Book Review of Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach

Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach

by Frank Thielman, InterVarsity Press, 1994.

They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions; but I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. “My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt that I gave to my servant Jacob; they and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever; and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore – Ezekiel 37:23-28

I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people – Leviticus 26:11, 12

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more – Jeremiah 31:31-34

The reason this book was chosen for my doctoral studies is that the role of the Law in Christian sanctification is a major issue of contention between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, on one hand, and Protestants on the other. How the law (Mosaic and moral) functions in the process of sanctification reveals the anthropological assumptions about human nature.

Is grace added to nature, so as to enable the perfection of the latter through human performance of God’s works of righteousness leading to merit that justifies? That is a summary of the Catholic position. Or is this grace of salvation given without regard to human performance of works, producing a sanctified character through a gradual conformity of the will to God, but not as a means of creating merit worthy of justification/salvation? That is the summary of the Protestant perspective.

I have just finished reading Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach, by Frank Thielman, InterVarsity Press, 1994. Which I would recommend as a fascinating study of the role that Paul's concept of holiness plays in relationship to the surpassed Mosaic Law. We find in many of our discussions here that there is a disagreement on the nature of sexual purity in regards to the idea of justification by grace alone. Thielman argues against the Reformed view that Paul's Jewish opponents were legalists that saw the Law as a means of justification through works. Instead, he holds that the common Jewish understanding was that the Law would show the path of obedience, but that since all sinned, the sacrificial system was necessary because God saved not by merit, but by grace.

The reason that Paul fought with the Judaizers was that they still held that the Mosaic Law was necessary for a Christian in order to be saved, and so they had not recognized Christ as the fulfillment of the Law – and over him (Jesus) they had stumbled in the race towards the goal of salvation. For a Christian to add the Mosaic Law back into the requirements of salvation was to fail to see that online that Law only pointed to Christ's coming. Christ, the end (telos) of the Law, was the goal at the finish line. Once he had come, the purpose of the Mosaic Law had been accomplished and was no longer necessary. Instead, the promise of a new, eschatological community (prophesied by Ezekiel and Jeremiah) had come. This new community would be characterized by a new covenant written upon the heart. Because the OT prophets knew that Israel had failed and would fail to fulfill the Law, they foresaw a better covenant written upon the heart. To Paul, the Church was this new eschatological community. The new covenant was ratified with blood just as the OT Law, the Mosaic Covenant, was ratified with blood. Now the Law of Christ has replaced the inadequate Law of Moses. This Law, written on the heart, is the Law of Love, or the Summary of the Law that Jesus quoted: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

Now, however, Paul insists that this new covenant community is called to holiness, and a holy lifestyle, that is exemplified in the holiness of separation from sinful practices, chief among them being idolatry and sexual impurity. These patterns of eschatological sanctification are essential to understanding the nature of God's call for his people to be "holy" and different from the nations of the earth. As this moral law represents the divine nature and character, it cannot be escaped nor surpassed as the Mosaic Law has been. Paul sees the holiness of the people as necessary to fulfill their role as the new Temple of God’s Spirit. As the dwelling place of God, the people of God have become the fulfillment of the Ezekiel's prophecy, which links the prophecy of a new covenant on the heart with the new dwelling place of God (Ez. 37:27, Lev. 26:11-12 & 2 Cor. 6:16). So for Paul, the idea of holiness and the new covenant become so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God – 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1

This holiness is now accomplished by the agency of the Spirit who is able to do in us what we could not do for ourselves:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do…so that the JUST REQUIREMENT OF THE LAW might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit – Romans 8:1-5, NRSV

Thus the Holy Spirit enables us to be a holy people, and Paul cannot separate the demand of God for holiness in us from the saving and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is not human works of the law that produce holiness in us, but the Spirit. The reason that sexual impurity and idolatry are forbidden and excluded from the NT community is that they violate the norms of love; and love is the character of holiness… So the Law of Christ is the Law of Love, but it is not a law that is empty of content. The "just requirements" of the Law now fulfilled in us by the Spirit – in Paul's mind – necessarily include sexual purity, no thievery, no idolatry, no homosexuality, etc. (I Cor. 6:9). And so there is no contradiction between the idea of being saved by faith through grace, not by works of the flesh, and the new Law of Love, which reflects the character of God in sanctified conduct. We are to be holy because He is holy. Any other lifestyle is incompatible with the character of holiness that now lives in us because a Holy God lives within us, and such conduct defiles his dwelling place. 


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