Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law releases later this month. As I’ve said before, I think it’s now the go-to book for an accessible introduction to all the major issues related to gospel and law, the role of law in redemptive history, application of the law today, etc. I could not recommend it more highly.

Kregel has kindly given me permission to reprint a number of the entries this week. (You’ll end up being able to read about 12% of the book for free!) I’ll skip the footnotes and the discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Today you can read Question 4: What Does the Word Law Mean in the Scripture?


[WHAT DOES “LAW” MEAN IN THE OLD TESTAMENT?]

The word for law in the Old Testament is torah; in the New Testament it is nomos. It is often said that torah in the Old Testament does not refer so much to commands (to the keeping of commandments) as it does to instruction (to teaching). According to this view, the word torah does not focus on admonitions, commands, and requirements. Instead, the word has a more general referent, so that it includes God’s instruction more generally. Hence, if one follows this view, the word torah also includes God’s promises to save his people, his threats if they do not obey, and also narrative accounts that we find, for example, in the Pentateuch. But such a wide definition for the word torah is almost certainly wrong.

Torah usually refers to what human beings are commanded to do. In some instances, a broader sense (that goes beyond commands and prescriptions) aptly captures the meaning of torah (e.g., Job 22:22; Ps. 94:12; Prov. 1:8; 4:2; 13:14; Isa. 2:3; 42:4; 51:4; Mal. 2:6–8), although even in some of these passages the instruction probably consisted of what was required by the law. In the vast majority of instances, however, the word torah focuses on doing what is commanded in the law, that is, the commands and requirements that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The emphasis on observing the law and carrying out what it demands is evident from the verbs of which torah is the direct object (see figure 1a).

FIGURE 1A: VERBS USED FOR OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW
Keep Gen. 26:5; Deut. 17:19; 28:58; 31:12; Josh. 22:5; 1 Kings 2:3; 1 Chron. 22:12; Ps. 119:34, 44; Prov. 28:4; 29:18; Jer. 16:11; Ezek. 44:24
Walk in Exod. 16:4; 2 Kings 10:31; Ps. 78:10; Jer. 26:4; 32:23; 44:10; Dan. 9:10
Do Deut. 27:26; 29:29; 31:12; 32:46; Josh. 1:7–8
Break Ps. 119:126
Obey Isa. 42:24
Note: The list of verbs in figure 1a is representative, not exhaustive. Nevertheless, the examples demonstrate that in the Scriptures a focus on the prescriptions of the law is pervasive.

Other terms that are used with the word torah and are roughly synonymous with it confirm that the term torah focuses on regulations and prescriptions (see figure 1b). All these words convey the idea that Israel must obey what God has required in his law.

FIGURE 1B: WORDS FOR GOD’S COMMANDS
Commandment(s) Gen. 26:5; Exod. 16:28; Deut. 30:10; Josh. 22:5; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 17:34; 2 Chron. 19:10; Neh. 9:13
Statute(s) Gen. 26:5; Exod. 18:16; Deut. 4:8; 30:10; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 17:13, 34; 2 Chron. 19:10; 2 Chron. 33:8; Ezra 7:10; Neh. 9:13; Jer. 44:10; Ezek. 43:11
Rule(s) Lev. 26:46: Deut. 4:8; 33:10; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 17:34; 2 Chron. 19:10; 33:8; Ezra 7:10; Ps. 89:30
Testimony(ies) 1 Kings 2:3; Jer. 44:23

We see something quite similar with verbs that describe a wrong response to the law (see figure 1c). In every instance Israel’s disobedience to the law, i.e., their failure to keep what the Lord demanded, is featured.

FIGURE 1C: VERBS USED FOR DISOBEDIENCE TO THE LAW
Forget Hos. 4:6; Ps. 119:61, 109, 153
Transgress Dan 9:11
Abandon 2 Chron 12:1
Forsake Pss. 89:30; 119:53; Jer. 9:13
Rejects Isa. 5:24; Jer. 6:19; Amos 2:4
Do violence to Ezek. 22:26; Zeph. 3:4

Often a particular regulation is introduced especially in Leviticus and sometimes in Numbers, with the words, “this is the law.” The law often is associated with a book. In most instances what is written or found in the book are the regulations of the law. The emphasis on doing what the law commands, on keeping it, and on obeying what the Lord has prescribed is quite extraordinary. When the word torah occurs in the Old Testament, the emphasis is not on instruction in terms of teaching, as if the word rehearses God’s saving work on behalf of his people. It is quite the contrary. The term torah concentrates on what God requires his people to do: his commands, statutes, and laws.

[WHAT DOES “LAW” MEAN IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?]

The use of the term law (nomos) in the New Testament is comparable. In some instances the word law refers to the Old Testament Scriptures, and the focus is on the Pentateuch: “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 5:17; 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Rom. 3:21; cf. Matt. 11:13). In some texts “Law” alone seems to refer broadly to the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 22:36; Luke 10:26; John 7:49; 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; 1 Cor. 9:8–9; 14:21, 34; Gal. 4:21), though in some of these texts a particular precept from the Mosaic law may be in view as well (John 7:49; 1 Cor. 9:8–9; 14:34). Nevertheless, in the New Testament, as we saw in the Old Testament, the term law most often refers to what is commanded in the Mosaic law. Matthew speaks of every “iota” and “dot” of the law (Matt. 5:18), and it is clear from the next verse that he is referring here to the “commandments” found in the law (Matt. 5:19). Elsewhere Matthew considers particular matters commanded in the law (Matt. 22:36; 23:23). Similarly, Luke often uses the word law to refer to what is prescribed in statutes (Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 27, 39; Acts 23:3) or uses the term to refer collectively to what is commanded in the Sinai covenant (Acts 6:13; 7:53; 13:39; 15:5; 21:24; 22:3, 12; 25:8). Similarly, when John does not use the word law to refer to the Pentateuch or the Scriptures, he uses it to refer to the Mosaic law (John 7:19, 23, 51; 8:17; 19:7).

Paul regularly thinks of the law in terms of its commands, and this is evident because he speaks of those who sin by violating the law, of the need to do what the law says, and of relying upon and being instructed in the law (Rom. 2:17, 18, 20). When Paul speaks of righteousness (Rom. 3:21; 9:31; 10:4; Gal. 2:21; 3:11; 5:4; Phil. 3:6, 9) or the inheritance (Rom. 4:13–14, 16; Gal. 3:18) not being attained via the law, he has in mind doing what the law commands. Most scholars now agree that “works of law” refers to the deeds required by the law (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5; 10), as does the phrase “the law of commandments” (Eph. 2:15). The law is conceived of as a body of commands summarized in the Mosaic covenant, which came at a certain time in history (Rom. 5:13; 7:4, 6; 9:4; 1 Cor. 9:20, 21; 15:56; Gal. 2:19; 3:17, 19, 21), and the phrase “under law” fits here as well (Rom. 6:14, 15; 7:1; Gal. 3:23, 24; 4:4, 5; 5:18). In Hebrews the word law always refers to the commands of the Mosaic law and to the Mosaic covenant (Heb. 7:5, 11, 12, 19, 28; 8:4; 9:19, 22; 10:1, 8, 28), with the focus being on the prescriptions for priests and sacrifices that are offered.

Scholars debate intensely whether in some cases Paul uses the word law metaphorically to refer to a “principle” or “rule” (see Rom. 3:27; 7:21, 23, 25; 8:2) or whether in every instance the Mosaic law is in view. Deciding this matter is not vital for the purposes of this book, but it seems preferable to think that Paul uses the term metaphorically in these texts. It is hard to conceive of Paul saying that the law in conjunction with the Spirit frees people from sin (Rom. 8:2), since elsewhere Paul emphasizes that those who are “under law” are under sin. In addition, it is most natural to take the noun “law” as a direct object in Romans 7:21 (“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand”) instead of an accusative of general reference (“So I find with reference to the law”). And if “law” is the direct object, the term is clearly metaphorical. Finally, it is quite awkward to say that the phrase “another law” (Rom. 7:23) refers to the Mosaic law. It is more natural to conclude that Paul is playing on the term law, using it to refer to another principle or rule in his members. Indeed, understanding what Paul might possibly mean by saying the Mosaic law is in one’s members is difficult, but it makes eminent sense to think of another “principle” or “power” in one’s members. Hence, it is more likely that Paul uses the term law in some texts to refer to a principle or power.

SUMMARY

In both the Old and New Testaments, the word law focuses on the commands and regulations of the Mosaic covenant. In most instances the word law does not refer to instruction in a general sense but concentrates on what God demands that his people do. In both the Old and New Testaments this is apparent, for verbs like “keep” and “do” are linked with the law.

Print Friendly
View Comments

Comments:


18 thoughts on “What Does the Word “Law” Mean in the Bible?”

  1. CMM says:

    Good to see someone arguing the point that Paul uses the word “law” at times to refer to a “principle.” As Schreiner points out, understanding all of Paul’s uses of “law” as referring to the Mosaic Law renders many of his passages on the subject illogical.

    Also (and I can’t really tell Schreiner’s view on this from this passage) it’s important to avoid equating the Law with sin, as many people do. This view is illogical because Scripture is clear that we all sin, and none of us naturally obey the Law. Besides, Paul himself says that the Law is not sin:

    “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (from Romans 7:7)

    “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12)

  2. K C says:

    CMM-In Romans7:21, is ‘the law’ and ‘the commandment’ two different things? It is interesting that the ‘law’, being ‘holy, righteous, and good’, could not provide rightousness. Not that there was anything wrong with the law, the problem was with us in that we can not keep the law. We were provided righteousness through the gospel of ouw Lord and God, Jesus Christ. The question of the day is, What is our obligation to the law now! Is it(the law) now a path for sanctification? If it is impossible, through the weakness of our flesh, to gain salvation by keeping the law, can we hope to gain sanctification through the same law?

  3. CMM says:

    I understand Romans 7:7 to mean that the command itself is objectively “holy, righteous, and good,” regardless of our ability to keep it. It informs us of God’s standards. In fact, our inability to keep it testifies to its righteousness. Also, just because something is righteous, this doesn’t mean that it has the ability to provide righteousness.

    As far as our obligation to the law now, I believe we certainly have some obligation. We are not free to do whatever we please (Romans 6:1-2). Acting against the law is still considered sin (1 John 3:4). As for sanctification, I don’t think the Law itself has the power to sanctify us, but surely obedience to God is a part of sanctification. We can’t continue in sin and expect the Spirit to sanctify us. Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Christ, so as we are sanctified we are brought closer and closer to God’s standards of righteousness which are written in the Law and embodied in Christ. In other words, I don’t think the Law itself works against sanctification, as long as it is used correctly (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

    1. CMM says:

      Just looked back and caught this–I didn’t mean Romans 7:7, I meant Romans 7:12.

  4. Leslie Jebaraj says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Justin!

  5. Bruce Russell says:

    The Torah was given to Israel to confine them within the boundaries of their eschatological hope. “Do this and live.”

    The Letter to the Hebrews clearly explains that provision for sin is a crucial aspect of the Torah, with its Levitical priests providing constant mediation with God and atonement for sins.

    So the Torah prescribes the covenant faithfulness necessary for Israel to obtain the promised inheritance.

    It is precisely this that marks the most crucial distinction between the moral law and the Torah. The moral law is not covenantal. Unlike the Torah it contains no provision for forgiveness of sins.

    It is precisely here that the heirs of Luther err. Luther reads nomos as moral law. He defines “sinner” as someone who deviates from the moral law. It is precisely here that Luther departs from Scripture. Covenant keepers and not “sinners” according to Scripture; their submission to the purifying aspects of the covenant define them as righteous.

  6. Aaron Britton says:

    Bruce. I think there’s a strong emphasis in scripture that no matter how “righteous” we are or “covenant faithful” we are, or become. . . those qualities are not what makes us righteous. Paul, to wit.. . .

    Phil. 3:8b-10
    For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

    Also, the parable of the Pharisee and the begger comes to mind. . with Piper’s address at the 2010 T4G a masterful exegesis of that text.

  7. Bruce Russell says:

    Aaron:

    Faithful keeping of the Torah required faithfully attending to its provisions for the forgiveness of sins.

    Likewise, the righteousness of the New Covenant requires faithfully attending to the Provision for forgiveness of sins.

    Paul is not talking about imputation here: “The righteousness of God is fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.”

    Membership in the New Covenant features lifelong purification from sin. Submitting to that purification is our righteousness.

    The major translations are likely wrong with their rendering of Phil 3:8b-10. Consider this instead: “…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through the faithfulness of Christ.”

    The death and resurrection of Christ render the eschatological confinement of the Old Covenant obsolete. Paul is speaking of the “works of the law” / “faithfulness of Christ” antithesis, not a “moral law” / “human faith” antithesis.

    Can anyone tell me where I’m wrong here?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      I’ll post later this week Schreiner’s entry on why the law requires perfect obedience.

      In the book he argues (persuasively to my mind) why “faithfulness of Christ” is almost certainly not the right translation—but I won’t be posting that entry.

      1. Bruce Russell says:

        Justin:

        I’ll post later this week Schreiner’s entry on why the law requires perfect obedience.

        I’m looking forward to it!

        Bruce

  8. Bill Provenzano says:

    Would like to see what he says about the law of Christ. Hopefully he addresses that at some point.

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      Bill:

      To Abraham God said, “Walk before me and be perfect”
      Jesus expounded it in the sermon on the mount.
      Paul calls it “The Righteous Requirements of the Law”
      James calls it “The Royal Law”

      Jesus obeyed it with supreme perfection in His earthly life.

      Believers obey it with sincerity…Paul calls it the “obedience of faith.” God forgives them for all sins committed through Christ.

      1. Bill Provenzano says:

        I guess what I’m referring to is that while we are not bound by the Law of Moses (fulfilled in Christ), we are under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9) as affirmed in the NT. Believers will be judged under the law of liberty (James 2). We are obligated to follow this law. It is through the exercising of faith/obedience to this law that we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit and changed from glory to glory, the sanctification without which we will not see God (Hebrews 12).

        1. Bruce Russell says:

          Bill:

          I think its important to recognize it is primarily filial in character. We are disciplined as sons, and obey as sons, and are judged in His Son.

          Blessings,

          Bruce

    2. Justin Taylor says:

      Schreiner has a whole entry on “the law of Christ,” but I can only post so many of them!

      1. Bill Provenzano says:

        Splendid! Thanks!

      2. In other words, pre-order the book!! :)

  9. Winston says:

    What Schreiner mean by Mosiac Law? Mosiac Covenant? Does he mean either of these to be the 10 commandments?

Comments are closed.

Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books