Tag Archives: ethical law

Romans Law – Obedience or Badges

When we dealt with Romans 7:1-4 we learned the following:

  • We have been freed from the demands of the law.
  • This happened because we died to the law.
  • We died to the law by virtue of our participation in the death of Christ.
  • But, importantly, we are also united to His life and resurrection.
  • And so because we have gone through this death-resurrection-life process, we can now “bear fruit for God”.


Simple enough.

  • But then we saw that Paul made a rather startling claim about the law, in verse 5.
  • Romans 7:5 (ESV) — 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.

Paul is saying that though God gave the law to the Jews it did not lead to righteousness.

  • In fact, it didn’t even bear fruit “for God”.
  • It lead to the bearing of fruit for the master of the dominion of sin – what Paul calls here “death”.


Or to put in the language of Romans 5’s Adam and Christ:

“Paul is making the striking and controversial claim that the law, when given to Israel, formed a bond between Israel and … not God, as one might have supposed, but rather Adam” – N.T. Wright.


The rest of Romans 7 follows on the heels of this controversial claim.

  • But today I want to back up a bit.
  • We need a bigger picture of what is going on in Paul’s ministry.



Paul’s Law Context:

We can piece together the story with the Bible’s help.

  • Paul is on his way to Jerusalem to deliver aid to Jewish Christians.
  • Acts 19:21 (ESV) — 21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”


Apparently, there was a severe grain shortage in Jerusalem brought on by failed crops in Egypt.

  • This shortage brought on a huge increase in the price of grain.


Ben Witherington III says this:

  • “There is considerable evidence that poverty and food shortages were ongoing problems the early church in Jerusalem had to cope with…”
  • The grain shortage made things worse.


Paul tells us the same thing.

  • Romans 15:25–26 (ESV) — 25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.


Paul goes on to say:

  • It is right that Gentiles, who have been privileged to share in the Jew’s spiritual blessings, are right to share their physical blessings with those in need in Jerusalem.


But, Paul has a concern about the reception he and his Gentile aid will get in Jerusalem.

  • Romans 15:30–31 (ESV) — 30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints,


So Paul has two concerns:

  • (1) Unbelieving Jews who “see him as a traitor, a blasphemer, someone who has led Jewish people astray and destroyed the grip of the law of Moses on their lives” – N.T. Wright.
  • (2) Believing Jews who “may well find it difficult to accept money raised from non-Jewish sources” – N.T. Wright.

Upon Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, Luke gives us more detail – he also blurs the lines between the two distinctions above.

  • Acts 21:17–22 (ESV) — 17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.


So what?

  • Most believe that the Jewish Christians at Rome were part of the “zealous for the law” crowd.
  • So Paul, especially in Romans 7, is addressing their concerns.
  • Namely, that he is teaching that Jews should “forsake Moses”.
  • Interestingly, it is possible that in addressing the Jews’ concerns in Romans 7, Paul is fleshing out his response to his critics in Jerusalem.


BTW – The issues raised here are HUGE!

  • It involves the clash between the “New Perspectives on Paul” crowd with the “Traditional Martin Luther Reformation” crowd.
  • I will be greatly over simplifying…sorry.



Jews and the Law:

So to get behind what Paul is teaching about the law in Romans 7 we need to know more about the law.

  • What does it mean to be “zealous for the law”?


On paper, “zealous for the law” is easy enough to understand.

  • It means to be a loyal adherent to the law – BDAG.
  • And to forsake this would mean Paul is an apostate – he is a heretic.


But, attempts to understand this get complicated real fast.

  • What Luke means to say depends entirely on how the law related to salvation.
  • We can simplify two approaches that unpack this.


Ethical Obedience and Law:

It is quite possible that the traditional take on Jews’ “law talk” is correct.

  • That is to say, Paul’s law-talk (“works of the law”) referred to obedience as the way “in” to salvation.
  • Obedience to the law was the way to obtain right standing (righteousness) before God.


And since the law was given to the Jews, it was easy to lay on top of this a sense of ethnic superiority.

  • Jews were the gatekeepers to any access one had to be right with God.
  • To get to the law you had to go through Judaism.


Ethnic Badges and Law:

But there is a second idea of how all this “law talk” played out.

  • Essentially, to speak of the law was to speak of, not obedience…
  • But of the badges of membership in the people of God.
  • The badges of membership were circumcision, Sabbath keeping, ritual observance (like food laws), etc.


The badges, not obedience, made you right with God.

  • Why? Because they demonstrated whom the members of the Abrahamic covenant were.
  • And to be saved was to be a member of the covenant.
  • “Salvation came not through achieving a certain number of meritorious works but through belonging to the covenant people of God” – DPL (EP Sanders).


On this view…

  • Obedience did not secure salvation.
  • Obedience was the natural offshoot of “belonging to the covenant people of God”.


Ben Witherington III sums this view up well:

“The obedience one reads about in the OT and early Jewish religion was not obedience in order to obtain right-standing with God, but obedience in response to the divine initiative which was prior”.


This view, even more than the first, was susceptible to ethnic superiority.

  • After all, the badges of membership were all Jewish.



So when Luke speaks of the law in Acts 21 and Paul speaks of the law in Romans 7…

  • To which versions of the law are they referring?


If the first…

  • Then Paul is only fending off a works based salvation.


If the second…

  • His polemic, “is not directed against gaining salvation by doing good works but against believing that salvation was, at least in part, contingent upon belonging to national Israel and observing the Law as a badge of that status” – DPL (Dunn).



Common Sense Time:

Why should we restrict the range of Paul’s beliefs as a Jew (before Christ)?

  • Like all of us, his views surely evolved, changed, slide around, changed emphasis, etc., as he grew and learned.
  • To think that Paul or any other Jew believed the same thing and only the same thing throughout their life is a bit unrealistic.


In fact, a huge critique of Paul is that he seems to be inconsistent when speaking about the law.

  • If he were speaking always and only on one view of the law, this is a fair charge.
  • But I don’t think he is.


Which view – obedience or badges – of “works of the law” is this verse attacking?

  • Romans 2:28–29 (ESV) — 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
  • Doesn’t this verse attack the ethnic dimensions of Judaism – the badges?


And this one:

  • Romans 2:21–23 (ESV) — 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.
  • Obedience?


How about this one – which view works here?

  • Galatians 2:16 (ESV) — 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law [obedience or badges?] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
  • Don’t both views work here?


And this one?

  • Romans 2:25 (ESV) — 25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.


What about our text from Acts?

  • you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs” – Acts 21:21.
  • Badges?



Big Picture:

The main point for Paul in all of his law-talk is this…“But now, the righteousness of God…

  • However Jews thought, including himself, Paul is redefining the whole story around Christ.
  • In Christ, we can say so much for ethnic (badges) or ethical (obedience) roads to God!
  • Only in Christ is the righteousness of God to be found and appropriated.