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Law in the Book of Romans Part 2

Article contributed by

(Concluded from the January-March Number)

{Editor’s note: Footnotes in the original printed edition were numbered 11-18, but in this electronic edition are numbered 1-7 respectively.}

Chapter II. Righteousness Apart from Law


Having proved that law in any form can only condemn, Paul now turns to the central theme of Romans: God’s undertaking in behalf of condemned mankind. Paul first of all sets out to prove that there is now a way of righteousness which is apart from law, which is through faith in Christ, made possible by the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. He begins by stating the content of this doctrine.

1. The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Stated

In 3:21, the theme is stated: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” Paul has a new thing to present. Something which will meet the need the law failed to meet. The first instance of νόμος in this verse is without the article, and seems to point to law in the sense of any moral law whatsoever. The righteousness of God which Paul is now presenting is not through another law, superceding the law of Moses, but through an entirely new method which is apart from all law. This new method, however, is referred to in the second reference, the law. The second reference in this verse has the article and quite clearly refers specifically to the law of Moses, possibly including the rest of the Old Testament. There is repeated reference throughout the Old Testament both in type and in definite prophecy that salvation was to come not through the law, but through the redemptive work of the Messiah. This “righteousness of God” is now to be set forth by the apostle.

In the section 3:22-26, the content of justification by faith is defined. It is shown to be by faith in Jesus Christ, through grace, and through “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul concludes in vs. 27 that in this kind of justification boasting is excluded, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.” An unusual use of νόμος occurs in this verse in both instances. Both are without the article. Both are the use of law in its widest possible sense-a recognized principle in operation. Thayer calls it “any law whatsoever.”1 Boasting is excluded not on the principle of operation of law, but by the principle of operation of faith. Works do not exclude boasting in the nature of things, as it refers to that we have done, while faith excludes boasting in that it is extended to the work and character of another-in this case, Christ.

On the basis of these facts which Paul has brought out in this section on justification by faith, he comes to his conclusion in vs. 28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Νόμος here is without the article and apparently is the same use as in 3:20 -including any moral law whatsoever.

2. Justification By Faith Establishes Law

While Paul is outspoken on the fact that justification is apart from law, he is nevertheless careful to guard the holy character of law. Justification is not lawless; it is not a trampling on the law. It is the fulfillment of its holy demands in the Person and work of Christ. In 3:31, this is brought out, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” In both these instances the article is not used. It is evidently a reference to all moral law, for all law which is true moral law comes from God and cannot be waived. Christ in His death on the cross met the requirements of all moral law. He met the requirements of Mosaic law; he met the requirements of the whole content of the Old Testament; He met the requirements of Gentile law. In dying, He did not make void any law. He met its demands. Hence, law is not made void by the death of Christ; it is fulfilled. difference of opinion among scholars. Being without the article, it refers apparently to any law at all. If there were no law at all, there would be no transgression. As Charles Hodge points out, the subject here is justification.3 The law cannot justify. It can only condemn. If there were no law, there would be no condemnation because there would be no transgression. Since there is law, there is condemnation and wrath. Those who are under wrath could not be heirs, and hence the promise of heirship is to those who have justification by faith, and is not through law. This fact is stated in vs. 16, “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all.” The meaning of this verse is apparent in its own statement. Νόμος here has the article and evidently refers to the Mosaic law. Since the promise is conditioned only on faith and is of grace not law, the promise is sure to those who believe. The Jewish law is not inclusive enough, even if it were a ground of justification, which it is not. The promise is by faith so that all might be partakers with Abraham who have the faith of Abraham. As Paul points out later in the chapter, Christians who put faith in Christ partake of the promise of Abraham and of the justification which God gave Abraham.

In chapter four, then, Paul has supported his argument for justification by faith apart from law by the case of Abraham and the condition of the promise to Abraham. It is historically true, that justification is on the basis of faith, not the works of the law. Israel had notably failed in this regard, as is indicated in the ninth and tenth chapters of the epistle, to which we will now turn.

4. Israel’s Failure to Apprehend the Faith Principle

Chapter nine of the Epistle to the Romans deals primarily with the fact and significance of Israel’s failure as a nation to embrace the true Messiah. One reason for this failure was their lack of comprehension of the purpose and limitations of law. In 9:31, 32, we have definite reference to this, “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone.” The two references to νόμος in vs. 31 are without the article. The reference in vs. 32 is omitted in some manuscripts, but if genuine is also without the article. A further textual problem is found in the omission of the second “of righteousness” in vs. 31. With these textual criticisms in mind, with a more literal translation, as found in the American Standard Version, we find Paul’s statement to be as follows: “But Israel, following after a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by works.” If this is what Paul actually wrote, it would seem that the two instances that are left are both references to law in the sense of a principle of operation, as in 3:27. Israel strove to arrive at a method of obtaining righteousness. They thought this method was to attain perfection by observing the Mosaic law. Δικαιοσύνης, translated of righteousness, is probably an objective genitive, a regular Greek usage, with the meaning of the righteousness which proceeds from law. The Mosaic law, however, is not a means of attaining “the law of righteousness.” The only way is by the law or principle of faith, an expression which is used in 3:27. Paul points this out in 9:32. Their works could not save them. They were trying to do something only God could do. This was a cause for rejection of the Messiah when He came.

In the tenth chapter of Romans we have reference to God’s present dealings with Israel. In the opening three verses of the chapter, Paul continues the discussion of the truth in the ninth chapter, showing that the cause of the failure of Israel was that, “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” In contrast to this, in Christ the law is fulfilled, “For Christ is the end of the law of righteousness to every one that believeth. For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.” In both instances, νόμος occurs without the article. In the first instance, in vs. 4, it seems clear that the reference is to any moral law. The argument is that Christ is the end of all law, as far as law resulting in righteousness is concerned. The demands of all moral law reach their destination in Christ. In righteousness (εἰς δικαιοσύνην) implies that the law comes into its destination and there stops. The believer in Christ has righteousness from God forever. In contrast to this, the kind of righteousness of the law of Moses demands constant and unfailing obedience. The righteousness of the law was the righteousness of works. The difficulty lay in the fact that the law demanded perfect obedience, which no man could render. In order to have the righteousness of the law, it was necessary to live according to the law. The Christian puts faith in the work of Christ already finished. The Jew could only hope in a perfection which he could not attain. Νόμος is evidently used in vs. 5 in reference to the law of Moses in its quality as law.

5. Conclusion: Justification Is Apart From Law

Thus, by a threefold argument, law is dismissed in any form as a means of justification. He has already shown the failure of Israel under law to attain righteousness. Now he shows, first, that Christ died as the Redeemer of the world, a fact which has no explanation if there is saving righteousness through law. Second, he goes back to the case of Abraham and shows that Abraham received the promise of his inheritance by faith and was justified by faith apart from any law, much less the law of Moses which was not yet written. Third, Paul shows that Israel at present is estranged from God because they sought to make the law a means of justification, rejecting Christ. It is not a case of abstract reasoning simply. It is historically true. Israel had failed; Christ had died; Abraham was justified by faith; Israel is now estranged from God. At the time Paul wrote this was evident, and it was soon to become more evident when Jerusalem was destroyed. Having proved that justification is apart from law, Paul now turns to prove that sanctification is also apart from law, dealing with this subject beginning in 5:12, and continuing through the book, particularly in the seventh and eighth chapters.

Chapter III. Sanctification Apart from Law


Paul proves that sanctification is apart from law by a fivefold argument. Introducing the argument in 5:12-20, he proves that we are not under law, but have a new master; that experience has demonstrated that it is impossible to be sanctified by the law; that God’s instrument of sanctification is the Holy Spirit, not the law; and that law is fulfilled in us through love born of the Holy Spirit.

In the opening part of this section (5:12-20), three references are made to law, two in 5:13 and one in 5:20. All are without the article. In this section Paul sets out to prove that sanctification cannot come through the law because the cause for sin is rooted not in a lack of law, but in a sin nature which resulted when Adam fell, and was passed on to Adam’s posterity through natural generation in addition to the imputation of sin and death to the race. In vs. 13, Paul writes, “For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” The first reference to νόμος is evidently a reference to the Mosaic law in its quality as law, as there is no article. Up to the time that a law dispensation came into being with the advent of the Mosaic law there was sin in the world just as there was sin in the world after the law. The difference was that law made sin plain and gave a ground for imputing such sin to those who committed it. specific law which may be under observation. What is true of one law is true of another in this case.

In vs. 2, Paul appeals to the marriage law to illustrate his point. A married woman is married only so long as her husband lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry again as if never married. So Paul argues in the case of the Christian. We formerly were married to the law. Then we were put to death in the death of Christ. Death broke the bond. Now we are free to be married to Christ. Of the two instances of νόμος, the first has no article and the second has. The first instance refers to any law, but is limited by the context to the marriage law, whether Jewish, Roman, or otherwise. The article in the second instance is used to call attention to the modifier-“of her husband,” i.e., it is the particular law which sets forth the relation to husbands. Verse 3 furnishes an illustration of the anaphoric use of the article, referring back to the same law as in 7:2, that is, the law of her husband. Beginning in vs. 4, the argument is applied to the Jewish law in particular, using the article in vss. 4, 5, and 6. As far as the law is concerned, it has exacted its penalty, and we are legally dead in the death of Christ. He therefore concludes we are delivered from the law. (7:6).

In vss. 7 to 13, Paul reveals some of his own experiences with the law as an unregenerate man and in the new light which came with his conversion. In vs. 7, he denies that the law is sin, for it is the law that reveals sin. Of the three instances in this verse, the first is with the article, and refers to Mosaic law; the second, without the article, referring to any moral law; the third, Mosaic law, having the article. The Mosaic law is not sin because of the principle inherent in all moral law that moral law reveals sin. As an example of this, Paul refers to the tenth commandment which convicted him of sin of covetousness. The verse is an interesting example of the accuracy of the use of the article.

In vss. 8 and 9, νόμος occurs without the article. The meaning of the passage depends on what interpretation is placed on the expression “sin was dead.” Charles Hodge6 and C. I. Scofield7 both take it as autobiography of Paul. Paul at one time considered himself “blameless” as far as the law was concerned. With his conversion, he saw how condemned he was under the very law in which he had taken refuge. If this is correct, Paul is saying that without law (or rather the consciousness of it) sin is dead. This is true experimentally. Only as we understand moral law are we aware of transgression of it. In this sense sin is dead. When Paul became a Christian, sin came to life, and Paul perceived his true condition. Law is used in both verses in the sense of any moral law, including of course, the Mosaic law.

In vss. 12 and 14, the law is revealed to be holy and spiritual. The article occurs in both instances, and evidently points specifically to the Mosaic law. As such it worked death in him.

With the new birth, Paul at once came into the experience of strife between the old and new natures. In vs. 16, Paul states that his new nature admits that the Mosaic law is good. Νόμος evidently occurs here with the article and evidently refers to Mosaic law specifically. His sins are not committed because he does not see the fact that the law is holy and good, but because his sinful nature gets the victory at times. In 7:21, he states this as a principle, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.” Νόμος, here with the article, is used in the sense of a principle of operation. The principle or law here is that though Paul wants to do good, he finds evil is present with him.

As a result of this principle of the working of the sinful nature in spite of the new nature, Paul has a struggle going on within himself. He first of all takes delight in the law of God, as stated in 7:22. In this verse, law is without the article and refers to any moral law of God. In spite of this fact, in vs. 23, he says, “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into the captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” The first instance of law has no article. It is law in the sense of a principle of operation as in 7:21. This is the activity of the old nature. It wars against the law of his, mind.

The second instance is with the article. The article is used to call particular attention to the modifying phrase “of my mind.” It is law in the sense of a sphere of rule or domination. The third instance in this verse is similar, being also with the article. Sin also has a sphere of domination which Paul calls the “law of sin.” Paul’s mind wanted to do good. He refers to the will of the new nature. The old nature insists also on domination. It wants to rule.

In, vs. 24, Paul cries out for deliverance from such a fight. He finds it in vs. 25. It is Christ himself who will deliver him, as we learn in chapter eight, through the Holy Spirit. In vs. 25, in the two instances in the verse, neither have the article. The former is used in the sense of any moral law of God. The latter is the sphere of domination of sin. The new nature turns naturally to God’s moral standards. The old nature is under the domination of sin.

From Paul’s own experience, it is perfectly obvious that the law of Moses or any moral law has no ability to deliver from the old nature. All any law could do would be to condemn. Paul found himself incapable in his own strength of attaining victory. He turns to Christ in faith for that which the law could not do. The law could not sanctify. It could only condemn.

3. Sanctification By the Holy Spirit

In Romans 8:2, Paul answers the problem of the seventh chapter, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” The Spirit is evidently the Holy Spirit. Νόμος in both instances in this verse is a sphere of domination, the article with both calling attention to the particular sphere of domination indicated by the modifiers. One law or sphere of domination is that of the Holy Spirit. This rule of the Spirit liberates from the rule of sin and death. What moral law could not do, the Holy Spirit accomplishes. In vs. 3, it occurs with the article, and evidently refers to Mosaic law specifically. It is said to be weak and unable to gain victory over the flesh. In vs. 4, νόμος again with the article and again meaning Mosaic law is said to be fulfilled in us experimentally by the Spirit, “That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The righteousness of the law which we could not attain in ourselves experimentally is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. The necessity of this is again pointed out in vs. 7, where it is stated that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God. In vs. 7, it occurs without the article and refers to any moral law. Thus Paul, in sanctification as well as in justification, points to the inadequacy of the law and the sufficiency of God. We are justified by faith apart from the law. We are sanctified by faith apart from the law.

4. The Law of Love

Only two references to law remain to be considered in Romans. These occur in Romans 13:8, 10. In vs. 8, Paul writes, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” In vs. 9 he points out that the ten commandments which relate to man’s relation to man are fulfilled in the law of love. He explains this in vs. 10, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” In both verses, νόμος occurs without the article and refers to all moral law. Paul evidently had the Mosaic law foremost in his mind, however, and quotes from that. Love fulfills all moral law, not only the law of Moses.

It is the clear teaching of Scripture that the great work of the Holy Spirit in the saved soul is to plant there a love for God and man which is more than human affection. It is the quality of love which God has toward man, sacrificial, mindful of true values, and yearning for the other’s highest good. If the Christian would act on the principle of pure love, he would work no ill toward his neighbor, and if his love toward God were perfect, he would perfectly serve God. Love therefore is a standard which is higher than law, fulfilling the law, and accomplishing through the Spirit what the law could not. Love is the crown of sanctification as sanctification is the crown of justification. All are accomplished by God for man; all are apart from the law; all are a fulfillment of the law.

5. Conclusion

The conclusions which may be reached upon a study of the use of νόμος in the Epistle to the Romans are manifestly quite definite. The entire epistle is seen to be a presentation of the central fact that “the just shall live by faith” (1:17). Salvation in all its forms is a work of God for man and not a work of man for God. The epistle is addressed to both Jews and Gentiles who attempt to be saved by their own works. It is a piece of logic which has never been excelled. The conclusions to which Paul comes are irrefutable.

As has been shown, Paul uses a threefold argument to prove his case for the faith principle. He shows first of all that all law, Gentile or Jewish, can only condemn. Law after all speaks of the holiness of God to which no man can attain in himself. Paul then shows that law which condemns is met in the death of Christ. Christ in His work on the cross met all the just demands of moral law and of God’s righteousness. God has now declared “his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (3:26). Paul concludes that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28). With this conclusion as background, Paul goes on to refute the more subtle idea that sanctification is through law. He shows that this is impossible through the nature of the case as the law can only condemn. He shows that experimentally it does not work. We cannot keep the law even after we are saved. He points to the Holy Spirit as the way of sanctification and love as its chief and dominating fruit. When Paul has concluded his argument, he leaves law stripped of all its false claims, leaving only the fact which even he does not deny that all moral law is but an interpretation of the righteousness of God, to which righteousness we are to attain perfectly by the Spirit of God.

John F. Walvoord
Dallas, Texas

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 427.

3 Ibid., pp.188-191.

6 Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, pp. 351-352.

7 Scofield Reference Bible, note 2, p. 1199.

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