I studied for 3 years in a Baptist Bible school, and 3 more years in an Evangelical seminary. I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in theological studies. So a courtroom was an unlikely place for me to learn about Saul’s teachings on law and grace. My fellow students and I used to spend hours debating this subject, perhaps more than any other. Not surprising, really, since, as Peter the Apostle wrote, 2 Peter 3:16, “There are some things in [Saul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”
As I stood in court before a judge, preparing to appeal a citation for speeding, it all became clear. There are so many misconceptions about how the Torah and the Gospel are related that it is hard to know where to begin. Christians, Messianic Jews, Jewish Roots, all struggle with this crucial subject. We are not helped by two millennia of mistranslations that have either caused, or been caused by, ill-informed teaching in the churches. Does the Torah belong to the old order, while the Gospel brought in a new order? Did the new covenant replace the old? Are Torah and Gospel contrary to one another? Or do they work together?
Before I disclose the revelation I found in the courtroom, let’s have a look at some of the things Saul wrote about Torah and Gospel. I have translated the following verses myself to try to make the best sense of the Greek words in the light of the overall teaching of the Bible.
Does Faith in Yeshua Abolish the Torah?
This is a common error, despite Yeshua’s clear statement in Matthew 5:17 that this is not so. Nevertheless, based on passages like this one in Saul’s letters, people insist that Torah has been replaced by the Gospel.
Romans 3:28-29, “We hold that a person is justified by faith without works of Torah. Or is G‑d the G‑d of Jews only? Is he not the G‑d of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.”
This may sound like Torah is no longer necessary. The Jews have Torah; the Gentiles do not. G‑d is G‑d of both, so we stand on the common ground of faith, right? But is that what Saul really meant? We must keep reading.
3:30, “… since G‑d is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith, and the uncircumcised through [the] faith.”
“G‑d is one” is a reference to the Sh’ma, the ‘creed’ of Judaism. Saul affirms that both Jews and Gentiles are dealing with the same G‑d. Yet he describes two ways of becoming justified—one for the Jews on the basis of the faith we already have, including both Torah and faith in Messiah Yeshua, and one for the Gentiles through this faith—Biblical faith something like what the Jews have, including faith in Yeshua. The word “through” suggests that for Gentiles some movement is necessary to get from outside of the covenant to the inside of it.
3:31, “Do we then cancel the Torah by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we confirm the Torah.”
Verse 31 clearly says that, whatever verse 28 means, it does not mean that Torah is cancelled; rather, it is reaffirmed.
Torah and Sin
Romans 7 describes Saul’s struggle over how he wants to do what is written in the Torah, but somehow he does not do it.
Romans 7:7-8 and 12, “What then should we say? That the Torah is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the Torah, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the Torah had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. … So the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.”
So the Torah’s purpose is to define right and wrong, and that is a good and necessary thing. What, then, is the problem?
7:13-14, “Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin … For we know that the Torah is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”
The Torah is not the problem. It is our sinful nature, our yetzer hara or evil impulse, that drives us to disobey the Torah. Torah tells us what is sin and what is good and right; it does not empower us to do the good.
The “Curse of the Torah”
In his Letter to the Romans, Saul is systematically presenting his teaching to a community he had not yet visited. In the Letter to the Galatians, he is dealing with a very different situation. Saul was addressing a specific problem that had come up in the Galatian communities that were founded by Saul himself. After he left them, others came and tried to force this Gentile community to convert to Judaism in order to follow Yeshua. Saul opposed this with vigor.
We must understand the Galatian letter as an urgent plea to Saul’s “children” in the faith—that they must continue on the path that he taught them. His argument uses the Jewish technique known as midrash. Midrash takes passages from the scriptures that were speaking about one thing, and uses them to address another thing. It is a way of applying ancient scriptures to modern situations.
Saul argues that whoever counts on the Torah for justification is placing himself under a curse. Why? Because G‑d declares a curse on anyone who does not live by what is written in the Torah.
Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not live by all the things written in the book of the Torah to do them” (Deuteronomy 27:26)”.
This quote is part of the list of blessings and curses G‑d promises to Israel for obedience or disobedience. Saul adds the word all, which is implied in the Torah but not written. He means to say that one who tries to prove he is righteous by doing Torah commands, and does not do all of them, ends up under the curse, rather than the blessings.
He goes on to contrast faith versus Torah as the way of becoming justified before G‑d.
3:11, “Now it is clear that no one is justified before G‑d by the Torah; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). 12 The Torah, then, does not come from faith; but rather, “Whoever does them will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5)”.
What does it mean, then, to be “justified before G‑d”? It does not mean “to be or become righteous”. It refers to someone who was guilty or accused of some sin or crime, who has been tried in court and either found innocent, or otherwise had the charge cleared so he could be treated as innocent. A person cannot rely on doing Torah commands to be considered righteous, because as soon as he breaks a command, he is not righteous. Some other approach to justification is needed. So Saul continues:
3:13, “Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Torah by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23)”.
Yeshua did not save us from the Torah, but from the curses the Torah puts on those who violate it. He took the punishment in our place. Does this free us from our obligation to obey G‑d’s commandments? Absolutely not!
Are We “Under the Torah”?
Many Yeshua followers have been taught that we are no longer “under the law”, meaning we are not required to obey the Torah. This teaching is based on verses like this one from Romans.
Romans 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law (upo nomou), but under grace.”
Saul seems to write that we are no longer living under the old covenant, but under the new one. This phrase “under the law” always troubled me, because I could not think of or find any similar concept in the Tenakh or in Rabbinical writings. Furthermore, the word the is not in the Greek in nearly all the passages where this phrase appears. This fact suggests to me that Saul is not talking about being “under the Torah”, but under some more general principle of law.
I once found an entry in a Biblical Greek dictionary (which unfortunately I have not yet been able to locate again) that listed the Greek phrase upo nomou in Greek literature as describing peoples who are not Greek, who had been forcibly placed under Greek law, that is, Hellenized. The Greeks, thinking they had a good thing with their democracy and civilized culture, conquered surrounding people and forced them to accept their laws. Our own story of Hanukkah is about the Jewish resistance to the Greek attempt to Hellenize Israel in the second century before Yeshua.
Could Saul have meant that we do not do with Torah what the Greeks did with Hellenism? We do not force people to live by it. In this case, “under grace” might be a clever play on the other expression “under law”, and perhaps Saul saw grace, not as the opposite of Torah, but as the partner of Torah. Sin has no dominion over us because we are not “under law” as the Greeks practiced it. Instead, our Torah has grace as its partner. When we break a commandment, there is repentance and atonement and forgiveness. In any case, Saul could not have seen grace as replacing Torah, because he goes on to write:
3:15, “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? By no means!”
The Gospel is not a license to sin.
A School of Theology in a Traffic Court
Many years ago, in California, I received a traffic citation for speeding. I was only passing another car on a street where the speed limit was 45 miles per hour. As I passed, I saw that I was driving at 51 mph. Just after passing the other car, I came over a hill and saw a sign that the speed limit was suddenly 35 mph. And there was a police car ready to cite me for speeding.
I was determined to fight this citation in court. However, when I came to the court, the clerk asked whether I want to plead “guilty” or “not guilty”. I was about to declare “not guilty” when I realized that, technically, I actually was driving faster than the speed limit. I understood that pleading “not guilty” would not stand under the scrutiny of the court. There was one other option: “guilty with an explanation”. So this became my plea.
In the courtroom, I listened as one defendant after another tried to talk his way out of his citation. But the judge asked a couple direct questions to get the facts, and then ruled against each one. And there I sat, trying to figure out what to say to the judge.
All of a sudden I understood Saul’s theology of Torah and grace. “No one will be justified before G‑d by the Torah”. The Torah is not my friend on judgment day. If I try to plead “not guilty”, the judge only needs to ask me, “What was the speed limit?” and “How fast were you driving?”, and my case would be lost, because I actually did break the law. Neither would it do any good to defend myself by listing all of the laws that I did keep, because I had still broken this one.
However, if I plead “guilty” and ask for grace (I said “leniency”), I had a chance to redeem myself. The judge reduced the fine, and sent me to traffic school, which would remove the offense from my driving record. I got the message—if I rely on the law, but break any of it, my offenses will be held against me on judgment day. I cannot appeal to the law to claim that I was right when I had broken the law. If, however, I rely on grace, confess my sin and ask for forgiveness, I can be forgiven and “justified” (having the transgression removed from my record).
Can I then go out and break the law because I have received grace? Should I “drive with love”, and not worry about those annoying traffic laws? Absolutely not! The law is still there to teach us to do right.
Hearing and Doing Torah
In the beginning of his Letter to the Romans, Saul makes an unexpected statement—unexpected, that is, if we expect him to teach that Torah is not important, and we are ruled only by grace. But that is not what he wrote. In the following quote, Saul writes of the importance of Torah, both to Gentiles and to Jews.
Romans 2:11-15, For G‑d shows no partiality. All who have sinned without law will also perish without law, and all who have sinned with (not ‘under’) law will be judged with law. For it is not the hearers of the Torah who are righteous in G‑d’s sight, but the doers of the Torah who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess Torah, do instinctively what Torah requires, these, though not having Torah, are a Torah to themselves. They show that the work of the Torah is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness …”
In Greek, Saul describes the Jews as being “with law”, not “under law”. (Many translations get it wrong because of the misunderstandings I’ve spoken of above.) He writes that there are Gentiles who never learned Torah, but who naturally do it by instinct. This shows that they have the Torah written in their hearts. So the Torah is important to the Gentiles, whether they know it or not.
His admonition that “it is not the hearers of the Torah who are righteous, but the doers of it …” is a reference to Exodus 24:7. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah, we said, “All that the L‑rd has spoken, we will do and we will hear”. “Doing” is unexpectedly placed first, and there are many Jewish teachings about how Torah is learned and understood by doing it, and not only by studying it. Here, Saul is emphasizing the importance of “doing”. Gentiles who naturally do what the Torah requires are in a good place. Jews must beware of a different problem:
2:17-18, 21 and 23, “But if you call yourself a Jew, and rely on the Torah, and boast of your relation to G‑d and know his will, and determine what is best because you are instructed in the Torah …. You, then, who teach others, will you not teach yourself? … You who boast in the Torah, do you dishonor G‑d by breaking the Torah?”
Jews have great advantages because we have the covenants with G‑d (Romans 3:1ff). Jews therefore have a greater responsibility. Jews have the Torah, and have studied and practiced it for millennia. To be sure, there is also repentance and grace for when we stumble and fall. The coming of Messiah does not do away with our sacred history. No, the coming of Messiah fulfills the history and the covenants, carrying them forward into his promised Kingdom.
Messiah the “End of the Torah”?
So why then does Saul write in Romans 10 that “Messiah is the end of the Torah”? Here is yet another case of mistranslation and misunderstanding. Saul is talking about G‑d’s faithfulness to Israel. He describes a problem that Torah-observant Jews sometimes have, that we forget about our relationship to G‑d by love, faith and grace, and get caught up in our “business” of keeping commandments, while forgetting the reasons why we do so.
Romans 10:3-4, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from G‑d, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to G‑d’s righteousness. For Messiah is the end (Greek, telos, goal, outcome) of Torah so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
The Greek word telos does mean ‘end’, and it sometimes means finish or termination. But it does not mean that here, because we already saw how both Yeshua and Saul said that the Torah is not abolished or cancelled. The word telos, like the word ‘end’ in English, also means ‘goal’, ‘purpose’, or even ‘destination’.
We can think of it this way: Torah comes from the Hebrew word that means ‘to shoot at a target’. The word ‘sin’ in Hebrew means ‘to miss the target’ (see Judges 20:16 in Hebrew). So what Saul means in this passage is that Messiah is the goal, or target, that the Torah is aiming at. The Torah is meant to lead us to Messiah. Torah and Messiah are partners.
Romans 10:5-8, “Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the Torah, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” Now/and the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’“ (that is, to bring Messiah down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’“ (that is, to bring Messiah up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:10‑14), that is, the word of faith that we proclaim …”.
Saul goes on to explain that Torah and faith “speak the same language”, although translations often appear to say the opposite. In verse 6, the little Greek word de can mean ‘but’ depending on what came before it, but in this case, it is a simple connecting particle meaning ‘and’ or ‘now’.
Saul tells us that the Torah says, “whoever does the commandments will live by them”, and faith says, essentially, ‘don’t say it is too hard for us’. Saul uses these words to speak of finding Messiah, but he quotes Deuteronomy 30, which is talking about the Torah. Moses said of the Torah itself, “It is not in heaven, etc.; it is near you, on your lips and in your heart”. Saul and Moses are using the same words to speak of things that are alike, that go together. Faith and Torah do indeed work together.
With this brief introduction to a complicated subject, I have tried to demonstrate how we have come to wrong ideas about the Torah and the Gospel. Throughout Christian history, teachers have tried to say that the old covenant is a covenant of law, while the new covenant is one of grace. We used to be saved by works, but now by grace. Some even say that the OT G‑d was a G‑d of anger, while the NT G‑d is a G‑d of love. Nothing could be further from the truth.
G‑d has built his covenants and promises one on the other, so that in the end, we will have a Kingdom that is holy, fair, and kind. We need Torah and Gospel, law and grace, in order to be complete.