Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
As important as it was for the focus on salvation by faith to be brought to the forefront by the Protestant Reformation, one of the unfortunate outcomes of the Protestant Reformation was the subtle denigration of “works” as humanity’s effort to make oneself righteous before God. Paul’s discourse about “the works of the law,” or more appropriately “the works of the Torah,” was taken by Luther to be in regards to the futile effort of humanity to be righteous with God. As Luther states in his preface to Romans:
You must get used to the idea that it is one thing to do the works of the law and quite another to fulfill it.The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless.
But to fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment. It is the Holy Spirit, however, who puts such eagerness of unconstained love into the heart, as Paul says in chapter 5.
For Luther, there are two ways one can “work,” by the law as an act of human free will and power, or without the law through the Holy Spirit. This leads the (stereotyped and false) impression that the Old Testament law and Judaism was all about human efforts to earn one’s salvation and that Jesus comes to provide a way to God that doesn’t require human merit. Consequently, God’s commandments in the law/Torah would be considered to be of relatively little value for the Christian, because we as believers have the Spirit.
There are at least three problems with this reading. Firstly, this reading emerges more so as a consequence of trying to connect specific words and phrases throughout Romans and the rest of Paul’s letters to other uses elsewhere to determine Paul’s meaning, while deprioritizing the flow of Paul’s argument. A read through Luther’s preface will show that he regularly jumps around Romans and makes a few comments on the various passages, without a critical inspection, and then makes a connection to and jumps to another passage. While such comparisons between different sections can certainly bear fruit when one is showing conceptual connections between different words and themes, we can only reliable determining the significance and usage of those words and themes by how they are used in the specific context. As a consequence, Luther’s understanding of the “works of the law” seems to explain Paul’s language, yet not all interpretations are correct because they offer a comprehensible explanation on the surface; something more needs to be discovered and dug into to text to really bring out the meaning of “works of the law/Torah.” Most pertinently, Paul declares that he upholds the Torah in Romans 3.31, which should make any attempt to regard the Torah itself as a hindrance to one’s status before God rendered exegetically and theological dubious.
Secondly, it diverges from the Gospel of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, who said that He came not to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it (Mat. 5.17-20). Jesus teaching from the Torah and the oral traditions in Matthew 5.21-48 do not come across as “The Torah says one thing, but you don’t need it anymore.” Rather, Jesus demonstrates a different way of understanding the Torah as a guide towards the complete love of the Heavenly Father by the Torah guiding people deeper into their hearts in a way that the letter of Torah does not directly address, instead of finding the Torah commandments to be the end of one’s ethical responsibility and obligation. Luther’s reading of the law/Torah as a problem of human agency does not comport well with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount who maintains the significance of the Torah.
Thirdly, understand the works of the Torah as human efforts to obey God devalues what the Old Testament testifies to about the purpose of the Torah. Perhaps one of the best explanations for the purpose of the is given in Psalm 119.9-16, where the person who follows God’s commands keeps their way pure. The Torah, far from simply a set of laws that God handed down that one were to follow or else one would be punished, were more like tour guides who showed people the safe pathways to explore life. There are many different ways to live life that our hearts can conceive of, but some of these take one down a path towards destruction. God’s Torah provides instruction in a way of life that protects one’s life when one reflects and mediates on them.
These three problems lead to a different way of understanding what Paul is saying about Torah: that the purpose of the Torah has been fundamentally misunderstood by many within Judaism. As Second Temple Judaism developed a series of halakhic applications of the Torah through various other rules and principles to prevent breaking the Torah, it was thought that diligence to not break God’s Torah would make them righteous people. However, what was not necessary in such a practice was to live by an active trust in God’s promises. A different way of living would be arrived at through using the Torah from a heart of faith. In Romans 3.27, Paul contrasts the Torah of works and the Torah of faith, with the latter being the basis for exclusion of boasting of social superiority. The one who comes to the Torah by faith recognizes their ultimate dependence upon God, much like the Psalmist in Psalm 119 recognizes his dependence upon God through the Torah. The “works of Torah” is better understood as the halakhic applications of the Torah, whereas the rightful use of the Torah recognizes it’s Spiritual origins from God (Rom. 7.14) and hears God’s promises and leading through the Torah. When used with God’s promises in view, the Torah can direct people about the ways of sin to avoid (Rom. 3.20, 7.7), which then points people in faith towards to God’s fulfillment of His promises in the revelation of His righteousness in Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 3.23-24). Works of the Torah as the halakhic application of the Torah hinders recognizing God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ, as it places the emphasis on the purification of the person through what they do rather than in the sanctification of the person through the One to whom they trust and by whom they are redeemed.
Yet, for Paul, the Torah still retains moral and ethical value for believers and the body of Christ, particularly for Jewish believers (Rom. 8.4, Rom. 13.8-10; cf. 1 Cor. 14.34). As such, we can certainly imagine that the meditation upon God’s Instruction that the Psalms repeatedly extol (Psa. 1.2, 119.15-16) still has a place for believers. Such meditation with an eye towards God digs deeper into the hearts of people, making them attuned to the will and purposes of God that go deeper than the letter of the Torah to the deepest recesses of the heart. What is excluded, however, is using the Torah as the basis for building an ethical program that then gets used to establish one’s ethical superiority. One must make use of the Torah as instruction from God with God’s own righteousness in view, otherwise one is simply building a merely human ethical program (Rom. 10.3).
Thus, we can suggest that the value of the Torah and obedience to it for Paul was that it directs the mind and forms the heart in such a way that one can avoid the pitfalls of sin in one’s life. While ultimately the Torah itself was powerless to eradicate sin, it nevertheless functioned to bring to light those areas of life in need of God’s saving grace and redemption that emerge. While we as Christians don’t have to follow Torah, we can still consider God’s commandments to us to function similarly. God calls us to obedience, but when we find those places in our lives where obedience seems harder and we seem to be far from living according to God’s Word, it is in these places where we can appeal to Christ to bring us grace in our time of need to protect our hearts and minds from the pathways that could lead us off course. God’s commandments, both in the Torah and in the words of the New Testament, provide us one tool for those who seek God with their whole heart to keep one’s way pure. They don’t save and redeem from the power of sin, but through our meditation and attempts at obedience to them, we discover the places where the crucified Christ and the power of the Spirit can bring transformation and sanctification in our lives.
So, let us not look down on human agency to attempt to obey God through His word as somehow being foolish or misguided. Where it gets misguided is where one’s heart is focused solely on the commandments and not the God who promises and commands such that we falsely make the Christian life conditioned upon our own energy and capacity to obey successfully, rather than looking to God who gives strength to all of us who have been weakened by the powers of sin and death.