“holy and righteous and good”

Paul can be complicated, but can also cut through the fog like a laser if one knows where to look. Case in point is Romans, chapter 7. The topic is an age-old bone of contention — the law versus justification by faith alone.

To any who think that Paul hated the law, this would have required hatred of God, the law’s Author. What Paul hated was the notion that justification by works, i.e. meeting the requirements of the law, was sufficient for salvation. It was not ever thus; the ancient Israelites, Jews of the first century in Palestine, and Jews today knew, and know, that God’s grace is not something one may pay for with works of the flesh. Or at least those who have received God’s gift of faith know this.

As the commercials say, your results may vary. It is clear that some Pharisees and Sadducees at the time of Jesus held works to be sufficient all by themselves. And some took false pride in the ostentatious meeting of various requirements of the law, while lacking the humble faith that God actually requires (e.g. Micah 6:6-8. The same can be said for many so-called Christians, who have committed very much the same kinds of sin throughout history.

No, it is not the law that is at fault. It is our depraved humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, that insists on creating mantles of purity that look great on the outside, but are rotten within. Potemkin villages of faith, if you will. The law is from God, after all. How could it be anything but what Paul labels it in Romans 7:

7What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

The law is not “sin.” We provide that with our depraved natures. And, finally, a non-trivial point. The Jews who kept (and still keep) the law do so to remind themselves that they have a covenant with God. The law isn’t merely a set of rules of the road on the path to righteousness. It is a way of living so that the observer is constantly reminded that it is God who is in charge. Is the law a yoke? Not according to those I’ve talked with who know that it is God’s grace that has shined on them and caused them to love God’s Torah.

And this is the essence of why God’s Torah is not a burden: because it is God’s. Just as we Christians love God’s son and know that Christ’s burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). And yet, if you speak to most orthodox pastors about what constitutes “Christian behavior,” you’ll quickly come up with quite the list of legalisms. They just won’t be called that.

The essential difference between Torah and “clean, Christian living?” Jesus Christ, if we but have the grace to walk humbly, and obediently, from behind the shadow of the cross and into his light.

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