WORKS OF THE LAW

The works of the Law or Torah

3 O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Therefore, recognize that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. 10 For all who are of works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the Law, to do them.” 11 Now, that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “the righteous one will live by faith.” 12However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “The person who performs them will live by them.” (Gal3:1-12)

For some such as Luther, this will have been a favourite passage of Scripture. Less so for me, not because I don’t agree and delight in every word of it but because I know this whole area of Paul’s teaching has been misunderstood, for some fatally so. Everything is fine, providing one understands the context of Paul’s anti-Law tirade. It is the Torah, or rather the perverted idea that righteousness before God can be obtained by keeping it. That notion is perverted because it fails to recognize that man by nature is incapable of keeping the letter of God’s Law in view of the flesh – or as Paul aptly refers to our earthly vessel, the body of this death. Still worse, says Paul, it implies that Christ had had a wasted death (v21).

“Works of the Law” = Torah

That Paul is referring here to the Torah is indisputable. He describes it as “the Book of the Law” (v10), that is why it needed to be kept to the letter. And later in the chapter, when referring to the promise given to Abraham Paul states that “the Law which came 430 years later, cannot invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God”. That covenant promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham, as would all those who “believed” (v9). But as ever, Abraham’s own faith was attested and his righteousness affirmed by what he did (Heb11:8). Faith invariably results in doing what God would wish us to do . That is effectively to respond to God’s law (with a small “l”). “Faith alone” is therefore a meaningless concept – as James indicated, faith that is alone is dead (2:17). And as affirmed in the previous post, James in his epistle just like Paul was referring to faith that justifies before God (2:24). Indeed, good works are so intrinsic to saving faith that Jesus does not even mention the latter at all in his definitive passage on final judgement (Mt25). Yet as I also explained last time, the “sheep” were justified by faith that prompted their acts of kindness, not the perfection of the deeds themselves. They were incapable of being performed to perfection in view of the flesh.

Love for neighbour – Paul’s summary of the law (Gal5:14)

The latter point leads us to consider what Paul really thought about God’s law: “I delight in God’s law in my inner man but I see another law in my bodily members warring against the law of my mind bringing me into captivity to the sinful law that is in my body” (Rom7:22,23).  Such delighting [συνήδομαι] is not so surprising when one grasps that the spirit and intention of God’s law can be summed up in one phrase: love for one’s fellows (Gal5:14). If that is entirely absent, one is not truly human. It in turn explains Christ’s favour towards the Mt25 sheep, who by their acts of kindness (however incomplete and inadequate) had fulfilled the spirit of the law. And such is true of all people by nature, providing they are not the seed of Satan (Mt13:38; Mt15:13; Mt25:41*; 1Jn3:12). For the person Paul depicted in Rom7 had yet to be delivered (“saved”) from the “body of this death” – the “this” referring to the inner conflict he was describing which disrupted his relationship with God), which is what Paul means by “die” and “death” in this context.

But if like Saul of Tarsus one does go on to encounter the grace of the gospel: “Don’t you know that we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Our old self was crucified with Him in order that our body of sin might be disempowered such that we would no longer be under its sinful dominion. For what purpose? “So that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who no longer walk according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Rom8:4)

Torah abolished by the Cross

The bible is essential, but unlike our Jewish forefathers the Christian no longer needs to refer to the book of Law; it is written in the heart. “For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds and write them on their hearts (Heb8:10). As for the Book of Law: Thank you Jesus: “Having cancelled the written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col2:14NIV). But God’s law itself is to be delighted in. Those like King and Psalmist David who were after God’s own heart have always done so: “Blessed is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of sinners but his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law does he meditate day and night” (Ps1:1-2). Back to Galatians and Paul declares that the Law (Torah) is not of faith (v12) yet the law that he spoke of in Rom7 he declared to be spiritual (v14).

Paul’s tripartite anthropology

Regrettably, some of Paul’s teaching in this area has been distorted by mistaking the human spirit for the Holy Spirit, perhaps the most important passage being (Rom8:1-17 interlinear). If you examine every reference to spirit (πνεῦμα) and observe the English translation as to whether it is spirit or Spirit, you will see it always infers the Holy Spirit (“Spirit”). Then examine the Greek and it is a very different story, and consequently has a different meaning, especially and critically verse 13. For writing to Christians, Paul declares “If you live in accord with the flesh you are about to die; but if by the spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, then you will live. Actually in this case (no pun intended), even if Paul were referring to the Holy Spirit it is still the “you” that has to mortify the flesh aided by the Spirit. In most occasions in that Rom8 passage the Greek specifies πνεῦμα (implicating the human spirit) rather than Πνεύμα (Holy Spirit or Spirit of Christ) except in the case of vv9&11 which is clearly referring to the divine personage.

The Greek text in question derives from the earliest Byzantium manuscripts, crucially drafted before the likes of 4th / 5th century Augustine and Jerome denied the tripartite nature of humanity that had been accepted by the earliest Church. Jerome was primarily responsible for the Latin Vulgate bible utilized by the Roman Catholic Church. Some later Catholic versions I have seen (e.g. New American Bible) rightly differentiate spirit from Spirit in this passage – not so, the New Jerusalem Bible. The 16th century Protestant Reformers utilized the aforementioned Greek Textus Receptus but they disregarded the early scribes’ casing of πνεῦμα/ Πνεύμα. That was to suit their own theology having, like Augustine and Jerome, rejected the Ancient Church’s (not to mention Paul’s) tripartite anthropology (e.g. 1Thes5:23).

The mystery of lawlessness

I have certainly mentioned this before and shall no doubt have to do so again as we proceed through the Pauline epistles. For it entirely changes the meaning of his teaching, affirming the believer to be very much involved and responsible for (in Paul’s language) working out his own salvation with fear and trembling – not believing it will invariably be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. In the process it brings Paul in line with every other contributor to Scripture (including Jesus and James) rather than making him out to be the extraordinary maverick that the long-held historical renderings infer.

As the late-called apostle to the Gentiles, there are legitimate distinctives to Paul’s teaching that he on two occasions refers to as “my gospel”. These pertain to the Gentiles’ unforetold spiritual inheritance and the consequential breaking down of divisions by abolishing the Torah (Eph2:13-15), a passage referring to reconciling Jews with Gentiles, not the sinner with God. Such is the context of the apostle’s anti-Law (rather than anti-law) rhetoric here in Galatians as we shall continue to discover – and with some trepidation weigh up the fuller implications of this extraordinary yet fore-ordained mystery of lawlessness.

[*Mt25:41 For “angels” in this context read human agents or messengers – Greek: ἀγγέλοιςG32 ]

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Related post: On spirit and letter