An Analysis of the Apostle Paul’s Attitude Toward the Law

I have found the Apostle Paul’s attitude toward God’s law, the law as found in the first five books of the bible and as modified by Yahshua in Matthew chapters 5-7; to be difficult to pin down and understand, even at times contradictory. I originally wrote this as relatively young believer aged 34 in 2008, when I had been a baptised believer for around 9 years. Even the apostle Peter says Paul writes some things which are hard to understand, and it has taken me time to search out clarify and contextualise what he writes guided by prayer and study. However, at that stage of my life, and still in 2021, this it my true opinion of this man’s work, as regards the title of this essay.

Yahshua called Paul, an account of this is given in Acts chapters 8 and 9 (also 11, 12, 13, 22 & 23) he clearly is a servant of God. In Acts chapter 26 we learn that Paul was a Pharisee, this is an important fact to remember throughout this essay. The commonly held false belief about what the term Pharisee means is, a person who is very keen to uphold God’s law. However, Yahshua describes them as the opposite, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” [1] It is true the Pharisees did many of the outward things that made them look like godly people, but they would sin when they could get away without it being noticed or condemned by others.

I quote this because Yahshua also says this, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” [2]. And yet the Apostle Paul says this, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Yahshua, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.  […] by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of The Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” [3] Let’s unpack this to see what Paul means.

If Yahshua says the law will not pass away until heaven and earth pass away, can Paul override his words? [4]  Clearly the answer is “no”, and the heavens and the earth are still here so this proves that the law has not been abolished. I believe that Paul is actually saying that we do not follow the law according to the administration of the “old covenant”, but rather according to the administration of grace offered through the “new covenant” established by Yahshua [5]. We have died to our old sin nature, that is what bound us, and as Romans 8:7 says “For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will.” (NLT). No one is justified by observing the law, but on the other hand surely freedom in Yahshua is something other than simply blotting out the rules – i.e. abolishing the law!  I believe the message in Acts 15 was to turn people away from “justification by works” for there were certain people who taught “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1 NLT). However the aim of Peter’s and Barnabas’ message was not to stop people obeying the law by choice, or by compulsion, but rather to obey through the inward regeneration of The Holy Spirit, as spoken of in Romans 8:1-8.

Let’s also remember the law isn’t all about rules that tell us what not to do, it isn’t all negative. There are a lot of commandments and teachings about how to treat the poor, justice for foreigners, justice in the courts, fairness in trading, things which we could do well to implement today, and indeed what some people refer to as The Royal Law, is actually taken word for word from the “old testament” scriptures.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36–40 NRSV).

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5 NRSV).

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18 NRSV)

Our problem is that we are sinners and are in varying degrees unable to keep God’s law perfectly whether that be what the law forbids or encourages, Yahshua is our salvation and the answer to this problem. Paul states that believers are ‘not under the supervision of the law’ [6]. This doesn’t mean that we don’t obey the law, it means the law isn’t our only guide. Yahshua says he will send us another counsellor, but he doesn’t seem to imply that he will abandon the first which is the law [7]. Remember Yahshua is The Word made flesh, not just the prophecies pertaining to his birth, ministry and death, but all scripture which comes through The Spirit of Yah, and Father, Son and Spirit which are one.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NRSV)

Also consider Matthew 5:17-20, and that the bible includes Paul’s report and handling of some cases where God’s law has been broken, where Paul uses the law himself in various ways. [8] According to some interpretations of Paul’s work, wouldn’t this show Paul ‘in two minds’ by using God’s law directly in his handling of these cases? As case ‘d’ shows, Paul contradicts himself as well as Peter’s and Barnabas’ teaching in Acts 15:20. So my question is, why not obey God’s infallible and eternal commands, in preference to the fallible works of men? [9] For even though Paul was called by God, he was flesh and subject to corruption like any other believer.

In the Old Testament we could see the examples of good but all to often poor behaviour, the Old Testament is very warts and all. No-one sensible however, would discount all of the Psalms of David because he had an affair with Batsheba and virtually had her husband Uriah murdered, it is clear from scripture that God’s love was bestowed on him. In the same way Paul’s scriptures should not be discounted because he stumbled once in his teaching on food sacrificed to idols. We know that The New Covenant is about forgiveness, and surely he too will find forgiveness.

Our approach to law obedience should be led by The Spirit, sincere, truthful and fair, for we too are being turned into a spiritual priesthood as the bible states [10]. The basic truth we should learn from God’s word is this, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” [11] This message has been at the heart of God’s word since the beginning, yet man still has difficulty accepting it, as I believe Matthew 13:13-15 suggests.

In 1 Corinthians 5, 6:12 – 20, & 7:1 – 28,* Paul has to work against a shocking situation he finds upsetting to The Holy Spirit, he then goes on to write about ‘sexual immorality’ and a ‘crisis’. I will use these situations as examples to further my argument against the interpretations of Paul’s work that seek to void the obedience to the law for believers. Look at 1 Corinthians 5, and then examine what the written code states, “Do not dishonour your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her. [12]

Yahshua knew that prevention is better than a cure, for he said ‘whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’. If Yahshua’ instruction had been obeyed, then this offence may never have happened.  And, In this case the guilty person has not only broken the law quoted above, but also the fifth commandment ‘Honour your father and your mother’. [13]

The laws in Leviticus chapter 18 show practices God considers detestable. Certain churches have adulterous, immoral, or abusive members, and in other churches homosexuality is a problem. What is clear, is that those unrepentant in sin; adulterers, the immoral, abusers and homosexuals are breaking God’s law [14]. Certain groups within the Church try to find ways of bending the teachings of Yahshua to suggest that he would not only forgive, but allow these kind of practices [15]. However, I believe that as in the case of the woman caught in the sin of adultery who was brought to Yahshua; yes Yahshua will forgive, but we are encouraged to repent of the sin [16].  The bible describes sin as ‘the breaking of the law’ [17], and considering what Yahshua said in Matthew 5:17-20, I think it is a false teaching to say that grace allows us to continue in sin and teach others similar patterns of disobedience. Paul says clearly, God’s children must turn away from wickedness [18].

Using the law unjustly to single out people or groups of people who sin according to biblical standards, going against the laws of society by discriminating, persecuting, abusing or attacking such people is not the aim of the law either. The Society we live in is a secular one, to the extent now where people who have religious beliefs may find it hard to practice those beliefs because of the disdain secular society has for them. In any case, the laws we adhere to reflect that our society is indeed secular, even antinomian, and for us to be a light in a dark world, we have to approach these delicate matters of explaining God’s standards and God’s love with respect for all people. The biblical emphasis is on teaching, example, persuasion, reason – and these things harm no one, and as Paul says – “the law is good if it is used properly” (1 Tim 1:8).

My point is, how are people to know these important things if the law is not taught or at least used as the congregations’ or believer’s guide to what is right and wrong. Why do we need to try to ‘re-invent the wheel’? That is, to come up with our own laws, traditions and ‘ethical’ standards of right and wrong, when God has already revealed his will plainly to us in his law. This isn’t to say only the law must be preached without the gospel, or in preference to the gospel, the bible is best served whole and with even handedness, providing context and proving the continuity and consistency of scripture.

I believe that God’s law is a worthy standard for all people, at all times in all places, we do not need tailor-made doctrines to suit.  Before Yahshua was born in the flesh into this world, the zeal required to uphold the judgements of the law, and the violent and dishonest ways of many of those who lived under the law, may seem unpleasant and frightening to us today.  However, we now know the changes Yahshua made to the law taught in Matthew chapters 5 – 7, we know there is a judgement to come, and we know that Yahshua is the only worthy judge of our souls.  So the law is still useful as it details what is known of God’s moral guidance for man. The law is there to help us identify sin, and as we obey it through the work of The Spirit, we gain wisdom. David said:

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
(Psalm 19:7 NRSV)

I do believe strongly that the Holy Spirit guides us to know right from wrong, but there are many spirits, so how do we know that we act upon the guidance given by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the only reliable test of this is that the Holy Spirit has to be found in agreement with God’s word. The bible tells us of the unity between The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, the three are in agreement [19], and therefore it follows that God’s word as spoken or written by his servants, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will also stand in agreement with his law and prophets which came first.

God’s law stresses that immorality is wrong, and the apostle Paul defines it as a punishment 20. How then can those who claim to have The Spirit of God within them practice these lawless acts? I believe that Paul’s ideas concerning freedom have been taken too far by some, but the truth is that apart from God’s commandments, ideas about what is moral and what is immoral are subjective and change with times. However, God’s commandments are timeless 21, and they are not open to misinterpretation because they are explicit and unlike many of the generalisations found in the New Testament, that people sometimes make commandments and traditions out of, and that people are perhaps more likely to interpret in different ways, and even distort 22.

[…] So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Pe 3:15–16 NRSB)

Paul’s doctrine focuses the spotlight on the freedoms believers can have. Paul writes about being ‘bound’ by the law 23, but I do not believe that the law is opposed to freedom, or that it binds us in any way and neither does Paul – for he talks of our old nature or the flesh as being hostile to God’s law. Consider this, it was not until the Israelites were freed from Egypt that they were given the law 24. Why would God have freed his people from slavery in Egypt only to ‘enslave’ them to the law thereafter? Does our God exasperate his children? Indeed the law of sin that Paul talks of is our own inability to obey God, we inherited that through Adam (Romans 5:14-17), but through faith in Yahshua who obeyed the law perfectly, our nature is transformed to be free to obey God through The Spirit of Messiah.

Everyone who believes that Yahshua is the Messiah has God as his father, and everyone who loves a father loves his offspring too. Here is how we know that we love God’s children: when we love God, we also do what he commands. For loving God means obeying his commands. Moreover, his commands are not burdensome, because everything which has God as its Father overcomes the world. And this is what victoriously overcomes the world: our trust. Who does overcome the world if not the person who believes that Yahshua is the Son of God? (CJB 1 Jn 5:1–5).

Yahshua also said, ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin’ 25, and to ‘sin’ means to break the law. So, how can the law be considered to bind and enslave? Unless for you, sin is not slavery, but freedom? The truth is, that through faith in Yahshua and with the guidance of The Holy Spirit, knowing the law and all scripture, we become aware of the sins that can trap us, and blind us to the godly freedom we can enjoy. If we try to keep the law without accepting Yahshua and The Holy Spirit to renew us, we are then under law, we are trying the impossible task, you will be a slave to your own failure, a slave to sin, for if you break one law or have ever broken one law, you have broken all of it (James 2:10) and we all have fallen short of perfect obedience.

Under law means, without Messiah, legalistic, looking to works alone for justification before Yah, everyone fails this because no one can keep all 613 commands without fault. Paul had this spirit before his encounter with Messiah on the road to Emmaus, and this is what Paul is talking about by legalism. Knowing the law, living by it, expecting to be justified by law alone, but not realising who the law was pointing to, i.e Yahshua Hamashiach. When we come to faith in Messiah, then the “New Covenant” is written in our hearts, this is a new agreement between mankind and Yah, the laws remain the same, but the agreement between Yah and man (Hebrews ch8) extends to us more grace for our transgressions. Therefore, it is not “the law of sin and death” where we sin and must die, but “the law that gives life” (Romans 8:2), because our high priest empathises with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) in order to lead us to repentance, rather than judge us for sin leading to a life of hopelessness and death.

Let’s not give credibility to interpretations of scripture that are leading many astray.

Yahshua spoke of ‘the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees’ 26. Consider that if the word of God is ‘bread’, adding additional teachings or ‘yeast’ to it does not mean that more people will be taught or ‘fed’. Paul adds many teachings to an already complete and wonderful body of knowledge 27. But in some cases in the New Testament, Paul seems to put down the commands written in the Old Testament 28. When you look closely you will see this was because of the needs of his audience who were too focused on the law and justification by works. Arguably the situation is quite the reverse today, our society is libertine, this affects us believers because of the moral filth in the world. Some people interpret Paul as expressing the ‘law’ in terms of opposition to ‘faith’, the ‘Spirit’ and ‘grace’, but I believe the law, faith, the Spirit and grace will be understood in terms of agreement and unity 29 when one has understood Paul teaching correctly. Where Paul uses phrases such as ‘the law of sin and death’ (meaning old covenant obedience – justification by works, our own effort to keep the law and not Yahshua’s Spirit within us doing his work), I feel for some, this casts a negative light on the law. Fortunately, Yahshua leaves us in no doubt as regards his intentions on his law, for I believe by his example and teaching Yahshua’s desire is to promote a partnership of law obedience and faith rather than an option (or false dichotomy) of one or the other. In my view all scripture provides the roots needed for a strong faith.

I believe in all cases we should test what we read in the New Testament to see that it agrees with the Old Testament, for it is written, “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails–given by one Shepherd. Be warned […] of anything in addition to them. 30 And who but Yahshua is the shepherd referred to here? The church’s standard of morals should be God’s law, and when we ignore it we act unwisely. The moral and material standards of society change from generation to generation (e.g. relationships, pleasures, dress etc), but God’s word remains the same throughout all generations and endures without fault. I believe if people are searching for truth, justice and a salvation that is steadfast and pure in today’s corrupt and ever-changing world, It should be the church that provides them with it. But the church must have its teachings founded truly upon the ‘solid rock’, the rock that is Yahshua, as the song says, ‘all other ground is sinking sand.’

[1]      Mark 7:8&9, also see Deuteronomy 4:2.

[2]      Matthew 5:17 – 20, and note 1 John 5:1-5.  See Matthew 23:1-3 for Yahshua’ description of the ‘teachers of the law’.

[3] Based on Romans 7:4 – 6, cf. 1 Timothy 5:12&13.

[4] See John 13:16, & note Malachi 1:6 (the biblical hierarchy).

[5] See 2 Corinthians ch 3, Romans 7:12 & ch 8, Acts 15.

[6] Galatians 3:1-25, Colossians 2:13-15 & Ephesians 2:14-17.

[7] John 14:15/16, 26, & John 16:5-15, note 2 Peter 3:14-18, & Jude 4.

[8]      See: a: Romans 1:18 – 32 & note Exodus 20:1-17; b: 2 Corinthians 13:1 & note Deuteronomy 19:15, & Ex 23:1-3 & 6-9; c: Hebrews 4:1-11 & note Ex 20:8-11, & Leviticus 23:3; d: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 cf. 1 Co 10:14-22, & note Acts 15:20, Ex 20:3-6, Revelation 2:12-29.

[9]      See John 3:31-36.  Consider human fallibility vs. God’s infallibility.

[10]     Malachi 2:1-9 note verse 9, also see 1 Peter 2:4-12 note verse 5.

[11]     From Ecclesiastes 12:13.  THE LAW AND SACRIFICES: read Hebrews 9:1-10:39, Isaiah 66:2-4, & 1:10-31, & Proverbs 21:3. CIRCUMCISION: read 1 Corinthians 7:18&19, & Romans 2:25-27.

*      Do you think that the situations described in these passages parallel with the situation Yahshua speaks of in Revelation 2:12-29?

[12]     Leviticus 18 note verse 7, & Lev 20:10-21, Deuteronomy 22:13-30.

[13]     Exodus 20:12, & Deuteronomy 5:16.

[14]     See footnote 11, see Leviticus 18:22, & 20:13, note Genesis 18:20-19:29 (note 19:5), Romans 1:18-32, & Jude (note verse 4).

[15]     Hosea 4:6-12 & 2 Peter 2, cf. Romans 6:1&2, & Hebrews 10:26-31.

[16]     John 8:1-11.  JUDGEMENT:  read Ecclesiastes 3:16&17, Matthew 7:1-5, John 3:16-18, 5:19-30, 12:47-50, & 1 Corinthians 4:5.

[17]     Based on 1 John 3:4.

[18]     See 1 John 3:9, Ephesians 5:5-7, Romans 3:5-8, 2 Timothy 2:19.

[19]     See Matthew 17:1-8, John 14:15-31, & 16:5-16, also see premise.

[20]     See footnotes 11 & 13.

[21]     See Psalm 111 [note verses 7&8], & Matthew 5:17-20.

[22]     See 2 Peter 3:15 & 16 & note Jude verse 4.

[23]     See Romans 7:6, also see Galatians 3:1-5, cf. Matthew 19:17.

[24]     See Exodus 19:1 – 20:21 (or 40:38), & note Psalm 119.

[25]     See John 8:34-37, Rom 6:16, also see 1 John 3:4-10.

[26]     Matthew 16:5-12, & Matthew 7:21-23.  Note John 6:25-59.

[27]     See Luke 16:16-31, Ecclesiastes 6:11, & Matthew 28:18-20.

[28]     See footnotes, 4, 6, & 7 case ‘d’, Note Matthew 12:15-21 cf. Isaiah 42:1-4, Matthew 13:47-52.

[29]     See John 17:20-26, note v 22 & 23.  Also see Luke chapters 1&2.

[30]     From Ecclesiastes 12:11&12, also see Hosea 14:9.