Paul’s View of the Law: The Remaining Letters (Part 1)

Having gone through Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans in considerable detail, it now remains to examine the relevant passages and references in the remaining Letters. This will be done in three parts:

    1. Specific passages which refer directly to the Old Testament Law, or which are especially relevant, examined in order for 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon and Colossians
    2. A summary treatment of:
      a. Instances of language, concepts and imagery similar to that used by Paul in reference to the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc)
      b. References which imply or suggest a symbolic or spiritual application of elements of the Law
      c. Verses where Paul indicates a source of religious and ethical authority for Christians similar to that of the Law
    3. The relevant passages in Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus); as there remains legitimate doubt, even among traditional-conservative commentators, as to whether these letters are authentically Pauline or pseudonymous, they are dealt with separately.

Part 1—Passages which refer specifically to the Old Testament Law

1 and 2 Thessalonians

There is no mention of the Law in either letter. The word a)nomi/a does appear (twice) in 2 Thess 2:3, 8, along with the related adjective a&nomo$ (used as a substantive, “the lawless [one]”). The privative prefix a)- indicates a lack of no/mo$ (“law”), i.e. “without law, lawless(ness)”. In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ (“without [the] Law, lawless”) as a general reference to non-Jews (Gentiles), those who do not have the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) as a source of religious and ethical guidance and authority. However, in Rom 4:7; 6:19, a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) is used as a general term synonymous with sin and wickedness, as also in 2 Cor 6:14 (and note in the Pastorals, Tit 2:14). Here in 2 Thessalonians, both terms are used in this latter sense, as indicated by the context, a)nomi/a being set parallel with a)postasi/a (“standing away from [God]”, i.e. “falling away”) and a)pw/leia (“[coming to] destruction, ruin”); in fact, in verse 3, some manuscripts read a(marti/a (“sin”) instead of a)nomi/a, further indicating the general equivalence.

1 Corinthians

1 Cor 6:12; 10:23—In both verses we find the declaration pa/nta moi e&cestin, which is sometimes translated “all things are lawful for me”; however, e&cestin literally indicates something coming “out of (that which) is”, i.e. that which is in a person’s power to do, or that which he/she is authorized and/or free to do. Even though Paul does not specifically mention the Law (no/mo$), it is likely that this statement relates directly to his view of the Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans) and the idea of the freedom believers have in Christ; indeed, the statement might be paraphrased as “I am free to do all things”. Commentators are generally agreed that this reflects a declaration (or “slogan”) by certain Corinthians believers, and one that Paul affirms, but only with qualification and careful explanation. Note how he proceeds:

    • ‘all things are (in) my (power to do)’, but not all things bring (themselves) together (for good);
    • ‘all things are (in) my (power to do)’, but I will not be (brought) under (the power) of any (thing)

He thus qualifies the declaration in two ways: (1) some things are not beneficial, esp. for the body of Christ as a whole, and (2) some things can come to dominate a person’s thinking and behavior, which likewise is not beneficial. The first of these points relates more directly to 1 Cor 10:23ff, where he is dealing with the question of eating food that has been sacrificed to pagan deities; the emphasis is on a concern for the conscience of one’s fellow believer. The second of these points, it would seem, is more relevant to the context of 1 Cor 6:12-20, which is a primarily a warning against engaging in prostitution and sexual immorality. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul’s teaching on Christians’ freedom from the Law is connected with: (a) a warning against immorality and “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:16-25; Rom 8:1-11f), as well as (b) demonstrating love and concern for others (Gal 5:13-15; 6:1-5; Rom 12:1-15:7).

1 Cor 7:18-19—As part of Paul’s instruction on marriage among believers in chapter 7, Paul introduces the idea of circumcision in verse 18. Circumcision played a major role in his discussion of the Law in Galatians, where he argues repeatedly, and in various ways, that believers (especially Gentile believers) are not obligated to be circumcised nor required to observe the other commands of the Torah. In this regard circumcision serves to symbolize the entire Torah, especially in its ritual and ceremonial aspects. Similarly, in Romans, Paul makes it clear that actual physical circumcision is irrelevant; true circumcision is of the heart, according to the Spirit (cf. Rom 2:25-29). Here in 2 Corinthians, circumcision is introduced to further demonstrate his basic rule of thumb that a person should remain in the state he/she was before becoming a believer—i.e., if a person was married, he/she should remain married; if single, then he/she ought to stay single. By extension, a Gentile believer should not be circumcised, and a Jewish believer should not try to cover up his circumcision. Paul then adds a decisive declaration in v. 19:

“Circumcision is nothing, and (having a) foreskin is (also) nothing, but (keeping) watch of the things of God (that are) set on (us to do) [i.e. the commands of God] (is something)…”

This is very similar to the statements in Gal 5:6; 6:15, which I have examined together in an earlier note. Here the “commands of God” should be understood either in a general sense, or in terms of the “Law of God” in 1 Cor 9:21 (cf. below), rather than as the commands of the Torah specifically.

1 Cor 9:19-21—In chapter 9, which is part of the larger discussion in chs. 8-10 of the question regarding eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, Paul emphasized how he has given up the freedom and rights he has an as apostle for the sake of others. Here in verse 19, he begins: “being free from all (people/things), I made myself a slave to all, so that I might gain the many [i.e. the more/most]”. In verses 20-21, he treats in parallel, his outreach to Jews and Gentiles, respectively—Jews are “the ones under the Law [u(po\ no/mon]”, while Gentiles are “the ones without (the) Law [a&nomo$]”. Paul came to be like each group—”as (one who is) under the Law” and “as (one who is) without (the) Law”; but note how he qualifies each of these identifications:

    • “…not being (my)self under the Law” (mh\ w&n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon)
    • “…not being without the Law of God” (mh\ w&n a&nomo$ qeou=)

The first phrase indicates that Paul himself, as a believer in Christ, is not under the Old Testament Law (any longer); while the second states that he (as a believer) is still under “the Law of God”, which is not the Torah, as the identification which follows makes clear:

“…not being without the Law of God, but (rather) in the Law [e&nnomo$] of Christ

Note the wordplay between “without the Law” (a&nomo$, ánomos) and “in the Law” (e&nnomo$, énnomos). Here “in the Law of Christ” should be be understood in relation to the expressions “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|) and “the Law of Christ” (o( no/mo$ Xristou=); in Gal 6:3, the “Law of Christ” is generally synonymous with the law/principle of love (Gal 5:14 etc, cf. Lev 19:18).

It should be noted that in verse 20, a good number of witnesses, especially Western and later MSS, are lacking the phrase “not being myself under the Law”; however, it is present in many of the “earliest and best” MSS (including [Ë46] a A B C D*), as well as a wide range of versions (incl. Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Gothic), and is almost certainly original. It may have fell out by accident (through parablepsis), though it is also possible that it was omitted intentionally—Paul’s admission that he was “not under the Law” could be viewed as problematic from a certain religious standpoint. Even today, many commentators are uncomfortable with the blanket declaration that Christians are “not under the Law”, and are reluctant to accept the statement in its plain sense.

1 Cor 15:56—At the conclusion of Paul’s famous (eschatological) treatment of the resurrection in chapter 15, we find the following declaration:

“…and the poking/pricking [i.e. sharp point] of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law

This uniquely Pauline understanding of the interrelationship between the Law, sin and death was developed extensively (and dramatically) in Romans, especially in chapters 5-7. For more on this, see the articles in this series on 3:21-5:21, 6:1-7:25, and the supplementary studies on 5:12-21 and 7:7-25.

2 Corinthians

2 Cor 3:1-18—This passage represents Paul’s most extensive and significant treatment of the Law (outside of Galatians and Romans); because of its importance and complexity, I discuss it in detail in a series of daily notes.

2 Cor 6:14-7:1—In verse 14, the word a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) is used, presumably with the same general meaning of “sin, wickedness, injustice”, etc., as in 2 Thess 2:3-8 (cf. above). However, some commentators hold that it should be understood here in the strict sense of “being without Law”, i.e. without the Torah (or refusing to observe its commands). In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul uses the related adjective a&nomo$ to describe Gentiles who live without the Torah; though, in this particular context, he is clearly referring to Gentiles prior to faith in Christ—once they come to faith, they are under “the Law of God” (synonymous with the “Law of Christ”), but not the Old Testament Law as such. Does the usage of a)nomi/a in 2 Cor 6:14 refer to the wickedness of unbelievers (non-Christians) or to Gentiles (even Gentile believers) who do not keep the Law? Most commentators accept the former interpretation, but, as I have already indicated, a minority hold the latter view. Much depends on the wider question of the origin and authorship of the entire passage 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, which I will be discussing in a separate article.


Phil 3:2-3—In Gal 5:6; 6:15 and 1 Cor 7:19, Paul declared decisively that the (physical) rite of circumcision (Greek peritomh/, “cutting around”) is of no account and has no bearing on believers in Christ whatsoever. Here he takes the next step, giving a spiritual interpretation to the rite and applying it to believers, much as he does in Romans 2:28-29. In verse 2, he appears to warn against certain Jewish Christian (“Judaizing”) opponents, referring to them in unusually crass and derisive terms (note the pun using katatomh/ “cutting down”, i.e. mutilation, instead of peritomh/, “cutting around, i.e. circumcision). His declaration in verse 3 is clear and forceful:

“For we [i.e. believers] are the circumcision—the (one)s doing (religious) service in (the) Spirit [of God] and boasting/exulting in (the) Anointed Yeshua—and not having confidence/assurance in the flesh”

Note here: (1) Paul’s regular contrast between the Spirit and the flesh, and (2) that circumcision is identified with being “in the Spirit” and “in Christ”—clearly this no longer has anything to do with a religious rite (but note the interesting association with baptism, cf. below). For a parallel with the idea of (true) worship taking place “in the Spirit”, see John 4:23-24.

Phil 3:4-8ff—In these verses, Paul continues the line of argument from vv. 2-3 (above), developing the contrast between his old religious life “in the flesh” and the new identity in Christ (and the Spirit). The old religious identity in this case was Jewish, including a strict observance of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). Paul affirms that he was a devout Pharisee (v. 5), and that in terms of ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosu/nh)—understood from a traditional religious standpoint, i.e. observing and fulfilling the commands and regulations of the Torah—he was “without fault” (a&mempto$) (v. 6). The traditional Jewish view would have held such religious devotion as gain or profit (ke/rdo$) for Paul; and yet, he states that he has come to regard it actually as loss (zhmi/a, something damaged or ruined). This new understanding is qualified by the expression “through the Anointed” (dia\ to\n Xristo/n); this may be understood as: (a) through the work of Christ, (b) through the presence of Christ in the Spirit, (c) on behalf of Christ, (d) for the sake of Christ, or perhaps some combination of these senses. In any event, it is clear that the new identity in Christ has rendered the old religious identity (which involved observance of the Law) of little or no value.

Phil 3:9—Verses 2-8 find their climax in this verse, where Paul states his ultimate goal is that “he should be found [eu(reqw=] in him [e)n au)tw=|, i.e. in Christ]”; this religious identity and realization is defined according to the term dikaiosu/nh (“just-ness, right-ness”, i.e. “justice, righteousness”). Throughout Galatians and Romans, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the fundamental contrast between justice/righteousness which comes from the Law (that is, from performing/observing its commands, i.e. “works of the Law”), and the justice/righteousness which comes through trust/faith in Christ (cf. Gal 2:16-21; 3:2, 5-6, 10-14, 21-24; 5:4-5; Rom 1:17; 3:19-20, 21-31; 4:4-5, 13-16; 6:14-15, etc). In this verse, he establishes three parallel contrasts:

  • my (own) [e)mo/$] righteousness
  • righteousness comes out of (observance of) the Law [e)k no/mou]
  • righteousness based upon works of the Law (implied)
    • righteousness that is from [lit. out of] God [e)k qeou=]
    • righteousness that comes through trust of Christ [dia\ pi/stew$ Xristou=]
    • righteousness based upon th(is) trust (in Christ) [e)pi\ th=| pi/stei]

This reflects a personalized version of what Paul declares more objectively in Romans 10:2-4ff.


Col 2:11ff—As in Phil 3:2-3 (above) and Rom 2:28-29, circumcision is spiritualized and applied to believers. Throughout Col 2:6ff, the expression “in Christ” (or “in him”) is used repeatedly—in vv. 6, 7, 9, 10. In verse 10, believers are identified as “the (ones who have been) filled up” (peplhrwme/noi) in him, this filling/fullness (plh/rwma) being understood on a cosmic scale. Verse 11 continues:

“…in whom [i.e. in Christ] you were circumcised [perietmh/qhte] with a circumcision [peritomh=|] made without hands, in the sinking out away from [i.e. the shedding off of] the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of (the) Anointed”

This “circumcision of Christ” is to be understood in terms of Christ’s death, as is clear from vv. 12ff. For the identification of believers with, and participation in, the death (and the resurrection) of Christ, see especially Romans 6:1-11 (also Rom 8:1-11; Gal 2:19-21); and note the association between circumcision and the death of Christ in Gal 6:14-15. In particular, this is realized symbolically in the rite of baptism, where believers put off the old and put on (lit. sink into [a garment]) Christ—the old self is removed just as the foreskin is removed in the rite of circumcision. In Col 3:5ff, this “old self” is connected with immoral/idolatrous behavior (i.e. “works of the flesh”), so there is clearly a practical ethical component to the instruction here. However, “circumcision” itself is understood entirely in spiritual terms, as something “made/done without hands” (a)xeiropoi/hto$). Elsewhere, this adjective is used, in a similar context (2 Cor 5:1), for a “heavenly dwelling” (the future glory reserved for the believer, perhaps tied to the idea of a “spiritual body” [1 Cor 15:42ff]). This motif itself reflects a spiritual interpretation and application of the Temple in early Christianity, as seen especially in Acts 7:35-53 (Stephen’s speech), where the earthly Temple and pagan idols are both described as things “made with hands” (vv. 41, 43, 48, and note v. 50); see a similar association in Acts 17:24; 19:26-27. There may be a connection back to the Temple sayings of Jesus (Mark 13:2; 14:58 par; John 2:19; Acts 6:13-14); the terms xeiropoi/hto$ (“made with hands”) and a)xeiropoi/hto$ (“made without hands”) appear in the version of the saying reported in Mark 14:58. At the very least, with regard to this saying, early Christians associated the Temple with Jesus’ own body (Jn 2:21-22)—this, in turn, helped to facilitate a  spiritual interpretation of the Temple itself (in the Pauline letters, cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 5:1ff; 6:16; Eph 2:21).

Col 2:14—In this verse, the Law is described as “the handwriting [xeiro/grafon]…which was under (and) against us”. Occasionally, Paul refers to the Old Testament Law specifically as a written work—using the term gra/mma (“written [word or letter]”), in Rom 2:27, 29; 7:6; 2 Cor 3:6-7, where the old covenant of the (written) Law is contrasted with the new covenant of the Spirit. Here the word is xeiro/grafon, i.e. something “written by hand”; there is likely an echo of circumcision as something “made/done by hands” (in v. 11, cf. above). The reference is best understood of the Law in a particular aspect—that of a written decree or judgment—as indicated by the use of do/gmata. In its fundamental sense, do/gma refers to something thought or considered to be true, proper, etc., but was regularly used in the specific (and technical) sense of an authoritative decision, esp. in the form of an official decree, judgment, ordinance, and so forth. The word never appears in the undisputed Pauline letters, only in Eph 2:15 where it is used (as here, in the plural) specifically of the Old Testament Law. The basic idea in context, however, is very much Pauline, as can be seen from Gal 2:19; 3:10-13; Rom 6:1-11; 7:4-6, where, by way of Christ’s sacrificial death, believers are said to die to the curse/judgment of the Law and to the Law itself.

Col 2:16-23—In this passage, there is a stress on the unimportance of ceremonial/ritual observances, especially the observance of holy days and dietary restrictions. This relates to portions of the Torah, as is clear from verse 16 (new moon, feasts, Sabbath), but almost certainly extends beyond this to external ritual and observance in general, as indicated by the parallel discussion in Gal 4:1-11 (where Gentiles are primarily in view). Paul seems to identify the Law—at least in its ritual/ceremonial aspects—in some way with the “elements [stoixei=a] of the world” (Col 2:8, 20; Gal 4:3). The observation of special days and dietary restrictions are also singled out in Rom 14:1-8; Paul regards them as matters of indifference, to be observed (or not) according to the conscience of each person. In this regard, note how Rom 14:14 would seem (decisively) to abolish dietary and purity laws for believers in Christ. Col 2:16-23 does not go this far, nor does it target the Torah commands directly (apart from v. 16), but the same principle applies. In Christ, believers have died to these “elements of the world” (v. 20) just as we have died to the Law.

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