The Pauline Theology of the Law.

By George B. Stevens


Paul's doctrine of the law is developed from a purely Christological standpoint. He nowhere dwells upon the historic purpose and use of the law. He lays the greatest stress upon its preparatory office. Of specific points under this general topic he discusses at greatest length the relation of the law to sin. This he does in order to show how the law served to quicken the consciousness of sin and thus to pre pare men for the gospel of redemption through Christ.

In setting forth this relation, Paul employs (1) a historico-exegetical argument founded upon the relation of the law to the promise given to Abraham (Gal. 3 ; Rom. 4), in which it is shown that the principle on which Abraham was justified was that of faith. The testimony of the Old Testament was that Abraham believed God, and his faith was reckoned to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:3, 9). On the basis of this testimony Paul asserts that the promise to Abraham did not guarantee its blessing to him and to his seed on the ground of a legal obedience, but on the ground of a righteousness which is by faith (Rom. 4:13). He therefore concludes that the way to acceptance with God is the way of faith, and that the validity of the promises made of old rests upon this principle (Rom. 4:16; Gal. 3:21, 22). He thus traces back his doctrine of the imputation of faith and of justification thereby (Rom. 4:3, 5, 9, 22; Jas. 2:23; cf. Gen. 15:6), with historical continuity to the covenant made with Abraham. The effect of this argument is to show that the law had its main purpose in reference to the Messianic age and work. Upon its use as a present power restraining from sin, Paul does not have occasion to dwell.

(2) He employs an argument based upon his doctrine of the cross. The postulate with which he starts, is that the cross of Christ is the efficient means of redemption. But if righteousness were attainable by deeds of the law, there would not only be another way of salvation but the way of the cross would be rendered unnecessary and useless (Gal. 2:21; 5:4). But by the supposition this is impossible. The way by the law must therefore be shut and the way by the cross remain the only path of life (Rom. 9:30-33).

(3) A psychological argument is also employed to show how the law quickens the consciousness of sin, makes transgressions abound (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:7-1 1), shuts men up in ward and cuts off every other way but that of faith (Gal. 3:23 sq.). The first of these three lines of proof is a general historical argument, the second a specifically Christological, and the third a psychological argument. This analysis gathers up the principal proofs by which the positive aspects of the law's preparatory office are set forth.

Its negative preparation for Christ is brought out in an argument showing the powerlessness of the law to secure righteousness. There are two main reasons for this inability of the law, (1) its external, preceptive character (2 Cor. 3:6-18; Rom. 2:27-29; 7:6).1 (2) The carnal nature of man (Rom. 8:3-7). Thus, negatively, the preparatory purpose of the law is shown by both its subjective and its objective inability.

These theses will be more minutely considered under the following heads into which we analyze our theme:

I. — The Meaning and Scope of the Law (ὁ νόμος)

Paul uses this word to denote the Mosaic law, unless otherwise limited or defined.2 Νόμος is sometimes used generically, but still denotes remotely the Mosaic legislation; ὁ νόμος denotes specifically the Mosaic law. A few passages may be taken as representative; Rom. 2:14, where the Jews and Gentiles only are under consideration. The Gentiles "have not the law" (μὴ νόόμον ἔχοντα); the Jews have the law. Here the Mosaic law must be meant in both cases, though in one the reference is remote, in the other, direct. Rom. 3:9, " Whatever the law saith, it saith to those who are under the law." Rom. 5:13, "For until the law (ἄχρενόμου) sin was in the world, but sin is not reckoned where there is not law" (μὴ ὄντοτ νόμου). Here appear both the specific and the more general use of the word without the article. Rom. 7:7 "What shall we say then? Is the law (ὁ νόμοτ} sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin but by the law" (ἔι μὴ διὰ νόμου). These passages will fairly illustrate Paul's use of the word "law." They show that in cases where he does not use it as a simple equivalent for the Mosaic law and seems to speak of law in general, he still has the Mosaic legislation in mind. Sometimes he speaks of this law specifically, sometimes generically. The concept of law in general does not take him beyond the Mosaic enactments.

From this consideration it follows that by "the law" Paul denotes the whole Mosaic code. Whatever, therefore, he teaches in regard to "the law" at all, applies to the whole system, not to an element or phase of the system arbitrarily selected. Paul's theology of the law has been too often interpreted by means of unwarranted divisions within the law itself. But we can be certain from the use of the word that whatever he teaches in regard to the purpose and present validity of the law, he teaches in regard to its totality. "The traditional division of the law of Moses into moral, ceremonial and juristic laws may serve to facilitate a general view of theocratic ordinances; but it is incorrect if it seeks to express a distinction within the law, and to claim various dignity for its various parts."3

II. — The Origin and Nature of the Law.

Paul teaches in the strongest terms that the law is divine in its origin and in its nature, " holy, just, and good " (Rom. 7:12). It was " ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator" (Gal. 3:19); it is "spiritual" (Rom. 7:14). In his elaborate argument showing the relation of the law to sin, he is careful to guard against the misconception that the sinfulness which the law quickens and occasions is due to any moral defect in the law itself:" Is the law sin? God forbid!" (Rom. 7:7). So, also in his argument showing the inadequacy of the legal dispensation to the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham, he is careful to urge that there is no opposition between the legal system and the gospel of faith preached beforehand to him (Gal. 3:8): "Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid!" (Gal. 3:21). The dispensation of the law is, indeed, subordinate to the covenant of promise, but so far from being in opposition to it, it has its ideal end in the fulfilment of that covenant. The law is intermediate between the ancient covenant and the completed gospel, — between the promise and the fulfilment. It was a divinely appointed means of revealing human need and of hastening its satisfaction. We thus see how completely is the law auxiliary to the gospel of grace and faith in the historic development of the Kingdom of God. This gospel is the way of life from the beginning and the law only entered along side of it (περεισῆλθεν — Rom 5:20) to aid in teaching men this truth. But from the beginning, like its last representative John the Baptist — it heralds and serves a greater than itself.

III. — The Immediate, Historic Aim of the Law.

It belongs to the very nature of statute law to restrain transgression by ordaining penalties. The Mosaic law aimed to check sin, promote morality, and secure righteousness. It did this by presenting motives to obedience: "Ye have seen how I bare you on eagles' wings and brought you unto myself" (Ex. 19:4). The Decalogue is thus prefaced: "I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage " (Ex. 20:2). The excellence and fitness of the law are commended to the people

(Deut. 4:6-8). The motives to obedience are both positive, — being drawn from appeals back to God's care and guidance and forward to the promises; and negative, — being founded upon threats and penalties. The law has a restraining, regulative power. It has more than a negative force. It seeks more than outward conformity; it insists upon a right disposition of heart; morality as well as legality. Though itself external to man, it is a grave mistake to sup pose that it required only external obedience. What it was able to secure is another question. But such, in brief, was the historic aim of the law for the time then present, as apprehended by the Jews themselves.

At first sight it appears strange that Paul has not developed this idea of the law, but rather a view of it which al most seems contradictory to this. How different would have been his treatment of the law while still a zealous and devout Jew! In what a different light does he see the whole subject from his new stand-point! He now looks wholly be yond the immediate aim of the law for the Jew, and sees it only in its relations to the gospel. The whole subject is therefore treated by Paul with a purely Christological purpose. This change is an impressive illustration of the radical revolution which his modes of religious thought must have undergone. That which once held for him the highest place in veneration and esteem he never ceases to honor, but its chief glory now is that it is a means of ushering in the new " ministration of the spirit." Henceforth for the apostle the glory of the law must ever pale before the brighter and more enduring glory of the new " ministration of righteousness " (2 Cor. 3:8-1 1).

Some writers on the Pauline theology maintain that Paul not only fails to consider the historic purpose of the law to check transgression and secure morality, but that he teaches, to the exact contrary, that the law was given to increase sin. Pfleiderer (Paulinism) strongly emphasizes the sharp antithesis between the Jewish (historic) and the Pauline (Christological) purpose of the law, and asserts that, according to Paul, the law was not given to check sin but to increase it.

This point will be discussed subsequently. We have already granted that Paul nowhere dwells upon the historical idea of the law; but are there no incidental traces of this idea in the Pauline epistles? If so, they will weigh against the position that Paul's ideal view of the law is in contradiction to its historic aim. Such traces seem to be found in the following passages: Rom. 7:10: "The commandment which was unto life" (ordained unto or aimed at [securing] life).4 Rom. 8:3-4: "For what the law could not do," etc., God did, in order that "the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit." "The righteousness of the law " is the righteousness which the law contemplates and seeks to secure, though for reasons to be separately considered it was not able to secure it. If it be said that the righteousness of the law is only the righteousness which the law demanded, it is admitted; but we cannot suppose God issuing a system making certain demands upon men, and comprehending in the system no purpose and no aim of securing the fulfilment of the demands. The righteousness of the law is the righteousness which the author of the law contemplated and purposed to secure, so far as a legal system can be designed and adapted to secure such a result. 1 Tim. 1:5-9: " For the end of the commandment is charity," etc. (v. 5). "The law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly, and for sinners," etc. (v. 9). The meaning here is that the law was given to restrain the law less, disobedient, etc.; to check whatever is not according to "sound teaching" and the "glorious gospel" (vv. 9-11). It cannot be maintained that Paul meant to say that the law was given to increase the wickedness of these classes of per sons. The peculiarly Pauline doctrine of the purpose of the law as quickening the sense of sin does not here come into view. This passage is not a theological argument, but a piece of practical, moral instruction. It might be paraphrased thus: Have love, which is the end of the commandment, and then you will not be under the law, for it is not made for the righteous — to regulate his life or threaten him for disobedience — but for sinners. Love is the fulfilling of the law, and he who is ruled by love has within him the principle of righteousness which the law aims to secure.

The use of a fourth passage in this connection is more doubtful. Gal. 3:19:"The law was added because of transgressions" (τῶν παραβάσεων χάρεν). "To check transgressions " is the old and an allowable interpretation. But most modern commentators interpret it as meaning to in crease transgressions — i.e., to bring them out in definite character.5 This interpretation is determined by the parallel passages, Rom. 3:20 and 5:20. But even surrendering this passage, which was formerly regarded as Paul's most explicit statement of the historic aim of the law, we have still seen that this idea is not absent from the Pauline epistles, though only incidentally introduced. The Divine de sign of the law during the period of its validity was to secure obedience by threatening and checking transgressions. This is not equivalent to saying that it had power to justify. It could hold out inducements to righteousness, but could not secure the obedient heart. This impotence or inadequacy of the law forms the transition from the Jewish to the unique Pauline idea of the law in its relation to sin. Hence we consider next:

IV. The Failure of the Law to secure Righteousness.

We have already touched upon its external perceptive character. It was a " ministration of death written and graven in stones." It could not secure its own ideal end, because it was not a spiritual power. It could punish disobedience, induce to outward conformity, and even by motives and promises induce to obedience, but these combined results did not constitute a perfect righteousness, and could not, therefore, fulfil the conditions of a justification to be received on the basis of debt, not of grace. And here appears the greatest obstacle of all to the securing of righteousness by the law. It was powerful against the sinful, fleshly nature of man (Rom. 8:3). It was not only weak as the "letter" — τὸ γράμμα — and as elementary τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ χόσμου (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20), it was also weak "through the flesh" — διὰ τῆς σάρχος. This argument, like those that have preceded it, tends to establish the Christological aim of the law. It could not, in view of this inadequacy, be a finality. It must be a system subordinate to the principle of salvation by grace on condition of faith, a principle which existed be fore the law, and for the more complete revelation and realization of which the law was given. The legal principle is:" He that doeth them shall live by them " (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), but " the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God; neither, indeed, can be" (Rom. 8:7). Hence, the way by deeds of the law is shut, and only the way of grace and faith is left. This brings us to inquire into:

V. The Purpose of the Law in its Relation to Sin.

Paul teaches in many passages that the purpose of the law was to quicken the consciousness and intensify the power of sin. This idea was unknown to Jewish theology. Both the Jewish and the Pauline ideas were true. The former was correct historically, the latter ideally. The first step in the development of sin by the law is seen in the fact that " by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). The law reveals sin as transgression. " I had not known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust except the law had said: Thou shall not covet " (Rom. 7:7). The sin existed before the law came, but was not definitely and consciously known as such. " For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed (reckoned as such) where there is no law" (Rom. 5:13). By the revelation of sin in its true character the law becomes a ministration of death. Revealing sin as transgression of Divine right it "works wrath" to the disobedient (Rom. 4:13). Thus "sin by the commandment becomes exceeding sinful" (Rom. 7:13). In this way sin is defined. Men see themselves in the mirror of Divine law as guilty. The law becomes the occasion by which sin really intensifies its power in human life. "The law entered that the offence might abound." (Rom. 5:20; cf. Gal. 3:19). " Without the law sin was dead. I was alive without the law once ; but when the commandment came sin revived, and I died " (Rom. 7:8, 9). Thus the law became the "strength of sin" (1 Cor. 15 :56).

We can now see in what sense the law increased sin. It sharpened the sinful self-consciousness by revealing sin as such. Thus relatively to man's previous consciousness of sin, it increased it. Besides this it became the occasion of increasing the violence of sinful desire by its restraint. The law did not causally increase sin. It became the occasion of its development into new strength. According to Rom. 7:8, it is sin, not the law, which " brought all manner of desire." Sin was the cause of this desire, the law only the occasion of its development. Paul's argument here is briefly this: The commandment was unto life — had life as its end and aim — but by reason of the hold which sin had upon my nature, it only served to reveal me to myself, and to convict me of guilt before God; and thus what was meant to be unto life I found to be unto death. The law then pronounced the death sentence on me (7:9), and showed me the mercy of God in Christ as my only hope (7:25).

That the law caused a positive increase of sin Paul does not teach. The action of the law upon men was like that of all the influences and agencies of God's grace upon those who persist in sin. The Gospel message itself becomes a "savour of death unto death " to those who reject it (2 Cor. 2 :16). Christ is " a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to them that stumble at the word, being disobedient" (1 Pet. 2:8). Truth hardens the heart that spurns it. Moral law develops character into definiteness in both directions. To him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. All the laws of nature conspire against the bad man and for the good man. If Pharaoh resists God and hardens his heart (Ex. 8:15), God by his laws which rule the world will reciprocate (Ex. 7:13). This is the inevitable rebound of moral law. Nature recoils upon him who transgresses her laws, and nature is but a name for the Divine modes of working. God hardens no man's heart until the man hardens his own. But when he does this he places himself under those certain judicial consequences which God has ordained in the universe for persistence in sin. In this sense God hardens his heart; not by causal efficiency, but through the natural action of moral law. The sun shining upon the soil brings out its possibilities. If it shines upon a fertile field it will quicken it into verdure and clothe it with beauty. The same sun shining upon a marsh only liberates from it the noxious gases which poison the air. So God's light and truth, shining upon humanity, produce the most varied effects according to the soil of the lives upon which they fall.

VI. The Fulfilment of the Law.

The argument which proves that the law intensified sin also shows how it became a negative means of salvation by sharpening the need and longing for redemption. In the redemptive work of Christ, therefore, the law finds its fulfilment. The law aims at life by pointing to Christ, who alone can give it. The historic aim is secured in the principle of love — "the end of the commandment is love; "its ideal aim is secured in Christ — "Christ is the end of the law." Thus the Christological and historic purposes meet and blend, since Christ brings in the perfect gospel of love. In him, there fore, the apparent antinomy is solved. The law requires righteousness and shows the sinner the depths of his sin, not to leave him in despair, but rather to lead him humbled and penitent to Christ, that God may receive him through faith.

If we have rightly interpreted, thus far, the Pauline doc trine of the law, it follows as an inevitable consequence that the Mosaic law does not retain under Christianity the same prescriptive moral authority which belonged to it before. It is completed in the gospel. All its elements of permanence are taken up into Christianity, which is complete in itself and does not need to be supplemented from any previous incomplete stage of revelation.6 This view does not rest for its support upon any single passage or set of passages. It runs through the whole Pauline conception of the revelation of the two dispensations. A few passages may be quoted in illustration:

Gal. 3:19, 24, 25: "Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." Rom. 10:4:" For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth." The best interpreters agree that τέλος νόμου here is literally the end — the completion — and that the meaning of this passage is that the validity of the law has come to an end in Christ. 2. Cor. 3:n:" For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious." Col. 2:16, 17:"Let no man judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of a holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is Christ." Rom. 6:15 :" We are not under the law."

Were it necessary, these ideas might be traced through the courses of argument pursued by the apostle. But these passages, which a Judaizing theology has twisted for so many centuries are now generally explained by scholarly interpreters in their obvious meaning and in harmony with the Pauline scheme of doctrine which the recent science of Biblical theology has done so much to elucidate. We conclude, then, that in Christ revelation is complete. The gospel is lacking in nothing that was of permanent value in the law. God has taken away the first; he has established the second: He has completed the old in the new, as the blossom is completed in the fruit. The law will always be worthy of all honor, but its chief glory must ever be that it served to usher in the gospel and to prove to humanity a παιδαγωγὸς εἰτ Χριστόν.

George B. Stevens.

Watertown, N. V.


1) This idea is still more prominent in the Epistle to the Hebrews than in the Pauline Epistles (Heb. 8:6-13).

2) As, e. g., in Gal. 6:2, τὸν νὸμον τὸυ χριστόυ.

3) Oehler, Old Testament Theology, I, 264.

4) ἡ ἑντολὴ ἡ εἰς ξωήν Sc. οῦσα. Cf. Meyer in loco.

5) E.g. Ellicott in loco: "To manifest, awaken a conviction of, to give, as it were, a distinctive existence to the transgressions of it (the law) which existed, but were not properly recognized as such."

6) See my article, "The Old Testament in the Christian Church," in the New Englander for July, 1882, in which this point is discussed at length.