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Inaugural Leon Morris Memorial Lecture

Category Articles
Date July 7, 2013

Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God

Brian S. Rosner, Principal of Ridley Melbourne, delivered the inaugural Leon Morris Memorial Lecture on 27 June at the College, where Leon Morris had been Principal from 1964 to 1979. Fittingly, the lecture brought resolution to what some have seen as a conflict between Law and Grace – the kind of conflict which Dr Morris was so adept at sorting out and reconciling. About 100 people attended, including Leon Morris’s brother Max and previous Principal Maurice Betteridge (1979-1992).

The lecture is set to become an annual event, remembering the life and work of one who was arguably the greatest New Testament scholar the Lord has so far raised up in Australia.

A Critical Study

Dr. Rosner said that the subject of Paul and the law is critical to the study of the New Testament in that it touches on the perennial question of the relationship between the grace of God in the gift of salvation and the demand of God in the call for holy living. Misunderstanding Paul and the law leads to distortions of one or both. From the very beginning, even in Paul’s day, his teaching on the law has raised hackles on one of two fronts. Either people think that the free gift of salvation has been compromised, or a solid basis for the demand of God for obedience and a holy life has been removed. If justification is not by works of the law, doesn’t that lead to license? If you remove the law, isn’t the result lawlessness? Don’t those without the law end up outlaws? And if we are still under the law in some sense, doesn’t that compromise the free gift of salvation?

A Crucial Problem

The crux of the problem is the fact that Paul’s letters present both negative critique and positive approval of the law. Paul affirms that, ‘the law is holy, just and good,’ insists that, ‘we uphold the law’, quotes the law to regulate Christian conduct and asks rhetorically, ‘does the law not speak entirely for our sake?’ Yet the same Paul also holds that believers in Christ ‘are not under the law,’ believes that ‘the law brings death’ and ‘works wrath,’ and maintains that ‘Christ is the end of the law.’ Paul generally deals with the law as a unity, customarily referring to Mosaic ‘law,’ not ‘laws.’ This means that, in the main, his responses to the law are not to its various parts, however we may wish to divide it, but to the law as a whole. If Paul’s letters are marked by negative and positive statements about the law, the question to ask is not ‘which bits’ of the law is he referring to in each case, but the hermeneutical question of ‘in what sense,’ or ‘as what?’ ‘In my view,’ he said, ‘asking the question of “the capacity in which,” or “the force with which,” the law meets the Christian resolves the tension between the negative and the positive material.’

A Complex Character

Paul responds to the law in three ways. First, he repudiates the law as law-covenant, for the law is a failed path to life and righteousness, and God has intervened with a tsunami wave of grace and mercy. Secondly, he replaces it, for Christians are not under the Law of Moses, but under the law of Christ, the law of faith and the law of the Spirit, and participate in newness of life, the new life of the Spirit, and the one new humanity. But thirdly, he reappropriates it as prophecy (of Christ and the gospel) and as wisdom (for living). This understanding of Paul and the law embraces without reservation both the negative and positive things that Paul says about and does with the law. It also takes seriously the complex character of the five volume, multi-genre work that is the Law of Moses, giving due weight to its seminal prophetic and wisdom elements, along with its legal material. And most importantly, it retains at full strength his twin emphases on the free gift of salvation and the demand of God for holy living: we are not under the Law of Moses, but under the law of Christ.

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