Paul’s view of the Old Testament Law (Torah)—as expressed in Galatians and Romans—was striking and controversial enough that many Jewish Christians at the time opposed it vehemently. Even today, thoughtful and devout believers can find it difficult to accept. This is partly due to the apparent contradiction with the inspired character of the Torah, but of even greater (practical) concern is that freedom from the Law would seem to allow license for immorality. For this reason, many Christians would maintain that the moral/ethical regulations of the Torah (the Ten Commandments, etc) continue to be binding, even as other ritual/ceremonial requirements have fallen away. This, however, does not seem to be what the New Testament teaches, and I certainly do not find evidence in Paul’s letters that he taught anything of the sort.
The problem lies in confusing the specific regulations of the Torah with the existence of effective moral and religious standards for Christians. While stating that believers in Christ are free from the Law, Paul clearly expresses the view that believers are still expected to live in a pure and upright manner. But how is such a moral way of life to be maintained without the regulations of the Law to guide believers? The answer lies in the very nature of the new covenant, where the inner presence of God’s own Spirit takes the place of the external regulations of the Torah.
Given his unique teaching on freedom from the Law, it is somewhat surprising the Paul does not touch upon this matter more often in his letters. There must have been Christians at the time who were concerned about how one should maintain moral and religious rectitude without the Law. However, he does address the question clearly enough in the parenetic/exhortation (exhortatio) section of Galatians (5:1-6:10), especially the portion beginning with verse 13:
“For you were called upon freedom, brothers—only th(is) freedom (must) not (lead) to a rushing (out) from the flesh, but through love you must be a slave to each other.”
A distinctive teaching among early Christians, found throughout the New Testament, is that the regulations of the Torah have effectively been supplanted by a single command, or principle—that of love (a)ga/ph). It is a principle that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching (Mk 12:30-33 par; Matt 5:43ff par; John 13:34-35), and Paul clearly expresses the idea that the “love command” represents a fulfillment of the entire Torah (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10, etc; cp. James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23-24). The main point Paul makes here is that, instead of our freedom leading to a fulfillment of fleshly impulses, our choices should be guided by our love for each other. All that remains for believers from the Torah is this love-principle.
While the love-principle is authoritative and guiding, it is ultimately derived, not from any specific command or regulation, but by the presence of God’s Spirit. This is the essence of the New Covenant, and Paul expresses, in Gal 5:16-25, something of the manner in which the Spirit takes the place of the Torah for believers. Note the regulatory aspect of verse 16:
“I relate to you: you must walk about in the Spirit, and (then) you shall not complete (the) impulse [e)piqumi/a] of the flesh.”
To walk about (vb peripate/w) “in the Spirit” (pneu/mati) means to be guided by the Spirit in all that a person does. We saw this idiom expressed previously in the narratives of Luke-Acts, with the emphasis on being “in the Spirit” and guided/led by the Spirit (cf. the note on Luke 4:1, 14ff). The force of Paul’s exhortation implies that this does not happen automatically for believers, simply as a result of the Spirit’s presence; rather, it requires a willingness and attentiveness to accept and allow this guidance to occur (a point emphasized again by Paul at the close of v. 25). Even though Christians are freed from the power of sin, there remains a conflict with the “flesh” (v. 17), and the impulse (qumo/$) toward sin. Paul here uses the noun e)piqumi/a, which means something like an “impulse (to act) upon (something)”; in English idiom we might say “set one’s mind/heart upon” it. For the believer, it is possible to ignore, neglect, or even extinguish (i.e. quench, cf. 1 Thess 5:19) the influence and guidance of the Spirit.
While an impulse toward sin remains in our “flesh”, we are no longer enslaved by it, and we have the ability not to act upon it—to complete it, as Paul indicates here by the verb tele/w. Acting upon such an impulse results in “works of the flesh” (ta\ e&rga th=$ sarko/$); a representative list of these “works” is given in vv. 19-21, following the traditional “vice list” pattern in ethical instruction of the time. Thus, the kind of immorality which was prohibited and regulated by the Torah will be avoided by believers, simply by following the internal guidance of the Spirit, without any external legal standard being required. Not only will immorality be avoided, but there will be additional “fruit” that comes from the Spirit’s active guidance (vv. 22-23). It is most significant that this “fruit” does not consist in good deeds—not even acts of Christian ministry—but of fundamental attributes of a person’s character, which reflect the very attributes of God present in His Spirit.
It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that this moral standard comes through the internal influence of the Spirit, and not by observance of the Torah nor any other external command. Paul makes this clear by two statements which punctuate the instruction in vv. 16-25:
In other words, the New Covenant of the Spirit has nothing whatever to do with the Law. This is a uniquely Pauline development of the early Christian belief regarding the presence of the Spirit among believers. The new covenant motif was part of the application of the earlier Prophetic tradition (regarding the restoration of Israel in the New Age), interpreting the presence and activity of the Spirit among early believers as its fulfillment. Paul has sharpened the contrast between old and new covenant, emphasizing, more than any other Christian minister of the time, that the Spirit in the new covenant takes the place of the Torah in the old.
One point that has not been discussed yet, in the context of Paul’s treatment of the Spirit, is how the presence and activity of God’s Spirit relates to the personal presence of Jesus Christ himself, in and among believers. This will be examined in the next daily note, with a comparison of several key passages in Galatians and Romans.
For more on the question of Paul’s view of the Law, cf. my extensive articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament”, including those on Galatians (spec. on 5:1-6:10), along with the separate article on “antiomianism”.