By Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
- Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
- Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
- Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
- To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
- Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
- Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
- Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:
- Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.
- Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:21-31)
Paul, in writing to the Romans, has in mind a number of practical problems facing the churches in Rome. Among these were, first, the problems created by Judaizers, who held that the Gentile members had to become Jews first in order to become Christians. They saw in Judaism a necessary status before God. Second, there were “the strong”; people whom Paul accused of being puffed up in the case of the Corinthian Church (1Cor. 4:18ff.). “The strong” were antinomians; they had rejoiced in the case of incest as evidence of their freedom, and Paul cites their slogan, “All things are lawful for me” (1 Cor. 6:12), and quietly demolished it. John C. Brunt sees this group as precursors of the later gnostic cults: Thus we conclude that at Corinth there was a group of gnostic-type individuals who made claims to knowledge and freedom and were enthusiastically oriented. Their freedom included a certain license with regard to sexual immorality and the right to eat food offered to idols. These individuals wrote to Paul and asked him about the practice of eating idol meat, probably (for reasons that are not evident from the text) defending their practice.1
In 1 Corinthians 4:10, Paul sarcastically calls himself one of “the weak,” by which he indicates his need for the law which these men despise, as well as himself. The Judaizers had, like many of the Jews of the day, replaced atonement with works of law; when the Temple was destroyed, there was no great feeling that now they were without atonement. Atonement had given way to status and works. Thus, Paul faces two problems, a misuse of the law on the one hand, i.e., a conversion of it from a sanctifying to a saving instrument, and an abandonment of it on the other. Paul’s concern is to re-establish the law in terms of God’s purpose. Still a third group were the Hellenizers, who were usually in the “strong” group and essentially one with them.
In. v. 21, Paul makes clear that what he teaches is what the law and the prophets always taught: Now, he says, in Christ’s atonement (vv. 24-26) “the righteousness of God without the law (or, apart from the law) is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” Paul says that there is one doctrine in all of Scripture; this the Old Testament set forth, and Christ now manifests it. Paul refers to this unity and continuity many times. Romans 1:2; 9:25-33; 10:16-21; 11:1-10,26-29; 15:8-12; 16:26. In fact, Paul insists, “Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God to confirm the promises made unto the fathers” (Rom. 15:9). It is important for us to remember that for some time Christians had a Bible without our division into Old and New Testaments. It was originally seen as all one revelation, and, given the large percentage of Judeans who were members of the church, this was easy to do. Marcion’s heresies led to a defense of the canonicity of the New Testament writings and thus their segregation.
Paul, in the next chapter of Romans, turns to Abraham and to David to demonstrate the unity of Scripture. The just are redeemed and live by faith in all times. The plan of salvation is the same. Now, in v. 21, Paul sets forth this fact clearly. His concern is to correct the false premises of the believers in Rome. Cranfield calls v. 21 one of the great “hinge sentences” of the epistle. Paul tells us that “the law and the prophets” together witness to God’s plan of salvation as being apart from works of the law. Mills commented:
The Law shows man what righteousness is. It also shows him that sin is the separating factor between man and God. The entire preceding portion of this Epistle has been correcting man’s concept of himself.2
God’s righteousness or justice has been manifested. On this Paul is emphatic. This justice is revealed in and through Jesus Christ. It is the same for all who believe, whether they be Jew or Gentile: “there is no difference” (v. 22). With this insistence, Paul bars any division between the Old and New Testaments: it is the same God, the same covenant, and the same plan of salvation. This salvation, once set forth typically in the sacrificial system, is now set forth in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, in propitiation through His atoning blood (vv. 22, 25-26).
In what sense can the Death of Christ be said to demonstrate the righteousness of God? It demonstrates it by showing the impossibility of simply passing over sin.3
The penalty for sin is death. Man broke God’s covenant, and all men are by nature sinners. The premise of their being is Genesis 3:5, their desire to be their own god and their own source of law. God, in His faithfulness to the covenant bond with man, is also faithful to the covenant law, which requires both faithfulness unto death and yet also death to the covenant-breaker. Jesus Christ is both very God of very God and also very man of very man. As God, He reveals His faithfulness to the covenant; as man, sinless man, He is our substitute and assumes the death penalty for the chosen of God. Because “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” only Christ can make atonement (v. 23).
This is a free act of grace by God through Jesus Christ (v. 24). It is “unto all and upon all them who believe” (v. 22). We are told, not only that all men have sinned, but also that they have “come short of the glory of God” (v. 23). The rabbis used to speak much of the glory of God. The reflection of the Divine Glory brightened Adam’s face, they held.4
Both Cranmer and the old Geneva Bible rendered this verse, “For all have sinned, and are destitute of the glory of God.” Wycliffe translated it, “For all men sinned, and have need of the glory of God.”5 Christ’s salvation begins our restoration into God’s glory, because it makes us partakers of Christ. Calvin wrote:
When therefore we are justified, the efficient cause is the mercy of God, the meritorious is Christ, the instrumental is the word in connection with faith. Hence faith is said to justify, because it is the instrument by which we receive Christ, in whom righteousness is conveyed to us. Having been made partakers of Christ, we ourselves are not only just, but our works also are counted just before God, and for this reason, because whatever imperfections there may be in them, are obliterated by the blood of Christ; the promises, which are conditional, are also by the same grace fulfilled to us; for God rewards our works as perfect, inasmuch as their defects are covered by freepardon.6
When Paul writes, in v. 25, that Jesus Christ is our propitiation, the word literally means, in the Greek, “whom God has set forth to be a Mercy-seat, by His own blood, through the faith.” The Mercy-seat in the Holy of holies, the throne of God, was the place, which on the Day of Atonement, was sprinkled with the blood of atonement. Jesus Christ is now the Mercy-seat opened to all. This tells us, first, “It is only faith in Christ, not faith as such, which makes a man a Christian.”7
A man can accept as true every word of the Bible, but it is faith in the person of Christ as our Mercy-seat which is the crux. Christ is more than a teacher or a prophet: He is the great High Priest, the sacrifice, and the Mercy-seat. Second, Paul tells us that faith in Jesus Christ is faith in His sacrifice, His atonement. “Faith in a sacrifice is, by the very force of the terms, reliance on a sacrifice.”8
Faith is thus, not merely believing. It is a reliance on Christ’s sacrifice, whereby atonement is made for us, and we are restored into the covenant to keep God’s law. Third, faith thus stresses the justice of God; the fact that God takes the covenant law so seriously that it requires the death of the second person of the Trinity tells us that the law is serious to God, and therefore must be to the believer. Hence, Paul says, “Do we make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (v. 31).
Paul now draws some conclusions in vv. 27-31. He makes clear that all self-glorying is excluded. All boasting in human status is made invalid. “By what law?” Paul asks, and he answers, not the law of works, but of faith (v. 27). The meaning is made clear by our Lord’s words, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29), and again, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15; cf.15:1-17). Faith makes us rest in Christ’s sacrifice, work in faithfulness to God’s law-word, and trust in His grace and love rather than anything we are or do. Faith replaces boasting and status with the covenant life.
Hence, Paul says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (v. 28). Hodge sets forth the meaning of this very simply: “To be justified without works, is to be justified without anything in ourselves to merit justification.”9 Paul does not say that the covenant man is without works but rather that he is “justified without works,” a radically different meaning. Our works are separated from justification, not from our covenant life, our sanctification. This is why boasting is excluded.
There is one God, Paul says, and hence one plan of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike. God is the God of all, Jew and Gentile alike. Both the “circumcision and the uncircumcision,” here used in the sense of Jews and Christians, have the same plan of salvation. Hence, we can say, again citing Hodge, “We Gentiles may now look up to heaven, and confidently say, ‘Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and though Israel acknowledge us not.’”10
This too is why Paul is so insistent that Christians are the seed of Abraham by faith (Gal. 3:6-9). Paul strongly attacks any separation of the church from the Old Testament, Abraham, or the law.
This is why efforts to turn Paul into an antinomian are so absurd. The able Gifford, in commenting on Romans 3:31, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.”11
To say, as Gifford did, that Paul merely referred the idea of law, to “that which is common to all law, its essential character and principle,” is insane. Was Paul concerned with affirming or establishing Roman law, Buddhist law, natural law, or humanistic law? Was not the whole question the nature of the validity of God’s law? Paul denies that the law justifies; he does not deny it as the way of life for the covenant man. Calvin saw the law differently. Of the “ceremonial” laws which were ended with Christ’s sacrifice, Calvin said, “they are in reality confirmed by him,” i.e., they gained their truest meaning in Christ.12 He said also, “I therefore take this defense of Paul, not only as to ceremonies, nor as to the commandments which are called moral, but with regard to the whole law universally.”13
In some very real sense, this was obviously Paul’s meaning; it was his triumphant conclusion.
The law of God expresses the righteousness or justice of God. It is therefore an immutable law.
- John C. Brunt, “Love, Freedom, and Moral Responsibility: The Contribution of 1 Cor. 8-10 to an Understanding of Paul’s Ethical Thinking,” in Kent Harold Richards, editor: Society of Biblical Literature 1981 Seminar Papers, p. 21. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1981.
2. Sanford C. Mills: A Hebrew Christian Looks at Romans, p. 91. New York, NewYork: American Board of Missions to the Jews, 1971.
3. William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam: The Epistle to the Romans, p. 89. International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark (1895) 1968, Fifth edition.
4. Mills, op. cit., p. 95.
5. E.H. Gifford, “Romans,” in F.C. Cook, editor: The Holy Bible, Commentary, New Testament, vol. III, p. 89. London, England: John Murray, 1881.
6. John Calvin: Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, p.138f. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1948.
7. Charles Hodge: Commentary on Romans, p. 138. New York, New York: Armstrong, (1882) 1892.
8. Ibid., p. 147.
9. Ibid., p. 156.
10. Ibid., p. 157.
11. Gifford, op. cit., p. 95.
12. Calvin, op. cit., p. 152.
13. Ibid., p. 151.