Law and Gospel 5


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e.) “I have become all things to all men” 1 Cor. 9:22. Was Paul a relativist?

According to Barton, Paul’s understanding, which is paved by a cultural understanding of what being a slave meant, became the interpretation tool that Paul used in expressing his obligation to Christ. This obligation, according to Barton is “an obligation finding expression in the service of others for whom Christ died also (1 Cor. 4:5).”[1] Making comments on the word ‘win,’ Barton asserts that this usage reflects a “more liberal missionary practice” but that Paul’s accommodation in winning others was at the expense of abandoning the law.[2] Secondly, making another comment on the same word, Paul used it in a pastoral sense where concern for the ‘weak’ was in response to his winning people to Christ.[3] Thus Barton sees the conversion of a Christian is tied with the obligation of glorifying Christ in all areas, and namely in this manner winning other to Christ.[4]

Paul strived under the belt of contextualization, taking into consideration the condition and situation of his listeners, with a degree of “flexibility and subordination” which boarders “racial and religious groupings, marks his practice where his main thrust was ‘by all means to save some.’ (1 Cor. 9:22)”[5] Further, Barton expresses Paul’s statement “To the Jews I become as a Jew, in order to win the Jews’ (1 Cor. 9:20) in implying that it denotes Paul’s discontinued allegiance of ‘being a Jew.’ But at this point this freedom allows him to also adopt Jewish-law keeping for the reason of eradicating possible offence in his missionary activity among the Jews.[6] Barton further comments that,

“It is the great paradox of Paul’s concept of freedom that while the gospel has freed him from the way of the law, it has freed him for service; a service finding expression in costly identification with men still bound to the law.”[7]

Paul’s statement on being a gentile to win the gentiles is filled with controversy especially to the Jew. But as Barton argues, Paul’s allegiance is first and foremost to Christ, not bound by any boundary, be it Gentile or Jew. What is important is that his allegiance stays true to the gospel and for the sake of the gospel.[8]

But this expression should not put into question Paul’s obligation to God, rather, his obligation, instead to the Mosaic law, is now found in Christ which now informs how he is to live.[9] Barton further elaborates on this. First, Paul’s acceptance of the law of Christ marks his departure from “the casuistic living-according-to-rules which he sees as endemic to conformity to an external code.”[10] Secondly his designation of being under the law of Christ conjures that Paul now ascribes to a different set of ‘rules’ for living.[11] This understanding does not play out in where Paul is reverting to a set of codes but this is explained by way of sacrificial service (Gal. 6:2) in the context of love which is invoked by their life in the Spirit and which is displayed in the life of the believer by way of the fruits of the Spirit which are displayed in the life of the believer.[12]

In other words the law of Christ is not based on a set of codes where Christians are to follow in the sayings of Jesus but this is informed by placing love as the epicentre of Paul’s understanding of this law of Christ. This law is the one that necessitates a Christian Ethic for living, not in codes but by way of service and by direction of the Spirit.[13] 170-171

Freedom for the Christian is not under the authority of Law (which separates and is based on the ethnic ethic of a specific group, Jews) which frees the Christian to adapt and accommodate for the sake of winning others to Christ. But this should not spell freedom without a sense of control. The Christian, although being free is bound by another, and that is Christ. Paul calls this as being under the law of Christ. In further explaining, the law of Christ is not a new mosaic code but one that finds its ethic in love of the other by way of service invoked by the indwelling of the Spirit and exemplified in the life of the believer by way of the fruit of the Spirit which makes the mark of being under the law of Christ.[14] In this case we can say with confidence that Paul was not a relativist.


Barton, Stephen. Was Paul A Relativist? (Source Unknown)

Bird, Michael F. A Bird’s Eye View of Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message. (Grand Rapids: IVP,2008)

Burge, Gary; Lynn H. Cohick; Gene L. Green. The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of The New Testament Within Its Cultural Contexts. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

Gundry, Stanley (Ed). Five Views on Law and Gospel.(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999). 247

Hawthorne, Gerald F.; Martin, Ralph P.; and Reid, Daniel G.; eds. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, c1993).

Hill, Michael. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics. (Kingsford NSW: Matthias Media, 2002)

Witherington, Ben.The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

[1] Barton, Stephen. Was Paul A Relativist?. Pg 166

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Pg 166-167

[5] Barton, Stephen. Was Paul A Relativist? Pg 167

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Pg 168

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. Pg 168-169

[11] Ibid. Pg 169

[12] Barton, Stephen. Was Paul A Relativist? Pg 179

[13] Ibid. Pg 170-171

[14] Ibid. Pg 171-173

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