St. Paul and the Law

As a conclusion to this series on the ongoing importance of the commandments of the Law in the New Testament and in the Orthodox Church, it is important to address directly St. Paul’s understanding of the Law.  It has become a commonplace since Martin Luther to read St. Paul as setting out a dichotomy between the Law on one hand, and the gospel which he proclaimed on the other.  This distinction has been read forward into the other New Testament writers, and also backward into the Old Testament.  That which is identified as Law, then, in the scriptures, or at least, portions of it, is allowed a continuing role in the life of the church and of Christians but that role is restricted, and it is at all points superseded by that which is identified as Gospel.  The difficulty with this approach is that such a dichotomy is not actually found in St. Paul’s treatment of the Law.  In fact, it requires ignoring a wealth of positive statements about the Law in the Pauline writings.  The development of this idea by Luther was more directly related to his own personal experience in the 16th century than to St. Paul and his writings understood in and of themselves.

The beginning of this misreading of St. Paul begins with the idea that he is a “convert”.  His experience on the Damascus road is off-handedly referred to as his conversion in conversation nearly universally.  There is difficulty with this characterization at the level of simple logic.  For one to “convert” one must leave one religion and join another, and it is a bare fact of history that in 35 AD, Judaism and Christianity were not two separate religions.  More importantly, “conversion” is not the way in which the Damascus road experience is presented in scripture, nor the way in which St. Paul speaks of it after the fact.  This experience is related twice in the book of Acts, in chapter 9 and in chapter 22 when St. Paul recounts it in a speech.  It is also referenced in several Pauline epistles, notably in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and Galatians 1:11-16.  St. Paul here, and in his own recounting, speaks of the event as a vision of the risen Christ, as Christ revealing himself to him.  Secondly, he speaks of it as having received a call from Christ as God to proclaim the gospel to the gentiles.  This pattern of vision and calling has several clear parallels in the Old Testament in the calling of the prophets.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah is called to be a prophet after receiving a vision of God seated upon his throne.  In the vision, God needs someone to send to his people Israel to pronounce judgment against them, and Isaiah accepts this calling.  The verb used in the Greek text of Isaiah 6:8 by both God and Isaiah is ‘apostello’, from which the noun form, apostle, is derived.  St. Paul identifies his received charge after his vision as being the apostle, the one sent, to the Gentiles to proclaim the gospel (cf. Rom 11:13).  In the calling of Jeremiah, God says to Jeremiah that he knew him from his mother’s womb, and appointed him to be a prophet, in the Greek, ‘eis ethne’, unto the nations or unto the gentiles (Jer 1:5).  Likewise, in Galatians 1:15-16, St. Paul uses nearly identical language to describe himself as having been set apart from his mother’s womb, and called to proclaim the gospel ‘en tois ethnesin’, among the nations or among the gentiles.

St. Paul, therefore, does not see himself as someone who has left ‘Judaism’ or the religion of his fathers, but as one who was called, despite his deeply sinful past persecuting Christ and his church, to a particular service, seen as a continuation of the role of the prophets in the old covenant.  He sees himself as continuing in the same religious tradition, but which tradition is entering into the era of its fulfillment in the coming, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, his ascension and enthronement, the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh, and the gentiles coming to worship the true God.  Nowhere in this understanding is the Law abrogated.  In fact, the charge that he was trying to do away with the law is one that dogged St. Paul all of his life, and against which he defended himself passionately (cf. Acts 21:20-21).  In the passages in his epistles which are most often used to try to intuit some antipathy to the Law on the part of St. Paul, he himself refutes this charge, declaring that he is not attempting to nullify the Law in favor of faith, but to establish the Law (Rom 3:31).

Often, St. Paul’s controversy with his opponents, especially in Galatians and Romans, is characterized as his opponents’ insistence on the continued following of the Law, and the Apostle’s proclamation of freedom from it.  The latter is clearly not true, but neither is the former.  In this controversy, St. Paul focuses on the issue of justification.  Before the judgment seat of Christ, there will be the righteous, at his right hand, who will enter into eternal life, and the wicked, on his left, who will enter into eternal condemnation.  Those on the right hand are those who are justified.  St. Paul’s opponents are placing their faith, their confidence, regarding their identity as the righteous in the wrong place.  They believe that they are the righteous because they are Abraham’s descendants, the children of Israel.  St. Paul points out that Ishmael (Gal 4:21-25) and Esau (Rom 9:6-13) were descendants of Abraham as well.  Gentiles, obviously, could not change their parentage, but they could become ‘children of Abraham’ by being circumcised.  St. Paul points out in response that if one is putting one’s confidence in circumcision, that circumcision by itself is not enough.  The Law must be kept in its entirety (Gal 5:3), because it is the doer of the Law who is justified (Rom 2:13).  This adoption, by circumcision, into the earthly family of Abraham therefore does not represent freedom, but self-imposed slavery to sin and death for all who try to keep the whole Law but fail, and come under its curse, ending up numbered among the condemned not the justified.  Christ has set us free from this curse of the Law under which we had come due to our disobedience (Gal 3:13). Christ is the singular seed who is the recipient of the promises made to Abraham (Gal 3:16), and through him we are adopted into the family of God, becoming his sons (Gal 4:7).

The contrast established by St. Paul is not then one of gospel to law, but of what he calls the ‘Law of the Spirit’ which comes through Christ, as opposed to the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2).  The great promise which St. Paul sees fulfilled during his ministry is that of the new covenant.  This covenant, while different than that at Sinai, is not one in which the Law is no more.  Rather, it is one in which the Law will be written upon a person’s heart, and will exist within them (Jer 31:33).  It is a time when all will know the Lord and sins will be forgiven (Jer 31:34).  This will come to pass through the Spirit being poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28).  In this era, it was prophesied that by God placing his Spirit within his people, they would keep his commandments (Ezek 36:26-32).  Having been set free from sin, St. Paul draws on this language of the Spirit keeping the righteous requirements of the Law within us (Rom 8:3-4).  We, in our flesh, proved too weak and rebellious to follow the truth of God’s Law, and so now, Christ having delivered us from condemnation (Rom 8:1), he works in us to bring about Christ’s own righteousness.  The Spirit produces fruit in our lives which even supersede the demands of the Law (Gal 5:22-23).  We live out our lives in accord with the commandments of God in the Spirit because God is working within us the work of salvation (Phil 2:12-13), and it is a work which he will bring to completion (Phil 1:6).  And so, at the end of this age, at Christ’s judgment seat, he will look upon his works, and declare that they are good (Gen 1:31).

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Father Stephen,
    I am delighted about this blog. The manner in which you present these teachings, comparing and contrasting other interpretations and showing us the proper way to understand the meaning of the text, is so very helpful. I am looking forward to your future posts.
    I wonder if you would comment on the meaning of the following verses from Romans 2:
    12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law 13 (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; 14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) 16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”
    These verses, along with the ones that say “every knee will bow”, are part of my great hope for the salvation of all mankind. I have a question that many of us have and I believe ultimately we do not have the answer. My question is, what is going to happen to those who, out of ignorance, willfully or unwillfully do not acquire the knowledge of God. There are so many out there who were either never taught or were taught improperly, along with those whose trials in life kept them at bay or drove them away. I hope greatly for the mercy of God for them as much as for myself. The people “who show the work of the law written in their hearts” do not “know Him”. Yet I know salvation cannot be apart from Christ. I’d appreciate your thoughts on these verses…and believe you partially touched on the answer in your last paragraph, speaking of life “in the Spirit”.
    Thank you kindly.

    1. I think you are very close to the answer of your own question. The verses you cite are really a sort of conclusion to the argument of Romans 1 and 2 up to that point. In these chapters, St. Paul is setting out the problem, namely, that all sin, and therefore all are subject to the reign of sin and death. He is going to then go on to show how Christ has solved this problem. In Romans 1, he focuses on the gentiles, and seeks to remove the excuse that they have done whatever they have done in ignorance, by pointing out that while they did not have the more full revelation of God with which Israel was entrusted, they did have the knowledge of God within themselves and in God’s creation which they inhabited and observed (Rom 1:20-21). Then in chapter 2, he goes on to point out that even though the Jewish people had been chosen to receive the scriptures, to have God dwelling in their midst, and be the heirs of his promises, they also had not actually kept the Law, and therefore were even more culpable. In the verses you cite, St. Paul points out that there were even those among the gentiles, who had received far less, who did a better job of following God’s commandments than his own people.

      The idea then is that people are judged for what they have done with what they received. From those who have been given much, much will be required (Lk 12:48). This pattern runs all through the teaching of Christ himself, not only here in St. Paul (cf. Jn 15:22-24). Of course, our focus as Christians always needs to be on ourselves, not on others, but to trust Christ to judge others with justice and with mercy. In our own cases, we have been given much. Much more than any prior generation of Christians in the wealth of spiritual resources available at our fingertips. So it is of foremost importance that we continue to seek to be good stewards of God’s blessings, and to make good use of the lifetime that God has given us in this world.

      1. Thank you Father for a very encouraging and thoughtful answer. I will keep it joyfully in my heart. Thank you much.

  2. Father Stephen

    I have been listening to your bible study on AFR and recently heard the episode covering Act 21 and I had a question about the particular topic of the Nazarite vow taken by the brethren in Jerusalem and being sponsored by Paul. As I understand it (please correct me if I am mistaken), according to Numbers 6, individuals who took the Nazarite vow would offer a sacrifice at the completion of their vow. Obviously, St James, St Paul and the vow takers would have been familiar with this as it seems that this is also touched on in Acts 21:26 where it talks about offerings being made for each of them at the expiration of their days of purification. With that said, is it correct that these brethren would be taking part in the sacrificial offerings at the completion of their vow and that Sts James & Paul understood these offerings not to be in any way contradictory to the sacrifice of Christ?


    1. There are a few elements involved in the Nazirites of Acts 21. First, we aren’t told when they actually took the vow, only that at that point it is coming to an end. So there is the element of them keeping the vows which they made to the Lord, quite likely before they became Christian and possibly even before the death and resurrection of Christ. Also, it’s important to remember that Christ fulfills the Torah, he doesn’t do away with it. So the institutions of the Torah are transformed within the early Christian communities. The Nazirite vow would ultimately be transformed into Christian monasticism. That transformation, however, is going to take centuries to complete. The same is true regarding the sacrificial system during this short period in which the temple still stood. At its destruction, obviously, the transition to seeing the sacrificial system summed up in the Eucharist and other ecclesiastical offerings and blessings was vastly accelerated. All that is to say that at this point in history, the understanding of the Torah in the book of Acts is not that there had been some kind of clean break and now, for example, sharing the sacrificial meal at the end of a vow was optional, much less now somehow wrong. St. Paul’s position was that all of the Torah still functions in the life of Christian communities, but how various elements functioned were in flux and in a few cases, that flux would continue until the legalization of Christianity under St. Constantine. Practices within that period of flux shouldn’t be treated as normative going forward nor should they be judged by the standard of later Christian practice.

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