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: Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Mandatory for Salvation? There’s widespread confusion on this issue, and I think Schreiner’s view is probably in the minority among NT scholars, but I think he’s exactly right, and that the implications of the answer are significant.
The short answer to this question is “yes.” And the way one answers this question is fundamental for one’s soteriology, for it speaks both to the truth of God’s holiness and the nature of Christ’s atonement. The demand for perfect obedience is evident from the earliest pages of the Bible. Adam and Eve were condemned, cursed, and banished from the garden for one sin (Genesis 3). The Lord did not respond by saying that they would have a right relationship with him if they trusted and obeyed him most of the time after their fall into sin. It is clear that the hope for Adam and Eve and all people is the promise that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Indeed, God’s clothing of Adam and Eve with garments (Gen. 3:21) suggests that their only hope for life in the presence of a holy God is atonement.
[OBJECTION: THE MOSAIC COVENANT DOES NOT DEMAND PERFECTION]
It is sometimes claimed that the Mosaic covenant does not demand perfect obedience. Israel was threatened with exile for blatant and sustained disobedience, not for occasionally violating the law. This observation contains elements of truth, but it does not contradict the claim that perfect obedience is mandatory. In one sense, of course, perfect obedience was not required, for the Lord graciously entered into covenant with his people and provided atonement for their sins. Ultimately, however, sinless perfection was demanded, for Israel would not be forgiven of their sins apart from offering sacrifices that atoned for their sin. The very structure of the Mosaic covenant, then, implies that God requires perfection. If significant and substantial obedience were sufficient, then the sacrificial system would be superfluous in the case of those who were remarkably godly. The Old Testament sacrifices would apply particularly to those who sinned egregiously. But the Old Testament gives no such impression. Every Israelite, no matter how godly, must offer sacrifices for his sins. Presumably such sacrifices were needed to atone for any faults or sins committed by Israelites. Therefore, the very existence of the sacrificial cult points to the need for perfect obedience.
When we read the New Testament, the same truth is clear. For instance, James enunciates a principle in James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” The word translated “accountable” (enochos) here does not mean “answerable” before the divine Judge as if one could possibly make a convincing defense. Rather, the term means “guilty” before God. That enochos means “guilty” is evident in both the LXX (e.g., Exod. 22:2 [LXX]; 34:7; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 19:10; Josh. 2:19) and the New Testament (Matt. 5:21, 22; 26:66; Mark 3:29; 14:64; 1 Cor. 11:27). Hence, James teaches that one transgression renders one guilty before God. If one observes all the rest of the law but violates the law against committing murder, then one is a lawbreaker (James 2:11). Therefore, perfect obedience is necessary, for even one sin renders one a transgressor or sinner before God.
This reading of James 2:10 is confirmed by Galatians 3:10: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’” (NASB). “Works of law,” as argued above, refers to the actions or deeds commanded by the law. Paul asserts here that those who are of works of law are cursed. The natural question is why a curse lies upon those who are of works of law. The second part of Galatians 3:10 provides a reason, claiming from Deuteronomy 27:26 that those who do not keep everything written in the law are cursed. It is likely that Paul also draws here on Deuteronomy 28:58, where Moses insists that Israel must be “careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book.” If they fail to obey, the Lord will pour out great punishments upon them.
How do we explain Paul’s argument here? Sanders dismisses the Old Testament citation, arguing that the key to unlocking Paul’s arguments are his own words, not the wording of the Old Testament citation. Such an explanation fails to convince, for throughout Galatians there is ample reason to think that the Old Testament citation contributes to the flow of the argument. Indeed, in three of the citations in Galatians 3:10–13 Paul uses the word for, suggesting that a reason is given that advances the argument. Another suggestion is put forward by Heinrich Schlier, who states that condemnation comes from doing the law. Such a reading, like that of Sanders, bypasses the meaning of the Old Testament citation, for the curse comes upon those failing to do the law, not those doing it. James Dunn argues that the curse falls on those who exclude Gentiles from Israel’s covenantal blessings, but again such a reading does not accord with the argument actually made. Paul does not criticize the Jews for exclusivism or ethnocentrism but failure to keep the law. Nor is it clear that Paul speaks corporately of Israel’s sin here, as if he is explaining why Israel corporately went into exile. It is true, of course, that Israel suffered captivity because of their sin, but the argument made does not focus on the fate of Israel. Paul draws from an Old Testament text that zeros in on the sin of individuals (Deut. 27:15–26). Furthermore, Paul individualizes the argument with the introductory words “as many as,” which also could legitimately be translated “whoever.” Paul does not actually reflect on Israel’s past here but makes a universal statement about anyone who attempts to be justified by works of law.
So, what is the argument of the verse if all the interpretations suggested above fail? I would suggest that the argument is a model of clarity:
Premise 1: Those who do not do everything the law commands are cursed (Gal. 3:10b).
Premise 2 (implied): No one does all that the law commands.
Conclusion: Therefore, those who are of the works of the law are cursed (Gal. 3:10a).
Some object to this interpretation by saying that supplying an implied premise is illegitimate. Such an objection is unconvincing. Paul does not argue like an analytic philosopher. He often leaves implied premises out of his arguments. Indeed, scholars recognize that arguments where one of the premises is absent (an enthymeme) were quite common in the ancient world and in Paul’s letters. But why would Paul leave the premise out if it is crucial for his argument? He left it out because the Old Testament itself often teaches that all sin and fall short of what God demands. Consider the following verses:
- “If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin . . .” (1 Kings 8:46).
- “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9).
- “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20).
Hence, the notion that all sinned was a common conviction since it was clearly taught by the Old Testament. Paul did not need to spell it out, for it was obvious from the Scriptures themselves that all sinned.
The Pauline argument in Galatians 3:10, then, is elegantly simple. The curse falls upon those who sin, even for the smallest sin. The text emphasizes that one must do “everything” written in the law to avoid the curse. Perfect obedience is necessary to escape the curse, but no one obeys flawlessly; so all are guilty before God. Paul does not merely threaten a curse in this verse; he pronounces a curse. To read the verse merely as a threat suggests that some might escape what is threatened, but no one (except Christ) completely observes the law, so Paul actually pronounces a curse upon those who rely upon the law.
[OBJECTION: OT SACRIFICES SHOW THAT PERFECTION WAS NOT REQUIRED IN THE MOSAIC LAW]
Two final objections against this proposed interpretation must be considered. Some scholars have claimed that Paul would never argue that the law must be kept perfectly, for sacrifices could be offered under the Mosaic covenant to atone for sin. This objection seems to be plausible initially, but it fails to take into account the historical nature of salvation in Paul’s argument. Paul would not accept the notion that Old Testament sacrifices atone for sin now that Christ has come and offered the definitive and final sacrifice. The sacrifices required by the Old Testament point to the sacrifice of Christ and find their fulfillment in his sacrifice (Gal. 3:13; Rom. 3:25–26; 8:3). Hence, those who return to the law now that Christ has come are cut off from the atoning provisions in the law. They would be attempting to live under the Sinai covenant without enjoying the forgiveness offered under that covenant, since the sacrifices were valid only for the time period in which the Mosaic covenant was still in force. In putting themselves under the Mosaic covenant, they would be obligated to keep all the provisions of the covenant perfectly. Any failure, therefore, would bring condemnation.
[OBJECTION: PAUL CLAIMS TO BE BLAMELESS IN HIS LAW OBEDIENCE]
Another objection to the interpretation offered here is that Paul claims to be blameless in his obedience to the law in Philippians 3:6. But surely Paul does not mean by this that his obedience to the law was perfect. Paul’s observance of the law was extraordinary and notable, and yet he must have in mind here as well his offering of sacrifices for the sins he committed. Otherwise, Paul would be claiming, in contradiction to the Old Testament texts noted above (1 Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20), to be flawless in his obedience, which is unlikely. Furthermore, Paul, as an unbeliever was unaware of the depth of his sin, as Romans 7:7–25 reveals. The secret sins committed by him (Rom. 2:16) were revealed to him more fully by the gospel. So, as a believer in Christ he understood that his zeal in persecuting the church (cf. Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1–5, 13–14, 21, 26; 22:3–5, 8, 19–20; 26:10–11, 14–15) was not actually an example of his righteousness (Phil. 3:6) but uncovered the depth of sin in his life (1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:15).
A demand for perfect obedience is also probably in view in Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” Paul emphasizes obligation to observe the law here, and certainly he stresses that such an obligation is a burden. But the question that needs to be asked is why the law is a burden. “Again” likely hearkens back to Galatians 3:10, suggesting that placing oneself under the law is a burden because no one can sufficiently keep what it commands. One must keep the whole law in order to be justified, but flawless obedience is impossible.
Romans 1:18–3:20 also is in agreement with this interpretation. Paul does not specifically argue that one must obey the law perfectly, but he does emphasize that righteousness cannot come via observance of the law since all people sin. Even the Jews, who were in covenant with God, were not exempt from God’s judgment since they did the very things they condemned in Gentiles (Rom. 2:1–2). Their practice of the law did not match their proclamation of the law (Rom. 2:17–24). Circumcision without adherence to the law affords no protection on the Day of Judgment (Rom. 2:25–29). In the Pauline conclusion of the argument, he emphasizes that no one is righteous and that all have violated what God demands. No one can be justified through the works of the law, for the works of the law only reveal the sinfulness of human beings (Rom. 3:19–20). Paul summarizes his argument in the famous declaration that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Paul highlights the sinfulness and stubbornness of human beings (Rom. 2:5). When God examines the secrets of our lives, it is evident that we deserve judgment (Rom. 2:16).
There is significant evidence in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that perfect obedience to the law was necessary for salvation. Paul’s fundamental complaint with the Jews of his day was not that they excluded Gentiles. Rather, he indicted them for failing to do God’s will, for failing to see the depth of God’s demand on their lives. I think we can say with confidence that the same is true today. Many do not rely on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for forgiveness and his righteousness because they believe their own obedience is sufficient.