Saul of Tarsus was a self-proclaimed Hebrew, Israelite, and descendent of Abraham with great respect for the law and the practices of the Jewish people (2 Corinthians 11:22). After his conversion experience on the road to Damascus his understanding of the Jewish law was profoundly changed. Other Jews of his time began to criticize him for corrupting Judaism and beginning a new religion. However, throughout the remainder of his life, Paul, as he became known, wanted to show that the real fulfillment of the law was through Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that external adherence to the law is not sufficient. Even if one performs every act of the law it is of no use without being accompanied by an internal conversion that leads towards love. Indeed, simply having the law is no guarantee of anything. The real matter of the law is internal, “he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Romans 2:29). He warns those that teach the law, but fail to keep the law are in grave danger because they do not understand that the true purpose is a turn toward love of God and neighbor.
Further still, the right relationship with God “has been manifested” apart from works of the law (Romans 3:21). In our fallen state we have no natural hope of obeying the edicts of the law. Yet, in His love, God has offered us redemption, and expiation through the blood of Christ (Romans 3:24-25). By offering himself up as a perfect sacrifice, Christ wins for us the grace necessary to turn from inordinate love of self, restoring our righteousness so we may become children of God. We are then justified through our faith, not by works of the law which in themselves have no power to restore us, which is a gift won by Christ and bestowed upon us. Our sanctification is not our own work like wages that we are due, but a gift that we do not deserve (Romans 4:4). Paul warns us that we cannot earn salvation by works alone, but we must cooperate by faith and works of love.
By Rembrandt - National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Public Domain
None of us can do enough to be worthy of God’s love. God reaches down to us to lift us toward Himself. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that none of us know the thoughts of God except the Spirit. However, God sends us the Spirit to reveal the gifts that God has bestowed upon us (1 Corinthians 2:12). The Spirit shows us that the true fulfillment of the law is love. All of the commandments and works of the law are directed toward the love of neighbor (Romans 13:8-10). “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
This problem does not exist only for Jews in the time of Paul. A millennium later, Martin Luther made a similar error. He declared that all works are of no value, and that God imputes righteousness to a man without a real internal change or conversion toward holiness. This right relation with God does not bring with it sanctification of the soul but is simply an extrinsic declaration. In his letter, Paul exhorts his readers that external works of justification are of no use without interior sanctification. Luther, likewise, misses the need for this sanctification. His act of faith by which God justifies us extrinsically seems like the other side of the coin.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds his readers that the law provided guidelines to help keep us away from sin before Christ came to write the true law on our hearts (Galatians 3:24). This law is a law of love which is not a burden imposed from outside, but our ultimate end and joy. God himself is love and we are only happy when we rest in him. All of the law and the prophets are summed up by the love of God and neighbor and Paul advances Judaism by showing its fulfillment is the Incarnate Son of God who became flesh so that thus we might know God's love.