This is the third part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

The first of the five propo­si­tions we intro­duced in Part 1 of this series is that the law can­not cope with sin.

The law can­not pre­vent sin; the law can’t curb sin; the law is pow­er­less against sin.

In fact, Paul tells us, the law pro­vokes sin.

Moses smashing the tablets of the lawAlthough what the law com­mands is holy, it was given to stiff-necked Israel to increase trans­gres­sions until the Mes­siah, the sin­gle seed of Abra­ham, was to come:

[19] Why then the law? It was added because of trans­gres­sions, until the off­spring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an inter­me­di­ary. [20] Now an inter­me­di­ary implies more than one, but God is one.

[21] Is the law then con­trary to the promises of God? Cer­tainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then right­eous­ness would indeed be by the law. [22] But the Scrip­ture impris­oned every­thing under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

[23] Now before faith came, we were held cap­tive under the law, impris­oned until the com­ing faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be jus­ti­fied by faith. ()[1]

In his analy­sis of this pas­sage, Jason C. Meyer ref­er­ences Thomas Schreiner’s argu­ment that, “although the phrase ‘because of trans­gres­sions’ could refer to defin­ing or increas­ing trans­gres­sion, the lat­ter option is prefer­able.”[2] Schreiner gives three rea­sons for that inter­pre­ta­tion: first, that the con­text of the pas­sage is that sal­va­tion can­not be attained by the law; sec­ond, that the rela­tion­ship of “under law and under sin” reveals the law’s role in arous­ing sin; and third, that there is a par­al­lel with : “Now the law came in to increase the tres­pass. …”[3]

Meyer expands upon Schreiner’s argu­ment with five observations:

First, the view that stresses the restrain­ing func­tion of the law does not make sense con­tex­tu­ally. Paul could not per­suade the Gala­tians to for­sake cir­cum­ci­sion and the Mosaic law by telling them of the law’s power to restrain sin. Sec­ond, while the open-ended phrase “because of trans­gres­sions” could refer to either the defin­ing or increas­ing func­tion of the law, con­text favors the lat­ter view.

Third, there are com­pelling rea­sons to think that the law’s pur­pose of increas­ing trans­gres­sions actu­ally pro­vides a coher­ent argu­ment in the con­text. The down­ward spi­ral intro­duced by the advent of the law reveals that the law did not save Israel then and will not save any­one now. Humankind needs a Sav­ior, not more stip­u­la­tions. Paul accen­tu­ates the down­ward spi­ral pre­cisely so that the upward spi­ral intro­duced by the com­ing of Christ would be all the more evi­dent. Fourth, pro­vides an instruc­tional par­al­lel for this dis­cus­sion of the law’s func­tion. The par­al­lel pro­vides a Pauline prece­dent for this type of logic, though it does not prove that Paul is say­ing the same thing in . Fifth, the view that the law increases trans­gres­sion receives fur­ther sup­port from places in Paul like . There­fore, b reveals the impo­tent nature of law in that the law can­not restrain sin (onto­log­i­cal prob­lem); it only increases it (because of the anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem.)[4]

In using the terms onto­log­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal, Meyer makes ref­er­ence to a pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion on Paul’s ref­er­ence to , “You shall there­fore keep my statutes and my rules; if a per­son does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord,” in Paul’s antithe­sis between law and Spirit in : “[11] Now it is evi­dent that no one is jus­ti­fied before God by the law, for ‘The right­eous shall live by faith.’ [12] But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” Meyer explains: “The offer of life con­di­tioned on human obe­di­ence never becomes a real­ity because ‘the one who does these things’ can­not obey them (anthro­po­log­i­cal), and the law (‘these things’) can­not pro­vide (onto­log­i­cal prob­lem) the power to over­come the anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem.”[5] (Meyer also notes a third prob­lem ­– chrono­log­i­cal – because Israel had not received the Spirit.)

Even though believ­ers are indwelled by the Spirit, sin remains in the old man, in the flesh. That cre­ates an anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem for which the law can­not pro­vide an answer. In fact, the law by design causes that which it seems given to prevent.

Meyer ref­er­ences as a par­al­lel pas­sage to sup­port Paul’s asser­tion that the law increases trans­gres­sion. Indeed, the apos­tle also makes it quite clear in his dis­course in Romans through 8 that the law is inef­fec­tive against sin and, what’s even worse, arouses sin­ful pas­sions in man.

Indeed, in , Paul shows us that liv­ing under law is to live under the power of sin:

[8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must con­sider your­selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. [12] Let not sin there­fore reign in your mor­tal body, to make you obey its pas­sions. [13] Do not present your mem­bers to sin as instru­ments for unright­eous­ness, but present your­selves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your mem­bers to God as instru­ments for right­eous­ness. [14] For sin will have no domin­ion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. ()

How­ever, those who advo­cate three uses of the law – to restrain soci­ety in gen­eral, to con­vict the non-believer of his sin, and to, as the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith states, “to restrain their cor­rup­tions, in that it for­bids sin” – argue that the third use of the law is a curb against sin in the believer. We will look at their argu­ments in Part 4.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 4: The ‘Poverty of our Sanctification?’


[1] is trans­lated var­i­ously as “to lead us to Christ” instead of “until Christ came” in edi­tions such as the New Amer­i­can Stan­dard Bible. Could the pref­er­ence of the NASB in law-preaching cir­cles be a the­o­log­i­cal deci­sion? Fur­ther­more, the choice of “school­mas­ter” or “tutor” instead of “guardian” (or per­haps bet­ter yet “nanny” or “babysit­ter” as a word for the slave or ser­vant who super­vised the con­duct of a child) for παιδαγωγὸς gives the sense that the law teaches and leads the indi­vid­ual to Christ rather than being a covenan­tal law to guide the covenant peo­ple until the time of the Mes­siah. The lat­ter under­stand­ing seems to fit Paul’s the­ol­ogy more con­sis­tently while the for­mer more neatly tai­lors itself to the the­ol­ogy and con­fes­sions of third-use proponents.

[2] Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline The­ol­ogy (Nashville: B&H Pub­lish­ing Group, 2009), 168.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,168–70.

[5] Ibid., 161.

 


19 Why then the law? It was added because of trans­gres­sions, until the off­spring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an inter­me­di­ary. 20 Now an inter­me­di­ary implies more than one, but God is one.

21 Is the law then con­trary to the promises of God? Cer­tainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then right­eous­ness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scrip­ture impris­oned every­thing under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

23 Now before faith came, we were held cap­tive under the law, impris­oned until the com­ing faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be jus­ti­fied by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were bap­tized into Christ have put on Christ. (ESV)


20 Now the law came in to increase the tres­pass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, (ESV)


20 Now the law came in to increase the tres­pass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, (ESV)


19 Why then the law? It was added because of trans­gres­sions, until the off­spring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an inter­me­di­ary. (ESV)


What then shall 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. For 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 through the com­mand­ment, pro­duced in me all kinds of cov­etous­ness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the com­mand­ment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very com­mand­ment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, deceived me and through it killed me. (ESV)


19 Why then the law? It was added because of trans­gres­sions, until the off­spring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an inter­me­di­ary. (ESV)


You shall there­fore keep my statutes and my rules; if a per­son does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord. (ESV)


11 Now it is evi­dent that no one is jus­ti­fied before God by the law, for “The right­eous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” (ESV)


7:1 Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speak­ing to those who know the law—that the law is bind­ing on a per­son only as long as he lives? For a mar­ried woman is bound by law to her hus­band while he lives, but if her hus­band dies she is released from the law of mar­riage. Accord­ingly, she will be called an adul­ter­ess if she lives with another man while her hus­band is alive. But if her hus­band dies, she is free from that law, and if she mar­ries another man she is not an adulteress.

Like­wise, my broth­ers, you also 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. For 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. But now we are released from the law, hav­ing died to that which held us cap­tive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the writ­ten code.

What then shall 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. For 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 through the com­mand­ment, pro­duced in me all kinds of cov­etous­ness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the com­mand­ment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very com­mand­ment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seiz­ing an oppor­tu­nity through the com­mand­ment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the com­mand­ment is holy and right­eous and good.

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, pro­duc­ing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the com­mand­ment might become sin­ful beyond mea­sure. 14 For we know that the law is spir­i­tual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not under­stand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that noth­ing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the abil­ity to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my mem­bers another law wag­ing war against the law of my mind and mak­ing me cap­tive to the law of sin that dwells in my mem­bers. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV)


6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to con­tinue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been bap­tized into Christ Jesus were bap­tized into his death? We were buried there­fore with him by bap­tism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in new­ness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall cer­tainly be united with him in a res­ur­rec­tion like his. We know that our old self was cru­ci­fied with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to noth­ing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must con­sider your­selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin there­fore reign in your mor­tal body, to make you obey its pas­sions. 13 Do not present your mem­bers to sin as instru­ments for unright­eous­ness, but present your­selves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your mem­bers to God as instru­ments for right­eous­ness. 14 For sin will have no domin­ion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present your­selves to any­one as obe­di­ent slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obe­di­ence, which leads to right­eous­ness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obe­di­ent from the heart to the stan­dard of teach­ing to which you were com­mit­ted, 18 and, hav­ing been set free from sin, have become slaves of right­eous­ness. 19 I am speak­ing in human terms, because of your nat­ural lim­i­ta­tions. For just as you once pre­sented your mem­bers as slaves to impu­rity and to law­less­ness lead­ing to more law­less­ness, so now present your mem­bers as slaves to right­eous­ness lead­ing to sanctification.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to right­eous­ness. 21 But what fruit were you get­ting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and its end, eter­nal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eter­nal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)


6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to con­tinue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been bap­tized into Christ Jesus were bap­tized into his death? We were buried there­fore with him by bap­tism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in new­ness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall cer­tainly be united with him in a res­ur­rec­tion like his. We know that our old self was cru­ci­fied with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to noth­ing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must con­sider your­selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin there­fore reign in your mor­tal body, to make you obey its pas­sions. 13 Do not present your mem­bers to sin as instru­ments for unright­eous­ness, but present your­selves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your mem­bers to God as instru­ments for right­eous­ness. 14 For sin will have no domin­ion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present your­selves to any­one as obe­di­ent slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obe­di­ence, which leads to right­eous­ness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obe­di­ent from the heart to the stan­dard of teach­ing to which you were com­mit­ted, 18 and, hav­ing been set free from sin, have become slaves of right­eous­ness. 19 I am speak­ing in human terms, because of your nat­ural lim­i­ta­tions. For just as you once pre­sented your mem­bers as slaves to impu­rity and to law­less­ness lead­ing to more law­less­ness, so now present your mem­bers as slaves to right­eous­ness lead­ing to sanctification.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to right­eous­ness. 21 But what fruit were you get­ting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and its end, eter­nal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eter­nal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)


Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must con­sider your­selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin there­fore reign in your mor­tal body, to make you obey its pas­sions. 13 Do not present your mem­bers to sin as instru­ments for unright­eous­ness, but present your­selves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your mem­bers to God as instru­ments for right­eous­ness. 14 For sin will have no domin­ion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (ESV)

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