HOW IS CHRIST ``THE END OF THE LAW''?
A Closer Look at Romans 10:4
by Doug Ward
Sometimes a passage of Scripture is used so often as a proof text that it becomes a sort of slogan and takes on a life of its own, independent of its original context and meaning. One example is the famous phrase from
However, the meaning of Romans 10:4 is not as obvious as one might think, because telos, the Greek word for "end" in this verse, can be translated into English in several ways. One translation of telos is "termination point'' (see for example Strong's Concordance). If telos means "termination point'' in Rom. 10:4, then Paul may indeed be proclaiming that Christ's coming has brought some law to an end.
In contrast, telos can also be rendered "goal'' or "purpose''. If telos has this meaning in Rom. 10:4, then the verse may not be making a negative statement about "the law'' at all.
It turns out that each of these interpretations of telos
in Romans 10:4 is currently upheld by large numbers of Christians. Those
who believe that telos means ``goal'' or
``purpose'' in this verse can point to scriptures like I Tim. 1:5, Rom. -22, or James , in which telos clearly
has that meaning. On the other hand, those who read telos
as ``termination point'' in
A further issue that must be tackled in understanding Rom. 10:4 is the scope
of the Greek word nomos, which is translated
``law'' in English. Does nomos refer here to
the laws given at
How can we determine what Paul was trying to say in this verse? To decide such a scriptural controversy, one ideally should take into account three kinds of information:
1. The history of the way the passage in question has been interpreted by the Christian community through the centuries.
2. The ways in which a questionable word is used in other texts, especially other biblical texts with similar grammatical constructions.
3. The meaning of the passage in its immediate context and in the larger context of the book in which it appears.
Fortunately, all three types of information about Romans 10:4 are available in the book Christ the End of the Law: Romans 10.4 in Pauline Perspective (JSOT Press, Sheffield, England, 1985), the doctoral dissertation of Robert Badenas, an evangelical New Testament scholar. In this article, I will summarize Badenas' findings, which present a clear resolution to our question about the meaning of the phrase, ``Christ is the end of the law.''
A Brief History of the Interpretation of Romans 10:4
To put the current debate about the meaning of Romans 10:4 in context, it will be helpful to look at the history of how this verse has been understood by Christians. Dr. Badenas surveys this history in the first chapter of his book. It is especially interesting to see how Rom. 10:4 was explained by the early church fathers. Being much closer than we are to Paul's own setting, patristic sources may be more closely in touch with the concerns that led Paul to write his epistle to the Romans.
A major part of the early church's message was its witness to the Jewish
community that Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfilled the prophecies and
types of the Old Testament. The church saw the gospels and epistles as
complementing and consummating the OT revelation. In the second century,
it defended this understanding against the heretic Marcion,
who rejected the entire OT, and against the Gnostics, who also took an
antinomian approach. In the debate against the Marcionites
and Gnostics, Christian apologists like Tertullian,
Origen, and Irenaeus often
used Rom. 10:4 to defend the unity of God's revelation and the continuity
between the OT and Christ. They and other church fathers tended to view nomos in Rom. 10:4 as the entire OT and telos as fulfillment, completion, or
consummation. In fact, some of the early Greek fathers-e.g., Hippolytus (c. 170-c.
236)-used pleroma, the Greek word for
``fulfillment,'' interchangeably with telos
in discussing Romans 10:4. Eusebius (260-c. 340) connected
These trends in the interpretation of Romans 10:4 continued in the fourth and fifth centuries. Badenas reports (p. 11) that Athanasius (c. 296-372) ``appeals to Rom. 10.4 when he wants to prove the prophetic character of the OT as pointing to Christ, and when he wants to state that the law has not been abolished.'' Cyril of Alexandria (c. 370-444) interpreted telos as ``purpose'' and nomos as ``Scripture.'' To explain that Christ's coming had not ended the usefulness of the OT, Cyril quoted Matt. 5:17 and used the analogy that the addition of colors to an artist's preliminary drawing did not destroy the drawing. Jerome (c. 345-419), the famous translator of the Bible into Latin, saw Romans 10:4 in terms of fulfillment of prophecy. Augustine (354-430) quoted Rom. 10:4 more than thirty times in his commentary on the Psalms, where he viewed finis, the Latin word for telos, as ``purpose.''
In medieval times, the interpretations of the church fathers were collected and preserved. Scriptures were believed to have multiple levels of meaning, and the Latin words consummatio, intentio , completio, and perfectio were often given as possible Latin synonyms of telos in Romans 10:4. None of these words has the sense of ``termination.''
So far in our historical survey, we have seen little evidence of a controversy over Romans 10:4. Before the time of the Protestant Reformation, theologians generally interpreted nomos in this verse as referring broadly to the entire OT and telos as meaning ``goal,'' ``purpose,'' ``fulfillment,'' or ``completion.'' Badenas notes only a few examples of commentators-e.g., Peter Abelard (1079-1142)- who connected Rom. 10:4 with termination or abrogation of an OT legal code. When theologians made negative statements about the laws of the OT, they used other verses to support their positions.
How, then, did the controversy over Romans 10:4 begin? It did not
begin with Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Protestant Reformers, who both
read Rom. 10:4 as saying that everything in Scripture points to Christ.
Indirectly, though, Luther's theology of sharp dichotomy between law and gospel
is at the root of the controversy. In the generations following Luther
and Calvin, there was much doctrinal debate between Catholics and Protestants
and among the various types of Protestants. These debates led different
denominations to develop creeds and systematic theologies, and in doing so to
look for proof texts to support their positions. For Lutherans, who had a
negative view of OT law, it was natural to see the book of Romans in terms of
Catholic-Protestant debates about faith and works, and in particular to
seize upon Romans 10:4 as a proof text in support of the view that the OT
law had been abrogated. As a result,
A later trend that supported a negative view of OT law and an antinomian reading of Rom. 10:4 was the nineteenth-century belief that mankind had been progressing and evolving over the centuries from a primitive state to a more enlightened position. Many nineteenth-century theologians came to view the religion of Israel as primitive and outmoded and saw Rom. 10:4 as a statement about the obsolescence of OT law. Badenas reports that such an interpretation of Rom. 10:4 became predominant by the end of the nineteenth century, although there still were many who viewed telos in this verse as ``goal'' or ``purpose'' rather than as ``termination point.'' The debate has continued to the present time, with most commentators basing their interpretations on the theological presuppositions that they bring to their reading of the verse.
The Meanings of Telos in Greek Literature
Having traced the history of the current controversy over Romans 10:4, we can gain further insight into what telos means in that verse by looking at the ways in which telos is used elsewhere in the NT and in other Greek sources. Badenas devotes the second chapter of his book to a careful study of this Greek word.
In classical Greek literature, telos had a wide range of meanings, including ``fulfillment,'' ``authority,'' ``issue,'' “goal,'' and ``tax.'' It may have originally come from a root word meaning ``highest point'' or ``turning point.'' In general, when telos was used to refer to a future thing, it denoted the object, goal, or purpose of that thing, as in the finish line of a race, the reward for a performance, a personal goal, or an ethical purpose. When it referred to a past thing, on the other hand, it stood for the completion or fulfillment of the purpose of that thing. Telos also appeared sometimes in a prepositional phrase eis telos , which functions as an adverb to mean ``completely,'' ``totally, ''or ``to the uttermost.'' In these various uses of telos, the word did not often connote the termination of something.
The word telos was often used in phrases, like the one in Romans 10:4, that spoke of the ``telos of something.'' In such cases, it rarely implied the ending of that thing. For example, the phrase telos mythos meant the essential point, crux or climax of a myth or story. Telos bios (literally, ``end of life'') occasionally meant ``death,'' but more often it indicated the consummation or outcome of a life.
The writings of Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD) contain a phrase whose grammatical structure exactly parallels that of the phrase ``Christ is the end of the law'' in Romans 10:4. This phrase has the English translation, ``Pleasure is the object of desire.'' (Amatorius 750 E) Here the word translated ``object'' is telos. This phrase is saying that a person's desires are directed toward the goal of experiencing pleasure.
Interestingly, when telos was used with nomos in ancient Greek literature, it meant the object, goal, or ratification of a law, not its nullification or cessation. For instance, in his collection of essays Moralia (780 E), Plutarch used telos and nomos together in a sentence that is translated, ``Justice is the aim of the law.'' In other words, laws are made for the purpose of achieving justice; and justice, of course, does not cancel those laws.
Telos in Greek Philosophy
The word telos is probably best known as a technical term in Greek philosophy. Beginning with Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (c. 429-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), philosophers pondered questions about the ultimate purpose of the universe and everything in it, especially the purpose of human life. They used the word telos for a thing's ultimate purpose or reason for existence, and their investigation of these ultimate questions formed the basis for a branch of philosophy called teleology. Clearly, this philosophical use of telos does not in any way involve termination. In fact, Aristotle wrote at one point that ``telos does not mean any kind of termination, but only the best.'' (See Badenas, p. 45.)
In the centuries after Plato and Aristotle, teleological questions continued to be discussed and debated by philosophers. Of particular interest for our study is the work of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 BC-AD 45), whose life overlapped with that of the apostle Paul. The word telos appears some 204 times in the writings of Philo, reflecting his interest in teleology. Philo often used telos to discuss the aim, goal, object, purpose, or climax of something, especially the purpose of life. He described the highest purpose or telos of life in several ways, including: to be ``fully conformed to God,'' to ``follow God,'' to seek ``the wisdom of God,'' and to ``aim at the glory of God.'' He saw the law of God as a means of approaching the ultimate goal of walking closely with God.
Elsewhere in this issue of Grace and Knowledge, we discuss the likelihood that the apostle John was influenced by Philo in his use of the Greek word logos to describe Jesus in John 1 (see p. 7). It is also quite possible that Paul's understanding of the word telos was informed by the teleological writings of his contemporary Philo and other philosophers.
Telos in the Bible: Does Temporal Imply Terminal?
The word telos is used about 160 times in the Greek Septuagint translation of the OT, and it appears some 41 times in the NT. The range of meanings of telos in these biblical texts reflects the different uses of the word that we have encountered already in discussing other Greek writings.
There is one notable difference, though, in the way telos is used in the Bible. In other Greek texts, telos is not often used in a temporal sense-that is, it rarely refers to the completion of a period of time. However, in the Septuagint and the NT, telos is used temporally in several instances. For example, in Judges (``And it came to pass at the end of two months....''), telos is the word for ``end'' in the Septuagint; and in Daniel , , and , telos is again the word for ``end'' in the prepositional phrase rendered ``unto the end'' in the KJV. In some NT passages, telos is used for the end of this age, the time of Christ's return (Matt. 24:6, 14: I Peter 4:7; I Cor. 1:8; ).
Why is telos used temporally more often in the Bible than in other Greek writings? The answer probably lies in the biblical view of history and time. In the Bible and the Judaeo-Christian worldview, time and history have purposes; the completion of a period of time marks the fulfillment of God's purpose for that period. Thus the temporal uses of telos in the Bible usually have more to do with teleology than with termination. In particular, the end of the age is a climax of history, the fulfillment of history's purpose, and the goal to which history is pointing. It is a main turning point in history, not its termination.
There are also some occurrences of telos that have been translated temporally in English versions of the NT but may not be primarily temporal in meaning. We have already noted that telos can appear in prepositional phrases (e.g., eis telos) that function as adverbs meaning ``completely,'' ``totally,'' or ``to the greatest degree''. One biblical example is I Thes. , where the KJV translates eis telos as ``to the uttermost.'' Other such phrases are translated ``unto the end'' in the KJV, but many of them can be interpreted qualitatively as well as temporally. For instance, in 2 Cor. , the phrase ``to the end'' would be better translated ``fully,'' as it is in the NIV. Another example is John 13:1, where we read that Jesus loved his disciples ``unto the end.'' Certainly Jesus loved His disciples until the end of his physical life, but it is also true that Jesus showed His love to them in the greatest and fullest degree on that Passover day. Some other examples to reconsider in this light are Heb. 3:14; ; Rev. 2:26; and Matt. ; 24:13.
Telos in Paul's Epistles
Since the focus of our study is Rom. 10:4, it is especially relevant to examine Paul's use of the word telos in his epistles. Including Rom. 10:4, telos appears fourteen times in Paul's writings (not counting the book of Hebrews, whose authorship is disputed). Does it connote ``termination'' in any of the other thirteen cases?
Two of these instances of telos occur in
the same verse--
Three of the remaining seven examples (I Tim. 1:5, Rom. , 22) have a grammatical structure identical to that of Rom. 10:4, so they may be the most significant ones for our purposes. In I Tim 1:5, telos clearly means ``goal'' or ``purpose.'' On the other hand, Rom. , 22 contrast the outcomes of a sinful life and of a righteous life; telos in these verses refers to a person's fate or destiny. In the case of a wicked person, there is a sense in which that destiny is a termination, since the existence of the wicked will be terminated in the lake of fire (see Heb. 6:8, where telos appears again). Mainly, though, this use of telos is more teleological than terminal. These verses are talking about the climax or culmination of a life more than its termination.
What about the final four cases? Two of them (2 Cor.
, Phil. ) refer again to the destiny or outcome of
a life, as in Rom. -22.
Another, I Cor. ,
refers to Christians as those ``upon whom the ends of the world are
come.'' (KJV) Here the word for ``ends'' is tela,
the plural of telos. Some understand
this phrase to refer to the ``time of the end,'' but if it does, it would be
the only known example of the plural form tela
having an eschatological meaning. In addition, the context of I Cor.
10:11 does not seem to involve the end of this age so much as the fulfillment
in Christ of types from
The remaining example is 2 Cor. 3:13, part of
a chapter in which Paul defends his ministry, showing its superiority to the
(temporary) Mosaic ministry. In this chapter, Paul illustrates the glory
of Moses' ministry (2 Cor 3:7) by referring to Moses'
practice of wearing a veil over his face when he addressed the Israelites after
talking with God (Ex. 34:29-35). Moses' face glowed after his
meetings with God, and he wore this veil because of the people's reluctance to
approach him in such a radiant state. In the verse in question, verse 13,
Paul writes that Moses ``put a vail over his face,
that the children of
here cannot mean the `termination' or `full stop,' for the Mosaic and Jewish
administration was just beginning and there was no danger of the people gazing
on it right up to the end of its duration. Rather, Paul meant the
`ultimate significance,' or `goal.' Thus, not as a subterfuge ... did
Moses place the veil over his face. Rather, it was as a prophetically
enacted parable that he did it. He wanted the people of
This passage is another controversial one, and entire books have been devoted to it as well. Suffice it to say here that the meaning of ``end'' in 2 Cor. seems to be teleological instead of terminal.
In summary, the primary senses of telos in ancient Greek writings, including the NT, are those of goal, purpose, fulfillment, completion, or climax. This is true in particular in Paul's epistles. The three NT verses in which telos clearly refers to something coming to an end--Mark 3:26, Luke 1:33, and Heb. 7:3--are the exception rather than the rule.
But what about Romans 10:4? To
conclusively establish the meaning of telos in
The Broader Context of Romans 10:4
From a reading of the entire book of Romans, one can infer two things about the composition of the first-century congregation in
One can also draw some conclusions about the issues and challenges faced by
In his epistle, Paul confronts the questions and problems of both
groups. He admonishes the Gentiles not to be arrogant toward their Jewish
brethren () and asserts that the
Jews still have an integral part to play in God's plan (; 3:1-3; Chapter 11). He assures them that
God's Word and promises have not failed; indeed, the fact that many Jews
had rejected Christ was part of God's plan and had been prophesied in
advance (-33; 11:7-12).
He also opposes antinomian ideas (,
Chapters 6-7). These remarks of Paul's suggest that some in
On the other hand, Paul stresses the equality of Jewish and Gentile Christians in God's sight (Chapter 2; -23; 10:8-12). All had sinned, and all could be saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The clear promise of the Scriptures that salvation would come to the Gentiles (15:8-12) had begun to be fulfilled in their day. Paul may have reminded the Romans of these things for the benefit of Jewish believers who were uncomfortable with the great influx of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church.
One of the main themes of the epistle is Paul's assertion that the gospel he
preached was consistent with God's revelation in the OT; in fact, it was the
fulfillment of God's promises to
A Closer Look at Romans 9:30-10:3
Having discussed the overall message of the book of Romans, let us now see how Romans 10:4 fits into its immediate context in Romans 9-10.
In Romans 9, Paul expresses his sorrow at the fact that most of his fellow
Jews had not recognized Jesus as the Messiah, despite the many blessings God
had given them (v. 1-5). He then goes on to explain that this state
of affairs did not mean that God's word or plan had failed. God's calling
had always been based on His mercy and was not an inherited right.
Furthermore, the calling of many Gentiles, along with a ``remnant'' of
Paul summarizes the situation of Gentiles and Jews with regard to the gospel in v. 30-33(KJV):
``What shall we say then? That the
Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to
righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But
In this passage, Paul uses vocabulary from athletic
events. The Greek words for
``followed'', ``attained'', ``stumbled'', and ``be ashamed'' are all
words associated with foot races. (In particular, the word for
``attained'' is a form of the Greek verb katalambano , which
Paul uses in I Cor.
in another racing analogy.) Here to ``follow'' is to run hard for a
prize, to ``attain'' is to experience the thrill of victory, and to ``be
ashamed'' is to feel the agony of defeat. Interestingly, the word telos a few verses later in
Notice that ``righteousness'' (Greek dikaiosune
) is the prize achieved by the Gentiles in the race. This is a
word that appears some thirty times in the book of Romans, and we can
learn much about its meaning by seeing how it is used throughout the
epistle. For example,
Paul says that the Jews, on the other hand, had been pursuing a different goal--the ``law of righteousness''--but had not reached it. To understand what Paul is getting at, we should first note that the word for ``law'' here is nomos, the same word used for ``law'' in Romans 10:4. As I have argued already, the context of Romans 9-11, which emphasizes the unity of scripture in its announcement of the gospel, points to an interpretation of ``nomos'' as the entire revelation of God's will in the OT. Badenas (p. 104) suggests that this ``law of righteousness'' is ``the Torah viewed from the perspective of the righteousness it promises, aims at, or bears witness to.''
The next two verses elaborate on the reasons for
And how had
In Paul's racetrack analogy,
When we carefully examine the verses leading up to Romans 10:4, we can see
that the main subject of discussion is not the current status of an OT legal
code. Paul does not fault his people for their devotion to Torah;
in fact, he goes on to compliment their ``zeal for God'' in Romans 10:2.
However, Paul says that their zeal was ``not according to knowledge.''
The Jews had faithfully looked to God to see what they should do, but most had
not discerned what God was doing. In Rom. 10:4, Paul summarizes what
How Does Romans 10:5-8 Fit In?
We have seen that the discussion leading up to Romans 10:4 strongly supports a teleological interpretation of this verse. There is additional corroboration for such a reading in Romans 10:4 itself, where Paul uses Christos, the Greek word for Messiah, to designate Jesus. This word emphasizes Jesus' role as the Savior promised throughout the OT.
To complete our exegesis, we will need to understand how the verses which come after Romans 10:4 fit into the picture. In Romans 10:5-8, Paul quotes two passages from the Pentateuch to support his statement that ``Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.'' But how exactly these quotations are related to v. 4 has been a matter of some debate.
Some have explained v. 5-8 as a constrast between salvation by works and salvation by faith. However, there are serious problems with such an explanation. For one thing, there is no concept of salvation resulting merely from works in the Bible or in Judaism; Paul himself emphasizes in Rom. 4 that faith has also always been necessary for salvation, citing Abraham's example. Second, if Paul is making a contrast here, then he would be, in effect, pitting one scripture against another by using two OT passages in support of opposing ideas. This would seem to undercut Paul's argument for the unity of Scripture. Throughout this section of his epistle, he tends to use two or more texts to back up each of his points (e.g., -27, 33; -13, 16-18, 19-21; 11:8-9, 26-27).
One thing that leads English-speaking readers to believe that
Let's look at Romans 10:5-8 more closely, beginning with verse 5:
``For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.''
Here Paul is quoting Lev. 18:5, a verse which implies that God's commandments are a gift of abundant life to those who live by them. In rabbinic thought, this verse is quoted to show the universality of the blessings of obedience. The rabbis interpreted the phrase ``the man'' in Lev. 18:5 as a reference to any man, Jew or Gentile. For example, Badenas (p. 121) notes that ``Rabbi Meir (c. AD 150) quotes Lev. 18:5 to prove that a Gentile who lives according to the law is to be regarded as highly as a high priest, and will also share in the promises of the Torah ....''
Although Rabbi Meir's words were committed to
writing at least a century after Paul, rabbinic traditions are often based on
oral traditions that were passed down over generations. Thus Paul
may well have been aware (perhaps through his teacher Gamaliel)
of this reading of Lev. 18:5, which certainly ties in well with the rest of
Romans 10. In
In Romans 10:6-8, Paul quotes another passage from the Pentateuch, Deut. 30:12-14. These verses describe the accessibility of God's word, and Paul applies them to emphasize the accessibility of the Word personified, Jesus Christ. Taken together, Lev. 18:5 and Deut. 30:12-14 convey the message that God's way will bring life to all those who walk in it, and that way is not hard to discover. Paul says that the way referred to in these passages is the way of faith in Jesus Christ. He is identifying the ``righteousness which is of the law'' (i.e., the salvation first announced in the OT) and the ``righteousness which is of faith'' rather than contrasting them.
When we look more closely at the contexts of Lev. 18:5 and Deut. 30:12-14, some clear similarities are apparent, which is a further indication that Paul intends these two references to complement each other. In particular, both Lev. 18 and Deut. 30 speak of the blessings of walking with God, and Deut. 30:16 makes a statement very similar to Lev. 18:5. In addition, some important themes relating to salvation by faith are present in both Deut. 30 and Lev. 17-18. Deut. 30:6 speaks of circumcision of the heart (discussed by Paul in Rom. ), and Lev. discusses the role of blood in making atonement and giving life.
The ``End'' of this Article
In his excellent dissertation, Dr. Badenas presents an overwhelming wealth of evidence that
But why is it important to resolve this controversy? Why write a lengthy article, let alone a doctoral dissertation, about a single verse of the Bible? There are several reasons why I have found this study to be of value.
First, Badenas' work illustrates a model for biblical exegesis. To determine the meaning of a difficult passage of scripture, one should consider that passage in its biblical and historical context, investigate questionable words thoroughly, and find out how the passage has been interpreted by the community of faith through the centuries. The controversy over Romans 10:4 arose because these steps were not always carefully followed. I believe that to interpret telos as ``termination'' in Romans 10:4, one must read the book of Romans through the lenses of a theology that is imposed upon the text, not derived from it.
Second, this study highlights some of the challenges and pitfalls that
we encounter in reading Paul's epistles. The book of Romans is not
primarily a treatise of systematic theology about law and grace, or a random
collection of potential proof texts. Instead, it is a pastoral letter
written to address the problems of the first-century congregation of the
Third, Romans 10:4 is a key verse about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and it is important to understand this verse properly. Although the heresy of Marcion was rejected by Christianity long ago, Marcion's ghost has haunted the church ever since. The interpretation of telos as ``termination'' in Romans 10:4 is a reflection of antinomian and antijudaic tendencies that are still all too prevalent in Christianity.
Finally, Romans 10:4 gives us valuable insight into Paul's theology.
Weightier and Lighter Matters of the Law: Moses, Jesus, and Paul,'' in Current
Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation. Studies in Honor of M.C.
Tenney Presented by his Former Students, G.F.
Hawthorne. Ed., Eerdmans,
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