rite and applying it to believers, much as he does in Romans 2:28-29. In verse 2, he appears to warn against certain Jewish Christian (“Judaizing”) opponents, referring to them in unusually crass and derisive terms (note the pun using katatomh/ “cutting down”, i.e. mutilation, instead of peritomh/, “cutting around, i.e. circumcision). His declaration in verse 3 is clear and forceful:

“For we [i.e. believers] are the circumcision—the (one)s doing (religious) service in (the) Spirit [of God] and boasting/exulting in (the) Anointed Yeshua—and not having confidence/assurance in the flesh”

Note here: (1) Paul’s regular contrast between the Spirit and the flesh, and (2) that circumcision is identified with being “in the Spirit” and “in Christ”—clearly this no longer has anything to do with a religious rite (but note the interesting association with baptism, cf. below). For a parallel with the idea of (true) worship taking place “in the Spirit”, see John 4:23-24.

Phil 3:4-8ff—In these verses, Paul continues the line of argument from vv. 2-3 (above), developing the contrast between his old religious life “in the flesh” and the new identity in Christ (and the Spirit). The old religious identity in this case was Jewish, including a strict observance of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). Paul affirms that he was a devout Pharisee (v. 5), and that in terms of ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosu/nh)—understood from a traditional religious standpoint, i.e. observing and fulfilling the commands and regulations of the Torah—he was “without fault” (a&mempto$) (v. 6). The traditional Jewish view would have held such religious devotion as gain or profit (ke/rdo$) for Paul; and yet, he states that he has come to regard it actually as loss (zhmi/a, something damaged or ruined). This new understanding is qualified by the expression “through the Anointed” (dia\ to\n Xristo/n); this may be understood as: (a) through the work of Christ, (b) through the presence of Christ in the Spirit, (c) on behalf of Christ, (d) for the sake of Christ, or perhaps some combination of these senses. In any event, it is clear that the new identity in Christ has rendered the old religious identity (which involved observance of the Law) of little or no value.

Phil 3:9—Verses 2-8 find their climax in this verse, where Paul states his ultimate goal is that “he should be found [eu(reqw=] in him [e)n au)tw=|, i.e. in Christ]”; this religious identity and realization is defined according to the term dikaiosu/nh (“just-ness, right-ness”, i.e. “justice, righteousness”). Throughout Galatians and Romans, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the fundamental contrast between justice/righteousness which comes from the Law (that is, from performing/observing its commands, i.e. “works of the Law”), and the justice/righteousness which comes through trust/faith in Christ (cf. Gal 2:16-21; 3:2, 5-6, 10-14, 21-24; 5:4-5; Rom 1:17; 3:19-20, 21-31; 4:4-5, 13-16; 6:14-15, etc). In this verse, he establishes three parallel contrasts:

  • my (own) [e)mo/$] righteousness
  • righteousness comes out of (observance of) the Law [e)k no/mou]
  • righteousness based upon works of the Law (implied)
  • righteousness that is from [lit. out of] God [e)k qeou=]
  • righteousness that comes through trust of Christ [dia\ pi/stew$ Xristou=]
  • righteousness based upon th(is) trust (in Christ) [e)pi\ th=| pi/stei]

This reflects a personalized version of what Paul declares more objectively in Romans 10:2-4ff.


Col 2:11ff—As in Phil 3:2-3 (above) and Rom 2:28-29, circumcision is spiritualized and applied to believers. Throughout Col 2:6ff, the expression “in Christ” (or “in him”) is used repeatedly—in vv. 6, 7, 9, 10. In verse 10, believers are identified as “the (ones who have been) filled up” (peplhrwme/noi) in him, this filling/fullness (plh/rwma) being understood on a cosmic scale. Verse 11 continues:

“…in whom [i.e. in Christ] you were circumcised [perietmh/qhte] with a circumcision [peritomh=|] made without hands, in the sinking out away from [i.e. the shedding off of] the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of (the) Anointed”

This “circumcision of Christ” is to be understood in terms of Christ’s death, as is clear from vv. 12ff. For the identification of believers with, and participation in, the death (and the resurrection) of Christ, see especially Romans 6:1-11 (also Rom 8:1-11; Gal 2:19-21); and note the association between circumcision and the death of Christ in Gal 6:14-15. In particular, this is realized symbolically in the rite of baptism, where believers put off the old and put on (lit. sink into [a garment]) Christ—the old self is removed just as the foreskin is removed in the rite of circumcision. In Col 3:5ff, this “old self” is connected with immoral/idolatrous behavior (i.e. “works of the flesh”), so there is clearly a practical ethical component to the instruction here. However, “circumcision” itself is understood entirely in spiritual terms, as something “made/done without hands” (a)xeiropoi/hto$). Elsewhere, this adjective is used, in a similar context (2 Cor 5:1), for a “heavenly dwelling” (the future glory reserved for the believer, perhaps tied to the idea of a “spiritual body” [1 Cor 15:42ff]). This motif itself reflects a spiritual interpretation and application of the Temple in early Christianity, as seen especially in Acts 7:35-53 (Stephen’s speech), where the earthly Temple and pagan idols are both described as things “made with hands” (vv. 41, 43, 48, and note v. 50); see a similar association in Acts 17:24; 19:26-27. There may be a connection back to the Temple sayings of Jesus (Mark 13:2; 14:58 par; John 2:19; Acts 6:13-14); the terms xeiropoi/hto$ (“made with hands”) and a)xeiropoi/hto$ (“made without hands”) appear in the version of the saying reported in Mark 14:58. At the very least, with regard to this saying, early Christians associated the Temple with Jesus’ own body (Jn 2:21-22)—this, in turn, helped to facilitate a  spiritual interpretation of the Temple itself (in the Pauline letters, cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 5:1ff; 6:16; Eph 2:21).

Col 2:14—In this verse, the Law is described as “the handwriting [xeiro/grafon]…which was under (and) against us”. Occasionally, Paul refers to the Old Testament Law specifically as a written work—using the term gra/mma (“written [word or letter]”), in Rom 2:27, 29; 7:6; 2 Cor 3:6-7, where the old covenant of the (written) Law is contrasted with the new covenant of the Spirit. Here the word is xeiro/grafon, i.e. something “written by hand”; there is likely an echo of circumcision as something “made/done by hands” (in v. 11, cf. above). The reference is best understood of the Law in a particular aspect—that of a written decree or judgment—as indicated by the use of do/gmata. In its fundamental sense, do/gma refers to something thought or considered to be true, proper, etc., but was regularly used in the specific (and technical) sense of an authoritative decision, esp. in the form of an official decree, judgment, ordinance, and so forth. The word never appears in the undisputed Pauline letters, only in Eph 2:15 where it is used (as here, in the plural) specifically of the Old Testament Law. The basic idea in context, however, is very much Pauline, as can be seen from Gal 2:19; 3:10-13; Rom 6:1-11; 7:4-6, where, by way of Christ’s sacrificial death, believers are said to die to the curse/judgment of the Law and to the Law itself.

Col 2:16-23—In this passage, there is a stress on the unimportance of ceremonial/ritual observances, especially the observance of holy days and dietary restrictions. This relates to portions of the Torah, as is clear from verse 16 (new moon, feasts, Sabbath), but almost certainly extends beyond this to external ritual and observance in general, as indicated by the parallel discussion in Gal 4:1-11 (where Gentiles are primarily in view). Paul seems to identify the Law—at least in its ritual/ceremonial aspects—in some way with the “elements [stoixei=a] of the world” (Col 2:8, 20; Gal 4:3). The observation of special days and dietary restrictions are also singled out in Rom 14:1-8; Paul regards them as matters of indifference, to be observed (or not) according to the conscience of each person. In this regard, note how Rom 14:14 would seem (decisively) to abolish dietary and purity laws for believers in Christ. Col 2:16-23 does not go this far, nor does it target the Torah commands directly (apart from v. 16), but the same principle applies. In Christ, believers have died to these “elements of the world” (v. 20) just as we have died to the Law.


Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (12:1-15:13, and Conclusion)

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Romans 12:1-15:13

Rom 12:1-15:13 is properly the exhortation (exhortatio) or hortatory section of the letter, which also contains parenetic material, i.e. practical instruction on ethical and religious matters (cf. Gal 5:1-6:10, which has a number of similarities with this section in Romans). Most of Paul’s teaching related to the Old Testament Law (Torah) is found in chapters 1-11; therefore, what remains of note in 12:1-15:13 may be dealt with more briefly, in summary fashion. I divide Rom 12:1-15:13 according to the following outline:

  • Opening Exhortation (12:1-12)
    Active (v. 1): “Make your bodies stand alongside [i.e. before] (God)…”
    Passive (v. 2): “Be changed in shape… in making the mind new again…”
  • Unity—Illustration of the Body (of Christ) (12:3-8)
  • Love—The ‘Love command’ (12:9-13:10)
    —vv. 9-13: Show love to one another
    —vv. 14-21: Show love to your enemies
    Excursus (13:1-7): Respect and obey governing authority
    —13:8-10: Love as fulfillment of the Law
  • Appeal—to live in the light and not in the darkness (13:11-14)
  • Instruction—regarding the “weak” and the “strong” (14:1-15:6)
    Threefold exhortation regarding those “weak” in faith/trust:
    —vv. 1-12: “Receive (them) toward you…”
    —vv. 13-23: “Do not judge…”
    —15:1-6: “We ought to bear their weaknesses…”
    —including a doxology for unity in Christ (vv. 5-6)
  • Exhortation to unity for Jews and Gentiles in Christ (15:7-13)

Romans 12:1-2

Here in this brief introductory exhortation, Paul makes use of language and imagery drawn from the sacrificial (Temple) ritual, applying it—spiritually and symbolically—to the life and person of the believer. As such, the Law is ‘fulfilled’ in a spiritual (or ethical) sense. Note especially:

  • the body (sw=ma) as a living sacrifice (qusi/a)—the noun qusi/a (and the verb qu/w) refer specifically to the sacrificial offering and its slaughter (cf. Hebrew jbz)
  • the mind (nou=$) conformed to the will of God (cf. the “Law of God” in Rom 7:22, 25)

Both of these are summarized as latrei/a, a term used for ritual service, but which Paul characterizes here as logiko/$. This adjective is nearly impossible to translate in English—literally it means “of the word/account [lo/go$]”, but used primarily in the more abstract sense “of reason”, i.e., “reasonable, rational”, etc. The mind, in particular, is that aspect of human nature which is able to recognize the will of God (cf. Rom 7:13-25). In any case, for Christians, religious “ritual” is understood according to the “inner person”—i.e., the mind, as renewed by the Spirit, in conformity with the will of God—but extending to the external body, as one lives out the Christian life.

Romans 13:8-10

Rom 12:9-13:10 is on the theme of love, which believers are to demonstrate to one another (12:9-13), and also to one’s enemies (12:14-21). This is sometimes referred to as the “love command”, based on Jesus’ incorporation of Leviticus 19:18 as part of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (along with Deut 6:4-5). According to Jesus’ teaching, especially as presented in Mark 12:28-34, “no other command is greater than these”, being far superior to all sacrificial offerings. Already in early rabbinic tradition (contemporary with Jesus), Lev 19:18 was considered to be a kind of epitome or summary of the entire Law, and so it was in early Christianity. Note how Paul frames the matter in Rom 13:8-10:

  • “the one loving the other (person) has (ful)filled the Law” (v. 8b)
  • —the commands (esp. the fundamental ethical commands [Exod 20:13-17]) are “summed up under the head in this (one) word [Lev 19:18]” (v. 9)
  • “…love is the filling/fullness [plh/rwma] of the Law” (v. 10)

Paul says virtually the same thing in Galatians 5:14 (cf. also Gal 6:2; 1 Thes 4:9; Col 3:14; 1 Tim 1:5). For other passages in the New Testament related to the ‘love command’, see James 2:8-12; John 13:34-35; 15:9-17; 1 John 2:5, 7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-12, 19-21; 5:1-3. Interestingly, while love for one’s enemies is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching (see esp. Matt 5:43-48 par), it is not normally associated with the exhortation to love in the passages listed above—there the emphasis is on showing love to one’s fellow believers.

Romans 14:1-15:6: On the “weak” and the “strong”

Paul’s instruction regarding the “weak” and the “strong” is actually an exhortation and advice for how the “strong” ought to behave toward the “weak”. By “strong” (oi( du/natoi, lit. “the [one]s with power”), Paul seems to mean believers who trust fully in the freedom they have in Christ, while the “weak” (o( a)sqenw=n, “the [one who is] lacking strength”), refers primarily to the believer who (still) feels obligated to follow certain religious/ritual practices. Paul classifies himself with the “strong” (cf. 15:1). It is likely that the “weak” include Jewish believers who feel under some obligation to observe dietary restrictions, Sabbaths and holy days, and so forth. However, Paul’s instruction here should by no means be limited to this context, for he uses very much the same line of instruction in 1 Cor 8-10, where Gentile believers are entirely in view (cf. also Gal 4:8-11). In any case, this passage certainly emphasizes the relative unimportance of ritual/ceremonial elements of the Law, such as:

  • dietary restrictions (14:2-4)—though he is not referring specifically to laws of kashrût here
  • observance of special (holy) days (14:5-6)

Paul would seem to consider such things as part of the old order of the world to which Christians have died, and are no longer bound to follow (Gal 4:1-11; Col 2:16-23; cf. also Gal 2:19; Rom 7:6, etc).

With regard to the Old Testament dietary and purity laws, Paul declares quite clearly that these have been removed—that is to say, nothing is “clean” or “unclean” in itself (cf. Mark 7:14-23 par; Acts 10:9-16; 11:5-10), though a person  might still feel compelled to regard it so. This is an important principle (cf. also in 1 Cor 8), which leaves any such regulation or restriction as a matter of personal conscience (to put it in modern terms), not to be imposed on another. The following principles also may be drawn out of the passage:

  • What should guide the believer is the Spirit, not regulations (from the Law), Rom 14:17
  • The one serving Christ is acceptable to God, Rom 14:18
  • Religious service is defined by faith/trust (not observance of the Law), Rom 14:23

Romans 15:7-13

In this appeal for unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ we have a summary of a major theme that has run all throughout the letter. This is important because, in Romans (as in Galatians), Paul is forging a new religious understanding and identity—one that is Christian, and not Jewish (that is, not limited to Israel). Of course, Paul does not use the term “Christian” yet, but one may combine two of his favorite expressions—(a) the ones trusting, using the participle of the verb pisteu/w, and (b) “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|)—to form the distinct concept of believers in Christ. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles are equal and united (Gal 3:26-28, etc)—there is no distinction whatsoever, and the Old Testament Law (Torah) plays no role at all. On the other hand, as Paul has discussed in chapters 9-11, Gentile believers are not to consider themselves in any way superior, having been grafted into a (spiritual) tradition stretching back to Abraham. In this regard, it is interesting the wording Paul uses in verse 8: “I count (the) Anointed to have become a servant of circumcision [dia/kono$ peritomh=$]…”, which probably should be understood in terms of Jesus’ birth and life (in the flesh) and his Israelite heritage (cf. Rom 1:3; 9:5; Gal 4:4)—elsewhere Paul uses the expression “of (the) circumcision” to refer to Israelites and Jews in the ethno-religious sense. Consider the structure of verses 8-9:

  • a servant of circumcision…
    over [u(per] the truth of God
    —unto [ei)$] the making firm [i.e. confirmation] of the promises of the Fathers
    —and (unto) the nations giving esteem/glory to God
    over [u(per] mercy

For an interesting parallel (in Gospel tradition) regarding Christ’s life and work in relation to both Israel and the nations, see Luke 2:29-32 (esp. v. 32, cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3).


In Romans, Paul presents what is by far his most thorough and complex treatment of the Law. In several respects, he has gone beyond the arguments utilized in Galatians, to offer a more ‘systematic’ and multi-layered presentation. I would summarize the main areas of expansion and exposition as follows:

  • God’s (impending) judgment against humankind will be based specifically in terms of deeds (“works”) committed, and according to the Law.
  • Jews and Gentiles both are “under the Law”—even Gentiles, who are unfamiliar with the Torah, experience the Law (of God) through the witness of creation (1:18ff) and the testimony of their own inner conscience (2:14-16; 7:13ff).
  • Jews and Gentiles are thus on equal terms before God, in that they—all human beings—are (enslaved) under sin.
  • The Law and Sin are interconnected—the Law brings knowledge and awareness of sin, while sin “uses” this knowledge to bring human beings into even greater bondage.
  • Sin is depicted (personalized) as a ruling, enslaving Power, and human beings are in bondage under him; however, this is according to God’s own purpose, so that He will be able to show mercy and favor (grace) to all people. God’s Favor itself is personalized (in Rom 5:15ff), and works in a manner antithetical to that of Sin.
  • God’s work in Christ—his sacrificial death (and resurrection)—destroyed the power of sin, and, with it, the binding force of the Law as well.
  • Believers experience freedom from the enslaving power of sin through trust in Christ, and, in particular, by identification with (and participation in) his death—through this death, believers effectively die both to sin and the Law. As such, the Law no longer has any binding force over believers (Rom 7:1-6)
  • It is in the mind and the “inner man” that human beings recognize the Law of God—a larger concept than the Torah, and synonymous with the Will of God. However, under the power of Sin (in the “flesh”), human beings are not able to fulfill this Law; only after being freed from sin’s power, and through the work of Spirit, can it be fulfilled.
  • Indeed, it is through the Spirit that believers live in conformity to God’s will (and no longer by observing commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law). This is demonstrated principally by the love that believers show, both to each other, and even toward one’s enemies; this love itself fulfills the Law.

The Salvation of “All Israel” in Romans 11

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This article, which is supplemental to the study on Paul’s View of the Law (in Romans 9-11), will attempt to clarify Paul’s complex address in chapter 11, particularly with regard to the declaration in verse 26a: kai\ ou%tw$ pa=$  )Israh/l swqh/setai (“and thus all Israel will be saved”). To begin with, it is important to keep the overall context of Romans 9-11 in mind when studying chapter 11; the following observations are especially significant:

  • The first argument (in Rom 9:6-13) of the section as whole, begins with the statement: “for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel” (v. 6b), i.e. not all Israelites are (the true) Israel.
  • Paul expounds this with the examples of Abraham and Isaac, to emphasize that true sonship and inheritance (of the blessing, etc) comes not from natural birth and ethnicity, but from the promise and favor of God (and God chooses and calls out whomsoever he wishes).
  • This is further applied in relation to the proclamation of the Gospel (the main theme of chapter 10)—Gentiles have responded to the Gospel, trusting in Christ, while many Israelites, God’s elect people, have failed (or refused) to accept Christ.

There is thus a fundamental connection between 9:6b and 10:15a:

“for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel”
or, “for not all the (one)s out of Israel are Israel” (9:6b)
“but not all (of them) listened under [i.e. obeyed] the good message” (10:15a)

Both use the expression “not all” (ou) pa/nte$), though the syntax of 9:6b makes this more difficult to see in translation. In any case, the implication is clear—only those (Israelites) who accept the Gospel are the true Israel. Now, to continue on with an analysis of chapter 11:

Paul’s initial address in Rom 11:1-12 contains a central argument (from Scripture), bracketed by two rhetorical questions (introduced with the formula le/gw ou@n, “I relate therefore…”). The central argument (in verses 3-10) draws upon the narrative in 1 Kings 19:9-18, of God’s revelation to Elijah as he sought refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb. Paul refers specifically to verses 10, 14, where Elijah laments to YHWH that he is the only prophet (of YHWH) left who has not been killed, and that the rest of Israel has forsaken the covenant (Rom 11:2b-3); God responds in verse 18 to the effect that there are still seven thousand in Israel who have not “bowed the knee to Baal”. Note how Paul phrases this in Rom 11:4: “I have left down [i.e. left behind] for myself seven thousand…”—the addition of e)mautw=| (“for/to myself”), shifts the meaning slightly from the original context of being spared from death (by the sword) to being chosen by God. We should observe carefully the points that Paul expounds from this passage:

  • Verse 5—he applies the situation in 1 Kings 9:9-18 to his own (current) time: “so then, even now in (this) time, there has come to be a (remainder) left behind [lei=mma] according to (the) gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)”. In verse 4, the verb used is kataleip/w (“leave down, leave behind”); the noun lei=mma is related to lei/pw, indicating something which is left (behind), either in a positive or negative sense. The word lei=mma is typically translated as “remainder” or “remnant”; but here, as indicated above, this remnant is understood as a people gathered out (the noun e)klogh/, from e)kle/gomai, “gather out”), i.e. elected by God, just as Israel herself was chosen as his people.
  • Verse 6—this gathering out is the result of the favor (xa/ri$) of God, and not because of anything the people have done. Here Paul moves away from the Old Testament passage again, which seems to tie the people’s being spared with their particular religious behavior; instead, he emphasizes that the gathering out is no longer (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, not any more”) based on works (“out of works”, e)c e&rgwn). He has already applied this very idea to the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
  • Verse 7—only the remnant obtains what Israel seeks after (cf. Rom 9:30-33), the rest were hardened (lit. turned to stone). The metaphor of “hardening the heart” is common in the Old Testament, most famously in the example of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, which Paul references in Rom 9:14-18.
  • Verse 12—this verse is transitional, following Paul’s answer to the (second) rhetorical question (in verse 11), and leading into the address of vv. 13-24. He introduces the first of several qal wahomer exclamations, arguing from the lesser to the greater—i.e., if in this lesser/inferior case it is so, then how much more so when…! The contrast is between Israel’s h%tthma (“loss, defeat”), parallel with para/ptwma (“falling alongside [i.e. over the line]”), and their plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”). The exact meaning of plh/rwma here is important for the overall flow and force of Paul’s argument; I think it is best to understand it in the sense of a restoration (filling up) of what was lost.

Romans 11:13-24 is the first of two addresses Paul makes to Gentile believers specifically, with regard to Israel and its salvation (vv. 13-14).

  • Verse 14—”if… I will [i.e. that I might] save some of them”—note Paul’s use of ti/$ (“some of them”)
  • Verses 15-16—Paul applies three more qal wahomer-style arguments, similar to the one in verse 12:
    • Israel’s a)pobolh/ (“casting away from”) and their pro/slhmyi$ (“taking/receiving toward”); it is not entirely clearly whether these should be understood as subjective genitives (their rejection/acceptance of the Gospel) or objective genitives (their rejection/acceptance by God), since either is possible, and they actually represent two aspects of the same situation.
    • The (currently) small number of Israelite believers as the a)pa/rxh (“beginning of [lit. from]”, i.e. the first grain of the harvest) and the (future) full number as the fu/rama (“[mass of] mixed/kneaded [dough]”).
    • This may also refer to the current “remnant” of Israel as the r(i/za (“root”), and those who will follow as the kla/doi (“branches”); though the “root” perhaps should be understood more generally as the true people of God (faithful Israel) extending back to Abraham. The context of vv. 17-24 strongly suggests this latter, wider interpretation.
  • Verses 17ff—in the illustration of the olive tree and its branches, some branches are “broken out” (e)cekla/sqhsan) and others are (currently) being “poked in” (e)nekentri/sqh$); the sense generally is that the new branches from the “wild olive” tree (i.e. Gentiles) take the place of those that were broken off.
  • Verse 20—the branches were broken off specifically for “lack of trust” (a)pisti/a), i.e. a failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Christ. This has to be understood in terms of Rom 9:6; 10:15 (cf. above).
  • Verse 23—similarly the grafting back in of branches broken off depends entirely on “not remaining in [i.e. upon] a lack of trust”—that is, they must come to trust in Christ.

Romans 11:25-32, the second of the two addresses directed at Gentile believers deals more directly with the question of Israel’s ultimate salvation. Paul now adopts a more decidedly eschatological focus.

  • Verse 25—Israel’s hardness (i.e. their inability/unwillingness to accept the Gospel) lasts until “the fulness of the nations should come in”. The use here of plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”) for the nations (Gentiles) is parallel to that in verse 12 for Israel; Paul probably understands it in the sense of the full (or complete) number, measure, etc. It is only then, once the Gentiles have fully come to Christ, that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26a).
  • Verse 26-27—the Scriptures Paul cites here are important for an understanding of v. 26a; the primary citation is from Isaiah 59:20-21a, along with Isa 27:9—the combination of elements is significant:
    • “the one rescuing” (o( r(uo/meno$)—Christ himself (1 Thess 1:10, etc), or God working through Christ.
    • “he will turn away from Jacob [i.e. Israel] a lack of (proper) fear [a)sebei/a] (of God)”—cf. Rom 1:18; here a)sebei/a (lack of fear/reverence) is synonymous with sin and wickedness in general, but also, specifically, with a lack of trust (a)pisti/a) in Christ. On the idea of Christ turning people from evil (using the verb a)postre/fw), see Acts 3:26.
    • “and this is the (agreement) set through [diaqh/kh] to them alongside [i.e. with] me”—diaqh/kh here in the sense of an agreement (covenant) between two parties (according to the Hebrew tyr!B=), referring to the “new covenant” in Christ and not the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18). For the principal Old Testament passage relating to the “new covenant”, see Jer 31:31-34.
    • “when I should take away from (them) their sins”—probably an allusion to Isa 27:9, here set in parallel with the citation from Isa 59:21a, i.e. “turning them away from” and “taking away from them”. For the specific association between removal of sin (and its power), through the death of Christ, and the “new covenant”, see Jesus’ words in Mark 14:24 (par Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20).
  • Verses 28-29—the juxtaposition (me\nde/ “on the one hand… on the other hand…”) Paul establishes in verse 28 must be analyzed and treated with great care:
    • me/n (on the one hand)—
      • kata\ to\ eu)agge/lion (“according to the good message”)
        • e)xqroi/ (“[they are] enemies“)
          • di’ u(ma=$ (“through you”, i.e. for your sake)
    • de/ (on the other hand)—
      • kata\ th\n e)klogh/n (“according to the gathering out”)
        • a)gaphtoi/ (“[they are] loved“)
          • dia\ tou\$ pate/ra$ (“through [i.e. because of ] the fathers”)
    • Paul uses this construction to highlight the sense in which they are (currently) hostile to the Gospel—it is for the sake of Gentiles, that they should come to Christ, as Paul describes earlier in vv. 11-24, 25 (cf. also 10:19-21). For more on this difficult teaching, see below.
  • Verse 31—the mercy which will be shown to Israel is the same that has been shown to Gentiles—that is, the sacrificial work of God in Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel, which has the power to make human beings right before God and to free them from the enslaving power of sin.

Finally, it is left to address specifically the statement in v. 26a: “and thus all Israel will be saved”. There are a number of ways this has been interpreted, which I represent by the following five options:

  1. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved by the mercy and favor of God, but apart from their coming to faith in Christ.
  2. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved collectively through the work of Christ, but in a mysterious way understood only by God, and not necessarily in the sense of “becoming Christians”.
  3. All Israelites alive at the return of Christ will come to faith in him, and will thus be saved.
  4. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all Israelites (and Jews) who trust in Christ.
  5. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all believers in Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Based on the statement in Rom 9:6 and the olive tree illustration in 11:17-24, Paul certainly would have affirmed the fourth and fifth views above, in the sense that the true Israel is to be identified with believers in Christ (cf. also Rom 2:28-29). However, in Romans 11, and especially in verses 25-32, it would seem that he actually has something like view #3 in mind—namely that, at the end of the age, upon the return of Christ (or shortly before), there would be a widespread conversion of all Israelites and Jews currently living, that together (and/or all at once) they would come to faith in Christ. It is important to remember that, when Paul penned Romans, many, if not most, of the Israelites and Jews of his own generation, who had failed or refused to accept the Gospel, were still living, and he could envision the possibility that they could all still come to faith. As is abundantly clear from his letters, Paul, like most early Christians, expected Christ’s return and the end of the current age to occur very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers. In this context, Paul’s eschatological hope for Israel here makes good sense. Admittedly, it is rather more difficult to apply to the situation today, where nearly two thousand years have gone by, and many generations of Israelites and Jews have passed away—a situation, I am quite certain, that never would have occurred to Paul. Even so, it is still possible to affirm the belief (or at least the hope) that there will be a widespread conversion of Israel before the return of Christ; and, indeed, may Christians today hold just such a view.

Interestingly, in recent decades, there have been an increasing number of commentators and theologians who would adopt an interpretation along the lines of #1 and 2 above, at least in the sense that Israelites and Jews will be saved by God without having to “convert” or “become Christian”. This may be related to what is called the “Two Covenants” or “Dual Covenant” theory, which I will discuss briefly in an explanatory article.

Most distinctive is Paul’s teaching that Israel’s ‘hardening’ against the Gospel is directly related to the missionary outreach to Gentiles. This reflects historical reality, in that there were Jews who fiercely opposed the early Christian mission, according to Paul’s own testimony and the narrative in the book of Acts. Persecution often fuels the success of a religious movement, galvanizing support and helping to forge a strong and distinctive identity. This may also reflect, at some level, a degree of “cognitive dissonance”—Paul and other Christians were forced to explain the success of the mission among Gentiles throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Italy (Rome), while many Jews, who (as the elect people of God) should have been more receptive, did not accept the Gospel. This leads Paul to two different explanations which he brings together in these chapters:

  • Not all Israelites are the true Israel (9:6), and
  • They fell away (i.e. refused to believe) in order to make room for the Gentiles to come to faith
    —this last proposition is most vividly illustrated by the image of the olive tree and the branches (11:17-24)

    • Paul viewed Christianity as the outgrowth of (faithful) Israel stretching back to Abraham (i.e., the “remnant” is the root of the tree)
    • The branches which are faithful and remain in the tree (cf. John 15:1-11) are the early Jewish believers
    • The branches of the wild olive tree are the Gentiles—believers are grafted into the tree of ‘true Israel’
    • The branches which were broken off (i.e., unbelieving Israelites and Jews) may yet come to faith and be grafted back in

Once the full number (or measure) of Gentiles have come to faith, then the unbelieving Israelites and Jews will have the covering removed from their mind (2 Cor 3:14-15) and will come to trust in Christ as well. This, at least, is how Paul appears to have viewed the matter. Fitting it into a particular eschatological framework today is, of course, especially difficult, as indicated by the wide range of interpretive approaches that have been adopted over the years.



Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (9:1-11:32)

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Romans 9-11

These famous chapters in Romans have been notoriously difficult to interpret, not least in terms of how exactly they fit into the overall structure of the letter. From the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, Rom 1:18-8:39 clearly represents the probatio, the presentation of arguments in support of the main proposition (Rom 1:16-17). I have already discussed in detail each of the four main sections which make up the probatio, according to the thematic division presented as four announcements:

  • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God) (article)
  • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah) (article)
  • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin (article)
  • Rom 8:1-39: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (article)

Through the arguments in these sections, Paul effectively expounds his central (two-fold) proposition:

“I do not feel shame upon [i.e. about] the good message [i.e. Gospel],
for it is the power of God unto salvation to every (one) th(at is) trusting—to the Yehudean {Jew} first and (also) to the Greek.
For the justice/righteousness of God is uncovered in it, out of trust (and) into trust, even as it has been written: ‘but the just/righteous (person) will live out of trust’.”

In chapters 9-11 he further expounds one portion specifically: “unto salvation to every one that trusts—to the Jew first and (also) to the Greek“. This section has been referred to as a refutatio—a refutation by Paul of (possible) arguments made especially by Gentiles in Rome with regard to the role and position of Jewish believers (cf. B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans Eerdmans [2004], pp. 237-9). However, I do not see Paul’s approach here as being appreciably different from the one he takes in earlier in chapters 2-4; there is an interesting symmetry and balance of presentation:

  • Rom 2-4—addressed primarily to Jews, emphasizing that Gentiles are on an equal footing before God with regard to both judgment and salvation
  • Rom 9-11—addressed primarily to Gentiles, emphasizing the (future) salvation of Israelites/Jews and their inclusion into the body of Christ

In between (Rom 5-8) Paul presents a kind of “salvation history”, an exposition of the Gospel message for all human beings—Jews and Gentiles alike. Chapters 9-11 actually have the character of a personal appeal or confession—indeed, this characterizes each of the sections (matching the numbered chapters):

  • Chapter 9—Paul’s confession (Rom 9:1-5)
  • Chapter 10—Paul’s confession (Rom 10:1-4)
  • Chapter 11—Paul’s appeal (Rom 11:1-6ff)

The opening verses of each section, with their personal and moving tone, lead into a presentation of arguments. The main issue at hand is how the Israelite/Jewish people relate to the new Christian identity. As a missionary and representative (apostle) of Christ, Paul saw how many of his fellow Israelites and Jews had been unwilling to accept the Gospel, some even being openly hostile to his missionary work (as narrated repeatedly in the book of Acts, cf. also 1 Thess 2:14-16, etc). Even Jewish believers could be opposed to his presentation of the Gospel, especially his unique view of the Law and his missionary approach to the Gentiles, as seen in Acts 15:1ff and throughout Galatians. At some level, this must have been traumatic for Paul, and difficult to understand—how could so many of God’s elect people, Israel, fail to trust in Christ? While he never really addresses this directly in his other surviving letters, it is clear that he had thought about it a good deal. The result is the wonderful, if somewhat enigmatic, exposition here in Romans 9-11.

I present my analysis of these chapters in summary, outline form, discussing several key verses in more detail in separate notes.

Romans 9

Rom 9:1-5—Paul’s personal address: Israel (“they are Israelites…”, vv. 4-5)

In vv. 1-3, Paul offers a moving confession of the sadness and burden he feels for his fellow Jews, whom he refers to as “my brothers” and “my kin (lit. ones coming to be [born] with me)”, and who, most notably, are Israelites (ei)sin  )Israhli=tai). This leads in vv. 4-5 to an announcement of the benefits and honors accorded to Israel by God, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh (“according to the flesh”, kata\ sa/rka). The setting forth (establishment) of the Law (nomoqesi/a) is, of course, one of these honors.

Rom 9:6-13Argument: Not all Israel is the true Israel.

This is defined clearly by Paul in verse 6:

“But (it is) not so that the word/account of God has fallen out [i.e. failed]: for these—all the (one)s out of Israel—are not Israel.”

The specific syntax of this last statement is important. The negative particle ou) governs the statement as a whole: ou) ga\rou!toi  )Israh/l (“for these…are not Israel”); and these (ou!toi) refer to the preceding phrase pa/nte$ oi( e)c  )Israh/l (“all the ones out of Israel”). Secondarily, one may also read the negative particle with pa/nte$, “not all the ones out of Israel.. are Israel”. The preposition e)k here means “out of” in the sense of physical/biological descent from (i.e. “offspring of the flesh”, v. 8). In other words the true Israel is not simply the same as all Israelites taken in the ethnic/cultural sense. Paul builds on this by returning to the example of Abraham from chapter 4 (cf. also Gal 3-4), emphasizing that Isaac was his “seed” according to the promise of God, and not simply out of his flesh. Abraham’s true descendants likewise are the “offspring of the promise” (ta\ te/kna th=$ e)paggeli/a$), v. 8. In a similar manner, Paul emphasizes that Isaac’s son Israel was chosen (“called out”) by God beforehand, in contrast to his other son Esau—i.e., the blessing was not based simply on birth or genealogy (vv. 11-13).

Rom 9:14-33Exposition: Three arguments, each beginning with a rhetorical question:

  • Vv. 14-18—”What then shall we declare [ti/ ou@n e)rou=men]? There is not injustice [a)diki/a] alongside God (is there)? May it not come to be (so)!”
  • Vv. 19-29—”You will therefore declare to me [e)rei=$ moi ou@n]: For what [i.e. why] then does He yet find fault (with us)? For who has stood against His counsel [i.e. what He has resolved to do]?”
  • Vv. 30-33—”What then shall we declare [ti/ ou@n e)rou=men]? That the nations not pursuing justice have taken hold of justice…but Israel, pursuing (the) Law of justice…did not arrive (first)…?

The first two arguments (vv. 14-29) relate to the example of Isaac in vv. 6-13, of how God chose Israel beforehand (over Esau). These verses came to be central to subsequent theological debates regarding “predestination” and the sovereignty of God—i.e., how God may accept one person and reject another, quite apart from anything done to deserve such blessing. Unfortunately, this doctrinal emphasis tends to wrench the passage well out of its original context, as is quite clear from the the concluding argument in vv. 30-33, where Paul returns to the main statement of v. 6. Because of their importance to Paul’s view of the Law, verses 30-33 will be discussed in a separate note.

Romans 10

Rom 10:1-4—Paul’s personal address: The Law and justice/righteousness (vv. 3-4)

Paul offers a personal confession, similar to that in 9:1-3; here he expresses his desire (and prayer) that Israel might be saved—”(my) need (expressed) [i.e. prayer] toward God over them unto (their) salvation” (v. 1b). In verses 2-3 he offers his diagnosis regarding Israel’s current situation:

“For I witness regarding them that they hold a fervent desire of God, but not according to (true) knowledge upon (Him); for, lacking knowledge of the justice/righteousness of God, and seeking to stand (up) th(eir) own [justice/righteousness], they did not put themselves (in order) under the justice/righteousness of God.”

Then follows, by way of contrast, the famous statement in verse 4, functioning as a concise (and controversial) summary of the Gospel:

“For (the) Anointed {Christ} is (the) te/lo$ of the Law unto justice/righteousness for every (one) th(at) is trusting.”

This verse (along with vv. 2-3) will be discussed in a separate note.

Rom 10:5-13Argument: Justice/righteousness is realized in Christ.

This argument is essentially a commentary on Leviticus 18:5, which Paul also cites in a similar context in Gal 3:10-14. It is part of his regular contrast between the Law, which one observes by doing (“works of the Law”), and trust/faith (in Christ). The contrast is stark indeed—”justice/righteousness out of the Law” vs. “justice/righteousness out of faith/trust”. His supplemental usage here of Deut 30:11-14 is interesting, illustrating dramatically the righteousness based on doing, taken to extremes: “step up into the (high) heaven…step down into the deep (pit)”, adding the detail that the purpose is to “bring the Anointed down” and “bring the Anointed up”. The idea seems to be that this righteousness through deeds (i.e. observance of the Law) effectively takes the place of the true righteousness of God found in Christ, as expressed in v. 3. Another difference is that true righteousness is realized through the “utterance in the mouth… and in the heart” (v. 8, citing Deut 30:14); this utterance (r(h=ma) is then identified with the “word” or proclamation (kh/rugma) of the Gospel. Paul cites a kerygmatic formula in verse 9, expounding it in vv. 10-11, and applying it to all people—Jews and Gentiles equally—who trust in Christ, and confess this trust, i.e. “all who call upon him” (v. 12f, citing Joel 2:32 [cf. Acts 2:21]).

Rom 10:14-21Exposition: The Proclamation of the Gospel, and Israel’s response to it, in three parts:

  • The proclamation of the Gospel (vv. 14-15)
  • Israel’s response to the Gospel—not all have faith (vv. 16-17)
  • Evidence of this in the Scriptures (vv. 18-21, citing Psalm 19:4; Deut 32:21; Isa 65:1-2)

The statement in v. 16, “not all have obeyed [lit. listened/heard under] the good message”, relates back to the main argument in 9:6—not all Israelites are (the true) Israel. The implication is, that the true Israel is represented by those who accept the Gospel and trust in Jesus Christ. This is the message of chapters 9 and 10, in summary form. It is important to keep this in mind when studying chapter 11 (below).

Romans 11

Rom 11:1-12—Paul’s address (and argument): The People of God (“His people”, vv. 1ff)

The structure of this chapter is somewhat different from the previous two—here Paul’s personal address in relation to Israel is embedded within a larger discussion of Israel’s role as the people of God. Verses 1-12 actually form an argument from Scripture (vv. 3-10), framed by two similar rhetorical questions:

  • Vv. 1-2: “I relate then [le/gw ou@n]…”
    Question: “God has not pushed his people away from (him, has he)?”
    Answer: “May it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]!… God has not pushed away from (him) his people whom he knew before(hand).”
  • Vv. 11-12: “I relate then [le/gw ou@n]…”
    Question: “They have not started to fall (so) that they should fall (completely, have they)?”
    Answer: “May it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]! But by their falling alongside, the salvation for the Gentiles (has come), to bring them [i.e. Israel] along to a burning (desire) [i.e. to jealously].”

The central argument from Scripture (vv. 3-10) draws upon the narrative from 1 Kings 19:9-18, and the idea of a faithful remnant of Israel—”so then also in this time now there has come to be a (remainder) left over, according to the gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)” (v. 5).

Rom 11:13-32Exposition: A Two-fold address to Gentile believers:

  • Vv. 13-24—Illustration of the olive tree and its branches
  • Vv. 25-32—Discourse on the (eschatological) salvation of Israel

Rom 11:33-36—Doxology on the wisdom and knowledge of God

Because of the importance of this chapter, especially verses 13-32, in terms of Paul’s view of the Law, as well as the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Christ, it will be discussed in more detail in a supplementary article.



Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (8:1-39)

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Romans 8:1-39

This is the fourth, and final, major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first three sections were:

  • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God) (article)
  • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah) (article)
  • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin (article)

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows:

  • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
    —8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
    —8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
    —8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
    —8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
  • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

Having just worked intensively through the relation between Law and Sin (see the article on Rom 7:7-25), with the emphasis on the believer’s freedom (in Christ) from both, Paul now proceeds to discuss the life of the believer in the Spirit (of God and Christ). This thematic emphasis is, in some ways, parallel to the exhortation in Galatians 5:16-25—believers who are freed from the binding force of the Law (and Sin), now live according to the power and guidance of the Spirit.

Verses 1-11

The theme of this section is the conflict for believers between the Spirit and the Flesh, introduced by Paul in Rom 7:14, but which is more familiar from the famous discussion in Gal 5:16ff. In Rom 7:7-25, human beings were dramatized as struggling with the flesh, but under the enslaving power of sin and the Law; now, having been delivered from the Law and sin, the struggle with the “flesh” (sa/rc) remains. This deliverance is defined according to two principal declarations:

  1. “Now there is not any [ou)de/n] judgment against [kata/krima] the (one)s (who are) in (the) Anointed Yeshua” (v. 1)—addressed collectively to all believers, this describes the elimination of judgment (by God) against human beings (announced in Rom 1:18ff); this judgment was the result of violation of the Law by human beings, under the power of sin. This removal of judgment is the product of “justification”, of God “making (things) right” again for humankind, and, in particular, of making believers right and just in His eyes.
  2. “For the Law of the Spirit of life, in (the) Anointed Yeshua, has set me free from the Law of Sin and of Death” (v. 2)—here Paul personalizes the matter “set me free”, much as he does in 7:7-25; however, other manuscripts read “set you free”, and this is preferred by some commentators—either way, the personal pronoun is representative of all believers. Here we find also a new use of the word no/mo$ (“law”) in the expression o( no/mo$ tou= pneu/mato$ th=$ zwh=$ (“the Law of the Spirit of Life”)—pneu=ma here certainly referring to the (Holy) Spirit. In Galatians, the Spirit is seen as taking the place of the Law for believers (cf. Gal 5:16ff), and should be understood in this way here, but with the added emphasis on its sanctifying and life-bestowing power—Life contrasted with Death. The expression “the Law of Sin and Death” is an expansion of “the Law of Sin” in Rom 7:23-25; it reflects the dynamic of Sin and the Law at work, both against each other, and also working together according to God’s purpose (see esp. Rom 11:32). The expression should not be reduced simply to the “principle of sin”.

In verses 3 and 4, this deliverance is described in terms of Christ’s sacrificial death:

“For the powerless (thing) of the Law [i.e. what the Law lacked power to do], in which [i.e. in that] it was weak through the flesh, God (has done), sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us—the (one)s not walking about according to (the) flesh, but according to (the) Spirit.”

This is a complex sentence and rather difficult to translate, but it effectively summarizes Paul’s view of the Law and “Justification”:

Because the “flesh” of human beings was enslaved under the power of sin, the Law of God (as expressed in the commands of the Torah) only served to increase and reinforce humanity’s bondage—it resulted in death, not life. As such, the Law (Torah) did not have the power to make human beings right before God, because human beings lacked the power to fulfill the requirements of the Law. The requirements of the Law were fulfilled for us (lit. “in us”) through God’s work in Christ, i.e. his death. The reality of this deliverance for believers should be reflected by their “walking according to the Spirit”, and not “according to the flesh” (cf. Gal 5:16ff).

In Rom 7:7ff, Paul described the presence and work of Sin “in the flesh” (e)n th=| sarki/, v. 18), now he describes the presence and work of the Favor/Grace of God “in the flesh”. His view of this is incarnational—Christ is sent (and is born, Gal 4:4) “in the likeness of flesh of sin” (cf. also Phil 2:7), and this becomes the location where the power of sin is removed (God literally “judges against” sin, pronouncing sentence against it). For more on Rom 8:4, in comparison with the similar passage in 2 Cor 5:21, see the supplemental daily note.

The remainder of this section, vv. 5-11, follows very much in line with Galatians 5:16-25, contrasting the Spirit with the flesh. Paul’s use of the word translated “flesh” (sa/rc) is complex and highly nuanced; it primarily refers to the human body, and its parts, but especially in the sense that it is affected and influenced by the impulse (e)piqumi/a) to sin. Paul clearly believed that this impulse to sin still remained in the “flesh”, even for Christians (Gal 5:17), but the enslaving power of sin had been removed—believers now have the freedom and ability to choose to follow God’s will. This choosing is expressed by use of the word fro/nhma (vv. 6-7, also in v. 27), rather difficult to translate, but which indicates the exercise of the mind, both in terms of understanding and the will. In typically dualistic fashion, Paul contrasts the fro/nhma th=$ sarko/$ (“mind[edness] of the flesh”) with the fro/nhma tou= pneu/mato$ (“mind[edness] of the Spirit”). In verses 9-11, Paul gives a threefold qualification of the Spirit:

  • the “Spirit of God” (pneu=ma Qeou=) which dwells (“houses”) in [e)n] believers (v. 9a)
  • the “Spirit of [the] Anointed {Christ}” (pneu=ma Xristou=), which likewise is in [e)n] believers (v. 10), but believers are also said to “hold” it (v. 9b)
  • the “Spirit of the (one) raising Yeshua from the dead” (i.e. of God), which also dwells in [e)n] believers, and gives life to our mortal (lit. “dying”) bodies just as Christ was raised from the dead (v. 11)

Verse 10 will be discussed further in a separate daily note.

Verses 12-17

The contrast between the Spirit and the flesh continues in these verses, which likewise have strong parallels with Galatians:

  • V. 12: An exhortation not to live “according to the flesh” (kata\ sa/rka)—cf. Gal 5:16-17
  • V. 13: A reminder that living/acting according to the flesh leads to death, while the opposite leads to life—cf. Gal 6:7-8; for the idea of “putting to death the deeds of the body”, see Gal 5:24 (also 6:14)
  • V. 14-16: Declaration that through the Spirit believers are made sons/offspring of God—cf. Gal 3:26; 4:1-6
    —in particular, verse 15 is extremely close to Gal 4:5-6
  • V. 17: The declaration follows that, if we are sons of God, then we are also his heirs—cf. Gal 3:29; 4:1ff (esp. verse 7); Paul adds here the detail that we are co-heirs (“ones receiving the lot together”) with Christ (see Rom 8:29)

Verses 18-25

The theme of believers as sons (and heirs) of God continues in this section with the hope (and promise) of future glory (new creation) that we have through the Spirit. In a truly beautiful, if somewhat enigmatic, passage, Paul describes all of creation as currently in the process of giving birth to something new—”the glory of the offspring of God” (v. 21). Believers are the “firstfruits” of this new creation, a process of our being realized as sons/children of God which will only be completed with our final resurrection and glorification—”the loosing of our bodies from (the bondage of death)” (v. 23). This also is ultimately the realization of salvation (“by [this] hope we are saved”, v. 24).

It is important to note the way Paul extends the idea of slavery (doulei/a) and freedom (e)leuqeri/a), which he applied specifically to the human condition in Rom 6-7, to all of creation in 8:21-22. Certainly he is drawing here upon the same Genesis 3 narrative that inspired him in Rom 5:12ff. The implied actor of the verb u(pota/ssw (“put [in order] under”, i.e. place under authority) in 8:20 is not entirely certain; based on the context elsewhere in Romans, there are only two possibilities—(a) God, or (b) Sin—the former being more likely. Even if it is Sin (through the sin of Adam, Gen 3:17-19) that subjects creation to bondage, ultimately God is the one controlling this process. The idea that creation was enslaved, it would seem, for the purpose of being freed (by God), correlates well with the declaration in Rom 11:32.

Verses 26-30

This section emphasizes that believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit, which Paul describes in two ways:

  • Vv. 26-27—The Spirit works on our behalf before God, described according to two richly detailed, compound verbs:
    sunantilamba/netai, “he takes (hold) together opposite (us)”, i.e. he helps and assists us “in our lack of strength”
    u(perentugxa/nei, “he reaches in (and) over (us)”, i.e. he meets us and intercedes on our behalf, specifically in the context of prayer, of “speaking out toward” God
  • Vv. 29-30—God works on our behalf; here Paul presents a schematic or chain of what could be called an “order of salvation”:
    proe/gnw, “he knew before(hand)”
    prow/risen, “he marked out before(hand)”
    e)ka/lesen, “he called”
    e)dikai/wsen, “he made right”, or “he made/declared just”
    e)do/casen, “he esteemed [i.e. granted honor/glory]”
    Between verses 29 and 30, Paul inserts a specific theological/Christological statement: “…with the shape of the image of His Son, unto his being [i.e. that he should be] the first produced [i.e. first-born] among many brothers”—that is to say, believers are marked out (chosen) to take on the form and image of Christ, to be children (and heirs) together with him (cf. verse 17).

In verse 28, in between his description of the work of the Spirit (vv. 26-27) and the work of God (vv. 29-30), Paul adds the following (and justly famous) declaration:

“…to the (one)s loving God all things work together unto good—to the (one)s being called according to (what He has) set forth before(hand).”

Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

The final section of 1:18-8:39 is a doxology, in praise of God’s love, so beautiful and remarkable that it virtually defies analysis. I will make not attempt here to comment upon it in this short space, other than to highlight briefly several points in the text which are relevant to Paul’s view of the Law:

  • Verse 32—the use of the verb xari/zomai, “show favor, give/grant as a favor”: pw=$ ou)xi\xari/setai “how shall he not…show favor”? The related noun xa/ri$ is used frequently by Paul, especially here in Romans (Rom 3:24; 4:4, 16; 5:2, 15ff; 6:1, etc), where it is set directly in contrast with both the Law and Sin, esp. in Rom 5:15ff; 6:14-15. God takes delight in his people and shows favor to them, and all the more so for believers in Christ—he demonstrates his favor by (freely) granting to them “all things” (ta\ pa/nta).
  • Verses 33-34—the legal/judicial language in these verses reflects Paul’s statements and arguments about the Law and “justification” in Galatians and Romans:
    • katakri/nw (“judge against”), here personified under a substantive (verbal noun) form, “the (one) judging against (us)”. This is associated in v. 33 with the verb e)gkale/w (“call in”, i.e. call someone in to answer charges or to give account).
    • dikaio/w (“make right, declare just/right”); note the parallel form “the (one) making/declaring (us) right”, contrasted with “the one judging against (us)”. This verb, along with related words of the dik-/dikaio- group, are used frequently by Paul. Note also the associated verb e)ntugxa/nw, parallel with e)gkale/w—the one making right (God) comes in to meet and help us, as opposed to the one calling us in to be judged.
  • Verses 35ff—xwri/zw (“to separate, set apart”) and a)ga/ph (“love”): “who will separate us from the love of God?”. These two words dominate verses 35-39.
    • The first (xwri/zw) is related to xwri/$ (“separate, apart from”), which Paul uses in Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6; 7:8-9 in relation to the Law—”apart from (works of) the Law”, i.e. believers experience the favor and righteousness of God entirely apart from observing the Law (Torah). Here in 8:35ff, Paul makes a declaration in the opposite direction: nothing can put believers apart from the love and favor of God. Sometimes this “separation” is thought of as a wall or barrier, but the Greek word properly refers to space between—in Christ there is no space between us and God.
    • The second (a)ga/ph) is, of course, the most widely used word in the New Testament indicating love—the love which God has for us, and which we have toward God (and each other). God’s love (a)ga/ph) and the favor (xa/ri$) he shows to human beings are closely related, especially as described by Paul here in Romans. In particular, God demonstrates both his love and favor in the person and work of Christ on behalf of sinful humanity, cf. especially in Rom 3:24; 5:1-11, 15-17.

The Law and Sin in Romans 7:7-25

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The famous passage in Romans 7:7-25 has been discussed countless times by commentators and theologians over the years, and it is not remotely possible even to begin surveying this scholarship—nor all the relevant aspects of interpretation—within one relatively short article. My purpose here is threefold:

  1. To offer my view on the essential context of the passage—namely, the force and significance of Paul’s use of the first person (“I”)
  2. To present an exegetical outline, in the hopes of illustrating, clearly and simply, how Paul understands the relationship between the Law and Sin in the context of the passage.
  3. To give a summary distillation on “Paul’s View of the Law”, in terms of this particular passage.

The “I” of Romans 7:7-25

Paul casts this section in the first person, using “I, my”, etc throughout. This has given rise to considerable debate among interpreters over the centuries, and especially in more recent times. Is the use of the first person autobiographical (describing Paul’s own experience), or is a rhetorical and literary device? Most critical commentators today assume the latter, and, in this, they are almost certainly correct; even so, the question would still remain—who precisely is Paul representing in this section? There are several possibilities:

  • Human beings generally, prior to the coming of Christ
  • Israelites/Jews specifically, prior to the coming of Christ (or prior to faith in Christ)
  • Human beings (believers) prior to coming to faith in Christ
  • Believers generally in their struggle with the flesh and sin

A comparison with Romans 5:12-21 suggests that Paul in 7:7-12 is drawing upon the condition of human beings up until the time the Law (Torah) was introduced. Both passages provide colorful interpretations of the situation described in the Genesis 3 narrative, with Sin as the main actor; note, for example, the way sin “deceives”—e)capata/w in v. 11, compared with a)pata/w in Gen 3:13 [LXX]. Paul personalizes the narrative, giving a dimension of psychological realism and drama to it. The introduction of the Law (Torah) in vv. 9ff might suggest that Israelites and Jews specifically are in focus; however, by verse 22 it becomes clear that a somewhat wider view of the Law is meant—one which embraces all human beings (Jews and Gentiles alike). I take Rom 7:7-25 as parallel with 5:12-21—in the earlier passage, Paul is describing the presence and work of Sin in the world (e)n ko/smw|, v. 13); while in 7:7ff, it is the presence and work of Sin in the flesh (e)n th=| sarki/, v. 18). This focus within the human being makes Paul’s personalizing approach (“in me” e)n e)moi/, “in my flesh” e)n th=| sarki/ mou) both appropriate and effective.

Rom 7:7-12 is cast in the past tense, 7:13-25 primarily in the present. This would seem to indicate that in vv. 13ff Paul is describing the current situation of human beings (“under the Law” and “under Sin”): (a) prior to the coming of Christ, and/or (b) prior to faith in Christ. However, there are several details in the text—especially in vv. 13-25—which could be taken as applying specifically to believers in Christ, i.e., of the struggle believers face with regard to the flesh and sin even after coming to faith. Here are the most notable:

  • Verse 9—e)gw\ de\ e&zwn xwri\$ no/mou pote/ (“I was living apart from the Law then”). Elsewhere, Paul uses the expression “separate/apart from the Law” (xwri\$ no/mou) referring to faith and the work of God in Christ (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6, etc), so one might think that the Christian condition is meant here as well. However, almost certainly, Paul is simply indicating the human situation prior to the introduction of the Law, with no/mo$ used in the strict sense of the Old Testament/Jewish Torah. The verb za/w (“live, have life, be alive”) is meant in the ordinary, conventional sense of human life and existence, and not of “life in Christ” or “eternal life”.
  • Verse 9—h( a(marti/a a)ne/zhsen (“sin came up to life”). The verb a)naza/w could be understood as “be alive, come to life again“; this might mean, in a Christian context, that sin died once (through Christ) and then came to life again (for believers). Probably, however, the force of the particle a)na here is simply “up”—i.e., that sin sprang up to life through the command of the Law.
  • Verse 17—nuni\ de\ ou)ke/ti e)gw\ katerga/zomai au)to\ (“now [it is] no longer I working/accomplishing it…”). Within the context of vv. 13-25, this could certainly be taken in the sense that a person (i.e., a believer) does not truly will to commit sin, and that it is the sin dwelling/remaining in the flesh which can act against a person’s will.
  • Verse 22—kata\ to\n e&sw a&nqrwpo/n (“…according to the inner man”). Elsewhere, Paul uses this language in relation to the inward (spiritual) renewal of believers (2 Cor 4:16), and the same expression “the inner man” is used in Eph 3:16. It is sometimes assumed that the expression refers to something only possessed by Christians, but this is far from certain. Paul also refers to a renewing of the mind (nou=$) in Rom 12:2 (cf. also Eph 4:23), an aspect of human nature presumably possessed by believers and nonbelievers alike. His idea of the “inner man” in the context of Rom 7:7-25 probably relates more to the human mind and conscience generally.
  • Verse 25—Curiously, after Paul’s declaration of thanksgiving in v. 25a, introducing God’s work through Christ which rescues human beings from the “body of death” (v. 24), he restates the situation of the human condition, from the prior verses, in v. 25b. This could be taken to mean that the conflict so described applies specifically to believers, even after coming to faith in Christ.

Perhaps the strongest association of the conflict in Rom 7:7-25 with believers comes from the parallel in Gal 5:17, where Paul briefly describes a dynamic similar to that in Rom 7:13-25. Clearly, in Gal 5:16-25, Paul is addressing believers who are in the Spirit, and yet he speaks of a conflict with the flesh in terms very much like those in Rom 7. But it is just here that we find the greatest difference between the two passages—in Rom 7:7-25 the person struggles against the flesh, but also against the Law and Sin, whereas in Gal 5 only the flesh is involved. According to Paul’s teaching, believers in Christ are freed from bondage to the Law and sin; but he never claims a similar freedom from the flesh—Christians must continue to struggle against the flesh, dying to its influence every day, through identification with Christ’s own death, and through the guiding work and power of the Spirit.

An exegetical outline of Romans 7:7-25

In this section, Paul especially addresses the relationship between the Law and Sin. He does this first by way of an important rhetorical question in v. 7a: “What then shall we declare? (Is) the Law sin?“—to this, he gives a decisive answer, mh\ ge/noito, “may it not come to be (so) [i.e. by no means, God forbid]!” But, if the Law is not identical with sin, how are we to understand the close relationship between the Law and sin, such as he describes throughout Galatians and here in Romans, to the point of using “under the Law” and “under sin” as nearly synonymous expressions? This is what he attempts to explain and expound in vv. 7ff. I divide the passage into three sections, or scenes, each of which describes a distinctive situation involving human beings (represented by Paul in the first person) in relation to the Law:

  • Rom 7:7-12—Scene 1: Introduction of the Law (Torah) over humankind
    • V. 7a—Rhetorical Question: “Is the Law sin?” (may it not be!)
    • Vv. 7b-8—Answer/Explanation (main proposition): the Law brings about knowledge/awareness of sin (cf. Rom 3:20)
      • The command (v. 7b)—example from the Decalogue (Ex 20:17): “Do not set (your) heart upon…”
      • Sin “uses” the command (v. 8) to work/produce instances of “setting the heart upon” illicit/prohibited things
    • Vv. 8b-9—Expository transition:
      • apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) sin is dead (nekra/), v. 8b
      • apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) I was living (e&zwn), v. 9
    • Vv. 9-11—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
      • Sin (already present) comes up to life (in the human being) with the command (v. 9)
      • The command leads to death, not life (v. 10)
      • Sin acts (deceptively) through the command, to kill (v. 11)
    • V. 12—Expository transition (statement regarding the Law):
      • The command is holy, just and good…(how then, does it lead to sin and death?)
  • Rom 7:13-20—Scene 2: Humankind under the Law (of God)
    • V. 13a—Rhetorical Question: “Did the thing that is good come to be death for me?” (may it not be!)
    • Vv. 13b—Answer/Explanation (secondary proposition): the Law makes sin to “shine forth”, i.e., become apparent/manifest
      • Action: The Law works/produces death through the command
      • Purpose: So that Sin would come to be (seen for what it is)—i.e. completely sinful
        —Manifestation of the power of Sin: flesh is in bondage to it (v. 14)
    • Vv. 14-20—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
      Contrast/conflict: The Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly—Spirit vs. Flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25)

      • I work (“under sin”):
        —lacking true knowledge: “I do not know” (v. 15)
        —the will is trapped between: the Law (good, v. 16) and sin in the flesh (evil, b. 17)
        —the will is weakened by sinful flesh (v. 18)
        —the person does the opposite of the will (v. 19)
      • It is the power of sin working in me (v. 20)
  • Rom 7:21-25—Scene 3 (Illustration): Humanity subject to the Law (of God) and the Law (of Sin)
    • V. 21—Statement of two contradictory laws (Rhetorical Illustration/Identification: “I find… in me”)
    • V. 22—The Law of God: in the “inner man”
    • V. 23—The Law of Sin: in the (outer) members (i.e., bodily parts, the “flesh”)
    • V. 24—Rhetorical Question: “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
      —and the Answer (implied), v. 25a: “…God through Jesus Christ our Lord”
    • V. 25b—Concluding summary statement (of the two contradictory laws):
      • me\n (on the one hand): “with the mind I am a slave to the Law of God”
      • de\ (on the other hand): “with the flesh (I am a slave) to the Law of Sin”

Paul’s View of the Law in Romans 7:7-25

As the above outline should make clear, Romans 7:7-25 is a dense network of arguments and illustrations, images and symbols, drawing upon nearly everything that Paul has said thus far in Romans about the Law (and Sin). It is the power of his personalized (first person) presentation that makes his exposition so memorable. As the history of exegesis and interpretation amply shows, believers (i.e. those hearing and reading Romans) were likewise able to identify themselves with the “I” in the passage—which was doubtless Paul’s aim and intent in using such a literary device. But what do these verses say specifically regarding Paul’s view of the Law? To begin with, there are two fundamental beliefs or propositions which he expresses throughout the passage:

  1. The Law (Torah) itself is not sinful, nor to be identified with sin (v. 7)—rather, it is holy, just and good (v. 12), and is spiritual (v. 14), reflecting the will of God (the Law of God, in the wider sense).
  2. Though he does not state it specifically here until verse 14, by comparison with the rest of Romans (and Galatians), it is clear that, in his view, human beings were in slavery and bondage to Sin (“under sin”) even before the introduction of the Torah.

With these two ideas in mind, it is possible to summarize some key points related to the overall exposition in vv. 7-25:

  • The main purpose of the Law is twofold: (1) to bring about knowledge and awareness of sin (v. 7, cf. also 3:20), and (2) to make sin itself appear in its true (sinful) nature (v. 13). These are two sides of the same coin—one emphasizes human perception and experience, the other emphasizes the power and presence of sin itself. How does this happen?
  • Revelation of sin comes through the command (e)ntolh/) of God as expressed in the Torah—particularly, as Paul illustrates here (vv. 7-8), through the fundamental ethical-moral commands, which would tend to be shared by most non-Israelite/Jewish peoples as well. Until there is a specific injunction or prohibition which is to be obeyed or followed, sin is “dead”—that is, it possesses no conceptual or experiential reality for human beings. With the introduction of the command, sin literally “comes up to life” (v. 9).
  • Sin holds power over human beings (their flesh), but it does not lead to death until the command is violated (cf. Gen 3:3, 11, 22). As in the Genesis narrative, death is to be understood in the normal sense of physical death, and not as some kind of “spiritual death”—it is the body that dies or is dead as a result of sin (Rom 8:10f).
  • There are several aspects to Paul’s view of death that comes as the result of sin: (1) as a future fate and judgment, (2) as a condition or judgment realized already in the present, and (3) as an active power (along with Sin) at work in the world (and the flesh).
  • Sin enslaves human beings externally in the surrounding world (Rom 5:12ff), but also, more notably, internally in the “flesh”. The power of sin dwells and works in the flesh, specifically the body and its parts.
  • The human will is conflicted and torn between the power of sin in the flesh and the mind or “conscience” which recognizes the command (the Law of God).
  • The “Law of God” is a wider concept than the Torah, as it relates to the “inner man”, the human mind and/or conscience. As such, it applies even to Gentiles who do not have the Torah (cf. Rom 2:12-16, 26-28). In this regard, Paul refers principally to the fundamental ethical/moral aspects of the Law; he never attempts to make a similar connection with the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.

It is fair to assume that the people represented by Paul’s “I” in Rom 7:7-25 primarily represent believers prior to coming to faith in Christ. At any rate, they should be distinguished from the situation in Rom 1:21ff—there, human beings have fallen into idolatry and immorality, and God gives them over to even greater wickedness; here, by contrast, human beings are struggling with their conscience, wishing to live in an upright manner according to the Law of God, but unable to accomplish this because of the power of sin and the weakness of the flesh. One should consider the situation in Rom 7:7-25 as that of the “righteous” (Jew and Gentile alike), in the conventional/traditional religious and ethical sense, who wish to be faithful to the Law and to do good—but even they are enslaved by the power of sin. The Law reveals and makes manifest the reality of this bondage; the only hope of rescue from it comes through the work of God in Christ (v. 25).