Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paul's Offense

Every time we work through Galatians, I marvel over my students' response to Paul's idea that the law is not an ethical standard for his gentile converts. The harder Paul pushes for a law-free gospel, the more my students push back (well, they really don't push back too hard--honestly, they're in shock). It just doesn't seem right to their ears. I think their resistance is attributable to two sources: their religious upbringing and American culture (which of course are intrinsically linked).

They've been taught their whole lives that law is the benchmark for right behavior, whether at home or in church. Sin, therefore, is defined as breaking the law. Now, that makes sense for unbelievers; but for those of us who have been set free from the law of sin and death, it should be quite apparent what (or more accurately who) sets the standard for righteousness: Jesus Christ. To obey him is right, to disobey him is sin. It's as simple as that, which is why Paul believed the only way to live righteously is to "walk" in the power of Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit. What the law could not do--effect righteousness--God did through Christ. Our obedience has nothing to do with law (Paul insists our obedience is based on faith).

The other mental block to Paul's law-free gospel comes from growing up in America, where righteousness/justice is defined by law. Indeed, to the ears of American Christians, law-free sounds like an invitation to anarchy. Besides, to the American way of thinking, our justice is supposed to be a God-given gift (not only to us but to the whole world). Imagine how difficult Paul's new standard of righteousness sounded to his Jewish kinsmen, who rightfully believed their law came from God.

No wonder Paul got in trouble, then and now.


Rev. Spike said...

I need the Law because without it I AM an anarchist. But I pick and choose like the rest. I need a fence. Maybe that is why it bothers me so.

Thank God for the grace of His Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Melissa Fitzpatrick said...

Dr. Reeves, this is really interesting to me because, from my experience (in church & women's ministry), Paul's law-free gospel (esp. as espoused in Galatians) is the heart of theology. I have rarely experienced people being offended by it. In fact, I'm concerned that most don't understand why it is even offensive.

I personally react negatively & wrongly against it (Paul's law-free gospel esp. in Galatians b/c he seems so angry) sometimes because I'm concerned that a lot of folks in my church interpret Scripture with Luther's law/gospel antithesis. And sometimes I'm concerned that we don't recognize/acknowledge that God himself was the author & initiator of the law. And that terrifies me for our reading of Scripture & our conception of the God of Israel.

I see this anti-law attitude mostly among those who have been in the evangelical church for some time. I have noticed, however, that when I meet "new" believers a lot of the time they are coming from a place that is closer to what you are mentioning here. They are very confused about what "morality" means if the law is not relevant for the church anymore. Also, for example, they might quote a verse from the Pentateuch to argue against homosexuality or getting a tattoo. There is still a confusion among them about the place of the ten commandments in Christian life, etc. But eventually I have even seen newer believers embrace and then replace that approach with a very simplified law-gospel antithesis (it's sort of like a second conversion).

But now I'm rambling & I'm not sure I'm even making sense. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think our understanding of "law" lacks nuance for multiple (& sometimes different) reasons. I can't even get remotely worked up about issues concerning women's ministry or the Calvinism debates (sadly I just don't really care anymore) but this issue is still very close to my heart.

Ben Clay said...

Although, if we are living in faith and in fact doing what Christ desires (which hopefully ultimately becomes what we desire as well) we will at very least be upholding the Law (or the spirit of it) through our actions. The motivation is not righteousness through adherence to the law, rather righteousness through relationship with Christ, but the physical day to day living it out should at least be similar in either sense. After all Christ did not come to abolish the law but fulfill it. So then a life following Christ the law fulfiller, should still honor the heart of the law.

Darryl Schafer said...


Just wanted to say: GREAT thoughts.

Rodney Reeves said...


That's too bad. To have a fence sounds very enslaving.


I've discovered the only time Christians are offended by Paul's law-free gospel is when they read him very carefully. Most of the time, we're simply referencing him in support of theological justifications (as you suggest) for certain positions (like women, homosexuality, etc.). In fact, I think Paul's law-free gospel is only accurately described when it offends us.


No, I don't think Paul argued for his converts keeping the law via the Spirit (in fact, that's what his opponents were advocating). What about the Sabbath (one of the ten commandments)? It would have made no sense to his kinsmen to suggest Christians keep the spirit of the Sabbath. The way Paul sees it, you either keep the law or you don't. It's an all or nothing proposition. When I hear Christians say, "We keep the law by the power of the Spirit," (they may not realize it but) they are advocating a Jewish form of Christianity (much like the Judaizers).

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Anonymous said...

I preached through Galatians on Sunday nights when I first started my pastorate, and I still have one of the men in my church complain that my preaching is "love, love, love all the time" and has none of the divine nature that he prefers. He actually likes the "OT God" better than Jesus. Many of us prefer laws to live by, but we got the spirit instead.

Jeremiah said...

I used to struggle with following the law. I called it right and wrong but in the end its the same thing. I believe we are called to more than doing right and avoiding wrong. This is the reason for the holy spirit to guide us in what we should do next instead of using our own reason and flawed judgement to discern our next move. I do claim righteousness but not my own but rather the blood of Christ that has made me righteous. This however does not mean that i am to be pompous or arrogant in my knowledge of this fact. Just my thoughts.

matt gallion said...

First, a general question: Who says anarchy is bad? That fence thing, that sounds a lot like Pirkei Avot, which I suppose supports Dr. Reeves's comments concerning the Judaizers.

Second, I've been fascinated lately by a reading of Matthew that suggests it was written or redacted against Paul's antinomianism. To suggest that Jesus was the ultimate law-fulfiller and that we follow in that heritage sounds very much in line with this reading--which may not be bad. It's certainly not for me, but I'm very comfortable with my tendency to pick and choose.

My real question, though, is this: How do we talk about Paul's relationship to the Law--especially in places like Galatians--without sounding supersessionist? Or do we just accept some master narrative of Christian superiority? I have a hard time with that . . . even though my own favorite theological delicacies are about as supersessionist as one can get.

Matt Kimbrough said...

Might the Jews have suggested that they did not need the law to "effect righteousness" because they were God's covenant people? ...that they weren't "saved" because they slaughter a goat a certain way, though their disobedience could cause them to miss out on the covenant?

Also, is Paul's law-free Gospel just for Gentiles? If an ethnic/religious Jew is saved today, does he still have to keep the law? Is it acceptable for Jews to choose to still obey some of the laws that Jesus didn't exclusively address?

Rodney Reeves said...


I'm trying to refer to more than the typical "imputed righteousness" talk when I speak of Paul's view of "walking" in the Spirit.

Matt G.,

Paul in Galatians does sound supercessionist (but not so much in Romans). Re: a grand Christian metanarrative, incarnation/ resurrection is about as imposing a narrative as you can get. BTW, I've also been intrigued by an anti-Pauline context for Matthew's gospel (if not directed against Paul, at least some of his converts [like the Corinthians!]).

Matt K.,

I don't think Paul had a problem with Jewish Christians keeping the law (he did at times). But it's his ability to set the law aside every now and then that troubled his kinsmen.

Darryl Schafer said...

Matt G.,

Re: "...even though my own favorite theological delicacies are about as supersessionist as one can get."

Same goes for pretty much everyone. Hey, there's your theory of everything you've been looking for! ;)