|Chapter 6: Romans 14:5
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. -- Romans 14:5
The book of Romans was probably written about ten years after the book of Galatians. Most commentators seem to think that Romans is an expansion of the message to the Galatians. A difference exists among some scholars as to whether Galatians or Romans should be considered the primary statement of the Pauline thesis on law and grace.
It is not difficult to demonstrate, however, that Paul's treatment of law in the book of Romans is in some respects quite different from his treatment of law in the book of Galatians. Considerable confusion exists because it is too readily assumed that one book is merely an expansion of the other.
Paul's treatment of the law in Galatians is overwhelmingly negative. He says that the law was introduced as an emergency and temporary measure 430 years after the covenant of promise was given to Abraham. The law was a paidagogos whose tenure of office terminated at the coming of Christ (Galatians 3:19). It was a guardian during Israel's infancy. Its regulations held the people "in slavery under the basic principles of the world" until Christ came to redeem them (Galatians 4:1-5).
The essential thrust of Colossian is no different. The "written code, with its regulations," was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). Ephesians 2:14-15 says essentially the same thing:
In this scripture Paul is probably alluding to the screen in the precincts of the temple court which divided the Jew from the Gentile. The law gave the Jew occasion to despise the Gentile, and the Gentile occasion to hate the Jew. The three major aspects of the law which made this separation conspicuous were circumcision, the Sabbath and the food laws. The apostle declares that Christ has removed the hostility between Jew and Gentile by abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations." The entire law or legal dispensation is here designated, for as we have seen, there is no selectivity with the law in Paul.
In 2 Corinthians Paul again confronts the problem of Jewish-Christian infiltrators (2 Corinthians 11:22). In chapter 3 he declares the ministration of the letter, "written ... on tablets of stone," has been superseded by the ministration of the Spirit, "written ... on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3-11).
The tone of the Pauline pastoral Epistles is quite similar to 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians. Paul is still waging his battle with Jewish Christians on the one hand and with libertines on the other -- but more with the former than the latter. The goal of his teaching, the apostle declares, "is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). Then he adds:
Throughout his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul clearly emphasizes faith and love, expressed in righteousness, godliness, endurance, gentleness, humility, etc. (1 Timothy 1:14, 4:12, 6:11-12; 2 Timothy 1:13, 2:18, 3:10; Titus 2:2, 11-14, 3:1-2). He warns the young pastors against "quarreling about words" (2 Timothy 2:14), "foolish and stupid arguments" (2 Timothy 2:23), "the circumcision group" (Titus 1:10), "Jewish myths" (Titus 1:14) and "quarrels about the law" (Titus 3:9). Apparently the "meaningless talk" which he continually attacks in these letters comes from those who "want to be teachers of the law" (1 Timothy 1:6-11).
Thus, in the context of opposing the Jewish Christians who insist on urging the law upon Gentile believers (which is the background of 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Paul's estimate of the law is consistently negative. In the book of Romans, however, we find an altogether different appraisal of the law. Here the apostle has many positive statements to make about it. Far from saying that the law is abolished (Ephesians 2:14, 15) or nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14), Romans declares that the law will measure the righteousness of all men on the day of judgment. Only those who attain to what the law requires will be justified (Romans 2:12-16). Far from abolishing the law, those who place their faith in the great transaction at Calvary "uphold the law" (Romans 3:31). The apostle can even say, 'In my inner being I delight in God's law" (Romans 7:22; cf. Psalm 119). In Romans 8 Paul proceeds to say that God did for us in Christ what the law could not do, "in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4, RSV). Then follows the most positive statement of all: "The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so" (Romans 8:7). The inference here is that the spiritual man is one who is subject to the law. This hardly sounds like Paul is saying that the law is abolished!
How do we account for such a positive estimate of the law in view of what Paul has said in the book of Galatians? How can the apostle chide the Galatians for wanting to be subject to the law but tell the Romans that those hostile to God are not subject to it?
The answer to this problem will not be found by saying that Paul is disparaging the ceremonial law in Galatians, while he is praising the moral law in Romans. As we have already seen, the apostle does not make a sharp distinction between the ceremonial and moral aspects of the law. Rather, he deals with the law wholistically.
It is disappointing to read the comments on Galatians by most of the scholars in the Reformed tradition. They use the book of Romans to blunt the sharp, cutting edge of the book of Galatians. They do not allow Paul to say what he has to say in Galatians without qualifying it and hedging it about with statements from Romans. It may be theologically correct to say that the law becomes a rule of life for the regenerate believer. There may be truth in the Puritan saying that the law points us to Christ as the way of salvation, and Christ points us back to the law as the rule of duty. But this is not what Paul says in Galatians. Here he says nothing about the law as a rule of life after Christ has come. Rather, he says that the justified have no more use for the paidagogos.
On the other hand, those who derive their major thesis on law and grace from the book of Galatians do not do justice to those positive statements on the law in the book of Romans. They are inclined to blunt the sharp edge of Romans by importing comments from the book of Galatians. but we should allow the words of Paul to have their full force in both Galatians and Romans. Truth is never found by blunting the sharp edges of biblical paradox or by finding some middle ground between the two poles. We must accept the sharp truth of apparently opposite perspectives. This does not mean that truth is a contradiction. There is no contradiction between Galatians and Romans. In Galatians (and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians) Paul is discussing the law as it is ministered in the Mosaic legal system. Here religious and ethical duty are placed in a rigid written code. Right and wrong are defined by the letter of the law. Conduct is controlled by a multitude of regulations, many of them quite arbitrary. The entire Mosaic ministration of law is depicted as an infantile rule-book approach to right and wrong which adult gospel believers must no longer tolerate.
On the other hand, Romans is not written to a Gentile church but to a mixed Jewish-Gentile community. There were as many Jews in Rome during the first century as there were in Jerusalem (about 50,000).
One branch of the church in Rome was composed of Jewish Christians. Paul evidently respected their sensitivities about the law too much to approach the law question as he did in his letter to the Galatians, He began his letter to the Romans by focusing on the law as a divine standard rather than the law as a code of regulations. By "standard" we do not mean a rule book which defines precise regulations about where to worship, when to worship, what to eat, etc. This is not the kind of standard Paul refers to in Romans, for he says that even the Gentiles, "who do not have the law [as a written standard], ... show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts" (Romans 2:14-15). It is obvious that Gentiles did not have such external things as Sabbath laws, food laws, sacrificial laws or many other Mosaic regulations written on their hearts. But they did have written on their hearts the consciousness of their responsibility to God, in whose image they were made. These positive statements about the law, therefore, are not referring to the regulations of the Mosaic code but to the real intent or spirit of the law (Romans 7:6).
Whether in written form (as given to the Jew) or in unwritten form (as possessed by the Gentiles), the law is an unrelenting ought which accuses those who fail to live up to its demand. Behind the Mosaic regulations was the oft-repeated divine command, 'You must be holy, for I am holy.' The Mosaic ministration made one thing clear--the law was unrelenting in its demand for total fidelity to the will of God. Yet even the conscience of the pagan was an echo of the divine justice which will require an unblemished life on the day of judgment. Justice requires of man just what it has always required--life of perfect conformity to the character of God. The human predicament is that no one can meet the demands of this divine standard. But the gospel proclaims that such a righteousness can be found by faith in the righteousness of that Substitute Man who lived and died in our place.
The death of Christ does not negate the standard of righteousness demanded by the law in either its written or unwritten form, but it pays tribute to the law. The gospel of Christ does not blunt the keen edge of this perfect standard but sharpens it far beyond its expression under the Mosaic ministration. The timeless ethical principles found in the Old Testament are taken up and given great depth and spirituality in the New Testament. When the New Testament demands faith and love as the whole duty of man, it does not present a new standard but the true intent of the law of Moses. The righteous requirements of the law which are fulfilled in the believer (Romans 8:4) are not meticulous compliance with the letter of the Mosaic regulations. In Romans 7:1-7 (a passage which comes closest to the thought of Galatians) Paul says that he has become dead to this kind of obedience by the death of Christ. He now serves "in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Romans 7:6). That new way is the way of faith and love, which is developed in the practical instruction given in Romans 12-15.
Here is a subjection to the law of God on the part of the believer, but it is not a subjection to the letter of the Mosaic code. There is a higher kind of righteousness than compliance with the letter of a written code. Before his conversion Paul was married to the letter of the law. Such devotion to the law made Paul a blasphemer and persecutor of the church. When Peter withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles, he did nothing against the written code. In fact, he was pressured by the Jerusalem delegation to comply with the stipulations of the written code. Yet Paul rebuked his behavior because it was "not acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:14). On the other hand, David and his men ate the shewbread, which was forbidden by the letter of the Mosaic code. And Jehoiada carried out an armed insurrection against wicked queen Athaliah on the Sabbath day (2 Kings 11:5, 7, 9). These actions were contrary to the letter of the Mosaic code, but they are recorded in the Bible as deeds of righteousness. Luther cites other Old Testament examples of men who boldly transgressed the written code at the demand of faith and love. It is possible to obey the letter of the law and do evil (like Peter) or to transgress the letter of the law and do good (like David).
A code of regulations cannot adequately cover such things as a hasty temper, a premature judgment, a spirit of revenge or a lack of humility. Nor can it adequately enjoin the nobler attributes of the human spirit. For example, parents may impose rules of conduct on little children for the purpose of training them to consider others. But a child may comply with these rules without being considerate. A rule book can neither enforce nor produce a good character.
The prophets of the Old Testament are forerunners of Jesus and the apostles in pouring scorn on the religion of externalism. They speak of a new covenant to come in which the true spirit of the law will be written on the heart. But what is only hinted by the prophets is expressed with revolutionary clarity in Paul. Before his conversion the law as a written code was the center of Paul's life. Indeed, he was "married" to it (Romans 7). But after his experience on the Damascus road, Christ became the center of his life. He then knew that "whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil [which covers the heart when Moses is read] is taken away" (2 Corinthians 3:15-16). He realized that the ministration of Moses, which required compliance with the letter of its regulations, had to pass away and be superseded by the superior ministration of the Spirit. Yet this new way of obedience, which springs from devotion to Christ, does not negate the standard of the law but fulfills it.
The real intent of the law of Moses was "truth in the inner parts" (Psalm 51:6). The law as a "letter" or "written code" is a "law of sin and death" because it does not restrain sin but actually stimulates all kinds of evil (Romans 7:8-13). But "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" sets a believer free "from the law of sin and death" in order that the real intent of the law--faith and love--might be realized in his life (Romans 8:2-4, RSV).
When Paul considers Christian ethics in Romans 12-15, we may call this "the third use of the law" after the fashion of Reformation theology. Any imperative, any "ought," is law. In this sense much law is imposed on Christians in the Pauline Epistles. But the ethics of Romans 12-15 does not restore the letter of the Mosaic law code in order to make Christians slaves to arbitrary regulations all over again.
After showing that the true intent of the law is love (Romans 13:8-10), Paul proceeds to describe what this means in the concrete situation which existed in the church at Rome. This Christian community was composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Their churches were small home fellowships. There was great diversity among them. Evidence from the catacombs indicates that they not only met in different localities, but at different times. Some gatherings for worship were conducted in Hebrew, others in Greek. The Jewish Christians had scruples about eating food which had been consecrated to idols, or food which was unclean. Others had no such scruples because they had no background in the Jewish food laws. Some believed in total abstinence from wine; others did not. There were also differences over holy days. Jewish Christians were Sabbatarian. This was the context of the following passage:
The Puritans and those who have followed their Sabbatarian tradition have tried to argue that Paul could not be referring to the weekly Sabbath in this passage. But when we reconstruct the historical situation of a Jewish-Gentile church, it is utterly incredible to assume that Paul is referring to every day of the Jewish sacred calendar except the weekly Sabbath. In Romans 14 Paul declares that Christianity is not a matter of arguing over food taboos:
Paul might just as well have said, ''The kingdom of God is not a matter of arguing over which day is holy, etc."
Paul believes in being subject to the law of God (Romans 8:7), but not as it is administered in the regulations of the old written code. What he does appeal for in Romans 14 is behavior which is determined by the demands of faith and love:
While Paul was scornful of the foolish Galatians for observing the sacred days the Jewish calendar (Galatians 4:10), he tells the Romans that those who regard one day .sacred above another should not be condemned. Why was the apostle intolerant of Sabbatarianism in one situation and yet tolerant of it in another? There were two reasons. First, Jewish Christians in Rome, like the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, kept the law, including the Sabbath, but not in order to be justified before God. Second, Sabbath-keeping was a part of their heritage. The gospel gave them the liberty to continue living as Jews. Furthermore, Paul discerned that it might not even be safe for a Jewish Christian to repudiate his customs and violate inbred sensitivities (Romans 14:23).
I once met a Jew who had become an evangelical Christian leader. He told me that he could not bring himself to eat fish without scales even though he knew that he was not bound by the law in this matter.
Those reared in a devout Seventh-day Adventist home could relate to what he said. According to Paul, neither the evangelical Jew nor the evangelical Adventist is compelled to demonstrate his liberation by defying the sensitivities of his culture, And even if he were "strong" enough to do this, he should not flaunt his liberty before his own people. F.F. Bruce beautifully grasps the spirit of Paul when he says:
(1) F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 346-347.
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