Paul the Apostle

Paul and the Law

John Hemer, 11/07/2016

Is Christianity a set of rules and directives we have to follow, or is it living freely without laws but according to the grace of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit? No one in the history of the world has understood and articulated the problem of Law and religion better than St. Paul, particularly in Romans and Galatians. But with this subject more than any other the opportunities for a superficial reading present themselves.


Paul is sometimes touted as the great exponent of a Christianity without rules. This is a real travesty of Paul's complex, interesting and challenging persepective on law. Significantly, when people read Paul to mean that a Christian is not bound by laws or rules they are illustrating exactly what Paul says – that sinful human nature will look for any loophole to avoid the true demands of righteousness. But it is true that Paul's understanding of the value of the “Law” (the Torah) underwent a tremendous revision.


At Paul’s conversion he discovered the failure of the Law. He had been persecuting Christians because they were not living the Law in all its rigour. Instead of doing God’s will and finding life through the Law, he ended up opposing the Messiah, the one God had sent to carry out his will completely. Rather like Isaiah at his call (Is. 6:1-7) Paul, who thought of himself as working with God, found himself on the opposite side. He underwent a profound change of loyalties, perhaps one of the hardest things for anyone to do. He came to realize that the Law he thought was an instrument of salvation was at best a diagnostic tool – it showed people where they were in the wrong, but it could not make people holy. Indeed it could often be an obstacle to holiness. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rms. 5:20).


The Law tried to deal with the problem of sin but it only made things worse. The efforts to eliminate sin only produced more sin. The Law, which was supposed to make people holy, had actually turned them into murderers.


Paul gives the example of the commandment “Thou shalt not covet.” A holy command. A good commad. But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the Law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me (Rms. 7:8-10). From the story of the fall in Genesis 3 onwards it becomes clear that forbidding something makes it much attractive. The Church discovered that one sure way to get people to read a heretical book was to put it on the “Index of Forbidden Books”. St Augustine tells of how as a boy he stole a pear. The pear itself was not particularly tasty, but the fact that it was stolen gave him enormous pleasure. So prohibition awakens sinful desire in people and leads them into all sorts of sin.


Paul came to the horrible realization that the Mosaic Law had been "hijacked by sin," just as all religion (including Christianity itself) can be. It dawned on him that he was a persecutor of God; that his genuine religious zeal had been consumed by something much more sinister. Reflecting further, he realized that the people who had sought Jesus' death had done so in defence of the purity of the Law. So the Law was not only a weak and ineffectual instrument for making people holy, it had become a weapon used against the innocent Son of God. It claimed to be holy and good but it crucified Christ: how was it really any different from the sin it tried to stop? In the cross, the complicity between the structures of law and structures of sin is revealed. The measures people had established to deal with the sin of the world – Law - were feeding on that sinfulness. A weak analogy would be how in the history of medicine, certain folk remedies were found not only to be devoid of healing power, but actually to be harmful. With this in mind Paul says: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law (1 Cor 15: 56).


Reflect on how wars, which are often fought ostensibly to eliminate or contain evil, end up causing untold evil and suffering. Link this to Paul’s reflection on how the Law makes sin more powerful.


© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.

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