One thing I love about Kansas is the mountains. Oh, we have them all right. They’re just buried under 600 feet of Harney Silt Loam.
These Kansas mountains, called the Nemaha Ridge, are composed of massive granite folds, part of the Precambrian basement, which would loom over the landscape were they ever to be uncovered by the prairie winds.
Our mountains lie below the surface.
Romans 3 and 8 deal with mountains below the surface. They’re also complicated bits of theological reasoning.
The Apostle Paul labors along the seam between works and grace, law and gospel, Jew and Gentile, Christ’s sacrifice and our response. Lean too far to one side, and you’ll step into the theological nettles — unstraightforward little deviations with pernicious outcomes.
The risk is garden-variety heresy, not least the belief that because of Christ the whole of the Old Testament law has been done away with. After all, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. And for freedom Christ has set us free. And Christ has erased the record of our sins and the demands of the law, having “set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 5:1; Col. 2:14-15). Cheers!
Except that Jesus said that “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). He came not to abolish, but to fulfill the law (5:17).
So too the conclusion of Paul’s reasoning on the subject reads: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:21).
What the Apostle is getting at in Romans 3 and 8 is the reality that for God to be the faithful, unchanging, covenanting God that he reveals himself to be, the ancient law cannot be abrogated. “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
And yet, in God’s convoluted providence, the law proved unable to accomplish human justification and sanctification and could only be brought to completion in the perfect life and sacrifice of Jesus (Rom. 8:3).
The law of faith fulfills the works of the law (Rom. 3:27). The “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” satisfies the law’s death penalty (Rom. 8:2-3). Circumcision of the heart meets the requirements for the outward sign of circumcision (Rom. 2:29). Peoplehood and belonging are detached from genetics. Everyone who responds in faith receives the Spirit of Christ and belongs to Christ (Rom. 8:9; 9:6).
This is all, in C.S. Lewis’ words: “a magic deeper still.” In each case, Paul — along with the rest of the New Testament — points to this deeper reality as what matters most and has found its truest expression in Jesus. “All the law and the prophets” hang on love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:40). Love is the “royal law according to the scripture” (James 2:8).
The Precambrian basement of the Old Testament has proven unshakable. The final word is love.
All of this means, surprisingly, that we cannot dismiss the requirements of the Old Testament law.
The ceremonial laws of ancient Israel have been transmuted in the worship of the church, finding their object and summit in Christ. Case law specific to the context of Israel — like what to do if your ox gores someone (Ex. 21:29) — develops and is critiqued throughout the Scriptures and is not binding beyond its original context.
But the moral laws, particularly the Ten Commandments, continue to apply — in the basic sense that love fulfills the law, but also in the more straightforward sense that the moral precepts of the Old Testament still hold. Jesus inflects them in his life and teaching, as does Paul, but the commandments are never dismissed or dissolved completely (Mark 10:19; Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 7:19b).
None of this makes the church’s ongoing moral discernment easy, but it does rule out the mistaken idea that freedom in Christ means freedom to do as we choose or freedom to scratch a line across Genesis to Malachi. Instead, Christ’s life and sacrifice have made it possible for us to live out the deep requirements of the law in our own lives.
The more our hearts are drawn to God in love, the more we’ll hear the reverberations of the gospel in the granite bedrock of the Torah. “Deep calleth unto to deep” (Psalm 42:7). Christ has fulfilled the law. That’s not a loophole. It’s an invitation to a bright, stark freedom to know, study, love and live the heart of God’s law.
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan., and author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press). He blogs at DoxologyProject.com.