Tag Archives: Law and Grace

Contrasts between Romans and Galatians on the Subject of Law

Many Biblical commentators equate the themes of Romans and Galatians and speak of them as if they contain the same message. On the surface, there are similarities, such as justification by faith and salvation through Christ’s finished work rather than works of the Law. However, I think that a close look at both epistles reveals contextual differences which affect the meaning of concepts such as law and grace.

Romans is a comprehensive outline of Paul’s theology. It tackles deep questions involving human nature and shows how Christ’s death and resurrection transforms human nature. Galatians, on the other hand, has a much more specific focus involving a controversy in the early church. The controversy was whether Christians were still required to follow the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament laws, such as circumcision, dietary rules, cleansing protocols, and observance of special days. Paul’s answer is a resounding no.

Galatians 2:16-17 – And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

2:19-20: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

2:21: I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

At first glance, these passages look like the passages I have been quoting from Romans. However, we need to consider the occasion for which Paul wrote these things. Earlier in Galatians Chapter 2, Paul criticized Cephas (the Apostle Peter) for sometimes eating with Gentiles, but other times refraining if he thought Jews would object. For Paul, this was a serious inconsistency. The point of verses 16-21 quoted above was to explain how, because of Christ’s atonement, the barriers between Jews and Gentiles (and thus the ceremonial regulations upholding those barriers) have been eliminated, and reenacting them in a way that excludes Gentiles denies the fundamental principles of the Gospel. In contrast, when Paul writes about dying to the Law in Romans, his example uses the law against coveting, which is a universal moral principle rather than a Jewish custom. I’ll discuss this more later.

While we are on this subject, Galatians 2 makes it evident that, when the Bible speaks of Christians being “condemned” for various acts, that does not have to mean they lose their salvation. Paul said that Peter was condemned because he would not eat with Gentiles (2:11). Do we really think that Peter had lost his salvation?

Moving on, let’s look at Galatians 3:23-25 – “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.”

The religious laws of the Old Testament were designed to protect the Jews from immoral influences in their surrounding cultures; hence, the Law was a “guard” as Paul writes. However, in the current age, Christians can be led by the Holy Spirit in a way such that they avoid immorality without needing all of the religious regulations of the Old Covenant.

More evidence that Paul is referring to ceremonial customs is in Galatians 4:10, “You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.”

Having said all of these things, Paul spends the last two chapters of Galatians addressing the misunderstanding that freedom from the Law means there are no rules for believers. What he emphasizes is that you are free from the Law so that the Spirit can show you what to do.

Galatians 5:18 – “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

To help with discerning whether certain convictions come from the Spirit, Paul lists qualities associated with obedience to the Spirit:

5:22 – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Paul also lists signs that a person is living according to the flesh rather than the Spirit:

5:19-21 – “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

It seems like a principle that is simple enough – you are justified by faith apart the Law, but after being justified you may either follow the Spirit’s leading and experience life in the Kingdom of God, or follow your selfish desires and experience corruption outside the Kingdom. But there is a complication to this principle. Are we really able to make ourselves do everything we feel convicted in our heart to do? Can we just wake up in the morning, resolve to do whatever our conscience tells us is right, and push ourselves to follow through with it?

I probably don’t need to tell you that the answer is no for many people. But that is beyond the scope of Galatians. This dilemma involves matters of human nature, psychology, and certain aspects of Christ’s finished work which Galatians does not set out to address. I believe Romans is where those themes are taken up. Earlier I mentioned that Romans uses prohibition of coveting as an example of Law. There is something twisted in human nature that makes people have greed for things they don’t own. We can know in our heart what is right and wrong, but nevertheless lack the power to carry it out (Romans 7:18). Romans describes how, through faith in Christ’s finished work, we can experience deliverance from these problems of human nature so that we can actually have the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

I believe the distinction between Romans and Galatians is critical. Imposing the Romans message upon Galatians could lead to a complete disregard of moral principles. On the other hand, imposing the Galatians message upon Romans results in many contradiction and non-sequiturs.

So, this is my overview on the epistle to the Galatians. I’m interested to know what you think about all of this.

Demystifying Spirituality – Part 3

A concern among many Christians is that people will fail to take the initiative to do what is right and instead sit around waiting for God to get them to do something through a dramatic experience. The often-repeated warning is that God will not force us to do anything, and that He is waiting for us to take action. The idea is that God works in us only when we are also taking action; it is viewed as a cooperative process between us and Him.

So, then, considering my own writings on this blog, am I suggesting that we cannot do anything until God drives us into action? Well, I’m not suggesting that, and in this article, I want to explain why.

I do not believe that we need some sort of “push” or dramatic experience with the Holy Spirit to do something. Rather, I think that what we need is a reorientation of our minds and physiological responses. I am going to cover several more spiritual phrases in this article, such as “surrendering one’s self to God, being “separate from the world,” and being “free from Law.”

I’ll describe an experience that has been true for me, and I think it is true for most people in general. As soon as we wake up in the morning, thoughts enter our minds, which in turn cause feelings based on our physiological make-up as discussed in Part 1 of this series. These feelings influence our actions. Now, at times throughout the day, we may try to bypass these feelings by telling ourselves to act contrary to them. However, success may be limited because, even though we are trying to deny those feelings, we live with perceptions of reality that promote those feelings. Thus, we are denying them and promoting them at the same time, which yields little success.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

I think this passage refers to the way we interpret what we see with our eyes – the things we tell ourselves based upon our vision.

Thus, I believe that “surrendering ourselves to God” can be seen as becoming willing to see our lives with new vision and to see the world with new vision. This reorientation of our vision is something that we can pray for and believe for. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:18, as part of a prayer for the church, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he [God] has called you.”

When we see ourselves and our environment with new eyes, our nerves and impulses can be controlled. Anxieties, temptations, and irrational urges do not go away altogether, but believers have the Spirit of God inside of them which can enable them to control these negative feelings and thoughts so that they do not rule one’s life (Gal. 5:22-23). But a readjustment of one’s vision may be necessary to act upon this inward spiritual power. The Spirit works in us so that we have the ability to act on our own initiative if our vision is oriented correctly. I believe this principle also helps explain the results of being “born again.” Through the new birth, God has given us an opportunity to go through a lifelong reorientation of our consciousness through the Spirit.

Another point I want to mention is being “separate from the world.” Christians have a lot of debate over how different from the secular world we are required to be. There are a list of ways in which I am different from many non-Christians of my demographic. However, I do not use these differences to justify myself. One reason is that, some of these difference are due to traits that I was probably born with. But the other reason is that, I myself am not completely sure what a lifestyle apart from the world entails.

Thus, my outward activity (in contrast to non-Christians) is a secondary factor. For me, being separate from the world is primarily about the perspectives and attitudes that I live with. All of the things I write about on this blog are things that I think about as I go about my daily life. I trust that, by focusing on these things, my lifestyle will adjust if there are any areas where it needs to be adjusted.

The last spiritual concept I want to discuss is being “free from law.” I think that, for many people, understanding freedom from law can be essential to experiencing the reorientation of one’s vision needed to solve problems in life.

Paul wrote in Romans 7:4-5, “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.”

I believe the idea of law is that there are rules which you must measure yourself against to determine whether you can be at peace in your life. Paul also wrote that one’s conscience can serve as the law for one’s self (Rom. 2:14-15). The law demands full conformity (ever heard that “the law is the law?”).

How can law prevent us from reorienting our vision? Well, one reason is that law can keep us from seeing the big picture. Under law, we are condemned by any imperfection that we are conscious of. Thus, under law, our attention is fixated with that imperfection, and we neglect opportunities to “bear fruit” in our lives. Why bother to do good deeds in other areas of life when a single imperfection is going to condemn us anyway?

But there is another reason why law can hold us down; law causes anxiety that can lead to more missteps. Suppose that you have a habit of cussing and your conscience bothers you about it. You get self-absorbed with trying to fix your speech, thinking that you’ll be punished if you don’t, and a lot of tension builds up inside of you. Eventually, you can’t contain yourself anymore so you lose your tempter (without cussing) when somebody ticks you off. In this case, your law-driven obsession with not cussing led to a fruit of the flesh rather than a fruit of the Spirit. If you quit worrying about cussing so much, you could have a better temperament overall.

Yet another reason why we need to understand our freedom from law is that, law gets us hung up on sins in and of themselves, instead of looking at what inward problem caused the sins in the first place. The result is that we feel good about ourselves before we sin (because we’re fine according to the law), but we feel bad about ourselves after the sin occurs. This cycle of feeling good then feeling bad keeps us focused on our own faults rather than focusing on our freedom from sin. If our conscience bothers us about a certain habit in our lives, but we have not yet engaged in the habit today, our current abstinence should not be a reason to feel good about ourselves because it’s only a matter of time until we yield to temptation. To break the habit, we need to see our lives, and the habit itself, with new insights.

Being a Real Christian – Part 5

In Part 1, I mentioned what often happens when we try to change our ways. Although a small percentage of us will succeed, most will not see a meaningful, sustained difference. And I think that in Romans 7, Paul describes why that is the case. It took me many years as a Christian to see that Paul is actually admitting the difficulty that we all face when we try to change ourselves. It was too hard to believe that the Bible was acknowledging these things.

Look at Romans 7:4-5, “In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. 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.”

Notice that Paul mentions “sinful passions aroused by the law.” This is why changing one’s lifestyle through self-motivation can be impossible. You set rules for yourself, but when you push yourself to follow the rules, desires to do the opposite are also energized, so the net result is little or no change, or even a negative difference. The “just do it” mentality breaks down.

Some have said that when Paul refers to the law, he is only referring to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and that he is not referring to Biblical morality. If we were talking about the epistle to the Galatians, that is probably the right interpretation (I may write an article on that later). However, in Romans, the concept of law encompasses more than religious rituals. The problem that Paul addresses of law stimulating desire to do the opposite, thus nullifying one’s efforts, applies to laws of any type, and I think subsequent passages in Romans 7 make this clear.

Paul writes, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” (Romans 7:7-8).

More evidence that trying to follow laws can keep us trapped in bad habits comes when Paul has to address the misconception that the law itself is sin. If Paul were not saying that good laws can trigger bad psychological reactions leading to sin, why would anyone come to the bizarre conclusion that the law itself is sinful? Also notice that Paul uses the law forbidding coveting as an example. This is the ultimate proof that, in Romans, Paul’s references to law are not confined to ceremonial rituals.

Looking at verses 19-20, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Here Paul is describing a human condition which further explains why the “just do it” mentality can fail us. Notice that Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Notice that he used the word “cannot.” Some people say that we should stop using the word “cannot.” But Paul used that word! Many think that if we fail it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. In a sense, that may be true. However, if we’re under a mentality of law, antagonistic parts of our minds will eventually cause us to stop trying. At least, this is what my personal experience has shown.

So, if imposing rules on ourselves causes these problems, should we stop trying to follow those rules and just do whatever we are inclined to do instead? I think we need to find a balance between two situations, the first being insistence on doing what’s wrong even if the temptation to do it isn’t all that strong. This approach makes existing problems worse. The other situation is forcing ourselves to continue noble but vain efforts that contribute to a vicious cycle. I think that Romans 8, which we’ll look at next time, has some clues for how to find a balance between those two situations.