|RIGHTEOUSNESS: The Righteousness Of God And The Law Of
Mark A. Seifrid
HIS GLORY REIGNS
Feb 6 2009 08:00AM
As we have seen, Paul speaks of a twofold relation of the law to justification: Apart from the law of the righteousness of
God has been manifest, being witnessed by the law and the prophets' (Romans 3:21). The law is excluded from the gift
of righteousness given through Christ, yet it shares in the prophetic witness to that righteousness (cf. Romans 3:31; 7:1-
6; Galatians 2:19). Paul never calls into question the divine origin of the law, its holiness, its goodness, or its authority,
but nevertheless unequivocally declares that believers are no longer subject to it. In anticipation of our following
discussion, we may say that Paul's surprising statements concerning the law make sense given his view of the fallen
state and moral inability of the human being. In the light of the work of Christ, the purpose for the law becomes clear.
There is no need to speak of contradictions in Paul's thought, or of development in his understanding of the law in the
course of his mission.
Paul's legal terms
We shall proceed by exploring the significance of several terms which Paul uses in reference to the law, which are
potentially confusing and have been matters of debate.
'Law' and related terms
It is useful in examining Paul's use of the term nomos ('law') to distinguish between 'meaning' and 'reference'. Words
not only 'refer' to things but 'signify' concepts. The word 'constitution', for example, may refer to a national constitution,
or signify the more general idea of a body of fundamental rules, or serve both purposes at once. If we bear this
phenomenon of language in mind, we may more easily understand Paul's usage of the Greek term nomos. Most of the
occurrences of nomos in Paul's letters refer to the law of Moses. They therefore convey not only ideas related to the
'law' in general, but also those associated with the law of Moses in particular. We may summarize them in a general way
as follows: The law which was given through Moses1 to Israel2 announces the demands of God for life in the present,
fallen world3 in written words4 , which offer life and blessing on the condition of obedience,5 but death and a curse for
disobedience.6 Those who know the law shall be judged by it.7
Clearly, not all of these ideas come into play in every passage, but Paul generally assumes one or more of them each
time he uses nomos.
In a few instances Paul uses nomos to signify the concept of 'divine ordinance' or 'regulation' in word-play upon its usual
references. One group of these texts has to do with the gospel as expression of the will of God. The gospel represents
a 'law of faith' which transcends the 'law of works', that is, the law of Moses (Romans 3:27; see 10:5; Galatians 3:12).
Likewise, although Paul is not 'under the law' and may live 'without law' (anomos), he indicates that he is not without a
divine norm (me on anomos theou): Christ himself is his 'law' (ennomos Christou; I Corinthians 9:20-21). Those led by
the Spirit are not 'under the law', according to Paul (Galatians 5:18). Yet the Galatians, to whom Paul wrote these
words, were under obligation to fulfill 'the law of Christ', that is to say, 'the law which is Christ himself' (Galatians 6:2). In
other passages, Paul describes the divine judgment which delivers the human being over to sin as a 'law'. The 'law of
sin' overpowers and enslaves the law of Moses which is mirrored in the mind of the fallen human being ('the law of my
mind'; Romans 7:23,25). This 'law of sin and death' is overcome by the gospel, that is, the even more powerful 'law of
the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus' (Romans 8:2).
In other instances Paul uses nomos to refer to Scripture or the books of Moses, rather than to the demands of the law
themselves. That is to say that Paul occasionally speaks of the Scripture as 'law' when it performs the functions of the
law, that is, when it expresses God's demands, or testifies to divine judgment. This extension of the range of nomos
signals that Paul does not think of the law as an isolated or aberrant entity within the body of divine revelation, but
integral and central to the biblical message. It is significant that he refers to the Mosaic law only in the singular, unlike
his contemporaries Philo and Josephus, or the author of Hebrews. Paul views the law as a unity, not merely as a
collection of individual demands.
As we shall see, for Paul the law of Moses has a limited role. It presents the demands of God upon humanity under its
fallen condition, and in so doing bears witness to God's larger work in Christ. This distinction between the law and
God's final purpose is clear already in Paul's provocative application of the term 'law' to the gospel: the law of faith
transcends the law of works (Romans 3:27). For this reason Paul exhorts his congregations with 'commands of the
Lord' not contained in the law of Moses (I Corinthians 9:8-14; 14:37; cf. I Timothy 6:14), and likewise excludes the
requirement of circumcision from 'the commandments of God' (Romans 2:26; I Corinthians 17:19). That is not to say
that Paul regards the law as something less than the word of God. It is simply not God's final word to us.
'Letter' in Paul's usage
The limited function of the law within the fallen order is especially apparent in Paul's further reference to the law as 'the
letter' (gramma), or, as the RSV renders it, 'written code' (Gramma always stands in opposition to the work of the Spirit.
Romans 2:27; 7:6; II Corinthians 3:6-7 twice). This antithesis is not one of literal meaning versus a figural sense. And it
obviously does not involve an absolute rejection of written address, since Paul then would not have written letters with
instruction, exhortation, and demands. Furthermore, Paul's usage lends no support to the claim that the 'letter' signifies
a misuse of the law. Rather, as the rendering 'written code' suggests, 'letter' is best understood as a reference to the
will of God in the form of written demands. 'Letter' and 'Spirit' represent two different ways in which God addresses the
human being. The written code encounters the human being from without, requiring obedience as a condition of life
('do this and you will live'; Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12). In contrast, the Spirit writes the will of God
upon the heart through the proclamation of what God has done for us in Christ.
Unlike 'the written code', the Spirit performs a 'circumcision of the heart' (Romans 2:28-29; cf. Deuteronomy 30:6; 10:16;
Jeremiah 4:4). Those who believe in Christ render service to God in 'the newness of the Spirit'. They share in the new
creation which has been inaugurated in Christ. Their obedience does not derive from 'the oldness of the letter' by which
God addresses the fallen human being (Romans 7:6). Of course, Paul does not imagine that the new creation has
come in its fullness. That will not take place until we are raised from the dead. The life of the believer therefore is one
of battle between the Spirit and the flesh, between the new creation in Christ and the fallen human being which we
remain in ourselves (e.g. Galatians 5:17-26). This very battle confirms the reality of the new obedience. Its outcome is
The 'works of the law'
We now return to the expression 'the works of the law' which we left unexplored in the first chapter. We there rejected
the view that Paul opposes these works because they served simply as 'ethnic boundary markers', and suggested that
they bore a broader significance for him.
Paul does not oppose the works of the law in and of themselves. In at least one instance he speaks of them in neutral
terms, when he describes 'the person of the works of the law' (Galatians 2:16). He does, however, regard these 'works'
as deficient, and opposes the false opinion which supposes that such works contribute to a right standing before God,
whether personally or nationally.
We recall that Paul's rejection of the 'works of the law' is rooted in his understanding of God's work in Christ:
sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the
prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe:
for there is no difference." (Romans 3:20-22)
We find no suggestion in this context that such 'works' are wrong in themselves, as would necessarily be the case if they
illegitimately marked off an ethnic boundary to God's grace. Nor does the expression have to do merely with 'Jewish
national boundary-markers' (circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and the like), since Paul subsequently appeals to the
justification of Abraham and David to show that God justifies the ungodly and transgressor ( and not merely Gentiles or
pagans) apart from 'works' (Roman 4:1-8). In fact, Paul treats Abraham's circumcision in Romans 4 somewhat
independently of the topic of 'works', interpreting it as a sign of the righteousness of faith (4:9-12). His usage indicates
that the expression 'works of the law' refers to 'deeds done in obedience to the law of Moses', and differs from the
simpler term 'works' only in its designation of the source of the divine demand. We may think of 'works of the law' in
general terms as including adherence to the prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, idolatry and the like, along with
circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and food laws (cf. Romans 2:17-24).
Nevertheless, Paul obviously regards the 'works of the law' as bearing an ethnic and national significance. Only a Jew
may boast in 'the works of the law' or be identified as one who is 'of the works of the law'. It was by 'works' that Israel
vainly sought to establish its righteousness before God (Romans 9:30-10:3). Clearly, then, Paul rejects these works as
markers of 'religio-national' identity, i.e, as signs of the people who are righteous, and not merely as signs of national
But why, we may ask, are such 'works of the law' insufficient to justify the human being if they represent conformity to
divine demands? This question is particularly pressing, since Paul himself affirms that God will 'render to each one
according to that one's works' at the final judgment (Romans 2:6). This divine recompense entails conformity with the
demands of the law: the uncircumcised one who keeps the requirements of the law will judge the circumcised
transgressor (2:27). We must wonder how Paul can affirm that the doers of the law will be justified by works (4:2) within
the space of two chapters in Romans.
The resolution to this difficulty comes from Paul's understanding of the last judgment of the law itself. Final recompense
will involve not a 'weighing' or 'counting' of works, but a manifestation of persons by their works: 'It is necessary that we
all become manifest before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one should be recompensed for the things done
through the body, whether good or evil' (II Corinthians 5:10; Romans 4:10-12).
The day of judgment will reveal the secrets of human hearts (Romans 2:16; see also 2:27-29; I Corinthians 4:5).
Correspondingly, Paul speaks of the judgment of a person's 'work' (note the singular) as a comprehensive matter. The
'work' of one's life will appear as a whole, either as perseverance in seeking 'glory, honour, and immortality', or as
obedience to unrighteousness (Romans 2:7-8). From this vantage point, we can understand why Paul regards 'the
works of the law' as inadequate for justification. As individual, outward acts, the 'works of the law' do not comprehend
the whole of the person, or the whole of the law, which, it is to be recalled, Paul regards as a unified demand. The
'works of the law' do not overcome the coveting which is present within the heart (Romans 7:7-13). This distinction
between mere 'works of the law' and true obedience comes to expression in Galatians 3:10, where Paul declares that a
curse rests on all those who are 'of the works of the law'. He supports this charge by appealing to Deuteronomy 27:26:
'Cursed is everyone who does not abide in all those things written in the book of the law to do them.' Paul cites the text
freely, interpreting the verse by adding the word 'all' (the things written) from the immediate context in Deuteronomy
(Deuteronomy 28:15, 58). The 'works of the law' are inadequate to save, because no-one fulfills all the demands of the
law. Often this citation is read as a mere 'quantitative' statement, as if one merely needed to increase the percentage of
one's acts of obedience in order to avoid the curse of the law. There is however, a decisive difference between partial
obedience and doing that which the law demands. Paul's perspective becomes clear in his further alteration of
Deuteronomy 27:26. In variation from the Hebrew text, he speaks of 'abiding in those things written [in the book of the
law]'. Usage of the expression 'to abide' elsewhere suggests that it carries covenantal overtones, so that in this strict
interpretation of the demand of the law, Paul appears to have fidelity and love toward God in view. For Paul, to violate
one commandment is to violate the whole law. In viewing the requirement of the law in this way Paul is in full agreement
with the Hebrews Scriptures, particularly Deuteronomy. To listen to God's voice, to fear God, and to love him is to keep
all of his commandments. Anything less is disobedience. It is precisely this unqualified love toward God and neighbour
of which the fallen human being is incapable.
Here is a decisive dividing-line between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries, who embraced the ideal of full obedience
to the law. For them, this aim could be sufficiently realized in the practice of piety: various provisions for atonement
compensated for partial failure. Taken as a whole, this way of life could be described as 'perfection'.
The Qumran community used this language, as Paul apparently did prior to his conversion. Obedience from the heart
thereby becomes an ideal, a goal to which - with divine assistance - one might attain. For Paul, in contrast, this
obedience of the whole person is God's immediate, justified demand. It is not that the human being desires to obey God
and is only too weak to enact it. We are rather in rebellion against our Creator, and do not wish to seek him or to serve
our neighbor. The sacrifice of Christ does not supplement partial failure, but ends radical disobedience. The 'works of
the law' cannot satisfy the demand of the law, because they cannot change the idolatrous human being from whom they
proceed. As we have noted, Paul himself, prior to his conversion, attained outward perfection. In retrospect, however,
he views this former 'righteousness' as inadequate. The Galatians, who measure their righteousness on the basis of
'works of the law', engage in self-deception and 'foolishness' (Galatians 3:1-5). To seek righteousness in the 'works of
the law' is to hide from the fallenness of one's own heart: 'by the works of the law, no flesh shall be justified before him,
for through the law comes the knowledge of sin' (Romans 3:20).
This false opinion comes to the fore in Romans 3:27-28, where Paul associates the 'works of the law' with 'boasting;"
'Where then is boasting? It is excluded. Through what kind of law? A law of works? No, but through the law of faith.
For we reckon that a person is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.' Paul undoubtedly draws the term
'boasting' from the Scriptures. More than once he alludes to the divine pronouncement in the book of Jeremiah, which
must have served as a source of his understanding: the one who boasts must boast in the Lord, not in human wisdom,
might, or wealth. Indeed, in the Psalms 'boasting' serves as a synonym for 'trusting' and 'worship'. Effectively, that in
which one boasts is one's 'god': 'Some boast in chariots; some boast in horses; but we shall boast in the name of
Yahweh our God' (Psalm 20:7; Psalms 44:6; 49:5-6; 97.7).
As in the broader biblical usage, for Paul 'boasting' involves both a relation between oneself and others and a relation
between the self and God. Unfortunately, the dominant approaches to this topic have been one-sided. Bultmann
(1990: 3:646-654) stressed self-trust as the primary element of 'boasting'. He was thereby able to comprehend the
biblical paradox that legitimate boasting is always a boasting in God, but failed to see that for Paul proper boasting has
its correlate in the work of God in the world, so that 'boasting' cannot be reduced to a matter of self-understanding. The
'nationalistic' reading singles out Paul's objection to the illegitimate 'boasting' of Jews over against Gentiles, and thus
recognizes the social dimension inherent in boasting (e.g. Dunn 1988: 1:185). Yet this interpretation fails to take into
account that for Paul 'boasting' also involves a claim for the self before God: 'If Abraham was justified by works he has a
boast. But he has no such boast before God' (Romans 4:2).
The two-sided character of 'boasting' is readily apparent in Paul's usage. The Corinthian boasting in various leaders,
by which they asserted their personal superiority, involved a failure to acknowledge that everything they possessed
came as a gift from God (I Corinthians 4:7). Likewise, God's negation of all boasting, in the cross, entails the
destruction of worldly wisdom, strength, and honour (I Corinthians 1:26-31). Paul's determination to boast only in the
Lord meant that he refused to enter into comparison with false apostles (II Corinthians 10:12-18). All human boasting is
a violation of the love of God and neighbor which the law demands. Legitimate 'boasting' is paradoxical, pointing away
from oneself and one's community to God and His work. The boasting of faith, which appears so prominently in Romans
5:1-11, is a boasting in hope, which looking beyond outward circumstances, exults in the work of God (verse 3). Against
this background, Paul's boast in 'heart' (II Corinthians 5:12; 10:8-17) becomes understandable: the saving work of God
presently takes place here, and not in mere appearances, which are subject to human manipulation.
As with the contrast between the 'letter' and the Spirit, we find here the distinction between the work of the human being
and the work of God. The boast in the law is empty because it is misplaced: the law can bring only an external
righteousness, not a transformation from within (Romans 2:17-29). The human being requires the new creation which
the gospel effects. God alone sees the heart where such work takes place. Praise comes to this person from God
himself at the final judgment, not from human beings here and now (Romans 2:28-29). In rejecting the 'works of the law'
in justification, Paul attacks the assumption that outward conformity to the law may secure God's favor and bring
salvation (Romans 3:27-28).
1 Romans 10:5; I Corinthians 9:9; Galatians 3:17,19
2 Romans 2:14,17; 3:19; 9:4
3 Romans 7:1-3; Galatians 2:19; 4:3
4 Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:10
5 Romans 7:9-10; 10:5; Galatians 3:11
6 Romans 1:32; 7:9-13; Galatians 3:10
7 Romans 2:12, 27; Galatians 5:3
Christ, our Righteousness, by Mark A. Seifrid, Copyright 2000, InterVarsity Press.
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