Formations 03.17.2019: Freedom from the Law

Acts 11:22-30

El Greco’s Painting of the Apostle Paul

Paul held the torah in high regard. In this week’s passage, he affirms, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!” (vv. 12-13). This admiration contradicts the way that we in our strand of the Protestant tradition often remember Paul’s relationship to the law.

This tension appears in the text. While he affirms the holiness and justice of the law, Paul also remarks that it holds some captive (v. 6). The presence of both views of the law makes the passage hard to interpret, to say what exactly Paul means. On the other hand, it raises a familiar dynamic. What we love, what promises safety, what provides identity—sometimes these threaten to undo us.

Here, in light of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Paul struggles to reinterpret the sacred architecture that held his life. This season in which churches prepare to remember the cross and the tomb invites us to rethink the holy structures that hold our hopes.

There is order and safety in moral and legal frameworks. Supportive community grows often in church families. If we were asked if these institutions and practices, along with others that support freedom, were bad, we could rightly answer with Paul, “By no means” (v. 13).

This season of Lent and our shared historical life shows the limits of the answer. Where churches promise loving communities, we’ve seen how they’ve also extended abuse. Where laws seek order and safety, they’ve carried terror, trauma, and injustice for already marginalized communities.

Paul challenges us to see these breaks in our highest commitments. But, he also affirms the finality of freedom and life. To show us where to be free, he challenges us to see our dreams bound up with the crucified one and all who have been held captive.


• What practices and institutions offer you the greatest sense of promise? Why?

• How have even these fallen short?

• How might we rethink our commitments in light of Lent’s reminder of human frailty?

Reference Shelf

Paul and the Law

In this case, before following Paul’s statements sequentially, we should take the time to consider why this problem is so pronounced in Paul and not elsewhere in the New Testament. Among all the members of the nascent messianic movement, Paul’s position was the most peculiar. It was not, as we have seen, that he could not keep the law. He claims just the opposite. It is, rather, that as a devout Pharisee, Paul’s perception of the law was so elevated and his expectations of it so absolute. He saw Torah as the adequate frame for God’s self-expression, having all the attributes he listed in Rom 2:17-20. Before his experience of the risen Lord, furthermore, Paul considered that “perfection in the law” was not only possible but that he had accomplished it (Phil 3:6).

Such convictions undoubtedly underlay his attempt, as one “zealous for the law,” to suppress the Christians by persecution (Gal 1:13). The claims made by these followers of Jesus—that he was alive and among them in the Spirit—appeared flatly to contradict Torah. According to the norms of Torah, Jesus’ life had been that of a sinner, and his death cursed by God (Deut 21:23). So long as Paul thought of Jesus as a dead man and a failed messiah, he had no difficulty with the law at all; in fact, his persecution of the church was precisely a defense of the law to which he was so devoted. Nor could there be any ambiguity in this position, since Torah was unequivocal about the fate of hanged men.

Paul’s problems with the law began with his experience of Jesus as risen Lord. His encounter with Jesus (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8) created a condition that sociologists call “cognitive dissonance,” a state of mental tension in which two deeply held convictions appear to oppose each other, or deeply held convictions are challenged by undeniable experiences. A homely (though tragic example) would be the “cognitive dissonance” created by parental physical abuse: on one side are the conviction that one’s parents are loving; on the other side are the injuries resulting from beating. Meeting Jesus not as a failed and dead messiah but as a powerful and commanding Lord, Paul was placed in an impossible dilemma. Either Torah was absolute and Jesus was a fake, or God was truly at work in Jesus, and the law could not be the absolute and adequate frame for God’s activity that he had considered it to be. If he were to follow his experience—and given the immediacy and power of that experience, what choice did he have?—then the claims for Torah would need to be reexamined.

The fruits of that reexamination are what we find in Paul’s scattered statements and finally here in more organized fashion. Only Paul among the first generation believers saw the need for resolving the “problem of the law” in such dialectical fashion, for only he truly saw the problem. He alone combined in his own person the two horns of the dilemma: the framework of Scripture as absolute, meaning the exclusion of Jesus as messiah and the persecution of his followers, or Jesus as messiah and Lord and Scripture no longer the norm he had thought. It is from the perspective of one who has “gone with his experience” and taken his stand on the gift of God in Jesus (5:1) that Paul now engages the issue. Chapter 7 does not report on Paul’s early life experience. It is, rather, his coolly reasoned appraisal of a problem only his subsequent experience brought to light.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament, (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 116–117.

Dying to Idols

Paul clearly understood some works of the flesh to be in the realm of sensuality. But not all. “Enmities,” “strife,” “jealousy,” “anger,” “quarrels,” “dissensions,” “factions,” “envy” belong to another dimension. These are what we would call psychological maladies: antisocial attitudes and behavior. Moreover, “idolatry” and “sorcery” involve false religion. Indeed, legalistic religion is understood by Galatians 3:3 as a work of the flesh. How can these different types of evil be understood as “works of the flesh”? Living according to the flesh was understood by Paul to be an orientation to life in which humans who are flesh (= physical and finite) turn back onto the realm of flesh and absolutize it. The creation is worshiped and served instead of the Creator. This amounts to giving a relative good an absolute value. In doing so, the relative good is perverted. So when humans who are flesh turn back onto the created world and absolutize a physical appetite, the result is sensuality. When humans absolutize their own egos, status, and power drives, the result is antisocial attitudes and behavior. When humans turn back onto the created order and absolutize their own moral and spiritual power, the result is false religion. For Paul, to live according to the flesh was an orientation to life that is characterized by idolatry. When humans make the physical and finite order an absolute value, they are living in the flesh or according to the flesh. In Romans 7:5 the apostle said that “while we were living in the flesh (= an orientation that absolutizes the physical and finite order), our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”

Charles Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Biblical Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 173.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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