Is Paul’s Attitude to the Law in Romans different from that found in Deuteronomy?

This essay was submitted in my third year (January 2014) of my undergraduate degree in Theology for a module called ‘The Bible and the People of God’. This is the first of two essays for the module, and focuses on the theme of ‘The Law’ in Romans and Deuteronomy. The second examined the theme of ‘Creation’ in Isaiah 40-55 and the Gospel of John. I hope that you find it interesting and, as ever, do feel to comment at the end.

Is Paul’s attitude to the Law in Romans different to that found in Deuteronomy? 


The Psalmist cries out to the Lord ‘The Law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces’ (Psalm 119:72). ‘The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.’ (Psalm 119:160). This is the adoring prayer of the Jews throughout scripture, from the giving of the Law at Sinai, through the wanderings in the desert and the generations of judges and kings, through the exiles and returns to the Promised Land and in the advent waiting for the Messiah the ‘Law’ has been upheld as the eternally beautiful truths and commands of the Lord for his chosen people; the Israelites. Yet after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus opinion was divided; what attitude should believers have towards the law? Was attitude synonymous with practise? When Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans was there an understanding that the Law remained the eternally beautiful words of the Lord to his chosen people or had the law been downgraded, disregarded and rejected?


The last book in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, is the valedictorial speech of Moses recorded by scribes for the purpose of national moral instruction.[1] Crump observes that the very structure of Deuteronomy resembles that of ancient covenantal documents; such as the Hittite suzerainty treaty. [2] Thus, Deuteronomy is not a codified ratification of arbitrary commands on the whim of God but rather a ‘complex moral order within which the good of the people and their obedience to God [is] closely allied’.3[3] Indeed, only the Decalogue (Deuteronomy 5) is actually presented to Israel by God himself, the rest of Deuteronomy is mediated to the people through Moses.[4] It is upon this foundation of the Ten Commandments that the rest of the Law is built and thus the Mosaic Law is understood as standing on the authority of the one whom presented the Decalogue, God Himself. [5] With the giving of the Decalogue at, according to Deuteronomy, Mount Horeb, the community of Israel is drawn into a covenant relationship with God (Deuteronomy 5:2) which in turn facilitates an understanding of the attitude that Moses, and by extension, Israel held with regards to the Law.


As the Israelites witnessed the glory of the Lord as a consuming fire on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), Paul saw the glory of the Lord on the Damascus road (Acts 9, 22). With references to his own writings such as 1 Corinthians 10-12 it seems as though, like Moses before him, Paul also received divine guidance on moral matters. As such one of his final epistles, his valedictorial epistle as it were, is a fitting comparison of the covenantal relationship pre-incarnation and post-ascension.[6]

The Decalogue

Throughout the 16 chapters of Romans, Paul directly refers to Deuteronomy on seven occasions (7:7; 10:6-8; 10:19; 11:8; 12:19; 13:9; 15:10). Of these occasions, only 7:7 and 13:9 are pertinent to discussing attitudes to the Law as the others are used to illustrative rather than argumentative purposes by Paul. The corresponding references in Deuteronomy are both to the Decalogue (Deuteronomy 5: 21; Deuteronomy 5: 17-19, 22) thus prior to Paul’s attitude to the Law a brief examination of the Decalogue is appropriate.

The Decalogue (‘the ten words) ‘occupies the primary place in the divine instruction that comes through the law or laws of Scripture.[7] It is believed to have been delivered directly by God to the Israelites in Exodus 20 and takes the centre stage in Deuteronomy. The opening declaration ‘I am the Lord your God’ along with the following ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ is, in Ackroyd’s eyes, ‘a statement of the basic covenant relationship’.[8] The nature of this relationship is characterised by Williamson as one of ‘solemn commitment, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both covenanting parties’.[9] This revelatory covenant relationship has three key aims:

To affirm the relationship that that existed between Israel and God;
to prescribe the socio-ethical standards for Israelite behaviour in light of the covenant;
to positively identify Israel as a nation distinct from other nations.[10]

Underpinning all three of these aims is, ultimately, the love of God for his people. Deuteronomy 7:-9:

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.”

As the Decalogue is an establishment of covenantal relations spoken from the mouth of God, remembered by Moses in Deuteronomy, the Israelites were presented with law not of the kind that is found in textbooks but which is an eternally living procession from God, lending them a personal quality that directly interacts and challenges the audience; be that Israel, Paul or the contemporary ecclesial body.[11] The Decalogue encapsulates the law of a relationship that pervades all aspects of Israelite life and culture, orientating and guiding them into acting and being who they are called to be. As such Fretheim observes that the Law is ‘basically… vocational’.[12]

Since the law is personal, in that both parties are persons and that the emphasis is upon their identities in relation to each other, rather than merely legal it should be understood and interpreted as a dynamic system of relationship.[13] This is not to say that the Deuteronomistic law can be changed nor negated but rather to prevent the law being an end in itself instead of being the means through which Israel, as the chosen people of God, can relate to and obey God.[14] As Heschel says, ‘the meaning of the Torah [and by extension, the law] has never been contained by books’.[15]

Instances of Paul’s use of Deuteronomistic Law

Within the Pauline corpus the Decalogue appears to be predominantly absent and yet within Romans he alludes or quotes from it on three occasions; in chapters 2, 7 and 13.[16] Within these sections Paul draws on Deuteronomy to make his arguments; in particular he refers to the Decalogue and the circumcision of the heart. As the Decalogue is at the heart of the mosaic law this essay shall first look at Paul’s usage of the Decalogue and then compare his attitude to the Law with the deuteronmistic understanding of the circumcision of the heart.

Paul and the Decalogue

Chapter 7

The first major contribution to Paul’s discussion on Law that is comparable with Deuteronomistic attitudes to the law is to be found with chapter 7 verse 7. Whilst the reference is small, “Do not covet”, Augustine held that Paul used it as an expression of the whole law.[17] In which case, this small reference becomes paramount to understanding Paul’s attitude to the law. Interestingly, the commandment “Do not covet” as the final of the Ten Commandments is the one which focuses on proper attitude and thus is really the essence of all of them.[18]

Prior to the reference to the Decalogue, Paul celebrates the freedom from the Law that is found in death through the body of Christ, indeed this freedom from the law is a key theme within Romans. As Kruse observes, this lays Paul’s message open to the objection that he is ‘denigrating the law itself’.[19] To say this would be to misinterpret Paul’s message on sin.[20] As Paul himself responds: ‘Certainly

not!’ (Romans 7:7). Rather than attributing death to the Law, Paul portrays the Law to be as good and wonderful for Israel as God’s spoken words to Adam in the Garden of Eden.[21]The Law is excellent; holy just and good (7:12). Death, then, arises out of the deception of sin which ‘opposed the lifebringing command of God’ (7:11).[22]

Paul then presents an autobiographical account which is not intended to tell a unique experience but to encapsulate the general truth of the common human experience of sin.[23] Through it he depicts the inner turmoil caused by the tension between living in the ‘present age’ and the ‘age to come’, which has arrived whilst the old has not yet passed away.[24] Calvin summarises the Christian experience of 7:14-24 as those who desire to ‘aspire to God, seeking celestial righteousness, hating sin, and yet they are drawn down to the earth by the relics of their flesh’.[25] Once more, this serves not to demonstrate a negative view of the law but to emphasise the perfection it contains. Paul concludes the section by praising God, through Jesus Christ – for in Christ is the gospel that the Christian is no longer a slave to sin and death that arise from life contrary to the Law. Thus, the use of the Decalogue, and by extension the whole Law, in Chapter 7 serves to deny that it is to be rejected due to causing death, but rather to affirm that it is to be lived through Christ.

Chapter 13

Having countered the stigma of the Law in chapter seven, Paul’s discussion moves into Christian life in the Spirit and confidence in the face of evil (Chapter 8), followed by a look at the election of Israel (chapters 9 and 10) and the inclusion of the gentiles (Chapter 11). However, the next key appearance of the Decalogue in Romans occurs in Chapter 13 verse 9.

Chapter 13 follows on from the precepts discussed in chapter 12 for Christian living, including respect for governing authorities.[26]This practical advice culminates in verses 6 and 7 with the exhortation to pay whatever is owed to those to whom it is owed. From here Paul shifts the argument from the practical and worldly to the spiritual and theological point that underpins and orientates all that he had just said by turning to the Decalogue. He petitions his audience to continue to love their fellowmen as this fulfils the Law. He then says: ‘The commandments, “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”, “Do not covet”, and whatever other commandment there may be are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Romans 13:19) For a contemporary audience this echoes Jesus’ response to the teacher of the Law in Mark 12:31 and yet both Paul and Jesus are quoting from Leviticus 19:18. This provides both a continuity and a discrepancy in the attitude to the Law in Deuteronomy and in Romans. Within Deuteronomy there is a sense that the Law is the unchanging Decalogue and yet that it has been written and compiled a while after Sinai and Leviticus and as such Fretheim argues that Deuteronomy does contain a slightly different perspective on the interpretation of the Law.[27] Conversely, both Jesus and Paul use Deuteronomy parallel with Leviticus in summarising all of the Law, which seems to point towards the movement of truth encapsulating the law as something greater than the text itself, as observed earlier. In this regard it seems that whilst the gospel saves individuals from sin and death and thus is paradigm changing, the attitude towards the Law in Paul and Deuteronomy are remarkably consistent.

In the light of Paul’s summary of the Law in verse 9 leads into this statement: “Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” (Romans 13:10) Rather than being a ‘new’ interpretation of the Law, Paul emphasises a principle that is clear within Deuteronomy itself; the heart of the law is love.

The Circumcision of the Heart

This reminder of the proper attitude and understanding of the Law is presented earlier on in Romans 2, where Paul challenges those who think they know the law and yet live as hypocrites (2:21-24) to remember that true circumcision is of the heart and that it is performed by the Spirit of God; not the written code. (2:28-29). This need for a circumcised heart stems from Deuteronomy 10:16 where it is presented as an imperative to be fulfilled by the people in order to be blessed by God.[28]

However, later on in Deuteronomy the circumcision of the heart arises once again as a restoration of the broken covenant where instead of it being a human requirement it is performed by the Lord himself (Deuteronomy 30:6).[29] Calvin takes this as a declaration that God shall create them anew as spiritual men cleansed from the filth of the flesh and the world, and says, ‘Circumcision was then the Sacrament of repentance and renewal, as Baptism is now to us; but “the letter”, as Paul calls it, (Romans 2:27) was useless in itself as also now many are baptized to no profit…. [its] efficacy and utility is lodged in the Spirit alone’.[30]

This act of repentance, out of love with all of one’s heart and soul (Deuteronomy 30:10), is the message of the whole Deuteronomy; ‘A cold and formal religion cannot be the route to God’s blessing and favour’.[31] This attitude to the Law in Deuteronomy in chapter 30 is clearly emulated within Paul’s epistle (Romans 2).

Attitudes to the Law

Far from being a dry book of formulaic legalism, Deuteronomy, as the final sermon and exhortation of Moses to the Israelites, is filled with the life bringing words of God himself; words that encountered the people first at Mount Horeb and claimed them as a people belonging to the Holy God. Whilst it would be mistaken to deny the presence of curses and death prescribed within Deuteronomy it would be a greater error to focus on the consequences of transgressing the law rather than marvelling at the principles of love that permeate it. These principles of love demand that Israel loves and obey their God with all their hearts and souls as the object of his own divine love and affections so that he might bless them with life in abundance (Deuteronomy 30:16). Similarly, Paul’s epistle to the Romans negotiates the tension between life and death. Yet any discussion of the law that focuses solely upon the death caused by Sin subverting the law to its own ends would ultimately construct a theology of the gospel triumphing over the law; whereas Paul seems to present a gospel that frees the Law from sin and death and rather than abolishing the Law he clings to it as just, good and holy (Romans 7:12). Thus from the instances explored, primarily the use of the Decalogue and the concept of the circumcised heart, it appears that Paul’s attitude to the Law stems out of a whole hearted love for God and his commands and as such is consistent with the attitude to be found within Deuteronomy.


For believers in the Judeo-Christian God, this attitude to the Law can be deeply challenging. Within contemporary ecclesial communities the view is often promulgated that Christians are free from the law and thus arises a form of situational ethical practise akin to Joseph Fletcher’s guiding principle of the greatest loving action in any situation. However to do so is to dismiss the law in a manner that misconstrues its termination (Romans 10:4); understood properly the termination of the Law means an end to human righteousness as an object to attain but rather as something received from God through Christ.[32]

Morris observes that what is important isn’t so much the sign of being a member of the covenant (be it baptism or circumcision) but rather actually being a member of the covenant and to be a member means to keep the covenant.[33]

Whilst Paul presents an understanding of salvation, justification and righteousness that is contingent upon the person of Christ, he nevertheless affirms throughout that the law is maintained and has value before reaching the zenith of his argument with regards to the law in chapter 13; namely, that the law is be obeyed as actively loving one’s neighbour as oneself.

Concluding Remarks

The implication for the praxis of contemporary Christians is that they are to be fully fledged covenant members through the grace of God displayed by the death, resurrection and ascension of his Son Jesus and that as covenant members they are to maintain the Decalogue and the rest of the law in the way in which God intended when he presented it; they are to live lives that demonstrate in word and deed that they have circumcised hearts. Any ethical axioms based upon this must therefore not try to exclude the Law as irrelevant not should it demand a perfect adherence to all the mitzvot; rather it should look deeper at the movement of truth that was presented to the Israelites in Deuteronomy. Thus the Christian’s attitude to the law should be that the law is good and holy and that ‘it is profitable for men to take its conceptions at least as seriously as their own’.[34]  In this way they will be congruous to both Paul and Deuteronomy’s attitude to the law.

Word Count: 2976

Footnotes below, for the bibliography please look here: Bibliography

[1] Weinfeld, Deuteronomy, 4.

[2] Crump, ‘Covenant’, 223.

[3] McConville, Law, 14.

[4] Rendorf, Canonical, 74.

[5] Miller, Command, 14.

[6] Bruce, Romans, 30.

[7] Miller, ‘Decalogue’, 230.

[8] Ackroyd, Exile, 59.

[9] Williamson, ‘Covenant’, ee.

[10] McBride, ‘Torah’, 1.

[11] Miller, ‘Decalogue’, 232.

[12] Fretheim, Law, 185.

[13] Fretheim, Law, 190.

[14] Thompson, ‘covenant’, 510.

[15] Heschel, Search, 276.

[16] Nebe, ‘Decalogue’, 51.

[17] Calvin, Romans, 252.

[18] Utley, Romans, 7:7.

[19] Kruse, Law, 208.

[20] Henry, Commentary, 2209.

[21] Wright, Covenant, 197.

[22] Hubner, Law, 75.

[23] Bruce, Romans, 151.

[24] Bruce, Romans, 154.

[25] Calvin, Romans, 262.

[26] Calvin, Romans, xxxvi.

[27] Fretheim, Law, 191.

[28] Sanday, Romans, 68

[29] Wells, ’Deuteronomy’, 199.

[30] Calvin, Moses, 285.

[31] Payne, Deuteronomy, 165.

[32] Heil, ‘Law’, 485-486.

[33] Morris, Romans, 140.

[34] Barth, Romans, 12.


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