Law – 03 – Paul and the Law

103 Law Cover

This is the third post in my brief series on the Jewish Law.

Here’s a link to the first post which has the contents of all.

When Paul uses the term ‘law’ (nomos) could mean a number of things. I will list them and give examples.

1) The Story of Israel

Paul is describing an era of time from the time God commanded Circumcision up and approaching the time of Jesus recorded in the gospel (Rom 3.10-18; Gal 4.21; 1 Cor 14.21).

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10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

11 no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;  

no one does good,

not even one.” (Ps 14.1-3; 53.1-3)

13 “Their throat is an open grave;

they use their tongues to deceive.” (Ps 5.9)

“The venom of asps is under their lips.” (Ps 140.3)

14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (Ps 10.7)

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; (Prov 1.16; Isa 59.7-8)

16 in their paths are ruin and misery,

17 and the way of peace they have not known.” (Isa 59.7-8)

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Ps 36.1)

19 Now we know that whatever the law [wider story of the Jews] says it speaks to those who are under the law [dominion of the law], so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (Rom 3:10–19)

Paul has just quoted a number of verses from Psalms and Isaiah. He then describes what he just quoted as the law saying, ‘whatever the law says’.

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law [wider story of the Jews] and the Prophets bear witness to it (Rom 3:21)

The ‘law and the prophets’ as you may remember from the first post denotes the OT scriptures as a whole. Paul is saying these OT scriptures ‘bear witness’ to the ‘righteousness of God’. I take this to mean the OT scriptures as a whole bear witness to God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises now revealed in Christ and the gospel.

21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law [dominion of the law], do you not listen to the law? [Story of the Jews] 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. (Gal 4:21-22; cf. Gen 16.5; 21.2)

Paul quotes from Gen 16.5 and 21.2 describing it as the ‘law’. He is referring to the story of the Jews as recorded in scripture.

[21] In the Law [wider Story of the Jews] it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (1 Cor 14.21; cf. Isa 28.11-12).

Paul does the same as above, this time referring it to the OT scriptures describing the wider story of the Jews.

2) The Commands of the Law of Moses

Paul refers to the commands of the Law of Moses given within this time period to the Jews (e.g. Rom 2.23,25; 7.12).


23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law [commands of Moses]. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law [commands of Moses], but if you break the law [commands of Moses], your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law [subset of the commands of Moses], will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law [subset of the commands of Moses] will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law [commands of Moses]. (Rom 2:23–27)

9 I was once alive apart from the law [commands of Moses], but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law [commands of Moses] is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Rom 7:9–12)

Law and affect

In relation to the story of the Jews Paul adds some important information about how the commands of the law affected Israel and what their purpose was.

19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, (Gal 3:19a)

In the story of the Jews Between Egypt and Mt Sinai Israel grumbles and rebels against the LORD

He says in another place the law was given to increase transgression.

20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, (Rom 5:20)

Yes. Israel transgressed and sinned again the LORD more after he gave it to them. I suspect this was his intention so he could then judge and punish them.

Because Israel transgresses more and more, Paul says the law brings wrath.

15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. (Rom 4:15)

The law also reveals sin for what it is.

7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom 7:7)

The first few of these can be understood within the Story of Israel.

  • S1) Story; The call of Abraham and the giving of the covenant
  • S2) Law; Abraham and his offspring are commanded to be circumcised
  • S3) Story; Abraham fathers many offspring
  • S4) Story; These offspring are enslaved by the Egyptians
  • S5) Story; God redeems the Israel from slavery
  • Exodus-Numbers; Sin; Between Egypt and Mt Sinai Israel grumbles and rebels against the LORD
  • S6) Law; God adds to the covenant (Gal 3.19) and gives them the Jewish law (430 years afterward)
  • Ex 20 – Giving of the Law of Moses
    • The Ten Commandments (‘he added no more’; Dt 5.22)
    • At some point the LORD gives them defiling rules to devastate them (‘statutes that were not good’; Eze 20.25-26)
  • Ex 32 – Worship of the golden calf
    • Rom 5.20; Sin; The law increases the trespass. Israel transgress the law, more and more.
  • S7) Story; God leads them into the promised land (Canaan)
  • Story-Sin; The LORD pours his wrath (Rom 4.15) on Israel, sending them into exile

The underlying framework of Paul’s understanding and use of Gal 3:19a, Rom 5:20; 4.15 and 7.7 is the story of Israel and their relationship with the law and sin.

3) Another set of ethical principles

Paul refers to the ‘commandments of God’ (1 Cor 7.19), the ‘law of God’ (1 Cor 9.21) and the ‘law of Christ’). These are somehow different from the Law of Moses.


17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. (1 Cor 7:17–19)

21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. (1 Cor 9:21)

4) A principle or reigning power

In Rom 3.27 Paul refers to the ‘law of faith’ and in Rom 8.3 the ‘law of sin and death’.


27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law [principle]? By a law [principle] of works? No, but by the law [principle] of faith. (Rom 3:27)

8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law [reigning power] of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law [reigning power] of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law [commands of Moses], weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (Rom 8:1–3)

It should be evident from all of these posts Paul understands the law in different ways. The context of his usage needs to be considered to determine exactly what Paul means by his use of the noun.

Covenant Worldview of Paul

Paul also refers to the covenant which we know is inseparable to the Law of Moses.

I noted before the important concepts to note concerning covenants are;

  • Covenants have members
    Covenant members make various promises
    Fulfilling covenant obligations is called righteousness
    Covenants involve blessings and curses for its members

The context of Genesis 12-17 and the covenant promises to Abram and his offspring are critical to understanding the theological worldview of Paul. Because he likewise thinks in terms of covenant – members, promises, righteousness and blessings.

Romans 4 in a case in point.

Paul speaks about Abraham and quotes about him from Gen 15 and 17. Abraham we know is a covenant member with God.

Paul speaks about God’s covenant promises. In Genesis 15 God promises;

4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Gen 15.4-5)

Paul in Rom 4.3 quotes Gen 15.6 recalling Abrahams belief in the covenant promise of God.

3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4.3)

(I’ve rendered logizomai as ‘counted’ because its the most proximate use in Rom 3.28. Paul quotes the LXX in Rom 4.3 and it in turn is based on the Hebrew וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ). In Rom 4.13,16,18 Paul explicitly refers to the covenant promises of God.

Paul also speaks about covenant righteousness.

He switches the word ‘covenant’ in Gen 17.11

11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. (Ge 17:11)

with ‘righteousness’ in Rom 4.11;

11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. (Rom 4:11)

Paul speaks about covenant blessings.

Those counted with righteousness according to the covenant are beneficiaries of the covenant blessings. For example, if a boy is counted by his father as a son, he will be under his steadfast love and receive blessings of food, shelter and protection. In Romans 4 what is common with Abraham and King David is that they are both counted righteous according to the covenant and receive the covenant blessings.

6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,

and whose sins are covered;

8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4.6-8)

Paul in Romans 4 argues from the context of Genesis 15 and makes an explicit distinction before and after the command to circumcise (Gen 17).

Paul is saying circumcision was a sign of the covenant righteousness Abraham already had because he believed in God’s promise. He also discusses the implications regarding the covenant for who are counted as the offspring of Abram (Rom 4.9,11-12,16; cf Rom 9.6-8; Gal 3.29).

In Galatians 3 Paul is explicit regarding this distinction in the covenant.

“[15] To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. [16] Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. [17] This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. [18] For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. [19] Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions”  (Gal 3.15-19a)

God ratified the covenant when he counted Abram righteous and passed between the animal pieces (Gen 15.6,17). On that day he fixed his own covenant obligations to fulfil his promises and fixed the requirement for Abram and his offspring (Gen 15.18). God did this before the introduction of circumcision and before the addition of Jewish law.

What this basically means for our purposes is that when Paul refers to the ‘law’, ‘promises’,  ‘righteousness’ and ‘blessing’ its a good idea to strongly consider he is thinking in terms of covenant.

In the next post of the series I will give an overview of the commands in the Jewish law.

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