The Apostle Paul Revisited: Paul’s Argument with Jesus, Part IV
This is the final part of a series comparing the words of Yeshua and Paul regarding the Law (Torah) of God.
Salvation: The Great Question
What especially upset the Jewish establishment was the message Yeshua and His followers preached that salvation comes by grace through faith, not by works. In keeping with the division of the world between Jews and Gentiles, the prevailing understanding of the day was that anyone who wanted to be reconciled to God and learn His ways needed to convert to Judaism. Formal, legal conversion required circumcision, mikvah (baptism), and presentation of a sacrifice at the Temple (when possible). Gentiles who went through that process were called “proselytes”. Sadly, the conversion process also involved complete immersion in the Jewish traditions to the point that the proselytes adhered more to the doctrines of the men who had instructed them than the Torah itself. That is why Yeshua included an indictment of this process in His confrontation with the Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15 NKJV)
What the Pharisees and other Jewish sects were practicing was a doctrine of salvation by works. Their faith was in their own efforts to keep the commandments of God, as interpreted by the Jewish sages, in order to gain righteousness and favor with God. This doctrine of works entirely missed the point that no effort on any human’s part can win God’s favor, as stated clearly in the Tanakh (Old Testament). Isaiah said it this way:
But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities. (Isaiah 64:6-7 NKJV)
David explains this still further. His whole prayer of repentance in Psalm 51 highlights the fact that physical acts like presenting sacrifices mean nothing to God if there is no internal change of heart. As he says:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise. Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then they shall offer bulls on Your altar. (Psalm 51:1-19 NKJV, emphasis added)
There are many such references in the Torah and other books of the Old Testament explaining that salvation is an act of the grace of God, not the efforts of man. The first of these references is Genesis 6:8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” However, the religious leaders of Yeshua’s day had missed that point, as they had missed many others. Hence the reason Yeshua said to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10 NKJV) The gospel which He and the Apostles preached was one of salvation by grace through faith alone. However, neither He nor the Apostles preached against the Law of God; they preached against the misuse of the Law by the religious leaders of the day. It was that misuse which bound up Jews and proselytes with an unbearable burden of regulations which they believed they had to keep in order to be accepted by God. The Law indeed provides the standard of righteousness God wants His people to follow, but it cannot save anyone. Rather, it points out our sins so we can cry out to God for His salvation by grace, and then provides the standard for us to follow as His Holy Spirit instructs us.
The Law in Context
If we are to understand Paul we must understand this point. The main question in his day, whether he was debating Jews of the “circumcision party” or Gentile philosophers, was whether salvation comes by works or by grace. There was no major issue, in Jewish circles at least, on the standard of conduct after salvation. Everyone agreed that the Law of Moses (Torah) is that standard, which is why Paul could state with confidence in religious and civil courts of law that he had done nothing wrong in regard to the Jews and believed everything written in the Law and the Prophets. He, like Yeshua, took issue with the prevailing Jewish application of the Law, which put more emphasis on the traditions of the elders (Jewish teachers of the Law) rather than the actual Word of God. That is at the heart of his admonition to Timothy:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith. Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm. But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust. (I Timothy 1:3-11 NKJV, emphasis added)
In this passage Paul seems to contradict himself in a single sentence, saying that the Law is good if used lawfully, but that it is not made for a righteous person. This is an excellent example of what Peter meant when he warned that Paul wrote things that are hard to understand and which are easily twisted by unlearned and unstable people (II Peter 3:14-16). Quite often he uses the word “nomos”, or law, to refer to different aspects of God’s Law (Torah). When Paul says, for example, that we are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14-15), he means that we are no longer under the penalty of the law which results from our sin. When he says that we are dead to the law that we may be married to Christ (Romans 7:4), he refers to a specific prophetic picture of how Messiah satisfied the penalty of our spiritual adultery so that we could become His bride (for more information on this particular point, see Commonwealth and Cooperation: How Jews and Christians Can Work Together, Part III). When Paul writes about the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) and how Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe (Romans 10:4), he is explaining how the Law points to Messiah, and how as believers we are to follow Yeshua’s example in keeping Torah so that we will walk in righteousness.
Context is indeed everything. The passages that seem to indicate Paul’s opposition to the Law are actually explanations of how different aspects of the Law relate to the entire human race in the context of Messiah Yeshua’s completed His work of redemption on the cross. There are many things Yeshua accomplished with His sacrificial death for our sakes. One of the main accomplishments was showing us what the saints before the cross only knew by faith: how God would save us by grace through faith so that we could do good works according to His righteous Torah standards.
With this perspective it should be easy enough to see what Paul was really saying to the non-Jewish believers in Galatia. The letter to the Galatians is often the first resort of those who say Paul taught that the Law no longer applies to Christians. He seems to be chastising the Galatians for following the Law and turning their backs on the salvation freely given to them by the grace of God. He is indeed chastising the Galatians, but the real reason is rooted in the question of salvation, not about how they are to conduct themselves as believers in Yeshua. Paul had taught them that salvation comes only by faith in Messiah, and then had taught them how to live as God commanded according to the Scriptures. What happened next is explained in Acts 15:
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1 NKJV, emphasis added)
The message of these Jewish teachers was indeed a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6) from what Paul taught. Their gospel was one of works which said that even though Yeshua was Messiah, circumcision and formal conversion to Judaism was necessary for salvation. In other words, they contradicted the message of Yeshua and the experience of Peter (see Acts 10) that salvation is by the act of God through grace, not by works (e.g., conversion to Judaism and keeping both the Torah and the Jewish traditions). The Galatians apparently began to believe these other teachers and turned away from the simple gospel of salvation to embrace the works-based gospel. That was why Paul admonished them that if they became circumcised Christ would profit them nothing (Galatians 5:1-4). His protest to them was not that they were keeping the Law, but that they were using it improperly – as a means to obtain salvation rather than as the guide to their conduct as righteous saints of God.
There is much more to say regarding Paul’s supposed opposition to the Law, but that must wait for future posts. Hopefully this series has done enough to establish that Paul and Yeshua were not in opposition to one another regarding Torah. Yeshua taught that the Law and the Prophets would remain in effect until “heaven and earth pass away”, and Paul explained the theology behind Messiah’s teaching. Both of them walked out Torah in their daily lives and urged others to follow their examples.
We are created to do good works, but we are not saved by works (whether Jewish, pagan, or Greek philosophy). We are saved by grace through faith so that we can do the works God defines as good according to His unchanging standard (the Law, Torah). Anyone who keeps God’s commandments will receive blessings and benefits simply because they are operating within God’s established parameters. However, without salvation by grace through faith, we cannot hope to meet His standard consistently, and certainly cannot hope to earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why Yeshua had to lay down His life as the Lamb of God, taking away the sin of the world. By believing on Yeshua we obtain not only His righteousness, but also His gift of the Holy Spirit, Who reprograms us by transforming our hearts so we are able to perceive, understand, and follow God’s commandments. That is the message Paul lived and taught, and the message we would do well to emulate. His message to the non-Jewish believers in Corinth applies as much to us as it did to them:
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. (I Corinthians 11:1-2 NKJV)
The best assortment of video and written teachings I have encountered on the Apostle Paul are from 119 Ministries:
- The Pauline Paradox Series Part I: Is the Majority Ever Wrong?
- The Pauline Paradox Series Part II: The Paul You Never Knew
- The Pauline Paradox Series Part III: Why Is Paul So Difficult to Understand?
- The Pauline Paradox Series Part IV: Which Law Paul?
- Paul the Nazarene Ringleader
New Testament History, by F.F. Bruce, remains one of the most comprehensive references for understanding the Mediterranean world in which Yeshua and the Apostles ministered.