Law in Romans: Promissory

I apologize for taking so long to get here. But when we talk about “Law,” we have to be clear what we’re saying (and not saying). What Paul says about the Law is a subset of what he says about, and how he reads, the rest of the scriptures of Israel. I take these to be his presuppositions:

  1. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the good news
  2. This good news is brought about by Israel’s God
  3. God promised to bring such good news to Israel
  4. These promises are found in Israel’s scriptures

This is little more than a restating of Romans 1:1-7. So, in brief reply to people’s vociferous reactions from earlier this week: No, what I’m about to lay out is not a supersessionist, replacement theology. It is a surprising redefinition of what it means to be faithful to the Law and scriptures of Israel.

There are problems with claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures and the way of salvation–especially when ethnic Israel, by and large, is not receiving Jesus as God’s promised good news. But these are the problems Romans was written to answer.

The first thing to say is this: the purpose of the Law is to witness beyond itself to the coming Messiah. This means that the purpose of the Law was not ultimately either (a) to define the people of God; (b) provide the righteousness requisite for being acquitted as one of God’s faithful people; or (c) tell people what to do for all times and places.

The first indication of this is in the opening verses, where Paul says that the gospel concerning God’s son was prepromised in the scriptures. The stage is set, here, for scriptural references to be read as promissory.

This vein is worked out in several places of the letter:

In Rom 3, after stating the law will not justify any flesh, Paul situates the law with respect to his gospel: “But now, without law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed to by the law and the prophets–the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ.”

The law and prophets witness to something beyond themselves: to the coming Christ as the revelation of God’s righteousness.

Similarly, Paul introduces Rom 4 with a statement that he establishes the law. He then goes on to depict the Abraham narrative as anticipating the Christ event in two crucial ways: as Jesus’ death provides for the justification of the ungodly, so too Abraham believed in the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5). And, in the second half of the chapter, the birth of Isaac is depicted as a resurrection–so that Abraham believes in the God who gives life to the dead. This anticipates our own justification as we believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead (4:22-25).

The Abraham narrative shows that the gospel of Christ establishes the Law because it depicts the promises to Abraham, and his justification, as anticipations of the work this same God does now, through Paul’s gospel.

This becomes Paul’s focus as he wrestles with the problem of Israel’s unbelief in chs. 9-10 as well.

At the end of chapter 9, the difference between Israel’s non-attainment of righteousness and the Gentile’s attainment of it has to do with Israel’s failure to read the Law as witness to Christ: “Not by faith, but as though by works–they stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold! I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and however believes in him shall not be disappointed.'”

Wrong use of the Law is failing to see it as an anticipation of the coming Christ.

Similarly, in the beginning of ch. 10, the problem with Israel’s pursuit of righteousness is that it did not use the law so as to arrive at Christ. They strove to attain their own righteousness rather than recognizing God’s righteousness which comes through Christ: “For Christ is the telos of the law, unto righteousness for all who believe” (10:4).

In a third pass at the same argument, Paul contrasts the self-referential idea of “doing” the Torah with the Christo-referential idea of the law as witness to the coming Christ.

Law-righteousness, he claims, says, “Whoever does these things will live by them.” Faith righteousness, however, sees in Torah a witness to the Christ event: “Do not say in your heart who will ascend into heaven–that is, to bring down the Messiah. Nor, who will descend into the abyss–that is, to raise the Messiah from the dead. What does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart; that is, the word of faith that we proclaim. That if you confess Jesus is Lord with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised him from among the dead, you will be saved.”

In this, Paul rewrites Deut 30. No longer do those verses testify to the gift of the Law as the means of salvation, but to Christ as that means.

This is the first line of argument about the Law in Romans: that the purpose of the whole Torah is to bear witness to something beyond itself. It is a diachronic purpose. The law, correctly understood, has a centrifugal rather than centripetal force: it throws you outside of itself to the coming Christ.

Tomorrow we will take up a second line of argument: that the Law comes in in order to ensure that Israel, like everyone else, is recognizably sinful.

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