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.

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