The Law in Romans

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
7th July 2006

Tagged: grace law romans

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Christians’ relationship with law is a complex issue. The problem usually centres on the meaning of the word “law”.

Whereas we restrict the meaning of the word to rules and regulations, there are many other meanings.

The late Professor F. F. Bruce said that there were four different meanings of the word law within the letter to the Romans alone.

The most frequent reference in Romans is to the first five books of the Old Testament. These are known as the Torah or the books of the law or the books of Moses. The whole five books are considered to be law, not just the Ten Commandments or other rules.

Similarly the whole Old Testament can also be called the law. Sometimes parts of the Old Testament are quoted as the law even though they do not come from the first five books.

Sometimes the word is used to mean a principle. So Paul can write of the “law of faith”. Or again he can say that he finds it a law that “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand”. He is not quoting any part of the Old Testament in saying these things but that there is a principle that he has discovered or is at work.

We can also find within Romans reference to “the law of God” in general. Here Paul is talking of the rules or commandments of God. Of course for him these are most clearly revealed in the Old Testament - where God’s commandments can be found. However he talks of non-Jews also obeying the law written on their hearts.

So appealing to “Law” can be a difficulty when we are not sure which meaning of the word we have in mind. But it is made more difficult when we remember that the law of God was given for different purposes.

In the Thirty-nine Articles we are told that “Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind the Christian men, nor the Civil precepts therof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

These distinctions are important in reading our Bibles. For some of the laws especially those referring to the temple are fulfilled by Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are not to return to them but use them to understand Christ’s sacrifice for us. Some of the laws were for the state of Israel in the Promised Land. These reflect the mind of God especially in the execution of justice but are not to be applied directly to the running of a modern nation. Yet this is not to say that the law of God has no direct relevance to the Christian. There are moral laws in the Old Testament that are always binding on the Christian conscience.

The Bible does not always distinguish these usages for us. The differences in the law should be obvious to anybody who has sight. They are evident by their very content to anybody who wishes to be obedient to God. So Jesus attacked the Scribes and Pharisees “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

Professor Bruce also gave four reasons why the Law of God was given. He said that it was given, as a revelation of God and his will. Secondly it was given for the health and preservation of the human race. Thirdly it was given to bring sin to light and lead us to repentance and trust in God’s grace. Finally it was given to provide guidance for the believer’s life.

So while Christians live by grace we are by no means lawless.