Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Reformer John Calvin points out the real conflict that Paul alludes to here about the law being a source of righteousness. In a scholarly fashion, Calvin writes: “He reasons from what is an opposite point of view, — that righteousness is not obtained by us through the law because it convicts us of sin and condemns us. Life and death do not proceed from the same fountain. And as he reasons from the contrary effect of the law, that it cannot confer righteousness on us, he let us know that the argument does count for much, except we hold this as an inseparable and unvarying circumstance, — that by showing man his sin, it denies any hope of salvation. It is indeed by itself, as it teaches us what righteousness is, the way to salvation. However, our depravity and corruption prevent it from being in this respect any advantage for us. It is also necessary in the second place to add this, — that whosoever is found to be a sinner, is deprived of righteousness. To agree with the philosophers that there is a half kind of righteousness justified through works is frivolous. Nothing in this respect is gained, on account of man’s corruption.1

To put this in everyday language, Calvin is saying that the Jews’ use of obedience to the law as a standard to judge righteousness is a futile effort because the law was written to condemn, not save. That’s why Paul was trying to get these Messianic Jews in Rome to understand that referring to their being circumcised as a reason why they should be put in front of the line ahead of Gentiles seeking salvation is senseless because there is no substitute for faith in Christ. And, since all are sinners, then all need redemption. And, since redemption can come only through Christ, then all they need is Christ.

John Bengel says that Paul, in stating that we are not justified by the works of the law without naming any particular law. He is talking about the whole Law, of which the ceremonial and the moral laws were parts rather than kinds. Of these, ceremonial law, since it was then abolished, was not taken much into account; the fact that the moral law was given through Moses, does not make it binding upon Christians the same way it was on the Jews. In the New Testament we have no works of the law at all, apart from grace; for the law gives no strength… The meaning is, the law provides only the knowledge of sin; just as the sin-offerings did not remove sin, but recalled it to men’s minds.2 The law makes the sense of sin clear and strong, but it does not strengthen the will to do what is right.3

Wesleyan scholar Adam Clarke, gives his view: “On the score of obedience to this moral law, there shall no flesh, no human being, be justified; none can be accepted in the sight of God. And why? Because by the law is the knowledge of sin: it is that which ascertains what sin is; shows how men have deviated from its righteous demands, and sentences them to death because they have broken it. Thus, the law is properly considered as the rule of right; and, unless God had given some such means of discovering what Sin is, the darkened heart of man could never have formed an adequate conception of it. For, as an acknowledged straight edge is the only way in which the straightness or crookedness of a line can be determined, so the moral abnormality of human actions can only be determined by the law of God; that rule of right which proceeds from His own immaculate holiness.4

Charles Hodge in his commentary section of Doctrine and Remarks makes these important points: Doctrine – “The office of the law is neither to justify nor to sanctify. It convinces and condemns. All efforts to secure the favor of God by legal obedience is therefore in vain.” Remarks – “To be prepared for the reception of the gospel, we must be convinced of sin, humbled under a sense of its depravity, silenced under a conviction of its condemning power, and prostrated at the footstool of mercy, under a feeling that we cannot satisfy the demands of the law, that if ever saved, it must be by some other merit and some power other than our own.5

With his oratory skill, Spurgeon says: “All the law does, is to show us how sinful we are. Paul has been quoting from the sacred Scriptures; and truly, they shed a shocking light upon the condition of human nature. The light can show us our sin, but it cannot take it away. The law of the Lord is like a looking-glass. Now, a looking-glass is a useful thing for finding out where the spots are on your face; but you cannot wash in a looking-glass, you cannot get rid of the spots by looking in the glass. The law is intended to show a man how much he needs cleansing, but the law cannot cleanse him. The law proves that we are condemned, but it does not bring us our pardon.6

F. F. Bruce gives us some more detail on the fact that no human being will be justified in God’s sight by their works according to the law. He writes: “A free quotation and amplification of Psalm 143:2, ‘(Enter not into judgment with your servant [cf. Ps. 51:4, quoted in verse 4 above]; for) no man living is righteous before You.’ Cf. Galatians 2:16 (‘a man is not justified by works of the law’); 3:11 (‘no man is justified before God by the law’). Paul adds the reason why no-one can be justified in God’s sight ‘by works of the law’; it is that through the law comes knowledge of sin. This affirmation is repeated and expanded in 5:20; 7:7–11.”7 How true this is today of those who attempt to be justified before God by following the rules, rituals, and sacraments of the church. They are poor substitutes for the cleansing power of the blood of Christ which is required by God for the forgiveness of sins.

Verse 21: But God has a way to make people right, and it has nothing to do with the law. He has now shown us that new way, which the law and the prophets told us about.

With this verse, Paul begins his teaching on Justification by faith, and the provision made for salvation by faith outside the law. Is this doctrine a paradox? Absolutely not! Christ died apart from, not under, the Law. He died to fulfill, not abolish, the Law. Neither did He come to establish a new Law but to provide an escape from the eternal punishment the Law required of those who failed to meet its demands on every point, no matter how small. So the old covenant written in the blood of animals was made obsolete, and the new covenant written in the blood of the Lamb of God has taken its place. Thank God Jesus did not come to merely make amendments to the Law, but through His death and resurrection God was able to rescind the old Law and establish a new and living way into His presence; to do away with worshiping Him through handmade idols and shrines, but to allow us to worship Him in a true and spiritual way.

But just saying that bring right with God outside the law would not be enough, Paul must be able to point to some action on God’s part to validate this concept. We can see this in the original intent when God dealt with Abraham who did not have the law to follow: “Abram believed the Lord, and because of this faith the Lord accepted him as one who has done what is right.1 That’s why God’s message to the children of Israel through Isaiah is important: “I am the only God, the one who does what is right. I am the one who saves, and there is no other!.. They will say, ‘Goodness and strength come only from the Lord’.2 So when the Apostle Paul showed up in Jerusalem to meet the Apostolic Council, after hearing what he said concerning his message to the Gentiles they came to this conclusion: “We believe that we and these people will be saved the same way—by the grace of the Lord Jesus.3

As we know, Paul received his revelation directly from Jesus on the road to Damascus. So in the gospel that Paul preached, we should find continuity between what the Lord said and what Paul said. We see this in what Jesus told His disciples after the resurrection: “Remember when I was with you before? I said that everything written about me must happen—everything written in the Law of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the Psalms.1 In so doing, Jesus was saying that the Messiah would come to put an end to a person’s dependence on the law to save them and put their trust in Him as the Messiah. But, for that to take effect, the Apostle John stated: “Moses lifted up the snake in the desert. It is the same with the Son of Man. He must be lifted up too. Then everyone who believes in Him can have eternal life.2 That’s why Jesus then said: “If you really believed Moses, you would believe me because he wrote about me.3 The writer of the Message to the Hebrews points this out quite clearly in Chapter 10.

Early church scholars have various things to say about the establishment of righteousness by grace in relationship to the law. Bishop Apollinaris stated: “[The righteousness of God] has not been manifested in opposition to the law but as an increase of good and as the free gift of God, so that we may no longer be judged according to human righteousness, which is always under judgment, but that we may be made perfect by the righteousness which comes from God. For this is the righteousness which comes by faith in Christ to all who believe and which dwells in them all.14

Along with this, Ambrosiaster writes: “It is clear that the righteousness of God has now appeared apart from the law, but this means apart from the law of the Sabbath, the circumcision, the new moon and revenge, not apart from the sacrament of God’s divinity, because the righteousness of God is all about God’s divinity. For when the law held them guilty, the righteousness of God forgave them and did so apart from the law so that until the law was brought to bear God forgave them their sin. And lest someone think that this was done against the law, Paul added that the righteousness of God had a witness in the Law and the Prophets, which means that the law itself had said that in the future someone would come who would save mankind. But it was not allowed for the law to forgive sin. Therefore, what is called the righteousness of God appears to be mercy because it has its origin in the promise, and when God’s promise is fulfilled, it is called ‘the righteousness of God.’ For it is righteousness when what is promised has been delivered. And when God accepts those who flee to Him for refuge, this is called righteousness, because wickedness would not accept such people.15

1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

2 See Hebrews 10:3

3 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 240-241

4 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

5 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 134-135

6 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit. loc. cit.

7 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 104

8 Genesis 15:6

9 Isaiah 45:21, 24

10 Acts of the Apostles 15:11

11 Luke 24:44

12 John 3:14-15

13 Ibid. 5:46

14 Apollinaris of Laodicea: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.

15 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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