The Two Powers

The painting of Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul (c.1631) by Pietro da Cortona pictures Ananias standing over the kneeling Paul as he puts his hand on Paul's head. Paul's eyes are still closed at this moment.
Paul was a Pharisee who zealously kept the law. Yet, God pictured Paul’s preconversion state as one of blindness. Painting: Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul (c.1631) by Pietro da Cortona.

<–Part 1

Turning from the Power of Satan

Before he encountered Christ, the very reason Paul hated and persecuted Christianity was because he understood its teachings. He knew that it taught freedom from the law. He realized that it replaced obedience to the law with trust in a man, Jesus Christ. To an orthodox Jew, this was a despicable heresy that had to be stamped out before it spread throughout the Jewish community.

After his encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, however, Paul realized that he’d been wrong. It wasn’t that he was wrong about the doctrine of the Christian message. He’d gotten that right. And it was not, as some falsely teach, that he intellectually believed the Gospel but he didn’t personally put his trust in Jesus. Belief is an act of the intellect. To intellectually believe the Gospel is to personally trust in Jesus. The Bible clearly says that if we believe on Jesus, that is, believe the Good News about Him as our Savior, we will be saved (Acts 16:31).

Before the road to Damascus, Paul understood the Gospel message, but he didn’t believe it. He saw it as heresy. Afterward, he believed it. The Holy Spirit caused him to see that, since Jesus was alive after His death on the Cross, what He said was true. In fact, He was the Son of God. Paul realized that he had to transfer his loyalties from the Old Covenant Law to Jesus Christ—from trusting the law to trusting in Jesus Christ for righteousness. As God pictured to him by having the scales fall from his eyes (Acts 9:18), Paul went from being spiritually blind to seeing the truth.

Right there on the road to Damascus, Jesus told Paul He was going to use him to accomplish this very same thing in others:

But arise, and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose: to appoint you a servant and a witness both of the things which you have seen, and of the things which I will reveal to you; delivering you from the people, and from the Gentiles, to whom I send you, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
Acts 26:16-18

God healed Paul’s spiritual blindness, which caused him to turn from the trust he had had in law keeping (Philippians 3:5-6), to zealousness for the Gospel and trusting Jesus for his righteousness (verses 7-11). When He spoke to Paul, Jesus called this turning a turning “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” If Jesus’ Gospel of salvation by grace through faith apart from the law is the “light” and “God” part of this statement, what part of the statement is trusting in the law? Clearly, trusting in law keeping is darkness and the power of Satan.

Isn’t the Law Holy?

How can the law be the power of Satan? Isn’t the law “holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12)? Absolutely! But that doesn’t mean that it can save us or that Satan can’t use it to his ends. After all, what was the purpose of the law?

Galatians 3:19 answers this question: “What then is the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise has been made. It was ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator.” The law precisely defined transgression and caused sin to increase. Paul says much the same thing in Romans 5:20a: “The law came in besides, that the trespass might abound.” What does the law do? The law tells us what sin is, and it actually causes us to sin (Romans 3:20; 7:7-11). How does this benefit Satan? Satan is the accuser (Revelation 12:10). How does he accuse? He uses the law.

As holy as the law is, it is at odds with our human nature. With the Fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, humanity became sinful and depraved. Thus, law is against (contrary to) human nature (Colossians 2:14). When people are under law, they will transgress it. The more laws they are under, the more they will transgress. And the more they transgress, the more Satan can accuse. Although the law is holy, humans are not, so the law becomes Satan’s power to accuse us. That is true, even if that law is called the Ten Commandments, the moral law, the law of God, or the law of Christ.

Of course, God regenerates believers. Some say that regeneration enables us to do good works under the law and to obey these written commands. But if this were so, Paul could not write of God,

…who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the service of death, written engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look steadfastly on the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which was passing away: won’t service of the Spirit be with much more glory?
2 Corinthians 3:6-8

Do you see that Paul is creating a dichotomy between the letter—externally written laws—and the Spirit? They don’t mix. It was never God’s intention to regenerate us so that we could then obey external laws. Under the New Covenant, regeneration writes His laws on our hearts so that we are motivated internally to love, which is the fulfillment of all law. “This is the covenant that I will make with them: ‘After those days,’ says the Lord, ‘I will put my laws on their heart, I will also write them on their mind” (Hebrews 10:16).

It is indeed time to wake up! True Christian growth isn’t found in trying to slog from one external command to another. We have a wormhole, a direct portal, to fulfilling all of the law. It’s called “love, out of a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith; from which things some, having missed the mark, have turned aside to vain talking; desiring to be teachers of the law” (1 Timothy 1:5b-7a).

So many read Romans 13:8-11, and they say, “See, here are laws, even the Law of Moses, in the New Covenant.” Nothing could be further from Paul’s intention. Let’s look at these verses:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not give false testimony,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. Do this, knowing the time, that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep, for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed.
Romans 13:8-11

Paul isn’t saying, Here are commands for you to obey under the New Covenant. He’s saying, Here is a small sampling of all of the commands that have no relevance under the New Covenant because under the New Covenant, you have only one obligation: love. If you love, you won’t commit adultery; if you love, you won’t murder; if you love, you won’t steal; if you love, you won’t lie; if you love, you won’t covet. Love fulfills all the law. We are not under commands that were intended to show sin and cause guilt. Love will simply, naturally spring from our inner being. It will not be motivated by external commands, and it will not be perfect in this life, but it will be the result of the desire of our new nature. As he says in verse 11, it’s time to wake up! It’s time to realize the real power of a converted life. It is the power of the Gospel of grace as opposed to the power of sin through the law.

No Gray Area

There is a rigid dichotomy between law and the grace we receive through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible does not allow for an in-between area in which we are under grace while also being under law. “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6). What works? Paul is writing of the works of the law. We cannot mix law and grace.

I’ve already quoted Romans 6:14, which says that we are not under the law, but under grace. That’s an absolute, mutually exclusive division. How, then, are we to live? By the Spirit! “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).

Romans 6:18 says, “Being made free from sin, you became bondservants of righteousness.” Some say that the word “bondservants” here and in other Scriptures means that we are under law. Again, they are missing Paul’s point entirely. If we are bondservants of righteousness, and righteousness does not come by the law (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:21) but by grace through faith (Galatians 2:16; 3:11, 24; 5:4), then being bondservants of righteousness means we are under grace, not law.

When we are not under law, sin has no power over us, we cannot be condemned, and death cannot hold us. Our Savior has “delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of his love” (Colossians 1:13).

Lord willing, in a future article, I will address the question, Why, if we are not under law, did Jesus give us commands in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere?

In the meantime, dear brother and sisters in the Lord, remember Galatians 5:1, “Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” and, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:18, see also verses 23-24

Print-friendly PDF Version