Friday, October 1, 2010

“Law” in the Context of Grace in Paul's Epistle to the Romans

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul makes use of the word “law” in several places, with  different  meanings, depending on the point he wished to illustrate.  One is struck by the repetition of the word and its varied application.  It gives the impression that Paul was trying to get the attention of his audience by focusing on that which they held in the highest regard.  In Jeremiah's day, the prophet exposed Israel'ssurficialconception of religion by calling on “the temple” as a kind of idol.  After the destruction of the temple (70 CE), many Jews adopted a Pharisaical zeal for the Mosaic law with its ritual works, to fill the void.  Paul exposes this “worship” of the Decalogue as being an exercise in futility in the light of God's free gift of grace through Jesus Christ.  He adopts the beloved word “law” and offers it back to the community with a new sense, one charged with the power and potential of the life of the Spirit of God. 
Natural Law
Paul begins the Epistle by showing the universality of law.  Law is something which has been in existence for all time, a testament to God's existence and nature (1:18-20).  That there is a right and a wrong in moral matters is something that is known through the human conscience (2:15), therefore placing all Paul's readership (i.e. Gentiles, at this point) under the judgment of God (2:11).  This is known as the general revelation.
Mosaic Law
Specific revelation, entrusted to Israel through Moses, consisted of the Decalogue and various and sundry ceremonial laws, rituals of purification and other commandments (613, in all) governing the daily lives of a nation set apart unto God.  Paul exposes the observance of these laws to the end of dismantling the surficial religiosity it produced (2:12-3:20).  He goes so far as to negate the apparent value of circumcision in light of actual righteousness, which consists in keeping allof the commandments (2:25-29).
The function of the Mosaic law, for Paul, is to make the existence of sin known (5:13,20;7:7-13).  He says, “But sin, that it might might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (7:13c).
The Law of Faith
Paul shows the contrast between the law of works, based on the Mosaic covenant, and the law of faith, based on the older,Abrahamiccovenant (3:27-4:25).  While the Mosaic covenant was conditional, with blessings being proportionate to one's performance, the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional, requiring only belief in the party offering the gift.  Paul describes this grace aptly by saying that, while rarely would someone die for a righteous person, and scarcely so for a good person, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8).  This dynamic ensures that the glory of the new covenant may rest solely upon God, who gives freely to all (3:26).  Thus, while the law of works produced striving (with the hope of pleasing God) , the law of faith offers rest in the finished work of Jesus at the cross.  Grace is, in this context, the power behind the righteousness which is bestowed on those who adhere to the law of faith.  Paul brings the difference into sharp contrast by calling the “law of the flesh” that which is in bondage to sin and “the law of the spirit” that which frees from sin through grace.  One represents an external religion which fails to live up to God's perfect standard, the other an internal power which gives us a share in the life of Christ.
Law of the Flesh
“I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23).  Paul aptly describes the human condition, inherited from Adam (5:12-21), as a state of rebellion against God and His laws (natural law, Mosaic law).  In calling this frustrating experience a law, Paul helps to weaken the idealization of a religion of external works, which is termed “the Law”.  In an anthropological context, the Mosaic Decalogue, says Paul, cannot save, but serves, rather, as a schoolmaster, to lead one, through knowledge of one's sinful condition (i.e., by failure to achieve what the Decalogue commands), to the cross of Christ (Gal. 3:24).  We cannot, through our own efforts, achieve what is freely given by grace.
The Law of the Spirit
By making allusion to a marriage covenant, in which one partner is at liberty to marry a new partner upon the death of the first, Paul offers the reader freedom from the law of carnality by virtue of its crucifixion (7:1-6).  The new law to which one may be wed is the law of the spirit (a.k.a., “the law of God” (7:22), “the law of my mind” (7:23)).  In contrast to the law of flesh, which gives command (i.e. the Mosaic Law) but provides no power to fulfill the command, the law of the spirit offers power to fulfill the command, which “is good” (7:16).  Thus, while the law of religious works was purely external, and thus doomed to failure, the law of the spirit is internal, as the prophet said, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).  In the first case, we are given the command but are unable to fulfill it, in which case the law serves simply to reveal the existence of our sinful nature.  In the second case, once the knowledge of sin has matured in the conscience, and our need for redemptory aid exposed, we are given power in grace.
Law in the Context of Grace
Grace (Χάριτι)has been defined as “an act of sheer generosity which depends on no payment man can make”1 .  Aquinas calls the experience of grace in the New Testament “a New Law”:  “...the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ.”2   Thus it is not the righteousness of humans but the righteousness of God which saves from death, hell, sin and disease.  All that we can do is to have faith in Christ, which gives access to the grace of God.  Grace is experienced through the Holy Spirit, who empowers and enlivens the believer.  In this context, “the law” (i.e. the moral statutes of God) does not “merely” serve to make the presence of sin known, as was the case before the Gospel was revealed, but now becomes the proper aim for the believer, who is now aided to achieve its good ends through the inner workings of the spirit of grace.  In no way does Paul state that the law is evil, as those who charge the apostle withantinomianismwould have it.  Rather, he emphasizes that it is good, for it is the law of God.  It is simply that the practical function of the law has changed.  Before grace came in Jesus Christ, the commands of God brought death through the knowledge of sin (5:20).  After grace was revealed at the cross, the good works demanded by the law were made accessible to the believer.  In the first case, frustration abounded while people tried to gain justification through works of the law.  In the second case, love abounded though the good works of the law because people were freely justified by the grace of God.  Thus righteousness, which could not be achieved through the law, was bestowed as a gift by faith in Christ in order to establish the law (9:30-10:4).  Paul has brought the reader from dead works and condemnation to spiritual life and power through the Gospel.
We have seen, in the Epistle to the Romans, various uses by the author, of the word “law”.  Among its meanings here are:  natural law, Mosaic law (including the Decalogue), the law of the flesh and the law of the spirit.  Broadly speaking, when Paul wrote of “the law”, he meant the set of commands, both generally and specifically revealed, which, prior to grace, served to bring about a conviction of sin (5:13, 20; 7:7-13).  He makes use of the readership's familiarity with the term “law” to introduce new concepts, as when he speaks of “the law in my members” (7:23) and “the law of sin” (7:23, 25), which brings death.  This serves to weaken the position of the religion of external piety, which called on the works of the law as a testament to supposed righteousness, much as people made allusion to “the Temple” in Jeremiah's age.  Paul contrasts the carnal “law” with the “law of my mind” (7:23), also known as “the law of God”(7:22, 25), by which he means again the Decalogue, which is good.  This law functioned mainly to convict of sin, prior to the revelation of grace in Jesus Christ.  It acted as a tutor to spiritual children (i.e. carnal souls) in order to expose their need for divine grace, but it could not save.  What it commanded, it did not enable, and seeing failure, it punished.  Another law, “the law of faith”, given by a different covenant, did what the Mosaic law could not, namely, it made sinners just in the eyes of God (4:3), as a free act on His part (3:24).  As evil is the power behind sin and leads to death, so grace is the power behind righteousness and leads to life.  The human condition, inherited from Adam, was made manifest by the law.  The gift of the divine life, given through Christ, is offered through grace in the Holy Spirit.  It gives power to fulfill the command by doing away with the penalty of sin, moving the motivation for works from fear to love, taking religion fromexternalityand carnality tointernalityand eternity.
Works Cited
Aquinas, Thomas. TheSumma Theologicaof St. Thomas Aquinas,Second and Revised Edition, 1920.  Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Knight.  Accessed October 22, 2005, at
Dunn, James D.G.  Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38:  Romans 1-8.  Nashville:  Word, Inc., 1988.
1 James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38:  Romans 1-8.  (Nashville:  Word, Inc., 1988).
2Thomas Aquinas,The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas,The First Part of the Second Part, Question 106, Article 3. Second and Revised Edition, 1920. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Knight.

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