Side Notes on Law in Romans

There are a couple of loose ends from earlier comment threads that I haven’t been able to wrap up. One has to do with Wright’s claim about the law’s purpose being to focalize sin upon Israel, the other with what Paul means by Law.

In Paul’s summary… the law functions to intensify the sin of Adam… (“the law came in on the side in order that the trespass might increase,” 5:20)… Torah, instead of lifting up Israel to a level above the rest of the human race, simply throws a bright spotlight on the fact that Israel, too, is “in Adam,” is “fleshly,” is “sold under sin.”…

“In the very place where sin abounded, grace also abounded.” Here is the rhetorical argument of the letter in a nutshell. Yes, the Torah simply intensifies the sin of Adam in the people of Israel. No, this does not lead to Marcionism… (“Romans and the Theology of Paul, 46-47)

Wright sees ch. 7, where Paul defends the Torah, as being the point where Paul works things out a bit more fully (pp. 52-53 of the same essay):

  1. Covenant was put in place to deal with the sin of the world. This is, thus, Torah’s ultimate purpose.
  2. Torah came in order that sin might abound (Rom 5:20)–”That is, the divine purpose in the giving of Torah was in order to draw Adam’s trespass to its full height precisely in Israel.”
  3. This is repeated in 7:13: “in order that sin might become exceedingly sinful”
  4. God draws all this sin on Israel in order to pass it on to Israel’s Messiah and there deal with sin once and for all: “‘Sin’ is lured into doing its worst in Israel, in order that it may exhaust itself in the killing of the representative Messiah, after which there is nothing more it can do.”
  5. Thus, the apparently negative force of Torah (to draw in and focus sin over Israel’s head) has as its ultimate purpose God’s final dealing with sin, once and for all
  6. “Israel’s ‘failure,’ therefore, was part of the strange covenant plan of the creator god whereby this god intended to deal with the world’s sin.”

What I have liked about this articulation of things is that it places the dying of Christ within the story of Israel. Moreover, it takes seriously the idea that for Paul nomos in Romans often refers quite specifically to the Torah, the Law given to Israel as such.

This leads to the second point.

Yes, in Paul, Torah comes to play a part in the cosmic story of the powers that govern the earth.

But no, it is not inclusive of the cosmic powers that govern the sun, moon, stars, and Gentile morality. At least, not in Romans.

When Paul enters his complex discussion of Law in chs. 5-8, he begins by telling us that Adam trespassed, and that the thing called “law” comes in with Moses. He has specific events in mind, specific Torah given by a specific God to a specific people–and not to others. Without this piece in place, it becomes impossible to make sense of how Paul’s articulation of the gospel is, in fact, for the Jew first–and even through Israel, which was entrusted with the very words of God.

Put differently, it is not the “law” of the planets in orbit that bears witness to the crucified and risen Christ, but the Pentateuch.

10 thoughts on “Side Notes on Law in Romans”

  1. So, let me get this straight. The law is not sin; the law is indeed holy (Romans 7:7;12). Therefore, one might conclude that the law’s primary function is thus life-affirming. Though you argue that Paul’s point in Rom. 5;20 is that the law “came in order that sin might abound.” That seems to be a contradiction by Paul. If the law came in order to bring death, then how can it be holy and good?

    Though, I looked further into the text, and your point about 5;20 only tells half the story of that particular verse:

    But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more

    The law does multiply sin, however, not without abounding in grace as well — “all the more.” So, grace exceeds the presence of sin, as far as the law goes. This seems to better fit Paul’s point in chapter 7.

      1. However, text itself says the law CAME/ORIGINATED in order that sin might intensify, yet grace abound all the more (20). Where did it come from? The preceding verse tells us the law came because of the sin of Adam, now reconciled in Christ (19). Indeed, this entire section (12-21) lays out the history of creation and sin and law and redemption.

        Thus one cannot argue this to be merely contextualizing the Christ event. So, how can you simply say grace IS the Christ event when Paul explicitly lays out in the beginning of this section, “sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law” (13). Law serves a purpose in the overall redemption effort, reckoning with sin. Isn’t this precisely why Paul considers it “holy” and “good?”

        1. …Also, I am still wondering, why did you leave out half of the verse in 5;20 for your second point regarding Torah? Is this Wright’s doing? Either way, the entire verse needs to be heard, not just the first part.

          “2. Torah came in order that sin might abound (Rom 5:20)–”That is, the divine purpose in the giving of Torah was in order to draw Adam’s trespass to its full height precisely in Israel.”

          Paul is clearly qualifying the first point, that sin multiplied via law BUT not without an abounding grace which consequently exceeds the sin. You need to involve both of those parts in the verse otherwise you lose his meaning.

          Right?

  2. “4.God draws all this sin on Israel in order to pass it on to Israel’s Messiah and there deal with sin once and for all: “‘Sin’ is lured into doing its worst in Israel, in order that it may exhaust itself in the killing of the representative Messiah, after which there is nothing more it can do.””

    I can’t get on the wavelength of this. Sin has always been everywhere, and needs dealing with everywhere. In Israel, it may be there is an increased seriousness of sin because against stated law, though it seems to me the real seriousness of sin is because of the distress it brings to sentient beings, and surely nothing more distressing to people was done by Jews than Gentiles. But, was there a special dealing with Israel’s against law sin necessary before all sin could be dealt with? If so, law seems to have brought with it a totally unnecessary problem.

    Consider the following analogy:

    Everybody was mucky, so a group were selected for special treatment out of a sack. ‘Goody’ they thought, this will help us be clean. So the sack of soot was emptied over them. Then a hose was brought in, but when it came to the sooty being hosed down most of the water was directed at those around them.

    If that is a clearer picture of what some commentators find to be Paul’s story in Romans, then it doesn’t grab me as very clever.

  3. Hi y’all. I usually just lurk about, but thought I’d try to join in this time. Hope you don’t mind.

    I think Wright’s point is sometimes hard to grasp because we are captured by theories of the atonement that are abstract and (for lack of a better word) mechanistic. Justice requires so much suffering to balance the books, which in turn obligate God to pass a certain sentence. Its as if the precise weight of individual sins requires a critical mass to move the finely machined gears of justice. Once Christ ‘pulled that lever’, the whole thing gets into motion and the sins of the world are ‘dealt with.’

    God wants to act, but there are rules that need to be overcome first. Dealing with sin means taking care of that paperwork.

    I think St. Paul’s point is much less theoretical. It is rooted in the actual history of Israel.

    Israel was called for the sake of the world. Counter intutively (because of our idolatrous notions of divinity), to be ‘elect’ as the people of the God is to be used up for another. This is because this particular god is the one who eternally exists perichoretically by giving himself away. This ‘self-giving’ was Adam’s calling as God’s image bearer. It was Israel’s calling; it was Christ’s and so ours, too. Israel brought salvation to the world by concentrating sin in her own body. She became the bomb squad’s disposal trailer for the sake of the world. This was the mysterious purpose of the covenant of Torah.

    By entering into the covenant spelled out in Deut 28 ect, Israel as a nation placed itself under a curse in the event of rebellion/transgression/sin. The covenant (torah) stipulates the consequences. These consequences are just and deserved. This isn’t trans-historical. The history of Israel before the coming of Christ is the working out of this covenantal reality.

    The NT finds Israel still longing for an end to the consequences of their national covenantal failings. Her King took those consequences onto himself. He died outside his capital, by a method explicitly cursed by the covenant and at the hands of his people’s conquerors- the same conquerors who were the curse of the covenant. He died as a consequence of his peoples sins. Through his faithfulness he exhausted the curse of the (very historical) covenant by freely accepting the judgment that Israel’s sinfulness deserved.

    In his people- through her King- God passed judgment on sin (not Christ or sinners, but sin itself) ‘This’ he clearly declared, ‘is what sin deserves.’

    Not only did God judge sin by dealing it it’s just deserts in Israel, through her King, but he also passed judgment on the underlying idolatry of Israel/Rome’s vision of divinity (and humanity) Christ offered an different version of each. On Easter morning God cast his vote by vindication/judging/delivering/justifying Christ by raising and glorifying the crucified King.

    So… Israel’s sin (and all sin by representation for Israel was a nation of priests) was judged by God once and for all in the person of her King, who took the consequences of his nation’s transgressions (the ones spelled out in the historical covenant) onto himself.

    By dying he left this cursed reality through the only door available. In raising him, God brought into existence the eschatological New Creation that Israel longed for. By sharing his Spirit (the Spirit of the Age to Come) with all men and women, he allows Israel’s salvation to extend to the world.

    It is not that Christ did something ‘extra historical’ for the world and then Israel is invited to share in it. It is that God worked the eschatology salvation of Israel through her specific and historical situation and then invited the nations to share in that.

    It is not that Christ did something extra historical for the world and then Israel is invited to share in it. It is that God worked the eschatology salvation of Israel through her specific and historical situation and then invited the nations to share in that.

  4. Counter intutively (because of our idolatrous notions of divinity), to be ‘elect’ as the people of the God is to be used up for another.

    This post is beautiful, and the quote above will be my meditation during this Easter weekend. Thank you!

  5. I wasn’t expecting that. Thank you. I’ve long admired the conversation here, and just wanted to try and participate a bit.I’m more than a little out of my league. Thank you for allowing me in.

    With auto-complete and copy/paste etc….I wish I had read it a little more closely before I hit ‘submit.’ :-) I’ll do better in the future. Thank you for your patience.

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