Who Can Keep the Law of God?

One of the most impactful translations in the transmission history of the Scriptures has been the translation of the Hebrew ‘Torah’ with the Greek ‘nomos’, the Latin ‘lex’, and finally the English ‘law.’  The Hebrew ‘Torah’ means most immediately teaching.  It, therefore, characterizes the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures as the teaching of God directed toward humanity through his people Israel.  The Greek term chosen to translate it, ‘nomos’, describes an entire way of life.  It includes the laws of a community or culture but also mores, folkways, traditions, and countless other elements of life that describe how that community or civilization conducts itself and lives in the world.  The Latin translation of the Scriptures conducted systematically by St. Jerome unintentionally began a slow drift in the understanding of Torah in Western theology.  This begins with the Latin language itself, which was already a language soaked in forensic (legal) language as the administrative language of the Roman state.  St. Jerome chose the word ‘lex’ to translate ‘nomos’, which in the fourth century and for many centuries after was a perfectly adequate translation, though terminological drift gradually eroded its referent beyond civil and criminal law.  Even the English word ‘law’ originally had a wider frame of reference than it does it typical modern usage.

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain a variety of types of material.  Genesis is primarily made up of narratives, as is the first portion of Exodus.  The second portion of Exodus and Leviticus are primarily made up of ritual and moral instruction mingled together.  Numbers contains both narrative stories and a wealth of genealogical material.  Deuteronomy is essentially Moses’ final homily to the people of Israel before they enter the land and a ritual reenactment of the covenant-making in Exodus.  It can readily be seen how all of this material can fall under the category of ‘teaching’.  It is less clear how all of this material can be seen as ‘law’.  When, for example, St. Paul was seen in Western translations talking about ‘the law’ and keeping it, conceptual drift took place so that rather than, as was originally the case, the apostle discussing the first five books of the Scriptures, he was seen to be discussing only the portions of those texts which could be seen to consist of commandments or ‘laws.’

In the fourth and fifth centuries, Rabbinic Judaism formed following its repudiation of the elements of Second Temple tradition that constitute Christianity.  The removal of the temple, priesthood, and sacrifice resulting from that repudiation required a certain partitioning of the Torah and its commandments.  Rabbinic Judaism could no longer keep commandments surrounding the Jerusalem sanctuary, the sacrificial system, and the like.  Commandments with a broadly applicable moral sense, or which could be analogically interpreted as having that sense, therefore became the sole focus.  A constant pitfall of Western Christian theology has been the presumption by theologians in various times and places that the Orthodox Rabbis of their time and place are identical in belief and practice with the Judean people of the first century AD.  This distinction thereby found its way into Western Christian theology in the centuries surrounding the Protestant Reformation, such that the ‘law’ was now seen to consist purely of commandments and those commandments were divided into ceremonial, civil, and moral realms.  This distinction, of course, is not found in the Torah itself.  Isolating these three elements requires, in many cases, splitting one verse from the verse before it and the verse after it.  Nothing in the text implies any change of subject, application, sphere, or applicability.

Over the course of the same period in Western theology, the development of atonement doctrine takes place.  Through the contributions of Lombard and Anselm, chiefly, atonement conceived of as Christ satisfying divine justice over sin came to predominance.  Rather than human and spiritual evil presenting obstacles to God’s original plan of salvation for humanity which God then acts in Christ to overcome, the obstacle to salvation is moved to be something within God himself, usually the “divine attribute” of justice.  This, in turn, distorts the entire way that salvation “works.”  Because universalism had been firmly condemned as heresy, there needed to be an intermediate substance that conveys the benefit of Christ’s atonement to some people and not others.  This was conceived of as ‘grace’ or ‘merit’ though there is a great conceptual overlap in the way these terms were classically used in Western thought. Christ’s life and death are meritorious. That merit earned by Christ was then thought to be given to the faithful and not the faithless.  Merit requires a standard of judgment.  For actions to be worthy of credit or demerit, they must be compared to some standard.  Once the Torah had been reduced to a series of moral commandments, that list of moral rules could be used to fulfill that purpose.

Within the medieval Roman system, merit was understood to be graciously infused into the faithful through faithfulness as well as good deeds (prayers, almsgiving, pilgrimage, etc.). This merit countered demerit reckoned based on human sin. The Protestant Reformers did not object to the presuppositions already enumerated but only to the proposed mode of reception of the merits of Christ.  The Reformers argued, rather, that Christ’s merit was imputed to every believer wholesale at the moment of faith.  It was still, for them, merit that Christ earned through law-keeping.  Not only did Protestantism not question the basic Western presuppositions, they took these conceptions several steps further in the form of penal substitutionary atonement, arguing that Christ didn’t only satisfy God’s justice in general, but actually took the punishment for specific sins of specific people.

At the foundation of the Western soteriological edifice, then, is the idea that the keeping of this boiled down kernel of the Torah in moral obedience grants eternal life, that it is not possible for any human person to do it, and that Christ has lived this life of moral obedience, thereby earning eternal life for human persons who receive it by diverse means.  The problem is that these ideas are not only not to be found in Scripture, but actually contradict the Scriptures at several points.  While the historical road of Western theology that has brought it to its present place and condition can be clearly seen, that road has taken the thought of Western Christians afield of the teaching of the apostles in general and St. Paul in particular.  This presents a certain irony, as the recovery of St. Paul, in particular, was one of the chief aims of the discussions which produced these theological distortions.

It must first be noted that the Scriptures themselves state that several human persons kept the whole Torah perfectly.  As already mentioned, there is no basis within the text of the Torah for dividing out certain portions as opposed to others as more or less important or applicable.  Therefore, when the Scriptures describe someone as having kept the commandments of the Torah, it is referring to the whole Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures.  When St. Paul refers to the ‘nomos’, he likewise refers to the entirety of these texts, not only certain moral commandments that would later be extracted.  A prominent Old Testament example is King David, who is said to have walked in obedience to God and done what is right in his eyes by keeping his decrees and commands (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 11:38).  This is stated in the comparative to Jeroboam, son of Nebat, who would live a life of sin and rebellion.  In the New Testament, St. Paul himself says that he was “blameless according to the Torah,” and this while murdering early Christians (Phil 3:6).  In another place, St. Paul even implies that there were Gentiles, those of the nations outside Israel who had not received the Torah, but who had done the righteous deeds required by the Torah nonetheless, thereby serving as their own instructors (Rom 2:14).

Anyone even passingly familiar with the life of David the Prophet and King, however, knows that he didn’t live a life of sinless perfection.  Likewise, St. Paul speaks of his blamelessness according to Torah immediately after talking about persecuting the Church of Christ.  Again, it is doubtful that St. Paul is really speaking in his epistle to the Romans about a group of pagans who never sinned.  This is a statement of those who have kept the whole Torah, not those who never violated certain subsections.  When an Israelite sinned, repented of that sin, offered the required sin offering, and then participated in the annual Day of Atonement, he had kept the Torah.  The worship of Israel including the sacrificial system was not some sort of add-on or appendix to the “law” because God knew people couldn’t follow it.  Rather, the worship commanded by the Torah is the core of the Torah.  All of the other commandments of the Torah, governing moral life, the cleansing of mildew, and agricultural practices are all based around the establishment and maintenance of the purity and holiness necessary for Yahweh the God of Israel to remain present with his people for worship.  The Torah does not “include” a system for managing the sins of the people, the Torah is a system for managing the sins of the people to allow for the transformative worship of the true God.  Christ, in fulfilling perfectly the Torah, not only kept the so-called “moral law” but all of the Torah, including the sacrificial worship of the temple and the feasts despite not having sins of which to repent.  Christ was not baptized for the remission of his non-existent sins, but to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15).

This understanding from Scripture is problematic from the perspective of the other Western presuppositions described above because it would imply that these persons “earned” eternal life through the Torah apart from Christ.  But the misunderstanding of the law is not the only faulty presupposition.  Even more major is the unbiblical idea that the keeping of the Torah (or any portion of it) is meritorious and earns eternal life.  The third chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is a frontal assault on this entire idea.  The promise of theosis, of eternal divine life, is a promise which was made to Abraham based on Abraham’s faithfulness, his walking before God in righteousness (Gal 3:6-8).  The Torah is not a long list of added conditions interpolated into the covenant with Abraham (v. 15-18).  The Torah, says St. Paul, never had anything to do with eternal life and the kingdom of God.  It has another purpose, as described above.  But in the midst of the chapter, St. Paul puts a very fine point on it.  “If a law had been given which could give life, then righteousness would be by the law” (v. 21).  St. Paul’s conditional statement presents a counter-factual.  The Torah which was given can not give life.  The apostle does not say that it can, but that man isn’t up to the task.  He doesn’t say that it can, but only through Christ keeping it in our stead.  He says it cannot.  Rather, the promises given to Abraham of eternal divine life are inherited by Christ and those baptized into Christ become co-heirs of that salvation (v. 27-29).

God created humanity to share his life with human persons.  This would happen in the fullness of time when the Son would become incarnate uniting human nature to the divine nature in his person.  The rebellion of hostile spiritual powers, a rebellion in which humanity joined and participated as described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, placed obstacles between humanity and the receipt of God’s promises, though those promises were reiterated to Abraham following humanity’s falls.  Christ, therefore, also defeats these enemies and removes these obstacles.  Even those who have kept the whole Torah still die.  Christ has defeated death and saved them from it.  Even those who have kept the Torah still live in a world subjected to the power and corruption of sin, which power Christ has destroyed and which corruption has been cleansed by Christ’s blood.  Even those who have kept the whole Torah still lived in a world dominated by hostile spiritual powers, powers and principalities in the heavenly places given dominion over humans through their sin.  Christ has judged and defeated them, taking all power and authority in heaven and on earth for himself (Matt 28:18).  On one hand, not only those who have kept the whole Torah, but even those who have never sinned, such as the Theotokos and St. John the Forerunner, are in need of this salvation.  God does not save humanity from himself or one of his attributes.  He saves humanity from itself and the consequences of its sinful rebellion.  On the other hand, while only those who are in Christ share in his eternal divine life, the results of these victories over sin, death, and the fallen powers are experienced by all of humanity, such that St. Paul can say that “Christ is the savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10).


  1. May I ask if the wall painting of Moses is from a synagogue?
    I am very interested in your views on the books of the “Old Testament” I wondered where the Protestant preachers got their glooming predictions of doom for all.
    I met a street preacher once who engaged me in a long conversation in which he expressed his fears of the Last Judgement and seemed to think he would be punished even though, as he told me, he repented of his sinfulness. I’ve puzzled about it since.
    He had asked God’s forgiveness I suppose ?
    I told him to look up Orthodoxwiki, I think, which might have some answers to his enquiries. I fear though he may prefer his gloom!

  2. Fr Stephen, thank you for this; it helps clarify some elements of Protestant Reformation theology for me. I hard trouble following the sentences after “St Paul’s conditional statement presents a counter-factual.” I think you are saying the law cannot give life so even Jesus’ perfect keeping of the law does not give life. Right?

  3. Many thanks P. Stephen for your work. What light you give !
    It is exciting to read you, the ignorance is fading, and the joy comes from hearing the truth of our faith ….

  4. Thank you for this Father. I’ve read it twice and will undoubtedly need to read it a few more times. Cant wait for the next article.

  5. Fr. this has completely blown my mind, I’m still quite new to the Faith, and grew up LDS for 20 years, and then Charismatic/Word of Faith Protestant for 10 years (with the last four years being a pastor) before finally coming home to Orthodoxy almost two years ago. I saw all of that to say, I’m steeped in the Protestant understanding of salvation, and will be thinking about this post for a long time.

    I’m curious if you could expand on Christ’s baptism as “fulfilling all righteousness.” That has always been confusing to me, and I’ve never really understood it.

    1. Hi Brent! I’m a fellow convert from the LDS faith. The Orthodox view of salvation is so much more illuminating than anything I found in LDS and Protestant circles. Glad you also found your way home to Orthodoxy.

  6. Thank you Father Stephen for your illumination. I do not think I have previously read or heard a clearer explanation of the difference between the keeping the law under the Torah and salvation.

  7. Thanks for your writing: it was luminating, as usual; and i really appreciate how you wrote summarizing the topic in the later half. So succinct and clearly put in a manner that our Western minds can grasp and retain the Truth of the matter! Bravo!

  8. Thank you Fr De Young.
    It’s deeply enlightening.
    I better understand a lot of things.
    Even if I need to read it again.

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