Before one can come to an understanding of Paul’s view of the law, we must first know what the law is. Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines the law as follows:
Law — a rule of action. (1.) The Law of Nature is the will of God as to human conduct, founded on the moral difference of things, and discoverable by natural light (Rom. 1:20; 2:14, 15). This law binds all men at all times. It is generally designated by the term conscience, or the capacity of being influenced by the moral relations of things.
(2.) The Ceremonial Law prescribes under the Old Testament the rites and ceremonies of worship. This law was obligatory only till Christ, of whom these rites were typical, had finished his work (Heb. 7:9, 11; 10:1; Eph. 2:16). It was fulfilled rather than abrogated by the gospel.
(3.) The Judicial Law, the law which directed the civil policy of the Hebrew nation.
(4.) The Moral Law is the revealed will of God as to human conduct, binding on all men to the end of time. It was promulgated at Sinai. It is perfect (Ps. 19:7), perpetual (Matt. 5:17, 18), holy (Rom. 7:12), good, spiritual (14), and exceeding broad (Ps. 119:96). Although binding on all, we are not under it as a covenant of works (Gal. 3:17).
(5.) Positive Laws are precepts founded only on the will of God. They are right because God commands them.
(6.) Moral positive laws are commanded by God because they are right.
While this is a good dictionary definition, this does little to clarify what Paul thought of as the law. Typically, when the New Testament (NT) refers to the law, it is referring to the Law of Moses which the Jews received at Mt. Sinai though this is not always the case. Paul also cites passages from Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah and refers to them as “law” (cf. Rom. 3:10-19; 1 Cor. 14:21). Obedience of the law of Moses was not a way of earning God’s favor but rather a response to his grace in delivering Israel from Egypt (Ex. 20:1-17). The law should be seen within the context of a covenant between God and man as it is not the basis of the divine-human relationship but rather a guide for the maintenance of that relationship. The law was given after Israel experienced salvation, after being delivered out of Egypt, not before. It is important to remember that Israel was saved by God’s mercy and not by their own good works. This will be elaborated in more detail later.
What we learn from our study of the Old Testament (OT) is that Israel failed to keep the law and God responded by sending the people into exile for their disobedience (Lv. 26; Dt. 28; Jos. 23:14-16; 2 Ki. 17:7-23; Dn. 9). Since the law was given by God rather than a king, each offense was a sin not merely affecting human relationships but also, more importantly, affecting the relationship between God and man. With the law coming directly from God, it is to be expected that the law addressed religious duties as well as social behavior. All Jews were expected to know the law, to keep the law, and to teach the law, especially to members of their own families (cf. Dt. 6:7).
By the first century, Jews believed that the promises of a glorious future had not yet been fulfilled since they were under Roman occupation; a situation caused by their continued failure to obey the law. Other NT writers agree that the disobedience of the Jews was their biggest problem (cf. Mt. 3:7-10; Jn. 7:19; Acts 7:53; 15:10-11). In fact, Jesus’ strongest criticism of the Pharisees was that they themselves did not keep the law! When Paul refers to the law, he usually is referring to the Law of Moses though this is not always so and he at times uses the term “law” to refer metaphorically to “principle”, “order”, “rule”, or “power”.