Sunday, August 20, 2006

I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)

From the context of Romans, it seems clear that Paul's statements in 2:6-13 (culminating in "It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified") are not intended to portray the kind of "living faith" that believers must exhibit in order to be accepted by God at the final judgement. Rather, when we allow Paul himself to summarize what he thought he just taught, we hear him say, "[The law speaks] so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be held accountable to God" (3:19).

Hardly good news....

But there appears to be a discrepancy between his insistence in Romans that "through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (3:20), and his boast in Philippians that "as to the righteousness which is from the law, [I was] blameless" (3:6).

A common approach to this difficulty is to assume that, in one of these two statements, Paul is adopting a misunderstanding about the law that was common in his day. So his negative statements about the law (such as when he calls it a murderous ministry of death in II Cor. 3:6-7 or a source of bondage leading to servile fear in Gal. 3:23 - 4:7, cf. Rom. 8:15) are not really about the law per se, but about the Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law. So in this view, "law" = "legalism" (see Phil. 3:6 in the NIV).

Or if Paul really meant the negative things he said about the law in Romans, then his boast of being blameless according to the law's righteousness in Philippians must be understood to mean that he wasn't claiming to actually have been blameless, but he just thought he was when he was a legalistic Pharisee.

But, we are told, whatever he did mean, he certainly couldn't have meant what he actually said in both statements, could he? How could he say that the law's purpose was to condemn its subjects, while at the same time insisting that he blamelessly escaped such a sentence?