"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Friday, September 15, 2006

Paul's Law

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? (Galatians 4:21 ESV)

One subject which comes up repeatedly in the writings of Paul is that of the law (or the Law). In general, Paul's view of the law is negative, but not because of any problem with the law itself. Paul tells us in Romans 7:12 "So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." (ESV) The problem, the author of Hebrews (perhaps Paul and perhaps not) notes, is not really with the law, but with us. Therefore, Paul tells us, "you are not under law but under grace." To understand what Paul means by this, we must understand what "the law" is in Paul's writing.


It has been popular among theologians and bible students to divide the Mosaic Law into three parts: the moral law, the civil law, and the ceremonial law. The moral law is generally summed up by the Ten Commandments, though a debate may ensue over whether or not the fourth commandment should be included in the moral law. The civil law are those portions of the Mosaic code which were for regulating society. These are most easily identifiable by having penalties associated with them (see, for example, Exodus 21:28-29). The ceremonial law is that portion of the law that regulated worship for Israel. This would include things like regulations for the feast days in described in Leviticus 23.

There has been a movement in the near past called the Theonomy movement. This movement attempted to prove that Paul is only discussing the ceremonial law when he says we are not under law, and that the moral and civil law are still binding on man. In practice what this means is that the "case law" (civil law) of the Old Testament should be the standard for modern law. This raises questions, like should we stone adulterers? By and large theonomy's influence has waned, and is not a major force within Reformed circles today.

Others have argued that only the moral law remains in effect, i.e. that when Paul refers to not being under law, he means the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law. This has been a very popular view at times, and continues to have adherents.

The final view would note that Paul has in view the entire Mosaic law. None of this is binding on Christians today. I would say this is probably the most popular view today, but I do not know that we have had a vote to be sure.

Side note: Since I started this post on Tuesday, Justin Taylor has published a post on the law. It provides a lot of good background and further discussion for the topics above, less on what I want to discuss from this point forward.

Another Hypothesis

As I read Galatians in preparation for a Tuesday night Bible Study, I was struck by what Paul wrote in Galatians 4:21 - Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? (ESV) Why is this significant? Because it gives a view into what the Apostle viewed the law to be. This is the question that open's the curtains to that view - "What is Paul referring to when he asks the Galatians, "do you not listen to the law?"

What follows Paul asking this question is a discussion about Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar, Sarah, and Isaac. Paul draws an allegorical interpretation from the two women and the two sons. The slave (Hagar) contrasts with the free woman (Sarah); flesh (Ishmael) contrasts with promise (Isaac); two covenants are contrasted; two cities are contrasted. The point I want to make here is that when Paul tells the Galatians they are not listening to the law, he means Genesis, and the story of Abraham. What I am saying is that when Paul discusses the law, he has at least the five book of Moses (Genesis - Deuteronomy) in view.

Is This a Big Deal?

Depends on how much theology you have built around assuming even though we are not under law, there are things in Genesis that are binding.

For Paul, this was a huge deal, because the Judiazers could appeal to Abraham as an example of one who underwent circumcision, even before the Mosiac Law made it binding on the nation of Israel. Therefore, Paul denies this by saying that Abraham is included in the law.

Additionally, it means that anyplace where Paul discusses the law in the New Testament, we should think about the five books of Moses as a minimum, unless there is a specific contextual reason to assume otherwise.

Is Any Doctrine Established Today by Appeals to Genesis?

I'm glad you asked.

Probably the most frequently doctrine that Abraham and Genesis are used to support, because they show it is "pre-law," is that of tithing. How many sermons have you heard where the Pastor says that Abraham giving a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek means that the tithe is an "eternal statute" and binding for the believer. God cannot and/or will not bless you unless you give 10%. They don't want to be told that the believer is not under the law; they know the believer is not under the law. But Abraham gave a tithe before the law.

Okay, that argument is full of holes for another reason. If you read the story, Abraham did not give a tenth of his income or even his possessions. He gave a tenth of the spoils, of which he kept none. Zero. Nada. Go check it out if you doubt me. But what Galatians tells us is that even if Abraham had given a tenth of his own possessions or income, it does not matter. That would be part of the law, and the law is not binding on the Christian. This is not to say that the law has no use for the Christian (check out Justin Taylor's post), but it is not prescriptive for the Christian.

Now, before you go out and celebrate tomorrow by spending your tithe on an (hopefully) expensive dinner, think about what Paul says about giving in the New Testament:
For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” . . . The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 8:12-15, 9:6-8 ESV)

Now, to be consistent, this means the case for capital punishment cannot be made from Genesis 9:5-6, despite what I wrote here. I still think the argument of the post is valid and a case for capital punishment can be successfully based on Romans 13 and the principles from the Old Testament. But we should not appeal to Genesis 9:5-6 as a binding regulation still in effect today.

May God open our eyes to all that we have in Christ Jesus, so that we do not want to be under law, but under grace.


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