What is meant by “keeping God’s commands is what counts” in 1 Corinthians 7?

Some have used 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 as justification for Jewish believers to keep Torah.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24

17Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts20Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. 21Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 23You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.

So what did Paul mean when he wrote, “Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”? At first glance, it appears Paul might be saying that if you are Jewish to keep following the Law. But is this in fact what Paul saying? If so, then why would he say that circumcision is nothing?

Let’s look at another place where Paul was apparently dealing with a similar issue as he dealt with in that part of 1 Corinthins 7, Galatians 5:1-14.

1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.4You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

7You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? 8That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. 11Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Notice first that Paul wrote that we are FREE. Then notice he said if you try to follow the law, you are obligated to follow all of it and have been alienated from Christ and have fallen away from grace. Then he said neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matter. What matters is expressing faith through love. Then in verses 13-14, Paul says you are free, and serve one another in love – that the entire law is summed up by “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now we have to see what Jesus commanded. There are a number of different passages where Jesus gives commands. But I think the one that sums it all up is Matthew 7:12,

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Notice, this is the essentially the same thing Paul wrote in Galatians 5:14. We are to be led by the Spirit, as we see in Romans 7:6

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

So we are to serve by the new way of the Spirit – not by following the letter of the Law. Of course, this does NOT mean ignore the law. The law teaches us what is right and wrong. But we have to realize its not a list of things to be kept, but rather a guide of how to behave towards others. We must be led by the Holy Spirit.

Romans 8:14

because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Romans 8:26

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

In fact, if we are led by the Holy Spirit, we are not under the Law.

Galatians 5:18

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

So ultimately, being led by the Spirit will cause us to live by the Spirit and we will exemplify love in our lives – love for God and others. This will include not sinning – not because we must/should follow the Law, but because we love God.

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