3 reasons why “You are not under law, but under grace” doesn’t mean what you think it means


Summary: In Romans 6, Paul says “…you are not under law, but under grace.” Does this mean Christians are free to disregard the Torah’s commandments? Many Christians say yes. I give 3 reasons why that interpretation is likely inaccurate.
Well-intentioned Christians often respond to any kind of Torah keeping with, “Don’t you know you’re not under law, but under grace?”

It’s a quote from the New Testament, Romans 6, where Paul says as much.
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

-Paul, Romans 6
The implication is that Paul intends to say believers no longer have an obligation to obey Torah commandments.

This is a fair challenge: if “not under the law” means “free to disregard the Torah’s commandments”, then we Torah-pursuant Messianic believers should stop wasting our time and join the local non-denominational church.

In the last year, I’ve given 16 – count ‘em, 16! – teachings on Romans at my local Messianic congregation. (And I’m only on Romans 7! By the time I’m done, I expect to have delivered some 40 sermons on this remarkable letter.) This deep dive into Romans has revealed some surprises that may change your thinking about what “not under law” mean. Theses surprises were new to me. Maybe they’re new to you.

Let’s dig in:

“Not under law” can’t mean “free to disregard Torah commandments." Why?

1. Because Paul appeals to the Torah’s authority throughout Romans

Imagine a father who says to his children, “You don’t have to listen to your mother.” Then a moment later he tells them, “Don’t you remember what mom said about this? Listen to her.”

Christians who claim “not under law” means “free to disregard Torah” are making the same mistake. Paul appeals to the authority of the Torah repeatedly in his letter.

In Romans 3, Paul tells the Roman believers to uphold the Torah, rather than overthrow it (3:31).

In Romans 7, Paul clarifies that the Torah is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12), and that the Torah is a spiritual document (7:14) that Paul himself “joyfully concurs with” (7:22). He states that he himself serves the Torah, while it’s the flesh that serves sin (7:25).

In Romans 8, Paul says the Law is made full in us (8:4), and that it is the sinful desires of humanity that rebel against the Law (8:7).

Finally, towards the end of the letter, Paul encourages the Roman believers to live upright lives. How? By keeping the Torah. He says in chapter 13, “He who loves his neighbor fulfills the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and every other commandment is summed up in this: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (13:8-10)

If Paul is appealing to the Torah as holy, righteous, good, spiritual, something which we should keep and obey, instructive for believers’ lives, made full in us – how can Paul say “you don’t have to keep it?”

Non-sequitur.

This point hasn’t been lost on New Testament scholars. C.E.B. Cranfield notes, for example,
“[Romans 6:14] is widely taken to mean that authority of the law has been abolished for believers and superseded by a different authority. And this, it must be admitted, would be a plausible interpretation, if this sentence stood by itself. But, since it stands in a document which contains such things as 3:31, 7:12, 14a, 8:4, 13:8-10, in which the law is referred to more than once as God’s law, and is appealed to again and again as authoritative, such a reading of it is extremely unlikely.”

-C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8
Cranfield is saying that if “not under law” means the Law is replaced by grace, Paul is inconsistent with his own words  where he appeals to its authority.

Cranfield says the usual Christian interpretation might be plausible if Paul’s “not under law” statement stood in isolation. But when taken in context of Paul’s entire letter, it cannot mean what many say it means.

“Not under law” can’t mean “free to disregard Torah commandments." Why?

2. Because it’s an incomplete, context-free quote. The full contextual quote contradicts the supposed meaning.


We often hear, “...you are not under law, but under grace”, even though that’s an incomplete thought; in English translations, an incomplete sentence. Paul’s full statement is:
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
We're not under law, but under grace, because sin is not master over us.

What does sin being master over you have to do with law and grace?

Everything.

In the next chapter, just a few paragraphs away, Paul says that the Torah defines what sin is. He says in Romans 7,
“I would not have known sin except through the Torah. For I would not have known about coveting if the Torah had not said, “You shall not covet.”

-Paul, Romans 7
This has huge implications by itself; this is a mic-drop moment for Messianic theology. 😊 Torah defines sin, breaking Torah laws is sin.

Some Christians might respond by claiming Paul is only speaking about the ever-nebulous, ill-defined “moral law” here. Even if so, their interpretation still doesn’t make sense: since sin is breaking the [moral] Torah, consider how this statement reads:
“For [breaking the Torah] shall not be master over you, for you are [free to break the Torah].”
Again, a non-sequitur. Even if you swap in the ill-defined “moral law” here. It doesn’t follow, because it’s not what Paul is saying.

“Not under law” can’t mean “free to disregard Torah commandments." Why?

3. Because Paul is a Torah-observant Messianic Jew

I’ve written before that understanding Paul’s identity as a Messianic Jew is a necessity for accurately interpreting his letters. Here’s an example where it comes into play.

Our premises about Paul’s identity impacts how we interpret him.
Was Paul an ex-Jew who converted to a new religion? (Or even, invented the new religion of Christianity, as some Orthodox Jews claim?) Did he convert, change his name, and abandoned his Jewish identity and his Judaism?



Or did Paul discover Judaism’s long awaited Messiah, amplify his faithfulness as a Jew, see his role as a calling by the God of Israel, keep the Torah, teach others to do the same?



Thankfully, the New Testament already answers this for us:
“They [Jerusalem believers] said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many myriads there are among the Jewish people who have believed—and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been told about you—that you teach all the Jewish people among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or to walk according to the customs. What’s to be done then? No doubt they will hear that you have come.

“So do what we tell you. We have four men who have a vow on themselves.  Take them, and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. That way, all will realize there is nothing to the things they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly manner, keeping the Torah.”

-Acts 21
The Jesus-followers in Jerusalem hear rumors that Paul is telling Jewish people to disregard the Torah, forsake both Moses’ Law and Judaism’s traditions. (Much like today.)

They ask Paul to put the rumors to rest. How? By taking a vow at the Temple as described in the Torah, and paying for his expenses and those of several Torah-observant brothers who were taking the same vow.

This would put an end to the rumors that Paul doesn’t keep or teach Torah. And it should.

Thus, if Paul keeps Torah and teaches others to do the same, Paul’s “not under law” statement can’t mean breaking Torah.

After all, the Roman community Paul is writing to is headed up by a Messianic Jewish couple, Acquila and Priscillla, and the community itself was made up largely of Jewish followers of Jesus, synagogue-attending Gentiles (1st century “God-fearers”), as well as a smattering of non-Jewish slaves and underclass.

If Paul’s “not under law” statement really means “no need to follow the Torah”, now was Paul’s chance to speak boldly and persuasively against Torah.

But he didn’t. And this presents a problem for the “not under law means don’t obey Torah” view.

How Christians interpret this chapter of Acts is both amusing and unfortunate.

Many Christians will say, “Paul did this not because he was Torah observant, but because he was appeasing people.”

This acrobatic interpretation is amusing because it overturns the plain meaning of the text. But it’s unfortunate because it makes Paul out to be a two-faced deceiver and accuses Paul of doing the very thing he rebuked Peter for in Galatians 2: compromising on convictions for appeasement’s sake.

But what about Paul's conversion?

Paul was an ex-Jew who converted to a new religion and changed his name, right?

Not so fast.

Post-Damascus Paul never claims to cease being a Jew. On the contrary, Paul states – again, post-Damascus – that he is a Pharisee (Acts 23), a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11).

As for converting to a new religion, Paul states persuasively in Acts: “I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything written in the Torah and Prophets.” For Paul, his faith was no new religion.

Larry Hurtado, the respected New Testament scholar and leading authority on early Christianity, writes in Was Paul ‘Converted’?:
“[S]cholars have differed over whether “conversion” is the right term to describe Paul’s change from fierce opponent of the young Jesus-movement to one of the most well-known advocates…

In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance.  At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.”  It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition.  (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)

More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17.  On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.  So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.”  But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.

Given that the Jesus-movement became “Christianity,” a separate religion, however, and for many centuries largely made up of non-Jews, the term “conversion” may reflect this outlook.  But Paul thought of himself as bringing former pagans (and fellow Jews too) to a proper alignment with the God of Israel and his Messiah, not inventing a new religion.”

-Larry Hurtado, Was Paul Converted?
Hurtado is explaining that conversion may not be the right term here, because Paul didn’t convert to a new religion nor change deity, but understood Jewish believers like himself had come understand Jesus was Judaism's long-awaited messianic figure. Trusting this Messiah was not divergent from Judaism, but a new revelation within it.

He goes on to cite another New Testament scholar Paula Frederickson, who demonstrates that Paul refused to give up his Jewish identity and religion even under great duress:
“In her recent book on Paul (Paul:  The Pagans’ Apostle) Paula Fredriksen insists that “conversion” isn’t appropriate.  Her emphasis is that Paul didn’t change deities, and also continued to see himself and function as a Jew.  His willingness to undergo several synagogue floggings attests this, for the punishment was given only to Jews, and only if they submitted to it.  Paul came quickly to see that his previous attitude toward Jesus and the Jesus-movement was wrong, and that the God of his ancestors in fact affirmed both.”
Frederickson notes that Paul willingly underwent synagogues floggings to remain as a Jew. (He could have recanted his Jewish identity and religion and not submitted to the floggings.) This suggests that to Paul, following Jesus as Messiah wasn’t a new religion – no change in deity – and that it wasn’t a change in identity, as he remained a Jew even at infliction of great pain.

And what about the name change? Didn’t Paul change from the Hebrew “Saul/שאול” to the Greek “Paulus/Paul”?

Unlikely.

Messianic scholar John McKee notes,
“Paul is not the new name of Saul. While there are discussions about whether or not the Apostle adopted the name Paul in lieu of the salvation conversation of Sergius Paulus on Cyprus, that the name Paul was taken by him to replace the name Saul should be totally disregarded. It is widely recognized in Christian academia that in some form or another, Diaspora Jews commonly had a Hebrew or Aramaic name, and also a Greek or Roman name.”

-John McKee, Romans for the Practical Messianic
New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield attests to this as well:
“Had Paul not been a Roman citizen, it would have been natural to suppose that ‘Paul’ was simply a Gentile name possessed by him from childhood alongside his Jewish name ‘Saul’; for the use of a Gentile name in addition to a Jewish, particularly one more or less like-sounding, was by NT times a well-established custom among Hellenistic Jews. But, since Paul was a Roman citizen, the matter is rather more complicated. It is very probably that he possessed the three names characteristic of a Roman citizen: a praenomen or personal name, a nomen or clan name and a cognomen or family name.”

-C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8
Cranfield suggests that Paulus was likely the cognomen or family name.

The picture of Paul as an ex-Jew who converted, changed religion, deity, and name can be disregarded based on the evidence.

So what does “not under law” mean?


We can say with confidence what it doesn't mean: it doesn't mean freedom to disobey or disregard the law.

But do we have a better interpretation?

Yes. In the context of the quote, Romans 6 is spent almost entirely on sin: purging it from our lives, crucifying our old lifestyle, dying to sin. Even the full statement, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” begins with a statement about sin.

Sin is what’s being spoken of in Romans 6, and Romans 6:14’s statement that we are not under law also speaks of sin. In particular, it means that condemnation for sin doesn’t fall on Jesus’ disciples. God’s judgment on our sin, and the guilt of our sin, is lifted due to Jesus taking humanity’s sin upon himself.

Cranfield concurs, saying,
“The fact that “under law” is contrasted with “under grace” suggests the likelihood that Paul is here thinking not of the law generally but of the law as condemnation for sinners; for since grace (Greek: χαρις/charis) denotes God’s undeserved favour, the natural opposite of “under law” is under God’s disfavour or condemnation. And the suggestion that the meaning of this sentence is that believers are not under God’s condemnation pronounced in the law but under his undeserved favour receives strong confirmation from 8:1…”

-C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8
He refers to Romans 8:1,
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Yeshua. For the law of the Spirit of life in Messiah Yeshua has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
-Paul, Romans 8
In Romans 8, Paul says the condemnation of sin is not upon believers in Christ.

Messianic scholar Tim Hegg also supports this conclusion, saying,
“The context shows clearly that Paul’s point in this concluding phrase is that the reign of sin had its power or authority through the Torah, for the Torah condemns sin and the sinner…when he concludes that the believer is not under the Torah but under grace, he is not putting the Torah and grace at odds with each other, but showing the means by which the believer is no longer a slave to sin but instead is alive to God. The penalty of the Torah against the sinner, just and righteous as it was, was put entirely upon Yeshua and therefore the believer is no longer under its condemnation. In the place of condemnation has come forgiveness and grace.”

-Tim Hegg, Romans 1-8

Conclusion

Paul saying “you are not under law, but under grace” doesn’t mean we are free to break Torah commandments. Such an interpretation introduces a number of problems:
  1. It undermines Paul’s own statements in Romans where he appeals to the authority of the Torah.
  2. It is out of context: Romans 6 is speaking about sin, and even the statement “you are not under law, but under grace” is an incomplete quote. The full quote and context leads us to a different interpretation.
  3. It is out of character for Paul, the Torah observant Messianic Jew. Paul is not an ex-Jew who abandoned his Jewish identity. Rather, Paul affirms himself a Torah-observant Pharisee who teaches Torah and keeps it himself.
A more harmonious, and likely more accurate interpretation of Paul’s words is that believers are not under God’s condemnation for breaking the Torah; sinning. The penalty for that was paid voluntarily by Messiah, and thus, “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”

Torah Keeping is a Gradient, Not a Binary

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Break the binaryChristians, Jews, and we Messianics in between speak about Torah observance like an on/off switch: you’re either Torah observant, or not. Torah observance as a binary.

Orthodox Jews say they have Torah in the “on” position.

Christians will say they are not under the Law: Torah in the “off” position.

But the truth is, nearly every person on earth is Torah observant.

Torah observance is not on/off binary. It’s a gradient scale:
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This isn’t universalist every-path-leads-to-God kumbaya nonsense.

Nope. It’s describing reality:

  • Loving God wholeheartedly? That’s Torah.
  • Loving your neighbor as yourself? That’s Torah.
  • Abstaining from sexual immorality? That’s Torah.
  • You're not swindling, cheating, or hating? That’s Torah.
  • Caring for the widow and orphan? That’s Torah.
  • Visiting the sick and caring for the oppressed? That’s Torah.
  • Honoring your mother and father? That’s Torah.
  • Not stealing or murdering? That’s Torah.

And these aren’t just some minor details. Most of these are weightier matters of the Torah, involving justice, mercy, faithfulness. These are the big ‘uns. Smile

This truth – that nearly all humanity keeps Torah on some level – leads us to some surprising realizations.

  1. No one keeps 100% of the Torah. Not even the most stringent of the Haredim.
  2. Christians are Torah observant. Less so than Messianics and Orthodox Jews, yes, but more than the secular world.
  3. All humanity is Torah observant to a degree, probably because God has written on the human conscience the basics of morality.

Nobody keeps 100% of the Torah

I’ve often heard this used as an excuse for why Christians aren’t (supposedly!) Torah observant (even through they are).

But it’s a bad excuse, in the same way that “I’m unable to follow 100% of the laws of the United States government, so why try?” is also a bad excuse.

While it’s not an excuse to avoid the Torah, it is nonetheless true: no one keeps 100% of the Torah.

This is two ways: first, not all commandments apply to everyone. (Commandments specific to farmers, or to priests.)

But it’s also true no one keeps all the commandments that do apply to them! There are cultural and external factors that stop people from keeping commandments that apply to them. The Temple is destroyed, so you don’t bring offerings to God in it. You don’t live in Israel, so you don’t make aliyah to Israel 3 times a year. The culture has changed, so even the most stringent Ultra-Orthdox Jew doesn’t observe the laws regarding levirate marriage.

Christians are Torah observant

Christians are some of the most charitable, faithful, generous giving people in the world.

A few years ago when I was working with youth homeless shelters as part of my software job, I saw the organizations who were providing hot meals, shelter, and medical care to homeless youth. Organizations like Lutheran Social Services. Catholic Charities. Salvation Army. Loaves and Fishes. Park Community Church.

Not all the organizations were Christian. Some were secular. There was even a few Islamic organizations. But by and large? Christian churches and outreaches were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick.

That’s Torah.

I no longer believe that Christians aren’t Torah observant. When Christians protest, “We’re not under the Law!”, I think they are doing themselves a disservice. Because they’re going above and beyond the Law, keeping the Torah as Yeshua did: by being a servant.

It’s true Christians don’t keep kosher. They mostly don’t keep the Biblical Chagim/Feasts. They don’t keep the Sabbath. (Unless you count things like Chik-Fil-A closing on Sundays. Wrong day, but points for trying.) But as great as kosher, Feasts, and Shabbat are, those are not the weighty matters of the Torah.

I call on my readers to keep these in mind when speaking with or about Christians.

All humanity keeps basic Torah principles

In Paul’s letter to Rome, chapter 1, he says God will judge every person, because no person is without excuse; God is visible in nature. In Paul’s words, “What can be known about God is plain to everyone—for God has shown it to them. His invisible attributes—His eternal power and His divine nature—have been clearly seen ever since the creation of the world, being understood through the things that have been made.”

I’ve pondered these words for months. I believe Paul is saying that all people intrinsically know basic morality. People know murdering an innocent is wrong. People know cruelty is wrong. Rape is wrong. And so on.

Why does virtually every human being know this? Evolutionary anthropologists would argue these are evolved traits rising from societal gains. I argue its source is out of this world. SmileGod has put in every human conscience what we might call “Torah basics.” This is why nearly every culture and language has some basic morality, where murder, theft, rape, and more is outlawed or otherwise suppressed.

Takeaways for Messianic people

God cares about how much Torah we keep. The “gradient scale” spoken of here is describing reality on the ground, not the ideal from above.

Torah observance as a gradient doesn’t mean God is fine with you ignoring the Bible. No, God calls humanity to perfection – that’s the ideal. Perfection would be keeping every commandment that applies to you in the way that God wants you to apply them, and according to a divine priority and weightiness, where certain commandments overrule others.

“Gradient” speaks of the reality on the ground: humanity isn’t perfect. Every person hasn’t kept the Torah perfectly, though nearly every person on earth keeps some of it, by instinct or secular law or faith conviction.

Given that reality, and given that Christians are keeping a great deal of Torah already should have some implications for how we talk about Christianity and Judaism.

We often get into debates about the role of Torah for today. We often chide Christians for their lack of Torah keeping, or their negative attitude towards it. Christians often return the favor, calling Torah keepers as heretics, legalists, and worse.

(This problem is present in the Jewish world, too, with Orthodox sects keeping Torah in a more stringent way, where Reform sects keep in less according to the letter and even re-interpreting it in each generation.)

These issues will keep coming up, and we are right to wrestle with them: how to keep the Torah, what we can keep in the 21st century, what parts of the Torah to major on, and so on. But when we wrestle with them, let’s avoid the temptation to demonize our “opponents.”

Our “opponents” are trying to apply the Bible to their lives in a meaningful way. And moreover, both Jews and Christians are our brothers. Family disputes will happen, but let’s remain family and not cut people out of God’s Kingdom. I suspect when Messiah arrives and brings his long-awaited nation, we will see many people who believed – and applied the Torah – differently than we.

Keep these broad mercies of God in mind the next time we speak of believers on the other side of the fence.

Israeli Messianic leader: “Keeping Torah is Heresy”

Update 1: I spoke with Mr. Bass today and he clarified, “It is heresy if you believe that all believers should keep Torah…to be righteous.

This still presents a problem: while Paul says righteousness comes by trusting in Messiah, James continues that our righteousness is proven by works. I’ve asked Mr. Bass to clarify whether he considers “righteousness proven by Torah” to be heresy. I’ve also asked if he believes Torah plays any role for believers, aside from ethnic sensitivities. I’ll update this if I hear back.

Update 2: I asked directly whether Torah plays any role for believers in Yeshua, and Mr. Bass has replied with, “It is not incumbent upon believers -- whether Jewish or Gentile -- to keep the Law of Moses as it is written.”

Update 3: One of Mr. Bass’ defenders, Aaron Hecht, has now posted a new article, It’s Not a Sin, But…, in which he defends Mr. Bass’ view and points out issues in Torah observance. Some of his criticisms are true, and Aaron and I have a friendly conversation in the comments, in which we do find some common ground.

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Messiah faith in Israel has a long way to go. As it stands today, it’s largely ethnic Evangelicalism. Ethnic evangelicalism isn’t bad – it turns people to God – but it is terribly short of Israel’s unique calling.

When I first came to Israel, I visited a large congregation that spent 2 minutes on reading the Torah, and the next 30 minutes on preaching about why we should give money to the congregation. They had really great worship music.

When I returned to Israel a few years later, I visited another well-known congregation in northern Israel. They spent about 60 seconds speed-reading a Torah portion – zero study or commentary – then preached for the next hour about how we have victory in Jesus.

I couldn’t help but feel the Torah reading was a token gesture.

Last week, Howard Bass’ new post in Kehila News downplayed Torah further, suggesting that Torah observance is actually heresy.

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Howard Bass is the leader of נחלת ישוע Nachalat Yeshua (Yeshua’s Inheritance) congregation in Be’er Sheva, Israel.

His post on heresy included all the usuals: denying God, Messiah, the Bible, etc. But it also included – drum roll please – Torah observance as heresy.

According to Mr. Bass, the well-known and respected Israeli Messianic congregation leader, keeping Torah is heresy. Here’s the relevant piece of his post:

A heretical teaching does not line up with the plain teaching of the Word of God:

- YHVH is not the one and only true God…

- The Bible is not the authoritative written Word of God…

- Jesus was not fully human…

- Jesus was not fully God…

- Gentile and Jewish believers must keep the “Torah” in order to live as Jesus lived, and, therefore, be righteous, even if it is said by the false teachers on this subject not to be a salvation issue, and that we are saved by our faith in the name of the Son of God, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah. They are teaching another gospel, sowing confusion and division. This is heresy, which made the Apostle Paul very upset! (Acts 15:23-29; Gal) This is not the same as someone, for the sake of the gospel, living in a manner acceptable to an ethnic population or a religious group, in order that they might be more open to listen to the gospel. But Paul was also free among any people group for that very reason, and always under the law of Messiah. He never went against God’s word and wisdom in order to appeal to sinners. “Torah-keeping” does not promote the one new man in Messiah; and the Law of Messiah by His cross is the ‘one Law’ that all believers as a new creation live under.

I want to read Mr. Bass charitably and give him the benefit of the doubt, so I commented on his post. If I find out I’ve misinterpreted, I’ll update this post.

I want to look closer at Mr. Bass’ assertion that keeping Torah is a heresy.

Gentile and Jewish believers must keep the “Torah” in order to live as Jesus lived and, therefore, be righteous, even if it is said by the false teachers on this subject not to be a salvation issue, and that we are saved by our faith in the name of the Son of God, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah

There’s a lot to unpack in this long sentence.

Torah is for no one

His post uses the phrase “Gentile and Jewish believers”; this is interesting.

Here among Messianics in the US, there is a debate about whether Torah is only applicable for Jews (a position taken by e.g. Hashivenu and UMJC-types), or whether Torah is good instruction for all God’s people (e.g. Messianic Apologetics and Torah Resource.)

But few are the Messianic congregations that are Torah-negative for all people; doing so would result in a group little different than your local Evangelical church.

We Torah-positive Messianics see things differently. We see the Torah as God’s continuing standard for morality, a constitution for a holy people. As Jewish luminary Dennis Prager recently wrote,

The idea that the Torah is only for the Jews is as absurd as the idea that Shakespeare is only for the English, or that Beethoven is only for the Germans.

-Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible

What does Bass mean by “Torah”?

The heresy that…Gentile and Jewish believers must keep the “Torah”

I noticed Bass’ use of quotes around the term Torah.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but perhaps Mr. Bass is not so much against the Torah as he is Ultra Orthodox abuses of it?

He undoubtedly has seen the abuse of the Torah almost daily in Israel, where “Torah observant” people spit at, shout insults at, and kick people they don’t like.


Above: “Torah observant” religious people hurl insults, spit on, and kick a woman who helps a driver safely navigate through a Haredi protest.

I know that Mr. Bass’ congregation has been attacked by “Torah observant” Orthodox Jewish protestors. I know Nachalat Yeshua’s services have been interrupted by zealous young Jews with bullhorns, shouting and overturning furniture – all in the name of “Torah”.

So from Mr. Bass’ standpoint, “Torah” may seem like a negative. If this was the only Torah I saw, I’d probably hate Torah too. If this is the “Torah” that Mr. Bass calls heresy, then we agree.

But if by “Torah” Mr. Bass means the God-given commandments which have formed the basis of Jewish life for 3,000 years, the Torah which Yeshua said would remain as long as earth itself, the Torah which Paul upheld and preached, the Torah which the early believers in Yeshua were zealous for, if this is the Torah Mr. Bass calls heresy, then indeed what a grievous and shameful statement.

What kind of witness are we if we say to Israel, “The Messiah of Israel did away with the God of Israel’s commandments”? We make Messiah out to be the false prophet of Deuteronomy, and ourselves worshipers of a false prophet.

But we know from the Gospels Yeshua didn’t abolish the Torah, but upheld it. His disputes with religious leaders were on faulty application of the Torah, not on the Torah itself. This is why you see Yeshua rebuking religious leaders for, e.g. devoting all their resources to the Temple instead of caring for their parents. The Pharisees erred not in keeping the Torah, but in “nullifying God’s commandments by tradition.”

If Yeshua was really saying the Torah was done away with, he could’ve just said, “You Pharisees are keeping Torah. But it’s abolished now that I’m here.”

But he didn’t. Because Yeshua isn’t the false prophet of Deuteronomy 13. He’s the real prophet of Deuteronomy 18.

Torah keeping made Paul upset

Mr. Bass contends,

They [Torah teachers] are teaching another gospel, sowing confusion and division. This is heresy, which made the Apostle Paul very upset!

He cites Acts 15, in which the leaders of the nascent Yeshua movement write to non-Jewish believers saying that no greater burden than 4 commandments will be required of them.

The problem with that statement is many fold.

First, the 4 commandments specified include 2 dietary laws, which Christians don’t keep today. So if we’re serious about these being the only 4 commandments non-Jews have to keep, then why aren’t we keeping them? (Why aren’t the non-Jews at Nachalat Yeshua keeping them?)

A second problem is that this letter was addressed specifically to non-Jews: “To the Gentile brothers”. At the very most, some could claim this ruling is only for the non-Jews who were turning to God. But Mr. Bass goes beyond this and claims it is a ruling for everyone, for all time.

A third problem is that the letter was a response to a very specific question: whether non-Jews had to formally convert to Judaism through ritual circumcision. The contested matter is right there in the beginning of the chapter: “Some men coming down from Judea were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”

But Mr. Bass wants to apply this answer to a much broader question: should anyone, anywhere, anytime keep the Torah? To apply Acts 15 answer to this broader question is to misapply the text.

A fourth problem with this answer is it omits an important part of the ruling: that Moses is preached everywhere. The actual judgment is we don’t have to make new Gentile believers formally convert to Judaism in order to be saved. Why? “Because Moses is preached in every city from ancient generations, being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.”

Omitting this information is problematic, because the disciples laid upon new Gentile believers 4 Torah basics with the understanding they will eventually hear the whole Torah.

In Galatians 5, which I assume Mr. Bass was referring to with regards to Paul’s anger, Paul is angry that believers were undergoing conversion to Judaism, thinking this was required for salvation.

Torah as façade

Mr. Bass gives an out to those people who keep Torah for appearances’ sake.

“This is not the same as someone, for the sake of the gospel, living in a manner acceptable to an ethnic population or a religious group, in order that they might be more open to listen to the gospel.”

What is being said here is it’s OK to keep Torah if it’s for the purpose of Jewish conversion. And likewise for all ethnicities.

This deeply grieves me. Jews are not just another ethnic population. As Messianic Jewish pioneer Rabbi Stuart Dauermann said, “Jews are not just another non-Christian people, and Judaism is not just another non-Christian religion.”

When we encourage or even permit people to keep the Torah “so that some might be saved”, aren’t we just playing pretend? Doesn’t that lend credibility to the anti-missionary’s charge that we’re deceivers?

Folks often point to Paul’s words in Corinthians:

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Does this include lying and a façade of who we truly are? God forbid! Lying and cheating your way to conversions is not what Paul had in mind! A more accurate interpretation is that Paul spoke with people on their level. It doesn’t mean he was a deceiver for Christ.

How will Israel be provoked to jealousy if we’re a bunch of fakers? Our Torah observance should neither be fake nor an emulation of Orthodox Judaism. Our Torah should be an emulation of Messiah’s own Torah observance. He’s our model. And our walk must be in sincerity, not as a façade meant to bring in more conversions.

What grieves me most about this section of Mr. Bass’ statements is that the only form of Torah observance that is acceptable is the kind exists solely for the purpose of conversion. What of obedience to God? What of faithfulness the covenant that God has used to preserved Jews for 3500 years?

Torah keeping and One New Man

Bass says that the One New Man in Messiah, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, is hindered by Torah:

“Torah-keeping” does not promote the one new man in Messiah; and the Law of Messiah by His cross is the ‘one Law’ that all believers as a new creation live under

That is yet to be seen. We’ve had nearly 1800 years of trying the other way: a Torah-free Christianity. It has produced unity – at the expense of erasure of Jewish identity. Even the Messianic Jewish luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Paul Philip Levertov, have ultimately lost their Jewish identity, their children now identify as Roman Catholics or otherwise absorbed into the gentile sea of the Church.

I do not believe it is God’s will for Jews to disappear. And the Church as it stands ultimately causes Jews to assimilate and lose their Jewish identity. If not them, then their children, and almost certainly their grandchildren.

Isn’t it time for something else? A pro-Torah Messiah faith reverses this, and upholds Jews as God’s special chosen people, with a unique calling. Some claim it makes gentiles into Jews, but in reality, in my experience, it makes gentiles into pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-Torah Bible believers. I’ll take that over Jewish assimilation.

A plain reading of the Bible upholds Torah

Mr. Bass says a heresy is “a teaching that does not line up with the plain teaching of the Word of God.”

The amazing thing to me is that Torah keeping is a plain teaching of the Bible. The whole of the Tenakh is basically a cycle of:

  1. God giving a commandment
  2. People breaking the command and rebelling
  3. God sending judgment and exile
  4. People repenting to God for disobedience
  5. God divinely reversing the exile

Nearly every book of the Old Testament plays into this cycle. The Torah gives the commandments. The book of Joshua shows God’s people carrying out the commandments as they enter Israel. Kings and Chronicles covers the obedience (mostly disobedience) of early Israel, and God’s judgments on us for disobedience. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Joel and more call Israel to repentance. Nehemiah and Ezra are about the people returning in repentance and God undoing the exile.

Nearly every book of the Tenakh has to do with keeping God’s commandments defined in the Torah.

Clearly, keeping God’s commandments is a plain meaning of the Bible!

But it’s not just the Tenakh. The first few chapters in the Gospels show John calling people to repent, Matthew 3. Then, the next chapter, Yeshua telling people the same.

What were they repenting from? The same thing Israel has always repented from: breaking God’s commandments; sin.

Yeshua says plainly the Torah should be kept and taught until earth passes away. Only a non-plain, Scriptural acrobatics reading of the text says otherwise.

Paul proves he’s Torah observant in Acts 21. In his letters, Paul tells gentile congregations that God is writing Torah on our hearts, and that Torah is “good, holy, and pure.”

Even for the 2 congregations I visited in Israel, they at least read the Torah. How are we supposed to read the Torah but not live it? Doesn’t it take Scriptural acrobatics to say, “Well, this is the plain meaning of the text – to keep the commandment – but here’s a complicated reason why you you can disregard the plain meaning”?

An open plea to Pastor Howard Bass

Mr. Bass, as a brother in Messiah, I ask you to reconsider your view that Torah keepers are heretics. If Torah keepers are heretics, then Yeshua and the early church were heretics.

You said, "A heretical teaching does not line up with the plain teaching of the Word of God." Consider that keeping God's commandments in the Torah aligns with the plain meaning of the Word of God, both in our Tenakh and in the Gospels:

"Whoever keeps and teaches the Torah and the prophets will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven."
-Yeshua, Matthew 5

And again in Acts:

"You see, brother, how many myriads there are among the Jewish people who have believed—and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been told that you teach all the Jewish people among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their
children or to walk according to the customs. What’s to be done then? We have four men who have a vow on themselves. Take them, and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. That way, all will realize there is nothing to the things they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly
manner, keeping the Torah.


-The early church speaking to Paul, Acts 21

I understand that seeing Orthodox abuse of Torah observance can create a negative perception of the Torah. And seeing persecution from Yad L'Achim and supposedly Torah-observant groups may cause a person to think the Torah is not of God, or not for today.

But the issue with those groups isn't that they keep Torah. It's that they keep Torah apart from Yeshua, resulting in a perversion. Their hard heart towards Yeshua is temporary, and their Torah practice will one day align with the King's Torah. We cannot taint our view of Torah by those who abuse it.

Please reconsider.