Understanding the Apostle Paul
Of all the apostles it seems that Paul is the most misunderstood. Paul was a theologian, which distinguishes him from the other fishermen; John and Peter, the tax collector, Matthew, the physician, Luke and the other New Testament writers.
Theologians tend to dig into the nuts and bolts of things so to speak. As a result some of his concepts may fly over the heads of some and land in the roost of controversy. The Apostle Peter aptly noted this problem. – As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (II Peter 3:16).
Jews and Muslims especially have a hard time accepting Paul’s writings, seeing him as an enemy of the Law of Moses, upon which both camps are founded.
Having had the opportunity to minister to Jews and Muslims online, I have experienced firsthand the misunderstandings that the apostle’s writings have produced, through no fault of his own. Most of these misunderstandings have arisen when his words are taken out of context and not coordinated with the other scriptures. With that being said, I would like to try and reconcile some of the basic difficulties Jews, Muslims and many others have with the apostle’s writings, and hopefully release him from the imprisonment that he is being held in within their minds.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans can be viewed as his foundational epistle from which the remainder of his writings are echoed. The foundation of Romans is contained within the first four chapters. We can break down and summarize the principles he is sharing and hopefully simplify them to make them more understandable to those who mentally hold the keys to his chains.
Paul begins by reminding us that “the gospel” that he is preaching was “promised before by His prophets in the holy scriptures” (from Romans 1:1,2). So what he is teaching is not his invention by any means. He is only sharing what had been previously prophesied in the Old Testament.
Paul goes on to show us that sin is wrong, and there will be “tribulation and anguish” on everyone who does evil, and “glory honor and peace to every man who does good, and that there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:9-11). I am sure that every Jew and Muslim would agree with that statement.
But Paul also recognizes that there are those who profess to follow the law, who do not obey it perfectly. In this he is merely understanding a truth of scripture and shows us by quoting scripture through verses 10-18, of Romans three, that God sees the hypocrisy of the people, - “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’” (Romans 3:10 from Psalm 14:1). Therefore, because of the weakness and foibles of the flesh, no one can actually be justified by keeping the law in God’s eyes. If he could do so his whole life, he could be justified, as Paul affirms in 2:13, but “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In this verse Paul is merely summarizing what he has just shown us by quoting Psalm 14:1-3, 5:3, 10:7, Isaiah 59:7,8 and Psalm 36:1 in verses 10-18.
So far we can see that Paul isn’t saying anything that God has not previously determined. Therefore Paul concludes that the law is designed to reveal the knowledge of sin, so that all may stand equally guilty before God and recognize their need for salvation. The commandments are a mirror in which our own sinfulness is magnified and reflected.-
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law said, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ (Romans 7:7).
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God (Romans 3:19).
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
Paul again is merely affirming a principle that has been illustrated in the Old Covenant scriptures from Eden to Moses.
God shows us clearly that after Adam and Eve had sinned, their own efforts to cover their nakedness with fig leaves was inadequate. God then proceeded to cover them Himself with the skins of an animal, through that first death, showing us that man’s sins must be covered by God Himself, by a sacrifice of His choosing.
When Moses was given the commandments, he was also given the plan for the tabernacle where the forgiveness of sins could be made through sacrifices. God through His foreknowledge knew His people would do no better than their first parents and would need that provision.
Before Moses even had a chance to deliver God’s commandments to the people, they had already broken the first one, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” by worshipping the golden calf.
In a rage, Moses broke the tablets upon which the commandments had been written, showing us that if we break one commandment we have broken them all. In other words, breaking just one commandment makes us sinners, just as Adam and Eve only had to break one commandment to instigate the curse of death upon humanity.
The principle of salvation by grace is clearly illustrated in these two examples: a sacrifice was needed in order to cover Adam and Eve, the tabernacle sacrifices were required for the forgiveness of sins – “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls:, for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). These examples are foreshadows of the last sacrifice that was accomplished by the Messiah Jesus.
God has set the precedent in His word that shows us that man is incapable of following God’s word perfectly which justification by law requires. From this we can conclude with Paul that a man is justified by faith in the atonement (which is foreshadowed in the examples from Eden and Moses), apart from the deeds of the law.
It’s here we need to stop and realize that Paul is not saying that the law is abrogated, or done away with as some have thought, but only that the Old Covenant justification by law has been abrogated, or “done away,” which is the “ministration of death” (II Cor.3:7), and the “ministration of condemnation” (II Cor. 3:9).
If we are “under the law,” seeking to be justified by keeping it through our own flawed efforts, then we must be judged by the law. The law of God is perfect, therefore in order to be justified by the law, we must be perfect as well. No human is perfect, therefore justification by the law is not possible as we have been shown by the illustrations in Eden and Mount Sinai. Under the Old Covenant, anyone who did not keep the commandments was under a curse (Deuteronomy 30:1) and the result was death.
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them (Galatians 3:10 from Deuteronomy 27:26).
And as we look back again on the tabernacle foreshadows we can see that the law always required the tabernacle services for the forgiveness of sins, which were designed to foreshadow the purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus became a curse for us. - Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree: (Galatians 3:13).
Jesus revealed His purpose in becoming sin in our place when He directs our gaze back to the foreshadow of His sacrifice in John 3:14 and Numbers 21:9. God directed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and placed it on a pole. Whenever the people were bitten by a serpent, a similitude of sin, then when they looked at the serpent on the pole they would be healed. Jesus shows us by likening His death to this example that our sins are forgiven when we confess that we have been bitten, so to speak and need to be forgiven. Through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for us, our sins are removed and under this New Covenant made in Jesus’ blood, we are no longer under the curse of the law. Those who reject God’s provision for salvation under the New Covenant, and choose to remain under the law of the Old Covenant, must also remain under the curse of the law. If we seek to be “under the law” or justified by our own efforts to keep the law, then we are fallen from the grace, the only means that God has ordained that can save us. –
Christ is become no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; you are fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).
By understanding these principles, that all have sinned and need atonement, and that it is the righteousness of the law that makes us realize how much we need atonement, we can understand that the faith in Christ that Paul is teaching does not void the law. “God forbid: yes, we establish the law” Romans 3:31.
The apostle affirms “wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Romans 7:12).
Paul encourages us to “do no evil” (II Cor. 13:7), and to follow the law as an example “so says the law” (I Cor. 14:34). How do we know what is evil in the eyes of God? We read the law and avoid doing those things that God does not like and even hates. If we love Him we will keep His commandments (John 14:15) which is the evidence of a genuine salvation. “Faith without works” is a dead faith, (James 2:17) and no one can be justified by a faith that is incapable of responding to, and being led by the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells us, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
That the man of God may be perfect, (mature) thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:16,17).
For God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness (I Thess. 4:7).
Under the New Covenant the law is not done away with, but it has been internalized as prophesied by God through Jeremiah of the New Covenant. – “I will put My law I their inward parts, and write it in their hearts:”… (Jeremiah 31:33,Hebrews 8:10). That means that in the New Covenant, the emphasis is on becoming a new creature, or new creation. The Holy Spirit works with God’s word in order to reform a believer into Jesus’ image or example.
The emphasis under the New Covenant is inner holiness, resulting in a transformed life that naturally walks in the things that please God in response to the relationship the believer has with God through Jesus. This relationship was first illustrated for us through God’s relationship with Abraham.
Abraham was justified by faith who “believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Ro. 4:3 from Genesis 15:6). Through Abraham’s relationship with God, he naturally walked in the things that pleased God, led by the voice of God’s Holy Spirit. That precious relationship is the same relationship that God enables every believer in Messiah Jesus to have, so that all may have the opportunity to be called the “friend of God” as was Abraham. Thus we can see the significance of Jesus addressing His disciples as “friends” (John 15:15).
Know you therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7)
The law has not been removed, but its function has been refined and elevated to another level as we behold it through the born again eyes of grace. The law is no longer a list of rules to follow, but a loving guide for our health, righteous living, and the welfare of others.
Now that our salvation has been obtained through faith in Jesus, we can follow God’s word to please Him and walk in the things He has ordained for His children to walk in. –
For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The law always serves as our moral guide, written in our hearts under the New Covenant and we follow God’s word in the newness of life as we are led by the Holy Spirit, set free from the bondage of sin and death. Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24)
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Copyright 2021 by H. D. Shively
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