In this series of blogs I intend to explore St. Paul the Apostle’s comment in Galatians 2:19 (RSV), “For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.”
St. Paul is the prime elucidator of the Christian idea of the justification by faith rather than attaining God’s justification through keeping Torah. He was clear that it is faith in Christ which brings one to salvation, not keeping the Law. However, St. Paul was not an anarchist nor even anomian, rather he had very clear ideas of morality based in the Jewish Tradition and Law. Biblical Scholar James Dunn, in The Partings of the Ways, notes that keeping the Law for Jews was not the means to become part of the chosen people, rather keeping the Law was intended for those already within the community of God’s people and the means for distinguishing themselves from the other nations.
“For the devout Jew, obedience to the law was not a way of entering the covenant, not a way of winning a place in God’s favour. Obedience to the Torah was what God demanded of those already within the covenant, already part of his chosen people. The law told the covenant member how to live as a covenant member. ‘Covenant nominism’ is what the devout Jew did to express his Jewishness, that which distinguished him from the other nations.”
What Paul objected to was exactly the Jewish notion that since only Jews had the Law, only Jews could keep the Law and therefore only Jews were capable of being saved by God. St. Paul’s argument is that all along it was faithfulness to God which was essential – keeping the Law was only meant as a sign of faithfulness – it was never intended to replace faith in God as the basis for our relationship to God. Paul’s argument is the Jews were meant to be a light to the nations, not the people who closed the door on them. Any who see keeping tradition as the sign of their exclusively being saved by God have missed the point of godly Tradition. Keeping Tradition like keeping Torah is only meant as a sign of our faithfulness but it is not intended to replace faith as our way of relating to the Lord God.
The point St. Paul is trying to make is that what God always wanted from His people was that they remain faithful to Him. God’s intention was never to create a people who robotically obeyed the detail of Law, rather Law was given to help the people keep faith with God. God did not create automatons but rather made us humans meaning we have to freely choose to believe in God and follow Him.
God always wanted us to live by faith, meaning that we actually trust God, believe His promises and live as if we actually believe them. We are to pay attention to what God is doing, not just what God did in the past. The Law was given as a means for believers to demonstrate that they do have faith in God. How would someone who believes in God live? St. James has it right when he says, “I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18). If we really believe God, we will do what God commands. The Law was given to help us maintain a faithful relationship with God.
Here though is the issue as St. Paul defines it. The Torah was given by God as the means for believers to demonstrate their faith (What difference does it make practically whether or not you believe in God? You live a particular life style, one that God has revealed and commanded). The Torah was also given to help believers remain faithful, to be constantly reminded that they are to live and act with faith in God as their prime motivator. By being constantly faithful to God in every little deed we maintain a right and living relationship with God. We pay attention to God and continually watch for what He is currently doing, where He is leading, what He expects from us. This is a living relationship – not just keeping old rules, but an engagement with God today in whatever circumstances we are now in.
What happened however for the Jews, according to St. Paul, is that they lost sight of the fact that keeping Torah was always about faith and being faithful. Keeping Torah was a means to an end. Unfortunately, keeping Torah became the end in itself; the Jews came to value absolute adherence to the Law as the goal of the spiritual life, but lost sight of the fact that keeping Torah was meant to keep us faithful – to keep our eyes on God and what God is presently doing and what God wants us to do.