In a recent post entitled “Ifs Kill,” Tullian Tchividjian explored the definition and the effects of the law. His basic claim was this: When Paul refers to the law in his letters he usually means “a command attached to a condition” and it is the conditions – the “ifs” – that diagnose and deal death to sinners. This raised a question for some readers: Is what Paul refers to as “law” synonymous with the law given to Moses or is he attacking a 1st century misunderstanding of the law, or perhaps even some humanly created ordinances masquerading as God’s will? As one commenter on Tullian’s post expressed the concern, when Paul writes “law” he is not referring to “the true law” but “to the additional man-made laws created by the Pharisees during the 1st century.” The evidence given: “Throughout history most theologians have agreed.”
It is, in fact, correct to note that there is a long tradition suggesting that Paul’s polemic against “works of the law” does not target the entire law given to Moses, but it’s worth pointing out that the champion of this view was a British ascetic named Pelagius who wanted to protect the moral law (and morality!) from a theology of grace that confessed “the bondage of the will” (St. Jerome also held this view, which was revived by James Dunn’s 1981 lecture “The New Perspective on Paul,” as Martin Hengel was quick to point out).
Paul, however, as Augustine noted in disagreement with Pelagius and Jerome, and Luther (and Calvin, Melanchthon, and Ursinus) noted in disagreement with Pelagius’ humanistic heirs (e.g. Erasmus), works hard to specify what law he’s talking about in his polemical contexts. In Galatians 3:17, for instance, Paul dates the giving of the law to 430 years after the promise to Abraham, thus indicating that he is thinking about the law Moses received and delivered, a point confirmed by the references to Sinai in Gal 4:24-25. Similarly, in 2 Cor 3:6-18, Paul associates the event of the law’s coming with Moses’ descent from the mountain and relates the “letter that kills” with the Decalogue written in stone by the finger of God. In fact, the association achieved by this reflection on Exodus 32-34 is so tight that Paul can refer to reading the law as “reading Moses” (v. 15).
Finally, two examples from Romans: First, in Romans 5:13-14, Paul refers to the time before Moses as the time “where there is no law” and so connects the arrival of the law with Moses and links the transgression of Adam with the transgressions of Israel. Second, in Romans 7, Paul’s apology for the goodness and holiness of the law (v. 12), Paul explicitly links “law” with the tenth commandment and argues that sin used this commandment (not some man-made creation from the 1st century) to put Paul to death (Rom 7:7-11).
So, for Paul, the “law” is what Moses received on Sinai – it is the law that includes the ten commandments and the conditional promise of life and threat of death: “The one who does them will live by them” (Gal 3:12 quoting Lev 18:5b); “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal 3:10 quoting Deut 27:26). It is these commands attached to these conditions that Paul names when he writes “law.” When Paul describes what the law does (e.g. reveal sin [Rom 3:20]; work wrath [Rom 4:15]; increase the trespass [Rom 5:20]; function as a murder weapon in the hands of Sin, [Rom 7:11]) he is talking about the law given to Moses 430 years after the promise to Abraham (Gal 3:14), he is talking the new tablets of stone Moses received on Mt. Sinai (2 Cor 3:7), and he is talking about the law that includes the commandment “You shall not covet” (Rom 7:7). It is this law that God uses to disclose our sin and to diagnose us as sinners – a revelation that drives us back to something both before (Gal 3:17) and after (Gal 3:19, 24) the law: the Abrahamic promise and its fulfillment in Christ, Abraham’s singular seed (Gal 3:16).