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Paul fought a running battle with legalistic thinking within the early church; they too had those within their number who thought that righteousness could be produced through the keeping of the Law, and this conflict shows through clearly in his epistle to the Romans. Because of his teaching regarding law and grace Paul was, in so many words, accused of being an antinomian (cf. 3:8). Let’s see how Paul deals with this subject in this letter to the Roman Christians.
He begins his letter by arguing that all men in their natural, unsaved state stand condemned before God. In Romans 1:16-2:16 he argues that those who are without the Law are condemned because they have not yielded themselves to the knowledge of God in creation (1:18-19). Beginning in 2:17-29 he argues that those who do have the Law, referring to the Jews, are also condemned because they have not kept it. In 3:1-20 he addresses the question sure to arise in the minds of his listeners: If the Jews stand condemned too, what is the advantage in being a Jew? His answer is simple: the Jews were entrusted with the promises of God; promises which God fully intends to keep, even though the Jews, as a people, have thus far failed to respond in faith (2:2-4). The great advantage of being a Jew is not as some might suppose, that they are the inheritors of the Law, but rather that they are the inheritors of the promises of God (3:3‑4). It is important to recognize that Paul’s teaching on this subject comes some twenty-five years after the Jewish nation rejected Jesus as their Messiah, signifying that their rejection had not nullified the unconditional promises of God. (Paul will return to this topic in chapter 11.) The advantage of being a Jew is that God has made special promises uniquely to them, promises he fully intends to keep in spite of the unbelief of some Jews (3:3‑4). So, of what advantage is the Law? Actually none, insofar as producing true righteousness. Its only real benefit is that through men’s failure to keep it, the righteousness of God is demonstrated; that is to say, it shows man how unholy he really is. The one who does not have the Law is condemned apart from the Law, by his conscience, and the one who has the Law is condemned by the Law, but in both cases the end result is the same (3:9-20). How so? Because the Law is powerless to transform sinners into saints, and we are all sinners (3:23). So, what is the solution to this problem? That’s the question Paul hopes all who read this letter will ask, and his answer is given in 3:21-8:30.
Paul began by pointing out that there is a kind of righteousness available to man that cannot be obtained by means of the Law. It is the righteousness of God granted to man upon the exercise of genuine faith (v. 21). Paul wants his readers to be assured that this is not some novel idea; it was a truth clearly set forth in the Old Testament (i.e., “being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets”), and in the next chapter he will develop the Old Testament roots of this truth further, but first he wants to fully develop his explanation of the kind of faith that leads to righteousness (3:21-31). The faith that results in divine righteousness is faith in Christ, regardless of one’s status as a Jew or non-Jew (v. 22). All men are sinners (v. 23), and any who are to be saved must be justified as a free gift from God. This righteousness cannot be purchased or earned; it can only be received as a gift, by faith (v. 24), possible only because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (v. 25). Christ’s sacrifice demonstrates God’s righteousness, because God “passed over” the sins of believers in the Old Testament era (i.e., in view of what Christ would do on the cross God did not carry out the judgment for their sins, but instead passed over those sins, suspending judgment until the time that Christ dealt with those sins on the cross, cf. vv. 25-26).
Given the fact that all men, regardless of when or where they live, or their genealogical heritage, must be reconciled to God by faith apart from the works of the Law, all boasting is excluded (vv. 27-28). No one will ever contribute any righteousness, not even a speck, to that needed for his or her salvation. Does this concept in any way disparage the Law? Certainly not, because the Law was never intended for any purpose other than leading men and women to acknowledge this very fact, and to repent of their sins and turn to God for mercy and grace. Paul now returns to an earlier thread in the discussion and seeks to establish the fact that grace through faith is a concept that preceded the giving of the Law, and therefore the application of law is subordinate to justification by faith.
Paul began by asking, what was Abraham’s experience regarding justification? His answer is that Abraham has nothing about which to boast, because he too received righteousness by faith (vv. 1-3). Paul anticipated that some of his readers might confuse the relationship of this righteousness to the right of circumcision, and thus to works, so he made the observation that Abraham was declared righteous before his circumcision (vv. 9‑12). In fact, circumcision had nothing to do with the obtaining of righteousness as far as Abraham was concerned. Paul contends that the promise made to Abraham and to his descendants was not to be realized through the Law, but through faith. If fulfillment were to come through the Law, then the promise would be nullified (v. 14‑15). When we understand the nature of the Law, as condemnatory, then we can see why the promise, both the kingdom and the righteousness to enter it, must be based on faith, for the Law has no power to produce righteousness; it has only the power to condemn (vv. 16-17).
Paul continues in chapter 5 to discuss the nature of grace through faith and its superiority to the Law. It ought to be obvious, but perhaps we should reiterate the observation that Paul’s entire treatise in this section, as in others, is occasioned by a flood of externalism into the church. Given the amount of space devoted to the correction of this error, it is apparent that legalism was a nearly universal problem that had to be dealt with in almost every church.
Paul says we are justified by faith; the result is peace with God. Whereas the natural man in his unsaved state is at war with God (8:7-8), the justified man is at peace with God, and anticipates sharing in God’s glory to be manifested when his promises are fulfilled (v. 2). Though we enter into that hope through various difficulties, the result will be perseverance (v. 3), proven character (v. 4), and a hope that does not disappoint (v. 4), because it is in a God who does not break his promises. Christ died for us even while we were yet sinners. He didn’t wait for the Jews, or Gentiles for that matter, to become suitable objects for salvation, or to commend themselves to him through works of righteousness, for they, and we, were incapable of producing such works (v. 8). It is a hard truth to accept, but the fact is that God simply does not need our help to save us, nor do we have any help to offer, though we can gratefully receive his love and forgiveness, and respond with a thankful heart filled with praise.
When Adam fell, the entire human race fell. How this can be is difficult to understand; yet it is true. When Adam sinned, the entire human race died spiritually and the natural world was deeply impacted in ways we are still struggling to comprehend. Even before the giving of the Law, all men eventually died, evidencing the universality of the effects of sin throughout the human race. Adam’s sin was different from any other sin prior to the giving of the Law, for Adam broke a commandment given by God, and until the giving of the Law there were no other commandments to be broken. Prior to the Law all men and women died because they were sinners, having inherited both their guilt and their nature from Adam. After the Law there was a set of commandments that could be broken; now man could be “doubly dead,” dead because of his connection to Adam, and dead because of his own personal disobedience. The Law was like a blanket smothering man in condemnation; for no sinner could keep it, not even the smallest part of it, at least inwardly. Man is sinful through to the core, and every level of his being, body, soul, and spirit, is under the influence of evil, selfish motives. Why did God give the Law? It was a light intended not to correct man’s problem, but to expose it so the solution could be applied. That solution is grace, the grace of God manifested in Christ and his sacrifice on the cross; for just as through Adam’s sin death spread to all men, so in Christ’s one act of obedience on the cross there resulted justification of life to all who would accept it by faith (vv. 15-21, cf. 3:21-22). The question sure to arise is this: If the Law was useful in the past to show men their sinfulness, and thus their need of grace, could it not be useful for that purpose today? Certainly, the Law has been exposing sin all down through history, even though its covenant force ceased at the cross. This is one of the great benefits of the reading and preaching of the Old Testament, but we don’t have to return to slavery to learn that we don’t want to be slaves. We have the record of life under the Law in holy writ so we can learn from the experiences of others. The fact is, if men refuse to learn these lessons from scripture under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, they wouldn’t learn them under the Law either. We don’t need to return to the Law, what we need is the powerful proclamation of the whole truth of scripture.
Paul now turns his attention to the more practical matter of life under grace, and he answers questions sure to arise in the minds of his readers.
Undoubtedly Paul was aware of the accusations that had been made against him concerning his teaching of grace. And he now proceeds to answer the questions of those who might innocently misunderstand, or others who might intentionally distort his position. The first question Paul addressed was this: Does the teaching of grace imply that believers should not be concerned about sin (v. 1)? The logic Paul is addressing runs like this: The more one sins, the more grace God bestows; therefore, sin is good because it promotes grace. Paul’s answer is firm: “Absolutely not!” Such thinking is a complete misunderstanding of grace (v. 2). Grace is not freedom to sin, it is freedom from sin and its terrible effects (vv. 5-7). That release is first from sin’s power (death), then from sin’s perversion of the human nature (at the completion of our redemption, the redemption of the body), and finally from sin’s presence (in God’s eternal kingdom). What possible motivation could a regenerated person have for returning to that which previously killed him? Paul puts it this way: “You have died with Christ and have been raised up with Him for this purpose, that you might walk in newness of life”(vv. 3-5). The one who has faith in Christ has, in God’s manner of reckoning, been crucified with Christ in order that they should no longer be slaves to sin. How does this work? Before faith a man or woman is a slave to sin; every part of their nature is under sin (body, soul, and spirit), but when faith comes (as a gift of God, cf. Eph. 2:8-9) Christ’s death, with all of its sufficiency and efficacy, becomes theirs. The application of the atonement accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice is wrought in stages. First, the spirit is immediately cleansed of sin (Rom. 8:10), and the Spirit of God takes up residence within the believer infusing him with spiritual life (regeneration); then the Spirit of God works progressively to sanctify the soul (the seat of the heart and mind); finally, God will redeem the bodies of his saints when Christ comes to resurrect them. Notice the character of this work: It is a work of redemption from the power, perversion, and presence of sin (i.e., separating the believer from sin). In light of this, who would suggest that further entanglement with sin could be good? There is nothing in the redemptive work of Christ that leads one toward sin. Of course, there will always be some who use grace as an excuse to sin, just as there were those in Jesus’ day who distorted the intent of the Law to justify their sin. Such people seem to always be with us, but their distortion of the truth is not an argument against the truth; it is only an indication of their own foolishness and self-deception. Believers under grace are going to sin because they are not yet perfect (experientially); but grace, properly understood, promotes holiness and imparts the power through the regenerating and indwelling Holy Spirit to produce works consistent with righteousness (Rom. 8:3-17), something the Law could never do. How is the power of sin broken? It is broken not by the Law, but by grace (vv. 12-14). Paul was so burdened to emphasize this truth that he repeated essentially the same arguments again in verses 15-23.
Paul continues his argument by drawing upon a concept with which his readers were already familiar—that the law of marriage is binding until death (vv. 1-3). He then takes them to the next level of the argument by explaining that their participation by faith in Christ’s death had caused them to die to the Law that they might be married to another, to Christ (v. 4). This transfer from bondage to Law, to being joined to Christ, is the only way believers can bear spiritual fruit. In fact, Paul points out that the Law actually arouses sinful passions (v. 5). How so? It is a simple truth that when a sinner is told not to do something, he or she wants to do it all the more! (Parents of small children will relate to this, but the principle holds true of adults as well.) True righteousness cannot be produced by the prescription of external regulations; righteousness is the product of a transformed life (v. 6); Paul called it “newness of spirit” (not “Spirit” as the NASB has it, but “spirit,” i.e., the renewed, regenerated spirit within the believer). It was said previously, but is worth repeating, that the Law cannot produce righteousness; even acts of outward obedience to the Law must be distinguished from righteousness. Righteousness is more than outward obedience; it is obedience from the heart, an obedience that exalts God and responds to his sovereignty over one’s life. Thus true righteousness is obedience that is borne out of the love of God, just as sin is borne out of the love of self. Such acts of righteousness only come forth from one who is being led and empowered (filled) by the Holy Spirit.
If the Law arouses sinful passions (v. 5), is it then sinful in some way? Paul’s answer is an absolute “No!” It is not the fault of the Law that we are sinners incited by the words, “Thou shalt not!” On the contrary, apart from the Law we would not know what sin is (v. 7). Unfortunately, the more a sinner discovers about sin, the more he is drawn to it (v. 8); this is not the fault of the Law, but the perverseness of our fallen nature. The principle we have to take away from this discussion is that by the Law is the knowledge of sin; that knowledge revealed to a sinner does not produce righteousness, but a downward spiral of condemnation and more sin. The Law can be useful in the hands of the Holy Spirit to draw God’s elect unto himself, but it can never produce righteousness, nor can it bring about God’s kingdom. Nevertheless, the Law does still serve an instructive purpose: to show man his sin. Paul next focuses on the heart of the problem. There is nothing wrong with the Law; it is just that our problem can’t be solved from the outside; it can only be solved through a process of sanctification that begins within man’s innermost being.
Paul describes the perplexing situation in which he found himself, and which is true of everyone who has begun the process of sanctification; he found that he was not doing the good he desired in the inner man, but the very thing he did not desire—sin (v. 15). In so saying, he was not disparaging the Law; rather he was acknowledging his sin, as evidenced by the fact that he agreed with the Law, that his sin was, in fact, sin (v. 16). Contrary to this, antinomianism denies either the reality of, or responsibility for sin; thus Paul’s statement can never properly be labeled as antinomian. By acknowledging his sin for what it was, Paul confessed agreement with the Law, not that he was under the Law, but that sin is always sin, even for a person under grace. Being under grace doesn’t change the nature of sin, but it does change how that sin is dealt with. Under the Law there were legal prescriptions for dealing with sin (albeit symbolic rather than efficacious). Under the Law, Paul would have observed these outward legal prescriptions which would have had no efficacy, but would have reminded him of the redemption to come in the work of Messiah; however, under grace Paul experienced conviction wrought by the indwelling Spirit of God and the recognition that his only acceptability before God was based upon God’s gift of righteousness through faith in Christ. Would Paul have been better off under the Law? Would he have been less likely to sin? Of course not; sin is a universal problem whether under Law or grace. For anyone who is tempted to think that the application of Old Testament Law would make an individual, or a society more righteous (I speak here to the theonomists), they should carefully study the history of ancient Israel; that history is filled with idolatry, social injustice, and personal and national sin of every sort (Acts 7:1-53).
Paul made a very interesting statement in verse 17. He said, in essence, “I’m not the one doing these things, but the sin dwelling in me is doing them.” Was Paul attempting to sidestep responsibility for his sins? Absolutely not, he had already acknowledged responsibility (v. 15), but he was revealing a profound insight into the nature of salvation, of which one of the components is sanctification, or separation from sin. He revealed here that sanctification is a progressive work. When he came to faith in Christ, something happened within him, he became a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17), his inner man (i.e., his spirit, 7:22 cf. 8:10) was sanctified. Now that inner man, living in continual union (fellowship) with the Holy Spirit desires only to please God. So why did Paul as a believer continue to struggle with sin? Because only part of his nature, his spirit, was sanctified; his flesh (a euphemism for the body and mind) was still unsanctified, and will not experience complete sanctification until he is transformed in Christ’s presence (1 Thess. 5:23). Until that time, Paul and all believers struggle with sin (vv. 21-25). Why did Paul share his deeply personal struggle? Because he knew it to be a universal struggle, one every believer has to own up to.
Having addressed the universality of the struggle with sin, Paul is now ready to deal with the question of how the believer is to live in light of this struggle, not through the application of legal prescriptions, but through inner transformation by the Spirit of God.
For the sinner, and we are all sinners, there is no greater truth than that expressed in Romans 8:1. We may be sinners, yet for those in Christ there is no condemnation. Paul tells us why in the next three verses: because Christ has fulfilled the Law for us (v. 4), that is, for those who are not seeking to be justified by the deeds of the flesh (i.e., by works). The Christian life is a Spirit-led life. We are saved by faith, and we are transformed into Christ’s image by faith, as we walk by the Spirit. God knows that changing a man’s outer behavior only produces a legalist who begins to compare himself to everyone else, but changing a man or a woman from within produces the kind of true humility and brokenness over sin that we see evidenced in Paul’s own experience, a brokenness that exalts only God and refuses to gauge itself by what others do, or don’t do. Do you see why the principle of law doesn’t mix with grace? We cannot operate by both principles. If we choose to be governed by law we will either experience condemnation and shame, or we will convince ourselves that we can meet the requirements, in which case we become a self-deluded legalist. On the other hand, if we choose to be governed by grace, we acknowledge that we are needy sinners able to please God only through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and though we might fail a thousand, or a million times, God still loves us and is there to move us forward no matter what circumstance we may have created for ourselves. Those who claim that teaching grace is to give license to sin evidence in their thinking that they have already become legalists, for they have bought into the belief that external regulations can produce righteousness, but they are wrong. It is the uniform testimony of scripture that only the work of the Spirit within the heart of man can produce true works of righteousness.
Does grace mean that the believer simply gives up on living righteously? Certainly not! We are under obligation, but it is not an obligation to the flesh, nor is it an obligation to the Law, but to the one who has loved us. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that it is those who are being led by the Spirit who are the sons of God (v. 14). Does this sound like an abandonment to sin? Those who know Christ as Savior do not serve him out of the fear of retribution (the principle of law), but because they have been adopted into a new family, and God has become their Father (v. 15), and the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within (vv. 14,16).
God cursed the world when man fell; he did that in order to make redemption possible (vv. 19-22); in the meantime life is difficult, but God is at work doing what man cannot do for himself. God gives those who place their faith in Christ his Spirit, that is to say, he implants the Holy Spirit within them, both as a guarantee of the completed redemption to come (Eph. 1:13-14) and as a help at the present time (Rom. 8:26). Ultimately, it is God who sees the believer through this process (vv. 28-30). It isn’t up to the believer to save himself, or to sanctify himself, or to glorify himself; all of this is God’s work.
Paul isn’t quite finished with the conflict between law and grace. He points out the reason for Israel’s failure (9:30-10:21), and their ultimate conversion through the triumph of faith (11:1-32).
Paul begins with this enigma: How is it that the Gentiles who were not pursuing righteousness attained righteousness, while the Jews, who were pursuing righteousness, failed to obtain it? The answer, Paul says, is because the Jews were pursuing righteousness through works of the Law rather than by faith; and since the Law is powerless to produce righteousness, the Jews failed, though a few, like Paul, did obtain righteousness by faith. While the Jews were seeking their own righteousness, in accordance with the Law, they failed to subject themselves to the righteousness of God that is by faith (10:1-3). Why? Because faith and Law are mutually exclusive. The Law does not lead one to Christ until he or she gives up and confesses that they are unable to keep the Law. As long as one thinks he, or she, can keep it, they are under the delusion of self-righteousness. This is why in verse 4 Paul says, “For Christ is the end of the Law to everyone who believes.” How many times must he repeat this? Faith can only begin when a person realizes they cannot keep the Law, and that is just as true of a saved sinner as it is of an unsaved sinner!
Attempting to keep the law is the ultimate self-deception. In order to think we can, we have to be under the assumption that we can do what only God can do, that is, to ascend into Heaven (v. 6), or descend into Hell and rise again (v. 7). In essence, when we seek to obtain our perfection by the Law, we make ourselves out to be God! Paul seems to be implying that legalism is actually a form of idolatry. The key to righteousness is not the Law, but faith in Christ (vv. 9-12). Can the Law transform a believer into a more spiritual person? According to Paul the answer is “No.” As we have seen, the Apostle repeatedly refutes the notion that the Law plays any part in our perfection. The Law is powerless to bring about anything but condemnation and death, and it is incompatible with the concept of inner transformation by the power of the Spirit on the basis of grace through faith. Do we need to know about the Law and man’s failure under law historically? Of course we do. The Holy Spirit can use that as he can all other scripture to our benefit, but that is not the same as being subject to the Law.
Conclusions on Grace vs. Law
From the passages we have surveyed one thing is clear: The New Testament provides no support for legalism. The New Testament is emphatic in stating that the promises made to Abraham, which include both eternal salvation and the kingdom, can be obtained only through faith, and they are equally emphatic that faith and Law cannot co-exist. This does not deny the goodness of the Law, when properly understood for what it was intended, nor does it result in antinomianism, as is sometimes charged; rather, it leads to the recognition of a higher law, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, a different kind of law with transforming power.
There is a reason the word “gospel” was chosen to describe the message of Christ’s atoning work. The word “gospel” means “good news.” Before the cross, the message received from the Law was bad news, news of death and condemnation (Rom. 7:9-10). The gospel of Christ is the good news of freedom, life, and righteousness provided on the basis of grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. The voice of legalism is not the voice of the New Testament gospel (Gal. 1:6-8); it is the voice of slavery, death, and despair. It is, as Paul pronounced, a tainted and “accursed gospel,” which proceeds from the rationalizing mind that has yet to comprehend the transforming power of the true gospel of grace through faith alone.
Copyright 2005, 2017 Sam A. Smith