Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Under the law of Christ

When Paul describes his evangelistic strategy in 1 Corinthians 9, one of the things he is keen to point out is his flexibility with regard to the Jewish Law.  He is content to keep it, if doing so will win a wider audience for the gospel; and he is content to ignore it, if that is the best way to get a hearing for the good news.  However, he is very clear that he is essentially free from the Law of Moses - "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the Law I became as one under the Law (though not being myself under the Law) that I might win those under the Law".  I take it that the second sentence is just an amplification and explanation of the first - to win Jews, who are or at least regard themselves as being under the Law, Paul, who is not under that Law, acts as if he were under it.

This is remarkable enough in itself, given the faultless legal obedience of which the apostle feels able to speak elsewhere.  It shows how completely Paul's outlook has changed with his conversion.

But to understand the direction in which it has changed, we need to read on.  "To those outside the Law, I became as one outside the Law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)..."  Paul has not become lawless in his conversion.  Rather, he has moved from the domain of the Law of Moses into the domain of the Law of Christ.  The latter is, of course, different in many ways - it is not codified but based on the gospel, it is not a burden but based on the completed work of Christ - but still, it absolutely claims Paul.  In fact, his very chameleon like quality as an evangelist is an outworking of that Law of Christ - he must serve as Christ served, and he must take the gospel out to all because that is simply the logic of the good news.


  1. Let me see if I’m keeping track of your arguement so far. You’ve argued that gospel comes before law as in Exodus => Sinai in the narrative. God’s relationship with Israel is therefore not based on law but the law is still good for Israel although they will not keep it. Now we see that the Christian is no longer burdened by the Mosaic law but is moved out from under it by Christ’s completed work to now live under “The Law of Christ”.

    If I’ve followed correctly then my question is what place does the law have in the life of the believer? For the Lutheran the Law of Moses still has a place as it comes before the gospel. But under this system given that law comes after the gospel and we now live under Christ’s Law as our new way of life does the law have any place? To put it in bad diagrams:

    OT= Gospel => Mossaic Law
    NT= Gospel => Law of Christ= No place for Mossaic Law?

    Am I making sense? I guess I ask because my gut is that your position is correct but I’m not sure where that leaves the Mossaic Law.

  2. Tom, that's roughly where I'm going. I'll say some more about how the good Law became burdensome later on. The only thing I'd correct in your first paragraph is to say that many Christians never were under the Mosaic Law, never having been Jews. I think that's integral to Paul's argument in Galatians.

    That means that the Law of Moses *never* had any particular role for the Gentile Christians. I think where people get themselves tied in knots is trying to identify some sort of timeless 'core' to the Law of Moses which still applies. I don't think there is any such.

    So what use is the Law of Moses now? I would say mainly illustrative (i.e. it helps us to understand the work of Christ) and indicative (i.e. it points in the direction of things that God cares about). But again, more on this later... Sorry it's coming out in such dribs and drabs!

  3. Very much appreciating it, dribs and drabs approach notwithstanding - I've been wanting to ponder some of these things for myself for a while, and your posts are helping me to do just that. Looking forward to the next!

  4. Interesting stuff.
    What consequence would this have on trying to exegete the books of the law for developing a Christian ethic?
    For example, I've been dipping into John Frame's 'Doctrine of the Christian Life' which draws out principles of ethics from each of the 10 commandments. If you're arguing that "Law of Moses *never* had any particular role for the Gentile Christians", doesn't that undermine the project of Christian ethics?

    If that's right, does your interpretation leave the Christian with anything valuable to add to ethics? In other words, does the Christian have anything to contribute to philosophy in general or ethics in particular in the academic world if this view is true?

  5. Hi Michael,

    To clarify: the Law of Moses never had any role for the Gentile Christians before their conversion. Afterwards, it would have the illustrative and indicative functions mentioned in my comment above. I do think that the Law of Moses is a questionable place to begin constructing a Christian ethic, but it certainly will provide a lot of material.

    I am not convinced the Christian has anything valuable to add to ethics understood as an independent field of study. I think the Christian ethic flows from the gospel. In an academic setting, I could see this leading to some useful deconstructing, and some helpful reductio, but no constructive work that anyone else would be likely to accept.

    I know it's jolly fundamentalist of me, but I think we'd be better off calling people to repent...

  6. Haha, you make me laugh!
    Not fundamentalist, I understand what you're saying. Something I was thinking about was all of Plantinga's great work in philosophy, in particular his stuff of warrant and proper function and the evolutionary argument against naturalism.
    The thing that got me thinking was why not the same be done in ethics? Paul lists the fruit of the spirit, the character traits which start forming as a work of the Holy Spirit, and we are called to be imitators of Christ, live the way he lived. We could give that the label, 'virtue ethics'. Do you see what I mean? What do you think of Plantinga's overall project btw?

  7. Hi Dan,

    I am curious how the Gospel-preceded law 'became burdensome' according to your reading. I will look forward to that.

    I'm not sure quite what you understand 'the law of Christ' to be either. Will you be covering that in future posts?

    What purpose do you see in God giving the law of Moses then? Paul obviously answers that, but I'd be interested how you would fit what he says into your reading of it all.

  8. Michael, I'm not a Plantinga fan. It's been a while since I've read him (probably not since I was an undergrad, actually), but I didn't find his idea of properly basic beliefs very persuasive. Might have to re-investigate at some point. I suppose you could do something similar with ethics, but wouldn't everyone who wasn't a Christian just think you were proceeding from an arbitrary starting point?

  9. Dave, hopefully I will deal with all those things again. Although a lot depends on me having a long enough attention span to keep pursuing the topic - as I say, hopefully..!

  10. Just on the "Law of CHrist" had a thought in our church bible study last night on Luke 7 that may or may not be helpful here.

    I was struck by the sinful woman coming to Jesus in verses 36-50. What struck me (especially with this blog in the back of my mind) was Jesus does more than just offer forgiveness to the one who trully comes to him but points to the sinful woman as morally superior to Simon (especially see vv.41-46). Jesus has not just made himself the gateway to the kingdom but is begining to construct an entire kingdom ethic around responding to him.

    Not sure if this is helpful, or even correct...

  11. Thanks for all this.

    I'd be interested to hear your understanding of "God's law" to which Romans 8:5-8 implies that the believer submits. Is this simply the same as "The Law of Christ"? Is it simply God's moral commands? How does it relate to the Mosaic Law? Because whatever it is, Paul assumes that believers will be submitting to it.

    I'd also be interested in your understanding of "the law" that under the new covenant is written on believers hearts (Jer 31, Heb 8)How does this law relate to the Mosaic law? If, under the NC the law goes from being external to internal, what law is it exactly that is being written on our hearts?

  12. Anonymous9:36 pm

    Hi Daniel, liking these posts muchly.

    Presumably, the indicative and the illustrative (can these both be subsumed under one - 'typological'?) functions lead to the law informing our ethic in many ways?

    If the laws were in some way illustrative of Christ and the life he would live, they must in some way(s) also be informative of the shape and character of a life lived in union with him and with him in-dwelling by his Spirit?

    IMO, seeing the law as 'fulfilled by Christ' (where 'fulfilled' means neither 'abolished' nor something akin to 'ticked the right number of boxes in order to gain enough merit points') provides a sufficient basis for seeing the ways in which we are not under the law of Moses and yet ways in that law is still scripture (and therefore informs our conduct at a number of levels - 'all scripture ... is useful for ...' etc.).

  13. Tom, Steve, Pete - apologies that my neglect of the blog over the last few days means that I haven't replied to your comments. All helpful.

    Tom, I think you're absolutely right, and I think Jesus is saying, in effect, I am the Gospel AND the Law. (Ever watch that awful Judge Dredd movie..?)

    Steve, I hope I'll get to thinking through those things. I do think Paul assumes that believers will submit to the Law, and I think he has in mind what I am calling (following the aforementioned Apostle) the Law of Christ. It's relationship to the Law of Moses is, I think, tricky. Working on it. The New Covenant stuff is vital, and I think makes all the difference (and makes me a baptist to boot...)

    Pete, I wholeheartedly agree with what you're saying. My only caveat would be to insist, as a safeguard, that we read from Christ backwards to the Law before we read from the Law forwards to Christ - does that make sense?