NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XXIII)
Verse 31: So, do we destroy the law by following the way of faith? Not at all! In fact, faith causes us to be what the law actually wants.
Paul must have perceived that those receiving this missive already decided that he was advocating that the law scrolls be torn up and thrown away. But he had no such intention. Jesus was the one who gave him the Gospel directly. And this same Jesus had said: “Don’t think that I have come to destroy the Law of Moses or the teaching of the Prophets. I have come not to destroy their teachings but to give full meaning to them. I assure you that nothing will disappear from the Law until heaven and earth are gone. The Law will not lose even the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter until it has all been accomplished.”1
So Paul was trying to get the believing Jews to see that the whole purpose of the Law of Moses was for them to live in harmony with God’s will and purpose fo their lives. But try as they may, it was not possible because their sinful nature always influenced them into breaking the Law. Therefore, only by having their sinful nature put under subjection by their new spiritual nature could this be possible. And, the only way their spiritual nature could come alive and survive was through the power of Jesus the Messiah. As such, the impact of the Law of Grace would then be sufficient, as long as it is followed by faith, trust, and love for the One who brought it into effect.
Several early church writers give their expositions on what Paul declares here. For instance, Augustine says: “Do we then make void freedom of choice through grace? God forbid! Rather, we establish freedom of choice. As the law is not made void by faith, so freedom of choice is not made void but established by grace. Freedom of choice is necessary to the fulfillment of the Law. But by the Law comes the knowledge of sin; by faith comes the obtaining of grace against sin; by grace comes the healing of the soul from sin’s sickness; by the healing of the soul comes freedom of choice; by freedom of choice comes the love of righteousness; by the love of righteousness comes the working of the Law. Thus, as the Law is not made void but established by faith since faith obtains the grace whereby the Law may be fulfilled, so freedom of choice is not made void but established by grace, since grace heals the will whereby righteousness may freely be loved.”2
Then Pelagius asks: “Is the law which enjoins us to be circumcised unnecessary? Not at all! On the contrary, we enable it to stand firm when we show that what it said is true. Namely, that (spiritual) law would follow after (physical) law, (spiritual) testament after (physical) testament, (spiritual) circumcision after (physical) circumcision.”3 And to this, we add Patriarch Cyril’s words: “On account of His humanity Emmanuel is called a prophet, who following Moses is the mediator between God and humanity. The Law was a shadow, but even so, it presented an image of the truth. Furthermore, the truth hardly destroys its images; rather it makes them clearer.”4
John Calvin draws a distinction between the moral laws and the ceremonial laws of Moses. He writes: “For the moral law is in reality confirmed and established through faith in Christ, inasmuch as it was given for this end — to lead man to Christ by showing him his iniquity; and without this it cannot be fulfilled, and in vain will it require what ought to be done; nor can it do anything but irritate lust more and more, and thus finally increase man’s condemnation. But where there is a coming to Christ, there is first found in Him the perfect righteousness of the Law, which becomes ours by imputation, and then there is sanctification, by which our hearts are prepared to keep the Law; it is indeed imperfectly done, but there is an aiming at the work. Similar is the case with ceremonies, which indeed cease and vanish away when Christ comes, but they are in reality confirmed by Him; for when they are viewed in themselves they are vain and shadowy images, and then only do they attain anything real and solid when their end is regarded. In this then consists their chief confirmation, when they have obtained their accomplishment in Christ.”5
John Bengel sees a similarity here between Paul’s declaration and our Lord’s declaration of upholding the law. He goes on to say that while we are supposed to uphold what law testifies to (See Romans 3:20-21), we thereby show how the demands of law are satisfied through Christ.6 And Bible scholar Robert Haldane echoes what Bengel reveals: “From the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which the Apostle had been declaring, it might be supposed that God’s law was made void. This consequence might be drawn from the conclusion that a man is justified by faith without any respect to his obedience to the law. This the Apostle denies, and, on the contrary, asserts that by his doctrine law is established. The article is here wanting before [the word] law, indicating that the reference is not to the legal dispensation, or to the books of Moses, as in the last clause of verse 21, but to the general law of God, whether written or unwritten.”7
Adam Clarke then explains: “This verse states the third result of this method of salvation; instead of invalidating, it establishes the law. In every sense this declaration is true. If the law means the Old Testament generally, then it is true; for the gospel method of justification contradicts not one of its statements, is inconsistent with not one of its doctrines, and invalidates not one of its promises, but is harmonious with all, and confirms the whole. If it means the Mosaic institutions specifically, these were shadows of which Christ is the substance. Such laws are abolished, not by being pronounced spurious or invalid, but by having met its purpose, and answered its design in the Gospel. What it taught and promised, the Gospel also teaches and promises, only in clearer and fuller measure. If it means the moral law, which no doubt was prominently intended, still it is not invalidated, but established. No moral obligation is weakened, no penal sanction disregarded. The precepts are enforced by new and stronger motives, and the penalty is answered in Him who bore our sins in His own body on the tree.”8
Albert Barnes sees an anticipation here on Paul’s part: “This is indeed a beautiful and just view of the moral influence of the Gospel, and especially of the Doctrine of Justification by faith alone. It may be questioned, however, whether the Apostle in this place refers chiefly, or even at all, to the sanctifying tendency of his doctrine. This he does very fully in Romans 6; and therefore, if another and consistent sense can be found, we need not resort to the supposition that he now anticipates what he intended to discuss more fully in a later part of his epistle. In what other way, then, does the Apostle‘s doctrine establish law? How does he vindicate himself from the charge of making it void? In the preceding chapter he had pointed out the true ground of pardon in the ‘righteousness of God.’ He had explained that none could be justified, but they who had by faith received it. ‘Do we then,’ he asks in conclusion, ‘make void the Law by maintaining: No sinner can be accepted who does not receive a righteousness commensurate with all its demands?.’ ‘Yea, we establish law,’ is the obvious answer. Jesus has died to satisfy its claims and lives to honor its precepts. Thus, He has brought in ‘righteousness,’ which, being imputed to them that believe, forms such a ground of pardon and acceptance, as the Law cannot challenge.”9
Charles Spurgeon states: “There is no one who so much loves the law of God, and delights in it after the inward man, as the one who is justified by faith. There is nothing that so honors the law as ‘the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ.’”10 F. F. Bruce tells us: “If Paul had expressed himself in Hebrew, he would have used the verb qiyyēm. This is the verb used in the rabbinical assertion that Abraham ‘fulfilled the law’. Paul may have some such assertion in mind when he goes on to argue that Abraham did indeed fulfill or ‘uphold’ the law, but that, according to the testimony of Scripture, he upheld it through receiving God’s gift of righteousness by faith.”11
As we have seen, Paul did not start his defense of God’s righteousness by faith by merely writing down extemporaneous thoughts as they came to mind. As a devout Pharisee, and a student of the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud, he understood God’s intent of giving the Law and how it had been corrupted over time when intertwined with human ideas. So he wants to set the record straight. And we can say, that up to this point he has done a terrific job.
Jewish scholar David Stern tells this story which is a fitting end to this chapter. He writes:
Once upon a time, there was a king who was strong, brave and possessed of all other good qualities. He ruled his country justly, loved his people and was loved by them. Because of this, there was no crime in his kingdom — until one day it was discovered that a thief was loose in the land.
Knowing that wrongful behavior would multiply unless he took a strong stand against it, the king decreed that when caught the thief would receive twenty lashes. But the thefts continued. He raised the punishment to forty lashes in the hope of deterring further crime, but to no avail. Finally, he announced that the criminal would be punished with sixty lashes, knowing that no one in the country could survive sixty lashes except himself. At last the thief was caught, and it turned out to be — the king’s mother.
The king was faced with a dilemma. He loved his mother more than anyone in the world, but justice demanded that the punishment be carried out. Moreover, were his subjects to see that it was possible to commit a crime and not be punished for it, social order would eventually be completely undermined. At the same time, he knew that if he were to subject his own mother to a punishment that would kill her, the people’s love would turn to revulsion and hate toward a man so lacking in compassion and ordinary affection, and he would be unable to govern at all. The whole nation wondered what he would do.
The day arrived for administering the prescribed punishment. The king mounted a platform in the capital’s central square, and the royal flogger took his place. Then the king’s elderly mother was brought forward, fragile and trembling. On seeing her son the king, she burst into tears. “I’m… so sorry… for what I did!” she wailed, between sobs. Then, recovering, the stooping, white-haired figure made her way toward the flogging harness. The people gasped as the flogger raised his muscled arm with the leather whip.
Just as it was about to crack down on the exposed back of the woman who had given him birth, the king cried “Stop!” The arm poised in mid-air, the whip fell limp. The king rose from his seat, removed his robe, walked to the harness, embraced his mother, and, with his broad frame covering his mother and his bared back exposed to the flogger, commanded him, “Execute the sentence!” The sixty stripes fell on the back of the king.
“He was wounded for our transgressions,
bruised for our iniquities;
his suffering was for our well-being,
and by his stripes we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray;
we have turned, each one to his own way;
and Adonai has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 5– 6)12
1 Matthew 5:17-18
2 Augustine: The Spirit and the Letter 52
3 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Cyril of Alexandria: On Romans, loc. cit.
5 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 247
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 156-157
8 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit. loc. cit.
11 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 115
12 David Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.