A Low Hamartology

POSTED 13 SEPTEMBER, 2009

reproduced from the Messianic Torah Helper

What is the problem with holding to a low theology of sin (hamartology), and how do we see this problem fixed?

I had a very interesting dream the other night, but before I begin, let me say something: I don’t have dreams. This does not mean that I am not spiritual, it just means that the Lord usually communicates to me through prayer or His Word. This dream, however, was pretty interesting. It involved me consciously picking up various books and commentaries in my library, and closely examining and re-examining a passage of Scripture which is very important to us understanding the proper role of the Torah in the life of Believers: Galatians 3:23-25.

What does Galatians 3:23-25 say? Appearing in the New American Standard Update, it reads,

“But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”

Some immediate questions jump out at us when we see this verse: Who are the “we” being spoken of? What is “under the law” to mean? In what regard is the Torah a “tutor”?

Some other questions may be asked when we compare this with some other versions. There are Bible translations that describe the Law as a “custodian” (RSV), “disciplinarian” (NRSV), or “guardian” (ESV). But most notably what jumps out at you is the clause in v. 24: “until Christ came” (RSV/NRSV/ESV).

The majority interpretation that I have encountered in Galatians commentaries and other writings on Paul reflect the view that in Galatians 3:23-25, the Apostle is only reflecting on a Jewish experience of having to be subject to the Torah. “We Jews,” Paul would say, “were locked up by the Law of Moses until the time of Christ. We Jews do not have to follow any of this Law any more, which means that it is surely not for you Galatians…”

Fast forwarding to today, the implications of this could be that not only have non-Jewish Believers such as myself been wasting their time for the past fifteen years being Messianic—but that today’s Messianic Judaism, as well, probably needs to just close up shop and fold back into the greater Christian Church with its Law-free gospel and Law-free lifestyle. The Law of Moses was for a previous age, and salvation history has progressed forward. The Torah was only until Messiah, and now that we have Him we no longer need its commandments to regulate our lives…and so on.

Is it at all impossible to view Galatians 3:23-25 differently?

There is always debate among commentators of Paul about who the “we” and the “you” are in various parts of his letters. When he talks about the “we,” is he referring to himself as a member of the Jewish people? Or, is the “we” referring to his collective audience?

I believe there is another way of looking at Galatians 3:23-25, which upholds the significance of the Torah for all of God’s people, aligns with the New Covenant ideal of His commandments being written on the heart by the Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 36:25-27), and above all recognizes the centrality of Yeshua the Messiah.

“But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed” (Galatians 3:23).

The “we” Paul is talking about is himself, his party in Antioch, and the Galatians. In v. 23 Paul talks about their common state as human beings subject to sin, being under the condemnation of the Torah pronounced upon sinners, being shut up as prisoners until the truth of the gospel would illuminate their lives at the right time (cf. Galatians 4:2). The Torah is something that Paul considers the whole world to be accountable to (Romans 3:19b).

What is the role of the Torah for those who are sinners, locked up as prisoners, deserving nothing more than its full brunt of condemnation?

“Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

Paul labels the Torah as a paidagōgos, which in a classical sense was a slave or household servant, who guarded young boys to and from their academies. It would be a very strict disciplinarian, sometimes beating or chastising them, until the time when the young men would come of age and the services of the pedagogue would no longer be required. The boys would be mature, and would know foundational life principles as second nature. The fact that Paul is having to use a classical Greek term, to describe a function of the Torah, is a very good indication that this is something that affected the non-Jewish Galatians equally as much as it affected Paul as a good Jew.

The real debate is what is meant by the clause eis Christon, which could be rendered as either “to Christ,” or the more common “until Christ.” Did the Torah only serve as the Jewish pedagogue until the arrival of Yeshua? Or, does it serve as individuals’ pedagogue until a person receives Yeshua into his or her life? Many conclude the former, but if the Torah is to be likened to some kind of child trainer—beating important principles into a person prior to salvation—then it is not unimportant to consider the fact that the Galatians were certainly taught about the Messiah from the Law and the Prophets during Paul’s visit to Galatia in Acts 13:13-14:28.

Paul spoke to both Jewish people and non-Jewish people when he traveled throughout Southern Galatia. It is safe to say that when examining Luke’s record, the Apostle Paul delivered the same basic message wherever he went on this journey. At Pisidian Antioch, he proclaimed on a Shabbat,

“Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).

The non-Jewish Galatians were certainly taught this basic message from Paul, no different than those Jews who were attending Sabbath services as they always did, as he declared the good news from the Torah and Prophets. Many of the non-Jewish Galatians had already been involved with a local synagogue in some way or another, and had a basic understanding that the Creator God condemned them for their disobedience to His righteous standard in the Law.

Paul’s message in Pisidian Antioch is no declaration about the Torah being abolished; it is a reflection of how the Torah cannot free a person from all of the condemnation or guilt of sin. The Torah is not enough. The Torah’s standard of holiness and righteousness is quite important. Yet the Torah as a pedagogue can only harshly beat its commandments and standard of righteousness into a non-Believer, who will often feel condemned because he or she is not doing enough. The non-Believer, trying to keep God’s Law, will inevitably fail at times and will be condemned by God’s commandments when they are disobeyed—because we are only human.

This is why, in Galatians 3:24, the Torah is a pedagogue that is to lead us to the Messiah. Having disciplined us enough, showing us that on our own we will carry guilt for disobedience to God’s commandments, we are to be driven to the feet of the cross and plead for redemption. As the gospel of salvation changes our lives, the Torah’s role as a pedagogue for individuals, harshly condemning them, is over:

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:25).

This does not mean that the Torah no longer plays a role in the lives of redeemed people! Redeemed people empowered by the Holy Spirit are to have His commandments written on the heart, as the power of the New Covenant is enacted. Such a redeemed person, filled with the Holy Spirit and with a new nature desiring to obey the Lord, understands the message of 1 John 5:3 very well: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”

Following salvation, the Torah functioning as pedagogue is over for a born again man or woman. What follows is the Torah functioning as the mission statement of a person’s new life in Yeshua, where one can be a part of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), fulfilling God’s mandate to be a blessing to the world (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:2-3). Having the Torah’s principles imbued into the man or woman empowered by God’s Spirit makes the Torah even more important following salvation—not less important. It helps us learn about the character of God, and how we need to learn to act toward sinful humanity with love the same as He has acted toward us (Romans 5:6-9).

In examining various commentaries on Galatians, I certainly saw how interpreters had to engage with the thought that the Torah could serve as an individual’s pedagogue, but then they all pretty much rejected it. The Torah only serving as a Jewish pedagogue until the time of Christ was instead vastly preferred. The Torah serving in any kind of an educational role for people on the path to salvation, being shown their sin nature from the high standard of God’s commandments, was not really welcomed.

I have spent more time in prayer and contemplation than you can know ruminating over this issue, asking myself: Why is this the case? The answer is one that really does grieve me, because I have a huge amount of respect for people who dedicate their lives to teaching and expositing God’s Word—in some cases spending five to ten years writing commentaries on texts like Galatians. These are not immoral or God-less people by any means, but in some places they are misdirected.

Consider how we all get really upset when we encounter various Messianic individuals and ministries who finally come out of the closet and say that they hold to a low Christology, failing to acknowledge the foundational declaration of faith “Yeshua is Lord” (Romans 10:9). Yet the problem with much of today’s evangelical Church is not too dissimilar. Rejecting a view that Galatians 3:23-25 relates to individuals condemned by God’s Torah as sinners, needing to be led to the Messiah, is a reflection that too many of today’s Christians hold to a low hamartology.

Hamartology is the study of sin. Romans 3:20b is clear: “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” God’s Torah contains His gold standard of what He considers sin to be, and it begins with us contemplating the severity of the Ten Commandments. But how many Christians today are really taught what God’s commandments are, much less that disobedience to them brings the condemnation of the Creator down upon them? How many of us have completely misdiagnosed what “under the Law” really means as being subjected to the condemnation of the Torah, a consequence of sin being someone’s master (Romans 6:14)? How many Christians still sit under the Law’s condemnation as (unredeemed) sinners—and may not even know it—because their salvation experience had nothing to do with confessing their violation of even just a few of the Ten Commandments (cf. 1 John 1:9)?

Today, the fact that much of the contemporary Church holds to a low hamartology is evidencing itself very clearly. Entire denominations are splitting over the issue of homosexuality. Now I am the last person who is going to say that gays and lesbians should not be treated as human people, deserving of respect and basic rights. They deserve our love, and not harsh treatment. But if the Church held to a high, or at least a higher, harmartology, then this would not be a debate. Homosexual people would not be ordained clergy, and we would not relegate the Torah’s instructions on sexuality to the dustbin. I look back at the two dominant religious traditions in my family, Wesleyan-holiness and Reformed, and neither one held to the low view of God’s Torah as is often held in the contemporary Church. Yet the denominations that adhere to these ideologies either have already split, or are on the verge of splitting sometime soon.

I think that the reason today’s Galatians commentators do not want to see the necessity of the Torah as ultimately leading people to the Messiah (Romans 10:4, Grk.), is because of a low hamartology. Discounting the role that God’s Torah is to play in condemning sinners, but ultimately having to drive them to the sacrifice of Yeshua for forgiveness, is a severe indictment against much of the contemporary Church. It has failed in its proclamation of the gospel. And then, when people do supposedly get saved by its “Law-free gospel,” God’s Torah plays no role in discipleship, or sometimes even Bible study. It is just an interesting part of archaic Biblical history to them.

Now you can see why I believe so strongly that the Messianic movement possesses great potential to be a force of God’s holiness and righteousness. While many of us have been blessed by having a more hands-on and interactive faith, by remembering Shabbat or the appointed times—we have the responsibility of restoring a high hamartology to the ekklēsia. Keeping God’s Torah is by no means what saves us; the Prophet Isaiah says that our human righteousness is but “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV). God’s Torah shows us how sinful we are, and how much we need a Savior. But as Believers empowered by the Holy Spirit, following God’s Torah as redeemed people gives us the ability to demonstrate good works and conduct in a world marred by sin, enabling us to show others His love and compassion (Matthew 5:16ff).

Today, we do not know what the emerging Messianic movement is going to emerge into. There are huge debates going on about whether all of the Torah is a standard that all people are affected by, or that only some of the Torah affects non-Jewish Believers like me (and I am not talking about the natural divisions of the Torah’s commandments, nor about the difference between its apodictic and casuistic laws). The Messianic movement cannot at all agree about the equality of all people in the Lord, including not only Jews and non-Jews, but also women (Galatians 3:28). The Messianic movement is behind the curve in much of its theology and scholarship, and its engagement level with various issues and subjects where both Judaism and evangelical Christianity are far ahead of us.

Yet in spite of some of these challenges, I believe that our Heavenly Father has chosen us to do some important work in the days to come. The internal issues will subside and we will see His mandate accomplished. In future decades, our faith community may be some of a small few who hold to a high hamartology, not having relegated the Torah as important only to the time period prior to the Messiah. But neither will we make the mistake of discounting the good Apostle Paul’s instructions as being irrelevant as some do. We will be able, just as he did, to proclaim to everyone how the Lord Yeshua “is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4, TNIV).

There is much work, study, and research that needs to be accomplished—and it is high time that we align our objectives with His objectives!

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this. There is a Messianic Synagogue in Saginaw, TX in which the Rabbi and leaders present all of the Pauline letters as not valid. Many in our Messianic community (Fort Worth) gasped at this, and our previous Rabbi informed the Rabbi of this congregation (the one that denies most of the New Covenant), that this teaching is heresy. I’ve been fascinated although doubtful. Thanks for the clarity. Shalom.

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