Free to Be Righteous

Excerpted from "The Law in Paul's Letter to the Galatians," published in Modern Reformation magazine, Sept/Oct 2003, by Dr. Donald A. Hagner, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.


In Galatians....Paul argues that the law has come to an end, having now served its main purpose, and that Christians have been delivered from being "under" the law. In one of his most remarkable statements, he says, "For through the law I died to the law" (2:19. The purpose clause that immediately follows these words must be noted: "...so that I might live to God." This is perhaps the key paradox in the whole question of Paul and the law: we are no longer under the law -- we are set free from it -- precisely in order that we might pursue righteousness more effectively. Here is how Paul puts it: "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (5:13-14). And so we come full circle back to the positive references to the law that I noted near the beginning of this article.

Lived-out Righteousness Is of Bottom Line Importance

The point is that, for all his strong arguments concerning the Christian's freedom from the law, Paul still puts an extremely high premium on righteousness -- and can even do so in terms of fulfilling the law. From his point of view, it is as though we are free from the law in order to do the law. Lived-out righteousness is of bottom-line importance for Paul (see Eph. 2:10; 1 Thess. 4:1-8; Tit. 2:14). He is thus careful to warn his readers against unrighteous works of the flesh, in words that may sound very "un-Pauline": "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:21). A little further on, this gets emphasized again: "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he or she also reap. For the one who sows to the flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (6:7-8; see, too Rom. 2:6-10, 13).

How are we to reconcile this emphasis with Paul's resounding declaration that we are no longer under the law and are now free from that which held us captive until the coming of Christ? The answer is that we are free from law insofar as being in a right relationship with God is concerned. That relationship depends solely on grace. We are not free, however, from the call to righteousness. That Christians will live righteously is practically a given for Paul. He insists that "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (5:18).

Lived-out Righteousness is the Fruit of the Spirit

But those led by the Spirit will manifest the appropriate and expected righteousness, for "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (5:22-24).

Here is the paradox again in its fullness: We are set free from the law in order to produce a righteousness that corresponds to the righteousness that the law demanded. This is because the teaching that serves as our guide to righteousness -- the teaching of Christ and his apostles -- is in effect an exposition of the ultimate meaning of the Mosaic law -- that is, the Torah. Jesus, by virtue of his identity as the Messiah who inaugurates the eschatological kingdom, is the authoritative interpreter of the meaning of the law. In his teaching, Jesus penetrates to the essence of the law.

Understandably, the pattern of righteousness to which the Christian is called corresponds to that of the Torah; the content of the law, then, has not fundamentally changed. It is only the dynamic -- the means by which we can arrive at righteousness -- that differs dramatically. Living out the righteousness of the law does not result in a right relationship with God, rather, being in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ results in living out the righteousness of the law. The Christian -- through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and not through the dynamic of his or her own efforts to be righteous by keeping the law -- manifests a life of increasing growth in righteousness.


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