The Law in Paul's Letter to the Galatians

Donald A. Hagner
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Sep/Oct 2003

Little in the Apostle Paul's writings has been debated as intensively in recent years as his understanding of what he calls "the law" (see Rom. 3:21, 31; 1 Cor. 9:8-10, 20-21; Gal. 3; Eph. 2:15; among other verses). This topic is inherently and notoriously difficult because Paul makes equally strong positive and negative statements about "the law." It is hard to know how to reconcile these seemingly opposing statements. And this problem has recently become more difficult because some scholars now claim that first-century Judaism was a religion of grace and not of works-righteousness and then emphasize the continuing Jewishness of Paul's perspective. These new developments have prompted many scholars to present a "new perspective" on Paul that stands in marked contrast to the traditional or "Lutheran" understanding of him.

This new perspective concludes that Paul had no real quarrel with the law and made no fundamental break with Jewish law-keeping, except where it focused on Jewish identity markers-like circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary restrictions-that by definition excluded the Gentiles. Paul's only problem with the law, it is claimed, was with those features of it that made it hard to evangelize the Gentiles. I will argue, to the contrary, that Paul's polemic against the law has to do with how someone is brought into a right relationship with God-in other words, Paul opposed specific views of the law because he was concerned about the basis of salvation, which in his view is necessarily the same for both Jews and Gentiles.

The Word "Law" (Nomos) in Galatians

The word nomos ("law") occurs 32 times in Galatians. This gives Galatians the densest usage of nomos in the New Testament, even though the much longer Romans uses nomos 79 times. In Paul's letters, the word "law" has several meanings. It can mean Scripture in general, or the books of Moses, or the Mosaic commandments, or even law in the sense of a principle. Context often clarifies how the word is to be understood, although there are times when the exact meaning is debatable. The different meanings of the word can occasionally help us in reconciling Paul's positive and negative statements about the law.

The Positive Use of "Law" in Galatians

Even in Galatians, Paul continues in some sense to think highly of the Mosaic law. In 5:14 he is happy to say that "the whole law"-that is, the Mosaic law-"is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The Mosaic law, as Paul here quotes it from Leviticus 19:18, is apparently still valued as a fundamental description of righteousness. Those who are circumcised are faulted because they "do not themselves keep the law" (6:13; cf. 5:3). After listing the fruit of the Spirit, he again appeals to the law as the standard of what is good and evil: "against such things there is no law" (5:23), which is an indirect, understated way of saying that the fruit of the Spirit is in accord with the Mosaic law. Granted, Galatians lacks the sort of statement made in Romans 3:31: "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law." Yet Galatians clearly testifies to Paul's ongoing commitment to the righteousness of the Mosaic law. In both Romans and Galatians, it is the Mosaic law's purpose and the question of how we become righteous that are at issue.

The righteousness of the Mosaic law is corroborated in Galatians, as in Romans, by appealing to Jesus' teaching. Paul's words in Galatians 5:14 parallel his claim at Romans 13:9-10-all the commandments "are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' . . . love is the fulfilling of the law." This reiterates our Lord's teaching at Matthew 22:34-40. Paul also calls his readers to "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). The "law of Christ" refers to Jesus' teaching, considered as the uniquely authoritative exposition of Moses' law. It is not a matter of Jesus' teaching becoming a new law; it is Moses' law as now interpreted by Jesus. And, crucially, Paul does not say that we are "under" the law of Christ, as if we are still under a law and only its content has changed (nor does he use the word "under" in 1 Cor. 9:21, in spite of most English translations).

In other contexts in Galatians, when Paul speaks positively of "the law," he is referring to Scripture (e.g., the second occurrence of the word in Gal. 4:21; cf. 1 Cor. 14:21). Elsewhere, he can also speak positively of the law in the sense of the righteousness that was its goal (see Rom. 8:2-11). The paradox for Paul is that it is only when we are freed from the law that we are able to live out the righteousness that is at the heart of the law. We will return to this point later.

The Negative Use of "Law" in Galatians

By far the majority of the occurrences of the word "law" in Galatians bears a negative connotation. In particular, Paul criticizes what he refers to as "works of the law." With the first three occurrences of the word "law" in the letter, Galatians 2:16 presents one of Paul's fundamental assertions: "we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."

Recently, there has been considerable debate over the meaning of this phrase "works of the law." What does Paul mean by it? Traditionally, Protestants argued that it referred to a legalistic perversion of the law that falsely implied that one could earn one's salvation by works of righteousness. "Works of the law" thus referred to legalism; and so the problem for Paul was not the law itself-"the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12)-but a distortion of the law that maintained that righteousness could be attained through keeping the law (see Gal. 2:21; 3:10-14; 5:1-6). Yet now some are claiming that first-century Judaism was nonlegalistic-that it was a religion of grace and not of works-righteousness-and so Paul seems to be arguing against an imaginary opponent. No Jews, this new perspective claims, were obeying the law in order to earn acceptance with God.

According to this new perspective, the phrase "works of the law" refers to those observances that were ordinarily identified as marking out Jews from Gentiles, namely the laws regarding circumcision, the Sabbath, and dietary matters. Since Paul was a self-designated "apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13; cf. Gal. 2:7-9) and these laws were exactly what excluded the Gentiles from membership in God's people, it was only insistence upon these laws that Paul opposed. Apart from this use of the Mosaic law to maintain Jewish exclusivity, this new perspective argues, Paul had no problem with the law. It is only reading Paul through the lens of Martin Luther's personal struggle with righteousness that leads people to believe that Paul fought against the law itself.

But didn't Paul have a more basic problem with the law-and not merely with its exclusivity? What is the most natural meaning of the Pauline texts? Although the new perspective has gained a number of adherents, many do not find it convincing. Paul mounts a polemic against the law that can only be described as weighty-and he does so in a strange way if his only concern is that Gentiles are being excluded by the law's emphasis upon Jewish identity markers. If that were really the problem, then why did he not simply say so in so many words?

Instead, we repeatedly encounter texts that oppose the law to righteousness and faith. In addition to this contrast as we have seen it in 2:16, the phrase "by works of the law" is contrasted with "by hearing with faith" in 3:2 and 5. Yet perhaps 3:12 is at once clearest and most striking: "But the law is not of faith [lit. "is not from (or of) faith"], rather 'The one who does them shall live by them.'" For Paul, the law is a matter of performance, but a performance that is beyond human possibility. Righteousness cannot come by means of the law. This is unmistakable in 3:11: "Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for 'The righteous shall live by faith.'"

Consequently, to "rely on works of the law" is to be "under a curse" (3:10), as Paul's quotation of Deuteronomy 27:26-"Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them"-in 3:10 is supposed to make clear. But by his work on the cross, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (3:13). Christ's entire work is summarized by Paul in these words: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (4:4-5). Christ's death on the cross delivers those who believe from being "under the law." Being under the law is bad news. Once we were under the law, but now, thanks to Christ's work, we no longer are. Only Christ's death makes possible the new situation. Thus Paul writes: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification [that is, righteousness] were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (2:21).

This raises the questions, What is the law's purpose?, and, in particular, How does the law relate to God's covenant promises? Paul himself poses the first question in 3:19: "Why then the law?" His answer is that the law "was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made." He does not spell out here what he means by the words "because of transgressions," but in Romans 5:20 he says that "the law came in to increase the trespass." As he says in Romans 4:15, the law brings transgression and wrath.

Jewish thinking in Paul's day, then, did take obeying the law to be the means to righteousness. In contrast, Paul argued that the law is not at all the means to righteousness; it only multiplies sin and provokes God's wrath. Paul makes this unmistakably clear: "if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe" (3:21-22). Consequently, the law became in effect a curse rather than a blessing.

But this was only temporary, "until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made" (3:19)-that is, until the coming of Jesus Christ. Paul carefully explains this in 3:15-29. Let us reconstruct the argument. Salvation history begins with the covenant promise to Abraham and his "offspring." Reasoning like a rabbi, Paul observes that the word "offspring" (sperma; literally, "seed") is singular rather than plural and thus concludes that it refers to a specific descendant of Abraham, namely, Christ. The law, however, came 430 years after the promise to Abraham; and it does not-indeed, cannot-annul the earlier Abrahamic covenant (see 3:17). The inheritance, then, will come not by the law but by the earlier promise (see 3:18).

The law is not against the promises (see 3:21). It simply had a temporary role to play, and with the coming of Christ, that role was accomplished. Paul employs two metaphors to describe the law's function in the period between its deliverance at Sinai and Christ's coming. First, the law was like a prison; second, the law was like a person in charge of a child (which is the literal meaning of paidagogos in 3:24-25). "Now before faith came," Paul says, "we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed" (3:23). Then he adds, "So then, the law was our guardian [or, better, "disciplinarian"] until Christ came" (3:24). Most modern commentators conclude that this "child guide" should be understood negatively, parallel to the idea of imprisonment in the preceding verse, rather than positively in the sense of "tutor" or "instructor."

This temporary period of restraint under the law lasted only to Christ's coming, and so it has now come to an end: "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian" (3:25). It is as though our childhood is past and therefore we are no longer under "guardians and managers" (4:2). With Christ's coming, the time has fully come and we who believe now move into full sonship and become mature heirs (see 4:4-7). Paul is adamant about our consequent freedom from the law: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1). To attempt to gain righteousness by the law is to fall away from grace (see 5:4).

Free to Be Righteous

In Galatians, then, Paul argues that the law has come to an end, having now served its main purpose, and that Christians have been delivered from being "under" the law. In one of his most remarkable statements, he says, "For through the law I died to the law" (2:19). The purpose clause that immediately follows these words must be noted: "so that I might live to God." This is perhaps the key paradox in the whole question of Paul and the law: we are no longer under the law-we are set free from it-precisely in order that we might pursue righteousness more effectively. Here is how Paul puts it: "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (5:13-14). And so we come full circle back to the positive references to the law that I noted near the beginning of this article.

The point is that, for all his strong arguments concerning the Christian's freedom from the law, Paul still puts an extremely high premium on righteousness-and can even do so in terms of fulfilling the law. From his point of view, it is as though we are free from the law in order to do the law. Lived-out righteousness is of bottom-line importance for Paul (see Eph. 2:10; 1 Thess. 4:1-8; Tit. 2:14). He is thus careful to warn his readers against unrighteous works of the flesh, in words that may sound very "un-Pauline": "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:21). A little further on, this gets emphasized again: "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he or she also reap. For the one who sows to the flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (6:7-8; see, too, Rom. 2:6-10, 13).

How are we to reconcile this emphasis with Paul's resounding declaration that we are no longer under the law and are now free from that which held us captive until the coming of Christ? The answer is that we are free from law insofar as being in a right relationship with God is concerned. That relationship depends solely on grace. We are not free, however, from the call to righteousness. That Christians will live righteously is practically a given for Paul. He insists that "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (5:18). But those led by the Spirit will manifest the appropriate and expected righteousness, for "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (5:22-24). Here is the paradox again in its fullness: We are set free from the law in order to produce a righteousness that corresponds to the righteousness that the law demanded. This is because the teaching that serves as our guide to righteousness-the teaching of Christ and his apostles-is in effect an exposition of the ultimate meaning of the Mosaic law-that is, the Torah. Jesus, by virtue of his identity as the Messiah who inaugurates the eschatological kingdom, is the authoritative interpreter of the meaning of the law. In his teaching, Jesus penetrates to the essence of the law.

Understandably, the pattern of righteousness to which the Christian is called corresponds to that of the Torah; the content of the law, then, has not fundamentally changed. It is only the dynamic-the means by which we can arrive at righteousness-that differs dramatically. Living out the righteousness of the law does not result in a right relationship with God; rather, being in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ results in living out the righteousness of the law. The Christian-through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and not through the dynamic of his or her own efforts to be righteous by keeping the law-manifests a life of increasing growth in righteousness.

So were there first-century Jews who were attempting to earn acceptance with God through their works of righteousness? Were there first-century Jews who did not realize that they were already in right relationship with God as the chosen people of God? Were there first-century Jews who did not recognize that the covenant was a matter of pure grace and not of works? It should not be surprising if we answer these questions affirmatively. There have always been Christian legalists who failed to understand that salvation is entirely a matter of grace and not of works. The strong inclination of post-exilic Judaism to focus upon doing the law made it difficult to keep the grace of the covenant uppermost in mind. The emphasis upon works was formidable, as can be seen in the well-known statement of Rabbi Akiba: "The world is judged by grace, and yet all is according to the amount of work" (Aboth 3:20). This emphasis, combined with our natural inclination to believe that we must earn our way with God, makes it easy to understand how many Jews fell into legalistic thinking, contrary to the actual soteriology of their scriptures. For both Jews and Gentiles, salvation always depends upon the grace of God, and free grace always has as its goal the righteousness that was at the heart of the Torah.

Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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