Paul, law, and covenants

A comprehensive overview of Paul's understanding of the law in relation to the biblical covenant.

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Editorial note: This article is a condensed, edited combination of two chapters from Dr. LaRondelle's upcoming book on biblical covenants titled Our Faithful Creator. Watch for informa tion in Ministry and elsewhere as to when and how the book may be obtained.

The relationship between law and grace is a central concern of Christian theology. Note how John's Gospel distinguishes the two: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (1:17).

Is John placing law and grace in fundamental contrast with God's will? Does the New Testament teach a replacement of Moses by Christ, so that the law is no longer obligatory? Was ancient Israel saved by law, and we by faith in Christ? The New Testament affirms in Hebrews 11 that God commended saints of old for their faith in, and walk with God. This affirmation suggests that both Testaments are important for a balanced understanding of God's eternal covenant of redemption.

The terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" are not used as such by biblical authors. The terms have in fact led to a wide spread misunderstanding of the nature of the two Testaments, as though the Old Testament is nothing more than books of the Law with little relevance to Christians in the light of the arrival of the Messiah.

David H. Roper states the problem well: "The crux of this entire issue is a false equation of Old Testament and law," so that the two testaments "stand in almost total discontinuity with each other. Law and grace are seen as antithetical, opposing principles. [For many] the Old Testament is law; the New Testament is grace."1 This misconception has led numerous people to divide law and grace into two distinct and consecutive periods or dispensations: for Israel, only law, and for the Christian church, only grace.

Classical Protestant theology, however, defended the understanding that law and grace are parallel themes running from Genesis through Revelation.

This is the perennial problem in church history. Which view represents Paul's position on law and grace in the new covenant?

Paul's theology of law and grace

To Paul the relationship of salvation to the law was of prime concern. His treatment of the law was motivated by his Pharisaic back ground. He states that he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (Phil. 3:5, 6, NIV; Greek: en nomoi, "righteousness" "in the law," as in NKJV; emphasis supplied).

Cranfield enlightens us: "The Greek language of Paul's day possessed no word-group corresponding to our 'legalism'," and thus "was seriously hampered in the work of clarifying the Christian position with regard to the law."2 As a Pharisee, Paul was seeking a "righteousness of his own that comes from the law" (verse 9). But he sharply contrasts this Pharisaic zeal for the law to his Christian desire to be found in Christ, having "the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (verse 9).

Did Paul blame the law for his efforts to achieve a legalistic righteousness? Or was his Pharisaic tradition guilty of a fundamental misuse of the law? This is the critical point!

In Romans 7 Paul states that we have been "released from the law" by "dying to what once bound us," but affirms that the law itself is "holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good, and spiritual" (verses 6, 12, 14, emphasis supplied). Admittedly, Paul does not blame the law for his former bondage to it, but confesses that he himself had to die to the law, not that the law had to die to him (verse 6)!

He presses the point again: "Did that which is good [the law], then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful" (7:13, emphasis supplied).

Here we have Paul's explicit declaration that the problem is not with the law itself, but with his sinful nature that does not know itself in the light of God, and therefore needs to be awakened to its sinfulness by a confrontation with the law of God, thus being held accountable to God (see Rom. 3:19).

Paul defines the spiritual purpose of the law: "Through the law we become conscious of sin" (Rom. 3:20). God's law thus reveals that our transgression of it produces guilt before God. That, for Paul, is a God ordained function of the law, so that we may realize our need of God's grace through Christ. Paul develops this theme again in Romans 5 (see verses 20, 21).

It is very important to note that Paul's main focus is on the Ten Commandments, for he quotes the tenth commandment in Romans 7:7, and several others in 13:9. To use the moral law, however, as a thermometer of our own law keeping before God is a serious misuse of the law, because it rejects the need for God's grace for our justification. Rejection of God's grace is just as much a sin as rejection of His law!

Law as Torah

Paul also uses the term "law" in the broader sense of the Torah of Moses, as in Romans 3:21, where he speaks of the "Law and the Prophets." Paul considers the law of Moses in its entirety as a preparation for the gospel of God's redeeming grace: "Christ is the end [goal] of the law, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Rom. 10:4).

Badenas, in his doctoral dissertation on Romans 10:4, concludes that Paul used nomos ["law"] in Romans 10:4 "in the sense of Torah as it stands for Scripture: the Old Testament, not as something 'old' which has been abrogated by Christ but rather as the living word of God . . . ever true to itself... and, therefore, ever valid and new."3

Paul saw the Old Testament as witnessing to Christ, so that "Christ is the fulfillment and climax of God's revelation to mankind,"4 Paul's faith in Jesus as the Messiah of prophecy meant for him that Christ became the key for a new hermeneutic. He read the Torah in the light of Christ! He could no longer view the law as an end in itself but as a means that leads to Christ. "Paul's veneration for the Torah was surpassed by his veneration for Christ. This surpassing of Torah by Christ is what Paul wished to teach Israel and this is what Israel did not accept."5 This is vital to our under standing of the movement from the "old" to the "new" in the development of God's relationship with His people.

Romans 10:4 is one of the fundamental theses of Paul's theology concerning the relation of Christ and the law.6 Paul was convinced that Israel had misunderstood the law of Moses, because it "did not submit to God's righteousness" (10:3). He there fore appealed to Moses' Deuteronomy to prove that from the start, the God ordained purpose of the Torah was the "righteousness that is by faith": "'the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,' that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming" (Rom. 10:8, cf. Deut. 30:14).

Thus Paul gives the Torah-freighted heart of Deuteronomy 30 a Christ centered content, by filling the "mouth" with the confession that "Jesus is Lord [Kyrios]," and the "heart" with the belief that "God raised him from the dead."

Paul then moves on in Romans 10:9, 10, to apply Moses' words to the gospel truth that the Christ-believer is now being saved through justification by faith in Jesus.

The proper place of law in relation to grace

Paul is convinced that salvation cannot come from observing the law. "By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16, KJV; see also 3:10, 21). Paul's theology of law and grace is well expressed in Galatians 2:21: "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing."

Paul is making an absolute contrast here. Is it the contrast of law and grace? Or is it the irreconcilable antithesis of righteousness through the law and righteousness through God's grace? Paul does not state that grace has set aside the law, but rather that it has set aside the prevailing tradition of "righteousness [coming] through the law."

Paul's theology placed two different ways of salvation in contrast to each other: salvation through the law and salvation through grace! He explains: "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4, emphasis supplied). The issue is clearly about the misuse of the law in Judaism, about employing it as the way to obtain salvation, as Paul himself believed when he was within Pharisaic Judaism (see Phil. 3:6-9).

On the basis of justification by grace through faith in Christ, Paul proceeds to mention the fruits of justification, such as peace with God, joy in the new access to God, hope in sharing the glory of God, and the experience of God's Spirit of love in the heart of the believer (see Rom. 5:1, 2,5).

Further, Paul writes to the justified believers that their love for God and their neighbor fulfills the law, because "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10, emphasis supplied). And again: "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" (Gal. 5:18, emphasis supplied).

From this some have concluded that love replaced the law, but Paul does not say that. He says that love fulfills the law, and "the entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself" (Gal. 5:14, emphasis supplied). To the apostle, love does not make God's law superfluous, but rather love is the divine intention of the law, just as Jesus had explained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48).

Not under the law

Paul's statement in Romans 6:14 ("For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace") deserves special attention because it is frequently misinterpreted in popular evangelical literature. The word "for" indicates that Paul draws a conclusion from his previous statement, "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its evil desires" (6:12).

Paul makes this exhortation on the basis of the believer's transforming experience signified by "baptism into Christ Jesus" (6:1-7). Romans 6 answers the ever challenging question, "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" (6:1).

Romans 6 deals with the role of the law in our sanctified life! Paul begins by contrasting the reign of law over against the reign of grace. Many have taken the statement—"you are not under law but under grace"—to mean an abolishing of the authority of the law over the Christian believer.

But look at the context. Paul's antithesis of being "under law" or of being "under grace" indicates two contrasting positions: to be under the power of condemnation for those who are outside of Christ, or to be under the reign of justification for those in Christ.

Thus, if context—not preconceived doctrinal consideration—is taken as our interpretative guide, any problem one might see in Romans 6:14 simply disappears. To be "under grace" means to be under the reign of Christ to live a life in "righteousness," as Paul states in 5:21. To be "under law" means clearly the opposite of being "under grace," namely, to be under the dominion of sin in our life.

Note the apostle's parallel statements in Romans and Galatians: "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).

"But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" (Gal. 5:18, emphasis supplied).

Comparing both, we see that to be "under grace" is synonymous with to be "led by the Spirit." Being led by the Spirit implies a Spirit-led obedience to the Redeemer.

Paul urges the believers to realize that they have changed "lordships" in their conversion experience. They are no longer "slaves to sin" but commit ted "slaves to obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Rom. 6:6, 15-18).

To be "in Christ" means to be "under Christ's law" (1 Cor. 9:21), which is equivalent to the "keeping of God's commandments" (1 Cor. 7:19), so that "the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4).

This is the genuine new-covenant experience through Christ's ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Paul and the Old Covenant

Two passages of Paul—Galatians 4:21-31 and 2 Corinthians 3—seem to denounce the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works, and therefore in radical contrast with the new covenant of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Each passage must be understood in its own liter ary and historical context.

The Galatian passage: The conflict in the Galatian church was not between Jews and Christians, but was an intra-Christian dispute between two kinds of early Christian missions to the Gentiles. The apostle does not direct his critique against the synagogue, but against "the false brethren" who had "disturbed" the Galatian churches (Gal. 1:7; 2:4).

The exact identity of these "false brethren" is unknown. E. G. White describes them as "the emissaries of Judaism," who "induced . . . [the Galatian believers] to return to the observance of the ceremonial law as essential to salvation."7

Paul's burden for the Gentile Christians was to deliver them from the false teaching that they should observe the Mosaic ritual law in order to gain acceptance with God and receive His Spirit. The intruding Jewish Christian missionaries apparently taught that circumcision was still required in order to enter into the Abrahamic covenant, and that every person must live a life under the Torah to become a legitimate child and heir of Abraham.

To these men, the law was still the necessary tool to become victorious over one's sin and to inherit the blessing of the Spirit promised to Abraham.

Paul's contention with these rival missionaries was not primarily their ceremonial observances but their theology of salvation: "You who are trying to be justified by law Have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace!" (Gal. 5:4). And further, Paul objected to their claim that observance of the law will result in the Spirit manifestations among the Gentiles (Gal. 3:2, 5). J. Louis Martyn comments: "They [the competing teachers in Galatia] necesarily view God's Christ in the light of God's Law, rather than the Law in the light of Christ, and this meant that Christ is secondary to the Law."8 This secondary place of Christ was the reason that their message, according to Longenecker, was "one of both legalism for full salvation and nomism for Christian living."9

Paul warns His converts that "to be under the law" (3:1) is in fact turning to a "different gospel," one that "perverted the gospel of Christ" (1:6-9). For Paul, the expression "to be under law" meant to be in a state of cofinement and slavery or bondage (3:23; 4:25) from which one needs to be liberated (4:5; 5:18). He challenges the Galatians to learn from the Torah a lesson that may correct their law orientation and nomistic lifestyle, and to follow again Christ and His interpretation of the Torah. He asks them, "Do you not hear the law?" (4:21, NKJV). Paul uses the term "law" here for all the Scriptures of Moses and the Prophets. He tries to show the proper use of the Torah, by interpreting some passages from Moses about the true Israel. Paul begins with the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah and slave girl Hagar, focusing on the birth of their sons (Gen.16-21), "one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman" (4:21, 22).

Paul turns to the different way each son was born: one was born "according to the flesh" (NRSV), the other was born "through the promise" (4:23). The two mothers are representations of "two covenants." This conclusion is introduced by the apostle himself, because Genesis 16-21 do not refer to a Hagar covenant or a Sinai covenant! This fact should alert us that Paul is working out his interpretation from present developments in Galatia back to the Genesis story. Paul shows that there has developed within the apostolic church a misuse of the Mosaic covenant, the turning of the Sinai covenant into a covenant of rituals to achieve salvation, a distortion that amounts to enslavement to ceremonial observances of the Mosaic law. Such a self-made covenant misrepresents the Abrahamic covenant, because the Sinaitic covenant is none other than a renewal of God's covenant with Abraham. The "Hagar" covenant is therefore an illegitimate covenant (of works) before God. Paul calls this falsification of the Mosaic covenant the "Hagar" relationship, stating: "One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are slaves: This is Hagar," who "corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children" (4:24, 25).

Paul designates the Sinai covenant here as bringing Israel into slavery, which was of course a travesty of God's purpose with Israel. It is clearly a fundamental error to elevate the counterfeit of the Mosaic covenant into a legitimate dispensation of God's plan of salvation. Moses had earnestly warned Israel against seeking their righteousness by works of law (see Deut. 9:4, 6). And Hebrews 11 testifies to the fact that the saints of the Mosaic covenant experienced righteousness by faith in the promise, just as Abramham received it (Gen. 15:6).

Paul apparently takes the Mosaic covenant as it was used by his opponents, legalistically and without regard to Christ, for his polemical purpose. He refutes his opponents by distinguishing the law from the promise, as he had done earlier in Galatians 3:17, 21. Calvin accurately describes Paul's use of the Sinai law in Galatians 4 as "the bare law in a narrow sense." 10 Cranfield explains: "This 'bare law' (nuda lex) understood 'in a narrow sense' is not the law in the fullness and wholeness of its true character, but the law as seen apart from Christ"11

The Corinthian passage. Some have argued that Paul announces in 2 Corinthians 3 a covenant that would completely replace God's covenant with Israel, with the implication that even the Ten Commandments and the seventh-day Sabbath stand abandoned. But consider the historical context of the passage. The Corinthian church members were confused by the agitations of some intruding Jewish-Christian missionaries from Jerusalem. They were Judaizers similar to the ones who caused problems in Galatia. These missionaries accused Paul of lacking apostolic authority and preaching a gospel of his own making.

It seems that many in the church at Corinth were losing confidence in Paul as a true apostle. Consequently, Paul takes issue with the false accusers in chapters 10-12. The issues are not only the adequacy of Paul's apostleship, but also the truthfulness of Paul's gospel message (2:17-4:6). Paul illustrates the superiority of the new covenant of Christ by an ever sharpening contrast with the Jewish ministry of the Mosaic covenant. He contrasts his ministry of the Spirit with the Jewish effort to attain salvation through law-obedience. The main theme of 2 Corinthians 3:1 to 4:6 is therefore not a full-fledged doctrine of the covenants, but Paul's defense of his apostolic authority. However, Paul does compare the old and the new covenant ministries, in order to illustrate the superior effectiveness of his apostolic ministry.

The apostle claims that "through Christ" he has the empowerment and the competency to be one of the "ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). He then compares his gospel ministry with that of the "old" covenant that "brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone" and only possessed a "fading" glory on Moses' face (3:7, 8). The question rises, Why did Paul describe the Mosaic covenant ministry as "the ministry that brought death" although it came with a glorious splendor, too bright for Israel to behold, while his "ministry of the Spirit" is much more glorious because it "brings righteousness" (verses 7-9)? Paul deals here with the Mosaic covenant in its administration "of the letter" without the life-giving Spirit! So what Paul is dealing with is the Pharisaic reduction of the Mosaic covenant to a mere "letter" service of the law. In sharp contrast with this legalistic performance, Paul views the gospel as one that has the "surpassing glory" of Christ and of His Spirit (verse 10), in order to bring forth in the Christian the fruit of "righteousness" (verses 9, 15-17).

Paul insists that the law as such does not provide life or righteousness but rather condemns each transgressor to death (Rom. 3:21, 23; 6:23). He explains both the goodness and the death-bringing function of the Decalogue as follows: "I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life, actually brought death" (Rom. 7:10). The condemning function of the law for sinners is necessary to reveal the indispensability of God's continuing grace and guidance. But the Decalogue can never give that grace to sinners! The new covenant, however, brings the forgiving grace of God and the life-giving Spirit who writes the law of God on the human heart and empowers us to obey God's will from a willing heart. All spiritual Israelites have enjoyed such a new-covenant experience, as their testimonies in Psalms 1, 19, 40, 51, and 119 affirm.

Paul calls his ministry a ministry of the Spirit and of righteousness. It brings freedom from the condemnation of the law (Rom. 8:1, 33, 34), and prompts to a sanctified life in true discipleship of Christ (see Rom. 6:12-21; 7:6; 8:4,14-17). Such a walk with God is the greater glory of the new covenant age, and is valid for all eternity! Paul used the term old covenant to underline the outdated character of the Mosaic dispensation as it was administered in his day with its Christless law orientation.

Paul claims that he has received the "more glorious ministry" of the Spirit that effectively "gives life" and "brings righteousness"! (2 Cor. 3:6, 9). Through the Spirit we receive "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). This new revelation of God's glory in Christ can be perceived only by a faith relationship with Christ, by turning to Christ Himself (2 Cor. 3:14). Paul was not arguing against Moses or the Mosaic covenant but against the "false apostles" who were "reading the old covenant" with "the same veil" over their hearts as Moses had put over his radiant face when the Israelites "were afraid to come to him" (Exod. 34:30). Paul wrote that the "veil" that prevented their under standing of the old covenant was "even to this day" a veil that "covers their hearts" (2 Cor. 3:15). He there fore urged: "But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away" (2 Cor. 3:16). Christ alone gives the spiritual understanding of the old covenant.

To understand the conflict situation in Corinth, we need to see that Paul was opposing Christian Judaizers, who remained law-oriented more than Christ-oriented. His opponents still cherished their old-covenant observances, to which Christ was secondary. Or, to say it more specifically, Hisby itself, disconnected from Christ's priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. For them the law remained only chiseled on tablets of stone in the earthly tabernacle.

The new standard of Christ likeness

Paul develops his theme even more dramatically by dwelling on the event of Moses' unbearable radiance that radiated from his face, after he had been talking "face to face" with God on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights (Exod. 33, 34).

Moses asked God to show him His divine "glory" (Exod. 33:18). God agreed to show Moses His essential character of compassion, grace, and mercy (verse 19), but said: "You can not see my face: for no one shall see me and live" (verse 20). God placed Moses in a cleft of the rock and gave him a newly written copy of the Ten Commandments as a transcript of His character (Exod. 34:28). Paul applied Exodus 34:29-35 to his blinded opponents. The reason why Moses was asked to put a veil on his face was Israel's conscious guilt and sense of divine displeasure after their worship of the golden calf. Had they been obedient to God, the heavenly glory on Moses' face "would have filled them with joy. There is fear in guilt."12

Theologically speaking, a veiled law is a law divorced from the Lawgiver! But the glory of the gospel surpasses the glory of the Sinaitic covenant, because the gospel does not veil the glory of God but increases its trans forming effect in the believer. The reason is that the Christian believer approaches the immediate presence of God.

Beholding day by day the glory of God in Christ, the believer is "changed" from glory to glory. In this transformation the Christian surpasses the fading glory of Moses. The Christian is called to grow more and more Christlike! After all, the goal of justification is sanctification—"until Christ is formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). This transforming process silently changes the soul after the "new standard" of Christ. "The natural inclinations are softened and subdued. New thoughts, new feelings, new motives, are implanted. A new standard of character is set up—the life of Christ."13

1 David H. Ropei, Nw Covenant in the Old Testament (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1976), 11, 12.

2 C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans (ICC. Edinburgh: dark, 1979), 2:853.

3 Robert Badenas, Christ: The End of the Law 0SNT, Suppl. Series 10, University of Sheffield, England, 1985), 149.

4 Ibid, 149.

5 Ibid, 151.

6 Cranfield, 515-520, 848.

7 Ellen G. White, in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1957), 6:1108.

8 J. Louis Martyn, in Scottish Journal of Theology (1985) 38:316.

9 Richard N. Longenecber, Galatians (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 41,1990), xcviii.

10 John Calvin, Institutes (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, LCC 20, 1967), 11:7, 2.

11 Cranfield, 859.

12 White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press®, 1913), 330.

13 White, Christ's Object Lessons (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press®, 1913), 98, 99.


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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

February 2004

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