Paul and the law

Paul's apparently contradictory statements about the law can be explained by distinguishing between his moral and soteriological usages of the law in his writings. He rejected the law as a method of salvation but upheld it as, a moral standard of Christian conduct.

Samuel Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is an associate professor of religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


This article is the third in a four-article series dealing with the New Testament's position on the perpetuity of the seventh-day Sabbath. Dr. Bacchiocchi began the series by surveying the three prevailing views: the New Testament abrogated it, transferred the obligation to another day, or upheld its perpetuity. Then he laid out the reasons he believes the New Testament supports the Sabbath's perpetuity: the New Testament portrays Christianity's basic continuity with judaism; it alludes to the Creation origin of the Sabbath; it notes the redemptive meaning that Christ gave the Sabbath in His teaching and ministry; and it records the fact and manner of Sabbath observance.

Those who hold that the Old Testament law in general and the Sabbath in particular have been (Arrogated customarily appeal to Paul in defense of their view. In the last two articles in this series, Dr. Bacchiocchi examines Paul's teachings on these points.


Paul used the term law (nomos) at least 110 times in his Epistles, but not in a uniform way. He used it to refer to such things as the Mosaic law (Gal. 4:21; Rom. 7:22, 25; 1 Cor. 9:9), the whole Old Testament (1 Cor. 14:21; Rom. 3:19, 21), the will of God written in the heart of Gentiles (Rom. 2:14, 15), the governing principle of conduct (works or faith--chap. 3:27), evil inclinations (chap. 7:21), and the guidance of the Spirit (chap. 8:2). Sometimes he used the word law in a personal way, as if it were God Himself: "Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law" (chap. 3:19;* cf. chap. 4:15; 1 Cor. 9:8).

Our immediate concern is not to ascertain the various Pauline usages of the term. Rather we must establish the apostle's view of the Old Testament law in general. Did Paul teach that Christ abrogated the Mosaic law and/or the whole Old Testament law in general and consequently that Christians are no longer obligated to observe it? This view has predominated in much of Christian history and is still tenaciously defended by numerous antinomian churches.

A double concept

Several recent studies have challenged this traditional interpretation. Lloyd Gaston, for example, points out that Paul had a "double concept" of the law. Sometimes he says "that it is good and has been fulfilled in Christ and sometimes that it is bad and has been abolished in Christ."1  For instance, in Ephesians 2:15 Paul said the law has been "abolished" (K.J.V.) by Christ. In Romans 3:31, on the other hand, he explained that justification by faith in Jesus Christ does not overthrow the law but establishes it (K.J.V.). In chapter 3:28 he maintained that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of law." Yet in 1 Corinthians 7:19 he stated that "neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God" (cf. also Rom. 7:5 with 7:12, and 2 Cor. 3:7 with Rom. 3:2).

Resolving the tension

Is is possible to reconcile Paul's apparently contradictory statements about the law? How could he view the law both as "abolished" (Eph. 2:15) and established (Rom. 3:31, K.J.V.), unnecessary (see verse 28) and necessary (see 1 Cor. 7:19; Eph. 6:2, 3; 1 Tim. 1:8-10)? A popular explanation has been to say that Paul's negative statements referred to the Mosaic ceremonial law, while the positive ones referred to the moral law of the Ten Commandments. Such an explanation, however, is based on a distinction between moral and ceremonial laws that cannot be found in Paul's writings.

In my view, understanding the different contexts in which Paul spoke of the law resolves the tension. When he spoke of the law in the context of salvation (justification, right standing before God), he clearly affirmed that law-keeping is of no avail (Rom. 3:20). On the other hand, when Paul spoke of the law in the context of Christian conduct (sanctification, right living before God), then he maintained the value and validity of God's law (chaps. 7:7-12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 7:19). For example, when Paul listed the various forms of human wickedness in 1 Timothy 1:8-10, he explicitly asserted, "We know that the law is good" (verse 8).

Central to Paul's understanding of the law is the cross of Christ. From this perspective he both negated and affirmed the law. He repudiated the law as the basis of justification: "If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal. 2:21). But he taught that the law is "holy," "just," "good," and "spiritual" (Rom. 7:12, 14, 16; 1 Tim. 1:8) because it exposes sin and reveals God's ethical standards. Thus he stated that Christ came "in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us" through the dynamic power of His Spirit (Rom. 8:4).

Three times Paul said: "Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision." Each time he concluded this statement with a different phrase: "but keeping the commandments of God," "but faith working through love," "but a new creation" (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). The parallel ism suggests that Paul equated the keeping of God's commandments with a working faith and a new life in Christ. He rejected the law as a method of salvation but upheld it as a standard for Christian conduct.

The law and the Gentiles

To see Paul's criticism of the law in perspective, we must realize to whom he wrote. He addressed congregations made up predominantly of Gentile converts, most of whom were former "God fearers" (see 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Cor. 12:2; Gal. 4:8; Rom. 11:13; 1:13; Col. 1:21; Eph. 2:11).

Gentile Christians faced a crucial problem: Could they enjoy full citizenship among the people of God without becoming members of the covenant community through circumcision?

This was not a unique Christian problem. W. D. Davies has recently pointed out that the relationship of Israel to the Gentile world was the foremost theological problem of Judaism in the first century. 2 Basically the problem consisted in determining what commandments the Gentiles should observe in order for them to have a share in the world to come.

No clear-cut answer to this question existed in Paul's time. Some Jews held that Gentiles had to observe only a limited number of commandments (the Noachian laws). Other Jews, however, like the house of Shammai, insisted that Gentiles had to observe the whole law, including circumcision. In other words, they had to become full-fledged members (proselytes) of the covenant community to share in the blessings of the world to come. 3

Lloyd Gaston perceptively notes that "it was because of this unclarity that legalism--the doing of certain works to win God's favor and be counted righteous--arose a Gentile and not a Jewish problem at all." 4 Salvation was for members of the covenant community; but since the God-fearers were not under the covenant, they had to establish their own righteousness to gain such an assurance of salvation. M. Earth has shown that the phrase "works of the law" does not appear in Jewish texts; it designates the adoption of selected Jewish practices by the Gentiles to ensure their salvation as part of the covenant people of God.5 To understand the background of Paul's critical remarks about the law, we must recognize this legalistic Gentile attitude.

The Jewish problem of whether Gen tiles were saved within or without the covenant soon became also a Christian problem. At one time Paul apparently had believed that Gentiles had to conform to the whole Mosaic law, including circumcision, in order to be saved. The phrase "but if I ... still preach circumcision" (Gal. 5:11) suggests this.

Paul's conversion and divine commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles changed his view. He understood that Gentiles shared in salvation without having to become part of the covenant community through circumcision. To defend this conviction Paul appealed to the example of Abraham (see Romans 4; Galatians 3), who, before he was circumcised, became the father of all who believe.

In proclaiming his noncircumcision gospel, Paul faced a double challenge. On the one hand, Jews and Jewish Christians opposed him. They failed to understand that through Christ, God had fulfilled His promises to Abraham regarding the Gentiles (cf. Rom. 10:19: "Did Israel not understand?"). On the other hand, Paul had to deal with the misguided efforts of Gentiles. Who felt they must ensure their salvation by becoming members of the covenant community through circumcision and other cultic practices (Gal. 5:2-4).

Paul's criticism of the law

To counteract these tendencies, Paul had to speak critically of the law as a document of election. Recently several scholars have shown that the Jews increasingly expressed the concept of the covenant--so central in the Old Testament by the term law. 6 They believed that one's status before God was determined by his attitude toward the law as a document of election and not by his obedience to specific commandments.7 In other words, torah-law came to mean a revelation of God's electing will manifested in His covenant with Israel.

Obviously this view created a problem for the uncircumcised Gentiles because they felt excluded from the assurance of salvation provided by the covenant. This insecurity naturally led them to "desire to be under law" (chap. 4:21), that is, to become full-fledged covenant members by receiving circumcision (see chap. 5:2). Paul felt compelled to react strongly against this trend because it undermined the universality of the gospel. To take away the Gentiles' "desire to be under law," Paul appealed to the law (Pentateuch). He argued that Abraham's two children, Ishmael and Isaac, stand for two covenants, the first based on works and the second on faith (see chap. 4:22-31), the first offering slavery and the second, freedom. He identified the first covenant, which he said bears "children for slavery," with the covenant of Mount Sinai (verse 24).

Why did Paul so harshly attack the Sinai covenant? After all, it was established by the same God who made a covenant with Abraham, and it contained provisions of grace and forgiveness (e.g., the tabernacle--Exodus 25-30) along with principles of conduct (chapter 20-23). The answer to this question may be found in Paul's concern to establish the legitimacy of the salvation of the Gentiles as Gentiles.

To accomplish this he attacked their understanding of the law (covenant) as an exclusive document of election. This does not mean that Paul denied the possibility of salvation to Jews who accepted Christ as the fulfillment of the Sinai covenant. On the contrary, he explicitly acknowledged that just as he had been "entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised," so "Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised" (Gal. 2:7).

Paul did not explain how the two gospels differed. Circumcision had practically become equated with the cove nant. So we can presume that "the gospel of the circumcision" (literal translation) emphasized that Christ was the fulfillment of the Sinai covenant. Thus Jews could be saved as Jews, that is, while retaining their identity as a covenant people.

Paul did not deny the value of circumcision for the Jews. On the contrary, he affirmed: "Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision" (Rom. 2:25). Again, in Romans 9 to 11, Paul did not rebuke the Jews for being "Jewish" in their lifestyle (see chap. 11:1). Rather he rebuked them for failing to understand that in Christ, the Gentiles as Gentiles have equal access to the kingdom (see chap. 10:19).

To defend his gospel to the uncircumcised, Paul emphasized that justification comes "by faith apart from works of law" (chap. 3:28; see also Gal. 3:8). In his Epistles, Paul used the term justification and words related to it more than eighty times, but the terms forgiveness and repentance are spectacularly absent. 8 One wonders why. Repentance implies turning back to the God of the covenant. Perhaps Paul did not use the term because he was appealing to the Gentiles to turn to God for the first time.

In addition, forgiveness--a predominant concept in most of the Scriptures--has to do with the personal dimension of salvation. Paul's concern, however, was to stress not the personal, but the universal, dimension of salvation. This he did by teaching justification "by faith apart from the works of law" (Rom. 3:28). This doctrine enabled Paul to defend the universality of salvation, as the next verse indicates: "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also." (See also chap. 1:16, 17.)

This background helps us to understand that Paul did not attack the validity and value of the law as a moral guide to Christian conduct. On the contrary, he emphatically affirmed that Christ came specifically "that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us" (chap. 8:4). Paul criticized not the moral but the soteriological understanding of the law. He rejected the view of the law as a document of election that included the Jews and excluded the Gentiles.

The Judaizers, who were urging circumcision upon the Gentiles with ever-increasing insistency, made it necessary for Paul to attack the exclusive-covenant concept of the law. "But," as George Howard points out, "under other circumstances he might have insisted on the importance of Israel's retention of her distinctiveness." 9

In summary, two misunderstandings have led many fallaciously to conclude that Paul was an antinomian, who rejected the value and validity of the law as a whole. One is the failure to distinguish between Paul's moral and soteriological usages of the law in his writings. And the other is the failure to recognize that his criticism of the law is directed not toward Jewish Christians but toward Gentile Judaizers. As we have shown, Paul rejected the law as a method of salvation but upheld it as a moral standard of Christian conduct.



In the final article in this series Dr. Bacchiocchi will examine the implications of Paul's teachings regarding the Sabbath. Does Paul suggest that the seventh-day Sabbath has been abrogated? Or do his teachings sustain its continuing significance?--Editors.

1 Lloyd Gaston, "Paul and the Torah," in Alan
T. Davis, ed., Anti-Semitism and the Foundations of
Christianity (1979), p. 62. Gaston provides a most
perceptive analysis of Paul's attitude toward the

2 W. D. Davies, "From Schweitzer to Scholem.
Reflections on Sabbatai Svi," Journal of Biblical
Literature 95 (197'6): 547.

3 For an informative discussion of the Jewish
understanding of the salvation of Israel and of the
Gentiles, see E. P. Sanders, "The Covenant as a
Soteriological Category and the Nature of Salvation
in Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism," in
Jews, Greeks, and Christians (1976), pp. 11-44; also
Caston, in Davis, op. tit., pp. 56-61.

4 Gaston, in Davis, op. tit., p. 58.

5 See Markus Earth, The Anchor Bible: Ephesians
(1974), pp. 244-248.

6 See D. Rossler, GesetzundGeschichte (1960).
E. P. Sanders (op. tit., p. 41) concludes: "Salvation
comes by membership in the covenant, while
obedience to the commandments preserves one's
place in the covenant."

7 Gaston rightly' asks: "Why did Christian
interpreters not learn this long ago from such
classic works as S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic
Theology (New York, 1909), or A. Buchler, Studies
in Sin and Atonement (Oxford, 1928), especially
pages 1-118?" In Davis, op. tit., p. 70.

8 Krister Stendahl points out this fact, saying,
"If one looks into a Greek concordance of the New
Testament one is struck by the fact that in the
Pauline epistles 'justification' (dikaiosune) and
the words related to it ... are pervasive in certain
strata of Paul's thought. But the word 'forgiveness'
(aphesis) and the verb 'to forgive' (aphienai) are
spectacularly absent." Paul Among Jews and
Gentiles (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 23.

9 George Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia (Cambridge, 1979), p. 81.

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Samuel Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is an associate professor of religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1985

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