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Doing a study on grace and the fulfilment of the Law at present, and wonder if someone can assist: some texts definitely state that it is not humanly possible to perfectly keep the Law. Thus Paul in Romans 7:14-23, 9:31-32, Peter’s words in Acts 15:10, that the Law was a burden that the Israelites could not bear, etc.

However, other texts seem to indicate that keeping the Law was possible.
For instance, concerning the Law and the choice between obedience and disobedience proffered to the Israelites, Moses says (Deuteronomy 30:11),

‘Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.’

In other words, they have no excuse for disobedience.

Also, in Philippians 3:6 Paul, in giving his credentials as an impeccable Pharisee, avers that he was, ‘as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.’
There is also the argument and thrust from Romans 7 to 8 that, as heeding of the Law is not possible, the solution is through the power of the Holy Spirit (thus 8:1-4).

A related query might be, then: did the OT Israelites for over 1,000 years go through the same sense of guilt, frustration, and inability to keep the Law as did Paul (cf. Romans 7), because of absence of the indwelling Spirit?

This would seem unfair, but would be in line with the Romans 7 theology of difficulty in keeping the Law. However, how would this square with Moses’ parting exhortation that the Law was ‘not difficult’ (Deut 30.11)?

A thought: might Paul's (and Peter's) comments perhaps have something to do with an attempt at perfectionism, which is attested in the Talmud among first century rabbis?

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    Remember, the law had built in sacrifices for atonement and so people who stood righteous before God were not people who didn't break the law they were people who did what was required of them when they broke the law
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 1:30
  • Is it possible that for Paul the Pharisee, The Law includes Oral Torah which has a lot more requirements than the Pentateuch? Commented May 3, 2020 at 0:07

8 Answers 8

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You should notice the context of the verse you quote (Deuteronomy 30:11), because it comes after this:

These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which he made with them in Horeb. (Deut 29:1, KJV; or "in addition to the covenant which...etc", NIV).

From chapter 29 to the end of Deuteronomy we have a covenant besides the covenant made at Horeb/Sinai. The Law given at Horeb was given in the form of the Covenant of Works: and therefore Moses ministry for the most part was an administration of "death" and "condemnation" (2 Corinthians 3:7-9). Because we are fallen creatures the only relevant message of the Law of Moses given as a covenant works is "cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them" (Deut 27:26). All the covenant of works can declare to us is a curse upon disobedience, and there is no forgiveness upon repentance. But Deuteronomy ch. 30 offers forgiveness upon our repentance. How can both Deut 27:26 and the forgiveness in Deut 30 both be true? They can both be true because these last few chapters of Deuteronomy relate to a different covenant, the Covenant of Grace.

This will be mostly on Deut 30:11-14 and Romans 10:1-13.

Where Paul says "as touching the righteousness which is in the law, faultless" (Phil 3:6) he can only mean that his reputation amongst his fellow Pharisees was faultless based on their (and his) very shallow understanding of God's law, (including that it only required an external obedience). He wasn't in the least behind any of the other Pharisees in his reputation of godliness. But he does not mean he was faultless, but rather that at the time he was a Pharisee he felt himself to be faultless.

"Did the OT Israelites for over 1,000 years go through the same sense of guilt, frustration, and inability to keep the Law as did Paul (cf. Romans 7), because of absence of the indwelling Spirit?"

No, most of them didn't give a fig what God's Law said because they were proud, stiff-necked, and rebellious. Like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:19,20), they persuaded themselves that what was required was merely an outward obedience. Those who did care to please God suffered guilt, frustration and inability until they came to put faith in the coming Messiah and to understand the way of salvation that their good God's gracious giving of the Law implied (see below). Though I'm not sure Paul is talking about gross sinful failure before his conversion, he is perhaps rather talking about the inner failures of a fallen nature after his conversion, which can only produce guilt when a saint loses sight of the free grace of God, that he is no longer under law but under grace, but certainly produces quite a lot (bucket loads) of frustration and sense of inability so that he growns "who will deliver me from this body of death"?... growns inwardly as we await the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:26,27), but which also encourages him to look away from himself to Christ his righteousness, restoring comfort, while praying for forgiveness and drawing nearer to God.

Now about Deut 30:11-14 and Romans 10. In summary, Paul shows from this passage of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 that God gave to His people a blessed law, a law which had been kept already by another, that is the coming Messiah was going to keep it for them, die as a punishement for their sins, rise again from the dead to live forever, and the Spirit was going to be given to those whose hearts believe with a new outward confession of life and lip; and therefore salvation was never going to be by obedience to the Law but by faith in the Messiah and his work.

Paul is saying this is the intended meaning of Moses, or at least, this is the intended meaning of the Holy Spirit when He gave these words to Moses.

Read the whole of Deut 30 and Romans 10:1-13. One thing to observe is that Paul makes a distinction between what Moses wrote (Ro 10:5) and what Moses said (Ro 10:6) (which is obvously itself written down else we wouldn't know what he said(!)). What he wrote is the law from God, the Law of Moses, for the most part given in the form of the Covenant of Works; what he said is maybe sometimes a gracious interpretation of God's intended meaning in giving the written word, viz the Covenant of Grace.

I give a flow chart to explain Romans 10:5-10 with some prior premises and some questions, because I think that is as clear as I can make it. Remember, Paul is saying that his interpretation of Deut 30:11-14 is the intended meaning in the original, probably of Moses, but certainly of the Holy Spirit:

(Prior) Premise 1: God is good.

(Prior) Premise 2: God has chosen a people to be his people.

(Prior) Premise 3: God is good towards his people.

Premise 4: God has given as a gift to his people his Law, the Law of Moses, which includes the whole moral law. (They do not have to go searching for it either up into heaven or across the sea because it has been brought near to them as a gift: this is critical to the whole argument, read Deut 30:11-14 and make sure you see it: the Law of Moses has been given by God as a gift to his people. (This critical insight was gained from "Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament", Editors: G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson).

Premise 5: The Law of Moses (which includes the whole moral law), viewed in its usual sense as a covenant of works, brings a curse if it is not kept, but a blessing if it is kept (see earlier in Deut 30. For the terms of any covenant of works see Gen 2:17, Deut 27:26, Ezekiel 18:20, Galatians 3:10). This is referred to in Romans 10:5 "The man who does those things shall live by them."

Question 1: Did God give to his people a cursed gift?

If your answer is "Yes" then go back to Premise 1 and start reading again (if you keep saying "yes" then you are left in a continuous loop);

If your answer is "No" (because he could not have done because of premises 1-3) then continue with:

Question 2: So can his people keep his moral law? i.e. do they have a righteousness sufficient to keep the Law of Moses, which includes the whole moral law?

If your answer is YES: then google search "Say not in your heart deuteronomy" and you will find:

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)

This is the passage that Paul is elliptically refering to at the beginning of Romans 10:6 "But the righteousness of faith begins in this way "Do not say in your heart"...etc. The one speaking in faith begins by affirming the soul has insufficient righteousness of itself.

If your answer was YES to question 2 ("So can His people keep His moral law?") then go back to Question 2 and start reading this post from there again and down. (You are again caught in a continuous loop.)

If your answer was NO then continue:

Question 3: Can the law be kept?

If your answer is NO then you are saying it was given as a cursed gift; go back to Premise 1 and start reading all again. You are again in a continuous loop.

If your answer is "YES, but it could not have been by the recipients", then you are saying in summary:

God has given to his people the gift of his commandment (Deut 30:11), the Law of Moses, which includes the whole moral law; (his people do not have to go looking in impossible places to try to find it); this gift that God gave is a good blessed gift; but we cannot obey it and therefore for it to be a blessed gift then the commandment/Law must be given as a fully perfectly obeyed commandment, kept by someone else on behalf of God's people. The Law of Moses can be considered to be already obeyed at the time it was given, by the coming Messiah on behalf of his people.

That is the first part of the meaning. Now for the second part:-

So then the whole Mosaic Law has been given as a good gift, that is a Law which has been obeyed, and it can only be understood as such by those who agree with Deut 9:4-6 and thus acknowledge they cannot keep it themselves; and who receive it as good gift by faith, believing it is kept already for them.

Those who receive it in this manner now know they have an imputed righteousness, a righteousness they haven't worked for but received as a gift.

The question now becomes "Where is this gift, this righteousness?" The answer is this righteousness came down from heaven, lived according to its own nature (i.e. righteously), died righteously, descended into the grave, rose from the dead, and is now in your heart - you who believe on Him and His finished work - and on your lips (as demonstrated by your confession of Him and life in Him).

So for those who will believe in the Messiah a Perfectly Obeyed Law is given to them as a gift, which is the same as the gift of an imputed righteousness.

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (Deut 30:11)

When Moses spoke these words the Messiah had not yet come, but all that he would do was promised by God, and the promises of God are all as good as done already, therefore you must see it as a law which is an Already Perfectly Kept Law, and therefore this Law is not too hard for you or too distant from you.

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    "in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." - Romans 8:4 Commented May 4, 2020 at 12:37
  • @Mike Borden - Yes, (I might add it). Thanks Commented May 4, 2020 at 13:24
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You rightly point out that "Moses says (Deuteronomy 30:11),‘Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.’ In other words, they have no excuse for disobedience."

There is no excuse for disobedience because of the reasons Moses goes on to state regarding the commandment presented to the nation of Israel:

"It is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, 'Who shall go over the sea for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?' See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command thee this day to Love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it." Deut. 30:11-16 KJV

Moses made clear that God was being reasonable, for he had given them his law, delivered by angels at Mount Sinai, in a powerful demonstration. And Moses had come down from the mountain to give them that law, now written down, the stone tablets also being in the Ark of the Covenant. They knew exactly what God's law required of them, and that that law was perfect, because it came directly from God.

But Moses was not implying by that that they could perfectly keep that law! It would have been too difficult if they could not obtain it, or if they only had snippets of it. Moses was saying that they knew what the law required, they could not plead ignorance, and they had agreed to keep it. Therefore, when they broke that law (as Moses had told them they would - Deut.31:27), there would be curses following continued national disobedience.

Paul quoted from that section of scripture in Romans 10:4-8 in his argument about the fulfilment of what came down from heaven and what ascended up from the deep - it was "Christ [who] is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth". In Romans 9:30-33 Paul showed that Israel followed after the law of righteousness, but had not attained to it because they sought it not by faith, but by works of the law. Paul knew that if anyone could be held up as an exemplary keeper of the law, it was him; he appeared faultless to others, but he knew he failed because the law only exposed his inner sin.

As Tim Keller put it, "The Law is not a check-list that we keep; it’s a benchmark that we fail."

Conclusion: When you say that texts like Deut. 30:11 seem to indicate that keeping the Law was possible, that text has been misunderstood. It was possible because they had the law. They had the law given to them so they knew its full requirements. It would have been too hard to keep (impossible, actually) if they couldn't obtain it from heaven, or from the depths. Paul then quoted that to show Christ had come down from heaven and ascended from the depth, so becoming "the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." His point is that faith in Christ as the end of the law is what the law was all along pointing to.

So, at just the right time, while we were still helpless in our sin, Christ arrived to nail the law to the cross as he died on it - Colossians 2:14. It had served its purpose, proving that "the strength of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56) which is just what Paul meant in Romans 7:7-8:1. It is the law of the Spirit of life that liberates from legalistic attempts to 'earn' a righteous standing before God by perfectly keeping God's law (Romans 8:2). Galatians 3:21 is the clincher. Go read, and ask no more about the impossibility of sinful people being able to perfectly keep the perfect law of God!

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Is it possible to keep the law of Moses?
Yes, if you are Jesus.
No, if you are not.

The law had specific purposes. A few include:
1. Shows the Holy character of God.
2. Identifies what is and what is not sin.
3. Reveals to us our need for a Savior.

While the law identified sin, it was inadequate to make a man obey or be righteous.

When Paul said he was blameless, the question that must be asked is "blameless in whose eyes?" He is either referring to being blameless in his own eyes or the eyes of others. He was not referring to being blameless in Gods eyes.

Romans 3:20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

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Yes it was impossible for people to keep the Law of Moses in the sense of NOT requiring a sacrifice for payment of your sins when you fall short.

When Paul speaks of himself as blameless as regards the law, he is not saying he was perfect in fulfilling all of the requirements once and for all, he knew he came short, just like the rest of us, but rather when he sinned he went to Jerusalem per the Law and had the priests take care of his sins via the sacrifice of another animal in his stead.

The idea behind Deut 30:11 is thus revealed.

For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.

is picked up by Paul at Romans 10:6:

But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)

It is NOT to bring Christ via some "reenactment of Christ's sacrifice" as some teach sans blood, but rather the idea is this:

For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. Romans 10:5

We live by faith in Christ's completed work. Christ alone fulfilled the Law of Moses and the Prophets (Mat. 5:17)

Hope that helps a bit.

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I think the two verses provided in support of the notion that the Law could be obeyed by ordinary humans, are being misinterpreted.

Deuteronomy 30:11, e.g., from the KJV, says

" .. it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off".

"far off" is a better translation of the Hebrew rachowq, then the NIV translation quoted in the question above, that seems to imply the idea of it not being beyond reach, i.e., reachable or keepable. Actually, it is talking about the Law being not far off, but near, in the sense of it being known to them. This is supported in context also in the next few verses:

  • verse 12 - "It is not in heaven, that .."
  • verse 13 - "It is not beyond the sea, that .."
  • verse 14 - "But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it."

So it is not far off, in terms of being known to them. But that is very different from saying they would be able to keep it.

As for Philippians 3:6, that is a kind of hyperbole, describing in human terms how he had more in human terms than others, the point being (verses 7-9) that he counted it all as loss for Christ, and considered it better by far to be found in Him, not having his own righteousness of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ. That was the point he was making.

See what he writes elsewhere, e.g., Romans 3:23.

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

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This can be resolved by reviewing the context of each passage. In the Old Testament, God gives a Law, a divine moral law, to be kept by His chosen people. By saying, 'these are not beyond your reach, but you are able to keep them,' He speaks of a relative keeping of the Laws, not an absolute and unequivocally perfect keeping thereof, since, "there is no just man upon earth, that doth good, and sinneth not." (Eccles. 7:20).

However, in St. Paul's context, he adduces the fact that absolute keeping of the Law would be necessary if we are to ignore the grace that is the forgiveness necessary to make anything less than a perfect keeping of the laws possible. Therefore, the cross is preached, "that he himself may be [shown to be] just, as well as the justifier of him who is of the faith of Jesus Christ" (Rom. 3:26). Refusing the Gospel is refusing your lifeline, because it is by the gospel that all your tripping and faltering in the keeping of God's law are accounted and provided for.

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Rom 7.14–23 refers to the unregenerate, 9.31-32 refers to the fact that Torah observance won’t save and Acts 15.10 refers to the Oral Law, not the Written Law of Moses.

Israel promised to keep the Written Torah, and 800 years later they practiced infanticide. An unregenerate person, i.e. a sinner, will always be a lawbreaker no matter how faithfully they may keep the Torah (and they are unprotected against demonic manipulation).

Therefore: while the mere instructions of the Written Torah can be kept by the unregenerate, they will nevertheless be regarded as transgressors (because they are descendants of a transgressor).

Naturally, Yeshu kept the Written Torah, Paul followed Yeshu’s example, and the Corinthians (Jews & Gentiles) followed Paul’s example – they all kept the Written Torah. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337772090_WHY_MESSIAH'S_FOLLOWERS_ARE_TORAH_OBSERVANT_1_lmh_tlmydyw_sl_msyh_hm_swmry_twrh

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  • Does Torah observance include circumcision? Commented Feb 8 at 13:21
  • Only if you are Jewish (or want to convert to Judaism). In pre-New Covenant times, Gentiles joined Israel through physical circumcision; subsequently they were subject to Mosaic Law. Since the ratification of the New Covenant, Gentiles join the "Israel of God" (a body of regenerate Jews and Gentiles) through spiritual circumcision, i.e. made "without human hands by stripping off the corrupt nature by the circumcision performed by the Messiah" (Col 2.11). This occurs during water immersion. Physical circumcision for Gentiles is only pushed by the Hebrew Roots movement, but they're wrong.
    – user64553
    Commented Feb 8 at 14:19
  • Physical circumcision is linked by Paul with indebtedness to keep the law. If Gentiles are not required to be circumcised why would they have to keep Torah? Commented Feb 8 at 14:50
  • Getting circumcised to be saved is works righteousness, and the expanded version of it is Torah observance in order to be saved. This is what Paul condemns (not circumcision or Torah observance as such). Regenerate Gentiles are viewed by God as belonging to Israel, and her instructions how to live haven't changed. Sins, i.e. law violations, are not forgiven to provide a fresh start for more law violations, that should be obvious. Needless to say that mainstream Christianity by and large follows "the man of sin" and will therefore be destroyed.
    – user64553
    Commented Feb 8 at 15:57
  • See Gal 2:21, 3:21, Rom 10:3-5, Christ is the end of the law. Gentiles joins church of Israel, they are not included in the church of Israel, but remain gentiles as part of universal church. Gal 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. Gal 6:16, Eph 2.
    – Michael16
    Commented Feb 8 at 18:14
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Who is Defective: Law or Man?

Adjusting and correcting our interpretation can solve this dilemma between justification under the law and under faith. Romans 7:14-23, 9:31-32, does not state that it is impossible to keep the law. The I in Romans 7 represent the man of flesh, a sinner who would resist the way of truth. When Israel failed to keep the law according to the time and dispensation of faith (Gal 3) but rather relied on works when the law was finished and nullified in its purpose, it represents that I of the flesh 9:31-32. You also noted that the passage is about the power of Holy Spirit (Rom 8:1-4), the contrast is between spirit and flesh. It doesn't blaspheme the holy law of God.

Holy Spirit Before Acts 2

The point about absence of the Holy Spirit under the law covenant is misguided because the scriptures are written with the inspiration of the same Spirit of God, and the same Spirit did all the miracles which it does under the new covenant. The only difference under the new covenant is that it has been given with an outpouring on "all flesh" (Joel 2:28), not just to the Jews.

Historically, men have tried two ways to solve the apparent dilemma that you have asked.

  1. By condemning the law as defective and incapable, even a deception by God, or evil work of Satan.
  2. By condemning man as defective. Man cannot obey God inherently, as he was not capable.

Both of these positions renders a judgment on God and paints him as the deceiver and liar for giving the law of life with commands, and unfairly punishing man and calling this justice, when either or both among the law and man are defective. We should refrain from making such conclusions which are aimed to justify sin by finding fault with God, something which only Satan does.

The law and promised and delivered eternal life,(see Lev 18:5, Romans 10:5, Galatians 3:12) through which the Jews were justified under that dispensation.

Acts 15:10 does not state that the law was unable to be fully kept, rather that it was very burdensome to execute it. Consider the recurring sacrifices for natural impurities that one has to go. There were sacrifices when one unintentionally failed in anything. The context of Acts 15:10 is comparatively describing the law as burdensome in contrast with the grace covenant. During the law covenant, the faithful remained proud in keeping the law (Ps 119), however, the anti-law arguments are only given in context of the new covenant of grace which is superior. So, you need to read Deut 30:11, Acts 15:10 in context.

Neither man nor the law is defective. To say otherwise would be a blasphemy against God the creator, and that line of thought go towards the satanic theology of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was the greatest threat to the apostolic church, as seen from the background of all the catholic epistles, as they are directed towards that lawless theology which relied on twisting Paul's teachings (2 Pet 3:16-17).

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