Salvation history is the unfolding of God’s plan. It is an unfolding not because God is somehow making it up as he goes, but because in his divine counsel, he chooses to reveal aspects of it in time. As one example, Paul is explicit about such an unfolding regarding the church, when he says to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:4-6) Gentile blessing was surely promised in the Old Testament, but that it would come through such a thing as the church, Jew and Gentile in one body, was not.
Similarly, it is a foundational aspect in Paul’s teaching about the Mosaic law is that salvation history is progressive. In Romans 6-7, Paul links the seminal events in the believer’s personal salvation history (our death with Christ, our burial with him, our resurrection with him) to our relationship to the law. Having died with Christ, we died to any obligation to the law. Paul writes “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Rom. 7:4)
A survey of some of the other epistles shows this same progress: The law had to do with the Mosaic covenant, and with Israel. It has not to do with the new Covenant and the body of Christ by way of obligation In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul designates the law (specifically the 10 Commandments) as belonging to the Old Covenant, and calls it a ministry of death and condemnation. He says its glory cannot be compared with that of the New Covenant. As an obligation, it belongs to past salvation history.
In Galatians, Paul says the law was our pedagogue until Christ came, and until faith came. Some have said that this pedagogical function still prevails, that is, that the law still teaches us how we are to live before God. But Paul’s language is clear: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Gal 3:25. The arrival of the promised seed of Abraham, Christ, means that our adoption as sons of God frees us from the enslaving and captivating power of the law. For, although the law is holy, righteous, and good, Paul says that “before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” Gal 3:23.
But the law is holy, and righteous and good!
Misunderstanding this progress of salvation history has led to inconsistent conclusions, but in fairness, we must consider and explain some of Paul’s other statements about the law that seem to imply something positive and enduring. Paul writes that the law is “holy, righteous, and good.” (Rom 7:12) How can something good be temporary, or done away with, especially if it represents God’s will? Paul answers this question by saying that when combined with our flesh, the law, though good, produces a fatal outcome: sin and death. Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment caused sin to revive, and, says Paul, “I died.” The law actually aroused sin in him!
As to whether the Mosaic law represents an eternal will of God for his redeemed people in this age, Paul has answered that also in 2 Cor 3. It does not. It is a ministry of death and condemnation. If something better has come, it certainly makes sense that the old has become obsolete.
Are we released from the curse, but not the commandment?
Others claim it is only from the curse of the law we are delivered, not the commandment. To be under the law, says Paul, is to be under a curse. (Gal 3:10) Such a division of commandment from curse is never contemplated in Scripture. If the commandment is stripped of any consequence for the law-breaker, then it ceases to be law. It may be the Ten Suggestions, but it is not law. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say it was fear of the curse that aroused sin him, he says it was that the commandment that awakened sin within him and killed him (Rom. 7:9) Paul never qualifies his pronouncements. He says we have died to the law, been released from it, and “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Gal 2:19) Indeed, the way of living a life pleasing to God is to recognize we are dead to the law.
The unequivocal nature of these statements also precludes any understanding that says Paul only wished to clear up a legalistic understanding of the law. That is, that he was keen to insist no one can be justified by the law, but he never intended to dismiss the law as a rule of life, or as a way for believers to walk in a way that pleases God. Where Paul does cite the law, it is in support of his own apostolic instruction. In Romans 13:9-10, Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments “For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Rom 13:9-10. What’s as notable as including these is also what is missing. That is, he never says, “Keep these commandments.” He cites them as supporting evidence for his own teaching (and that of Jesus) that love is the chief thing, the fulfillment of the law. Love, and you needn’t worry about whether you’re “keeping the law.”
Does the Holy Spirit empower Christians to keep the law?
The final aspect of what salvation history implies is that with the coming of the Spirit, believers have all they need to live in a manner pleasing to God. That is, we serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the letter. Being free from the law is in fact the way of bearing fruit for God. Far from providing help in overcoming sin, the law, (because of our sinful flesh) actually exacerbates the problem. Paul says in Romans 6:14 that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The corollary to this is that if we are under law—or obligation to law—we are still under the mastery of sin!
“Oh, but the Holy Spirit in fact empowers believers to keep the law.” I have heard this claim, but it is foreign to the apostolic teaching on the Mosaic law. It is again an attempt to reintroduce the law as a rule for those under the headship of Christ when Paul says it appeals only to those in Adam. When Paul says the law aroused sin in him, does he refer to the new man in Christ, or to the old man in Adam? “If you walk by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Gal. 5:18) Earlier in Galatians Paul has made a couple of statements that preclude this view. In chapter 3, he has contrasted law with faith—that which characterizes the Christian life. They were justified by faith, apart from the law.
Paul asks, incredulously, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2-3) Faith brought them the Holy Spirit, brought them into God’s family. Having coming into God’s family, would they now be perfected by the flesh? What could “by the flesh” refer to here except taking up the law? A few verses later, Paul again sets forth a contrast between faith and the law. “But the law is not of faith.” (!) If we, by faith, are to keep the law, why does Paul never say so? Why does he instead contrast the law with the Spirit? The answer is that in the progress of salvation history, we who are under the headship of Christ do not need the law to walk rightly, to please God.
While the law is holy, righteous, & good, when combined with our flesh (not holy!) the combination is always a fatal one. We are set free from the law to bear fruit for God, to walk by the Spirt. We are free from sin’s mastery because we are not under law (Rom 6:14)
A partial deliverance from the law (for justification) while insisting we are obligated to it for sanctification and holiness does what Paul warned the Galatians of. It is to begin by the Spirit, but strives to be perfected by the flesh. Gal 3:3. I can offer no better advice than the apostle himself: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)