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Volume 1/Issue 1/February 2015

The Law and the Christian

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Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation, professor of biblical theology, and associate dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Aubrey M. Sequeira grew up in Southern India in syncretistic Roman Catholicism. He is currently Adjunct Instructor for New Testament Interpretation and a Ph.D candidate in Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Abstract

Churches around the world must be guided by a whole-Bible theology that takes into account the contours of God’s redemptive plan and the eschatological fulfillment of God’s saving promises in Jesus Christ to articulate the relationship of Christians to the Mosaic law. This article therefore seeks to examine the role of the Mosaic law in God’s plan of redemption and how it applies to the life of the Christian. We proceed first by briefly describing the nature of the law and its role within the Old Testament (OT) storyline. Second, we examine the role of the law in the theology of the New Testament (NT) authors. We argue that the NT authors understand the law in salvation-historical and christological categories. The law has been brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ and therefore believers are no longer under the prescriptions of the Mosaic law. Instead, believers are under the “law of Christ,” which centers on Jesus himself as the sovereign and authoritative interpreter of the law. Believers fulfill the law of Christ in their love for one another as those who have circumcised hearts under the new covenant and are indwelled by the promised Holy Spirit. Finally, on the basis of the biblical data, we delineate five conclusions concerning the relation of Christians to the law, with corresponding points of application.

We live in a day of unprecedented gospel advance among the nations. The 20th century has seen an explosive growth of Christianity in what has been termed the “Global South.”[1] In this season of growth, pastors, theologians, and missionaries are faced with several questions, new and old, of how the Scriptures must be contextualized in diverse cultures and communities. Amidst many novel issues, one perennial question that the Church has faced for 2000 years is that of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and the bearing that this relationship has on the lives of Christian believers. For instance, while one of us was leading a church plant in South India some years ago, multiple congregants who had recently moved to the area to begin new jobs offered all of their first month’s income to the church. They were acting in accord with what is common practice in Christian communities in South India, where congregants offer all the first fruits of their harvests, the first-born of their animals, and all of their first month's income from any new job to churches, believing that they are acting in obedience to God's law (Exod 13:1–2; 11–13; Deut 15:19; 26:1–4). More examples may be furnished from other contexts. In 2011, one of us spent a week in a major city in East Africa training pastors of slum churches in Bible exposition. One question that arose was how passages from Deuteronomy apply to Christians. Pastors wondered whether newly married men should take a year off from all work to be with their wives (Deut 24:5). Others asked whether walking around various parts of the city would ensure that these parts of the land would be granted to their churches in fulfillment of God's promises to Joshua (Josh 1:8).

These illustrations demonstrate a crucial hermeneutical question faced by Christian believers around the world: How should new covenant believers interpret and apply the Old Testament? More specifically, what is the relationship between Christians and the Mosaic law? These issues are nothing new, for the apostolic church wrestled with these questions as the gospel advanced to new frontiers and Gentiles were included in the people of God (cf. Acts 15:1–29). In our day, the global church is plagued by the proliferation of unhealthy theology through syncretistic forms of worship and grievous errors such as the misapplication of Old Testament promises by proponents of the “prosperity gospel.” These realities exacerbate the need for a whole-Bible theology that takes into account the contours of God’s redemptive plan and the eschatological fulfillment of God’s saving promises in Jesus Christ to articulate the relationship of Christians to the Mosaic law.

This article therefore seeks to examine the role of the Mosaic law in God’s plan of redemption and how it applies to the life of the Christian.[2] We proceed first by briefly describing the nature of the law and its role within the Old Testament storyline. Second, we examine the role of the law in the theology of the NT authors. We argue that the NT authors understand the law in salvation-historical and christological categories. The law has been brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ and therefore believers are no longer under the prescriptions of the Mosaic law. Instead, believers are under the “law of Christ,” which centers on Jesus himself as the sovereign and authoritative interpreter of the law. Believers fulfill the law of Christ in their love for one another as those who have circumcised hearts under the new covenant and are indwelled by the promised Holy Spirit. Finally, on the basis of the biblical data, we delineate five conclusions concerning the relation of Christians to the law, with corresponding points of application.

1. The Law in the Old Testament

1.1. The Word for Law

The word torah is used in the Old Testament for law. Specifically, it refers to all that the people of Israel were commanded to do under the Sinai covenant. Although in a few passages it carries a broader meaning (cf. Job 22:22; Ps 94:12; Prov 1:8; 4:2; 13:14; Isa 2:3; 42:4; 51:4; Mal 2:6–8), the word typically denotes the commands and prescriptions that were given to Moses at Sinai to regulate the lives of the people of Israel. An examination of usage in the Old Testament reveals that the term torah primarily refers to God’s commands, statutes, and laws (eg. Gen 26:5; Deut 4:8; 17:19; 30:10; 1 Kgs 2:3; 2 Kgs 17:13; 2 Chr 19:10; Ezra 7:10; Neh 9:14; 10:29; Jer 44:10; Amos 2:4; Mal 4:4). The Old Testament speaks of “walking in the law” (e.g., Exod 16:4; Josh 22:5; 2 Chr 6:16; Pss 78:10; 119:1; Jer 26:4; 32:23); “keeping the law” (e.g., Josh 23:6; 1 Chr 22:12; Ps 119:44); “doing the law” (e.g., Deut 27:26; 28:58; 29:29; 31:12; Josh 1:7; 23:6; 2 Kgs 17:37; 2 Chr 33:8); “obeying the law” (Isa 42:24; cf. Ezra 7:26); “transgressing the law” (Dan 9:11). The Old Testament “law” therefore, constituted the covenantal stipulations for God’s covenant people, Israel.

In the New Testament, the word nomos is used for “law” and often refers to the Pentateuch as a part of Scripture (e.g., Matt 5:17; 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16; John 1:45; Rom 3:21), and also to what is written in the law (Luke 10:26; John 10:34; 12:34; 1 Cor 9:8; 14:34; Gal 4:21). In these instances, the term simply seems to refer to Scripture. In some texts, the word nomos seems to designate a principle or norm in the more general sense, although this is highly disputed (e.g., Rom 3:27; 7:21, 23, 25; 8:2).[3] Most frequently, however, the term refers to what is commanded in the Mosaic law (Matt 5:18–19; 22:36; 23:23; Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 27, 39; Acts 23:3; John 7:19, 23; 8:17; 19:7; Rom 2:17, 18, 20; 9:31; 10:4; Gal 2:21; 3:11; 5:4; Eph 2:15; Phil 3:6, 9). Thus nomos in the New Testament primarily refers to the Mosaic law and its commandments.

1.2. From Creation to Abraham

Within the Old Testament storyline, the giving of the law takes places after God’s great deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. A fuller understanding of the law of God in the Old Testament is gained by examining the precursors to the Sinai covenant. Although the term torah does not occur in the creation account, God’s command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil foreshadows the giving of the law (Gen 2:16–17; 3:2–3). The command was given in the context of God’s loving provision for Adam and Eve and his relationship with them. Adam and Eve had experienced God’s goodness in creating a world that was “very good,” in breathing life into them, and situating them in a delightful garden-sanctuary. However, being deceived by the serpent, Eve doubted God’s goodness and transgressed God’s command, believing that the forbidden fruit was in fact nourishing, pleasing, and the way to be wise (Gen 3:6). Adam and Eve thus rebelled against God in seeking to decide for themselves what was “good and evil.” A key motif in biblical theology emerges here, namely, that disobedience to God’s commands flows from a failure to trust God. Adam and Eve transgressed God’s command because they did not believe God’s word to them. True faith expresses itself in obedience. The period from Adam to Noah confirms this truth. Though human beings were not yet under the Mosaic law, Abel, Enoch, and Noah lived righteously and pleased God as they walked before him in obedience (Gen 4:4; 5:23–24; 6:8–9, 22; 7:5). Hebrews 11:4–7 makes it clear that their obedience was rooted in faith. Faith manifests itself in obedience so that works are the fruit of true faith. Those who trust God obey him.

1.3. Abraham

The next major turn in the biblical storyline is God’s relationship with Abraham. Genesis emphasizes Abraham’s trust in God during his lifetime (Gen 12 – 25). The New Testament authors also focus on Abraham’s faith (Rom 4; Gal 3; Heb 11:8–19). Abraham was declared righteous before God because of his faith (Gen 15:6), and the author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham’s obedience flowed from his faith. Thus we see that faith and obedience are integrally related. Abraham did not live under the Sinai covenant, but Abraham’s obedience to God, which flowed from his faith, forms an important precursor to the Mosaic law. Understanding the relationship between the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant is important in determining the nature of the Sinai covenant. The redemption of the Israelites from Egypt was a fulfillment of the covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac,and Jacob (Exod 2:24; 3:6, 15–16; 4:5; 6:8) and therefore the Sinai covenant in one sense was a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.

1.4. The Sinai Covenant

The Lord graciously redeemed Israel from Egypt prior to the establishment of the Sinai covenant and the giving of the law. The law regulated the lives of God’s people under the Sinai covenant, but this does not entail that the Sinai covenant was itself legalistic. By “legalism,” we mean the notion that one could be found righteous in God’s eyes by one’s works. The Mosaic covenant was certainly not legalistic in this sense. Rather, God chose the family of Abraham and redeemed Israel from Egypt purely because of his electing love and grace (cf. Deut 7:6–8; 9:4–5). The giving of the law came after God’s redemption of his people (Exod 20:2), and therefore Israel’s relationship with the Lord was established by grace.

The law was given for Israel to respond to God’s grace with faithful obedience. The Sinai covenant promised blessings for obedience and curses for transgression (Lev 26; Deut 26–28). However, Israel did not inherit the blessings because they rebelled against the covenant and brought upon themselves the covenant curses. Israel’s disobedience does not indicate a problem with the commands of the covenant, but rather, with the people of the covenant. Although Israel was delivered from Egypt, the people had uncircumcised hearts, were inwardly wicked, and did not have the power to obey God’s law. They were stiff-necked and rebellious in heart, without eyes to see or ears to hear (Deut 29:4). They needed an inward circumcision of the heart to be able to keep God’s law (Deut 10:16). Moses foresaw that Israel would continue in their rebellion and would experience the curses of the covenant, culminating in their exile from the land (Deut 32:15–27). However, Deuteronomy also contains the promise that God would not utterly abandon his people, but would circumcise their hearts in the future so that they would love and obey him (Deut 30:6–8). This promise is fulfilled in the new covenant. This issue of circumcision of heart clarifies the major discontinuity between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant. While the Sinai covenant was a gracious covenant, it did not grant the covenant members the inward ability to keep the covenant stipulations. Only a remnant of the people knew and loved God under the old covenant.[4] In contrast, in the new covenant, God writes his law in the hearts of all covenant members so that they love to do his will—every covenant member has a circumcised heart and truly knows the Lord (Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:26–27). Thus the Old Testament looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s saving promises in the new covenant.

Before we proceed to consider the role of the law in the New Testament, one more important question needs to be addressed, as there is a lot of confusion on this point, especially among laypeople. It should be clear from the discussion above that the Old Testament does not teach that one could earn a right standing before God on the basis of one’s works. In fact, Paul argues that salvation was always by faith, even in the Old Testament. Paul appeals to Abraham, who lived before the law (Rom 4:1–25) and David, who lived under the law (Rom 4:6–8), to argue that justification is by faith alone. Salvation in both Old and New Testaments therefore, is always by faith. We now turn to an examination of the law in the New Testament.

2. The Law in the New Testament

How do the New Testament authors view the law of Moses? We maintain that the New Testament authors regard the law in salvation-historical and christological terms. In other words, the New Testament authors teach that the Mosaic law is brought to its fulfillment in Christ and therefore is no longer binding upon God’s people. Christians, therefore, are not under the law covenant and are not bound to obey its prescriptions. Instead, as members of the new covenant they have the law written on their hearts so that they inwardly desire to obey God by loving him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving their neighbors as themselves. Put simply, Christians are under the “law of Christ,” and they fulfill the law through love. The Mosaic law, although it was holy and good in itself, was not able to produce an obedient people. However, Christians are able to keep the righteous requirement of the law in this way because they live in the age of fulfillment and are indwelled by the promised Holy Spirit who enables them to live in a manner pleasing to God (Rom 8:4). A brief survey of the New Testament makes this clearer.

2.1. The Law in Paul

We begin with the Pauline corpus, as understanding what the apostle says about the law is vital to a New Testament theology of law. The Pauline teaching on the law is summarized in seven points below:

2.1.1 Christians Are No Longer Under the Law Covenant of Moses

Paul clearly teaches that Christians are no longer under the law covenant of Moses. Several texts may be adduced in support of this point. In Galatians 3:19–20, Paul states that the law was added only until the promised seed came. That is, Paul places a temporal limitation on the law’s jurisdiction. With the coming of Christ, the era of the law has ended. This provisional nature of the law is further enunciated in Galatians 3:23–25. Here, Paul uses the metaphor of the pedagogue to describe the relationship between the era of the law and the era of fulfillment in Christ. The description of the law as a “guardian” implies that the law was instituted for a limited period of time and its authority has been brought to an end now that Christ has arrived. The era of the pedagogue gives way to the era of fulfillment. Paul further emphasizes this notion in Galatians 4:1–7. Here, Paul uses the illustration of an heir who cannot receive his inheritance while he is still a minor. In one sense, therefore, the time under the law is a period of slavery. In the fullness of time, God has sent his Son and has redeemed those who were under the law so that now they are regarded as sons. The sway of the law has thus been brought to an end.

Another passage in support of the view that Christians are no longer under the Mosaic covenant is 2 Corinthians 3. In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul labels the Mosaic covenant as the “old covenant,” in contrast to the “new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6, cf. also Rom 7:5–6). In 2 Corinthians 3:11, the Mosaic covenant is described as “that which was being brought to an end” (to katargoumenon). The new covenant abides and continues, whereas the old covenant is brought to an end. The replacement of the old covenant by the new covenant naturally entails that the laws of the old covenant are no longer binding.

In Romans, we find further confirmation that the Mosaic law is not binding upon Christians. Paul states in Romans 6:14 that believers are not “under law.” In this text, Paul is responding to the claim from his opponents that the gospel promotes sin since grace provides no basis for living a righteous life. Paul counters this objection by stating that the grace mediated through the gospel does not lead to sin, but gives one victory over sin. In fact, it is those who are under the law who are enslaved to sin, as Israel’s history under the Mosaic covenant demonstrates. The law belongs to the old era of salvation history and believers have been set free from its dominion. This salvation-historical character of the law is confirmed in Romans 7:5–6, which states that Christians have been freed from captivity under the law so that they may serve in “newness of Spirit” and not in “oldness of letter” (cf. also 2 Cor 3:6). Although Paul considers the law itself as “holy” and its commands as “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7:11), the law is unable to produce an obedient people because sin deceptively uses it to produce death (Rom 7:7–25).

The end of the law’s dominion is further established in Romans 10:4, where Paul asserts that Christ is the “end of the law.” The word telos, translated “end” here, indicates both “end” and “goal.” Christ is the goal to which the law points, and now that he has come, the law has come to an end. Since the law has come to an end, believers in Christ are not under its dominion. Paul’s teaching on food in Romans 14:1–15:6 also implies that the law is no longer in force for believers. Paul declares all foods to be clean in the Lord Jesus, and it is only considerations of conscience that should cause one to regard anything as unclean and not partake of it (Rom 14:14, 20). Clearly, with respect to food, the Mosaic law is not binding, for the Mosaic law strictly demarcated certain foods as unclean and forbade the people of Israel from eating these foods. We may observe that Paul likewise abrogates circumcision (Rom 4:9–12; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:2–4, 6; 6:15) and the Sabbath (Rom 14:5–6; Col 2:16–17). The era of the law has come to its end in Christ.

2.1.2 The Salvation-Historical Role of the Law In Paul’s Thought

The salvation-historical role of the law in Paul’s thought can be seen from how he regards the relationship between the Mosaic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, and the new covenant. In Galatians, Paul also explains the salvation-historical nature of the law covenant vis-à-vis the Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:15–18). The Sinai covenant was given 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant and therefore does not nullify the promises made to Abraham. The promises of the Abrahamic covenant are fulfilled in Christ, and those who have faith in Christ receive these promises. Romans 4:13–16 also contrasts the promise of Abraham with the Mosaic law. The promise to Abraham was not received through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. The law brings wrath for those who transgress it and since everyone is a transgressor, the law consequently cannot lead to life. The promise is secured by faith for those who are the true children of Abraham.

2.1.3 Understanding Paul’s Negative Statements Through the Lens of Salvation History

Paul’s seemingly negative statements which separate the Mosaic law from faith are best understood through the lens of salvation history and the redemptive-historical superiority of the new covenant to the old. The new age has dawned in Christ and therefore Christians are no longer under the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant was not legalistic, but was nationalistic in that it created a wall of separation between Israel and the Gentiles. Ephesians 2:11–22 indicates that this wall of separation has been removed through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This salvation-historical shift explains Paul’s statements concerning the law in Romans and Galatians. The Jewish teachers in Galatia were insisting that keeping the prescriptions of the Sinai covenant was necessary for salvation, but for Paul, this is equivalent to a denial of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul asserts that such a teaching amounts to turning back the redemptive-historical clock and ignoring the work of Christ. Since no one keeps the Mosaic law perfectly, animal sacrifices were necessary under the old covenant. But now, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the fulfillment to which the animal sacrifices pointed. If the animal sacrifices were sufficient for sin, there would be no need for Christ to die. To continue to view the Sinai covenant as the standard for salvation requires perfect obedience to the law, because animal sacrifices no longer atone for sin now that Christ has died. Those who demand obedience to the law would have to keep all of it, without its provision for forgiveness. The cross of Christ has brought animal sacrifices to an end.[5] One can either rely upon the Sinai covenant for salvation by keeping it perfectly (since the animal sacrifices no longer atone for sin) or trust in the finished work of Christ. Thus Paul understands the law in a salvation-historical framework. Paul does not regard the Sinai covenant as legalistic, but its fulfillment in Christ entails that if one relies on the law for salvation, one must obey the law perfectly to be saved. 

2.1.4 The Law Is Both Abolished and Fulfilled In Christ

It seems that Paul considers the law to be both abolished and fulfilled in Christ. While circumcision is no longer required for membership in the covenant people of God, believers enjoy circumcision of the heart through Christ’s atonement and the work of the Holy Spirit (Phil 3:3; Col 2:11–12). The Passover is an old covenant festival that Christians are not required to observe, but it points typologically to Christ, who is the Passover sacrifice for Christians. Indeed, all sacrifices under the old covenant now find their typological fulfillment in Christ (Rom 3:25–26; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13). The temple as an institution is no longer in force, but is fulfilled in the church of Jesus Christ so that the new covenant community is God’s dwelling place and believers are indwelled by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21). The food regulations of the old covenant have passed away, as we have already seen, but the theme of fulfillment extends to food as well. The cleaning out of leaven (Exod 12:15–20) applies to believers symbolically, so that they should not allow evil to infect the church (1 Cor 5:6–8; Gal 5:9). Similarly, the requirement of capital punishment under the old covenant does not apply literally in the new covenant but is fulfilled through excommunication from the covenant community of those who continue in unrepentant sin (1 Cor 5:13). We believe that this fulfillment includes the Sabbath as well, even though the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments. Paul claims that Christians are free in regard to the observance of days, so that all days are equally alike (Rom 14:5). The Sabbath is not excluded from this pronouncement since it was kept weekly and was naturally the day that would come to mind for Paul’s readers. In Colossians 2:16–17, Paul asserts that the Sabbath belongs together with the shadows of the old covenant.

2.1.5 Continuing Moral Authority for the Christian

Paul does carry over some moral norms of the law as authoritative for the Christian. For example, Christians are commanded to honor father and mother (Eph 6:2). Paul teaches that love fulfills the law (Rom 13:8–10), but several moral standards of the old covenant continue to apply to believers. These include: adultery (Rom 2:22; 7:3; 13:9; 1 Cor 6:9); murder (Rom 1:29; 13:9; 1 Tim 1:10); stealing (Rom 1:29–30; 1 Cor 6:9–10; Eph 4:28); lying (Col 3:9; 1 Tim 1:10; 4:2; Titus 1:12); coveting (Rom 1:29; 7:7–8; Eph 5:3, 5; Col 3:5). The prohibition against idolatry also clearly continues to stand for those in the new covenant (1 Cor 5:10–11; 6:9; 10:7, 14; 2 Cor 6:16; Gal 5:20; Eph 5:5; Col 3:5). How does one reconcile Paul’s claim that the Old Testament law has been abolished for Christians with his continued citation of some of its commands as authoritative for believers?

Historically, many Christian theologians have distinguished between the moral, ceremonial, and civil law in order to explain how some parts of the Mosaic law are applicable to Christians. While this distinction bears some elements of truth, it does not adequately represent Paul’s view on the law. We have already mustered sufficient evidence to show that Paul views the entirety of the Mosaic law as abrogated in Christ so that believers in Christ are not under its authority. To claim that the “moral” part of the Mosaic law continues to hold sway over believers is erroneous because such an assertion does not fit with Paul’s claim that the entirety of the law has been set aside for believers in Christ. Additionally, the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial can be quite arbitrary since it is very difficult to discern what elements of the law fall into each category. For instance, the law forbidding the taking of interest is a moral command (Exod 22:25), but was addressed to Israel as an agricultural society in the ancient Near East. Similarly, the Sabbath cannot be easily placed into any one of these categories. Although the distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil law has some degree of congruence with the New Testament witness, it is patently not the framework with which the New Testament authors operate, and the distinction between what is moral, civil, or ceremonial is not sufficiently clear. Thus, to state that the ceremonial and civil parts of the law are abolished while the moral law abides does not do justice to Paul’s view.

Yet, the distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil perhaps has some truth to it, because as we have noted above, Paul directly applies some commands of the law to the lives of the believers. These can appropriately be called “moral norms.” It is noteworthy that even when Paul cites the Old Testament commandments (Rom 13:9; Eph 6:2–3), they are not deemed authoritative because they are part of the law. Rather, they are normative because they reflect the character of God. These moral norms of the Old Testament are not binding on Christians as stipulations of the Mosaic law and covenant, since believers in Christ are not under the Mosaic law. Instead, it seems better to regard the moral norms of the Old Testament as included in the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21; cf. Lev 19:18; Mark 12:28–32). The heart and soul of Paul’s ethic is summed up in the command to love one another (e.g., Rom 12:9; 13:8–10; 1 Cor 8:1–3; 13:1–13; 14:1; Gal 5:13–15; Eph 5:2; Col 3:15; 1 Tim 1:5). Believers fulfill the law of Christ when they bear each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2), and the Old Testament law is fulfilled in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Gal 5:14, cf. Lev 19:18). Love, therefore, is the center of the law of Christ and undergirds everything that believers are called to do. Believers express their love by obedience to moral norms. 

2.1.6 Believers Fulfill the Law of Christ

Paul maintains that believers fulfill the law, specifically, the law of Christ that we have discussed above. The internal grace and transformation required to keep God’s commands is provided for all the covenant members in the new covenant, while this inward enablement was not available under the Sinai covenant. The Sinai covenant did not provide for the majority of Israel the heart-circumcision that was necessary to keep its prescriptions. With the exception of a righteous remnant within Israel, the large majority of the nation rebelled against God and failed to keep his law. Thus Israel experienced the curses of the covenant. However, Paul asserts that believers in Christ are circumcised in heart by the Spirit of God and therefore are able to live lives that are pleasing to God (Rom 2:28–29; Col 2:12; Phil 3:3). Believers are the new creation work of Christ and are recipients of the promised Holy Spirit. As those animated by the Holy Spirit, Christians are empowered to walk in obedience and fulfill the righteous requirement of the law (Rom 2:28–29; 7:6; 8:4). Believers have experienced the love of God in Christ and are able to love one another and obey God’s commands through the power of the Holy Spirit.

2.1.7 Jewish Legalism Does Not Indicate Legalistic Covenant

Finally, it is necessary to clarify that although the Sinai covenant itself was not a legalistic covenant, Paul does engage in a polemic against Jewish legalism in his letters.[6] The evidence in the Pauline corpus indicates that some Jews in Paul’s day believed that they could be righteous before God on the basis of their observance of the law. Such a view of the law amounts to legalism for it bases justification upon human obedience rather than God’s grace. Wherever Paul uses the term “works of law,” a polarity between works and faith is present with regard to justification (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10–12; Rom 3:20–22, 28). Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians that faith looks to God’s promises and his supernatural work, whereas dependence on the law introduces the condition of human obedience to receive God’s promised salvation. A polemic against legalism is clear in Romans 9:30–10:8, as Paul criticizes Israel’s pursuit of righteousness before God on the basis of works, as if they could put God in their debt. Israel sought to establish their own righteousness and therefore did not submit to God’s righteousness. The contrast is between “believing” and “doing” (Rom 10:4–8). Israel stumbled at the heart of the gospel, which is faith in Christ for righteousness. Romans 10 is parallel to Philippians 3:2–11, another text in which Paul advances a polemic against legalism. In Philippians 3, Paul contrasts his own righteousness from the law with the superior righteousness that is by faith in Jesus Christ (Phil 3:9). A polemic against works-righteousness is also evident in texts such as Ephesians 2:8–9, which emphasizes that salvation is by faith and not by works, and Titus 3:5, in which Paul rejects “works done in righteousness” as the basis of a relationship with God.

In summary, it is clear that Paul’s view of the law is salvation-historical and christological. For Paul, the Mosaic law belongs to the old era and is no longer binding upon Christians. Instead, as members of the new covenant, believers are subject to the law of Christ, the central demand of which is love for one another, and they walk in obedience to God as those who are empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Having examined Paul’s view of the law, we now proceed to a survey of the rest of the New Testament. Due to space constraints, we will limit our survey to Hebrews, Matthew, Luke-Acts, and James.[7]

2.2 The Law in Hebrews

The view of the law articulated in the epistle to the Hebrews coheres with what we have seen to be the case in the Pauline corpus. The Mosaic law was temporary and Christian believers are not bound by its stipulations. The author of Hebrews advances an argument against reverting to the Levitical cult and its sacrifices on the basis of salvation-history. Christ is the greater high priest, of the order of Melchizedek, who offers a greater and final sacrifice and thus in his person and work eclipses the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices. The author of Hebrews does not reject the Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices outright. Rather, the Old Testament cult with its priesthood and sacrifices is viewed typologically. The Levitical priesthood and the old covenant sacrificial system form the framework by which Christ’s work must be understood. They typologically pointed to and anticipated the person and work of Christ, who fulfills them by his once-for-all definitive sacrifice.

The author of Hebrews argues that the change in priesthood demands a change in law (Heb 7:11–12). He even claims that the law did not bring perfection and was weak and useless (Heb 7:18–19). In context, these statements are meant to indicate that the law was helpless to provide full and final atonement for sin. The author proceeds to argue that the inauguration of the new covenant renders the Sinai covenant obsolete (Heb 8:7–13). He cites the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31–34 that the law would be written on the hearts of believers and they would receive forgiveness of sins. While Paul’s emphasis is on renewal of heart and Christian obedience, the author of Hebrews focuses on full and final forgiveness of sins that is provided in the new covenant.

The author continually contrasts the stipulations and the punishments of the old covenant with what is required now for those who are in Christ (Heb 2:1–4; 9:6–10, 15–24; 10:26-31; 12:25–29; 13:9–12). Even the prologue to the letter contrasts the definitive revelation given in the last days in the Son with the preliminary and partial revelation in the past. Similarly, Moses is contrasted with Christ in Hebrews 3:1–6. Clearly, the author of Hebrews thinks with the same salvation-historical framework as Paul—the old covenant is displaced and fulfilled by the new covenant in Christ. Furthermore, a turning back to the Levitical cult cuts one off from any possibility of forgiveness.

We should also note that the author of Hebrews does not charge the Mosaic covenant with legalism, nor does he criticize the prescriptions of the law. Rather he views the Mosaic covenant typologically in salvation-historical terms. The tabernacle points to the true heavenly tabernacle where God dwells (cf. Heb 8:1–6; 9:1–10). The animal sacrifices of the old covenant foreshadowed the definitive sacrifice of Christ under the new covenant (Heb 9:11–14, 23–28; 10:1–18). The promises of land and rest in the Old Testament anticipate the heavenly city and the final rest for God’s people in the coming age (Heb 3:7–4:13; 11:9–10, 13–16; 12:22; 13:14).

2.3 The Law in Matthew

More than Paul and Hebrews, Matthew seems to emphasize continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The abiding validity of the law is emphasized in Matthew 5:17–20, where Jesus says that he did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets” but “to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). Not even an iota or dot will pass away from the law until all is accomplished, and those who loosen even the least of the commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (5:18–19). The Gospel of Matthew excludes Mark’s statement that all foods are clean (Matt 15:1–20; cf. Mark 7:19). Matthew also commends the offering of sacrifice (Matt 5:24) as well as tithing (Matt 23:23). Jesus also endorses all that the scribes teach (Matt 23:2–3).

While Matthew does highlight continuity, he places far greater emphasis on the theme of fulfillment centered on newness in Christ (Matt 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9; cf. also 3:15; 26:54, 56). The law points to Jesus, and he is the fulfillment of the law. The true meaning of the law is understood in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who fulfills all righteousness (Matt 3:15). Matthew thus features christological discontinuity with regard to the law. Since the law points to Christ and is fulfilled in him, the Old Testament must be interpreted christologically. For instance, Jesus does not abolish the Sabbath, but emphasizes his role as the new David who is greater than the temple and is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:5–12). The Sabbath thus takes on new meaning with the coming of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. While Matthew does not explicitly include the Markan comment that all foods are clean (Mark 7:19), Jesus specifically states that food does not defile a person (Matt 15:10–20). Thus the newness of fulfillment in Christ results in the abrogation of the Old Testament law.

The temporary character of the law is strongly supported by Matthew 17:24–27. Israelites were required to pay the temple tax under the old covenant (Exod 30:13–16). Jesus, however, declares that the “sons are free” from the temple tax (Matt 17:26). The fulfillment of the law in Jesus Christ results in a change in its status. The law must now be interpreted in light of Jesus, who is greater than the temple (Matt 12:5–6). Moreover, Jesus even foretells the destruction of the temple (Matt 24). Thus the references to offering sacrifices (Matt 5:24) and tithing (Matt 23:23) should not be seen as a commendation of these practices, but rather, simply as a recounting of events that took place prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are not prescriptions for the church after redemption has been accomplished.

Matthew thus regards the law with a salvation-historical framework of continuity and discontinuity similar to Paul and the author of Hebrews. Jesus is the sovereign interpreter of the law and he is the one who brings it to fulfillment. Jesus cites commands from the law that require one to honor father and mother and teaches that this command is binding, while waving aside food laws and teaching that they are no longer applicable for God’s people. Furthermore, he reinterprets Old Testament commands in light of his coming and the inauguration of his kingdom. Most notably, Jesus, in Matthew, claims that the law is summed up in the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Matt 22:34–40; cf. Deut 6:4–9; Lev 19:18). Matthew is therefore theologically in the same sphere as Paul and his teaching on the law of Christ.

2.4. The Law in Luke-Acts

Luke’s view of the law is also best understood from the framework of salvation-history. On the surface, it seems like Luke stresses continuity in his view of the law. Both in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts, references to the observance of the law abound. Zechariah and Elizabeth are commended for “walking blamelessly” according to the law (Luke 1:6). Luke records that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day as the law required (Luke 2:21) and Jesus’s parents observed the law of purification at his birth (Luke 2:22–24; cf. Exod 13:2; Lev 12:8). Furthermore, when Jesus was asked on two different occasions what was required to gain eternal life, Jesus commends the observance of the law (Luke 10:25–28; 18:18–20). The continuity of the law is strongly underscored in the statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

The ongoing validity of the law also seems to be emphasized in Acts. Peter and John arrived at the temple at “the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1), most likely to participate in the evening burnt offering sacrifice. Gentiles are instructed to observe certain regulations that come from the Mosaic law (Acts 15:20–21). Moreover, the depiction of Paul in Acts is especially striking as it pertains to his observance of the law. Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3), which seems shocking in light of his repudiation of circumcision in Galatians (Gal 2:3–5; 5:2–6). Paul even purified himself in the temple and offered the sacrifices necessary to fulfill a Nazirite vow (Acts 21:26; Num 6:13–15). Additionally, Paul even paid the expenses for the sacrifices for other men who had taken Nazirite vows (Acts 21:23–24).

Despite what seems like an emphasis on continuity and law-observance, Luke in fact more strongly accents discontinuity, and the references to observance of the law are best understood in the framework of salvation-history and christology. Christ is presented in Luke-Acts as the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament. Those who rightly read “Moses and all the prophets” discern that they anticipate Christ, his suffering, and entry into glory (Luke 24:26–27; cf. 4:16–21). Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection are the fulfillment of everything written “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). For Luke, Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture. The same perspective is seen in Acts, as Paul claimed to follow the “Way” because he believed “everything laid down by the law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14; cf. Acts 26:22–23; 28:23).

A salvation-historical lens helps explain Luke’s apparent emphasis on continuity and law-observance. The references to the observance of the law by Zechariah and Elizabeth and the family of Jesus, all refer to people who lived under the law in the old era of salvation history. In both instances in Luke’s Gospel where the commandments of the law are upheld as the way to eternal life, Jesus goes further and deeper. The narrative in Luke 10:25–28 actually emphasizes the centrality of love for God and neighbor, and it is supplemented with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which highlights mercy. Even more striking is the account in Luke 18. Jesus reminded the rich young ruler of the commands of the law, but then enjoined him to sell all he had and follow Jesus in discipleship (Luke 18:18–23). To attain eternal life, one must follow Jesus. The Old Testament law is summed up in the commands to love God and neighbor, and these commands are fulfilled in following Christ. Though Luke claims that not “one dot of the law will become void” (Luke 16:17), this assertion must be read in light of Luke’s emphasis that Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament. Indeed, the very next verse depicts Jesus as the sovereign interpreter of the Mosaic law, as Jesus interprets the Old Testament law on divorce by forbidding divorce and remarriage (Luke 16:18). Paul’s observance of the law in Acts do not entail that he believed the Old Testament law was still binding. Paul did not object to Jews continuing to observe the law for cultural reasons. His main contention was against imposing the law on Gentiles or claiming that observance of the law is required for salvation. Paul himself observed the law when he was with Jewish people (Acts 21:24; 1 Cor 9:20). But when he was with Gentiles, Paul did not observe the law, so that he could win Gentiles to Christ (1 Cor 9:21).

Furthermore, several texts in Luke-Acts stress radical discontinuity and indicate that the law has been set aside in Christ. Such a perspective is especially prominent in Acts 15:1–35, where the Jerusalem Council’s decision was that circumcision was not required for Gentile converts, something unprecedented in redemptive history. Additionally, the account of Peter’s dream and the salvation of Cornelius in Acts 10:1–11:18 implies that the food laws are not required for believers in Christ. The age of fulfillment thus frees Christians from the prescriptions of the Mosaic law. Two especially strong texts emphasizing salvation-historical discontinuity are Acts 13:38–39 and 15:10–11. In Acts 13:38–39, Paul sets belief in Christ over against the Mosaic law. Freedom from bondage and full forgiveness of sins is found in Jesus Christ, and could not be obtained through the Mosaic law. These statements in Acts fit well, of course, with what we have seen in the Pauline corpus and Hebrews. Acts 15:10–11 is also instructive. Peter contrasts salvation by the grace of the Lord Jesus with the yoke of the Mosaic law. Believers have their hearts cleansed by faith, and salvation comes for Jews and Gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ rather than by obedience to the Mosaic law, since neither the present generation of Jews nor their fathers were able to keep the law. A careful reading of Luke-Acts thus underscores a salvation-historical and christological understanding of the law.

2.5. The Law in James

James uses the terms the “law of liberty” (Jas 1:25; 2:12), “the perfect law” (Jas 1:25); and “the royal law” (Jas 2:8). This law surely includes moral norms of the Old Testament since James refers to the injunctions not to murder and not to commit adultery. Furthermore, it seems that James agrees with Paul that perfect obedience to the law is required, since James states that a person who keeps the whole law but fails in one point becomes accountable for all of it (Jas 2:10). James expresses significant continuity with the Old Testament law since he cites commands from the Old Testament authoritatively. Furthermore, the concern for widows and orphans is rooted in the Mosaic law (Jas 1:27; cf. Exod 22:22; Deut 10:18). The emphasis on purity of speech and godly wisdom (Jas 3:1–18) is thoroughly rooted in Old Testament wisdom literature. The condemnation of the rich who oppress the poor (Jas 5:1–6) is reminiscent of the indictments of the rich in the Old Testament prophets (Amos 2:6–8; 4:1–3; cf. Deut 24:14–15). All these features might lead one to conclude that James views the Mosaic law as still binding upon Christian believers.

However, it is also striking that James never mentions ceremonial dimensions of the law. Circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws are entirely absent in James’ epistle. The key to understanding James’ view of the law is probably in his use of the terms “the law of liberty” (Jas 1:25; 2:12) and “the word” (Jas 1:18, 22–23, 25). In both instances where James uses the term “the law of liberty,” the accent is on the importance of doing God’s will (Jas 1:19–25; 2:8–13). This law liberates people to do God’s will. If this is a reference to the Mosaic law, then it stands in sharp tension with Paul’s statements that the law increases transgressions (Rom 5:20; Gal 3:19) and that it results in death (2 Cor 3:6–7; Rom 7:5–25). However, it is much more likely that “the law of liberty” in James refers to the gospel rather than the Mosaic law.

James closely associates the “law” with the “word.” In James 1:18, James states that believers are granted new life “by the word of truth,” and this is a clear reference to the gospel of Christ. James emphasizes being a doer of “the word” and not just a hearer (Jas 1:22–23). This doing of the word is further described as “doing” “the law of liberty”, namely, “the perfect law” (Jas 1:25). These verses suggest a very close relationship between the “law” and the gospel (i.e., the “word”). Additionally, James exhorts his readers to receive the “implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas 1:21). The implanted word here is the means of eschatological salvation. James is referring to the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:33–34, where the Lord promises to put his law within the people of the new covenant and write his law on their hearts. It seems best to equate the “implanted word” with this law, written on the hearts of new covenant believers. The new covenant explains the relationship between the “word” of the gospel and the Old Testament law in James, since the inauguration of the new covenant involves the writing of the law on the heart through the gospel. In other words, James’ references to the law are best viewed as references to the new covenant law of Christ, which also contains moral norms of the Old Testament law.

We have examined at some length the biblical data concerning the law and its relationship to Christian believer. Our study has shown that the New Testament authors adopt the same lens to understand the law, albeit with diverse perspectives. All the New Testament authors view the law with a salvation-historical and christological framework. They portray the same picture from different angles. Based on the preceding discussion, we now proceed to draw five conclusions concerning the relationship of the law to Christian believers.

2.6. The Relationship of the Law to Christian Believers

2.6.1 Christians  Are  Not  Bound  to  Keep  the  Mosaic  Law

Christians are no longer under the Mosaic law and therefore are not bound to keep its prescriptions. We have shown that the New Testament authors all view the law from a salvation-historical standpoint, and thus consider the Mosaic law as obsolete and belonging to the old era of salvation history. The Mosaic law pointed towards and is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Mosaic law cannot be divided into moral, ceremonial, and civil categories, but rather is abolished in its entirety for believers. Applying this truth, we may infer that Christians are not obligated to observe the Sabbath since the Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic covenant. The observance of the Sabbath is a matter of conscience and Christian freedom. The Sabbath pointed to eschatological rest in Christ, which believers enjoy now proleptically, and will enjoy fully when God’s promises are consummated. Likewise, tithing is not mandated under the new covenant, since the tithe is inextricably bound up with the old covenant, which has passed away and has no authority over Christian believers. Nevertheless, believers in the New Testament are to give of their money and belongings cheerfully and generously (2 Cor 8–9). Christians are commanded to support those who proclaim the gospel (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Cor 9:6–14; 1 Tim 5:17–18) and to be generous to those in need (1 Tim 6:17–19). The laws regulating the agrarian society of Israel under the old covenant certainly do not apply to Christian believers living in agrarian societies in India. The entirety of the old covenant together with the Mosaic law has been set aside in Christ. Furthermore, an attempt to establish one’s righteousness on the basis of submission to the Mosaic law would be disastrous, since it would demand perfect obedience without the provision of animal sacrifices for forgiveness, because these sacrifices pointed to and have been fulfilled in Christ’s perfect and final sacrifice.

2.6.2 Christians Are Under the Law of Christ

Instead of the Mosaic law, Christians are under the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). The law of Christ is centered on Christ himself and his sovereign and authoritative interpretation of the law. Believers fulfill the law of Christ supremely in their love for one another. Some moral norms of the Old Testament are definitely included in the law of Christ, such as the commands to honor one’s parents (Eph 6:2), and the injunctions against murder and adultery (Rom 13:9). However, the focus is not on the Mosaic law, but on its fulfillment in Christ—believers fulfill the law by obeying Christ’s command to love God and love neighbor. Indeed, Christ himself is the supreme example and paradigm of the law of love.

2.6.3 Christians keep the law of Christ by the Holy Spirit

Christians are able to keep the righteous requirements of God's law and live in a manner pleasing to God because as members of the new covenant people of God, they all have God’s law written on their hearts and are indwelled by the promised Holy Spirit. The indwelling Holy Spirit animates believers and empowers them to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves. This love manifests itself in the keeping of God’s commands. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, all members of the new covenant people of God do what only a remnant of the old covenant did: to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbors as themselves (Deut 6:4–9; Lev 19:17–18; Mark 12:28–32; Rom 8:4; 13:8). Such obedience, of course, is still imperfect since believers live in the tension between the already and not yet.

2.6.4 Christians and Blessings / Curses

The curses of the old covenant do not apply to those who are in Christ, whereas all the promises of God apply to believers in an already / not-yet fashion. This point is necessary to counter the damaging assertions of prosperity theology and certain teachers who claim that Christians can suffer from “generational curses,” namely curses that are handed down through generations so that believers are afflicted and suffer for the iniquities of their ancestors. We have already highlighted that the old covenant has been set aside, and that believers are freed from condemnation and the curse of the law through Christ who suffered the curse on behalf of his people. The removal of the curse of the law for Christians who are in Christ entails that true Christian believers are completely freed in Christ and no longer faced with any curses from God. Christians therefore need not fear the inheritance of curses from their ancestors. Rather, as members of the family of Abraham in Christ, they become heirs of all the promises of God. Yet, the typological fulfillment of the promises indicates that these promises are fulfilled in an already / not-yet manner. Christians can rejoice now in God’s saving work on their behalf and the spiritual fulfillment of his promises now in Christ, even as they still wait for final rest and the consummation of all God’s promises in the new heavens and new earth. To import all of the old covenant promises and apply them to Christians without consideration of fulfillment in Christ, as prosperity teachers do, is an error of over-realized eschatology and a misreading of how the Testaments fit together. Such a theology reflects a distorted understanding of God’s grand scheme of salvation and a disregard of the christological focus of the Scriptures.

2.6.5 Christians and Justification

Finally, a word on justification is necessary. We have seen that all of Scripture uniformly teaches that sinners are unable to keep God’s law, and therefore no one can be found righteous before God on the basis of works. In both Old and New Testaments, justification is by faith alone (Gen 15:6; Ps 32:1–2; Rom 4:1–25). Believers therefore are declared right before God through faith alone, on the basis of the atoning work and perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:18–3:26; Gal 3:10–14). We must clarify here that the term “righteousness” in Paul refers to the right-standing of believers before God, and does not refer to the internal transformation of believers by God’s grace.[8] The inward transformation of believers is part and parcel of the new covenant, but one’s right standing before God is by faith in the finished work of Christ alone. The good works of believers are the fruit of faith but not the basis of justification. These works are the evidence of new life in Christ and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of new covenant members.

3. Conclusion

We praise God for the rapid spread of the gospel in the Global South, yet we believe that there is much urgent work to be done in the task of discipleship. In the Great Commission, our Lord commanded us not merely to make “converts,” but to make disciples, teaching them to obey all that he commanded.[9] Sadly, the burgeoning church in the Global South is rife with questions concerning the place of the Mosaic law in God’s plan of redemption, leading to unhealthy practices that amount to legalism and living in bondage. We ourselves have had much personal experience with international Christian contexts where the commands of the old covenant are preached as though they were written after the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In response, we have sought to demonstrate here that Christian obedience consists in Spirit-empowered obedience to the law of Christ, rather than living under the commands of the Mosaic law. It is our sincere hope that we have helped clarify for our brothers and sisters around the world what it means to be set free in Christ Jesus, so that we may together walk in the “obedience of faith,” and not be subject to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1; Rom 1:5; 16:26).



[1] See the astounding statistics in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010): 15–18.

[2] Our work here naturally is heavily dependent and draws on previous work by one of the authors. See Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010); idem, “The Commands of God,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, ed. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); idem, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993). Readers are referred to these works for a fuller discussion than is possible here.

[3] In support of the Mosaic law, see James D. G. Dunn, Romans 18, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1988), 392–95. In support of a metaphorical reading (i.e., “principle”), see Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996): 460–67.

[4] The expressions of delight in the law in Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 represent the experience of the righteous remnant who were circumcised in heart and therefore experienced the Torah as a blessing and delight rather than as a burden. 

[5] The epistle to the Hebrews also moves in similar categories of thought as we will see below (cf. Heb 9:15–10:18).

[6] Contra proponents of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” who claim that Paul primarily opposes Jewish ethnocentricism and nationalistic pride rather than legalism. See James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” BJRL 65 (1983): 95–122; N. T. Wright, What St.

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