The Law Written On Our Hearts

It is sometimes said that the only difference between Paul and the Jerusalem bunch on Jesus is that Paul didn’t think gentile converts needed to be circumcised (become fully Jewish).  This hardly makes Paul historically interesting, and seems to miss a key distinction.

In previous posts I talked about Jeremiah’s prophecy that the law would be written on people’s hearts, which seemed to have been fulfilled in Jesus who redefined love from Greek eros (Honor seeking Achilles) to Christian agape (love of enemy).  The key event post-Jesus was the realization of God’s chosen one being horribly tortured and killed by the sins of the enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite, and crowd placating, indifferent to justice Pilate, which were also the sins in all of us.  This slap in the face of his beloved followers was a catalyst to realize how corrupt we and the system were and inspire change, which was particularly important because the end of the age and hence judgment was imminent.  The law thus written on the hearts by Jesus was a Jewish fulfilled prophecy for Jews, and if gentiles wanted to participate they had to become Jews.

The apocalyptic Paul had a novel take on this.  For him, the important thing is that God’s specially chosen Davidic heir was crucified, and so the law already written on the hearts of Jews and Gentiles was made conspicuous as the heart was circumcised.  Then, what was important in battling Satan is that Christ possessed and empowered you.  In this regard, Jesus’ entire ministry and teaching was unimportant to Paul.  What mattered was the accomplishment of the cross, which is why Paul said “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:2).” 

 So, we have a difference between James/Peter in the meaning of Christ’s death, and Paul’s.  This is hard to see because Paul influenced Mark, but we can make some inferences.  If the main element for Jesus’ life was writing the law on Jewish people’s hearts, his wrongful death as God’s specially chosen one stamped this law as a disc-closure of the corruptness of the world.  Paul, on the other hand, argued, the law was already written on the hearts of Jews and gentiles and the corrupt, fleshly natures of those hearts just needed to be circumcised away through the cross.  Paul, who was from the birthplace of the stoic enlightenment, had infused stoicism into the Jeremiah prophesy with the idea that for Christ’s death to convict us (the enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite, and the placating, indifferent to Justice Pilate in all of us), an inner principle of Justice must already lie dormant within all humanity.  When Mark and Luke both emphasize the transformation of the Roman soldier at the cross (Truly this is God’s son; an innocent Man), this is pure Pauline influence arguing against the Jewish exclusivity of the Jeremiah prophecy Jesus, James and Peter ascribed to.  For Peter and James, Jesus’s wrongful death was a horror to the Jewish Christians, as he was thought to restore the Davidic line, and was family and friend to them.  For Paul, the offence was against our very humanity, the specially chosen one of God condemned to the cross as an affront to both Jews and Gentiles equally.  Troels Engberg-Pedersen comments in a somewhat different context:

  • In Stoicism grasping the good takes the form of what may best be called a “conversion”: a sudden insight that changes all one’s previous perceptions and leads to right action. And that is exactly what we find in Paul too, where the “grasp of the good” (i.e. of the Christ event and its meaning) is something suddenly believed (in faith, pistis) and understood (through the pneuma).

Paul is not thinking of Christ dying for our sins as paying our sin debt instead of us, but rather Christ died so all have died (1 Cor 5:14), specifically we are crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) in that the real ones who should be subject to justice is not Jesus, but the crowd, religious elite, and Pilate in all of us. And to believe that we have crucified the special chosen son of God is to see the malignancy at our core and desire to reject/destroy it – repentance that will enable God to forgive, since there can be no true forgiveness without repentance.

Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke are really informative: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” So (i) the one point is that the issue is about forgiving sins rather than punishing them. And (ii) the other point is that the people can’t see that they are sinful, so the veils over their eyes need to be lifted so they can truly see themselves for what they are and repent. Forgiveness is powerless without repentance, like a wife who continually forgives a spouse who won’t stop cheating. That’s basically what I’m trying to argue against the penal substitution interpretation.


Stoicism in early Christianity: The Apostle Paul and the Evangelist John as Stoics. Authored by: Troels Engberg-Pedersen in The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition