Law in Romans: For Wrath

The Law in Romans, and Paul’s thought generally, is complex.

On the one hand, it is promissory: it looks to the future; it plays the part in the story of prophet. It points away from itself to the coming work of God in Christ.

But on the other hand, Law is tied to sin as what indicates Israel’s own guilt.

And with sin and guilt, the Law brings wrath.

Why must the promise not be realized through the Law itself, but outside the Law in the Christ event? “Because the Law brings wrath, but where there is no Law, neither is there transgression” (Romans 4:15).

By saying this much, Paul reiterates in ch. 4 of Romans what he had said in chs. 1-3: that the Law plays the role of making Israel guilty of what Israel could assume the Gentile world was guilty of: failure to honor and glorify God. And, it puts it in the same position as deserving of wrath that Rom 1:18 tells us is the condition of the Gentile world as well.

In the second half of Rom 5, Paul begins the extensive work of rewriting the Law’s role in the story of Israel.

What came with, apparently, promises of righteousness and life, is at first simply put to the side. What is determinative for the destiny of humanity is not the Law given to Israel but, instead, the actions of two men: Adam and Christ (Rom 5:12-19). Adam’s transgression unleashed the reign of sin and death; Jesus’ obedience inaugurates the reign of grace.

God’s grace, life, the gift of righteousness–all the things that one might have thought the Law was scripted to give, are instead provided by the obedient, dying Messiah.

So what, then, are we to make of the Law if it does not, in fact, work the life that it seemed to promise?

5:20: The Law came in in order that it might increase the transgression.

The purpose of the Law, in this case, is to make Israel a microcosm–not of the saving act of the Messiah in obedience, but–of the failure of Adam.

But here’s the point: though this was a purpose of the Law, it was only the penultimate purpose of God. Into this realm of increasing sin, the grace of God abounded more. In the context, this grace has already been defined: the super-abounding grace of God is what comes in the death of Jesus.

As Rom 1:18 had told us that the revelation of God’s righteousness depends on the revelation of God’s wrath; as Rom 3 had told us that God’s righteousness is demonstrated by Israel’s unrighteousness, so here we hear that God’s grace in Christ comes right to the place where sin was most strengthened by transgression.

The final purpose of this was that the increase of sin was that a new reign might be established in its place: the reign of grace that comes through Christ.

How is it that this “holy, righteous, and good” law ends up playing such a dark role in the story?

In short, chs. 6-7 tell us, the problem is that the Law is a loyal subject, or a weapon. Whoever is lord of its realm, the Law faithfully serves. The paradox of Paul’s gospel message, as it rewrites the role of the Law in the story of Israel, is that to be freed from the Law is also to be freed from Sin (Rom 6:14).

When it comes to a world under the reign of sin, the law is used by that lord to bring about death. To be under Law is to be under Sin, and ultimately to be under Death.

The chart below ( from Unlocking Romans) shows how the very language Paul uses to speak of sin and death in Rom 6 is repeated as he talks about the Law in Rom 7:

The only way to break free from the enslaving force of sin, as it uses the Law for its purposes, is through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 7:1-6). With this cosmic intervention of God comes the Spirit, who enables us to do what the Law was powerless to do: bear fruit for God (Rom 7:5-6).

The bottom line: The Law comes as a Spiritual entity to a fleshly people without the power to make that people Spiritual. Because of this lack of transforming power, it is used by the governing power of the world, sin, in order to work transgression, sin, and death.

But when the Spirit of the resurrected Christ comes, the Spirit who has power even to give life to dead flesh (Rom 1:4), God shows that there is a way to be made righteous, to know life, to escape from wrath. The resurrected Christ performs the role that, one would have thought, was the role of Torah in Israel’s story: life-bringer, righteous-maker.

29 thoughts on “Law in Romans: For Wrath”

  1. “the Law plays the role of making Israel guilty of what Israel could assume the Gentile world was guilty of: failure to honor and glorify God. And, it puts it in the same position as deserving of wrath”

    Wouldn’t Israel have been guilty and in the same position even without the Law?

    “The purpose of the Law, in this case, is to make Israel a microcosm … of the failure of Adam”

    Why the need for this, is Adam’s failure not enough?

    “the revelation of God’s righteousness depends on the revelation of God’s wrath”

    I don’t think you have tried explaining to us yet your previous emphatic assertion of causality here (gar, since).

    “Rom 3 had told us that God’s righteousness is demonstrated by Israel’s unrighteousness”

    Is some explanation of this forthcoming?

    “sin was most strengthened by transgression”

    Was sin any stronger in Israel than elsewhere?

    “To be under Law is to be under Sin”

    Can’t we be under sin even when not under Law?

    “the Spirit, who enables us to do what the Law was powerless to do”

    Are we only ‘enabled’, so that we may fail, perhaps partially, or even completely?

    “(the Law) work(s) transgression, sin, and death”

    Law works transgression (of Law), but is it necessary, and/or sufficient, or neither, for there to be sin and death?

    1. Davey, Here’s my two cents FWIW:

      “The purpose of the Law, in this case, is to make Israel a microcosm … of the failure of Adam

      Why the need for this, is Adam’s failure not enough?”

      Adam’s failure was enough to condemn all; Romans 5 says that. Israel is a microcosm of Adam’s failure, but with one notable exception. In a sense, through Israel’s representative (the 2nd Adam) mankind gets a do-over and Jesus’ obedience is greater than the first Adam’s disobedience. Like Wright says, “What God needed was one faithful Israelite.”

      “sin was most strengthened by transgression

      Was sin any stronger in Israel than elsewhere?”

      Yes, to the point that they became so zealous for their sin distorted view of torah that they killed their God. It’s like with Paul himself, who in his zeal for torah, persecuted Christians; how ironic.

      1. JRDK,

        Question: what translation are you using? The NRSV translates Rom. 5:20 as follows “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied” (my emphasis added). There seems to be a crucial difference between the law coming “in order that” it increase trespasses and the law coming “with the result that” trespasses increased. The latter seems to hedge against a determined outcome.

        You said the law is promissory in that it looks to the future, but didn’t it also serve a very real, literal purpose in its original context, the wilderness people of Exodus? If so, I am wondering, in what capacity do you think so? Does this original purpose perhaps give us a clue as to why Paul deemed the law as “holy” and “good?”

        1. Michael,

          As I said yesterday, “with the result that” does not seem to be a good translation. hina means “in order that,” and is so translated in the NIV, KJV, ESV, NASB.

          The Law surely did a lot of good things. But that’s not what Paul’s on about in Romans. He wants to explain how it is that God is not a liar, but in fact righteous, given that this Law God gave Israel did not end up being the righteous-making, people-defining, salvation-bringing entity it seemed to be.

          1. Again, JRDK, I am/have been totally with you insofar that law “did not end up being the righteous-making entity it seemed to be.” But it is quite another thing to say that the Law’s precise purpose was to (from the get-go) to function as luring in and trapping sin so to grapple with it via Christ a whole millenium down the road (sounds more like Ghostbusters than anything).

            Isn’t that somewhat consequentialist?

    2. Davey, a couple of things: (1) I’m trying to explain what Paul says, not develop a theology of Law ex nihilo. (2) The Law is a given; it defined the people of God in the OT; and, now Paul is saying that it neither defines the people of God nor provides the righteousness requisite for justification and final salvation. So…

      Would Israel have been in the same place w/out Torah? Maybe. But they had it. And it has this surprising function. What’s more, it gives them the words by which they might look to the future act of God in salvation. And, it marks out a place where sin will increase so that God can disarm it fully. Apparently…

      The negative stuff (microcosm of Adam’s failure) comes with the positive of being the place where Adam’s failure can be undone in Jesus’ Adamic success. Perhaps part of the point is that without death and resurrection overcoming sin’s power, we now need something else. Perhaps there is the grain of truth in the Reformation reading: there is no obeying God after Adam, now that sin reigns in the world. Maybe we did all need to learn that–that we need a transforming deliverance such as comes in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

      Most of your questions are pressing me on what Paul says. The framework I’ve given is an attempt to make sense of it all. These little pieces cause most explanations of the purpose of the Law to fall apart. I’ve tried to put out something that allows all of the fors and in-order-thats to stand. Maybe it doesn’t work or falls apart somewhere. But as an explanation of Paul, it’s at least an attempt to keep it all on the table.

      Re. your last point: no, Paul says in Rom 5 that sin and death reigned where there was no transgression. And, righteousness, grace, life come to reign apart from Law, by many transgressions. So where does Law come in? That’s what Paul has to deal with in 5:20–”in order that transgression might increase, and thereby increase sin…”

  2. Thanks for your ‘two cents’, billy lejeune! But I am asking what need (as I read Kirk asserting) there was for more transgressions like Adam’s (Rom 5.14). And it seems to me that human beings are always doing far worse things than what was done to Jesus and the first Christians by Jews and others.

    Michael, yes, I think you are right, the Law was surely given to some extent for the good of the nation, to keep it together as a more or less functioning society as other societies. What puzzles me is why it was given as something more (if some commentators are right about that) than other societies’ similar measures. If that had been done, there would perhaps have been no need for all the fuss about Torah among Christians.

    1. davey,

      In the bible story, it seems to me that the whole history of Israel’s habitual rejection of God comes to to a head in the lines “crucify him, crucify him” and “we have no king but caesar.” The ultimate sin is not a matter of how much pain is inflicted; it is a matter of who they are rejecting. It is a matter of loving darkness rather than light. They should have know better. Pilate wasn’t in a covenant with God; the Jewish leaders were. That is why Jesus can tell Pilate “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin”


      1. Ah, but Pilate
        was in covenant with God; lest you forget, the founding, primary covenant of God wasn’t with a tribe of people — it was not even with people per say — but with the entirety of creation/cosmos, human and non-human alike, manifested in the rainbow which ties heaven and earth (Noahide Covenant). Only after panning back and establishing this cosmic scope was God able to then narrow his efforts into one elected tribe, Israel.

        I don’t recall that covenant ever being broken..

        Hence, Jesus at Pilate’s HQ (John 19:9-11)

        Pilate: Where are you from?
        Jesus: silent
        Pilate: Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’
        Jesus: You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…

        1. Maybe that is why in the story Pilate washes his hands of the whole thing. Pilate knew nothing of Noah’s covenant, even he knows better to be guilty of this man’s blood. But the Jewish leaders, they knew about the torah and the covenants, they should have known better, therefore their guilt is greater.

        2. Interestingly though, Paul completely ignores the Noahide covenant and its stipulations/laws when he says there was no law from the time of Adam to the time of Moses in Rom. 5.

    2. Right, but what do you mean by being “given something more than other societies?” The measure was temporary, given only insofar as it was within the context of the founding covenant with Noah, which blessed all of creation, which was in turn founded on Gen. 1.

      Election does not imply impunity, as we see God calling King Neb. his servant and utilizing the foe from the north to fulfill God’s purpose.

  3. billy lejeune, I’m inclined to think that harms and rejections done to anyone are no less serious in God’s eyes than harms done to Jesus.

  4. Michael, yes, I also see the Law as after and below a far wider commitment of God’s from back at Genesis 1, but it looks like many don’t (N.T. Wright? who seems to start significant covenantal dealings at Abraham). By ‘something more’ I meant that infringements of Law needed special redemption over and above that of sins by those not under Law, without which those not under Law could not receive favour from God (according to some commentators. eg N.T. Wright?).

    1. Davey,

      I have in my possession New Testament and the People of God which is the first of five volumes in which Wright explores the historical, theological figures of Paul, Jesus and the early church in first-century Palestine.

      Wright argues that Paul is not simply jettisoning Torah — “we must see that Paul’s story is essentially the Jewish story” (405; my emphasis). But then Wright turns around and claims, Paul is indeed working within the overall tradition of Torah “but with a subversive twist at nearly every point” (405). That seems to be a clear contradiction. If one aims to subvert a tradition “at every point,” then what good is there in the tradition as tradition to begin with? A bit too newfangled, no? Further, and this is the crucial part, Wright says about Paul:

      “Torah was the great gift which signaled Israel’s special status and vocation. For Paul this remains true, but with a dark twist: the special status and vocation is that Torah should convict Israel of sin, so that Israel should be cast away in order that the world might be redeemed” (406).

      So, if Israel is subverted “at nearly every point” and via Christ Israel is altogether “cast away” then how exactly is Paul “essentially” working within the tradition? Worse still, the vocation of Israel, according to Wright, is nothing more than a necessary evil, a sacrificial lamb, which functions as undermining the exile people from the get-go in order to lure in and trap sin (like Ghostbusters?!) up so that it could be dealt with by Jesus one millenium down the road (a bit consequentialist). Wright, in effect, completely ignores the original situatedness of the the Mosaic Law, in that it facilitated much needed sustenance for a then needy, broken people, originally and temporally so. Also Wright ignores the scope of law or Torah — as you point out — for it is a tradition which radically predates its own tribe, it tells a story before its own story, en route to democratizing all of humankind as in the image of God, thus blessed.

  5. Thanks for your reply, Daniel, much appreciated.

    But just to press again one point:

    “it marks out a place where sin will increase so that God can disarm it fully”

    N.T. Wright is constantly saying the “so that God can disarm it fully” part of that too, but where does Paul say: in order that it can be disarmed fully?

    1. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, so grace might reign…”

      The change of reign happens here: where sin was at its strongest, its reign was overcome by the reign of grace, in Christ.

      1. Well, I only know elementary Greek, but it looks to me like (around here) Paul is saying that the Law was given in order that sin might increase, and he is saying grace abounded in order that grace might reign, but he doesn’t say that the Law was given in order that grace might reign over the resultant increase in sin. He says elsewhere what it means for Law to increase sin.

        1. I ought also to have written, that it doesn’t seem to me that Paul is saying God can only disarm sin fully if Law increases it. N.T. Wright puzzles me by implying this ‘only if’.

  6. Daniel – a good post. I’m with you entirely on this.

    Davey – if we take ‘Law’ to be a specific command carrying a sanction then this applies to Adam and the Mosaic Covenant but not to the Noahic.

    1. John,

      Though the Noahide covenant carries specific commands and sanctions therein, as in “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8:21). God is sanctioning himself here.

      And then God specifically commands “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1).

  7. Hey Daniel,

    I know this comment is a few days old, but I’ve been traveling and haven’t been able to keep up like I usually do. This post deals with an issue that I haven’t been able to get straight for some time. The coming of the Spirit is what enables us to do what the Law could not produce in us. However, the coming of the Spirit is a New Covenant blessing; a blessing which could not take place until Christ had finished his work on earth. If that is so, how was it that anyone prior to the New Covenant was ever able to do what the Law in and of itself could not produce? Surely there were some people who truly loved sacrificially and bore the fruit of the Spirit, right? But if they could not produce this until the New Covenant, how could they ever have lived that way? Or is the New Covenant not strictly just about the coming of the Spirit who enables people to engage in “faith working through love”?

    What are your thoughts, if any? Thanks.

  8. Jonathan

    Good question and one that’s hard to answer with certainty. I’m not Daniel but I’ll give you my tuppence worth (UK expression… two cents?).

    OT saints were regenerate (circumcised hearts). Roms 7 seems to me to describe a renewed heart under the OC. It longs to be holy but has no ability… the good that I would I do not… There is a lack of power pointing, it would seem, to the absence of full life in the Spirit.

    Yet this is not the full story for clearly some had the Spirit in the OC (especially Kings and various people upon whom the Sprit came. The Spirit anointed them and empowered them to some extent. Read Ps 51. Cf Psalm 119. The point of the new covenant was that the Spirit would be enjoyed by all and not just some. Acts 2.

    Nevertheless, any enjoyment of the Spirit was within the constraints of the OC conditions. The people of God were not baptized by the Spirit into one body. There was no union to an exalted reigning Christ. They anticipated the Kingdom but were not in it. God did not dwell in his people but among them in a temple none could approach but the High Priest and only once a year and so on.

    I’d be interested in any further reflections on this question for it is a hard one.

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