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The apostle Paul, stalwart champion of salvation by grace alone through faith alone (Rom. 3:20–28; Gal. 2:16, 21), seems, at first sight, to throw out the law for believers as nothing less than a curse (Gal. 3:10). And yet, the same apostle dignifies the law with some of the very attributes of God: “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). Far from putting away God’s law, he sees love as its exact fulfillment (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). He understands the new, “circumcised heart” to have God’s law written upon it (Rom. 2:15; cf. Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 8:7–13), thus making it a fountain of love.

How do we hold together Paul’s thundering denunciation of law-keeping with his sweet affirmation of the precise fulfillment of the law’s demands in the loving Christian heart? Or can these two strands be held together? Some professing Christians have been so impressed with Paul’s affirmation of grace and his total exclusion of all legal righteousness that they have denied any continuing relevance of divine law (the next issue of Tabletalk will deal with this tendency, known as “antinomianism”). Others (notably in traditional Roman Catholicism and Liberal Protestantism) have simply ignored or mangled the Pauline doctrine of salvation by the gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Their goal is to cobble together varying combinations of grace plus law-keeping as the road to heaven (a view generally termed “legalism”).

This is not merely a theoretical or academic matter for the Christian. These two deviations from Paul’s inspired teaching on God’s law can bring believers either into a confused (if not loose) lifestyle or into hard bondage. Going in the antinomian direction leaves Christians with a vague, subjective, and unsatisfying approach to the many relationships of life, while going in the legalist direction robs them of assurance of salvation with the spontaneous “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8) that flows from a grasp of the all-sufficient atonement of Calvary. Confusion on these crucial issues strips the church of holiness, gladness, and power. That, in turn, leaves the world in its idolatrous, self-centered corruption, undisturbed by the transcendent presence of the risen Christ sparkling through the lives of His people.

Hence, seeking out Paul’s understanding of the law in the economy of salvation is an imperative task. It is demanding (and, at times, difficult—2 Peter 3:16), but it is surprisingly rewarding, with a boxcar of blessing available for a thimble full of effort! Digging into this treasury of truth, with the assistance of the Spirit, yields up far-reaching vistas of God’s eternal love, the keen wisdom of His practical arrangements, the sweetness of His grace, and the generosity of His provisions. We must be workmen who seek to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NIV); or, as the original Greek implies, “cut a piece of cloth according to the right pattern.”

In order to properly handle the Scriptures concerning the Pauline doctrines of law and redemption, we must carefully note in every case the context in which he employs the concept of law. The distinguished Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos gives us our basic clue here (in Paul: An Outline of His Theology, especially sections 21–52). He notes that there are two strands in Paul’s thought regarding law. First, he excoriates all confidence in the law whenever he is in controversy with Judaism. Secondly, he extols the true fulfillment of the law when dealing within the context of the Christian experience of salvation in Christ.

Paul castigates Jewish reliance upon law-keeping as the means of justification before a holy God.


Judaism had rejected Christ and was persecuting the church because of the Jews’ confidence in the law as the way of salvation and in their own ability to measure up to it. Paul universally rejects this trust in the redemptive significance of the law. It was as though the Jews had disconnected the law from God, then trusted in it rather than in God.

In Romans 2:1–3:20, Paul castigates Jewish reliance upon law-keeping as the means of justification before a holy God. He unveils the radical extent of the divine requirement upon human nature—total perfection. The Jews’ shrinking of this law to a set of external requirements they could handle is exploded, as Paul shows that Scripture demands the fulfilling of the whole law in every point (Gal. 3:10; 5:3; Deut. 27:26). Romans 2:21 and following proves that the Jews, just like the Gentiles, far from keeping the whole law, violated it at many points. This partial obedience could never achieve their justification (Rom. 3:9–11). Paul’s teaching is in line with Christ’s in the Sermon on the Mount, where the Lord shows that selective and superficial obedience demonstrates an external, non-trusting relationship to God—a prelude to condemnation, not justification.

On the contrary, what the character of God requires (brought to expression in the law) is not a partial or external compliance, but a whole-soul, filial obedience that grows out of loving devotion to the Father. That was the driving motivation of Christ’s life on earth (Matt. 26:39–42; John 4:34; 5:19–20; 17:4). This kind of devout and spontaneous obedience to the Father is what Paul has in mind when he speaks of “circumcision of the heart” as the answer to Jewish externalism in Romans 2:28–29.

That indeed is what true Judaism always meant. Circumcision of the flesh pointed to that of the heart, and was thus “a seal of the righteousness of the faith” (Rom. 4:11). Religious man can circumcise the flesh; only the Spirit of God can circumcise the heart (Jer. 31:33–34; Ezek. 36:26–27; Deut. 30:6; John 3:3). To be counted righteous with God (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3) can occur only through the outward look of faith from self to a gracious God. And faith is only exercised by a “new” or “circumcised” heart acting in the context of gospel promises, as enabled by the power of God (Rom. 1:16–17).

It is for this gracious “gospel” reason that Paul gives no quarter to the teaching that people can earn their own justification by keeping the law. He admits the folly of his own pre-conversion thoughts in that regard (Phil. 3:8–9) and passionately denounces the attempt to tack on Jewish legal requirements to the gospel of grace as “another gospel” and a “perversion” (Gal. 1:6–8). To preserve the gospel, Paul had to show that “by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:20) and that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).

The law is useful and blessed insofar as it points us to Christ.


But there is an important second strand in Paul’s doctrine of law and redemption. What a different atmosphere we breathe when he discusses the true fulfillment of the law in the born-again experience! Once righteousness (or justification) is received through grace by faith in the Lord’s finished work, then Christ, instead of being “the end of the law,” empowers the fulfilling of it through His Holy Spirit within the believer. “The love of God . . . poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5) motivates us to carry out the law (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). We are forever gladly bound to the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21), which involves us in keeping His (and His Father’s) commandments (John 15:9–10) in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:4).

This is what John Calvin (in Institutes of the Christian Religion, II. 7.6–15) called “the third use of the law,” which he considered to be its principal function, even more than its definite influence on universal civic virtue (the “first use,” Rom. 1–2) and its tutorial function to bring sinners to Christ (the “second use,” Gal. 3:24; Rom. 7:7–25). I believe Calvin has a truly Pauline insight here in considering the most important and distinguished function of the law to be its role as a guide to the Christian life.

Law is an expression of the divine character (Ex. 20:2–3: “ ‘I am the Lord your God . . . You shall have no other gods before Me’ ”). Man is created in the divine image, and so he is to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15–16). It is the “strange work” of the law to threaten and curse (the first two uses); it is its normal work to bless (the third use) by serving as an instrument of transformation in the believer’s sanctification. That is precisely why Paul gives only the first halves of most of his epistles to establishing the doctrine of salvation by sovereign grace in Christ through the Holy Spirit. That is foundational, but it is not enough. So he devotes the second halves to exhortations designed to guide believers in the duties of life in a sinful, complex world, that they might reflect the image of their Lord.

In the context of gracious salvation, that is the truest function of the divine law: to bless by transforming human life into the likeness of the Lord, as the Holy Spirit empowers the renewed mind (which is united to the risen Christ) to dedicate itself to the beneficent patterns laid down in the moral law of Scripture, and perfectly incarnated in the Son of God. The law is useful and blessed insofar as it points us to Christ, the one whose glory exceeds all the earlier dealings of God (2 Cor. 3:6–17). As we gaze upon Christ by faith, we are being changed into the image of that glory (2 Cor. 3:18). As this happens, every beneficent purpose of the law is fulfilled, and the heart of the Father is delighted.

Milking the Ram

The Traditions of Men

Keep Reading Bound by Men: The Tyranny of Legalism

From the August 2002 Issue
Aug 2002 Issue