Are we saved apart from the Law?

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law…Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”  Romans 3:21-28, 31

“The righteousness of God is not that by lwhich God is righteous, but that with which he clothes man when he justifies the ungodly.  To this the Law and the Prophets bear witness…The righteousness of God is not manifested outside the Law, since in that case it could not have been witnessed to in the Law. It is a righteousness of God apart from the Law because God confers it  on the believer through the Spirit of grace without the help of the Law.”  (Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, 15.9)

“It is clear that the righteousness of God has now appeared apart from the law, but this means part from the law of the sabbath, the circumcision, the new moon and revenge, not apart from the sacrament of God’s divinity, because the righteousness of God is all about God’s divinity…And when God accepts those who flee to Him for refuge, this is called righteousness, because wickedness would not accept such people.” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles.

   “‘The Law is not made for a righteous man,’ Paul says.  But is is one thing to be in the Law, another under the Law. Whoso is in the Law, acteth according to the Law; whoso is under the Law, is acted upon according to the Law:  the one therefore is free, the other a slave.”  (Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, I).  

    As both Ambrosiaster and Augustine assert, Paul’s statement that we are “saved by a righteousness apart from the law” is a refutation of the heretical teaching of the Judaizers, who emphasized a “form of godliness, denying its power” by emphasizing the ceremonially symbolic aspects of the Law rather than the core of the Law (see Matt 23:23-24).  Such ceremonial aspects of the Law (like Church holy days) are a symbolic foreshadowing of Christ, who saved us by fulfilling the Law, and have no power of salvation in themself.  It is God who elects and saves; Christ who secures by authoritatively baptizing and teaching, and the Holy Spirit who seals the elect, assuring salvation as an everlasting life.  All this is by means of a righteousness manifested in the commandments, precepts, and promises in the Law and Prophets (Wisdom Literature being grouped in the latter per I Chron 25:1).   

     Christ, in his humanity, learned obedience precisely because He was the man of Psalm 1, who “meditates on the Law both night and day.”  Even at the age of 12, Christ demonstrated the centrality of the Law by surprising the Temple teachers and administrators with His authoritative exposition of the Law.  Moreover, since–in His humanity–he learned by the teaching of others, He clearly studied under Mary (whose magnificat is a wonderful exposition of the Law), Joseph, and likely Zechariah, Elizabeth, and others who personified the man of Psalm 1.  For though faith itself is a gift received by Christ’s works of the Law, and not ours, there is no way to be conformed to Him without a faith which is rooted in the Law, the Prophets, and every word God has spoken.. 

   Christ’s work was to fulfill the Law, for He was–in His divinity–the very word of the Law, and so was not under the Law, but simultaneously both in the Law (immanent) and outside the Law (transcendent).  Christ told us that humanity (including His own human nature) lived, “not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Christ’s work was thus with the Law, securing a salvation which is also in and with the Law.  His fulfillment of the Covenant of Works clearly underlined the Law, just as He spoke in Matthew 5:

   “I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.”  Thus salvation, being through a Christ who is in and with the Law, demonstrates Paul’s statement to pertain to a pariticular relation to the Law, namely that anyone but Christ could justify by the works of the Law.  

   Yet, as Augustine tells us, those who belong to Christ are also in and with the Law.  For having received faith as a gift, they have also received the very righteousness/justice of God, who has now joined them to the sap of the vine, which is Christ.  Just as Christ came to fulfill the Law, so the elect is called, choosen, and made anew so that she also fulfills the Law.  Her deepest desire is a “hunger and thrist for justice,” without which there would not be the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7.   The Beatitudes themselves are both the new heart and the evidence of that new heart, by which “you will know them by their fruit.”  Thus mourning, hungering and thirsting for justice (which is the root of peacemaking), and all the qualities of Christ’s “sheep” do not merit blessing, but are the blessing of life and joy itself.  

   In addition to the confusion over Paul’s statements in Romans 3, there are three other closely related misrepresentations of salvation that have taken hold in “Protestant” churches:

  1. There is much confusion among Protestants about the identity of the elect saint because of Luther’s statement that saints are a “dunghill covered by snow.”  We must recognize that Luther was an Augustinian monk AND that he said many things for effect rather than metaphysically correct observation.  In other words, he often spoke hyperbolically.  Luther’s statement, interpreted metaphorically, points to Paul’s assertion that “when I am weak, then I am strong” as well as to the right doctrine that the creature is completely contingent on the Creator.  It thus points to Davids assertion (Ps 16) that “apart from You I have no good thing” and Christ’s assertion, “apart from me you can do nothing.”  Luther is rightly telling us to be gentle with each other’s weakness, since we are all waging a harrowing war against sin, the world, and the devil, and God orders our steps even to failure in order to help us place our confidence in Him, apart from whom we have no good thing.  

       Interpreted metaphysically, as many have done in folly, Luther’s statement is heresy. God being the creator of all natures, and not the author of sin, there is no “sinful nature.”  The early church rightly rejected the teaching of Platonic (Porphyrian/gnostic) dualism and its assertion that evil was a positive reality, and the world a sort of yin-yang.  Athanasius (On the Incarnation of the Word) called sin a “nothing” and Augustine (City of God, XI, XIV and IX) was careful to state that “flesh” did not signify the nature of man, but rather the observable “fruit” of its deterioration in acts and speech of both body and soul.    

    Consider the following:

 “”Without doubt, wickedness can be a flaow or vice only where the nature prviously was not vitiated.  Vice, too, is so contrary to nature, that it cannot but damage it.  And therefore departe from God would be no vice, unless in a nature whose property it was to abide with God.  So that even the wicked will is a strong proof of the goodness of nature.  But God, as He is the suprememly good Creator of good natures, so is He of evil wills the most just Ruler; so that while they make an ill use of good natures, He makes a good use even of evil wills.”  (City of God, XI, 17). 

  1.  That grace opposes justice and wrath.  Such an understanding of God plainly rejects the central teaching, found in Deuteronomy 6, that “God is one.”  He is indivisible, as the Augsburg Confession rightly asserts, such that He has no parts (doctrine of simplicity).  All that He does, especially His wrath, affirms His creatures and does not slander or denigrate them.   Indeed, His wrath is the antidote to the cancerous deterioration of sin, the annihilation of a creature being far worse than suffering (City of God, XI, 27) or the wrath which resists sin’s annihilation.  For, as Augustine rightly taught, sin returns the creature to the nothing from which he was created.  God’s wrath, used to “teach sinners his ways” and move the elect to be “done with sin,” is good, for He is good in all He is and does. Wrath “proves Him right” (Ps 51), teaches His own to hate sin, curbs the self-disintegration of His enemies, and ultimately preserves the annihilation of the creature in hell.  Statements of woe in Scripture (“woe to the betrayer who is not yet betrayed,” “better to have a millstone hung around your neck and dropped into the depths of the sea”) indicate that annihilating sin is worse than God’s wrathful response to sin.   

   The misrepresentation of Hell as a trash can where the creature is metaphysically separated from God is a misconception (a blasphemy), for God is as present in Hell as in Heaven, and inhabits every part of creation, including the creature. He is immanent and transcendent, being the creator and sustainer, “from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.” (see also Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John, II, 10).  He sustains all creatures, even those in hell.  Thus C.S. Lewis calls hell the “tourniquet of the soul, preventing the soul from bleeding out.”

  1. That imputation is merely a “legal fiction.”  The Scripture, as the Augsburg Confession notes, calls those in Christ a “new creation,” having a “renewed heart.”  The Holy Spirit having given birth to saints by God’s will, not their own (Jn 1), elect saints are fundamentally distinct from wicked men (Mal 3), their new heart being a “blessed” heart from which springs of living water flow, namely those springs identified in the Beatitudes (Matt 5) and exhibited by the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5).  The elect saint, as a new creatioon, is in an inseparable union with Christ and the Holy Spirit, who have made their dwelling with her.  

   Though susceptible to sin because life and righteousness originate (as they always have) from the God who sustains them, they truly are one with Christ and one another, and not mere “sinners.”  The metaphor of seed and the slow growth of a tree are the Biblical picture of the elect saint, whose faith is small but growing, and powerfully working out God’s will because He works in them.  

   Thus God’s “accounting” righteousness/justice to His own is intimately bound with the power of His word in creation.  “Let there be…” and “accounted as” reveal the same truth about our existence and salvation:  that God is self-existing, and we contingent on Him for all things, not even able to move or affect one hair without His will and plan.   We would do well to re-examine the writings of the early Church, particularly the North African Church’s (Ambrose, Augustine, Tertullian) robust theology, which was built on a foundation formed by unifying doctrines of creation and salvation. 

  Overall, we must not ignore Christ’s assertions (Matt 5, Ps 19, Ps 119) that the commands and precepts are life and love itself, and that “He who loves me obeys my commands.”  Paul clearly teaches that we are saved to fulfill the Law by doing good works appointed for us by God.  James tells us that the Law is our freedom, reiterating the claims of Psalms 1, 19, and 119:  “blessed is the one…” (Ps 1:1)  and “I have seen a limit to all perfectioon, but your commandment is boundless.” (Ps 119:96).  The Law which condemns oppression (Ex 22:21-23) and any attempt of a man or woman to excercise dominion over another (Gen 1, Ps 8, Matt 20 & 23) is a “Law of perfect freedom,” which calls us to a feast hosted by Lady Wisdom for Christ and His Bride, and beckons us to be willing participants (Ps 51:12, 110:3, and 119:10; Prov 31), not coerced servants or contentious spouses.

   We are saved to be in and with the Law–to uphold and fulfill it.  Moreover, saints are saved to become one with the the Law, being unified His justice, loving justice as He does (Ps 33), and expressing holiness through justice (Isa 5:16). They meditate on and delight in the Law of perfect freedom.  They are not only clothed in Christ’s righteousness, but in “the just acts of the saints” (Rev 19), their works being the evident fruit by which they are known on earth. For the sword which proceeds from Christ’s mouth on the day of Earth’s redemption for justice and peace (Ps 45) will be the saints–holy ones of Psalm 149, Zechariah 14, Jude 14, and Revelation 19–the ones who have perfect union with both Law and Law-Giver. 

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