The Chalcedon Foundation endorses the whole of God’s Word for the whole of life, hence the motto: Faith for All of Life. This affirms all the Word of God, all sixty-six books, including God’s law enunciated in the Mosaic writings. Not all evangelicals accept the principle of the whole Word for the whole life. However, some of their most important objectives are based on misreadings of statements in the New Testament.
Two such statements are found in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul is testifying to his Christian liberty and evangelistic mission: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, though not being myself under the law, that I might win those who are under the law” (v. 20). He continues, “[T]o those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law” (v. 21). These statements seem to be a formidable objection against the new covenant appeal to God’s law. How shall we respond? By stating Paul’s specific point: Paul denies he is obliged the ceremonial aspects of the law, which is different than the law as a system of ethical obligations.
The Broader Context
Paul is engaged in a debate regarding Jewish sensitivities; that is, the problem of eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8-10). The focus of the debate over foods is narrowly Jewish.
Eating an idol’s meat before a Jew or Jewish Christian causes needless offense. This would pose no problem for Gentile Christians. The Jerusalem Council merely urges Gentiles graciously (not legalistically) to forgo meat offered to idols solely for the sake of the Jewish Christians:
Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath. (Ac. 15:19-21)
Paul concludes his whole three-chapter debate (1 Cor. 8-10): “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.”
The larger context concerns narrowly Jewish sensitivities and the controversy arising from that, not the law as an ethical standard.
The Immediate Context
The immediate contextual setting of Paul’s statement suggests he is dealing with “the law” as that which separatesthe Jewish race from the Gentiles (“[T]o the Jews I become as a Jew.”).
This idea of “becoming a Jew” indicates ceremonial distinctives rather than moral ones. No one “becomes a Jew” by not killing, not committing adultery, or not coveting but by undergoing ceremonies which marked the Jews off from the Gentiles (circumcision, food laws, etc.). For instance, if a non-Jew wants to partake of the Passover, he must be circumcised first so that he will become a Jew: “But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land” (Ex.12:48).
Paul has Timothy circumcised so that they might associate with ceremonially observant Jews, to preach the gospel to them: “A certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek.... Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Ac. 16:1, 3).
Paul can easily demonstrate his Jewishness: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today” (Ac. 22:3). “Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5).
In fact, Paul can distinguish the law from its ceremonial aspects. In 1 Corinthians, he distinguishes “the commandments of God” from circumcision (even though that was, in fact, a commandment of God): “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” This is further evidence for “the law” meaning the ceremonial features of the law.
Paul’s Affirmation Elsewhere
Although here in 1 Corinthians 9:20 Paul seems to deny the law, elsewhere he vigorously affirms it. He must have different conceptions of “the law” in mind, which we call ceremonial and the moral aspects of the law.
Paul affirms the law as an ongoing obligation among those of faith: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). Surely “the law” established in Romans 3 is not the law dis-established in 1 Corinthians 9.
The moral elements of the law are expressly affirmed in Romans 7:12: “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” How could he disavow his obligation to that which is “holy, righteous, and good”?
Even the judicial elements and function of the law are endorsed by the Apostle to the Gentiles: “But we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:8-11 ).
The Jew/Gentile Controversy
In the New Testament the controversy between Jew and Gentile always revolves around the ceremonial law. The ceremonial law causes the conflict, not the moral or judicial law. Numerous references testify to this, including:
- Acts 10:28: “And he said to them, ‘You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.’” This passage clearly speaks to the food laws, as Peter’s vision of the sheet with unclean foods indicates.
- Acts 15:1 (cp. v. 5): “And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” The first major controversy between Jew and Gentile, within developing Christianity, is over the ceremonial matter of circumcision.
- Acts 21:21: “They have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.” “Forsaking Moses” (the lawgiver) is associated with not performing ceremonial rituals (e.g., circumcision).
- Romans 2:27-3:1: “And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the law and circumcision are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” Paul discounts the value of ceremonial circumcision over against “keeping the law” in its moral strictures.
Clearly, then, Paul’s denying his obligation to “the law” is a disavowal of ceremonial features of the law. All of those have been fulfilled in Christ. For instance, Paul says we are “circumcised” when we are baptized (Col. 2:11-12). Ironically, in the very text where Paul fleshes out the doctrine of Christian liberty, he establishes the law of God in the context of our liberty.