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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 2: The Indictment of Sin

1. The Indictment of Sin

One of the consistent principles one finds throughout the letters of Paul is the Law-sin-violation/imputation connection. Namely, apart from law, there can be no formal imputation of sin even when sin is committed. Therefore there can be no wrath or punishment if the principle of law is not directly applied to a sinner. This functions in Romans and Galatians to establish two ideas: 1) the idea that the blessings of the gospel offered in Christ are appropriated by faith apart from “works of the Law” (more on this phrase later), according to a principle of promise rather than one of sin-indicting Law; 2) indirectly, therefore, also the idea that the Mosaic covenant itself functioned redemptive-historically, in part, to formally indict sin.

And this formal indictment, we will see more and more clearly, has its focus on Israel as God’s special covenant community under the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace, “the Law;” but Israel is (in Paul’s theology and even in the creation imagery of the temple itself) a microcosm of the whole world, and therefore the formal indictment of sin for Israel (as a whole, not denying the existence of a faithful remnant) becomes an indictment of the world in general—an indictment of all “fleshly” humanity, fallen in Adam, and subject to the corruption of the old order of creation.

Note some of the most telling verses from the two Pauline books mentioned above:

“Now we know that whatever the [Mosaic] Law says, it speaks to those under the Law [Israel], so that every mouth may be closed, and the whole world become accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19, my bracketed comments and emphases). The whole world must heed Israel’s Law, and is subject in principle to the heart of its requirements. It is probably better to understand this redemptive-historically and as a matter of principle, rather than as some kind of statement of Paul’s view of human psychology—although there are definitely some related psychological implications of Paul’s natural theology from Romans 1 and 2.

“For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants…” (Rom. 4:14-16b, my emphasis). Paul labors in this chapter to prove that faith, not works of the Law—any works of the Law, but admittedly focused on circumcision here—is how Jew and Gentile both receive the blessings of the Abrahamic promises and become heirs. In so doing, he exposes the principle that the Law stands in the way of blessing, threatening wrath instead, tacitly because of sin; but if the Law is taken out of the way as a principle, even sin is not a problem (in a sense), because there is no violation of any formal command.

“Therefore just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come” (Rom. 5:12-14, my emphases). In this classic text for Reformed federal theology, Paul establishes all of fallen humanity’s link with Adam, and proves that the sin of Adam resulted in the condemnation and death of his posterity, whether or not any of them disobeyed a formal, positive commandment of God the way Adam himself had done. He proves this by appealing to the empirical evidence of the death of human beings between the times of Adam and the Mosaic covenant—including human beings who were not themselves part of any formal covenant that included an obligation to positive law (other than by covenantal solidarity with Adam).

Here a fuller treatment would raise and thoroughly explore the question of the nature of the original covenant made with Adam and try to come down somewhere on the spectrum between those who collapse the traditional “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace” into one, essentially gracious covenant of “glory” or “maturity;” and those who on the other hand sharply distinguish the two covenant arrangements and are shy to speak of any “grace” at all in the pre-Fall arrangement. Of late my opinion has been that it is healthiest to begin skewed a little toward the latter view, and then to qualify heavily in the other direction, rather than starting with a view of radical continuity and attempting to qualify a little in the direction of discontinuity. This is due largely in part to reflecting on 1) the way the New Testament compares glorification with even unfallen created man in superlative terms, and 2) the way in which Christ, in the High Priestly prayer of John 17, appeals boldly (and a bit proleptically) to the completion of His own work, as the (meritorious?) basis for entering into His Father’s glory and bestowing the same on His people. But I digress.

Material for us in this essay is Paul’s repetition here in Romans 5 of the principle, “sin is not imputed where there is no law.” The obvious logical corollary is that where there is “law” (formal covenantal demands), sin is imputed, resulting, of course, in wrath, cursing, condemnation, and death. This was true for individual Israelites under the Law, who did not, by faith, avail themselves of the gospel promises also offered under Moses through sacrifices, types, and shadows of Christ. But more importantly for Paul, I think, this was true redemptive-historically of Israel as a whole—uncircumcised-of-heart as they were, save for a faithful remnant.

Therefore as an analogue of the way Adam disobeyed a positive command of God and experienced cursing, exile, and death (in a sense), Israel corporately disbelieved and disobeyed in a high-handed, rebellious way, God’s formal, covenant-of-grace requirements under Moses, and therefore experienced covenant cursing and exile. In other words, Adam’s want of absolute righteousness in his one sin and subsequent judgment was recapitulated in Israel’s corporate, covenantal failure of righteousness in her apostasy and subsequent exile. In this qualified sense, then, “…like Adam they have transgressed the covenant…” (Hos. 6:7). In Israel’s covenantal failure, Adam’s race as a whole is seen to fall short of the glory of God once again, and sin is formally charged to its account.

Speaking of the intent of the Law in Galatians 3, Paul goes on to say, “…For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would have indeed been based on the Law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:21c-22, my emphasis). This whole passage is very similar to parts of the discussion in Romans 4, with a similar sociological concern of Jew-Gentile relations, dealt with on the basis of deeper structural, systematic- and biblical-theological realities. The idea for us at this juncture, though, is simply what we have already seen from Romans 3: the “Scripture,” in context clearly referring to the Mosaic Law/covenant, has “shut up” everyone under sin, in order that faith in Christ would be the mechanism of receiving the blessings of the Abrahamic promises, now that “faith” has come (an historia salutis statement given in ordo terms in Gal. 3:23, 25).

In other words, at least one of the primary functions of the Mosaic covenant in redemptive history—whatever numerous ways we must say (for the NT itself teaches repeatedly) it contained and preached the gospel in shadow form, as an administration of the covenant of grace—was to formally indict not only Israel, but the whole world, of sin. The sin for which Israel is directly indicted by the Law may be characterized, for this essay, as want of “covenantal justice,” whereas for the rest of the world, which does not have any of the ceremonial provisions for atonement that Israel enjoyed to address “unintentional sins,” or sins that fell short of expressing high-handed rebellion and fundamental unbelief, the indictment is for want of “absolute justice.” Every Gentile sin—every peccadillo—renders one liable to eternal judgment. The Law carries out this dual indictment, and as we have already seen from several of the passages referred to above, this is not an end in itself, but rather is preparatory for the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. With the formal basis for the indictment of all human sin supplied in the Mosaic covenant, the need for Christ becomes starkly evident.

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