Embracing the Law: A Biblical Theological Perspective
A précis, by Jesse Brown
Tensions arise when discerning consistency in regard to the law between the Old (NT) and New Testaments (NT). However, continuity of the law with all Scripture is rectified when grounded in Gods incremental revelations throughout history, explaining His will for increasing societal bonding applications for the law. The NT reveals that laws interpreted to separate Jews from gentiles were temporary and thus abolished. The law, being the will of God is to be embraced by community through faith, a faith that would identify Gods revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.
The author builds his argument by validating the law as good, community defining and a life-giving gift from God through interpreting Scriptures from both the Old and NT’s. In these interpretations variations are discovered, but aligned by analysis of which laws the NT upholds, and does away with. Consistency in the life-giving qualities from responding in faith to the law is compared to responding in faith to Jesus Christ. This comparison finds that the gift of Christ supersedes the law, but did not replace it entirely.
The law is from God and is good. The law removed the fear of an arbitrary God and placed a high value on life, rejecting class discrimination and creating the groundwork for administering justice. The law in Deuteronomy after its original presentation at Sinai shows its fluidity. The Torah defines its people through adherence to the law and commitment to advancing it through generations.
Keeping the law is a life saving gift. This is best presented in Deuteronomy where the commandments and law are braided together with the promise of life. Ezekiel 18 builds on this theology when he summarizes: “He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live.”
If one views law as life giving, they will find compromising commentary about it in the NT (Gal 3:10). However, in many ways the Testaments are cohesive in their message about the law, such as being a good gift from God. Both John and Paul affirm the law as good in numerous NT Scriptures (John 1:16-17, Rom 2:13, 7:12, 13:8-10, 1 Cor 3:7 Gal 3:12, 5:13-6:10). Paul shares with John the understanding that the law was revealed as Gods will and is not unimportant in their times. “It may be reinterpreted and reprioritized, but certainly not dismissed (Martens, P.13).” As with Jesus (Matt 5: 17-19), John and Paul assess the law as good.
Where Paul and Jesus affirm the law they both make statements against. Sociologically, the law functions to bring identity and boundaries to Hebraic community. Hebrew laws and rituals give identity and distinguish Jews from gentiles. Thinking sociologically instead of theologically in regard to these rituals repositions Paul’s agenda when speaking about them. Paul’s comments that are negative concerning the law are when answering the question about how one is saved and finds acceptance. The law is directed at community, so Paul is attacking the exclusivity of Gods favor beholden to individuals following these rituals. When Paul speaks of rituals as works of the law (Gal 2:1-14) he is aware the law marked out the Israelites as a people, but argues their racial and ritual expressions of faith are not above others. Paul speaks of an active faith, not nationalistic. Paul speaks to those who live by faith and follow God. Living by faith ultimately puts God above culture, while not negating it.
The concept of works of the law relieves tension between Paul’s positives and negative assessments of the law. Paul states that expressing the law is Gods will. Paul does not break from this or fault the Jews for interpreting it as earning salvation, but he did speak negatively if it established walls between Jews and Gentiles.
In Paul’s time the identity developing law had became a way for the Jews to separate themselves from gentiles. With Christ identity changed. For gentiles external expressions like circumcision and dietary laws that were identity markers for Jews, were no longer important for salvation.
Jesus speaks of the law as life giving and defines it virtuously and eschatologically as being essential for salvation and acquiring treasures in heaven (Matt 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-23). In these scriptures, Jesus connects the law with eternal life.
Luke’s gospel says that Jesus fully embraced the law as life giving and Paul says the same (Rom 9:30-10:4, 11:25-26). The conclusion is that accepting and having faith in God is embracing the law. Therefore, faith in the law is not based on works, but its goals. In this Paul sees the law in a positive light.
When the law is spoken negatively, it concerns the Jews seeking righteousness in the law and when positively righteousness through faith in God, which the gentiles displayed through their faith in Christ. This commonality of faith was to bring both to salvation, showing Gods impartiality. For Israelites that pursued the law in faith would recognize and receive Gods saving activity through His Son.
Paul speaks of Gods saving act when he quotes Leviticus 18:5 in Romans (10:5), “Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: ‘The man who does these things will live by them,” and pairs it with Deut 30:14, “the word is near you.” “By putting these two references together Paul equated ‘the righteousness taught by
the law’ with ‘righteousness by faith’ in a clear new way, meaning that doing the righteousness taught by the law is coming to Christ for salvation, and thus receiving life (Martens, P.22).”
Martens, E.A. (1992). Embracing the Law: A Biblical Theological Perspective. Bulletin for Biblical Research 2, 1-28.