Paul’s View of the Law (in Galatians)

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The status of the Mosaic Law (hereafter, the Law) in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a complex question and, as a consequence, a highly debatable subject. On the one hand, Paul has a grand view of God’s plan, in which the Law has a significant and positive place. On the other hand, Paul makes some sharp contrasts between Christ and the Law and presses his readers to choose between these options. There is a strong either-or tone in the argument of the letter. Is there consistency and coherence in Paul’s view? Or, as some conclude, is his argument illogical and ultimately incoherent? Is Paul perhaps merely jostling for political advantage over the opposition that figures prominently in Galatians? If Paul’s argument is coherent, how do we articulate it?

Contributing to the complexity of our question is the polemical style of the letter. Paul wants to persuade the readers in a certain direction. Understandably, he sharpens the terms of the choice that he wants them to make. Paul uses a wide range of rhetorical methods to help achieve that end. Thus he does not nuance every statement, nor does he deal with issues that might detract from his argument, even if we should consider them important from our perspective. Because Paul’s less polemical letter to the Romans treats similar issues, we must also consult it in reconstructing Paul’s theology, based on subtle clues as well as explicit claims.

Paul’s view of the role of the Law after Jesus Christ is shaped by his conviction that nothing can challenge the all-sufficiency of God’s action in Christ to save the Gentiles—not even the Law. Much of Paul’s theology reflects his attempts to use the Law and the Prophets to support the truth of this revelation. The various parties in Judaism, including the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, shared a high respect for the Law, even though they interpreted it differently. In trying to understand Paul, interpreters of the letter to the Galatians find themselves constantly asking what view Paul is countering. Here a range of possibilities presents itself. Paul himself was a Pharisee, and he remained a Pharisee as a believer (cf. Acts 23:6), even though his new convictions put him at odds with his fellow Pharisees. We have already noted the existence of Essenes, Sadducees, Herodians, and other groups within Judaism. We cannot assume a unified view of the Law within this range. This complexity contributes to the challenge of fully understanding Paul in his context.

We begin by identifying, in summary fashion, Paul’s broader view of the Law, including some aspects to which he alludes in the letter but does not emphasize because of the letter’s polemical purpose.

1. The Law is divine revelation. In Galatians 3, Paul speaks of the Law being given and added. The unspoken but clear subject for these actions is God. True, Paul mentions that the Law was ordained through angels (3:19). Paul thus acknowledges that the Law is supernatural in origin. At the same time, he implies that the mediated character of the Law by angels lacks the full agency of God. Galatians implies that only Jesus Christ expresses the full agency of God, and only the love commandment (5:14) reveals the true will of God.

2. The Law plays a significant role in the story of God’s saving purpose. The Law was added because of transgressions (3:19). Whatever the exact meaning of this statement (see commentary), Paul affirms that a divine purpose stands behind the giving of the Law. That purpose was for the good of God’s people. At the same time, the Law served its purpose within the more fundamental covenant of God’s promise, accepted by faith. That covenant was with Abraham and came to full flower in Jesus Christ. The Law thus had a kind of parenthetical and temporary character. Its positive if secondary function in the service of God’s purpose centered on promise and faith. It follows that the Law cannot serve as an autonomous instrument for building or sustaining relationship with God.

3. The Law is subservient to Christ. The coming of Christ represents the fulfillment of God’s deepest intention reflected already in the promise to Abraham to bless Israel and the nations. For Paul, this means that Christ is the full authority for the church. The authority of the Law is now conditioned by the greater authority of Christ. The Law is neither superior to Christ nor is it equal to him.

4. The Law has a continuing function for the followers of Jesus Christ. This is a point that Paul makes by his example, not by his exposition. Nowhere in Galatians does he explain what role the Law can legitimately have for the believer in Christ or how it plays that role. In 5:14, Paul supports his exhortation that the Galatians serve one another in love by stating that such conduct fulfills the love commandment from the Law. He even calls this moral demand the law of Christ (6:2). This is not surprising since Paul believes that the Law originated with God. It should and does reveal the will of God. But there are caveats, to which we now turn.

The coming of Jesus Christ and the Spirit—and perhaps also his own experience with the Law—has revealed certain limitations in the Law, or weaknesses. Paul cites these weaknesses in his appeal to the Galatians not to submit to the Law without qualification.

1. The Law is not the latest and final stage of God’s redemptive plan and action. This is the salvation-historical argument in relation to the Law. The Law was a central feature of the religious life of God’s people and its final authority. Now for Paul and the early believers generally, Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), God’s agent of revelation and salvation at the end of time (cf. the theme fullness of time in Gal 4:4). In contrast to many of his fellow Jewish believers, from this theme Paul drew the radical implication that Jesus is now the final authority, to which the authority of the Law is fully subordinate. The revelation of God’s will in and around the person, teachings, life, and death of Jesus, and Paul’s conviction that this good news must be preached to the Gentiles (including God’s call on Paul’s own life to do so)—all this called for a modified application of the Law and a change in its role. These changes are determined by the role of Jesus Christ in mediating our relationship with God, by the role of the Spirit in guiding and empowering the church, and the role of the church to be a light to all the nations. Paul does not allow that Christ is simply another chapter in the story of redemption that merely adds to or supplements the authority of the Law. Christ is the final authority, who is complete in himself, and to whom all preceding revelation must answer.

Particularly helpful in this regard is the concept of fulfillment. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew cites Jesus as saying that he has come not to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the prophets (Matt 5:17). Christ fulfills the Law. The word fulfill expresses well the general viewpoint of New Testament writers, including Paul. This word communicates both continuity and discontinuity between God’s action in the past and God’s action in Christ. Christ takes up the old and brings it to culmination. The old is not left behind but is enhanced and in some ways changed in the light of the character of the new. For Paul, there can be no returning to the old in the form that it was. Among the early followers of Christ, Paul was distinctive in seeing the radical implications of Christ as the unconditional center of faith.

2. The Law is not capable of giving full life in God. This is Paul’s soteriological argument in relation to the Law. In 3:21, Paul explicitly acknowledges that righteousness would indeed come from the Law, if the Law could give life. But the Law, in fact, does not give life. In 2:19, similarly, Paul affirms that the Law itself caused him to die to the Law in order that he might live to God. Paul’s relationship to the Law was marked by spiritual death (cf. Rom 7:4). That death opened the way to life in God. Paul immediately explains that he means life as the living presence of Christ within Paul (2:20). By identifying with Christ, Christ’s life is active in the person of Paul. This further demonstrates that Paul understands the reference to life in the Habakkuk 2:4 proof text quoted in 3:11 to include this sense. Even though the Law defines true qualities of life with God, the Law does not have the ability to create the living relationship with God that is the heart of spirituality and the basis for godly living. This may appear to contradict the Old Testament claims that often associate true life with Law observance, such as those in Deuteronomy and the Psalms. But Deuteronomy observes that love for God, followed by obedience to the Law, is the key to life (Deut 30:6-20). So even here the Law witnesses that, in itself, the Law does not give life. Given that point of agreement, for Paul, life in Christ reaches a new and unprecedented level of quality.

3. The Law cannot empower holy living. This is Paul’s ethical argument. In Galatians, Paul thinks of life as both being alive to God relationally and living out the will of God in conduct. Certainly Paul’s Jewish heritage and training would have offered him this perspective. The key factor here is that the Holy Spirit is a major topic of the letter. The Spirit is the agent of power and makes possible what God intends. The opening verses of chapter 3 highlight the Spirit as the basis for the Galatians’ own spiritual breakthrough. The work of the Spirit did not result from works of the Law but from faith in what God offers in Christ. In this context, the evidence of the Spirit’s work lies in the miracles that have taken place in the Galatian churches. The clear implication is that the Law does not have the power to realize what God intends and offers for believers.

Paul applies this contrast of Spirit and Law specifically to ethics in chapter 5. Here Paul describes the Christian life as living in the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, and being led by the Spirit. The Spirit brings to fruition the godly virtues in the believer (5:22-23). Thus the Spirit achieves what is in harmony with the Law (5:23b; cf. Rom 8:4). For this reason those who are led by the Spirit are not subject to the Law (Gal 5:18). The Spirit can contend with the flesh and its desires (5:17), but observance of the Law apart from the Spirit relies on the very flesh that weakens our ability to obey (see 3:2-3, which places works of the Law and flesh in parallel; cf. Rom 7!).

Paul does not, however, identify Law with flesh. He associates the two to make the point that Law observance is based on frail human resource (flesh), which sin so easily dominates. This is a formula for moral failure. Paul explains this point in Romans 7. Paul also implies that the Law is an element of the world (Gal 4:3, 9 KJV). As such it is weak and beggarly and represents more slavery than freedom. Here again, Paul does not see the Law as evil in itself. Rather, Paul is saying that even the Law, standing alone as a foundational principle for living, enslaves rather than frees.

4. The demand for Law observance negates the saving action of God in Christ in removing the divide between Jews and Gentiles. God’s action in Christ saves all on the same basis, faith in Christ, thus forming a people of God from all nations. This is the ecclesiological argument. Weaving through Galatians 2–3 is Paul’s concern that the Gentiles readers of his letter understand themselves as truly one with and equal to the Jewish believers in Christ. The classical statement is 3:28. Paul makes the point explicitly when he reminds Peter that their encounter with Christ has revealed themselves to be sinners, just as they, as Jews, had always viewed the Gentiles (2:15, 17). Paul vigorously defends the Gentiles’ freedom within the Christian family (2:4-6). For him, the Jewish identity markers of circumcision and ritual purity compromise the unity of the new people of God. As identity markers, those practices create boundaries that separate Jewish and Gentile believers. If the Gentiles need to become full-fledged Jews by submitting to circumcision, they are no longer on equal terms. Both Jews and Gentiles need to submit to a third party, namely, Jesus Christ. Paul’s passionate defense of the universality of the church is the central issue in Galatians. Submission to the Law by the Gentile believers can only compromise the unity of the church by making them second-class kingdom citizens. Their freedom is at stake.

Paul’s description of the Law in Galatians is conditioned by the situation in the Galatian churches as he understands it. One should thus avoid overreading the negative tone of the letter. Paul believes that the opposing teachers are moving from a faith-and Spirit-based stance to a works-and flesh-based one (see esp. 3:1-5). Their understanding and use of the Law effectively negates the Spirit and faith, replacing them with reliance on human resources (the flesh). As a result, the Law remains a complete and full authority in its own right. Here Paul does not discuss whether or how one can respect and use the Law in a way that does not negate the fundamental principles of Spirit and faith. Paul’s appeal to the Law in 5:14, and throughout his letters, indicates that he does believe there is such a way. Paul does resist, however, any tendency to claim unconditional authority for the Law instead of or even alongside Christ. Paul will not allow the Law to compromise the great breakthroughs of God’s action in Christ or the enablement of the Spirit.

Throughout much of church history, especially since the Reformation, Paul’s position on the Law has been contrasted with a view—attributed to the Judaism of his time—that right standing with God is achieved by doing good works. Classic Protestant theology has typically held that Paul was arguing against “Judaism” in Galatians—a Judaism believing that salvation depends on keeping the Law: salvation by works. Paul’s alternative gospel is salvation by faith. Over the last twenty-five years, initiated largely by the work of Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders, research has made clear that the Jews of Jesus’ time and Paul’s time did not believe in self-salvation. For them, as in the Old Testament texts, God’s gracious election was a gift, the ground of salvation. Law observance maintains right standing, but it is not the basis for it. But if this is the standard view of Judaism, what is Paul opposing in his argument regarding the Law?

Paul’s concern can be summarized in two broad categories. First, the revelation of Jesus as God’s messianic agent at the end of time constitutes the very definition of God’s will. God’s revelation in Christ is in continuity and essential harmony with the Law. At the same time, Christ changes how the Law applies to today. God’s revelation in Christ gives higher priority to some aspects of the Law that were present all along, but perhaps not central in the practice of it. An example central to Galatians is the mission to the Gentiles, which Paul sees in God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. This mission is hindered by a requirement like circumcision, which creates a barrier between Jew and Gentile and compromises the vision of a people of God inclusive of all nations. In other ways, the earliest Christians saw Christ as replacing a feature of the older covenant. For example, the death of Jesus terminates the system of animal sacrifice. Weighing the implications of Christ’s finality has continued in church history, often with controversy. The historic peace churches understand Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies (Matt 5:44-47) to suggest that the Old Testament examples of war do not justify war in this era. In Galatians, Paul is concerned that believers not compromise either the gospel or their freedom by embracing the Law in a way that negates or diminishes the greater authority of Christ.

Paul asserts that the coming of the Spirit enables righteous, Christlike living. That living is readily compromised by a wrong use of the Law. Paul seems to imply that the Spirit can guide believers in ways that go beyond the Law, though not in a way that is fundamentally contrary to it (5:23b). His central point is that the Law, while true in its substance, has to rely on a source outside of itself for achievement. The source of that empowerment is either the human will and effort (i.e., the flesh) or the Spirit. The flesh is inadequate because its passions and desires are controlled by sin rather than godliness (5:16-17). Only the Spirit can overcome the weakness of the flesh and enable righteousness. Thus Paul is not critical of anything in the Law itself. He is, however, deeply concerned that the teachers’ focus on the Law is shifting the Galatians’ attention away from the Spirit to the Law. And since the Law is vulnerable to the weakness of the flesh, the Galatians will likewise be vulnerable to it.

As Paul himself admits, there is nothing inherently incompatible between Law and Spirit. Paul himself appeals to the Law (5:14) and to standards (laws or regulations) in general (cf. “the law of Christ” in 6:2 and 1 Cor 9:21). So how might we explain Paul? Apparently Paul shares the perspective of Israel’s prophets (cf. 1:16) and of Jesus himself, who saw around them the hypocrisy of external conformity without genuine love for God. In the perspective of Paul as prophet, Israel is once again in danger of lapsing into a nominal adherence to the formal requirements and practices of the Law. In Galatians, Paul does not explicitly indict his fellow Jews with this charge, though he may imply it in his critique of justification by works of the Law.

In contrast to classical Protestantism, we have learned not to characterize the Judaism of Paul’s day as a religion of salvation by works. However, Paul did see in his fellow Jewish Christians a tendency to give more weight to the formal observance of the Law than he considered appropriate. Like Jesus, Paul saw the people of God in his day as lacking in practice what they professed in word. The writer of 2 Timothy (3:5) eloquently describes this condition as “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” To combat this tendency, Paul passionately promotes genuine relationship with God, a reality made possible now, in the age of the Spirit, when one can and must aspire to a deeper and more fruitful life with God in Christ.

In short, Paul sees the Law itself as “good” (cf. Rom 7:12). The problem arises, however, (1) when one takes the Law as final authority without submitting to the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ, (2) when the Law’s authority is taken as independent of the divine empowerment that comes from the Spirit of Christ, and (3) when Law observance maintains the boundary markers that distinguish Jew from Gentile.

George R. Brunk III