[K:JNWTS 27/1 (2012): 8-9]

Vos on the Law and Merit[1]

. . . Paul has been the great teacher of the philosophy of law in the economy of redemption. Most of the Pauline formulas bear a negative character. The law chiefly operated towards bringing about and revealing the failure of certain methods and endeavors. It served as a pedagogue unto Christ, shut up the people under sin, was not given unto life, was weak through the flesh, worked condemnation, brings under a curse, is a powerless ministry of the letter. These statements of Paul were made under the stress of a totally different philosophy of the law-purpose, which he felt to be inconsistent with the principles of redemption and grace. This Pharisaic philosophy asserted that the law was intended, on the principle of meritoriousness, to enable Israel to earn the blessedness of the world to come. It was an eschatological and therefore most comprehensive interpretation. But in its comprehensiveness it could not fail being comprehensively wrong . . . It is true, certain of the statements of the Pentateuch and of the O. T. in general may on the surface seem to favor the Judaistic position. That the law cannot be kept is nowhere stated in so many words. And not only this, that the keeping of the law will be rewarded, is stated once and again. Israelís retention of the privileges of the berith [covenant] is made dependent on obedience. It is promised that he who shall do the commandments shall find life through them. . . . Only a momentís reflection is necessary to prove that this is untenable, and that precisely from a broader historical standpoint Paul had far more accurately grasped the purport of the law than his opponents. The law was given after the redemption from Egypt had been accomplished, and the people had already entered upon the enjoyment of many of the blessings of the berith. Particularly their taking possession of the promised land could not have been made dependent on previous observance of the law . . . It is plain, then, that law-keeping did not figure at that juncture as the meritorious ground of life-inheritance. The latter is based on grace alone, no less emphatically than Paul himself places salvation on that ground. But, while this is so, it might still be objected, that law-observance, if not the ground for receiving, is yet made the ground for retention of the privileges inherited. Here it can not, of course, be denied that a real connection exists. But the Judaizers went wrong in inferring that the connection must be meritorious, that, if Israel keeps the cherished gifts of Jehovah through the observance of His law, this must be so, because in strict justice they had earned them. The connection is of a totally different kind. It belongs not to the legal sphere of merit, but to the symbolico-typical sphere of appropriateness of expression. As stated above, the abode of Israel in Canaan typified the heavenly, perfected state of Godís people. Under these circumstances the ideal of absolute conformity to Godís law of legal holiness had to be upheld. Even though they were not able to keep this law in the Pauline, spiritual sense, yea, even though they were unable to keep it externally and ritually, the requirement could not be lowered. . . . This is the most convincing proof that law-observance is not the meritorious ground of blessedness. God in such cases simply repeats what He did at the beginning, viz., receive Israel into favor on the principle of free grace. . . . And in Paulís teaching the strand that corresponds to this Old Testament doctrine of holiness as the indispensable (though not meritorious) condition of receiving the inheritance is still distinctly traceable.


[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eerdmans, 1948) 142-44. Cf. also the Banner of Truth edition (1975) 126-28.