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.