Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 22, 2010

Galatians (Part 2: Keeping the Law)

Last time, we began a two-part study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In Part 1, we noted that this letter was prompted by the fact that the Gentile members of this congregation were getting circumcised at the insistence of their Jewish brothers.  Paul interpreted this behavior to mean that these believers had embraced a serious theological error (1:6, 5:2).  I wanted to study this letter again closely, because I’ve encountered the subject of Christian obedience to the Old Testament Law several times recently.  An old friend has been researching this for many months now, and I learned last week that she apparently still hasn’t settled the question in her own mind. It has also come up a couple of different times at at our weekly church gathering, and I’ve encountered some “friends-of-friends” on Facebook who are Christians and keep the Law.

One of the primary arguments presented by the Law-keeping community concerns motive:  we should observe the Law not in an attempt to earn salvation, but rather, as an outworking of saving faith, because, as James says, “faith without works is dead” (2:17).  I think it is important to note that at no point in this letter (or anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter) does Paul say anything like, “you’re keeping the Law with the wrong motivation.”  Instead, Paul forcefully argues throughout the letter that the Galatian believers should not try to keep the Law at all.  James speaks of obedience to “the law that gives life” (2:8-12). Is he talking about observing the Ten Commandments?  Let’s compare what James and Paul have to say.  In Gal 4:1-7, Paul writes,

What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.  So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.  But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”  So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

Clearly, when Paul here speaks of “the basic principles of the world,” he is talking about the Old Testament Law.  Paul uses the same terminology in Col 2:20:  If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees…” (NASB)  Many Christians believe that Paul is not talking about the Old Testament Law here because in verse 22, he continues:  …in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?”  We read “of men” to mean that the teachings and commandments to which Paul is referring are ones that originated with men instead of with God, and so exclude things like the Ten Commandments and the Jewish festivals.  In the Greek text, “of men” is twn anthropwn, which is the genitive case.  The genitive case indicates possession, not origin.  To illustrate, years ago I was in France and had a conversation that referenced my mother-in-law.  The Frenchman replied, “I do not understand ‘mother-in-law.’”  I explained, “My mother-in-law is the mother of my husband.”  She doesn’t come from him, she belongs to him. Similarly, the Old Testament Law does not come from man, but it was given to man; it is in man’s possession.

Thus, there is no basis to assert that the Old Testament Law is excluded from Paul’s comments in Col 2:20-23:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules:  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (NIV)

In fact, in verse 14, Paul said that Jesus “canceled the written code.” Paul here is contrasting abiding in Christ (2:6, 3:1-2) with following rules that are in man’s posession.  He clearly states, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law,” (Gal 5:18) and “I myself am not under the Law” (1 Cor 9:20)  Throughout his epistles, Paul connects the Law to sin, slavery, and death (1 Cor 15:56, Gal 5:11).  But Rom 8:2 says “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”  James 2:8-13 directs us to “the law that gives freedom,” and away from the Ten Commandments.  What is this law?  Love:

  • Love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10).
  • You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).
  • If you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (James 2:8).

Paul clearly, consistently, and unequivocally waves off believers from trying to follow the Old Testament law.  Yet, even as he is on a journey to notify the churches that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised (Acts 16:4) the first thing he does when he recruits Timothy is have him circumcised (verse 3)!  What are we to make of this?  By God’s grace, we are not left to wonder, or draw possibly mistaken conclusions from the narrative.  Paul explains himself in 1 Cor 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.   To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

For the sake of others, God may at times call certain of us to be “like one under the law,” but we are very clearly not under the Law.  So the Law-keeping community is right to say that motivation is key; but the motivation must be to give others an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.  God does not expect or even want us to attempt to keep the Law as an endeavor to “show how much we love Him.”  He has told us how He wants us to demonstrate our love for Him, and it’s not by observing Old Testament festivals or dietary laws:  “This is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” (1 Jn 3:23).


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