In the context of Pauline studies, much discussion has been generated in recent years about Paul’s view of the law in the setting of first-century Judaism. Early Protestant reformers, advocating a doctrine of justification by faith "alone" in reaction to the converse extreme of Roman Catholicism, tended to view the law of Moses as a legalistic system of meritorious works. In the late 1970s the notion of Jewish works-righteousness legalism was convincingly challenged by E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) and was essentially replaced in majority scholarship by the concept of "covenantal nominism" (i.e., Jewish observance of the law, not to gain salvation but to maintain covenantal status as God’s people). While this "new perspective" has significantly gained in popularity, many are now calling for a more balanced position that recognizes elements among first-century Jews of both "personal legalism" and "ethnic exclusivism" and Paul’s responses to them.
A Faulty PremiseIf the Mosaic law were truly a system of meritorious works, and if it is not possible to be saved under such a system (Galatians 3:11; Romans 3:20), then no one adhering to the law of Moses could have been saved – not even Moses himself! However, the foregoing syllogism is built on a faulty premise. During the fifteen centuries that the law of Moses was in force, provisions were made for atonement and forgiveness (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:13, 16, 18), salvation was attainable (1 Samuel 2:1; 2 Samuel 22:51; 1 Chronicles 16:23; Psalm 3:8; etc.), and one could even be counted "blameless" (Luke 1:6; Philippians 3:6). Faith, love and mercy were essential components (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 10:12-21; Micah 6:8; Habakkuk 2:4; Matthew 23:23; etc.), and it was beneficial to all who submitted to it (Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:13; cf. Psalm 78:1-7; etc.).
Paul Was Not Anti-Law
Contrary to what is commonly assumed, Paul was not anti-law. In fact, he concedes faith’s reinforcement of the law (Romans 3:31), the holiness and righteousness of the law (Romans 7:7, 12), the spirituality of the law (Romans 7:14), and the advantages of Judaism (Romans 3:1-2; 9:4). Does Paul, then, contradict himself in passages like Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16 and 3:11? To borrow the apostle’s own words, certainly not! Instead, his emphasis is consistently on the importance of understanding the law in terms of faith rather than dependence on meritorious observances (cf. Romans 3:27-31; 9:30-32).
Paul was in favor of the law and its precepts with respect to those for whom it was an important part of their cultural heritage (i.e., within the context of ethnic Judaism), as long as it was not at variance with the Christian faith (cf. Acts 16:1-3; 18:18; 21:20-26; 1 Corinthians 9:20; also Romans 15:4). On the other hand, he was vehemently opposed to the enforcement of the law’s ritualistic ordinances on those for whom these practices had no relevance (i.e., non-Jewish Christians), especially if the imposition of such created division in the church and supplanted the "faith of Christ."
Foreshadowing the atoning sacrifice of Jesus (Romans 3:25-26; Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 9:15, 26), persons were saved under the old Jewish law by God’s grace through faith (Romans 4:3-16; cf. 3:25; 9:31-32), i.e., a faith that submitted to the divine will in humble (albeit less than perfect) obedience. Despite the fact that a number of first-century legalistic Jews misconstrued the law’s intended purpose (Luke 11:37-42; Romans 2:23; 10:3), it was never meant to be a cold-hearted structure of meritorious works. While the old-covenant system was not faultless (Hebrews 8:7), it successfully functioned as a temporary measure to keep faith alive until the advent of the promised Messiah and the establishment of his superior new-covenant system (cf. Galatians 3:16–4:7; Hebrews 8:6-13).
--Kevin L. Moore
Addendum: Douglas Stuart reminds us: "nowhere in the Old Testament is it suggested that anyone was saved by keeping the law.... Israel's problem in the Old Testament was not with their inability to keep the law; it was with their choosing not to do so" (G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth [4th ed.]: 175, emp. in the text).
Related Posts: Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?, James and the Law of Moses, Fulfilling the Law