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The Language of Law in Paul

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At this website that is all about God’s love and grace, I need to deal with the law of God in Paul’s letters. If I don’t, some readers may accuse me (wrongly) of not understanding the law.

This study, I hope, will help me better understand the law, as opposed to grace.

My method was simple enough. I looked up the major passages where law, nomos, appears and quoted them, but I also look at gramma, which means written code or letter (of the law), entolê, commandment, and graphō or “it is written” (= Scripture in many contexts).

Most of the verses refer to the Law of Moses. Then I saw the patterns or categories that come up again and again. I trust I got them right, though some may quibble here and there about them.

For whatever purpose Paul uses the law, he surely does not put the New Covenant people of God under the Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant, the law was inseparably linked to the covenant. It is true that people had a relationship with God by his grace, but they had to know how that worked out in daily life. This is when the Law of Moses comes in. People were righteous when they kept the law, unrighteous when they did not. They maintained their grace and relationship when they obeyed the old Law of Moses and were circumcised as a sign of the covenant..

In the New Covenant, Paul’s ultimate goal and the very best for his fellow believers is to walk in the Spirit. He delinks the old Law of Moses from the New. And he certainly put broad daylight between life in the Spirit and circumcision. If all of that is antinomianism (underemphasizing the law; the –nom- root means law), then that’s a term with more than one definition, depending on who’s throwing it around. Maybe the critics of Paul’s radical grace and Spirit-filled living are hypernomians – they overemphasize and misuse the law.

Let’s get started to see what the delinking and the New Covenant looks like.

If you would like to see the verses in various translations, you may go to and type in the references.

Passages and Categories of the Law

1. The law is holy, righteous, good, and spiritual and is upheld.

Rom. 3:31

Comment: the law is upheld because of nos. 4 and 5, below.

Rom. 7:12

Rom. 7:14, Rom. 7:16

Rom. 8:4

1 Tim. 1:8

2. The Gentiles without the Law of Moses have natural law written on their hearts.

Rom. 2:12, Rom. 2:14-15

3. The Law of Moses subjects Jews to strict requirements and judgment.

Rom. 2:12-13

Rom. 2:17-24

Rom. 9:31

4. The law restrains societal sin

1 Tim. 1:9-10

5. However, the law increases or heightens sin and brings wrath.

Rom 3:19-20

Rom. 4:15 (See the Wrath of God in the OT.)

Rom. 5:13-14

Rom. 5:20

Rom. 7:5

Rom. 7:7-11

Rom. 7:21-25

Rom. 8:1-2

Rom. 8:7

1 Cor. 15:56

Gal. 3:19, Gal. 3:22-25

6. We are released from the law because we died to the law.

Rom. 7:1-6

Gal. 2:19-21

7. Circumcision, a ritual under the law, is useless without keeping the law.

Rom. 2:25-29

Rom. 4:10-12

1 Cor. 7:19

Gal. 5:1-6

Gal. 6:13-15

8. Righteousness and justification come apart from the law, and by faith in Christ and by God’s grace, for Jew and Gentile.

Rom 3:20

Gal 2:16

Rom. 3:21-22

Rom. 4:13-15

Rom 3:27-29

Rom. 6:14

Rom. 6:15

Gal. 2:14-16

Gal. 3:6-12

Gal. 3:15-18

Rom. 4:16

Eph. 2:11-18

Php. 3:9

9. The “law” of the Spirit and Christ is contrasted with the old law.

Rom. 7:6

Rom. 10:4-10

1 Cor. 9:21

2 Cor. 3:2-18

Gal. 3:2-5

Gal. 3:13-14

Gal. 4:21-23

Gal. 4:21-27

Gal. 5:16-18

Gal. 5:22-23

Gal. 6:13-15

Gal. 6:2

Php. 3:5-8

10. Christ redeemed us from the law and its curse.

Gal. 3:13-14

Gal. 4:4-5

11. Christ is the end or culmination of the law for everyone who believes.

Rom. 10:4

Gal. 4:3-11

Eph. 2:13-15

Col. 2:8-23

12. Paul uses the law to win those under the law.

1 Cor. 9:20-21

13. Christian love fulfills the law.

Rom. 13:8-10

Gal. 5:14

14. Paul uses the law as a source of wisdom and to clarify church issues and confusion.

1 Cor. 9:8-10

1 Cor. 10:1-11

1 Cor. 14:21-22

1 Cor. 14:33-35

Eph. 6:2-3

1 Tim. 1:9, 1 Tim. 1:11

15. The law serves to teach the church who lives in the New Covenant.

Rom. 15:4

1 Cor. 10:11

16. The law refers to Scripture as such.

Rom. 3:21

1 Cor. 14:21-22


In most of these passages the law is the Law of Moses. It is contrasted with faith and the Spirit. We receive a certain glory by the law, but we go from glory to glory in the Spirit who gives liberty and freedom. He is Liberty and Freedom. The old law, on the other hand, restricts the follower to his own efforts. He focuses on his obedience. The law demands; the Spirit supplies. Therefore, for whatever purpose Paul uses the law (see below), he never puts the New Covenant people of God under the Old Covenant.

The “law” of the Spirit and of Christ is another species; no, it’s another genus, a different kind. Paul is not exactly using irony, but we could put the word in quotation marks (“law”) in these verses: Rom. 8:2; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2, for he is transforming the word law to mean a new kind of life of obedience that comes from the Spirit living in us daily and powerfully. Holiness does not come from kosher food laws and animal sacrifices and circumcision and following the Holiness Code in Leviticus, but from following the Holy Spirit by faith.

Nonetheless, the old law is holy and good (no. 6) and serves three major purposes:

1. The law shows our sin and our need for Christ and for the gospel of grace (nos. 2, 4, 7, and 9);

2. It restrains societal sin (nos. 1 and 5);

3. It offers wisdom and clarifies the will of God for Christians or church issues (nos. 13, 14, and 15).

So the Reformers were right about those three purposes.

But the law has other functions too, some of which we are free from.

Circumcision is useless if one does not keep the whole law, which no one can do. It is not the sign of the New Covenant (no. 3).

We are released from the law as we follow the Spirit (no. 8).

Christ redeems us from the law and its curse (no. 10). He is the end or culmination of the law. He fulfills it, as does love.

Paul uses the law to win those under the law, so this purpose is outreach, not church governance or policy (no. 12).

One minor purpose is that the law can refer to all of Scripture (no. 16).

Paul does not bring back the sacrificial system and other the ritual aspects. Christ fulfilled them by his death on the cross. And Paul does not re-institute the death penalty for sins like adultery and homosexuality. Christ took these sins and their penalty on himself while he was on the cross.

Walking in God’s love and grace and in the Spirit takes priority over the law.

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. … 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:16-18, Gal. 5:22-25)

I omitted the verses about works of the flesh because Paul’s emphasis is about life in the Spirit. However, people don’t always walk in the Spirit or his love. In that case, the law can offer wisdom, as long as we don’t use it to impose on them the old and obsolete covenant that forms the foundation of the law.

See the companion article The Old Testament in Paul. See also the OT in Romans.

Related Topics: Law

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