Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
Romans 3:20 | NIV | Other Versions | Context
I like the book of Romans a lot, and it’s a book that I regularly turn back to. In a time of cultural awkwardness in the Church (and city) of Rome, where Gentile Christians and returning Jewish Christians clash with differing understanding of the gospels, and at a time where the spread of judaizing teachers was at its influx – false teaching was spreading like a cancer; Paul seeks to encourage, correct and clarify the gospel of Christ, to set right the design and nature of the gospel. This is a book rich in theology – not that other books aren’t, but this book is full of gems. Romans 3 sees Paul bringing out the difference between law of works and law of faith and spent the entire chapter laying the foundation for this faith, which is the key to righteousness and which justifies us in front of God. In this study we will examine the difference between the law of works and the law of faith, and this all-important purpose of the existence of law – it is through law that we become conscious of our sin.
If you study the book of Romans in its entirety it’s actually quite amazing to think that it was once written as a letter, because it’s so well-structured and laid out point by point and bit by bit, each chapter building up on the previous.
Works of the law
When Jews and Gentiles clashed, it was more often than not regarding the law. When Pharisees argued with Jesus, it was more often than not regarding the law. Well, in the case of the Pharisees, whenever they argued it was always about the law. When judaizing teachers and the apostles disagreed, it was largely also regarding the law. What did Paul mean when he said works of the law? That’s basically when you do as the law commands. So, if the law says to consecrate yourself, and you do it, that’s a work of the law. If the law says give a tenth of what you get as offering, and you do it, that’s a work of the law. Are they bad? Should you not do it? No, Paul never once said so. Not a single apostle suggested such sentiments. The law is not meaningless. There is a purpose, as we’ll get to later. What Paul is saying here is simply, don’t expect to be justified before God through works of the law, because not a single one of us are righteous through what we do. The only way is to be justified by faith.
Law of the Faith
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law [Rom 3:27-28]. When talking about the law, we can’t just talk about the works of law and leave out the law that requires faith. In those days be it the Pharisees or most of the Jews in general, or those who tried to refute the teachings of the apostle by spreading false teaching, they insisted on the importance of the law, which is all good and fine, except that the purpose why they valued the law so much was because they believed that a man can be justified in God’s eyes through deeds of the law. In refuting this point of view, Paul and the apostles remind that the only law that can ever possibly justify us before God is the law of faith – which isn’t quite a law at all. What is the law of faith? It is not like the gospel is a law, it’s not like we’re bound to have faith or anything like that, but in the Hebrew culture the word law signifies any doctrine or instruction. It is the doctrine of the gospel, the doctrine of a sinner’s justification by faith through the righteousness of Christ that Paul is talking about. No matter who, no matter how vile, as long as he believes, as long as he fulfills this doctrine of the gospel by having faith, he is justified before God, and is thus, and only thus, righteous. This is the law of the faith. No other reasons. No other means. Only by faith.
Through the law we become conscious of our sin
If we do not become righteous when we perform as the law commands, then what is the reason for the law, then? Why have laws when there’s no meaning in meeting them? While Paul never said the law was bad, and while he never told us not to keep the law, and while his emphasis was always on the fact that keeping the law does not make us justified before God, he did refute the importance of the law in the eyes of the Jews. The law is not important because it justifies us before God’s sight – because it simply doesn’t. Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God [Rom 3:19]. The law stops the mouths of men and pronounces them guilty. The law points out our sin. The law reminds us that we are sinners, and not how good or how disciplined we are. In essence, the law that has been passed down generation after generation since the time of Moses serves to condemn each and everyone of us as sinners, until Jesus came, that is. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death [Rom 8:1-2].
If you study the book of Romans in its entirety it’s actually quite amazing to think that it was once written as a letter, because it’s so well-structured and laid out point by point and bit by bit, each chapter building up on the previous. Law of the Spirit? Law of sin and death? Law of works? Law of faith? Lots of big words, lots of laws that more or less probably refers to similar things – the gospel of grace and the law of Moses – but Paul is merely speaking in terms that would be easily understandable by the Jews. Paul refutes the law again and again throughout the New Testament – but he refutes it only in the significance that the Jews regard it in, not in its true purpose – to make us conscious of our sin – or that it isn’t worth doing. The book of James was once called the epistle of straws because it was deemed to be in conflict with the teachings of Paul – justification by faith and faith only. Yet James emphasized that faith without works is meaningless – Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead [James 2:17].
It’s amazing how when we take a step back at the book of Romans in its entirety, we see a string of points come into a full lesson. Similarly, when we take a step back and look at the New Testament in its entirety, we see how each book complements the other, even if they were written by different authors. Paul never said we don’t have to do works, and James never said justification is not by faith – rather, it was more like he was saying if you truly have faith, works will naturally come along because of this faith. When you truly believe, you will naturally be inclined to want to keep God’s commands by doing God’s works because you are conscious of your sin. Isn’t it beautiful how Paul’s teaching and James’ teaching come together to give us a wholesome understanding of the gospel? Similarly, when we take a step back and look at the Bible in its entirety, we will discover how each Testament complements the other and not clash as some tends to think.
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