Paul’s Positive Statements about the Torah

As we have observed before in our brief overview on the current debate Heikki Räisänen stated that “[c]ontradictions and tensions have to be accepted as constant features of Paul’s theology of the Law” and that they are not “accidental or peripheral in nature.”[1] That there are tensions within the Pauline corpus no one would argue against, but we do not necessarily have to conclude along the lines of the Finnish Neutestamentler. In my mind there are solutions—better solutions—to the problem.

It is true that one of the major challenges we face is that “Paul makes both positive and negative statements” and that he does so “without hesitation,”[2] nevertheless there is a coherent thought in all of that. As we have seen in the section on Paul’s negative statements about the Law, we often find those remarks in pericopes which are of salvation historical significance. The issue there is how righteousness can be achieved and Paul vehemently argues against anything else but faith in Jesus Christ as the only way to be justified before a holy God.[3]

We read in Rom 3:31 “Do we then nullify (καταργοῦμεν) the law by faith? Of course not! But we indeed uphold the law.” To this verse Femi Adeyemi writes that the word καταργέω “refers to the Mosaic Law being rendered useless, since God can bypass it to reveal His righteousness.” But Paul’s answer given to that question indicates that “Paul was affirming or establishing the usefulness of the Mosaic Law and upholding its validity.”[4] So how are we to understand the uselessness of the Law as it has “no part in obtaining righteous standing before God (vv. 2-30)” in light of Paul’s remark that “we uphold it”? In Adeyemi’s view this tension will only be resolved in Rom 7:7-11 and 8: 4 where “the Law reveals sins and … is fulfilled in the believers’ lives.”[5] He quotes Moo in support who writes: 

[T]he stress on faith as establishing the law suggests that it is law as fulfilled in and through our faith in Christ that Paul thinks of here. In 8:4, Paul will argue that those who are in Christ and who “walk according to the Spirit” have the law fulfilled “in them,” in the sense that their relationship to Christ by faith fully meets the demands of God’s law. While we cannot be certain, it is likely that Paul means essentially the same thing here: that Christian faith, far from shunting aside the demands of law, provides (and for the first time!) the complete fulfillment of God’s demand in his law.[6]

Adeyemi strongly argues that “Paul’s positive statement about the Mosaic Law in verse 31 does not mean that the Law is applicable to New Covenant believers” and gives as a reason that such “would contradict Paul’s emphasis on the fact that righteousness cannot come by the Law.”[7] This is questionable, however. Even though righteousness cannot be established by the adherence to the Law (especially after the coming of the Messiah), this does not mean that the Law in general is not applicable to the NT believer. However, the exact nature of its abiding validity remains to be investigated.

The other passage in Rom 7:12 reads: “So then, indeed, the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Again Adeyemi seems to be opposed to the notion of the validity of the Mosaic Law to the NT believer. He writes that “it is wrong to say that these positive statements about the Mosaic Law mean that the Sinaitic Covenant is ‘the law of Christ’ mentioned in Galatians 6:2, and from this to conclude that the Law of Moses continues in the church today as the standard for God’s New Covenant people.” So far I can agree with his statements but he then continues and says that “the Mosaic moral code is unable to guide current New Covenant participants to please God.”[8] It is this statement that cautions us to reexamine the apostle’s own statements talked about earlier in these posts.[9] The Mosaic Law is not binding to the NT believer in its covenant stipulations as we do live under the New Covenant, but this does not imply that we cannot be guided by God’s Word of which the Hebrew Bible is part.

In his section “Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Mandatory for Salvation?” Schreiner writes (and it is worth quoting him here at length):

In one sense, of course, perfect obedience was not required, for the Lord graciously entered into covenant with his people and provided atonement for their sins. Ultimately, however, sinless perfection was demanded, for Israel would not be forgiven of their sins apart from offering sacrifices that atoned for their sin. The very structure of the Mosaic covenant, then, implies that God requires perfection.[10]

This, in my mind, is a doubtful assertion about the Law. Schreiner rightly observes that sacrifices needed to be made by every Israelite—it did not matter how holy she was—but that does not imply that the law demanded sinless perfection; perfect obedience, yes, but sinless perfection, no. The very structure of the Mosaic covenant with its sacrificial institution provides forgiveness of sins and thus perfect obedience would “simply” imply that the right sacrifices would be offered, without the demand of sinless perfection.[11] Sinless perfection is not possible due to our inheritance of sin. As seen above this is Paul’s argument in Galatians that the Law cannot ultimately deal with the sin problem.

This actually leads us to Paul’s letter to the Philippians.[12] We read in this letter that Paul claimed to be “blameless in the law” (ἐν νόμῳ γενόμενος ἄμεμπτος; 3:6). He also does not shy back from using such language as an exhortation for the NT churches (see e.g. 1 Thess 3:13; Phil 2:15). It is necessary not only to look into the context of Philippians but into the wider context of Scripture to grasp what it meant “to be blameless.”

Therefore we need to look at some of the Old Testament precedents which will guide us for our understanding of Phil 3:6. We read for example in Ps 15:1 (ESV) “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” to which the psalmist himself gives the answer “He who walks blamelessly (תָּמִים) and does what is right.”[13] Here blamelessness is a requirement to enter into God’s temple. Further, in the OT we read of Noah being blameless (Gen 6:9), Abraham (Gen 17:1), David (2 Sam 22:24), Job (Job 12:4) as well. In the NT we also read of Elizabeth and Zachariah, who “were both righteous before God” (ESV).

Psalm 119 is insightful into the issue at hand. In this psalm the Law is presented as “God’s whole revelation or teaching that tells me who I am and shows me the way of truth and life. It is gift, pure and simple.”[14] There are actually no specific laws referred to directly but the whole of God’s teaching is seen as a gift—as grace to marvel at. We also observe in Ps 19 that to walk blameless in front of the holy God is not human achievement but God’s grace.[15] In the OT the reference to be blameless does not talk “about a state of perfection, reached once and for all, but a walk that is given to humans day by day.”[16] Therefore we can actually make sense of David’s own words. He says in Ps 18:23 that he is blameless but in Ps 51 he makes the famous confession “against you, you only, have I sinned” (ESV). To be blameless is to walk closely with the LORD to follow his directions and to accept corrections, if corrections are needed and need to be atoned for.

This then will give us a background to Phil 3:6. Here Paul claims to be blameless in his former life as a Pharisee and “in the law.” This clearly is not a “pessimistic self-portrait or recollection of one tortured by an unattainable ideal” but here “is a man well satisfied … who claims to have kept all the commandments from his youth.”[17] Peter O’Brien goes on to state that the expression used by Paul does not refer to sinless perfection.[18] When Paul writes that he is ἄμεμπτος there is nothing said about being sinless but his “assertion of blamelessness in Phil. 3:6 probably presupposes that he offered sacrifices when he sinned.”[19] The apostle refers to his obedience to the Law and the observance of the stipulations recorded therein and that this is as obvious as his zeal of persecuting the church.[20]

To conclude these posts I want to reiterate what has been said so far and give my approach concerning Paul and the Law. We noticed, after having a brief overview over the current debate, that Paul’s negative statements about the Law (specifically with reference to the phrases ἔργα νόμου and ὑπὸ νόμον) need to be seen in the salvation historical situation of the apostle to the Gentiles and that hence the apostle is not in any sense negative towards the Law per se but in its role of achieving righteousness before a holy God. The Law is God’s gift to Israel by which the nation and individuals therein were guided and instructed. Yet, for Paul the Law is weak and it cannot deal with the sin problem. It was a temporal institution for God’s people.

Now that the Messiah has come things have changed and they have changed dramatically. The Law cannot be the ultimate guide for the Christian in regards to a right standing before God. But in light of God’s intervention through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Law remains God’s word to his people.

[1]Räisänen, Paul and the Law, 11.

[2]D. A. Hagner, “Balancing the Old and the New : The Law of Moses in Matthew and Paul,” Interpretation 51, no. 1 (1997): 24, 27. He also states that “[t]his surely is not the result of confusion or indecision”…“The answer is that response to the gospel entails obedience to a pattern of teaching that corresponds remarkably to the righteousness of the law,” (27).

[3]Again Hagner writes “it is obviously true that the law does specify boundary markers that mark out Israel from the nations, and that Paul as the missionary to the gentiles is naturally opposed to the law understood in this sense. The question is whether that is all Paul finds wrong in the law.”… “Paul is not simply protesting an overly nationalistic understanding of the law, but warning against a mistaken idea of righteousness altogether.” “Balancing the Old and the New,” 26.

[4]Femi Adeyemi, “Paul’s ‘Positive’ Statements About the Mosaic Law,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164, no. 653 (2007): 52.

[5]Ibid., 53.

[6]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 255.

[7]Adeyemi, “Paul’s ‘Positive’ Statements About the Mosaic Law,” 55.

[8]Ibid., 56 (emphasis mine). It is not the point here to discuss the question if Paul or the OT itself distinguished between the ceremonial, civil, or moral codes or if the law was seen as a whole.

[9]See the reference to 1 Cor 4:6; 9:10; 10:1-11; Rom 7:12; 15:4

[10]Schreiner, 40 Questions, 53.

[11]Schreiner, does however, in the chapter referred to, go back to perfect obedience to which I agree.  He also argues later (56) that the issue for Paul was that Christ has died and rose from the dead and thus there is no return to the law—to this I also agree. The issue I take here is specifically to the notion of sinless perfection of which Schreiner writes in the opening quotation. In his Thomas R. Schreiner, “Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law: An Evaluation of the View of E. P. Sanders,” Westminster Theological Journal 47, no. 2 (1985): 245–278 [cited below] he does seem to concur that the issue of being blameless does not refer to sinless perfection (see specifically 260-261). Das, Paul and the Jews, 146 observes that “[r]ighteousness for a Jew never meant that one had beend sinless and had perfectly done all that God commanded in the Law. The righteous were those who attempted to obey the Law in its entirety and sought atonement for their sin or failure [Sipra Shemini Mekhilta deMiuiml 22-27; on Lev 10:1-5]. The ultimate criterion was faithfulness to the relationship.”

[12]Pauline authorship is assumed here. This is not the place to defend this view but throughout the thesis all thirteen letters traditionally claimed to be written by the apostle to the Gentiles will be hold as being Pauline.

[13]Frederick J. Gaiser, “Living Blamelessly: New Perspectives on Paul and the Psalter,” Word & World 30, no. 4 (2010): 380 wittily remarks that when he teaches on this passage in his classes on the Psalms that at this invitation to enter the temple “all the Lutheran types in the crowd turn around and head back to Galilee.”

[14]Ibid., 386. Robert L. Hubbard, Joshua: NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 91 summarizes the reference to the Law well when he writes: “The psalmists regard it as a delight (Ps. 1:2; 119:70, 77, 92, 174), a source of wonder and grace (119:18, 29), and a precious treasure (119:72) that is true (119:142). Israel reveres it as an object of devotion (2 Chron 31:4) worthy of careful study and observance (Deut 6:25; 31:11- 13; Josh. 1:8; Neh 8:3, 13) as well as love (Ps. 119:97, 113, 163, 165). Rather than protect children from it, Israel is to teach it to them (Deut. 31:33; cf. 11:19-21). Jeremiah even predicts a day when the Instruction will be inscribed on Israel’s heart (.Jer. 31:33). It will form part of their inner make-up, exerting its influence on their will more directly than its externally read Mosaic form could.”

[15]Gaiser, “Living Blamelessly,” 387 gives the following structure which makes the point:

the law of the Lord is perfect                        v. 7

the decrees of the Lord are sure                     v. 7

the precepts of the Lord are right                   v. 8

the commandment of the Lord is clear          v. 8

the fear of the Lord is pure                            v. 9

the ordinances of the Lord are true                v. 9

But, whereas the laws and decrees are perfect, the human is not, at least not yet:

                                        by them is your servant warned                    v. 11

but who can detect their errors?                     v. 12

so:                                   clear me from hidden faults                           v. 12

keep your servant from the insolent              v. 13

and only then:                 then I shall be blameless                                v. 13


[16]Ibid. He is also to be credited with the reference to David above.

[17]Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 379.

[18]Ibid., 380.

[19]Schreiner, “Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law,” 260–261. Moisés Silva, Philippians, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 151 writes that the term ἄμεμπτος “must be viewed as a fairly standard way of expressing exemplary conformity to the way of life prescribed by the OT” which corresponds with my argument above.

[20]See Alan J. Thompson, “Blameless Before God? Philippians 3:6 in Context,” Themelios 28, no. 1 (2002): 11 leaning on John M. Espy, “Paul’s ‘Robust Conscience’ Re-examined,” New Testament Studies 31, no. 2 (1985): 177 n. 6.

One thought on “Paul’s Positive Statements about the Torah

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