The Law and the Gospel
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The Law and the Gospel

Stephen Westerholm



Let me begin with a story told me some years ago by a Lutheran minister (who did not, however, reveal his own sources).

A Catholic, a Baptist, and a Lutheran all died and went to their allotted place in the hereafter.  To their dismay, they all discovered that their place was the place of torment.  After a moment's reflection, however, each had to acknowledge the justice of his fate.  The Catholic, though born and raised in the Church, had not attended Mass for years.  Little wonder that the pearly gates were not open for him.  The Baptist, though faithful in his church attendance, had not been faithful to his wife; and no adulterer, he remembered, has any place in the kingdom of God.  The Lutheran recalled that he, too, had lapsed in his latter days.  Shortly before his death, he had done a good work.  In the midst of their torment, each regretted the error of his ways.

The story serves to remind us of a well-known feature of Lutheran thought.  Any Christian may speak of law: the term is a central one in scripture and has retained its importance in Christian reflection of many traditions.  And any Christian may speak of the gospel.  But the one who would speak of the Alaw and the gospel@ is almost certainly responding, one way or another, to Lutheran theology.

It was Martin Luther who saw the distinction between Alaw@ and Agospel@ as the key to understanding Scripture.  ALaw@ in this formulation refers, not to the Old Testament as such, nor, exclusively, to any part of the Old Testament, but to God's demand wherever we encounter it.  The term Agospel,@ on the other hand, refers to God's offer of grace.  And for Luther, these are opposing notions and must not be confused.  Not that the demand is less divine or more dispensable than the gift.  Unless we are confronted by divine demand, Luther believed, we do not recognize our need of divine grace.  And (our initial story notwithstanding) Luther never tired of stressing that, once a sinner has responded in faith to God's grace in Christ Jesus, faith is appropriately and necessarily expressed in good works.  ALaw@ has its place, thenCbut not in the matter of justification.  Sinners are put right with God, not by complying with divine demands, or by any good works that they may do, but simply by God's grace through faith.  To quote Luther:

When we are involved in a discussion of justification, there is no room for speaking about the Law....This Bridegroom, Christ, must be alone with His bride in His private chamber, and all the family and household must be shunted away.  But later on, when the Bridegroom opens the door and comes out, then let the servants return to take care of them and serve them food and drink.  Then let works and love begin.[i]

Luther's distinction captures and highlights an important biblical theme.  Yet when the New Testament writers themselves attempt to define the relation between the law and the gospel, the focus of their concern is somewhat different.  For them, Alaw@ almost invariably meant, not divine demand in general, but Torah, the divine commandments given to God's people Israel to guide them on the path of life and obedience.  And the problem of the law and the gospel was, for them, not the general issue of the relation between divine demand and divine gift, but something much more specific: what was the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ doing when he gave Israel his commands?  And how does the giving of the divine commands to Moses relate to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ?


Among some early followers of Jesus, at least two positions were adopted that avoided the problem entirely.  On the one extreme, there were those who maintained that followers of Jesus are as much bound by the Mosaic law as were Jews before Jesus' coming.  Acts 15 tells us that there were believing Pharisees who took that stance.[ii]  In effect, they were saying that, though Jesus is God's Messiah and though he died for our sins, the framework within which God operates even after the coming of Christ remains the Sinaitic covenant; and the people of God even now must conform with the terms of that covenant.  In principle, at least, that is not an incomprehensible position.  And it leaves no doubt about the relation between law and gospel, Moses and Christ.  But no New Testament writer thought that way.  For the New Testament authors, what God did in Jesus Christ involved something much more radical: God had established a new framework for his dealings with humankind, a new covenant that in some way transcended, or even superseded, the covenant enacted at Sinai.  But once one adopts such a position, our problem becomes inescapable: what did God hope to achieve with the earlier covenant?  What are we to make of Sinai?

At the other extreme, we know that Marcion insisted that the deity who gave the Mosaic law was a different god entirely than the One who sent Jesus into the world.[iii]  What is denied here is not the Anewness@ of the Christian covenant, but any continuity whatsoever between the Aold@ covenant and the Anew.@  Again, on such a view the relation between the two covenants is not even an issue.  And, like the position at the opposite extreme, this view too can claim the attractiveness of simplicity.  But again, no New Testament writer succumbed to the temptation.  For the New Testament authors, the God of creation and the God of Moses was also the God of Jesus Christ.  It follows that what God achieved through Jesus Christ must represent, in some way, an appropriate sequel to what he did at Sinai.  Once again our question proves inescapable: Why Sinai before Christ?  What was the point of the covenant at Sinai?

In what follows, we will examine the ways in which three New Testament writers approached the issue.  First, however, it is important that we consider briefly how Torah was regarded by Jews in the first century of our era.


Views of TorahCand the Day of Salvation


Jews in the first century carried on lively disputes about what was required of them by Torah, and equally lively disputes about who Torah's authoritative interpreters ought to be.  Nonetheless, all Jews loyal to their ancestral faith were united in the belief that Torah represented God's gift to Israel, intended to guide the lives of his covenant people.

The Hebrew word ATorah@ has traditionally been rendered Alaw@ in English.[iv]  But it is worth remembering that the content of the Mosaic Torah extends far beyond the boundaries of what people of the modern West conceive as law: matters of civil and criminal law are included, but so are broad moral principles and rules of festival observance; regulations for the cult, its sanctuary, officials, and sacrifices; dietary restrictions and prescriptions pertaining to ritual impurity.  Still, all are spoken of as God's Acommandments, ordinances and statutes@ which Israel is Acommanded@ to Akeep@ and not Atransgress.@  Indeed, individual prescriptions of Torah and the collection as a whole are accompanied by sanctions for transgressors.  Hence, though we should remember the wide scope of Torah's commands, the English term Alaw@ may still represent the most adequate (or the least inadequate!) rendering of the Hebrew term.


In fact, Jewish apologetic literature from around the turn of the era frequently compared the Mosaic Torah to the laws or Aconstitutions@ of other peoples and states.  In these comparisons, Torah always came out best.  It was thought to be older than the laws of other peoples, all-embracing in its guidance, never in need of revision, superior in its capacity to command the devotion of its subjects, perfect in its embodiment of the Alaws of nature.@[v]  A parallel to the latter claim is found within the developing Awisdom@ tradition of Israel.  Here Torah came to be identified with the divine wisdom by which all things are created, sustained, and ordered, and by which humans are guided on the path of life (e.g., Sirach 24; Baruch 3:9-4:4).  By this view, the demands of Torah, though expressing the will of the King of the Universe, are not arbitrary divine decrees, but prescriptions for life reflecting and woven into the very fabric of the cosmos.

The notion that Torah embodied the order of the cosmos was easily advanced in general terms.  The perceived universality and reasonableness of Torah's moral commands were cited in support.  More daunting was the task of showing how prescriptions known to distinguish Jews from other peoples of the world could somehow be rooted in the cosmic order of things: the laws of circumcision, for example, or the forbidding of pork and certain other foods.  In such cases, apologists either resorted to allegorical interpretation[vi] or declared that the prohibitions promoted self-discipline and other virtues (cf. 4 Macc 2:23; 5:23-24).  A third alternative was to concede the arbitrariness of particular demands, but to note that their fulfilment gave faithful Jews the opportunity to show submission in all areas of life to the will of their benevolent Lord, a submission that is itself inherently right, conducive to lifeCand divinely rewarded.[vii]

Alas, Jews in the first century were in no position to claim that, as a people, they had faithfully obeyed Torah and prospered as a result.  Both history and current events would disprove such a claim.  Israel's faith, however, was not disproved by Israel's history.  On the contrary, as we know, the disasters that had befallen God's covenant people were seen as appropriate judgments for Israel's disobedience to Torah (e.g., Nehemiah 9; Dan 9:1-19).  Still, Israel remained the covenant people of God, and such a divine undertaking can hardly come to nothingChuman weakness and willfulness notwithstanding.  In various depictions that we may broadly label Amessianic,@[viii] the same prophets who had pronounced Israel's doom spoke of a day beyond such judgment when God would overthrow forces of evil and oppression, forgive and transform the waywardness of his people, and establish his own rule, a rule marked by righteousness, peace, and prosperity (Isa 9:2-7 [in the Hebrew text, 9:1-6]; 11:1-9; Jer 23:5-6; Ezek 34:11-31, etc.).  The transformation that would make a willful people compliant with God's laws was, again, described in different ways: God would infuse them with his divine spirit, replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, write his laws on their hearts... (Jer 31:33-34; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27).  Whatever the mode, the resulting obedience of God's people was a crucial element in any picture of future felicity.


When Jesus announced the dawning Akingdom of God,@ he was declaring that the time of God's gracious intervention had begun, that God was acting to free his people from the power and effects of evil and to establish the rule of divine goodness.  Jesus' own death and resurrection were proclaimed by early Christians as decisive salvific events: Jesus' death atoned for human sins, his resurrection signalled the divine triumph over sin and death and inaugurated the long-promised Aday of salvation.@  To be sure, the powers of evil, though conquered, had not yet been banished: for a time, the dawning Anew age@ would coincide with a prolonging of the Aold age,@ while God gave people the chance to repent.  In the meantime, believers could rejoice in the assurance that nothing in the present age could separate them from the love of God revealed to them in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39).

But what was the state of Torah as the Anew creation@ dawned?  Was it an Aold wineskin@ incapable of containing Anew wine@?  If so, why had God given it in the first place?  Or was it, as God's revealed will for his chosen nation, even now obligatory for all who wished to be numbered among the people of God?  Was it, indeed, as the embodiment of the wisdom and order by which the cosmos is sustained, the path to be pursued by all who would not be Awise in their own eyes,@ but would Afear the LORD and depart from evil@ (cf. Prov 3:7)?

The answers were not self-evident.  Suggesting the necessity of Torah observance were at least the following notions shared by the earliest Christians with non-Christian Jews: God had chosen as his people the descendants of Abraham, given them his Torah, and promised them that their obedience would be met with his favour.  Admittedly, Christian Jews were distinguished from their non-Christian compatriots by their belief that Messiah had come; but why should the coming of Israel's Messiah mean the doing away of Israel's law?  Traditional Messianic expectations did not suggest that it would.  On the other hand, suggesting that Torah observance was no longer required were the specifically Christian beliefs that a Anew covenant@ had been established (Matt 26:28; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:6-13), that God's intervention to provide redemption in Christ Jesus demonstrated the inadequacy of the Sinaitic covenant and its Torah to cope with human sinfulness (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:21; 3:21; Heb 10:4), and that God had shown his acceptance of uncircumcised believers in Christ by giving them his Spirit (Acts 11:1-18; Gal 3:2-5).

We may well feel that, in the end, these latter, more distinctively Christian convictions were bound to carry the day in the Christian church.  But they could not do so conclusively, nor could the issue be considered resolved, before a Christian understanding (or understandings) of Torah had been articulated that accommodated the truth of all the beliefs that we have just listed: both those Christian convictions shared with non-Christian Jews about God's dealings with Israel and the divine origin and purpose of Torah, and the characteristically Christian persuasion that God had acted in a new and decisive fashion in the person of Jesus Christ.  In various ways, the New Testament writers we examine here attempted to provide just such a comprehensive understanding.

We begin, appropriately enough, with the Aapostle to the Gentiles.@


Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles



As the Aapostle to the Gentiles,@ Paul was inevitably confronted by the question of Torah's applicability to his converts.  Indeed, he was opposed by proponents of the first extreme position mentioned above: by believers in Jesus as Messiah who maintained that, even after Messiah's advent, the Sinaitic covenant and its laws provided the framework within which God continued to deal with his people.  Paul responded both energetically and thoughtfully.[ix]  If Gentile believers were not to be circumcised in keeping with the demands of Torah (and that was emphatically Paul's position), then Paul felt constrained to show the more limited purpose of Torah (whose divine origins he did not question) and how extending its prescriptions to Gentile Christians would violate the divine intention.  Constantly travelling, working his trade, debating, persuading, starting and nurturing communities of faith, occasioning and enduring harassment, Paul was anything but an armchair theologian.  But theologian he was: no solution could serve for Paul on the practical level that did not commend itself on the theoretical. 

We focus here on Paul's letter to the Romans, his most developed statement of the Christian gospel and of the place of Israel and Torah in the divine plan.  The letter celebrates the gospel as the effective revelation of God's Arighteousness@Cthat is, of the divine benevolence and faithfulness that impelled God to intervene in human history, in the person of Jesus Christ, to restore humanity and, ultimately, all creation, to their intended goodness and glory.  Such divine intervention can be said in a nutshell to have been necessitated by human sin; but the close links between Paul's understanding of Torah and his depiction of the human dilemma require that we pursue the matter in more detail.

Paul begins in Rom 1:18-3:20 by arguing that all human beings are guilty before God of concrete acts of wrongdoing for which they cannot be excused.  Five aspects of his argument merit brief mention here.

1. When Paul writes that Aall have sinned,@ he certainly includes every individual human being (apart from Jesus Christ himself: 2 Cor 5:21); but his primary point in referring to Aall@ in this context is to include Jews together with non-Jews.  The former, he grants, are the objects of significant divine favours.  But in one (decisive) respect they are no different than Gentiles: Athe whole world is guilty before God@ (3:19); Athere is no difference [between Jew and Gentile]; for all have sinned and fall short of God's glory [i.e., of the glory God intended for humankind]@ (3:22-23).

2. Nonetheless, Jewish sin differs from Gentile sin in one (ultimately insignificant) respect: only Jewish sin involves the transgression of Torah, since it was to Jews alone that Torah was given.  Gentile sin remains inexcusable: creation itself (Paul insists) displays enough of God's power and divinity to obligate all human beings to worship and thank their creator.  The refusal of people to do so represents the fundamental human sin (1:19-21).  But whereas Gentiles follow it up with acts that defy their God-given awareness of right and wrong (1:32; cf. 2:14-15), Jews, when they sin, transgress the God-given commands of Torah (2:12; 4:15).  That is the difference that, in the end, makes no difference.

3. Paul treats the divine gift of Torah to the Jews as a favour inherently wonderful, but salvifically inconsequential.  He believes (as suggested above) that even Gentiles possess a residual awareness of right and wrong; but Jews, as recipients of the divine Torah, possess the very Aembodiment of knowledge and truth@ (2:20).  In the end, however, knowledge of God's will is of benefit only to those who obey it (2:13).  Jews, Paul insists, have not done so; hence they cannot claim to have secured their standing before God by their observance of his commands.[x]

4. In speaking of Torah as a gift to Jews, Paul indicates that the divine willCthe Aknowledge and truth@Cspelled out in Torah is equally applicable to all humankind.  Here he must be thinking of Torah's moral commands, to examples of which he alludes in Rom 2:21-22.[xi]  Jews and Gentiles alike, he insists, are obliged to Ado what is good@ (2:6-11)Cand there is no suggestion that what constitutes the Agood@ is any different for Gentiles than it is for Jews.  That Torah has been revealed to Jews allows them to provide instruction for Gentiles in moral requirements that are in fact binding upon them both (cf. Rom 2:17-21), even though (as we have also seen) left unfulfilled by either.


5. Paul concludes the argument of Rom 1:18-3:20 with the claim that Aby the works of the law no flesh will be justified before God; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin@ (3:20).  To paraphrase his point: human sinfulness has prevented Torah (and the Sinaitic covenant of which it is a part) from providing a framework within which human beings can enjoy good relations with God and secure eternal life in his favour.  In the process, however, Torah has served to bring definition and recognition to the dilemma posed by human sinfulness.

In Rom 1:18-3:20, then, Paul insists that all human beings (i.e., Gentiles and Jews alike) are guilty of concrete acts of wrongdoing.  In later chapters of Romans Paul goes further, seeing humanity as hopelessly entangled in sin.  Again, five observations seem in order.

1. In Rom 5:12-21 Paul follows the narrative in Genesis 2-3 that sees sin Aentering@ human history through the disobedience of Adam to the command of his Creator.  For Paul, however, Adam's Afall@ from innocence to disobedience was more than a bad example followed by each of his descendants in turn.  Human beings after Adam never possess the innocence that, prior to his disobedience, was his: Athrough the disobedience of one man [Adam] many [Adam's descendants] were made sinners@ (5:19).  The rebelliousness against God reflected in Adam's misdeed, the desire to be like God and to define one's own good in defiance of the Creator's will: such sin is now ingrained in human nature and defines the boundaries within which Adam's descendants live and make their choices.  The sins we commit are our own; that we sin marks us out as members of Adam's race.

2. Though Paul can use Aflesh@ in a neutral way to denote the embodied existence of humankind (e.g., 9:5; Gal 2:20), in other contexts the term is strongly negative, reflecting humanity's adopted stance of resistance to God's will and its insistenceCboth foolish and perverse in any created beingCon its own (suppposed) autonomy.  In this Aflesh@ Paul finds nothing good: only hostility toward God, insubmission to God's law, and incapacity to please God (Rom 7:18; 8:7-8).

3. Paradoxically, the divine gift of Torah to the Jews exacerbates the problem (5:20; 7:5, 7-13).  Not that Torah is to blame: its commands are Aholy, righteous, and good@ (7:12).  But there can be only one result when commands of God, righteous and good though they are, encounter a Aflesh@ that is resistant to God and insistent on its own autonomy: human rebelliousness, which lies dormant until it is confronted by divine commands, springs to life and expresses itself in fateful disobedience.[xii]

4. The question is often asked why Paul fails to note that Torah itself offers divine forgiveness to those who repent of their sins and observe prescribed rites of atonement.  One suspects that he, like other early Christians, felt that Torah's rites of atonement were a mere foreshadowing (ineffective in themselves) of the atonement God would provide in Christ Jesus (see Rom 3:24-26; 1 Cor 5:7; Col 2:16-17).  In any case, he clearly believed that unredeemed humanityChumanity in the Aflesh@Cis incapable of (and, in the end, uninterested in) true, God-pleasing repentance: after all, Athe mindset of the flesh is one of enmity toward God.  It does not submit to the law of God, nor can it do so.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God@ (Rom 8:7-8).  With unredeemed humanity, Paul includes God's covenant people of Israel.  Not even the Sinaitic law and covenant can do anything to overcome the sinfulness inherent in the Aflesh.@


5. It does not follow that, because sin has prevented Sinai from serving as Israel's path to life, Israel itself no longer has a part in God's plans.  God's commitment to the patriarchs preceded the giving of the law and the making of the covenant at SinaiCand that divine commitment remains irrevocable (Rom 11:29).  In Romans 11, Paul insists that Israel will yet be drawn back within the sphere of God's favour and salvation.  The return will be the result, however, not of Israel's obedience to Torah, but, on Israel's part, of an abandoning of her unbelief, and, on God's part, of all-embracing mercy (Rom 11:23, 32).  Paul's declaration in Romans 11 that God will keep his promises to Israel's forefathers is thus not in the least incompatible with his claim in 2 Corinthians 3 that the Aold@ Sinaitic covenant has given way to a Anew,@ or his assertion in Galatians 3 that Torah was a temporary measure, imposed only 430 years after God's promise had been made, and valid only until ChristCthe promised Aseed@Cshould appear.

To return to Torah: its commands are good, and God was right to provide Israel (and, indirectly, all humanity) with a reminder of his claim on their obedience and of the path in which their well-being lay.  But addressed to a hostile Aflesh,@ commands themselves cannot bring about human compliance or lead to human good (8:3-4).  At best Torah draws attention to the nature of the human dilemma (7:7; cf. 3:20).

Such is the limited role that Paul assigns to Torah.  His portrayal of divine redemption must be summarized briefly before we look at how Paul sees the present relation between God's Alaw@ and his redeemed people.

The death of Jesus Christ atoned for human sins, enabling God to forgive sinners without Apassing over@ their sins as though the latter were inconsequential (3:24-26).  Moreover, the submission to God's will that Christ showed throughout his life and that culminated in his death provided both a sharp contrast with the disobedience of Adam (5:15-19) and a lived model of what God intended human life to be.  It behoves human beingsCborn in the likeness of Adam, both hopelessly caught in and actively embracing humanity's entanglement in sinCto somehow be freed from the conditions of life in the old, sin-scarred creation and to take their place in the new creation, initiated by God through Christ Jesus.

The transfer from old creation to new can only be effected by God himself.  According to Romans 6, it takes place, and is symbolically enacted, when believers express their faith by being baptized Ainto Christ Jesus@: they then die Awith Christ@ to the old life in order that they may rise Awith Christ@ to a new life in God's service.  For a time, to be sure, believers continue to live in mortal bodies that remain subject to temptation (8:10, 13).  But they have been given the divine Spirit as a first instalment of the blessings of the new age (8:23; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5) and as an indwelling presence to empower their new life (Gal 5:16-25).

What, then, is the relation of the believer to the Mosaic law?  Paul cannot but think that believers are bound to serve God.  And he cannot but think that believers are still bound to do what, in the order of creation, is good and right for all human beings.  Indeed, if Torah is a statement of the divine will and of Awhat is good@ for humankind, then Paul must surely believe that, when Christians live as they should, they effectively Afulfill the righteous demand@ of Torah.  And so he does (Rom 8:3-4; cf. 13:8-10; Gal 5:14).  To this extent there is a Pauline basis for the insistence of Reformed Christianity that the law is not done away by the gospel, but reinstated as the standard and guide for Christians who seek to express their thankfulness to God in appropriate behaviour.


But that, of course, is not the whole of the Pauline picture.  Paul was not one to dissociate Torah from the context of the Sinaitic covenant of which it was a part: and that covenant proved a covenant of condemnation and death (2 Cor 3:7-9).  Christians, Paul maintains, are no longer bound by that covenant orCat least in some significant senseCby its laws.  Paul speaks repeatedly of believers as those who have Adied to the law,@ have been Aset free@ from the law, are no longer Aunder@ the law, have been Aredeemed@ from its sway (Rom 7:6; Gal 2:19; Rom 6:14-15; Gal 4:5).  He means in part that believers are no longer subject to the curse that the law pronounces on transgressorsCa curse borne vicariously on their behalf by Christ (Gal 3:10-13).  But elsewhere it is clear that Paul believes as well that Christians serve God in a way different from those who are bound by the law's demands: Awe have been set free from the law, we have died to that which held us captive, so that we might serve [God] in the new way of the Spirit, not the old way of the letter@ (Rom 7:6; cf. 2 Cor 3:6).

Here those under the Alaw@ serve Ain the old way of the letter.@  ALaw@ must refer, not simply to a statement of the standards inherent in creation by which all human beings are to live, but to those standards formulated into demands and imposed on wills that are bent on resisting them.  The Aflesh@ (as Paul uses the term) can only encounter a statement of God's standards as just such an externally imposed and unwelcome Alaw.@

But God's ideal for humanity could hardly be the external imposition of his will on resistant subjects; Alaw@ in this (Pauline) sense can only be the Aguardian@ of a humanity not yet Acome of age@ (Gal 3:23-25).  Already in the prophetic scriptures, the ideal future was seen as one in which God's will was embraced in the hearts of his people.  For Paul, that Afuture@ had come.  Provisions of Torah meant to distinguish Israel from other nations in the period leading up to Christ's coming must not be imposed upon the people of God in the new age.  And even provisions which embodied what is good for all humanity cannot encounter the redeemed as unwelcome Alaws@ imposed from without: the redeemed, after all, are no longer Ain the flesh@ (Rom 7:5),[xiii] no longer God's Aenemies@ (5:10), but his willing Aservants@ (6:22).

Indeed, more than servants, they are God's adopted childrenCfor whom trust in their loving Father and obedience to him should be natural (Rom 8:14-16).  Temptations must still be faced and resisted.  Believers still stumble and need to be restored (Gal 6:1).  Indeed, the Aflesh@ continues to war against the Spirit and must be continually Aput to death@ (Gal 5:17; Rom 8:13).  Nonetheless, Paul is sufficiently confident of the transformation wrought when believers Adied with Christ to the law@ that he can speak of Christians as serving God Ain the new way of the Spirit@ (Rom 7:6).  The same righteousness which was (ineffectively) demanded by the law of its resistant subjects is portrayed as the natural outgrowth (or Afruit@) of a life controlled by the divine Spirit (Rom 8:3-4; Gal 5:22-23).

To sum up.  Paul was confronted by those who believed that the Sinaitic covenant was still operative and that its laws must be imposed upon his Gentile converts.  He was thus compelled to explain how that covenant and its laws could, on the one hand, be divine in origin and serve a divine function, and yet, on the other hand, be set aside now that the Messiah had come.  He responded with a broad sketch of humanity's dilemma and redemption in which Sinai played a significant, but temporary, role.

As creatures of God, Paul insisted, all humanity owes God praise and obedience.  As creatures in a cosmos ordered by divine wisdom, all humanity is obligated to do what is good and right.  In Adam, however, all humanity has chosen to go its own way.  God revealed his will to Israel, the most favoured segment of fallen humanity, in the laws of Torah.  The revelation of God's commands inevitably provoked the rebellion of a people that remained a part of Adamic humanity.  Disobedience brought on Israel the divine judgment and curse spelled out in the Sinaitic covenant.  The divine purpose in giving the law was to bring definition and recognition to the dilemma posed by human sinfulness.


From this dilemma Christ delivers believers, who are no longer Aunder law.@  Not that they are exempt from the obedience owed by all human beings to God their Creator, or from the need to comply with the order of creation as spelled out in the moral laws of Torah.  Nor, indeed, as long as they remain in bodies belonging to the old creation, are believers exempt from the struggle against temptation and sin.  Still, the divine will no longer confronts them as unwelcome demands imposed from without on resistant wills.  Already now, as the Spirit of God sanctifies their lives, they begin to produce the Afruit@ of righteousness that is pleasing to God.


The Epistle to the Hebrews


Whereas Paul addressed the issue of the Mosaic covenant because some of his contemporaries thought that believers in Christ were still its subjects, the (unknown) author of the (so-called) AEpistle to the Hebrews@ speaks of the Mosaic order because he (apparently) fears that, in the face of persecution, his readers may abandon their Christian faith for the Mosaic alternative.  To dissuade them, he sets out to show that the salvation offered in the Christian gospel represents the culmination of all that God initiatedCin terms of revelation, laws, and institutionsCin the past history of Israel.  In the process (and this is our interest here), he claims that the Mosaic law and covenant, designed to foreshadow in their day the Agood things@ that were to come, have now been done away.

The Alaw@ of which he speaks (Heb 7:5, 12, 16, 19, 28; 8:4; 9:19, 22; 10:1, 8, 28) embraces all the ordinances and institutions of the Mosaic dispensation: its priesthood, sanctuary, sacrifices, and festivals.  Details of the author's elaborate argument to establish the inadequacies of the old order and the perfections of the new need not detain us here.  The following summary observations must suffice.

1. The author finds that the ancient scriptures themselves reveal the planned obsolescence of the institutions of the Mosaic order.  Had God intended the priesthood of Levites operative under the Mosaic covenant to be permanent, he would not have spoken much later in the Psalms of a priesthood of a different order (Heb 7:11).  Had the sacrifices of the old order sufficed to cleanse the consciences of worshippers, then the Mosaic law would not have restricted access to the Most Holy Place to the high priest on a single occasion in the year (9:7-10).  Indeed, those sacrifices would not have needed to be endlessly repeated, had they been able to perfect those who offered them (10:1-4).  Nor would God have spoken of a coming Anew covenant@ if the old had been adequate (8:7, 13).  In short, according to our author, the scriptures themselves show that the Mosaic order was never intended to be permanent.

2. Nor could the earthly paraphernalia of the Mosaic dispensation be anything but symbolic representations of the heavenly realities to which they pointed.  The earthly sanctuary of the Mosaic order was but a Acopy and shadow@ of God's heavenly tabernacle (8:2, 5-6; 9:11, 24).  The curtain which led into the Most Holy Place of the Mosaic tabernacle served as a picture and anticipation of Christ's body, which was offered to open to believers the true and heavenly path to God (10:19-20).  Indeed, the fiery mountain itself on which the commandments of the Mosaic dispensation were given pales in comparison with the heavenly Mount Zion (12:18-22).

3. The human frailtyCmoral as well as physicalCof the officiants of the Mosaic order was but another indication that the order in which they served must give way to that served by the endless life of the blameless Son of God (5:1-3; 7:23-28).


4. The Mosaic order was all of one piece: if its priesthood proved inadequate, then its adequate replacement must belong to an entirely different order (7:11-12).  Hence, the Alaw@ which ordained the priesthood, rites, and sacrifices of the Mosaic dispensation shares the temporary nature of all its institutions.  Its day has passed, now that the Agood things@ (of which it was a mere foreshadowing) have come.

5. Our author never speaks of the moral commands of the Mosaic law.  Still, his argument does not permit him to regard one part of the order as retaining validity when the rest of the order has proved obsolete.  Accordingly, when our author makes moral demands on his readers, he does so without citing the Mosaic law.  Not, to be sure, that he is prepared to countenance adultery or anything else prohibited by the moral commands of Torah (Heb 13:4).  But Mosaic statutes are not cited as the basis of the Christian's obligations.

6. Paul saw the law's Aweakness@ in its inability to secure obedience from a hostile Aflesh,@ the law's purpose in its highlighting of human sin.  For the author of Hebrews, the Aweakness@ and impermanence of the law lay in the earthly frailty and mortality of its officiants and the merely representative and symbolic nature of its institutions.  Its purpose was one of education: by Aforeshadowing@ the realities of the new age, it provided the interpretive framework within which the redemptive work of Christ could be understood.


The Gospel of Matthew[xiv]


Matthew, too, believed that, with the appearance and work of Jesus, a new hour had struck in God's dealings with humankind.  That to which the Alaw and prophets@ looked forward, that which Amany prophets and righteous people yearned to see,@ had now been realized (Matt 5:17; 13:17).  The Akingdom of heaven@ had dawned.  Jesus' miracles had displayed its power over evil (12:28).  He had pronounced the kingdom's nearness (4:17), and admission to its joys for those who would forsake all else to receive them (13:44-46).  He had modelled and taught its righteousness (3:15; 5:20).  He had died to atone for the sins of its people (20:28; 26:28).  He had been raised from the dead and been given Aall authority in heaven and on earth@ (28:18).  Now the gospel was to be proclaimed in all the world, and the church of Christ built, before the Lord's return brought the kingdom to its consummation (28:19-20; 16:18; 24:14).

How did Matthew understand the status of the law in the new age?  Here our inquiry faces problems not encountered in the case of either Hebrews or Paul.  The gospel is a narrative rather than an argumentCand a tradition-bound narrative at that.  That Matthew shaped and ordered the traditional material at his disposal is evident to all who compare his gospel with those of Mark and Luke.  The same comparison, however, reveals the extent to which Matthew remained tied to the church's traditional material about Jesus.  To take but one example important for our theme: though Matthew was obviously supportive of the Christian mission to Gentiles (24:14; 28:19-20), his gospel reflects the limitation of Jesus' own outreach to Jews (15:24) and the absence of any directive for or against the circumcision of Gentile believers.  We may, perhaps, suspect that, in the light of what is said (and not said) in Matt 28:19-20 and of the tenor of the gospel as a whole, Matthew did not think that Gentiles need be circumcised; but the text nowhere addresses the issue.


Ambiguity dogs other matters as well.  Matthew 5:18 declares that not one Aiota@ will pass from the law Auntil all is accomplished.@  The text appears to insist on the continuing validity of every detail in the law; unless, of course, Matthew thought that, with the resurrection of Jesus, Aall@ had been Aaccomplished@Cand that is quite possible.  Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus criticizes the Ascribes and Pharisees@ for tithing herbs punctiliously while neglecting Athe weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.@  He continues: Athese latter you must do, without neglecting the former@ (23:23).  The demand for Ajustice, mercy, and faith@ is straightforward.  The end of the verse, however, can be construed either as an equally insistent requirement that herbs be tithed or as little more than a postscript ruling out the reading that Jesus was as opposed to careful tithing as he was to the neglect of mercy.

Matthew appears, however, to have thought that the Mosaic Torah remained in force as a statement of God's will, at least for Jewish believers.[xv]  At the same time, the gospel is sharply critical of the law observance of contemporary Jews and insistent that the ethical requirements of God's kingdom (as spelled out by Jesus) transcendCwithout doing away withCthe righteousness of Torah.  In what follows, we will briefly consider these two points.

1. That those who scrupulously observe details of the law may well distort its priorities is a frequent insistence of Jesus in Matthew's gospel.  In tithing herbs but neglecting mercy, they Astrain out gnats and swallow camels@ (23:24).  A prophetic text stating that God desires Amercy, not sacrifice@ is twice quoted in the gospel to deflate the objections of those who would uphold ritual prescriptions of Torah rather than allow human needs to be met (Hos 6:6, quoted in Matt 9:13; 12:7).  Twice the Asum and substance of the law@ is reduced to a single principle: that of Adoing to others as you would have them do to you@ in 7:12; that of love for God and neighbor in 22:34-40.  In the latter text at least, the criticism is implicit that Pharisaic observance of the law's concrete details was carried out in a spirit that transgressed the requirement at its heart.

Closely related is the gospel's frequent charge of hypocrisy: outward conformity with the law's prescriptions had been adopted as a path to public esteem by people whose hearts were far from God (6:1-5, 16; 15:7-8; 23:1-7, 25-28).  Furthermore, conformity with the law's more concretely defined prescriptions (the gospel suggests) had induced inflated notions of personal righteousness (handwashing and tithing are, after all, more easily measured than compassion) and had led to premature attitudes of superiority over, and condemnation toward, those whose neglect of such concrete provisions in the law was evident to all (12:7; 15:1-20; 21:28-32).

2. But the law itself had its limitations: here Matthew shows a sensitivity akin to Paul's, though Matthew emphasizes that the Arighteousness of the law@ is transcended, not replaced, by that of the kingdom of heaven.[xvi]  The point is developed in the Aantitheses@ of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-48, following 5:17).

In each case, Jesus distinguishes his own teaching (ABut I say unto you...@) from what was Asaid to those of ancient times.@  The suggestion that Jesus here merely interprets provisions in Torah comes to grief in those cases where he prohibits what Torah explicitly allowed (5:31-32, 33-37, 38-42).  But it also fails to do justice to the contrast drawn in the antithetic formulation itself between ancient dictum and the authoritative declaration of Jesus: AYou have heard...but I say.@  Yet the contrast is not that between unrighteousness and righteousness, but that between limited statements of what God requires and its ultimate expression.  Something of God's intention was, after all, captured in the prohibition of murder and adultery, in the laws related to divorce, oaths, and revenge: for that reason, Jesus is not seen as simply Adoing away@ with Torah's stipulations.  But the Akingdom of heaven,@ the antitheses insist, requires a righteousness that transcends conformity with these laws of Torah.


Part of the point appears to be that the focus of certain laws in Torah is limited to what is legally enforceable.  Murder may be prohibited by lawCand the prohibition is indeed essential to the smooth functioning of earthly societies.  But God's will for his creatures is violated by angry assertions of self-will and contempt for others as much as by the act of killing (5:21-22).  The Mosaic law forbids adultery; but regarding another lustfully, as a mere occasion for one's own sexual gratification, is equally sinful (5:27-28).  The law made provision for divorce, for oaths, for equitable punishments: all measures designed to limit the effects of evil in society.  But mere limiting of evil, though a worthy goal, does not measure up to the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. 

And there is more to be said.  The goodness required in the Sermon on the Mount is not the same thing as careful compliance with even the most perfect and comprehensive code of law.  Such observance, to be sure, contributes greatly to the order and stability of society.  But, by itself, compliance with laws falls far short of the spontaneous selflessness, the uncalculated generosity, the unstinted love of God and all his creatures that God desires in his children (cf. Matt 5:39-48; 6:25-33; 18:21-22).  The goodness of the kingdom is related to joy, to thankfulness, to appreciativenessCthough none of these qualities need accompany the most fervent strivings to measure up to commands.  It is the fruit of genuine, unselfconscious delight and whole-hearted trust in the goodness of God (cf. Matt 6:8, 25-33; 7:11).  It requires, in Matthew's gospel, the radical reorientation of the human heart toward God brought about by the experience of the power and goodness of his kingdom: only Agood trees@ can bear Agood fruit@ (7:17).  Jesus' ethical teaching in Matthew is more concerned to evoke a vision than to prescribe precise limits of acceptable behaviour: in poetic, dramatic, often hyperbolic language, the Matthean Jesus illustrates the kind of attitude and action that should characterize those who know themselves to be God's children.[xvii]




Paul, Hebrews, and Matthew all share with non-Christian Jews the conviction that God chose Israel as his people and gave them his law.  They also believe, however, that God's decisive intervention for the well-being of his creatures took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In that light, they reinterpret the role of Torah in the divine drama of redemption.

For Paul, the statement of God's righteous demands in Torah brought human hostility to God to the foreCas well as the need for redemption.  Hebrews focuses attention on the ritual Torah, claims that it could not (and was not intended to) provide a permanent basis for God's dealings with humankind, but sees it as anticipating the Apriestly@ work of Jesus Christ and providing the interpretive framework within which that work could be understood.  Both writers explicitly limit the period of the law's binding force to the period before Christ (Gal 3:19, 23-25; Heb 7:12), though neither thinks Christians are free to violate the moral norms spelled out in Torah.  For his part, Matthew does not see the Mosaic law as Adone away,@ but he does see its righteousness fulfilled and transcended in that of the kingdom of heaven.


For all, the law was divinely given, but incapable of coping with human sin.  At best, it could provide the divine diagnosis of the human problem, limit its ill effects, and foreshadow the divine solution.  The transformation of the human heart, however, required, not the statutory formulation of God's will in Torah, but the personal demonstration of God's redemptive love in Jesus Christ.






[i].          Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 26 (ed. J. Pelikan; Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963) 137-138.

[ii].         See also Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1967) 18-23.

[iii].        See Chadwick, Early Church, 38-40; Maurice F. Wiles, The Divine Apostle  (Cambridge: University Press, 1967) 49-72.

[iv].         This paragraph represents a summary of my article ATorah, Nomos, and Law: A Question of Meaning,@ in Studies in Religion 15 (1986) 327-336, where references and bibliography are provided.  The issues are also treated in my Israel's Law and the Church's Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 136-140.

[v].          See, e.g., Josephus, Against Apion, especially Book II; Philo, Moses, Book II.

[vi].         This is the tack taken by, e.g., the Letter of Aristeas.

[vii].        Cf. Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1975) I, 365-399.

[viii].       Some portrayals, but not all, envisioned God's intervening in the future to transform the fortunes of his people through a human Amessianic@ figure (i.e., one designated [literally Aanointed@] by God for the purpose).

[ix].         It would perhaps not be unfair to suggest that Galatians shows Paul's response primarily in its energetic mode, Romans in its thoughtful.

[x].          Cf. Rom 3:20.  Paul here implies what he elsewhere states, namely that Torah (and the Sinaitic covenant of which it is a part) requires such observance as its condition for life in God's favour.  He quotes Lev 18:5 to this effect (Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12; cf. Rom 2:13), though a footnote reference to ADeuteronomy, passim@ would have served his purpose equally well.

[xi].         Paul refers in the passage to circumcision (Rom 2:25-29), but not as a precept of Torah.  Other requirements peculiar to Israel (food laws, festival observances, and the like) are not mentioned.  Paul's focus here is on Torah as a statement of the moral obligations of all humankind.

[xii].        Paul describes the process graphically in Rom 7:7-13.

[xiii].       In the negative  sense of the term Aflesh,@ as Ahumanity resistant to God.@  They continue, of course, to live Ain the flesh@ in the sense that their existence is still an earthly, embodied one (cf. 2 Cor 10:3; Gal 2:20); indeed, they still face, and must subdue, temptations from the Aflesh@ as well (Rom 8:12-13).

[xiv].       The first New Testament gospel is, strictly speaking, anonymous, although it has traditionally been attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus' twelve disciples.  I use AMatthew@ in this paper to designate the author of the gospel without pursuing further the question of his identity.

[xv].        In addition to Matt 5:17-19; 23:23, we may point to 15:15-20.  Unlike the parallel text in Mark (7:17-23), Matthew avoids the suggestion that Jesus Adeclared all foods clean.@  The probable explanation is that Matthew was not prepared to do away explicitly with the food laws of Torah.  That said, one may well wonder whether the gospel's openness to Gentiles without any insistence on their observance of Torah and its strong prioritizing of the Aweightier matters of the law@ over ritual observance did not (whatever Matthew's intentions) effectively point its readers in the same direction as the letters of Paul and that to the Hebrews: laws prescribing observances that distinguished Jews from Gentiles, while not explicitly abolished, were likely to fall into abeyance.

[xvi].       In Matt 5:17, Jesus claims to Afulfill,@ not Aabolish,@ the law.  In Afulfilling@ the law, Jesus spells out and makes possible the righteousness which the law incompletely expressed and ineffectively required.  See the discussion below.

[xvii].      Cf. C. H. Dodd, Gospel and Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951) 46-63.