Speaking of the commands in the Torah—or “Law” (νόμος; nomos)—Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5: “The one who does them shall live by them” (Galatians 3:12). The apostle’s restatement of Leviticus affirms that the Torah can undergird one’s life. Yet, just nine verses later, Paul seems to suggest that these commandments cannot confer life: “For if a Law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law” (3:21). Which is it? Does Paul contradict himself? Though it may appear so in English, Paul’s original Greek refers to two different kinds of “life”: the first is sustained life on earth, while the second is eternal life after resurrection.

Scripture is clear that Law observance leads to prolonged life. For instance, Moses tells the Israelites to observe God’s commandments “all the days of your life (חי; hai), so that your days will be long” (Deuteronomy 6:2). After Moses explains all of the Torah’s precepts, he declares, “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… then you shall live (חיית; haiyita) and multiply…. Choose life (חי), so that you and your offspring may live” (Deut 30:15-16). According to the broader context of Paul’s citation from Leviticus—“the one who does them shall live by them” (Lev 18:5)—anyone who fails to follow the Torah’s prohibitions is “cut off from among their people” (Lev 18:29). Although a lack of observance leads to death, following the Law ensures the continuation of earthly life.

Yet, if Scriptures equates Law observance with a long and fruitful life, then why does Paul seem to deny that the Law “could give life”? The apparent tension lies in an imprecise English translation. Paul does not question whether the Law was able to “give life” (cf. CEB, ESV, KJV; NKJV); rather, the apostle states, “If a Law had been given that could make alive (ζωοποιέω; zoopoiéo), then righteousness would indeed be by the Law” (Gal 3:21; cf. ASV, NRSV; RSV). When Paul uses ζωοποιέω, he refers to being made alive in resurrection—receiving life from the dead. For instance, Paul proclaims, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive (ζωοποιέω)” (1 Cor 15:22; cf. 15:36, 45). In Romans, he speaks of a God “who makes the dead alive (ζωοποιέω)” (Rom 4:17) and promises that “he who raised Christ from the dead will also make alive your mortal bodies” through resurrection (8:11). Paul agrees that the commandments support one’s current life; however, once you die, you’re no longer around to “do them” (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:12). In other words, one cannot achieve their own resurrection through Law observance; only God can “make alive” after death (Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6; 2 Kgs 5:7). Thus, for Paul, eternal life comes not by the Law, but by “the righteousness of God through trust in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom 3:22).

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44 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks, Dr Schaser. I have some doubts about Luke 10:28. This was a question about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells the Rabi he must do what the Torah says: Love God and your neighbor. "Do this and thou shall live", wasn't that about eternal life?
    • Jesus affirms that if a person perfectly fulfills the Law of God, that person will receive eternal life on Judgement day.However, this is impossible except for one man who is Christ Jesus. We now know Jesus did live it perfectly and is the Savior for all believers.
    • Thanks for your question, Sebastian. Yes, the dialogue in Luke 10:25-28 is about fulfilling two commands from the Torah in order to inherit eternal life (cf. Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18). This episode is only in Luke (the other Gospels don't have it), and it may diverge somewhat from how Paul envisions the role of Torah observance. Yet, the lawyer goes on to ask, "Who is my neighbor?" (Lk 10:29), and Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the lawyer to "go and do likewise" in caring for enemies and accepting a Samaritan as his neighbor (10:37), so it seems that the lawyer wasn't keeping Lev 19:18 in that way that Jesus interprets it, and therefore wouldn't inherit "eternal life" simply by observing his own (limited) interpretation of the verse. More, Luke is clear elsewhere that God (not one's own capacity for Torah observance) grants eternal life through resurrection (cf. Lk 20:37-38; Acts 24:15).
    • We are not save by the law, it is through the grace of God, but Jesus say "if you live me keep my commandment." What commandment? The 10 commandment. All of it including the 4th commandment, God said in Exodus 20:8 "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy...."
    • Thanks for your question, Robert. The "us" refers to other gods and divine beings in the heavenly council of the God of Israel. God consults with these divine underlings, but only the one God actually creates humanity. For more on the multiplicity of gods in Israelites thought, see https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/sorting-sons-god/ and https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/is-there-no-other-god/
    • It's enlarged for emphasis in some traditional Jewish printings of the Torah scroll, but it's not found in the Masoretic manuscripts themselves. It's likely meant to emphasize God as the continual "Keeper" (נֹצֵר) of covenantal loyalty (חסד; hesed). In the context of the passage, there's also an enlarged resh (ר) in some printings at the end of אחר in 34:14 -- the enlarged letters put together spell נר (ner), which means "light." At the end of the chapter (34:29-35) Moses' face "shines," so the "light" may have something to do with that. However, there are various other traditional reasons as well. More important, it's a later cosmetic alteration of the text that has no bearing on the meaning of the original.
    • Thanks for your question, Lotty. No, the "us" in Genesis 1:26 does not refer to the "trinity." Rather, it refers to God and the divine council made up of other heavenly beings who are subordinate to the God of Israel -- these divine beings include other gods (elohim), angels (malakhim), cherubim, seraphim, etc. This is why God is call "Lord of hosts" -- that is, the hosts of other heavenly beings that God created.
  2. I also have an extension of curiosity to the same question about Genesis 1:26. Sir, In the She-ma We are told to acknowledge that Adnonai is “Hashem” and that Yahweh is (1)! Sir I am a Gentile Believer, Born to faith in 1985. HELP ME!
    • Thanks for your question, Curtis. Genesis 1:26 does not refer to the “trinity.” Rather, it refers to God and the divine council made up of other heavenly beings who are subordinate to the God of Israel — these divine beings include other gods (elohim), angels (malakhim), cherubim, seraphim, etc. This is why God is call “Lord of hosts” — that is, the hosts of other heavenly beings that God created. There is still only one, unique God of Israel, but that God has divine underlings. More, the Shema should be translated more precisely as "the Lord is our God, the Lord alone," rather than "the Lord is one."
  3. a well constructed presentation, which highlights how some texts can be misunderstood, how great the Paul observed what was happening and put it right.
  4. The Law was a guide to a righteous life . Psalm 119:5 its the lamp that guides our feet. However it's faith in God that brings righteousness. We see in Hebrews 11 the wall of fame of faith. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. There were many in OT saved by faith by grace and mercy of God . We cannot toss the law out because we still need to obey but its our faith that gets righteousness that saves. In OT they believed in God's promise of a Saviour to follow but in NT we believe in a Saviour that is the Word made flesh and has come and lived and died and rose again.
  5. "Let's create man in our own likeness" Here I think God was talking amongst his existence in the Trinity, God the father, God the son and God the holy spirit.
  6. God knows that we would fall, that why Chirst came to earth; to show us how to fulfill his Father's will for us. And fulfill the law. By doing so we might not die in sin- though live though him, his Father word.
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