Jesus’ death delivers not just from the curse of the law but from the bondage of law itself. Because of Jesus’ death, those in Christ are no longer “under the law.” How does that work?
In Jesus – God and Man, Pannenberg offers the following explanation. Jesus was charged with blasphemy, and from a Jewish perspective this was not just “a malevolent slander” but a reasonable judgment. Jesus claimed authority over Moses, and “had Jesus’ claim to authority not proved itself to be legitimate, if one did not believe with the disciples in its future confirmation but judged it only in the light of what was presently at hand, then Jesus would very easily appear to be a blasphemer, one who placed himself on a par with God. . . . The rejection of Jesus was inevitable for the Jew who was loyal to the law so long as he was not prepared to distinguish between the authority of the law and the authority of Israel’s God. Jesus certainly did not attack the law formally; but he did place his own authority above that of the words of Moses. It is understandable that this behavior was considered to be blasphemy” (253).
If Jesus had remained dead, the judgment that He was a blasphemer would have stood. As always for Pannenberg, the resurrection is key.
“Only from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection is all this seen in a new light. If Jesus’ resurrection from the dead could only be understood as an act of God himself upon Jesus and thus as the confirmation of Jesus’ pre-Easter activity, the judgment of the Jews is upset. If any only if Jesus has really been raised from the dead, not he but the one who rejected him in the name of the law was the blasphemer. Even more, if the same Jesus who was rejected in the name of the law afterward has been raised by God, then the traditional law itself is revealed to be at least an inadequate expression of God’s will” (254). The resurrection of Jesus simultaneously vindicates Jesus and reveals that the law could not be the final, permanent expression of God’s will.
By the same token, the resurrection makes it clear that Jesus died not only for the Jews but for Gentiles. The resurrection “legitimates the abolition of the law as the way to salvation and the turning to the mission to the Gentiles. In this sense, Jesus died for the Gentiles in order to open the way for their participation in Abraham’s blessing. . . . Indeed, Jesus’ death in fact did become the entrance for the Gentiles into Israel’s history of election. By nullifying the law, community with the God of Israel was also made possible for those men who do not accept Israel’s traditional divine law, those, therefore, who do not become Jews.” But the abolition of the law is only the “negative condition” for the inclusion of Gentiles. Jesus makes Gentile inclusion positively possible, in that “the judgment of the law over human sin, the Gentiles’ like the Jews’, is in no way impugned.” Paul’s positive treatment of Gentile inclusion is worked out in terms of the “two Adam” scheme of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 (261).
There is a good deal to like here. Pannenberg’s explanation ties the meaning of Christ’s death close to the actual historical circumstances of his trial and crucifixion, and the subsequent opening to the Gentiles. That concreteness has sometimes been missing in atonement theology. He also, rightly, highlights the crucial role of the resurrection, and understanding it, again rightly, as a forensic act.
But this isn’t entirely satisfying. Pannenberg makes it appear that it was Jewish faithfulness to the law that led them to condemn Jesus, but Jesus consistently charges that the Jewish leaders are law-breakers. If they had known the law, they would have recognized Jesus. That means that the resurrection is not so much a judgment on the law itself (rightly used) but on its misapplication and distortion. On that basis, the resurrection may constitute a condemnation of Israel but it cannot be seen as a condemnation of Torah. As Paul argues in Galatians, Torah relativizes itself by subordinating the institutions of the Mosaic system to the promise to Abraham.
I think Pannenberg is right that the cross and resurrection say something about Torah per se; but I’m not convinced that they say what Pannenberg claims.