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Friday, April 8, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 3: Weakened by the Flesh

2. Weakened by the Flesh

The need becomes even more starkly evident, however, when we consider another role of the Mosaic covenant, or “the Law,” as Paul presents it in Romans 7. However controversial the question of the identity of the schizophrenic “I” in vv. 14-25 in this chapter, the first thirteen verses are sufficient for us here to establish the point that for Paul, the Law not only formally indicts human sin, but actually functions to redemptive-historically exacerbate and highlight sin in all of its deceitful, enslaving, and killing power. I believe that the view that in the latter half of the chapter Paul uses language of personal historical narrative to illustrate the redemptive-historical experience of Israel as a whole under the Law, rather than speaking of the psychological anguish of a Christian struggling against the flesh, fits best with and most effectively makes Paul’s main point; but that view has its own problems, as all the traditional options do. Nevertheless, as I said, the first half of the chapter is sufficient to prove our point.

The context is, first and foremost, the previous chapter in Romans, where Paul teaches believers to consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, because of their faith-union with Him in His death and resurrection. The fact that Christians are no longer “under Law” but “under grace” does not mean they should go on to sin all they want, because that is actually impossible for those who through faith and baptism into Christ have in principle identified fully with Him. They have identified with Him in His death to all the realities of old creation, the “flesh,” and sin; and they have identified with Him in His resurrection unto new creation and eternal resurrection life in the Spirit. How could such a one go on sinning carelessly?

In chapter seven Paul shifts from sacramental language and some of the dynamics of sanctification in the Christian life to redemptive-historical categories, and applies one of his favorite metaphors: marriage. As both legal and relational, it is a suitable analogy for many spiritual realities Paul wishes to explain in various places. Here he speaks of the well-known law that marriage (with Mosaic exceptions due to hard-heartedness of the sub-eschatological covenant community) is to continue until one of the parties dies. But once the husband dies, for example, the wife is “free” to be joined to another man without becoming an adulteress (Rom. 7:1-3). Then Paul applies the metaphor spiritually to his audience and says that we, though previously joined to the Law (in principle even if we are Gentiles, as most of the believers at Rome probably were!—remember Rom. 3:19, and see the following discussion), have died to the Law, so that we could be joined to another, namely, to the resurrected Christ (7:4).

The details of the metaphor break down, or we might more accurately say, express ironically the glory of how God’s governing of redemptive history and fulfilling all things in Christ brings about our salvation: whereas in the marriage metaphor, the party that remains alive is joined to another spouse, in redemptive history, we the people who have died (through faith-union with Christ in His death) to the Law, end up being the ones who are joined to a new “spouse,” namely, the resurrected Christ. And how appropriate that our new spouse is The Resurrection (cf. Jn. 11:25), since we were “dead” (first in principle dead because of the Law, now in principle, through union with Christ, dead to the Law).

Next Paul goes on to speak of the spiritual reason we needed to die to the Law (to be joined to Christ):

“For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:5, 6).

To boil it down, Paul is saying that we needed to be freed from the Law and joined to Christ because of the sin that was stirred up by the Law itself, leading to death. This should be initially almost as shocking language to a Reformed covenantalist as it would have been to a first century Jew who respected Torah as his or her prized possession and greatest gift of grace received from God. The OT itself speaks of the “Law”—instruction from the Lord in general, but including especially the Mosaic Law—as a lamp to the feet, streams of water that cause men to prosper and bear fruit, a source of wisdom to overcome enemies, something that even revives the soul! (cf. Ps. 19:7). And surely Paul has in mind here the Mosaic covenant as a whole, not just its positive and negative commandments for moral and ceremonial life in the covenant community. Yet in some sense, in redemptive history, one function of the Law was to arouse the sinful passions of the flesh. In Romans 5:20a Paul had actually already come out and said, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase”!

And lest we try to limit this idea of “the Law coming in” to a personal Law-conviction-gospel-belief conversion narrative, the language Paul uses in vv. 5, 6 is explicitly historical. The “flesh-Spirit” contrast elsewhere in Paul would be enough to prove that he has cosmic, redemptive history in mind here—stages of God’s covenant dealings with the world in terms of Moses and then Christ. But v. 6 explicitly contrasts the newness of the Spirit with the oldness of the “letter” (a reference to the Mosaic covenant; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6-8).

So Paul associates life under Moses with sin, the “flesh,” and death, even though the Mosaic covenant itself was good and even anticipated and revealed—in shadow form—Christ and His saving work. For this reason Paul goes on in the next seven verses (and I believe the rest of the chapter) to defend the inherent goodness of “the Law” (Mosaic covenant) despite its general effect on fallen humanity, apart from the eschatological intervention of God in Christ.

But let us reflect for a moment on how it is Paul can use such negative language about human experience under Moses (and there is more to come), when anticipatory gospel grace itself was available through the Mosaic covenant, for the faithful. I believe two lines of thought shed light on this question for us here.

First is the OT theme I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this essay already, as side notes: Israel under the Mosaic Law was by and large an unregenerate, uncircumcised-of-heart covenant community, with a mere faithful remnant being composed of regenerate believers. Therefore Paul uses stark language to express what was generally the case before the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Second, as Dr. Lane Tipton fleshes out in his 2015 conference talks mentioned at the beginning of this essay, one can detect a very distinct pattern of thought in Paul’s theology in his contrasts between New Covenant experience in Christ and every era that came before; and this structure is evident in 2nd Corinthians 3 among other places. That structure may be expressed as follows: the eschatological life brought about by the death of Christ, His resurrection, ascension, Spirit-endowment, and His outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, is so superlative in character that everything that came before—even blessed prelapsarian life in Eden, and even gracious covenant experience under Moses—may be characterized as relatively death-like in comparison.

More specifically, with 2nd Corinthians 3, it is fascinating to note first the Old Testament backdrop of Moses’ Christ-like intercession for the golden calf-worshiping people at Sinai, and the glory reflecting off of his face such that that people could not even look at it—yet to note also the stark contrasting language Paul employs there to contrast “letter,” and “Spirit,” referring to old and new covenants, respectively: the letter that “kills,” (v. 6) the “ministry of death,” (v. 7) and the “ministry of condemnation” (v. 9), on one hand; versus the Spirit that “gives life” (v. 6), the “ministry of the Spirit” (v. 8), and the “ministry of righteousness” (v. 9), on the other hand.

Reading the New Testament it soon becomes evident that like the OT prophets, the apostles at times use idealized language to add rhetorical force to their theological assertions about the structure of redemptive history. And this is far from disingenuous. In fact, for the prophets, a robust apostolic doctrine of inaugurated eschatology more than vindicates their lofty language of the kingdom as we are meant to apply it to even our current interadvental experience of the age of the Spirit, anticipating a day when their words will be fulfilled in greater fullness. And vindicating the stark language of Paul and other NT authors associating Mosaic experience with sin, the “flesh,” and even death and condemnation, are passages from the OT itself that imply the inadequate, sub-eschatological (and therefore sub-resurrection and death-prone), and provisional character of the Mosaic economy:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him” (Deut. 18:15). Moses will not be the last or ultimate prophet from God, however permanent Torah itself (as a covenant) seemed to the ancient Jew’s mind. Rightly, the expectation of this latter prophet becomes bound up with Messianic, kingdom, resurrection, “last days” expectation.

Deuteronomy 30:1-14 as a whole prophesies restoration from exile after a time in the future when the whole nation turns away. The restoration only takes place upon heart-circumcision of the covenant community as a whole, which will end up being the result of unilateral divine action, bringing about eschatological resurrection life in the Spirit. An anticipated change of covenants or covenant terms is not explicit here—in fact, continuity of moral norms is strongly implied—but this passage is important background material for some of the post-exilic prophetic material referred to below (and for Paul in Romans 10 and elsewhere). It implies at least broadly that Israel’s experience under Moses was only the first stage of the much longer saga to climax in true resurrection life, many epochs later.

“For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant;…” (Hos. 6:7, also mentioned above). Mosaic ceremonial sacrifice is relativized, and the Mosaic covenant is said to have been (definitively?) broken and transgressed by Israel. This is likened to Adam’s breaking of a covenant, and the result for him was the penalty of death. Therefore the Law itself becomes further associated, in the history of Israel, with death and spiritual ineffectiveness; and its unique cultic trappings are spoken of by the prophets as what they truly are: provisional, illustrative pointers to covenant faithfulness/justice, the unchanging heart of God’s requirement of His people.

“’Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant I which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD” (Jer. 31:31-32). This famous text prophesying the new covenant in Christ, in both its statement that Israel broke the Mosaic covenant, and even, as the author of Hebrews points out, in mentioning a “new” covenant at all, implies that the “old” (Mosaic) covenant is already, in principle, becoming obsolete. The Law cannot bring about eschatological blessing for the covenant community, because they (Israel, corporately) definitively broke it.

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in Ez. 37 is equally important for this theme in the prophets: the bones he sees are, as it were, Mosaic bones, the shambles of the covenant community of Israel under the Law having been punished by exile for corporate disobedience through unbelief and high-handed rebellion. And what is needed is the resurrecting power of the eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit, represented in Ezekiel’s vision as the prophetic word, giving life and living flesh to the bones again. This same need for eschatological resurrection power for the covenant community’s spirituality is probably in view in Daniel 12, although this text also certainly applies to the idea of ultimate bodily resurrection (echoed by Jesus’ language in Jn. 5:25-29).

To sum up this point another way, it should be no major surprise to us that in God’s program for redemptive history, which is to culminate in the reversal of the curse of Gen. 3:15 and the abolition of death in and through the work of Christ, every era that falls short of that final eschatological reality—even good, gracious, grace-mediating, and anticipatory covenantal realities that come beforehand—become associated with all the realities of the Fall, even sin and death. And what this should do for us is not to denigrate the glory and blessing of prelapsarian Eden or even the grace-filled covenantal experience of our forefathers in the faith under Moses, but rather to elevate for us our sense of the fullness of blessing in Christ, even before His Second Advent.

Let us return to our main text for this section, though, and look briefly at some of the details of how the Law exacerbates and highlights sin and therefore the need for Christ’s intervention in redemptive history.

Paul begins a dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?” (Rom. 7:7a). This seems like an appropriate question after all the negative associations made in vv. 5, 6. “May it never be!” Paul answers in v. 7b. “On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law” (v. 7c). “Know” here is a form of ginōskō so it is initially tempting to take it as more intimately experiential than cognitive, however, v. 7 concludes, “for [gar] I would not have known about [ēdein] coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” The emphasis is on the conscious perception of the moral requirement to not covet.

Here Paul is defending the goodness of the Law by appealing to one of its functions. In order to understand this verse rightly, we need to remember that the reference to “the Law” throughout is to the Mosaic covenant as a whole, and not narrowly to the Ten Commandments, or some other arbitrarily chosen set of positive moral commands. When we do that, we realize that whatever personal history Paul may be relating for us here, his main point is much wider in scope and redemptive-historical significance—he is setting up for us how it is that the Mosaic covenant ends up exacerbating sin for Israel, and therefore why Christ had to come.

So from v. 7 we see that Paul himself, or perhaps, Paul envisioning himself as a typical Israelite under the Law (and as we will see, perhaps even a typical descendant of Adam in the flesh), learns what “coveting” is because the Law commands him not to covet. I think Paul’s natural theology of conscience from the first two chapters of the book of Romans lends further credence to the idea that Paul does not have in mind here primarily the psychology of unbelievers (unbelievers of course know in their heart of hearts that they should acknowledge and worship God rather than creatures, and not engage in coveting, which is idolatry!; cf. Rom. 1:18ff; Col. 3:5), but rather the formality of covenant liability brought about for Israel at the time of Moses, at Sinai (and therefore, by extension, as we have seen, formal covenant liability for the whole world). Through the giving of the Law, Israel perceives in a formal, covenantal way, the duties to which she is obligated (adequately summarized as “covenant faithfulness,” not perfection, yet covenant faithfulness which looks to the full demands of the Law as the perfect standard, and to the provisions of the ceremonial laws for sacrifice and atonement).

This perception or covenantal recognition of responsibility is good in itself. But what happens next? Paul continues, “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” (Rom. 7:8, 9). The problem is not the Law per se, but rather sin! It just happens to be the case that the response of sin, which lies initially relatively dormant in fallen humanity—including Israel as typical of fallen humanity—upon the giving of covenantal obligation, is to “come alive” and use the “commandment” as an opportunity to work truly, formally condemnable evil, which results ultimately in death.

Many commentators not only read this as Paul referring in personal terms to the history of Israel, but also detect echoes of Adam and Eve in the garden, being deceived (see v. 11) and through sin becoming liable to death. Whether or not this can be proven, as we have seen, there is an inextricable link between the history of Israel and the rest of the world, whether this takes a backward-glancing shape as in Hos. 6:7, or whether it is more forward-looking and anticipatory as in Rom. 3:19 and portions of Rom. 9-11. And Israel as the second unfaithful “son of God,” like Adam (see Luke’s designation in Lk. 3:38, and the following narrative of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness, recapitulating Israel’s own Exodus experience), becomes a foil on the stage of redemptive history for the faithful Son, Jesus, to finally bring about eschatological life by His own obedience.

With these biblical-theological structures in place, it is not too difficult to read Paul’s comments on the experience of Israel here or elsewhere as reflecting and recapitulating in measure the experience of Adam, though there are differences in covenant conditions to be noted. Adam received a positive command, was deceived, disobeyed, and died. Israel received covenant-of-grace obligations, sin was stirred up in them, and she was largely deceived, disobedient, and exiled. And it may not be wholly inappropriate to go on and apply similar language to Paul as an individual: one for whom the demands of the Law proved to point out and exacerbate his own covetousness, and, once the Spirit made him sufficiently sensitive to his own sin, prepared him to feel his need of Christ. But as aforesaid, the emphasis of the whole passage seems to be much more redemptive-historical than literally autobiographical.

Paul begins to wrap up his initial discussion of the ugliness and twistedness of this treachery of sin in taking that which is good in itself, the Law, and using it to bring about death:

“…and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the [Mosaic] Law is holy, and the commandment [‘you shall not covet’] is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good [the Law], so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful,” (Rom. 7:10-13, my emphases and bracketed comments).

Paul here continues to labor to defend the goodness of the Law in the face of its inadvertent effect of stirring up sin and leading indirectly to death. And the two really helpful purpose clauses at the end of the passage are central for establishing our main point: the fact that the Law itself aims at life, but sin takes opportunity through the commandment to produce death instead, is used by God in redemptive history to exacerbate and therefore highlight the twisted, ugly, sinfulness of sin. Before the light of Christ dawns, the darkness of the result of Adam’s disobedience is encapsulated and deepened in the experience of Israel under the Law—a truly covenant-of-grace experience that anticipates the gospel, which nevertheless falls short of the eschatological freedom of the Spirit, and short of the spiritual resurrection of the covenant community as a whole.

In the titular terms of this essay, the Law comes in and at one level demands of Israel mere covenantal justice (covenant faithfulness) while at another level pointing to the need, in principle, for absolute justice (through its provision of blood atonement for all unintentional sins and its presentation of the Law as a goal for perfect holiness). But apart from the eschatological intervention of Christ, the result is by and large covenantal injustice (covenant unfaithfulness/apostasy, which obviously encompasses the imperfection of absolute injustice, too), leading to exile/death! Neither Adamic nor even Mosaic humanity can bring about eschatological life and righteousness for the covenant community (and therefore the world). And this illustrates in bold relief the sinfulness of sin and therefore the desperate need of both Jew and Gentile for Christ.

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