17. Life in the Spirit: Fulfilling the Law
I hope you aren't finding this series too long or too boring, but I would like to continue it while I feel I still have something to say!
17. Life in the Spirit: Fulfilling the Law
We are now in a position to bring together Paul’s statements about the Law, statements that many have seen as contradictory and inconsistent.
Paul had been brought up under the Law and had been deeply devout in his observance of it. Despite what some commentators seem to think he did not come to a negative assessment of it when he became an Apostle of Christ. He may have reached a negative assessment of our ability to keep it, but that’s another matter. For Paul, the Law remained God’s Law and so was holy, spiritual, and good (Romans 7:12-16).
Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ led Paul, however, to an entirely different view of its role. It remained holy, but Paul saw it as having a different purpose to the purpose he previously supposed it to have. Before he became an Apostle, he had seen the Law as a means to righteousness and had been blameless in his keeping of it (Philippians 3:5-6). He became convinced as an Apostle, however, that righteousness was no longer by the Law.
The problem and the reason why righteousness could not be by the Law lay in human weakness and inability to keep the Law (Romans 7:23, 8:7). Paul goes to some lengths to establish that humans are sinners, under the power of sin, and incapable of pleasing God by how they live. The Law, he believed, was never intended as a way of dealing with sin or as a means of righteousness and life. The Law’s role was to show sin for what it was. The Law pointed to the righteousness that God required, but did not provide the means to obtain it.
Now that righteousness by faith has come, the Law’s work is done. Paul can say he upholds the Law because he acknowledges the Law’s place in God’s plan and by receiving righteousness by faith he receives that to which the Law had pointed all along. In a few places, Paul talks of the ‘righteousness of God’. This phrase has aquired a life of its own in much recent discussion of Paul’s view of righteousness and the Law. For some, it is seen as something of a technical term with an established definition. Alongside many older writers, I don’t think this is right. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of faith are one and the same thing. I don’t think I can put it better than one very recent writer:
‘The righteousness of faith is the righteousness of God, in the sense that faith is the true righteousness, on the grounds of its validation and affirmation as such by God.’ (Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and Gentiles – Revised Edition, page 236)
Now we have received the gift of righteousness from God, we have also finished with the Law (Romans 7:1-6). Christ is the end of the Law (Romans 10:4) both in the sense that it is to Christ that the Law pointed, but also in the sense that in Christ the believer has died to the Law and been discharged from it. We no longer need the Law not because it is bad, a suggestion Paul specifically refutes (Romans 7:7), but because it has done its job.
This, however, does not mean that believers can do what they like. It is understandable that some may draw this conclusion. After all, Law had regulated human behaviour in the past, what was to regulate it now? It seems that some, even within Paul’s churches, may have thought this was the logical conclusion to be drawn from Paul’s teaching. In Corinth, for example, some were arguing that all things were lawful for them (1 Corinthians 6:12) and in Galatians, while Paul asserts that the Galatians are free from the Law, he also warns:
‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.’ (Galatians 5:13)
As we have seen, Paul rejects any notion that the believer can continue in sin. The believer is to be a slave of righteousness (Romans 6). But we are slaves of righteousness by a completely different way to that of the Law:
‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’ (Romans 7:6)
It is the Spirit who now makes it possible for the believer to live a life pleasing to God as a slave of righteousness. The Spirit is the key to living in Christ. It is the Spirit who enables the believer to fulfil the Law (Romans 8:4). The believer fulfils the Law in the sense that the obedience to God to which the Law pointed, but did not empower to achieve, is now to be seen in the life of those who live according to the Spirit.
It is this obedience that will be judged on the Day of Judgement. This also explains some of the enigmatic statements Paul makes in chapter two of Romans. Paul writes:
For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.’ (Romans 2:6-8)
It is not the hearers of the Law who will be righteoused (justified), writes Paul, but those who do the Law (2:13) He speaks of Gentiles who do instinctively what the Law requires thereby showing that the Law is written on their hearts. In chapter two, those who patiently do good seeking for glory and honour and immortality, those who do the Law, and those who instinctively do what the Law requires are those who are in Christ and, specifically in this chapter, Gentiles who are in Christ. What is more Paul goes on to say:
‘Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law.’ (Romans 2:27)
Paradoxically, ‘keeping the Law’ here does not mean keeping all its written commandments, but keeping the Law in the same sense as we fulfil it, that is, by being obedient to God in the Spirit.
One final thing perhaps should be said about the Law. For some this really is all too radical and they want to see the Law as having some ongoing role for Christian living. The way they attempt to do this is either, as we have seen, by arguing that the moral law of the Old Testament is still valid or by arguing that the Christian should keep what they call the Law of Christ, which they see as including, amongst other things, part of the Old Testament Law.
I am not happy with this because I do not think it is what Paul says. It comes, I think, from a fear of being without any written code to live by. I will discuss living in the Spirit in the future, but I do want to address just briefly this idea of a Law of Christ. Those who argue this sort of position argue that when Paul speaks of Christians not being ‘under law’, he means specifically the Mosaic Law and that he does not have law in general in mind. This opens the way for a new Law, the Law of Christ.
The reason I am unhappy with this distinction between types of Law is that I think what Paul says of the Law, referring to the Mosaic Law, by definition applies equally to law in general. Those who argue for a Law of Christ would include in it most of the ten commandments, but it is from these that Paul quotes to show the ineffectiveness of the Mosaic Law. If we are dead to the Mosaic Law, we are dead to these as well. Paul doesn’t simply reject individual commandments of the Law as being valid for Christians, but law as a way of doing things, the very principle of law, in fact. Yes, he does have things to say specifically of the Mosaic Law, and when he speaks of Law he normally means the Mosaic Law, but much of what he says about the Mosaic Law applies to any form of law, even if it is made to sound acceptable by calling it the law of Christ.
Attempts to rehabilitate law as way of serving God by calling it the Law of Christ miss the point of what Paul says about the Spirit and undermines the centrality of the Spirit in the life of the believer.