Law in Romans: For Sin

Paul says things about the Law that seem to stand in stark opposition to each other. Some would say that Paul contradicts himself about the Law and its place in the story of Israel. If this were an easy question it would be no fun to discuss and, more importantly, scholars would have nothing left to write about.

When I want to explore Paul’s arguments, however, I hold off on asserting “contradiction” until every other explanation has been exhausted. So here as well. Somehow, I want to see how the things he says about the negative place of the Law in the story of Israel coincide with the praise of the Law as holy, righteous, and good.

Yesterday we outlined the promissory function of the Law, as Paul speaks of it in Romans. Then I put up some thoughts from N. T. Wright on the role of the law, where he attempts to give an account for the apparently negative things Paul says about the Law’s function–and how those are resolved in the Christ event.

Today we need to visit that negative thread.

As I see it, here is what we need to hold together: (1) the Law is holy, righteous, and good. But to ascribe such goodness to the Law is not to say either (a) what its purpose is; or (b) what its effect is when it comes to a world ruled by sin and death.

This is where I see the conversation in the comments butting up against each other. I have been focusing on questions (a) and (b), and the things Paul says about the effect and purpose of the Law, as Law, in Israel’s story seem to stand in tension with the goodness of the law. But our task is to figure out how and why this good law can come as an instrument of death, as something that causes the trespass to increase so that the power of sin is magnified.

I see the problem with some of the conversation as this: rather than explaining how both are true, a number of folks are clinging to the “Law is good” part in order to deny what Paul says about its function in the story. But this is precisely why he says the good stuff: because he has to give an account of how a good law can play a role other than life-giver and grace-bringer for Israel.

Paul’s starting point is the Christ event. And this is why he can say that if life comes through the Law, if the grace of God is revealed through the law, if righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly. So if it didn’t bring righteousness and life, what did it do?

In Romans 2, Paul doesn’t deal with the Law’s purpose per se, but he does chide Israel as Law breakers: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law do you dishonor God?” Again, this is not about purpose, but an assertion about reality as Paul sees it.

In Romans 3, Paul says that having the oracles of God (including Torah, no doubt), is an advantage to the Jews–but one they did not take advantage of. In fact, it is not God’s response to Israel’s fidelity that puts God’s righteousness on display; instead, it is God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here the paradox of Israel’s failure in God’s redemptive story begins to peek through.

As the chapter goes on, Paul draws closer to giving a negative purpose of the Law. He quotes a whole bunch of OT texts about the sinfulness of humanity. And here is his surprise: these texts, many of which bad-mouthed Gentiles, are not written to condemn Gentiles, but to shut the mouth of Israel: “Whatever the Law says it speaks to those under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped”–not just the mouths of those Gentile bad guys–”and all the world may become accountable to God.” The Law renders culpable those who are under it.

As in the beginning of ch. 3, though, so here also, Israel’s culpability under the Law provides a pointer to a new, decisive intervention by God in order for people to be holy and righteous: “But now, without Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested… through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Our unrighteousness puts on display the righteousness of God, Paul had said, and this is where.

As Paul explains how it is that God enters to act where Israel failed, he gives an indication that Israel’s culpability under the Law does not make it especially liable to judgment, despite its transgression: “in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed.” This is an important moment in the argument: while much of what Paul does is aimed at showing how Jews are equally guilty, the added guilt itself becomes an occasion for grace, as God passes over in light of the time when righteousness will be brought about by the Christ event.

Tomorrow we will at last get to that troubling verse in ch. 5 where Paul says that the purpose of the Law is for increase of trespasses. But here already the pattern has been set: the saving righteousness of God comes where Israel’s unrighteousness precedes it.

And this is our hint toward how the negative and positive things hold together: the purpose of the Law can, in one sense, be seen as the increase of transgression–but this is because the Law is only penultimate in the purposes of God. The ultimate plan of God is to bring about saving righteousness in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

19 thoughts on “Law in Romans: For Sin”

  1. Question: are you operating with one definition for “Law” in Paul? I’m having trouble reconciling your comments here and yesterday with Paul’s argument against homosexuality, for example, which comes straight from Torah.

    1. Law as Torah given to Moses right now.

      I don’t agree that his condemnation of homosexuality is just read off the pages of the Torah–it is part of a retelling of the disintegration of the creation narrative.

      The whole Torah is run through the Christ event as that Torah is parceled out, sometimes applied in the New. But it is always modulated somehow through Christ.

      1. On homosexuality I was referring more to the vice list (with porneia) in 1 Corinthians 6.9-11. Should have qualified that, as the Romans 1 issue is a separate one to me.

        I guess I’m wondering where you’re getting the indictment of Israel apart from Paul’s attempt to validate the Gentile mission. I see you’re covering this topic on future posts, so to say you haven’t covered everything would be remiss–but I’m wondering how Romans 7, in which Paul talks about a good, “spiritual” law, fits into this discussion as well.

  2. “if righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly … he does chide Israel as Law breakers: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law do you dishonor God?” Again, this is not about purpose, but an assertion about reality”.

    But Christians are now expected to be faithful, as those under law couldn’t manage to be! So, was the Christ event so that God can now righteously forgive failures to be faithful, inasmuch as God could have simply forgiven faithlessness under the law but not righteously, where the only righteous thing God could do would be to be wrathful? But, then is forgiveness because of Christ on a sin by sin basis, so that when one sins one is once more at enmity with God (and lost) until one repents (though perhaps extra help is given to be faithful and repent, not available to those under law). Or is the Christ event effective in the sense that once under faith one’s relationship to God (perhaps one’s nature) is changed so that though one sins one’s restoration is sure? Or, how is Christ different for us than law, is our security in Christ now as dependent on ourselves as (putatively) it was under law? (The reality is, surely, that Christians are no better at doing what they should than Jews were.)

    So, in sum, if one had kept the law, one would have attained righteousness, does one now similarly (in a second covenant that works no differently than the first) attain righteousness only if one keeps faithful to Christ?

  3. I am with you on most all of this, but here is my question:In what sense does Paul say “without law?”

    “But now, without Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested… through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Our unrighteousness puts on display the righteousness of God, Paul had said, and this is where.

    Since the law does have a seemingly crucial role in the story, in what sense can Paul say, “without law” or “apart from law”? On the negative side, (I think we agree here)the law working in the Jewish leaders comes to fruition in their rejection and condemnation of Jesus. On the positive side, (I know you disagree here) the law working in Jesus produces results in his saving faithfulness. Even if you reject the second premise, the first still stands. The Law had a part to play in bringing about the righteousness of God. So “without law” must be qualified to mean something like “apart from us keeping or without Israel keeping the law.”

    1. If the law is holy and good, then why cant that shape its purpose and function..? Does not “being” (law as holy) imply “doing” (law as commandment)? If I am a fish that has been given the potential to swim fast, will that beingness not imply my functionality? I think it’s safe to say its purpose, if holy, is clearly to bring justice, to be life-affirming via God.

      Now, you are quite correct in your third caveat, that the effect or implementation of law is unknown (this is where Israel went terribly wrong).

      1. It does shape its function, but we can’t know what that function is ahead of time. I think your argument is logical, but it’s precisely the kind of argument Paul has to argue against. Given that Jesus is the way that righteousness came about, we have to reconcieve of what the purpose of the law ways. It did not bring justice, did not bring righteousness, and did not bring life. But that doesn’t mean that its purpose was thwarted, only that bringing justice was not its ultimate purpose.

        1. Your first point merely reiterates the comment that I made above — of course good functionality isn’t synonymous with good implementation (re: Adam in the Garden with the tree).

          So, are you telling me that honor your mother and father; do not steal; love your God — those, unequivocally “did not bring justice, did not bring righteousness, and did not bring life” to the broken and bruised and malaise-ridden people in the wilderness, desperately yearning for some kind of order?

          1. You’re working hard to find a good use of the Law in the story of Israel. That’s fine. But Paul is doing something very different in Romans. He trying to explain how it is that the righteousness of God is made known in Christ, not through Torah, and thus why his Torah-free mission is the fulfillment of, not negation of, the Torah of Israel. There are good things in the Law, and things that people should still do, but the idea that these define the faithful, just, and therefore justified people of God is, per Romans, mistaken.

    2. Right, Billy–we disagree there. There is no indication that the Law produces or is tied to Jesus’ saving faithfulness. The places where Paul talks about Jesus’ faithfulness, he always has the cross, not the law, in view. The places where the NT talks about Jesus’ obedience, it always has his death, not Law-keeping in view. The places where it talks about Jesus’ righteousness it always has his death in view.


      The Sufficiency of the Cross, Part 1


      The Sufficiency of the Cross, Part 2

      1. Daniel, Thanks for the links. I only read the first one so far. From the beginning I had trouble relating to the debate because I don’t believe in the whole imputation thing. I don’t think either Jesus’ active or passive obedience (or both together) is in any way imputed to us. I am with Wright in saying the righteousness of God is God’s own righteousness or Jesus’ own righteousness. So my reason for holding that Jesus was torah observant is different from Owen. Towards the end of part one you sum up:

        “The question in focus is whether or not this life of ‘law-keeping’ is reckoned to believers in justification.”

        I would say no, but his life of law-keeping is crucial in undoing the curse on humanity. His life of law-keeping is what makes his death different; it makes him the lamb without blemish. It makes him the 2nd Adam who gets it right, thus, redeeming humanity. Imputation of his law-keeping doesn’t have a place in the story in my opinion.

        1. He is a perfect, spotless Lamb, Billy. No doubt about that. He knew no sin. I’m not sure that it’s all that important to associate this with Torah observance, though as a Jew that was a starting point. The challenging places are where he backs up his disciples’ law-breaking.

      2. 8:3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…

        How? How would Jesus’ death condemn sin? Maybe like this: Death is the sentence or consequence of sin. But if sin takes the life of a innocent person; sin itself could be condemned. At that point it is out of bounds and utterly sinful. It has taken that which it does not have authority over. The innocence of the person is crucial to his death having the condemning effect. And what is the significance of Jesus coming “in the likeness of sinful flesh?” Is it not so that Jesus would be tempted in every way we are, and so that through his obedience to that undeserved death he could defeat that inner sinfulness brought out by the law in fallen Adamic humanity? Right, Paul doesn’t say this, but it is a logical conclusion following a trajectory he set up.

        Tonight I went to a Good Friday communion service. I was meditating on the body and the blood of Jesus. The blood, Jesus said, is the blood of the new covenant. Cool, I know what I think about that. The body, what is the significance of partaking in his body? This is what I got: Jesus’ body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The separation between God and man is undone in Jesus. The Spirit was able to house in Jesus because, unlike all other men, Jesus body was undefiled. I tend to think it was his obedience to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (ie. torah observance possibly?), which kept his body undefiled. So when I eat that bread, that undefiled human body, I remember that now because of his death, the Spirit can live in my body, defiled that I am. The bread reminds me that I await the redemption of my defiled mortal body.

        Thanks for letting me share. I DO see you point that the NT emphasizes the death as sufficient. I don’t have an answer for the hanging on a tree curse thing at the end of Gal. 3. You say the law cursed Jesus. Another way to say it maybe is: Sin cursed Jesus, working in the Jewish leaders, brought about by the negative effect the torah had on them, when they hanged him on a tree. I’m not sure. Thanks for letting me share.

        1. In Paul, I see body-eating as tied to death with Christ. We are crucified with him, united with him in the likeness of his death. It is our participation in death to the realm ruled by sin and death, so that we can participate, also, in the world reigned over by grace and life.

  4. I have not been able to keep up with all this, but I really enjoy it. I think improperly defining the term “Law” in Paul is one of the central reasons why there is disunity among Christians – but thanks be to God, it appears Christians are starting to come to agree the “Law” Paul is primarily focused on is the Mosaic Law (Covenant), not some universal law or even so called “covenant of works” (or “republication”).

    Galatians 5:2-4 (along with 2nd Corinthians 3) points out that to get circumcised and subscribe to the Law is a bad thing, but this is not because one then tries to ‘earn their salvation by their own efforts’, but rather because in doing so one is putting themself under the old way of thinking which we now know in Christ was simply shadows and symbols of Christ to come. Thus, one is effectively denying Christ came and is the fulfilment of those OT shadows and symbols. For example, practicing the Passover isn’t bad in itself, nor is it ‘earning your salvation’, but rather an action implying “Christ isn’t the true Passover”.

    I think one of the most fascinating texts in all this is Romans 10:5-9, where Paul speaks of “the righteousness of the Law” in v5, and “the righteousness of Faith” in v6. A significant number of Christians has long believed Paul is speaking of ONE righteousness attained TWO possible ways: faith or our own efforts. But a less vocal number have read this to mean TWO righteousnesses, each attained their own specific ways: thus, the “righteousness of the Law” is a righteousness the Mosaic Law grants, it is a ‘temporal’ righteousness manifested in long life, wealth, large family, etc….on the other hand, the “righteousness of Faith” is the kind of righteousness only the Christian covenant can grant, and is an ‘eternal’ righteousness manifested as a renewal of your inner being and eternal life. Israel was conflating Righteousness1 with Righteousness2 – while Paul is saying Righteousness2 is what it’s all about (e.g. in Phil 3:3-11, Paul says he kept the law perfectly, but that wasn’t what mattered).

    In strong support of the above claim, notice Paul’s approach in Rom 10:5-10, where he explains the “righteousness of Faith” by QUOTING the very spot in the Mosaic Law that says (on the surface) that the Law is not too difficult to keep. But Paul doesn’t say this is about our own efforts or anything, but rather with Christian-Glasses discovers the Mosaic Law passage to speaking of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension and believing in that.

    1. Practicing Passover negates Christ’s work? Far from it. It reaffirms a rich storied tradition which soon gave way to the culmination of Christ. Without Passover 1 there is no Passover 2; without the exodus there is no Gospel of Mark; without the exodus event there is no Christ, as there is no founding tradition for him to work out of.

      The OT is not just shadows of symbols, it is a long and complex storied tradition that ought to be respected as such, for it serves as the backdrop for the Christ event. Indeed, Paul is a “creation theologian” that is constantly pulling from Genesis and its cosmic scope. After all, Torah tells a story that predates Israel, bolstering and blessing all of humankind.

    2. Nick, this comment almost says exactly what I’ve been outlining here. The only difference is that I’m not yet ready to say that the reward of Torah righteousness was temporal, while Christ righteousness brings about eternal reward. That might be right, but I wonder if that misses the redefinition of righteousness, and the use of the Torah in general, that has taken place.

  5. Why does Paul make a big deal, if he does, about the difference between sinning and transgressing law (of course, transgressing law is also sinning)? Does transgressing law need a different forgiveness and redemption than sinning?

    1. I think he makes such a big deal about it precisely because transgression is something Israel can be guilty of in a way that Gentiles never can: because they have law to transgress while the Gentiles don’t. Sin is at work in the world; it is a power enslaving people and bringing them under the reign, also, of death. But transgression is the result of having a Law to break. That is important for why and how salvation comes through Israel, as Paul lays it out in Rom 5.

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