Paul and the Law: 1 Corinthians 7:19

ImageI am listening to Brian Rosner’s lectures that he delivered at Moore College on the topic of Paul and the Law. Under scrutiny in his first lecture titled “‘Circumcision is nothing:’ The Puzzle of Paul and the Law” is the text of 1 Corinthians 7:19:

Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. 1 Cor 7:19 NASB

This text, at first glance, seems to present a paradox. In this verse, Paul states that circumcision is nothing. But what is something to Paul is “the keeping of the commandments of God.” The paradox lies in the fact that God instituted the practice of circumcision (Gen 17:12)! So how can Paul at once say that circumcision—which was commanded by God—is nothing, while at the same time advocating the keeping of God’s commandments?

Rosner argues that 1 Corinthians 7:19 is not paradoxical but polemical. To understand this text, Rosner turns to 1 Corinthians 14:37, which is the only other place in 1 Corinthians where the phrase “commandments of God” is used. From this text Rosner argues that the commandments of God is the message of the apostles, which in the context is a message that includes the very letter being written to the Corinthians by Paul.

In Galatians 5:6, Paul says something similar to what he says in 1 Corinthians 7:19:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. Galatians 5:6

Likewise, in Galatians 6:15 Paul writes:

For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Galatians 6:15

For Paul, “faith working through love” is equivalent to being “a new creation” which is equivalent to “keeping the commandments of God.” In God’s economy, these things amount to “something” as opposed to the “nothing” of circumcision or uncircumcision.

To make this claim, I think that perhaps Paul is reflecting on Deuteronomy 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4. Both of these texts speak of the circumcision of the heart, which is the spiritual reality to which the physical sign of circumcision is supposed to point. Both Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 speak of the New Covenant in similar terms, which was instituted at the death and resurrection of Jesus (Lk 22:20).

Therefore, what matters to Paul—what matters to God—is believing the message of the apostles. This message is the Gospel, which is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ applied to sinners who respond in faith working through love, which results in the believer becoming a new creation.

So what does this mean with regard to the Christian and the Law? Well, I’m not done with the lectures yet!

What do you think? How do you understand Paul’s relationship to the Law?

Here is a link to Brian Rosner’s lectures on Paul and the Law. (HT: Patrick Schreiner). And here is a link to Rosner’s book on Paul and the Law, which is in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D. A. Carson

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2 thoughts on “Paul and the Law: 1 Corinthians 7:19

  1. Colin,

    Something else helpful about the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is that Paul himself is laying down Apostolic commands: “To the married, I give this charge” (7:1). . .”To the rest I say” (7:12). . .”This is my rule in all the churches” (7:17). This strengthens the idea that Paul sees himself as one writing the commands of God, here and elsewhere, along with the other Apostles. This is the new law of the new covenant.

    Kole

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Kole, I completely agree with you. Paul understood his message and mission as being given to him by God, or commanded by God. There is a similar progression in Romans 10:5ff where there the law seems to be in contrast with the message which Paul has preached to the Romans. I think Romans 10:4 is very instructive for how we are to understand how Paul viewed the Law.

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