Uses of the Word Nomos [Law] in Scripture

The subject of the new covenant believer’s relationship to the law is an intricate one indeed that must be handled with thoughtful care. We should never engage in a discussion of the law without first identifying in which sense we are using the term. For example, if you should ask me whether I think believers continue to be bound by the law, my answer would be absolutely and absolutely not. Are we under the law as covenant? Absolutely not! Do we continue under the perpetual and universal law of God as expressed in natural law and the law of Christ? Absolutely! Are the Old Testament Scriptures profitable for us? Of course they are.

I want to list a number of different ways in which the terms “law” (nomos) is used in the Bible. It is my view that a large part of the difficulty surrounding this issue [and every issue for that matter] results from a lack of accurate definition of terms. I believe it will become clear as we proceed that “law” cannot simply be used as a synonym for the 10 commandments.

1. God’s universal and perpetual standard of righteousness–The word “law” may be used of God’s universal and perpetual righteous standard that exists by virtue of the righteous character of the creator and governor of the universe. It is this overarching righteous standard that provides the foundation for every other expression of law.

2. Natural law–God’s universal law is expressed in what some might call “natural law.” Human kind possesses an innate understanding that certain actions and attitudes are right and others are wrong. Even those who proclaim their autonomy and freedom from moral constraints the most vociferously still suffer from guilt for having violated universally accepted norms. Paul wrote concerning gentiles who do not have the law [Mosaic law], “. . .they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law [Mosaic]” (Rom. 2:14). We should not understand “a law unto themselves” according to common usage. Generally, when we say a person is “a law unto himself,” we mean he is lawless and acts as though there is no law. He simply does as he pleases. Instead, what Paul seems to mean here is that though they do not have the Mosaic law, they, through their innate knowledge of God’s righteous norm, perform the function of the law for themselves. When he says they “do what the law requires” he does not mean they live in complete conformity to the law, but that they practices certain righteous requirements of the law. His point is that these people obey certain aspects of the law, not because it comes to them in codified form but because they possess an innate sense that certain actions are right and others wrong.

3. Law as Covenant or Mosaic Law—It is important to understand that when the New Testament writers refer to the old covenant, their reference is to the Mosaic law, specifically, to the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Whenever we find the phrase “hupo nomon” (under law) in the New Testament Scriptures the reference is always to law as covenant. The contrast between being “under law” and “under grace” is not an existential contrast, but a covenantal contrast.

Moses wrote, “and he wrote on the tablets [the two tables of stone] the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments [or ten words]” (Ex. 34:28). The Ten Commandments are the words of the covenant. This was the document that officially constituted Israel as a nation. It is clear, or should be clear, this law was neither perpetual nor universal. Paul makes it clear that “it was added” 430 years after God granted the promises to Abraham. This indicates it came into being long after the creation. Additionally, he stated that it was to endure only “until the Seed [Christ] should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal. 3:19).

The law as covenant was a conditional covenant of works that promised the continuation of life in the land of promise to all who observed its commandments. It foreshadowed the eternal life and everlasting rest of all those on whose behalf its rigid demands were met. Additionally, it provided the stage on which the drama of redemptive history would be played out. It is interesting that in Romans 5:20 Paul wrote, “WHERE sin increased or overflowed, grace overflowed all the more.” It was in the very place, “under law,” WHERE sin took on this intensified character, namely, “trespass” or “transgression” that grace entered and super-abounded in establishing the reign of grace in Christ

God’s intention in giving the law/covenant was to give sin an intensified character. There are several phrases in the Pauline corpus that lead to this conclusion. For example, he wrote in Romans 5:20, “but the Law came in alongside (presumably alongside the imputation of the Adamic transgression) so that the offense might overflow or be multiplied. Jesus won our redemption on a stage where sin had been defined and transgression had been honed to a fine point. It was not in the nebulous atmosphere of natural law but in the intensified milieu of codified covenant that Jesus wrought the work of redemption. No one, having read the law, could ever have a question about the kind of behavior God loved and the kind of behavior he hated. In Galatians 3:19, Paul stated that the purpose of the law was to give sin the character of transgression. Many of our translations render his words “because of transgressions” as though the law was given so that transgressions that were already in existence might be curbed. But this cannot be Paul’s meaning. Paul writes in Romans 4:15, “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” Transgression is a deliberate overstepping of a clearly defined boundary. Such an overstepping cannot occur in this case apart from codified law. It is better to understand Galatians 3:19 to mean that the law was added for the sake of transgression, i.e., to more clearly define sin and righteousness and give sin the character of transgression—deliberate rebellion against God.

It is altogether likely that God intended Israel’s experience “under law” to be paradigmatic of the entire race in Adam. That is to say, Israel stood as a microcosm or representative sample of all humanity. Thus, Israel’s failure under that covenant mirrors the failure of all. Because of this failure, every mouth is stopped and all the world becomes guilty before God.

Apart from the emotional attachment people have to the Ten Commandments and the belief that apart from the Ten Commandments believers would “be left without a moral compass” [perhaps someone should put in a good word for the Holy Spirit and the New Testament Scriptures here], it should be obvious to any thinking person that God never intended the Ten Commandments to be a universal and perpetual document. It would require extreme prejudice in favor of the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments/old covenant to produce sufficient blindness to ignore Paul’s clear teaching in 2 Cor. 3:3-1). It is beyond the scope of this article to give a full exposition of that passage, but I wish to point out one facet that is pertinent to our point here. Paul contrasts that which is permanent, the new covenant/gospel, with “that which is being brought to an end,” the old covenant/law, and identifies that covenant as “the ministry of death, CARVED IN LETTERS ON STONE.” What part of the law was “carved in letters on stone?” Clearly, it was the “ten words.” If the Ten Words have perpetuity, how can it be that they are “being brought to an end?” It is not merely the civil and ceremonial commandments necessary for the implementation of the covenant that have been fulfilled brought to an end. The covenant itself [the Law as a covenant in Ten Commandments] has been fulfilled and replaced with a new covenant.

Of course, there will be those Reformed folks who will have a knee-jerk reaction to what I have just written and accuse me of Antinomianism, but nothing I have written should give the slightest impression that I am against the law or that I believe Christians should live as libertines. I honestly believe some of these folks are more concerned with being faithful to their confessional standards than they are with being faithful to the Scriptures.

4. Law as Torah—At times “nomos” refers to Moses’ writings– E.g., John 1:45—“we have found him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets wrote.”

5. Law as Old Testament Scriptures—E.g., Psalms 19:7—“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. . . .” “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps. 119:18).see also Ps. 119:70, 72, 92, 97, 113, 174.

6. Law as the Law of Christ—Paul wrote that he was “to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God, but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21).

7. Law as a principle or rule of operation—At times, “law” refers to the way things work. Paul wrote, “I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Romans 7:21). “What then becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law [principle or rule of operation]? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom3:27).

In any discussion of biblical law, one must insist that those involved in the discussion clearly state in which sense they are using the term “Law.”


20 Responses to “Uses of the Word Nomos [Law] in Scripture”

  1. January 9, 2015 at 1:58 am

    There are those who claim that since God wrote the Decalogue on stone tablets with His own finger, the Ten Words are eternal and morally binding. Yet the first set of tablets was destroyed and the second set of tablets (which may or may not have been written on by God, see Exodus 34:27 – 28) has been lost (intentionally – recall Jer 3:15-16) to antiquity. We do not have a record in Scripture of what was written on these tablets; we have what Moses told Israel as part of the Sinai Covenant. Are the stone tablets sacred? We see in Scripture that temporal objects made of stone are not eternal – the hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); the message of Christ is written on the hearts of His people, not on tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3); the fine Jewish temple of noble stones would be torn down (never to be useful again) and replaced by a temple of Christ’s body (John 2:19 – 20). Why would the stone tablets of testimony of the covenant God made with national Israel be morally binding on all men, or on members of the New Covenant? Or are they merely the testimony of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, reflecting God’s moral law as part of that covenant?

    In the mid 17th century, English Baptist John Grantham was defending the doctrine of the credibility of then-modern Bibles as the Word of God. He saw the wisdom of God in allowing the autographs to be lost, as men would revere them as relics and be led astray as in the Roman Catholic Church. With numerous credible copies, he argued, all men would be more peaceable since God had given to all equal access to His word. Does the reverence some men give to the Decalogue approach relic worship? All things considered, it does not appear that the stone tablets of testimony are sacred to God. We remind ourselves that what He has revealed to us in Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness, so pointing to stone tablets He has not given us is not a proper argument for interpreting the written Word He has given us.

    For those who consider the Decalogue equal to “God’s moral Law”, I believe the proper love of God and love of the brotherhood cannot be reduced to Ten Words on stone tablets. It must be written by God on tablets of flesh in the hearts of His people – it is a far, far greater thing than the type and the testimony given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. The Law of Moses serves its purpose – keeping sinners until faith in Christ comes (Gal 3:24 – 25) and it continues (Matt 5:17) for all born into the covenant of works that binds non-elect until Judgment Day. Short and to the point, 2 Cor 3 contrasts these two concepts better than I am able.

    • January 9, 2015 at 3:30 am

      Good observations. A careful study of 2 Cor. 3 should forever lay to rest the idea that the covenant written on tables of stone was to endure beyond its fulfillment in Christ.

      • January 9, 2015 at 3:35 am

        Most of those observations came from my short paper on the Decalogue I wrote several years ago after studying the 1689 LBC and concluding it had errors. Solo Deo Gloria!

      • January 9, 2015 at 2:00 pm

        Your conclusions are similar to mine. I see the covenant as a whole as having been fulfilled and brought to an end with the establishment of the new covenant. I understand the eis in verse 24 in a temporal sense [not “to lead us to Christ but until Christ came] and “the faith” in Gal. 3:25 as the objective revelation of the full-blown revelation of God in Christ, i.e. the fulfillment. This fulfillment corresponds to “the fulness of time” in 4:4 in contrast to the period of Israel’s minority (4:1-3).

      • January 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm

        I think a refinement of what I wrote would be that the doom of Adam, expressed in the covenant of works initially given him, still binds all men unless the Spirit gives them new life in Christ. The Mosaic Covenant, that one that was written in stone, no longer has a subordinate party and is no longer in effect – it has passed away like an old glove that has worn out. Your summary and explanation of Gal 3:24 & 25 is, IMO, spot-on.

        And hence, we are considered heretics by those who hold to the “traditional” covenant view of Westminster fame.

  2. 6 Peace and Grace
    January 9, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Dohse doesn’t believe in the covenant of works given to Adam.

    “God never made a covenant with Adam. How do we know this? Because when God makes a covenant, He states it as such…….In the Garden of Eden, God calls them “trees” not a covenant. How do we get “covenant” from “trees”?

    I guess he believes this is reading Scripture “grammatically”?

    Is this classic Arminian belief?

    • January 9, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      Dohse is blind to the Word of God. In Hosea the One who gave the covenant to Adam speaks through His prophet to warn Israel to not be like Adam, who BROKE the COVENANT. Just like many dispensationalists who deny a covenant of works given to Adam, refusing to consider what the WHOLE COUNSEL of God’s Word has to say. sigh

    • January 9, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      This is a classic Dohseian belief. Even the Dispensationalists talk about an Adamic covenant and, as I recall from my Dispensational training, refer to the period before the fall as “the dispensation of innocence.”

  3. 9 Peace and Grace
    January 9, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Do you know why the KJV is the only version to translate Hosea 6:7 as “men”? William Tyndale translated it as “Adam”.

    • January 9, 2015 at 4:43 pm

      King James might have known why that choice was made, but he’s not talking 🙂 Merely one of the many reasons those who think the KJV is THE inspired Word of God are guilty of idolatry. But that’s a different topic.

    • January 9, 2015 at 5:35 pm

      The problem is that the text is ambiguous due to the dual meaning of “Adam” [both a proper name and Man]. He could have been saying they are covenant breakers because they are men acting according to nature or he could mean they have broken the Law covenant just as Adam broke God’s covenant in the garden.

      I understand “covenant” to refer not to an agreement between two or more persons but to a sovereign disposition. The reality of this sovereign disposition is best seen in the “in Adam”/”in Christ” relationship. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that Adam, by sovereign disposition stood as the representative head of all his posterity. Given this information, there can be little question that God established a covenant relationship with Adam and conditioned his life and the life of all his posterity on his obedience as the representative head. I believe Covenant Theologians read too much into that agreement since the Scriptures nowhere tell us that there was a period of probation or that God promised Adam and his posterity eternal life based on his obedience. All he promised him was unending life and enjoyment of fellowship with himself as long as he remained in his integrity. And no, I do not know the reason behind the AV translators choice at this point.

      • 12 Jordan Hartley
        May 2, 2016 at 9:29 am

        I appreciate your well thought out comment. I have a question about Galatians 4.
        Is 4:1-7 contrasting the Jews under the old covenant with how it relates to them as Christians now under the New Covenant? And is 4:8-10 describing Gentiles before their conversion in relation to their now being under the new covenant and attempting to mix their pagan practices with the Christian faith?

      • May 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm

        Jordan, It is my view that in Galatians 4:1-7, Paul is contrasting that period prior to the granting of the promised inheritance (we call that adoption–son placing) with “the fullness of the time.” He links the “the time appoint by the father” with “the fullness of the time.” The time appointed by the father was the time when the son came of age and enterered into his enjoyment of the inheritance. Believing Jews were heirs prior to Christ’s coming but were no better off than bond-slaves since they were under tutors and governors
        until they came of age. This seems to accord with passages like Heb. 9:15; 11:39-40. I see a difference between “we” and “you.” When he talks about “we” he refers to Jews. When he talks about “you” he refers to Gentiles [of course, to believers in both cases]. Both have entered into our inheritance at the same time in union Christ. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. That is, we are heirs because we are in him who is the heir. We have not yet entered into the full enjoyment of our inheritance but we have the “first-fruits of our inheritance, namely, the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 8:23), “the earnest or down payment” “The deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Eph. 1:14). In verse seven of Gal. 4: He wrote, “and because you [Gentile believers] are sons, he has sent forth the Spirit. . .” The entire matter revolves around our union with Christ. We have become Abraham’s seed because we have been grafted into the “righteous branch” of the good olive tree. Verses 8-10 are describing the life of Gentiles under the base elements [notice he has used the same word to describe life under the principles of the law as he uses to describe life under the principles of pagan religion. He calls them “weak and miserable principles.” He works out the contrasts more fully in chapter five in describing life in the Spirit. He is essentially telling us that we are now under new management. It makes no sense to place oneself under a system that is not able to produce the obedience it commands. It is not so much that they were mixing their Christian faith with pagan practices as that they were desiring to mix their Christian faith with the law that had the same inherent weaknesses as they pagan practices from which that had [professedly] been delivered. I hope this helps to clarify the issue.

      • May 2, 2016 at 11:08 pm

        Well said, Randy. I was pondering this passage in response to his question and think you summed it up very well.

      • May 3, 2016 at 4:55 pm

        Thanks Stewart. Always nice to hear from you.

      • 16 Jordan Hartley
        May 7, 2016 at 3:00 am

        That was really helpful. Thank you brother.
        How does this passage relate to unbelievers if at all, given the more popular way of interpreting this passage?

      • May 7, 2016 at 1:05 pm

        I would say that the text is not talking about unbelievers at all. One must understand that the issue in this Epistle is the identity of the heirs of the Abrahamic covenant. The underlying issue is the manner in which Gentiles become heirs of that covenant. Neither Jews nor Gentiles have become heirs of that covenant’s spiritual blessings by physical birth or by circumcision. The covenant’s spiritual blessings are promised to Christ and all who are united to him by faith. The passage is intended to show 1. the purpose and effect of the law, and 2. the inability of of the law to grant the inheritance. It is important to remember that the law promised blessing in the land based on obedience as a type or foreshadowing of the blessing of eternal rest in Christ. Those blessings were conditioned on obedience to the covenant. Jesus came to remove not only the curse of Adam’s sin at creation [thus he was born of woman] but also by his perfect obedience and death to remove the curse of the law [thur he was born under the law]. It is as a result of his redemptive work that both “we” referring to believing Jews and “you” referring to believing Gentiles are now treated as mature sons and granted the first fruits of our inheritance, the Spirit in our hearts.

  4. 18 Peace and Grace
    January 9, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    “The Hebrew word “adam” simply means “mankind”. God did not make a covenant with Adam. No definitive case can be made for rendering there as a noun of address. Therefore, what other Scripture states must be the rule on that issue. Not that I need their opinion, but the list of scholars who state that the word is “better translated men” is very lengthy. You are dead wrong, but have a nice day regardless.”

    I replied that considering his stance against scholars, academics, and theologians, he can use none of them in his arguments.

  5. 19 Peace and Grace
    January 9, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    I’m reading “Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explained” ( Michael G. Brown, Zach Keele)

    “The life promised was eternal life. The Tree of Life was a sign and guarantee to Adam that if he obeyed he would live forever. Hence, God bars Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life, lest they eat and live forever”.

    My question: Why was the Tree of Life in the Garden?

  6. 20 Peace and Grace
    January 9, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    I have now been informed that as a feminist I should know that “no” means “no”. If I contact Paul Dohse again he will contact his attorney for harassment.

    He insists I am a feminist…..???

    This also makes it clear that Paul Doshe will not allow anyone to challenge him.

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