When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

I might have said collide, as sometimes seems to be the case, but let’s start with tangle. Here’s Paul in Romans 2:

12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12-16, NRSV, courtesy of BibleGateway.com).

What definition of “law” can you use that will actually make sense of everything Paul is saying. Those who have sinned “apart from the law” also perish “apart from the law.” First inclination is to think those without Torah perish without Torah. Of course we might compare Romans 7:7 and ask just where is sin without a law. To get out of Pauline literature, we might note that 1 John 3:4 identifies sin as the transgression of the law (or lawlessness), while (back to Paul again) “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Pardon me for jumping about, but I’m illustrating the problem of definitions here.

Then we have verse 13, where the “doers of the law” will be justified, except that we can refer to Galatians 2:16 (another book, but still Paul), where we are informed that nobody will be justified by the works of the law. So is Paul referring to the same law in Galatians 2:16? I’m not going to resolve all this here. I’m just suggesting the serious need to look at definitions. I’ve heard these various passages put together, and I myself have quoted 1 John 3:4 as though it came from Paul, just because I have it squirreled away in my brain along with Paul-talk.

But just with Paul’s discussion we may be looking at some tangles, as verse 14 suggests that Gentiles, not possessing the law, might instinctively do what the law requires. Now doubtless this doesn’t refer to the Gentiles instinctively knowing to practice Leviticus 6, which provides detailed instructions for a trespass offering. Not to mention any number of chapters around it. So there’s something other than the details of Torah that Paul has in mind here. From verse 15, “what the law requires is written on their hearts” suggests the same thing, and apparently God will judge them according to the law that they have.

My own though here and throughout the writings of Paul is that he sees an overall law of God which is then instantiated for those God is working with. The law (as you have it) reflects the law (as God desires it), and expectations are laid on you accordingly. The closest reflection of living by God’s law would be when our acts proceed from faith (Romans 14:23). I’m not really trying to fill out this thesis here. Rather, I’m suggesting that a great deal of confusion in reading Paul would be eased if one were as flexible in understanding the word “law” and connected phrases as Paul is in using the term.

Which leads me to the term “will.” What is God’s will? What is God’s plan? Some people are wonderfully comforted with the idea that God has a plan for their lives. Others are not that happy that they don’t really have a choice. Sometimes these ideas clash even when they are used by people who would both (or all) say that they want to live “in God’s will.”

But what do we mean by that?

I would suggest that we, in the modern church, are even more flexible in our use of “will” than Paul is in his use of “law.” I would suggest that God’s will is actually a very flexible thing. God’s plan for your life is that you make the best use of your gifts and talents according to the principles of God’s law. Just what has God decided and what is left to you? Listen, think, act, and enjoy.

God is flexible enough to deal with it!


(Featured Image credit: Openclipart.org.)

One thought on “When Definitions Tangle: Law vs Law and Will vs Will

  1. Not an easy thing to put into words, eh? Your posts are helpful. Romans is only one of Paul’s NT letters. I am re-reading an earlier MW book by George R. Knight (a recovered perfectionist) – “Walking with Paul through the Book of Romans.” He acknowledges the complexities and unknowns re salvation/grace/law and freedom of choice. I conclude God works dynamically today as in Bible times – perhaps “bending” His interventions according to what’s happening with individuals, churches, nations. Always I want to believe that since God is love He certainly knows how to blend mercy and justice to the best ends.

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