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Mosaic Law

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What follows is an excerpt from my book The United Church.  


For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Verse 19’s reiteration of verse 18 emphasizes the importance of the earlier verse. A few distinctions, however, suggest that verse 19 functions as an elaboration, and not simply a repetition, of the previous verse. Paul shifts his focus from “all” to “the many” and refers to Adam’s sin as an act of “disobedience” (rather than a “trespass”) and the work of Christ as an act of “obedience.”

Finally, Paul shifts from impersonal descriptions of states and destinies to more personal terms (“many will be made sinners,” “many will be made righteous”). Being made righteous in this context does not mean becoming morally upright, but rather being acquitted—“cleared of all charges”—in God’s heavenly judgment. “Righteous,” therefore, is a legal and not a moral term.

(As a modern analogy, we understand that a verdict of “not guilty” in the American judicial system does not necessarily mean that the defendant is in fact innocent, only that he has been found not legally responsible.) Paul makes it clear that, while all humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, shares in the condemnation of Adam, grace is “freely given” through the sacrifice and obedience of Jesus Christ.[1]

Romans 5:19 draws a sharp contrast between disobedience and obedience, sinners and righteous. The first time Paul uses the phrase “the many,” he refers to all humanity affected by sin, but the second time to “the many” who believe, contrasting those in Adam with those in Christ.[2]

Yet, through the use of similar language, Paul implies that as many as are made sinners can be made righteous, regardless of ethnicity. Indeed, it is one’s relationship to Christ, not Abraham (or Moses), that provides an escape from universal condemnation. Paul draws large circles around the human race, making broad divisions based on faith in Jesus Christ without a third distinction for followers of Jewish customs or the Mosaic Law.

While it is possible that “sinners” in verse 19 simply means sinners in the more general sense, context suggests that Paul is alluding to the word’s common usage among Jews of his time to refer to those “ignorant of or disobedient to” the Mosaic Law, especially since pious Jews often used the word’s antonym, “righteous” (discussed below), to describe themselves.

Paul argues that Jews and Gentiles alike are condemned under the Law of Moses; the law cannot provide an escape from the condemnation facing all men, as many at the time had thought. Like the Gentiles, Jews, too, are “sinners.” This, along with the use of law-related words (“disobedience,” “obedience,” “sinners,” “righteous”), sets the stage for Paul’s reintroduction of the Mosaic Law in verse 20.[3] There he continues to argue for the decoupling of the Mosaic Law from the Abrahamic covenant, such that the promises of the patriarchs may be fulfilled “apart from the law” (3:21).[4]

Paul then states in the latter half of the verse that “the many will be made righteous.”[5] Just as he applies the title “sinner” to the Jews, so Paul also applies this favorite self-designator of his devout countrymen to the Gentiles, emphasizing that “the many,” and not just the Jews, will be acquitted before God. The defining marker of the covenant people is no longer observance of the law, but faith.[6]

Paul’s Jewish audience would have understood Paul’s description of Christ’s death as an action satisfying the law’s requirements for the ultimate sin offering.[7] Playing to the theme of re-appropriating traditional Jewish imagery, Paul alludes to the servant of Isaiah 53:11—“Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities”—pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophetic text, whose obedient death, just as the Isaianic servant’s, accomplished God’s plan of salvation for his people.

It is Christ’s death, and not the law, Paul argues, that has endowed God’s people with a new status as “righteous.” As he did in Philippians 2:6–11,[8] Paul points to Jesus as both the true humanity and the true Israel, arguing that his obedient death is the act of grace by which God’s purpose is revealed.[9]


But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,

Beginning in verse 20, Paul ceases any mention of Adam, turning to the object of his true focus: Jesus Christ.[10] Yet, though Paul may no longer mention Adam by name, his influence is still clearly present in the discussion of sin and death.[11]

Here, Paul finally turns his attention explicitly to the law. So revered was the Mosaic Law among Jewish Christians that Paul felt compelled to address it,[12] particularly in light of the divisions it was creating between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Here, however, we must be careful. Too often, Protestants have been quick to paint the Mosaic Law as a type of works-based salvation with Paul’s offering a contrasting way through faith alone. This, however, is to read Paul but hear Martin Luther.[13] We must be careful to avoid this anachronism and to eschew such caricatures of first-century Judaism—which, not surprisingly, tend to resemble caricatures of medieval Catholicism.

Paul does not argue that the law is inherently bad, but merely that it was a temporary fix, never intended to be a permanent solution to the problem of sin,[14] and that, with the coming of Christ, the law’s term of office has expired.[15]

Paul uncouples the Abrahamic covenant from the Mosaic Law, thereby preserving the permanence of the former, while stressing the temporality of the latter. In doing so, Paul is able to open up the way for Gentiles to the Abrahamic blessings without passing through the Law of Moses, claiming the Torah’s purpose was exclusively to guide Israel and hence irrelevant to the eschatological salvation to which Paul now points.

To Paul, therefore, the law is not something to be thrust upon the Gentiles, but something from which even the Jews themselves must now be freed.[16]

Paul states that the law “came in,” translated from a Greek word whose only other New Testament appearance describes Jews spying on Gentile Christians in the enjoyment of their freedom (Gal 2:4). While the word does not necessarily carry negative connotations, it certainly can, and the context here suggests that it does.[17]

Furthermore, Paul’s use of an active verb, rather than the divine passive, shows his grouping together of the law with sin and death as likewise having “entered” into human existence,[18] thereby paralleling the Mosaic Law with the sin and death Christ defeated.

It would be easy simply to conclude that Paul dismissed the law as malevolent and move on, but to do so would be to grossly simplify Paul’s message. The underlying point of Paul’s argument is not that there was anything inherently flawed in the law itself—which did, after all, come directly from God—but rather that the flaw laid with its recipients. This distinction is critical because it provides greater perspective to the overarching plan of salvation Paul describes.

The law could not bring salvation because those to whom it had been given were, on account of fleshly weakness, not up to the task the law had in mind—that is, to bring God’s blessing to all nations. It is for this reason that Paul is able to say in Romans 3:20 that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”[19]

The law clarified sin as rebellion against the will of God as revealed to his people, a sentiment supported by parallel texts such as Romans 7:13 and Galatians 3:19.[20] The law serves “to awaken a sense of sin in those who fancied they were keeping the law tolerably well but had underestimated its searching demands and the sinfulness of their own hearts.”[21] In short, the law served to actualize and radicalize the crisis presented by the curse of Adam.[22]

To sin outside the law is still to sin, as Paul makes clear in 5:13–14. To sin under the law, however, is to break a known divine commandment. The law, therefore, did not create sin, but it did exacerbate the problem, making Adam’s sin readily apparent in Israel.[23]

Jews were therefore mistaken to believe that the law exalted them over the other nations. On the contrary, it should have made Israel more aware of her own solidarity in sin with the rest of creation.[24]

The law’s only malevolence, therefore, was in its current form, utilized by Jewish Christians after its time had passed to promote an ethnic exclusivity that Christ had come to abolish and to which the law itself was meant to point beyond. Like traffic cones in a construction site, the law served a valuable purpose in its time, but with the completion of God’s work in Christ, it is now clearly out of place, obstructing, rather than guiding the way toward, God’s plan for his people. Paul therefore distinguishes between the law when it was given and the law as contemporary Judaizers were utilizing it.

Paul recognized, as did the Jews of his time, that the law came directly from God and consequently had a clear God-given purpose. Paul, however, defines that purpose in light of the risen Messiah. As God’s holy law, the Mosaic Law served “to keep Israel in check, to stop God’s wayward people from going totally off track, until the time when, through the Messiah, the long-term ultimate promises could be fulfilled.”[25] It served as “our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24).

The sin of Israel that Paul so strongly condemns is not an attempt to obtain some sort of works-based righteousness.[26] Israel’s sin was in viewing her election as a testament to her own status apart from the nations, rather than as a calling to bring salvation to the nations. Israel’s failure “was taking God’s wider purpose and focusing it back on itself.”[27]

Paul is arguing that God did not give Israel the law to distinguish her from “Gentile sinners,”[28] but rather to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah, the faithful Israelite, who would bring salvation for the whole world.[29] Christ’s arrival, therefore, fulfilled the law’s purpose.

This was all part of God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world,” a plan whose weak point lay in the “through Israel” part. Israel, being made up of sinful human beings herself, was in need of redemption like everyone else, which the Mosaic Law should have made clear. Yet, God still fulfilled the purpose of the law and his purpose for Israel through the Israelite Messiah, turning, as he had always intended, his “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” into a “single-plan-through-the-faithful-Israelite-for-the-world-now-including-Israel-too.”[30]

Paul does not argue that the law is flawed or evil, but rather that his Jewish brethren have failed to appreciate its role in God’s universal plan of salvation. The law was a band-aid, a temporary and insufficient solution that kept things together long enough to make way for the permanent and sufficient means to salvation through Israel’s Messiah.[31]

Paul’s allusion to the Isaianic servant, discussed in the previous chapter, further bolsters Paul’s argument. “Grace superabounded”[32] through the work of Christ more explicitly mentioned in verse nineteen. The Isaianic servant was obedient to God’s saving purpose, a role cast for Israel, but which, on account of Israel’s disobedience, “only the servant, as an individual, can now accomplish.”[33]

This is the role Christ played, not to scrap the Abrahamic covenant and institute a new one with the Church—there is no hint of supersessionism in Paul’s writing—but rather, as the faithful Israelite, to fulfill Israel’s vocation on her behalf, becoming both the true Adam and the true son of Abraham.

Christ came where Israel failed to ensure that, through him, she might in fact succeed. Salvation has therefore come to the world through Israel. Paul’s reference to Isaiah tells “the story of one who knowingly went to the place where Israel’s sin and shame, and the world’s sin and shame, were heaped up together, and took the full weight on himself.”[34] Grace superabounded indeed!

If you are interested in reading more, you may purchase the entire book on Amazon.com.


[1] Moo, 344–46.

[2] Morris, 240.

[3] Dunn, Romans, 97, 284–85.

[4] Wright, “Romans,” 402.

[5] Italics added.

[6] Ibid., 529.

[7] Dunn, Romans, 97.

[8] “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

[9] Wright, “Romans,” 525, 529.

[10] Morris, 240.

[11] Harrison, 65.

[12] Moo, 346.

[13] We too often believe that Paul struggled with a guilty conscience over his inability to keep the law. It is here that Luther’s influence over Pauline studies is most pronounced. There is no evidence that the pre-Christian Paul suffered from a “troubled conscience in the post-Augustinian sense.” Wright, “Romans,” 400.

[14] Harrison, 65.

[15] Morris, 241.

[16] Wright, “Romans,” 402.

[17] Ibid., 530; Moo, 346–47. Paul could also be implying a double meaning, suggesting that the law “infiltrated” God’s people in current times, having been illegitimately brought back onto the scene after its time had ended.

[18] Dunn, Romans, 286.

[19] Wright, Paul, 1:507.

[20] Moo, 347–49.

[21] Harrison, 65.

[22] Moo, 348–49.

[23] Wright, “Romans,” 530.

[24] Dunn, Romans, 286–87. Indeed, Paul argues that God gave the law with the intent that the trespass increase, not merely that the trespass increased as a result of its giving—though the NRSV opts for the latter in its translation. Wright, “Romans,” 530. While Paul believes the law to be good, he nonetheless indicates that the magnification of sin and the realization of trespass were part of the divine intention, even if not the main purpose. Often knowledge brings a means toward better living and a greater recognition of the need for divine grace. This played into the overarching purpose of the Mosaic Law: to prepare the way for the Messiah.

[25] Wright, Justification, 128–29.

[26] Ibid., 243. Paul never argues that Israel is trying to earn God’s favor through good works, particularly not in the sense that modern Protestants understand the concept. Too often lost on modern readers is Israel’s recognition that they were saved from Egypt by God’s grace prior to receiving the law. The Jews understood that the “law was the way of life for a people already redeemed,” not the path to salvation, particularly not in the modern evangelical sense. Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 243.

[28] Dunn, Romans, 286–87.

[29] Wright, Justification, 246.

[30] Ibid., 126.

[31] Dunn, Romans, 286.

[32] Morris, 242.

[33] Wright, “Romans,” 529.

[34] Ibid., 532.


See Also:

Atonement Without Anselm

Categories: Faith


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